What Is A 21st Century Library For?

Although I’m not a librarian, I am the President of the Metropolitan New York Library Council (metro.org) and former President of the New York State Library Trustees Association, among other library positions. 

Because of this long standing activity in the library world, which seems to some to be incongruous for a technologist, I’ve often been asked what libraries will be like in a world of Google searches, e-books and the like.  

Although some people question whether we will still need libraries, those folks haven’t been in libraries recently.  Most libraries have had significantly increased use over the last decade, both in the building and online, both for printed and e-books and databases.

Libraries also continue to be the major public institution that helps to overcome the digital divide.  See the recent Pew studies on this subject.

So I’m not going to spend time here retreading the issue of the existence of libraries or even printed books.  Instead, I want to talk about the longer term, more subtle ways that libraries will evolve along with the rest of the 21st century world.

First, look inside the library building itself.  Most newly renovated or newly built libraries have devote a decreasing percentage of their space to bookshelves.  There are computers everywhere and meeting room for community groups, book clubs, author presentations and the like.

In the future, there will be much more than the community center rooms found in most libraries today.   There will creative centers for writing, poetry, music and even community art.  The public library in Aarhus, Denmark has been one of the world leaders in creating these new kinds of library spaces.

In addition, libraries are beginning to understand their key role in supporting entrepreneurs as unofficial corporate librarian for these budding businesses.  The Chattanooga Public Library has made their top floor of their main building a center for entrepreneurs.   The public library in Westport, Connecticut opened up a Maker space in which people can use 3D printing machines to make all sort of artistic and/or utilitarian objects.

Clearly, e-books are increasing in popularity and most libraries offer e-books for loan.  Some even offer e-readers for those who don’t have one.  The serious longer term issue is that some major publishers are refusing to sell e-books to libraries, even under onerous terms such as elimination of the e-book after it has been used a few times.  This is a major threat to what libraries have been all about for a long time – a common collection of books.  I hope the lawyers figure this out soon because if the situation continues it will prevent libraries from evolving their traditional role as collectors of shared books.

It’s worth noting that traditionally published books – print or electronic – are becoming a diminishing fraction of the total written material.  Traditional publishing is being dwarfed by self-publishing and peer reviewed open source publishing on the web.  So one new responsibility of librarians is to include these new sources into the library’s collection, manage them and make them useful to readers.

Moreover, the publishers who are shunning libraries may find they will be encouraging librarians to undertake a more frightening path – mashups of parts of electronic texts.  In various ways, librarians have always been curators.  Now they can curate parts of open source writing and assemble them in new works that help readers better understand a subject than any single author can.

But the most important trend to note is that library services will be everywhere.  They will no longer be constrained by the limits of the building we call a library.

In a sense, librarians will reference guides to the Internet, including the many parts that are not visible to Google and other search engines.  Library services will, as always, help organize the worlds knowledge for us and help us find what we need but these services will be accessible from anywhere. 

I’ve only skimmed the surface here and this post is already too long 😉  So let me know if you want more.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis