The Levinski Library in Tel Aviv. Image via Architizer
The prevailing wisdom is that libraries are in a tough spot. Last year, e-books sales surpassed print. Nearly 80 percent of Americans have internet access at home. Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, et al offer millions of books, films, and albums in their digital libraries.
Libraries are no longer physical rooms, and the buildings of libraries past probably won't be used to store books, films and music in the future. Will the post-analog library be a bookless "bibliotec" full of MacBooks and high-speed internet? Librarians replaced by search algorithms?
Internet pioneer Vint Cerf mulled these questions recently, while speaking at the Guardian’s Activate 2013 conference in London. He dismissed the idea that digitzied information it's putting libraries out of business. Instead, it's more important than ever to manage and curate all that knowledge.
“For some people, who imagine ‘Well, it’s all digital, and all we have to do is run the Google index’, I don’t think that’s exactly right,” Cerf said. “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.
Specifically, he's worried that bit-rot, or data decay, will prevent information from being passed down from generation to generation. If data is saved computer bits and the software that reads it becomes outdated, the information gets lost—like floppy disks, zip drives, VHS, and my grandparents slide projector photos they keep saying they're going to digitize but never get around to. "This is a serious, serious problem, and we have to solve that." said Cerf (referring to data rot and not my grandparent's slides). "Otherwise, we’ll have denied ourselves what is the most important potential I can think of—to have all the knowledge of humankind at our fingertips.”
So, future librarians could be tasked with protecting billions of tons of data. They're also going to have to help people navigate that wealth of information. Librarians could end up more like traffic cops, directing people to this website or that to find what they're looking for. Or perhaps the job will be totally automated, like these bookBots that retrieve books from a virtual catalog at the high-tech library at North Carolina State University.
Maybe—and this is the scenario I'm rooting for—librarians will be search gurus, computer experts up to speed on the latest technology that can help cut through all the internet noise and find legit information online. A dewey decimal system for domains.
Public libraries became popular in industrial America, when manufacturing tycoons like Andrew Carnegie saw them as places to encourage informed, thoughtful citizens. The end goal was civil society and human advancement, Seth Godin points out in his musings on the future of libraries.
Many people predict that future libraries will follow this line of thinking: Instead of houses of information, they will function like cultural institutions. Maybe not a place to sit and read, but still a place to learn.
Already, and increasingly, local libraries serve as community centers. They offer book clubs, after-school stories, resources, sklllshares, maker programs, workshops, and MOOCs. The future library will still a "third place," but more hands-on, noisy, dynamic, and interactive, imagines Godin. "The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information." Some public libraries are even crowdsourcing their future plan, asking the community itself to say what they want this space to be.
We might be getting ahead of ourselves here. Robin Sloan, a self-described media inventor and author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, rejects the idea that future libraries have to choose between print or digital. There's something classically enjoyable about browsing the isles of a library and being struck by a particular title, he said in an interview with Motherboard's Lex Berko.
"It is the feeling of being able to walk down the shelves and kind of let your eyes de-focus a bit and just let something catch your eye," said Sloan. "I heard someone talking the other day about how their kids have a favorite Dewey Decimal range. You know, man, they love zero to a hundred because it’s UFOs and yetis and aliens. How awesome is that?"
In fact, the future library could play a role in encouraging people to read physical books again, by using beautiful architecture and innovative designs to create a unique experience that makes you want to hang out there. These re-imagined libraries are cropping up around the world. There are mobile libraries, specialized libraries, mini-libraries, pop-up libraries. Libraries for refugees. Libraries that serve wine.
Who knows what the word "library" will conjure up for future generations, but chances are it won't be bespectacled ladies shelving dusty books off a metal cart.