What Will Libraries Look Like in Twenty Years?

Ended up having a conversation with someone at the library today and the question of what the library is going to look like in twenty years came up.

My initial response was “That’s impossible to predict – who in 1993 would’ve predicted the rise of the e-book, DRM, Amazon, Google – and the impact all of those things would have on libraries?”

The person pointed out that although you can’t predict exactly what will happen, you can be close – many people around that time or earlier predicted that the microfiche would be the future of libraries – they got the idea right (all the world’s information at your fingertips) and just got the container wrong.   

They also pointed out that you need to try to envision the future so you can start building policy today towards where you think the library will be, maybe not in 20 years necessarily but definitely in 5-10 years.

I did concede that some do get the predictions correct, almost eerily so when you think of something like George Orwell and how much of “1984”, (written in 1948) was prescient about today’s world – not just the politics of the book but also the way it envisioned technologies like always-on cameras in our homes (hello X-Box!) and tracking devices (hello iPhone!) and even how citizenry *willingly* allows this.

So anyhow, I revised my initial statement a bit – if enough people are making predictions, eventually maybe 1 in 100 of us (or 1 in 10 or 1 in 1000) are going to be right.

But another problem for me in attempting to make these types of predictions is I oscillate wildly in my view of what the future of the library will be – my optimistic side says that libraries have been an important part of society for over 100 years, that society recognizes that value, and that libraries have always managed to incorporate new media formats, new technologies and the best ideas from other sectors to evolve and stay current.

My pessimistic side thinks there are some very powerful forces aligned against libraries – major publishers, Google, Amazon and other multi-million/multi-billion dollar interests often appear to see libraries as a major hinderance to selling more stuff.  Beyond that, there is a general movement towards a more privatized/corporate/retail approach to how we offer public services in general to which libraries are not immune.  E-books have moved us to a world where the main ways to obtain content are by licensing or buying, not borrowing or lending.  Across the US and UK, recent economic troubles have caused municipalities to make major cuts and the library is an “easy” target (often at a time when citizens most need the library for internet access, job hunting resources, and general entertainment that’s suddenly a lot less affordable.)

The conversation covered a lot of ground – and reminded me of the types of conversations I used to regularly have in library school but don’t have often enough anymore.

That, in turn, led me to wonder why those types of big “Future of the Library!!!” conversations often felt so “real” in an academic setting and often feel less “real” when you’re out in the real world talking about it.  Perhaps because the University setting is a place where you have dedicated time to mull over these things while in the real world, you’re just making sure that nobody’s vandalizing the building, staff time sheets are filled out properly and the person arguing with a staff member about ninety cents in fines isn’t going to get violent and start hitting people!

As is often the case, I also wondered if some of my library thoughts could cross-pollinate with my political interests?  What if there was a middle ground between purely academic discussions of these questions and purely real world attempts to answer these questions in between unjamming photocopiers and handing out guest passes for the Internet?

In politics, there exist a number of “think tanks” that study various issues, sometimes from a partisan perspective (left or right) and sometimes not – and maybe I’m missing something obvious – but I couldn’t think of a similar organization that exists for libraries.  We have associations and leadership training institutes and forums and conferences but perhaps what we really need is a think tank?  (A real one although the ALA (Awesome Librarians Associated) Think Tank Facebook group provides a fun substitute.)

And that’s a bit of what I thought about today. 😉


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