The Future of Libraries

don’t close the book
As I write this from a Starbucks, e-book within arm’s reach, it is perhaps only fitting that we discuss the future of books.

And while many a printed word has been dedicated to the certain demise of book publishing as we know it, far less has been said about how these changes are likely to affect another great (and free!) literary institution – the public library.

Google’s efforts to digitize the world’s books and create the world’s largest library online, coupled with the continued and inevitable rise of electronic book publishing, all but guarantees that the role of physical books will diminish for libraries over the years to come.  In an age in which access to information is anything but scarce or restricted, libraries’ face a future where evolution is essential for their continued survival.

So, to ensure that beautiful brick building in your hometown doesn’t go the way of the Blockbuster, here are five small ideas that will be essential for the library of the future to master:

1. Act less like a book warehouse, and more like a community center.

Host book groups, readings from local authors, and children’s educational events. Ramp up involvement in activities that add value to your community in ways that are consistent with the purpose of libraries, but move beyond the need to access books themselves. While many libraries already do these things, it’s time to redouble efforts in these areas.

2. Get niche. Get local.

In the future, no single library will be able to compete with Google (or more broadly, the Internet) on its volume of books. Instead, libraries can add value by being more specialized and local than Google can be. In addition to acting as a community center, libraries can also explore the ability to fund local research initiatives, historical preservation efforts, and co-author books on the history of the local area.

3. Provide clarity and expertise.

If we’re all suffering from information overload, the best cure is expert advice and curation. Librarians can become a hugely valuable asset to their communities by simplifying the search for the right information, and making informed recommendations based on the tastes of the specific person seeking help.

4. Embrace interactivity.

For more than two decades, interactive learning tools have been steadily gaining traction in classrooms, learning centers, and at home. While most libraries have long since embraced the inclusion of computer labs and many have already begun creating multimedia rooms, it will be in every library’s best interest to continue to pursue new forms of interactive learning solutions to remain viable moving forward.

5. Create new, louder spaces.

Increasingly, people are becoming accustomed to working in collaborative, interactive settings. Libraries have an opportunity to not only alter their approach towards learning, but also physically alter their building spaces to match new learning styles. Rooms filled with books and card catalogues can give way to technologically advanced, collaborative workspaces. Large, cavernous atriums can be converted into semi-private alcoves more conducive to discussion (of all volumes) and group analysis. Silent librarians not permitted.

The Future of Libraries

Last week IDEO released a brilliant video on The Future of the Book – imagining three distinct concepts for how reading a book might be enhanced by digital consumption, social media, and tablet PCs. On the subject of electronic books, they write, “We believe that an increasingly digital context can add to our notion of books, instead of taking away from it.”

I would argue the exact same can be said of our notion of libraries—that digital should add to our experience there, rather than compete with it. To do so, libraries will need to reevaluate their value to the communities they serve—starting with these five ideas and hopefully many more to come. To be sure, it’ll take a little ingenuity. I, for one, hope they succeed.