Monday, November 23, 2015

Libraries In The Year 2100

Libraries have been around for a very long time, and they will continue to be around for a lot longer, albeit in a different form that what we are used to seeing today.

So what will libraries look like in 85 years? Jim O'Donnell from Slate put it into perspective:
That’s not so very far away. The next time you see a tiny baby, bear in mind that she or he has a very good chance of living to see the 22nd century. What will the world of libraries look like then? Nobody can know—but perhaps we can talk about what libraries should be in that imaginable future.

O'Donnell posits three variations of libraries in the future:

1. One Global Library: 

Once an encyclopedia or a book or a journal or a database is in digital form, there is no good reason why it should not be made as universally and freely available as possible, and no good reason why it should not be centrally held and maintained. Right now, major university libraries harbor knowledge riches galore, astonishing things, really—and we cannot share them. Most people who live on the planet today are unable to have access to sources of knowledge that, from a technical point of view, could be reached on their smartphones today—literally today, within the next hour of the moment you read this, if the provider made the choice to allow the access.

If that has to change, it will change. We will see the consolidation of collections and a consolidation of the technical infrastructure of presenting those collections. (Oh, there will be redundancy and backups, just as there is now for things like Google searches, hosted on many servers in many locations, transparently sharing the load. Such distribution speeds service and improves the resilience in case of disaster or emergency.) And we will see the emergence of business models for paying for what we now think of as “publishing” that allow completely free and open access to the contents of this global library.

2. Many Small Libraries: 

Physical collections will all be what we now call “special collections”: unique materials they possess uniquely because of where they are and what their history might be. Readers will still make their way to the [the various] libraries to see whatever unique collections they have, but readers will also find in those places much of what they now go there to find: intelligent people engaged in the work of knowledge and the work of community. Librarians will be there as coaches, mentors, guides, facilitators, and other members of the public will be there as knowledge-seekers, knowledge-sharers, entrepreneurs of the spirit, and entrepreneurs of the world of business. Libraries are the ideal “third place” for a free society and will never lose that powerful attraction. 

3. No Libraries:

We could also lose libraries to hubris and shortsightedness. “We don’t need libraries any more; it’s all digital”—we’ve all heard some version of that peremptory dismissal, entirely worthy to be heard on the stage of a debate among presidential candidates.

But we do need libraries. In a world of superabundant information, they curate and collect and discriminate and care for the good stuff—the stuff really smart people have worked to create and preserve, the stuff you can rely on when you want to understand the world deeply and accurately, the stuff too complicated to come into existence by crowdsourcing, too unpopular to be foisted on us by corporations or politicians. Librarians—smart, professional, dispassionate about everything but the truth—are the Jedi knights of our culture’s future and deserve to be respected for that.

If we let ourselves be taken in by techno-optimism and carelessness and if we then let libraries fade away, we will be in a poorer place. There are many historical explanations offered for the disappearance of the great ancient library of Alexandria, but my personal judgment is that it did not fall victim to Julius Caesar or Christian monks or Islamic warriors. Libraries are more likely to disappear because the responsible leaders of a community deprive them of support, take them for granted, treat them dismissively.

Like O'Donnell, I aspire to something closer to numbers 1 & 2, but I fear that number 3 will happen anyway. If we are already at a point of the public questioning a library's existence, then what will it be like when the algorithms are finding material and thinking for us? My hope is that we will stay sophisticated enough to realize that access to reputable, unbiased information is the key to an informed citizenry and a truly democratic society. 

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