Future of libraries

By Joyce Garnett
November 16, 2012

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LibraryIllustration by Jonathan Auxier


Editor's Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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What will the academic library of the future look like, feel like?

Traditionally, the library brand has been the book, but today’s libraries are focused on breaking out of that image through spin-off brands. The future of libraries is not only in the book business, but the discovery business, the learning business and the ‘open-your-mind business.’ Forty years in the future, libraries will remain central to education, to deep learning and critical thinking, and to stewardship of the scholarly record.

Looking ahead, the print book will remain, but become more esoteric in nature with the emphasis on the unique (limited editions and customized printings) and the esthetic (through decorative bindings and illustrations). Print books will again become coveted collector items, for the individual as well as for the library, for their rarity and their beauty.


Witness Captain Jean Luc Picard on the star ship Enterprise with his precious collection of Shakespeare in leather bindings. Of course, that is looking 400 years into the future, not 40, but it illustrates the point.

For the seeker of content – for the creators and consumers of knowledge – the book will become more and more portable and personal as technology enables greater miniaturization and customization. Physical objects will be retained in a shared storage facility of ‘last copies’ to be retrieved and digitally sent to the library user at point of need. Over time, and likely by 2052, all physical objects will have become ‘born again’ digital objects through mass digitization, with digital delivery on demand to a personal device.

Looking ahead, libraries will become centres for personalization and customization, delivering content and format on demand whenever and wherever it is required, to customers distributed around the globe (and possibly within the solar system). Libraries will move from providing resources, access and services locally and regionally to collaboration on a global scale.

We already experience digital glut in our current lives and suffer from information obesity; technology will make it so to a greater extent in the future.

Personal contact - P2P - will be reinforced in the future, as libraries nurture relationships and community in physical and digital environments. Librarians and library staff will continue to focus on customer service; we need not fear the holographic – abrupt and sarcastic – artificial intelligence projection seen in The Time Machine (2002).

We will start to think ‘inside the box’ – a personalized ‘my library in a box’ that provides access and services customized for individual learning styles and preferences. The ‘pocket library’ or ‘wrist library’ will become the ‘pocket watch’ or ‘wrist watch’ of the future – a multi-functional, decorative, mobile knowledge environment.

Libraries have always been early adopters and adapters of technology, be it the chisel, the pen, movable type, the mainframe computer, the microcomputer or mobile device. Forty years ago, libraries installed computer systems for collaborative cataloguing, a significant development of the time.

We don’t know what the next 40 years will bring in terms of technology, but we do know libraries will embrace with enthusiasm whatever comes. Who, 40 years in the past, would have predicted the current ubiquity of the microcomputer, the mobile device, the Web, Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media?

Regardless of the technology – holograms, virtual reality, Google glasses, knowledge implants, real time neural information feeds, 3D learning objects – looking ahead, libraries will leverage all opportunities to reach out and engage customers.

Libraries are forever – a bridge from the past to the future.

Looking forward 40 years, libraries will be the same and they will be different, in ways both obvious and subtle. Libraries have a well-established ‘formula’ for success: calling upon people, technology and collaboration to ensure access, resources and services to enable knowledge creation, dissemination and discovery.

Regardless of future directions in technology, academic programming and business models, libraries will remain relevant and vital because of their enduring values:  accessibility, preservation of knowledge, and freedom of intellectual choice.

Joyce Garnett is the university librarian at Western Libraries.


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