The Future of Libraries

With the talk that libraries will be different in the future, I must consider that we are the future from some distant past. Libraries have already changed enormously and will continue to do so to meet ever changing needs and address growing technologies. How very different my library experiences must be compared to that of my grandmother. Major areas of future change will reflect differences in materials, the library as a place and to a smaller degree, the librarian.

Some people will always want to hold a real book in their hands – hardback with leaves verses the electronic version. One of the comments on an NPR interview was that the electronic versions are difficult for bathtub reading and this is so very true (Norris, 2004). Even with the advent of the electronic book reader, people are reticent to use it in the tub or with their feet in the pool. If the electronic reader drops in the water, you’ve not lost a book, but an entire library and the unit in which all those books are stored. I keep wondering how people will thumb through an electronic book to see if it has the content they really want. So I find it hard to believe that the future library will be devoid of books. Just as there are some people (even young ones) who prefer pencil and paper over computer, there will always be some who want to hold that traditional book in their hands.

Even though the trend for information dissemination is digital, it takes time to get older pieces digitized. Older works are currently available in book form, but what will happen to the books that already reside on the shelf when no new paper books are published. Libraries are great houses for them, but it is possible that libraries will become museums for books. Books as we know them may be housed in such a way that they cannot leave the premises as they are at specialized libraries like the North Carolina History Room at the Winston-Salem Downtown Branch. It may take great effort to hold a book as they become a rare commodity. But we know from the Illinois Library System, while the demand for digitized information is up, so it the demand for print information (ILAblog 2009). Rather surprising considering the touting of digitized products as the wave of the future, but it does give a glimpse into the resistance that people have for letting go of real books and embracing their electronic counterparts.

ALA stats show that library use has doubled over the previous decade (Norris, 2004). Libraries are places people want to be and will continue to want to be. People may be going for the books, the computer usage, or even the congregation with others. The congregation aspect may well change in the future. As people become more and more isolated due to the technologies, they will want to gather for a variety of reasons not including traditional library tasks but rather for conversation in general, the sharing of ideas, meeting with politicians and other figures, the desire for a quiet place to work and study, and access to materials not readily available on the internet. Spaces that will be some combination of rooms or open areas will provide for this growing list of needs. Areas will be available for conversation. We will provide more comfortable areas for individual and collaborative work. Food may well be provided such as they do at stores like book stores to help with that comfort and to provide for longer working periods.

In addition to the spaces for meeting, obsolete technologies need space for housing and usage. These spaces could house those items and their viewers/players in special areas designed for public use. These obsolete technologies are a growing concern as technology advances. Special libraries could even be built to house them. Consider some of the Epcot exhibits or earlier Star Trek episodes that were cutting edge, but so quickly became outdated. Technologies change so fast that there will be a need to house the rapidly outdated materials or risk losing that material in some technological graveyard.

Another needed space may be a digital/electronic center. I don’t think the computer banks we have at the present time are anywhere near what digital centers of the future could be. Currently computer centers in libraries are limited by time allotments and there are just too few of them. We will need rows and rows of corrals to hold the computers that have unlimited access. Viewing of electronic books will have to be set up as books are checked out and returned in their electronic forms. This is an area (electronic book check out) that I’d really like to have a better idea of how it will happen, but I haven’t been able to find enough on it yet to picture what it will look like. There are currently DVDs that will only work for two weeks after they have their first showing. I could see something along these lines working with electronic book check out.

Libraries will be more universal and less localized. Cards will grant access to wide ranging collaborations of public libraries systems and not be limited to towns, cities or counties. When this happens, libraries could become thematic like magnet schools specialized by a single or similar topics. Libraries will have to move online – not just a single page representation, but deep, rich, full, searchable sites that are accessed with library cards or some username-password combination. I foresee online story times and book discussions that run parallel to the face-to-face ones that will naturally continue in the meeting spaces provided.

As for the librarian, people will always need help with the where and the how and the why of learning and research. I have had several people tell me that the librarian will quickly be obsolete, but I think this reflects a severe lack of understanding in the role that the librarian plays. The librarian as information specialist will continue to fill that role whether online or in person. The role may very well move more and more online where the librarian serves much as a moderator for a forum, but his knowledge of materials, information and where to find them will continue to be a necessary part of research and learning. The librarian as teacher will shift to incorporate more and more technology, but there will always be people who don’t have the knowledge and need the teacher to guide them. This will be done in the context of finding information. And someone has to organize the ever increasing supply of information. That job will still be done by the librarian who will continue to be the expert at information organization.

ILAblog. (2009, November 13). Re: Summit on the Future of Illinois Library Cooperation
Retrieved from

Norris, M. (2004, December 14). The Future of Libraries in the Digital Age, NPR. Retrieved from


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