Seth Godin blogged recently about his idea to transform libraries for the 21st century. Apparently he’s been talking to librarians who are unhappy that their DVD circulation is up (as it would be, in this economy when people are looking for cheap/free home entertainment). But I think he has some things very wrong:
“They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)” I have yet to see the person able to afford all the books they will ever need in their lifetime. Or a personal subscription to all the magazines they might want to read, or all the databases they might need to consult. It reminds me of the quote by Malcolm Forbes: “The richest person in the world – in fact all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.”
I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where we only had access to the ideas we could afford to buy.
“The information is free now.” Information is never free. Libraries and librarians work to provide access (using your tax dollars) to hugely diverse, authoritative sources of information in many formats. Yes, there is more access to information than ever before but access is not equal for all. I know Godin’s rebuttal would be “buy a cheap netbook & mooch off a neighbor’s free WiFi” but there are still people who don’t have the money or comfort level with technology to make that happen. Librarians are useful because we’re professional searchers; able to help people formulate their questions, refine their ideas, and locate the best information to match those needs. Just because you can type into the Google search box doesn’t mean you’re an information expert.
My last thought: in many communities, the public library is the last truly democratic place. Anyone can come in, anyone can read for free, anyone can meet freely. There needs to be at least one place that is open to all in every community, and the library is as much a place as it is a collection.
The State Library of New South Wales did a little future forecasting and compiled their results in a nice white paper called Bookend Scenarios (pdf). Although they were focusing on particularly Australian concerns, I was surprised by how applicable their vision is to American libraries. We face very similar challenges to our services, and it’s worth taking a look at this report if you are concerned about the public library and its future incarnations.
Above is their matrix of change, with a sector for each of four scenarios named after seminal monographs: nonfiction for generalized scenarios, and fiction for the niche scenarios. The predicted outcomes of each scenario will depend on variables in our socioinformatic landscapes.
Right now, I’d say the average American public library is in the How Buildings Learn quadrant – technology is accelerating & formats are unstable but library services & buildings are expanding to meet community desires. Barring some global catastrophe after Peak Oil, I’d say American libraries are typically headed for a mashup between the Neuromancer and Fahrenheit 451 scenarios. In particular, I think that electronic formats will win the day for most sources of nonfiction and the physical paper-based book will become the province of fiction exclusively. I don’t think that we will suffer from the lack of relevance forecast in the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, but I do believe we will find value in the Neuromancer prediction: people’s skepticism of information could be tempered by situating librarians as arbiters of content, where we help users discern bias and conflicts of interest in the production of specific pieces of information.
Where do you think public libraries are headed in the next 20 years? We will surely follow society’s lead, and the four visions in this fascinating project are distinctly possible versions of our collective future.