5 Futures for Libraries

(Photo: Rob124)

We’ve seen e-readers and libraries without print books. But beyond the obvious proliferation of e-books and fully online information sources, what might we see in the future of libraries? Here are five possibilities.

1. Patron-Driven Acquisition

In library circles, PDA doesn’t stand for “public display of affection” but “patron-driven acquisition.” Collection development librarians select materials for purchase based upon their understanding of the patron base, item reviews and circulation statistics. In a patron-driven acquisition system, patron interest can bypass some of the intermediary work of a collection development librarian and purchase library materials.

(Photo: Tulane Public Relations)

PDA is typically used for electronic resources, particularly e-books. A database vendor may offer a certain number of views of an e-book item for free. If enough individual patrons view the item, the library automatically purchases a copy, which is then added to the collection. Vendors and librarians can set up safety mechanisms to ensure that a single patron cannot rig the system to purchase something inappropriate or excessively expensive.

The advantage of patron-driven acquisitions is that a library can respond to shifting patron desires and acquire electronic materials very quickly.

2. Discovery Portals

At most libraries, if you want to effectively search the whole of body of resources, you’ll have to perform several different searches using different tools and different ways of expressing your query. But what if you could use just one search portal that would give you access to everything (or most) that a library has to offer? This is what a discovery service or discovery tool does.

Libraries have had one-stop shopping portals for years, but they’ve generally been awful—especially if you’re searching for an obscure piece of information or information from a particular type of source. They’ve been like convenience stores that offer some basic goods, but have few options beyond them.

Now computer technology has advanced to the point in which programmers have developed portals that can effectively search the breadth and depth of a library’s resources across multiple database platforms that use different search languages and scopes of materials. EBSCO Discovery Service and ProQuest’s Summon are among several competing products in this field.

(Photo: Texas State Library)

3. 3D printing and Makerspaces

Once upon a time, libraries commonly offered public internet access for exclusively research purposes. Then they offered internet access for whatever patrons wanted, as well as basic computer applications, such as word processing. Now many libraries offer document scanners, and computers with photo editing and computer-aided design software. Libraries are giving people access to tools that they wouldn’t otherwise have so that patrons may create things that are important to them.

That’s why some libraries are developing makerspaces—workshops where patrons can use tools that they otherwise couldn’t afford. Cory Doctorow expressed it this way:

One of the things that I hope makerspaces can do in libraries is show people how the information works at the bare metal and to understand what is going on underneath all those abstraction layers with the technology that they use, and to take ownership of the devices and technology around them.

You may not be able to afford a 3D printer of your own, but may be able to use one at a library and build a prosthetic arm. Would you like to learn how to sew or build electronic components? Libraries may be able to teach you how by providing the tools and basic instruction.

(Photo: Lenore Edman)

4. Embedded Librarianship

An embedded librarian is one who embeds him or herself inside a patron community, often online. This is particularly common in school libraries. If students are taking an online class, an embedded librarian may be present in the class through the learning management system (LMS). The librarian offers instruction and personal assistance on how to engage in information research.

(Photo: Loic Le Meur)

Simple enough, right? Now just imagine combining the virtual presence of a librarian with a wearable computer interface, such as Google Glass. Joseph Janes, the editor of Library 2020, states that this level of embedded librarianship can ensure “that all people can use embedded or wearable technology to get instant information about everything in their surroundings.”

(Photo: Jim Reynolds)

5. More of What We’re Doing Now

We librarians are used to an established genre of journalism that may be called “the end of libraries.” It’s an article (example) usually written by a wealthy, technologically sophisticated person who proclaims that the end of libraries (public, school, academic) is nigh.

Here’s what the futurists are missing: they possess the latest mobile devices and sophisticated computer skills. But most people don’t. The futurists project themselves as typical library patrons. But there are a vast number of people with very limited computer skills or computer access. And don’t assume that it’s confined to older people. College students usually prefer print books to e-books. I routinely encounter 18-year olds who don’t know how to access the internet or use email. The digital divide remains huge and will continue to provide a market for libraries.

What’s worse is that these futurists and skeptics often overestimate their own information access capabilities. They think that because they can connect to the World Wide Web, they have access to most of the information in the world—a belief that is not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong. As Will Rogers (allegedly) said, “It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.”

Both of these problems point to a need for libraries—or, more to the point—librarians. There’s a gap between information that is available and the skills of people who want to access that information. Thus there is a need for people who can teach others how to cross that gap. And because technology changes, there will always be such a gap and thus always a future of libraries.

This is what libraries have done in the past, are doing now, and will continue to do in the future.

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