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Where the Books Used to Be

by | Dec 10, 2010 | Future Scenarios

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker Where the books used to be
Last weekend I spent a couple days in the very impressive city of Carmel, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis. My hosts for this trip were Wendy Phillips, Director of the Carmel Clay Public Library, and her husband Greg, a Senior Business Analyst at FFA.

The two were very gracious hosts as they took me on an insider tour of the soon-to-be-completed Paladium Concert Hall, as well as their own state-of-the-art library, with a couple stops at some terrific local restaurants along the way.

As the Library Director, Wendy was well aware of the looming forces of change bearing down on libraries and much of our discussion focused on their future.

After my presentation where I described a far less book-centric future for libraries, Greg made the comment that it still wasn’t clear what would fill the space currently being dedicated to books. And so it is with that question that I will open this topic – looking back from the future and describing “where the books used to be.”

During the coming years, libraries will be faced with a number of options for replacing their current inventory of books with electronic book readers. As some of the early adopter libraries begin to understand the economics and freedoms/restrictions associated with the devices, they will begin to move forward, replacing thousands of volumes on the rack with what will seem like a relatively few e-readers occupying comparatively little space.

In case there is anyone who thinks certain types of books are not reproducible in an electronic form, the tech community will invariably take that on as a challenge to prove them wrong. Over time book readers will develop around a variety of sizes and shapes to meet virtually any demand.

Strategic Planning Formed around Experimentation

With book racks leaving and space opening up, the question libraries will be asking is how best to align their services with the needs of their own constituency.

Rest assured, there will be no simple answer for this.

The notion of filling newly opened library real estate with non-book offerings is relatively new and the existing library services industry is currently only scratching the surface of possibilities.

Libraries will remain at the critical intersection of people and information, but little else will resemble what we have grown up thinking what a library is.

Much of the space will develop around kiosks, studios, theaters, and workstations. Activities will form around the consumption, participation, and production of information. Staff time will shift from sorting and organizing books to coaching and assisting visitors. Library management will shift from managing content to monitoring activity metrics.

In most cases, libraries will dip their tow into this water with a pilot project, followed by a second and a third. Each new project will serve as an experiment to gauge user reaction and perceived value. Over time, libraries will become very good at formulating project plans and staging experiments.

Long term strategic planning will, for the most part, disappear. Taking its place will be a system for experimentation that will dictate the direction of the organization through well designed systems for measuring user data.

Below are a few possibilities. These are intended to help spark your imagination and build inspiration for a better tomorrow.

Book Browsers

The first issue libraries will confront is somehow replacing the discovery process that happens when people stroll past shelves of books as they spontaneously come across a completely off-topic title that somehow catches their attention.

Looking for books on an Amazon or Barnes & Noble website is simply not the same as seeing a physical object on the shelf. Physical objects convey size and dimension. They present a style and imagery that somehow corresponds with the content of the book. The newness or shabbiness of a cover gives you visual clues about the age and popularity of a book.

The likely replacement for a stroll through the racks will be the Book Browser, a kiosk with a large screen that will serve as the next iteration of card catalog technology. It will present users with imagery and text designed to capture attention and give them some sense of the content. Each book will be “discoverable” through a variety of search mechanisms that matches personal interests with literary options.

Since the current selection of library books will be replaced with millions of new possibilities, the search process will need to be far more exacting than what exists today.

People to People Information

For young people today, word-of-mouth is the number one preferred way to receive news and information. For this reason we will see the emergence of people-to-people expert systems that allow those with questions to be matched up with researchers who can provide them with answers.

In much the same way libraries subscribe to numerous databases, they will subscribe to experts-on-demand services that are staffed with 24/7 professionals from around the world.

Some will be as elaborate as stand-alone kiosks with browseable experts and person-to-person Skype videoconferencing. Others will be as simple as an online text messaging service to a random pool of skilled researchers through the library website.

Search Command Center

People who come to libraries are searching for information. Sometimes it’s an exploratory mission with only vague notions about what they are looking for, at other times they have laser-like precision in their search for specific data points. But invariably they will need help, and the Search Command Center is a central feature for a visitor’s first-contact.

Staffed with competent search experts, people will be guided through reference options, subscription databases, or a variety of other ways to uncover the answer to their specific information needs.

Real-Time Information Wall

A well-crafted information wall will serve as both artwork and information-at-glance. Constructed around streaming video technology, an information wall will host a constant stream of real-time information including such things as local and national news headlines, sport scores, population statistics, New York Times best-seller lists, top-ten music lists, national debt figures, weather maps, live webcams, local Twitter feeds, Google zeitgeist stats, and much more.

Kiosks, Studios, Theaters, and Workstations

The options that a library will have for reinventing itself will only be limited by its own creativity. Single purpose workstations will attract single purpose activities while multi-purpose stations will elicit a wide variety of uses. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Audio studios for both audio capture and audio editing.
  • Video studios for both video capture and video editing.
  • Virtual world studios for a full-immersion experience as people participate and learn about life in their favorite virtual setting.
  • Gamer stations to add elements of entertainment along with practical applications of game-theory learning.
  • Mini-theaters for group and team video experiences.
  • Mini-planetariums for searching the cosmos.
  • Digital tables for displaying information that maps out better in a horizontal format.
  • Spherical displays to present such things as real-time worldwide weather data, global population migrations, travel itineraries, and satellite orbits.

Temporary Office Space

With much of our future forming around an increasingly mobile workforce with freelancing individuals engaging in project-based work, there will be a growing need for temporary workspace and short-term meeting rooms.

An emerging new trend is towards coworking spaces, which serve as social work environments for independent workers. Coworking spaces offer enough privacy so productive work can be accomplished, but also social spaces that allow sidebar conversations to spring to life.

Cyber Café

Well-run cyber cafes form around their own user communities. Many visitors will be largely focused on finding an open terminal and getting onto the Internet while other will bring their own equipment and be more attracted to the “vibe” or “scene” happening around them.

Inside a library, an effective cyber café will strike for the perfect balance between privacy and inclusion, efficiency and randomness, artsy and casual, and purpose and spontaneity.

Coffee and food service can be operated by the library or a contract food vendor.

Daycare Facility

Libraries tend to have a unique symbiotic relationship with daycare centers. Because of the strict rules governing daycare operations, pay-for-service daycares are probably best run by a contract service provider. By leveraging library resources and aligning themselves with the needs of the community, a daycare provider can offer a win-win service to fit the needs of many library users.

Finding the Right Formula

In the end, every community will need to be engaged to rethink their library on an ongoing basis.

Libraries are all about providing relevant services to their most relevant user groups, and that is a formula that can only come from within.

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