The Future of Libraries

by | Nov 2, 2006 | Future Scenarios

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker future of libraries
Beginning the Great Transformation

In 1519 Leonardo da Vinci died and left behind one of the world’s largest collections of art comprised of well over 5,000 drawings, sketches, and paintings, the vast majority of which the general public would not become aware of until over 400 years later.

The largest portion of this collection was left in the hands of Francesco Melzi, a trusted assistant and favorite student of Leonardo. Sixty years later when Melzi died in 1579 the collection began a lengthy, and often destructive, journey.

In 1630 a sculptor at the court of the King of Spain by the name of Pompeo Leoni began a very sloppy process of rearranging the collections, sorting the artistic drawings from the technical ones with scientific notations. He split up the original manuscripts, cut and pasted pages and created two separate collections. Some pieces were lost.

In 1637 the collections were donated to Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the library in Milan, where they remained until 1796 when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the manuscripts to be transferred to Paris. Much of the collection “disappeared” for the next 170 year until it was rediscovered in 1966 in the archives of the National Library of Madrid.

Libraries played a significant role in the preservation of the da Vinci collection and we often wonder about other brilliant people in history who didn’t have libraries to preserve their work. Some we will never know about.

Archive of Information

Throughout history the role of the library was to serve as a storehouse, an archive of manuscripts, art, and important documents. The library was the center of information revered by most because each contained the foundational building blocks of information for all humanity.

In medieval times, books were valuable possessions far too expensive for most people to own. As a result, libraries often turned into a collections of lecterns with books chained to them.

In 1455 Johann Gutenberg unveiled his printing press to the world by printing copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Later Gutenberg had his printing press repossessed by Johann Fust, the man who had financed his work for the previous 10 years. The sons of Johann Fust were largely responsible for a printing revolution that saw over 500,000 books put into circulation before 1500.

A huge turning point in the evolution of libraries was architected by Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 he provided funding for 2,509 libraries, of which 1,689 of them were built in the US.

Leading up to today libraries have consisted of large collections of books and other materials, primarily funded and maintained by cities or other institutions. Collections are often used by people who choose not to, or can not afford to, purchase books for themselves.

But that definition is changing.

Beginning the Transition

We have transitioned from a time where information was scarce and precious to today where information is vast and readily available, and in many cases, free.

People who in the past visited libraries to find specific pieces of information are now able to find that information online. The vast majority of people with specific information needs no longer visit libraries. However, others who read for pleasure as example, still regularly patronize their local library.

Setting the Stage

We have put together ten key trends that are affecting the development of the next generation library. Rest assured that these are not the only trends, but ones that have been selected to give clear insight into the rapidly changing technologies and equally fast changing mindset of library patrons.

Trend #1 – Communication systems are continually changing the way people access information

Communication systems have been rapidly evolving. If you were to construct a trend line beginning with the 1844 invention of the telegraph, you will begin to see the accelerating pace of change: 1876 – telephone, 1877 – phonograph, 1896 – radio, 1935 – fax machine, 1939 – television, 1945 – ENIAC Computer, 1947 – transistor, 1954 – color television, 1961 – laser, 1965 – email, 1973 – cell phone, 1974 – Altair 8800, 1989 – World Wide Web, 1990 – Online Search Engine, 1992 – Web Browser, 1994 – Palm Pilot, 1996 – Google, 1999 – P2P, 2002 – iPod, 2004 – Podcasting.

Certainly there are many more points that can be added to this trend line, but as you think through the direction we’re headed, there is one obvious question to consider. What is the ultimate form of communication, and will we ever get there?

While we are not in a position to know the “ultimate form” of communication, it would be a safe bet that it is not writing and reading books. Books are a technology, and writing is also a technology, and every technology has a limited lifespan.

Trend #2 – All technology ends. All technologies commonly used today will be replaced by something new.

Media formats are continually disappearing. The 8-track tape was replaced by the cassette tape, which in turn was replaced by the CD, which is currently in the process of disappearing altogether.

The telephone industry has gone from the dial phone, to push button phone, to cordless phones, to cell phones, to some sort of universal PDA, cell phone, music player, satellite radio, game machine device that will be totally unrecognizable by today’s standards. Eventually the cell phone device will disappear. We don’t need to see technology to interact with it.

In a similar fashion, every device, tool, piece of hardware, equipment, and technology that we are using today will go away, and be replaced by something else. That something else will be faster, smarter, cheaper, more capable, more durable, work better, and look cooler than anything we have today.

Trend #3 – We haven’t yet reached the ultimate small particle for storage. But soon.

We live in an awkward time where technological advances related to information storage are quite routine and expected. Each new breakthrough barely raises an eyebrow because they happen so often. However, Moore’s Law will not go on indefinitely.

There are physical limits to how small we can make storage particles. Within the coming years, advances will slow and eventually stop altogether as we transition from our grand pursuit of tiny-ness to other areas of information efficiencies such as speed, reliability, and durability.

Once we conquer the ultimate small storage particle, we will be able to set standards – both standards for information and standards for storage. This becomes extremely important as we try to envision the stable information base of the future, and the opportunities for libraries to interact with it and build new and exciting “information experiences”.

But perhaps the most critical component of stabilizing information storage will surround the issues of findability.

Trend #4 – Search Technology will become increasingly more complicated

Many people today think our present day search technology is fairly simple, and it is. But the simple search days are numbered.

The vast majority of today’s search industry is based on text search. Text search is being expanded to cover the various languages of the world and some forms of image, audio, and video search are currently in place. However, next generation search technology will include the ability to search for such attributes as taste, smell, texture, reflectivity, opacity, mass, density, tone, speed, and volume.

As we achieve the ability to conduct more and more complicated searches, the role of the librarian to assist in finding this kind of information also becomes more and more important. People will not have the time and skills necessary to keep up on each new innovation in the search world, and they will need a competent professional to turn to.

Trend #5 – Time compression is changing the lifestyle of library patrons

The spectrum of human need is continually expanding. The paradigm of “need” is changing, evolving, and most importantly, speeding up. Time compression is affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, but as we compress our time, we are also compressing our needs.

People today sleep, on average, two hours less per night than 80 years ago, going from 8.9 hours per night to 6.9 hours. 34% of lunches today are eaten on the run. 66% of young people surf the web & watch TV at the same time. In a recent survey, 43% of the people in our society are having trouble making decisions because of sheer data overload.

Basically, we have more needs faster.

So as the spectrum of human need grows, the opportunities for libraries to meet these needs is also growing. However, “needs” are a moving target, so the library of the future will need to be designed to accommodate the changing needs of its constituency. One of the needs that will be going away is the need to use keyboards.

Trend #6 – Over time we will be transitioning to a verbal society

Keyboards remain as our primary interface between people and electronic information even though inventors have long felt there must be a better way. The days of the keyboard are numbered. As mentioned earlier, all technology ends and soon we will be witnessing the end of the keyboard era.

Dr William Crossman, Founder/Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures, predicts that as we say goodbye to keyboards we will begin the transition to a verbal society. He also predicts that by 2050 literacy will be dead.

While the accuracy of his dates and the wholesale transition from literacy to a verbal society may be debatable, there will undoubtedly be a strong trend towards verbal information. Computers will become more human-like with personalities, traits, and other characteristics that will give us the sense of being in a room with other humans.

Trend #7 – The demand for global information is growing exponentially

Many secrets in tomorrow’s business world lie in the writings of people who did not speak English or any of the other prominent global languages. A company’s ability to do business in a foreign country will be largely dependent upon their ability to understand the culture, society, and systems within which that country operates.

The National Intelligence Council predicts “the globalization of labor markets, and political instability and conflict will fuel a dramatic increase in the global movement of people through 2015 and beyond. Legal and illegal migrants now account for more than 15 percent of the population in more than 50 countries. These numbers will grow substantially and will increase social and political tension and perhaps alter national identities even as they contribute to demographic and economic dynamism.”

Our ability to learn about and understand the cultures of the rest of the world are key to our ability to prepare ourselves for the global societies of the future. At the same time that we learn about global societies, a new era of global systems will begin to emerge.

Trend #8 – The Stage is being set for a new era of Global Systems

Most people don’t think in terms of global systems, but we have many existing systems that have evolved over centuries that now play a significant role in our lives.

Our present global systems include international trade, global sea transportation, the Metric System, global news services, global mail systems, time zones, global air transportation, and global stock trading. Two of the newest global systems include the GPS system and the Internet.

Few people think in terms of global systems and what they represent. But as we move towards more homogenized cultures and societies, the need for creating cross-border systems will also increase.

Examples of future global systems include global accounting standards for publicly traded companies, global intellectual property systems, global tax code, global currency, global ethics standards, and an official earth measurement system. People will begin to develop these new global systems because each one represents a multi-billion dollar opportunity just from the sheer efficiencies created along the way.

Libraries will play a key role in the development of global systems because they will be charged with archiving and disseminating the foundational pieces of information necessary for the new systems to take root. Libraries themselves are a global system representing an anchor point for new systems and new cultures.

Trend #9 – We are transitioning from a product-based economy to an experience based economy

As the world’s population ages and the Baby Boom generation approaches retirement, many of them will begin to shed their belongings to create a more free and mobile lifestyle. Each item that a person owns demands their attention, and the accumulation of physical goods to demonstrate a person’s wealth is rapidly declining in importance. Experience becomes the key.

How would you rate your last library experience? Chances are that you’ve never been asked that question. However, in the future, the patron experience will become a key measurement criteria.

Gone are the days of the solemn book-reading experience in the neighborhood library. Activities will be diverse and varied as a way of presenting and interacting with information in new and unusual formats.

But more importantly, books themselves will transition from a product to an experience. As books change in form from simple “words on a page” to various digital manifestations of the information, future books will be reviewed and evaluated by the experience they create.

Trend #10 – Libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture

With the emergence of distributed forms of information the central role of the library as a repository of facts and information is changing. While it is still important to have this kind of resource, it has proven to be a diminishing draw in terms of library traffic.

The notion of becoming a cultural center is an expansive role for the future library. It will not only serve as an information resource, but much more, with the exact mission and goals evolving and changing over time.

A culture-based library is one that taps into the spirit of the community, assessing priorities and providing resources to support the things deemed most important. Modern day cultural centers include museums, theaters, parks, and educational institutions. The library of the future could include all of these, but individual communities will be charged with developing an overall strategy that reflects the identity and personality of its own constituency.

Recommendations for Libraries

Libraries are in a unique position. Since most people have fond memories of their times growing up in libraries, and there are no real “library hater” organizations, most libraries have the luxury of time to reinvent themselves.

The role of a library within a community is changing. The way people interact with the library and the services it offers is also changing. For this reason we have put together a series of recommendations that will allow libraries to arrive at their own best solutions.

  1. Evaluate the library experience. Begin the process of testing patron’s opinions, ideas, thoughts, and figure out how to get at the heart of the things that matter most in your community. Survey both the community at large and the people who walk through the library doors.
  2. Embrace new information technologies. New tech products are being introduced on a daily basis and the vast majority of people are totally lost when it comes to deciding on what to use and what to stay away from. Since no organization has stepped up to take the lead in helping the general public understand the new tech, it becomes a perfect opportunity for libraries. Libraries need to become a resource for as well as the experts in each of the new technologies.
    a. Create a technology advisory board and stay in close communication with them.
    b. Recruit tech savvy members of the community to hold monthly discussion panels where the community at large is invited to join in the discussions.
    c. Develop a guest lecture series on the new technologies.
  3. Preserve the memories of your own communities. While most libraries have become the document archive of their community, the memories of a community span much more than just documents. What did it sound like to drive down Main Street in 1950? What did it smell like to walk into Joe’s Bakery in the early mornings of 1965? Who are the people in these community photos and why were they important? Memories come in many shapes and forms. Don’t let yours disappear.
  4. Experiment with creative spaces so the future role of the library can define itself. Since the role of the library 20 years from now is still a mystery, we recommend that libraries put together creative spaces so staff members, library users, and the community at large can experiment and determine what ideas are drawing attention and getting traction. Some possible uses for these creative spaces include:a. Band practice rooms
    b. Podcasting stations
    c. Blogger stations
    d. Art studios
    e. Recording studios
    f. Video studios
    g. Imagination rooms
    h. Theater-drama practice rooms

We have come a long ways from the time of da Vinci and the time when books were chained to lecterns. But we’ve only scratched the surface of many more changes to come. Writing the definitive history of modern libraries is a work in progress. Our best advice is to enjoy the journey and relish in the wonderment of what tomorrow may bring.


Translate This Page