Columns > Published on August 21st, 2023

10 Years Ago, Librarians Predicted What Today's Library Would Look Like

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In 2010, a group of library professionals got together and wrote essays that answered the question: What will the library be like in 2020?

Before you get too excited, no, nobody predicted a global pandemic would kill a bunch of people. Also, nobody predicted that a subset of doofuses would attribute the ravages of this virus to the introduction of faster wireless network speeds.

Which is a lesson to anyone putting out an anthology: Save space for one essay that makes wildly unlikely, bold claims. If the writer is wrong, eh, nobody will remember. But if they just so happen to nail it, and centaurs from another dimension do, in fact, raid Earth for our stockpiles of candy corn, you’ll look like a goddamn genius.

What did library folks think the library of 2020 would look like? What was right on, what missed the mark, and what am I predicting for 2030?

Print Books Out, eBooks In

The books will be the first to go, because they’re already going…That trend is only going to continue because everyone likes eBooks. (p.3)

Why do libraries still have print on the shelves? Isn't this the future!?

The easy answer is price.

But here’s a less boring answer:

eReaders make the book acquisition process easier, and they let you pack a dozen books in a bag when you go on vacation, but they make the reading experience worse because they have to be charged, connected to wifi, and they pull shit like updating when all you want to do is read.

While the eReader was awesome for book shopping and collection toting, it's not very fun to read on.

My prediction for 2030 is that the eBook world will stay pretty stagnant. But I’m totally willing to be proven wrong by some genius who makes a totally awesome eReader that’s super affordable and actually fun to use.

Diversity Bad?

Collections are getting larger and less volatile…they are getting more diverse and distinctive from one library to the next. (p.28)

Mostly accurate, a library in Indiana probably looks less like a library in Wisconsin than it used to.

And now I make the (potentially foolish) argument that this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Let’s bring Taylor Swift and the Eras Tour into the chat.

This (cruel) summer made it pretty clear that people have a deep, gnawing hunger to feel connected through mutual experience. Not just to one or two other people on a subreddit, but a whole shitload of people in real life.

Unprecedented access to variety is a good thing, but the downside of variety is that the chances that you and I will ever read the same book get worse and worse every day. The chances of connecting over a shared reading experience with more than one or two people on a subreddit are just about zero.

In the library of the future, I think librarians will work to provide access to broad, deep, diverse collections while also finding ways to bring large groups of people together with common books at the center.

Care

A future brand for librarians could be: “Convenient, free, anytime/anywhere access to information experts who care.” (p.60)

Librarians aren’t necessarily “better” than Google, but I do think a librarian gives a shit, and in some ways, that’s “better.”

Take book recommendations.

An online buying platform does not give one fuck if you like the book you bought. If you bought it, it’s mission accomplished.

Librarians care A LOT about getting you books you enjoy. They’re invested from start to finish. Success isn't just about you taking a book home, it's about you enjoying what you get.

And if they fuck it up, they want to try again and get it right.

POD (no, not the Christian band)

…print-on-demand stations will be available extensively so requests for materials that are not housed on-site or readily available electronically can be easily provided. (p.102)

Ah, yes, the print-on-demand system.

Let’s say you came into the library, wanted to read a John Swartzwelder book, but we didn’t carry any. Well, what if we could download the file, a machine could slap it between two covers, spit it out, and boom, you check out a brand new, legit copy, all in about 15 minutes?

It’s actually a pretty cool idea, but it fizzled around 2015.

I’d venture the main reason is that getting publishers to license their books for this is impossible because getting publishers to license anything for anything is impossible.

But print-on-demand was an attempt to answer the right question: how can we get a request for a book and turn it around quickly?

The library of 2030 will have to figure out ways to drastically cut down the turnaround time for materials requests. Because when I can get it from Amazon in 2 days or the library in 6 weeks…

Me Me Me Me Me Me

My library of the future is a place where one can find security and acclamation. It will also be a challenging place that affords discovery and transformation of oneself. It will support one’s worldview. (p.120)

This is probably an unfair reading of what this writer was trying to say, but fuck it, you all need to hear this. Because libraries today are having a BIG problem with this shit.

A library can support your worldview and reflect you, but you HAVE TO remember that it won’t reflect ONLY you.

You should be able to find things in your library that reflect you and support your ideas. And you should also be able to find things that go against your worldview. 

If you try to flush things that don’t conform to your worldview and save only those things that comfort you, and if transformation and change are all about other people becoming more like you, we’re fucked.

I HOPE the library of the future is able to support a whole lot of people and their worldviews, but that’s going to rely on you being tolerant of stuff and people you don't care for much.

Weird as it may be to say, I hope the library of the future has lots of shit I like and lots of shit I don't.


Get The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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