Library Transformation Over Time

A few thoughts on possible library transformations.

Library from the Latin liber, bark.

At what point do artificial intelligence and computer algorithms supplant the human editor and curator? Can the machine filter through all available data and select out that which is most appropriate to a user's needs?

Trajectory of library purposes and services: repository of manuscripts, physical location for researchers to read manuscripts, repository of published material in print, place for librarians to guide information seekers towards information in the library repository, repository of digital information objects physically located in the library, collection of analog as well as digital information objects housed locally as well as remotely, library staff teaching users successful search strategies, electronic access point to internet, physical gathering place for group creation of one kind of art or another, shelter from various kinds of storms, referral center along the lines of social work, a refuge for quiet contemplation, and etc.

When the apocalypse arrives, if library buildings remain mostly intact and electronic resources are offline, libraries will function as they did before electricity. The physical objects in the collection will service user needs.

Internal library activities will evolve. Catalogers will perform less cataloging and describing of materials because automatic methods will suffice for users. Instead of catalogers manually describing the details of each object, computer tools will combine extracting pertinent data points as well as provide direct search of objects. Catalogers will be needed for those objects that have no digital footprint: no publisher-supplied metadata, the object exists only in analog form. Reference assistance will continue to specialize for those researchers who need customized assistance. A majority of users will embark on self-directed searching, using robust tools with a minimum of direct training or assistance. Reference librarians will act as personal search partners for the 20%, while the other 80% largely search autonomously. Reference librarians will produce varied training materials for a wide range of user skills and needs. These materials include written guides, short video instructions, screen captures as example searches, and context-sensitive instruction for beginner learners. Materials processing will continue to become more automated. Physical objects will be cared for more and more by machines. Electronic objects will be automatically processed through smart technology, needing less and less human intervention.

Libraries with a physical presence will grow to become even more micro-local focused. While growing in global connection to broadly dispersed electronic resources, the local library and its personnel will focus on the contextualized needs of local users. The contribution of the local library will be uniquely, collaboratively designed programs, services, functions, and resources tied directly to the needs of the local community.

I can imagine a scenario where a small library is comprised of a portable building, a few dedicated staff, a small physical collection, and simple computer equipment. This entire setup is portable such that the building is placed on a flatbed and transported to a different location depending on need and opportunity. Such a scenario provides more resources and services than a bookmobile, yet less square footage than a traditional building. Such a portable building is used, for example, when a traditional library building is closed during an extensive remodel.

As the gap between those with means to access digital objects compared to those with information insecurity exponentially increases, libraries will continue in their role as democratizing channels for those who need access. As such, libraries will continue to require financial support from government contributions and philanthropic support. As the former support continues to erode, the latter will become even more imperative. Consequently, library leaders will need to grow their internal capacity to demonstrate the value and success of their services and programs on their local populations.

Quotable Quotes

"Much more than accumulations of books, the best libraries are hotspots and organs of civilization; magical places in which [people] come together and make something marvelous" (p. 258). "The world wide web is traditional libraries' principal competitor, but it is also their savior because, in the internet era, there is an urgent need for selection and curation" (p. 262). Kells, Stuart. 2018. The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders. Berkeley: Counterpoint LLC.