Library Now vs. Library of the Future

Have you ever heard remarks like these?

* “Why do we need books? Everything is online.”
* “Why do we need computers at a library? All our students have computers.”
* “Why do we need a library? You can find everything on the Internet.”

Many times, I have seen these sort-of arguments functioning as an excuse for not tending to the needs of current library users.  Of course, these arguments are fragile, but that is not my point.  I am not going to argue that not all the information and knowledge of the past, present, and future will be available in a digital format online.  Why not? Maybe it will; who knows?  I am not going to argue that there is always going to be a social divide that will require a library to provide some types of IT equipments useful for accessing information no matter how far in the future a library is.  Maybe everyone will be equipped in a equal enough way to access information in the future; if so, that would be only great.  Neither am I going to argue that no matter what change happens to the way humans access information and acquire knowledge, they will always need some sort of space for study and research as an individual as well as a group.  Maybe everyone will stay at home in the future and will communicate and socialize only via telecommunication.  Why not all education be distance learning?  You never know.  (I am not cynical here and actually can even think of some advantages of 100% distance learning.)

But right now, not everything is online, and not every library user has or brings a computer to a library.  And whatever the reasons are, there are people sitting and walking around in a library browsing books, typing stuff on a computer, and asking questions.  So, when someone predicts a future library as a God-knows-what type of information network and uses that against investing in the space, furniture, equipment, and ‘some’ print materials of a library, I get confused.  Thinking about the future of a library is great.  But that library will be a library for users of the future.  The library that needs some plants, some white boards, some computers, and some photocopiers, some comfy chairs are a library for users of now.  Don’t run away to a future library when your present library needs help.

Is it inevitable that a library is going to exist mostly online in the future? Some say so and argue that that is the case because a lot of information and knowledge will no longer need to be housed in a physical space.  Hence a library won’t need to exist in a physical space either.  Maybe, but not inevitably.  Why do we want to say that it is even likely?  What a library will be in the future is something we can and should decide as a society, not something that will happen one day as a matter of laws of nature.

About Bohyun (Library Hat)

Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library. Formerly, she was the Chief Technology Officer and Professor at the University of Rhode Island Libraries.
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