The libraries of the future will be very different— and yet, their original charm will remain much the same.
I’m an avid user of public libraries. During a recent visit, I began thinking — what could the public library look like ten years from now?
So in this story, I turn the clock back by twenty years — around the time I first joined a library. I reflect on my experiences to date, and then use them to imagine what the public library could look like ten years from now, in the year 2027.
My first experience of joining a public library was in 1994. The catalogue was a green-screen, text-based terminal. Many books still had paper inserts that were stamped at the checkout. The library was a place to study quietly and research.
True to its traditional model, the library provided mediated access to information resources. Books, cassettes, and micro-fiche databases were the dominant media of the day. We could borrow them or access them for in-library reading, via a librarian.
As time progressed, new storage media started to appear. My borrowing repertoire slowly increased to now include music and game CDs. By the time we reached the mid-00’s, libraries offered a smorgasbord of items to borrow. The model was still traditional but with a lot more variety and diverse range of media added to the collection.
Around this period, a jointly procured web-based library catalogue was rolled out across all libraries in the Auckland region. This revolutionized my use of libraries.
The modern catalogue better exposed the variety of services and collection resources that libraries offered. More importantly, we could easily ‘request’ a book (or other collection item) online and have it arrive at a library of our convenience for pickup.
My library use increased dramatically. I was borrowing at least one item (book, CDs, DVDs) a week. Newer media, like eBooks, were also starting to emerge. This meant the curtains descended on old media forms like audio cassettes, which were slowly withdrawn from circulation.
By the turn of this decade, electronic storage media itself was starting to be rendered obsolete by the Internet. As the Internet became more pervasive in our lives, libraries started to offer free WiFi.
The service offerings of libraries also started to broaden in comparison to a decade earlier. Most notably, libraries now hosted many more events and activities. A self-checkout facility also became available. Overall, the model was still traditional but broadened to accommodate new technology and services.
Today, when I walk into a public library as a customer, there are several things that I can expect:
- The library occupies a physical space, staffed by librarians
- There is a wide range of collection items to borrow
- There is an online catalogue
- There is free WiFi, and a facility to copy/print/scan
- The library hosts learning and social events for children and adults alike. The trend towards including ‘Makerspaces’ — areas where people can get come together, share ideas, and work on creative DIY projects — can also be included in this baseline.
During a trip to Melbourne, I had time to spare and ended up visiting a couple of public libraries. There, I made use of two remarkable new services.
First, there was a facility to borrow iPads. With free WiFi, the Internet effectively became a ‘freely borrowable’ item at the library. It is only natural that contemporary content consumption devices like iPads follow suit.
Second, there was an area for gaming — both online (PlayStation) and traditional (board games). This was a great opportunity for both personal enjoyment and wider social interactions. I really liked both these services and feel that, over time, other libraries will also begin to offer them.
Libraries offer many other services as well, such as accessing archives, storing local history, or getting research assistance. But, from an everyday customer perspective, that would be my equivalent of a ‘service catalogue baseline’: the things that I would expect in a modern public library in 2017.
With that baseline established, let’s fast forward by ten years and tackle the fundamental question: will the brick-and-mortar library exist in 2027?
The answer, I think, is yes. Libraries have remained relevant in the face of two decades of fundamental technological change. They will continue to evolve by adopting service delivery models and new technologies.
Extrapolating from my experiences, the change will not be sudden, in the form of a big bang. Libraries have always evolved with time; there’s no need for a radical course-correction. Instead, it will be an evolutionary change subtly working its way up towards a paradigm shift.
To understand the value of libraries to myself, I asked myself three questions.
Why have I used libraries in the past? Why would I use them in the future? And, how has the value proposition shifted, from my perspective as a customer?
Under the traditional model of providing mediated access to resources, the library was a place to study quietly, refer to informational material and gain knowledge.
One way to look at this is through the DIKW pyramid. Put simply, it shows the relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom. You need to have data before you can get information; you need information before you can gain knowledge, and so on.
Originally, libraries were a source for all three layers. Since the turn of the millennium, however, the bottom two layers — data and information — have been gradually ‘outsourced’ to the Internet. Nowadays, we’re at the point where we get all our data and information online.
For me, the library now adds value mainly in the knowledge realm. It has morphed from being a place to ‘study’ to now being a place to ‘learn’.
What’s the difference between ‘study’ and ‘learn’? I think of them like this:
- Studying is to read, memorize facts, attend school, and so on, in order to learn about a subject.
- Learning, on the other hand, is to gain knowledgeor skill— either by studying, practising, being taught, or experiencing something.
Physical spaces are increasingly being made available for people to learn and interact. Makerspaces and associated learning activities are great examples of this shift.
In addition, with a trend towards self service in government, many traditional activities involving librarians — like issuing books, using the printer, or changing coins — are being automated.
The traditional ethos of intermediation is, paradoxically, being both supplemented and replaced by disintermediation. The library is becoming a portal to learn and interact. It is becoming a means to an end.
Depicting this shift as a chronological diagram, I feel the public library of 2027 will sit somewhere near the middle of the blue arrow.
The library of 2027 will have a similar baseline offering to what we see now — allowing, of course, for advances in technology, such as wireless printers, and a more modern delivery service, such as pop-up micro-libraries or kiosks.
By 2027, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and AI bots will be so intelligent that the answer to everything will just be a search phrase away — if not already being pumped into our heads via numerous notifications and sensors.
With its original value proposition of ‘information access’ evaporating, the generic competitive strategy of libraries lies in differentiation.
Libraries need to be different. They need to provide value that their very large and well-heeled online ‘competitors’ cannot. To do this, libraries will need to leverage their key asset — physical spaces — and add value by providing more opportunity for people to learn and interact.
The trend will be to move away from storing information, instead becoming a place for people for people to interact. Interaction can occur across various media such as with collection items (books, toys, games) or physical devices (pianos, electronics) and does not need to be restricted to human interaction.
I think the public library of 2027 will have a smaller section for borrowable items. Most of the borrowing would be done via the online catalogue, which would mean that libraries could save space by displaying only curated items.
Those curated items —such as recent fiction and popular books — could be based on librarian knowledge or, more probably, by data mining algorithms. The rest of the items can be stored away someplace else and brought back on-demand.
There will be a section for specialist services, such as research or archives. Some traditional seats or desks would exist, but most of the remaining space will be ‘free area’: space to cater to numerous activities and diverse usage.
Visitors and patrons will use the space as they want — to play games, watch videos over WiFi, make electronics or even practice drums in a sound-proof enclosure. One person may be conducting a group-tuition. A budding pianist could be playing a piece in the background. Indeed, there might even be an open-air space in the library for outdoor activities.
In short, it will be an area for the community to interact.
By 2027, the physical space occupied by libraries would have replaced a library’s collection as its main asset and attraction.
Today, libraries do offer patrons a chance to interact — mainly with their collections, but also with the wider community. I see this changing to a point where libraries will provide avenues for interaction in the widest sense. A place where people can interact with library collections, each other, the wider community, and indeed, even the physical space.
The library could be completely integrated with a public space — imagine having one inside an airport or railway station. Or, the integration could be partial. For example, the library could have a main building to itself, but also have ‘book return’ kiosks, in high-traffic public spaces, giving people a convenient way to return what they’ve borrowed.
Architecture is another field where libraries can play in the future. In older cities, libraries often occupy ‘heritage’ building sites. Similarly, when new libraries are built, they have state of the art architecture — in particular sustainable features like eco-heating, water recycling etc.
When my local library opened, its biggest drawcard was its eco-design, which, around fifteen years ago, was quite novel for public places. Libraries housed in historic buildings could become visible reminders of the cultural heritage of a city. Some might even become tourist attractions. There is great potential for new or refurbished libraries to become specimens of modern, cutting edge architecture. Providing a distinctively historic, modern or futuristic physical space would be a value add service in itself.
Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future.
— Niels Bohr
This is only one view of the possibilities. The reality, of course, would be different for each city, dependent on the service models libraries choose, characteristics of the community, and the vision the respective local government bodies have for libraries they operate.
In many ways, the future of libraries is about space and time. Libraries will be portals for activities that mix leisure and learning. They will add value by providing avenues for interaction and opportunities for using disposable time constructively.
Regardless of what the future holds, the library that evolves successfully to witness 2027 will be thinking strategically, sensing the future proactively, and providing great customer service.
These time tested basics will never change.
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