At this day and age, can libraries survive?
To look at the state of many libraries after the recession, facing cuts and closures and fundamental questions about “relevance,” you could be forgiven for being gloomy about their future. But gloomy is not the predominant tone of a terrific new report from Arup, the well-regarded design consultancy. It shows that some libraries, at least, are undergoing a “renaissance,” and that the future could be good for others.
Arup organized workshops in four cities, bringing together a range of people interested in libraries. The report collects ideas from existing projects, as well as ideas for future spaces. There are four main themes, as summarized below. Despite a lack of funding and the threat of online alternatives, “trends shaping the future of libraries have the potential to reshape and reinvigorate the role they play in public, academic and corporate settings,” the report says.
Libraries have always preserved knowledge. In the past, it was information in books. Now, it needs to be the stuff on DVDs, floppy disks, and zip files we’re currently losing as we change formats (so-called “Bit Rot”). “I think there’s a whole infrastructure that has to be not only created, but invented and sustained in order to make sure the knowledge that we’ve been digitizing is retained and reusable over a long period of time,” says Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, as quoted in the report.
Libraries can exploit online networks to “enable a wider audience to access otherwise hidden archives.” The Library of Congress has used Flickr to post its photo archive online, enlisting volunteers to tag the records, for instance. And libraries can look to participatory funding, like Kickstarter. Last year, Kickstarter said that it had raised $1 billion for libraries and that, between 2013 and 2014, more than 150 library-related projects had been funded on the site.
As well as being places for personal learning, future libraries will enable more collaborative activity, reflecting the way many organizations innovate and grow these days. “In the emerging knowledge economy, new value is created in highly collaborative environments by using immediately digestible information,” the report says. That means “spaces where meaningful interactions can take place” and more space given over to communication rather than storing books. Future libraries will employ advanced machines, like robots, to collect books and other material from underground or off-site places. The report cites the University of Chicago’s amazing “Librarian Bot” which started retrieving books in 2011.
Libraries can play new roles in the community. San Francisco Central Library, for example, employs a social worker to look after the city’s large homeless population. “Homeless patrons seeking a shelter find access to information about their rights and necessary legal resources, guided by professionally trained staff,” the report says. The program has housed more than 150 formerly homeless people and allowed another 800 to get social services. “Many libraries will serve disadvantaged communities and they are central to providing equal access regardless of ethnicity, age, gender and sexuality,” the report says.
The future library is more interactive, with visitors accessing knowledge using a variety of touch-screen surfaces, augmented reality, and smart devices. “In the future, the boundaries between personal devices and the built environment will blur and physical spaces will be impregnated with new layers of information and content to be activated at users’ disposal,” the report says.
At the same time, the “walls” of libraries are set to expand beyond their physical space to encompass online resources, social media, crowdsourcing and mobile services, opening up collections and services previously hidden from view. And new organizations could act as partners for library distribution, as in the Moscow metro’s virtual library of classical Russian literature.
The big question, of course, is whether libraries will have the resources to do the things they need to do. If they can’t find alternative sources of funding, probably from the private sector, they’re going to be stuck. Crowdfunding and social lending are strong and growing possibilities, as Kickstarter has shown. But, as the report says, they may need to provide “a wider range of public and commercial services” as well.