Public libraries are not the same today as before. Such change is not new. Libraries have long been evolving. One reason libraries have been able to survive and prosper through the ages (the earliest known libraries date back to antiquity—think: clay tablets and papyrus scrolls) has been their ability to evolve to meet the current needs of their community. The guiding principles for public libraries may endure, including encouraging literacy and promoting free and open access to information for all. However, the specific way these principles are expressed have transformed over time and likely will continue to do so.
I have been professionally involved with public libraries in this country long enough to have witnessed several revisions to service delivery. For example, it was not too many years ago that most libraries contained large collections of specialized reference books and bound periodicals. These books included directories, dictionaries, abstracts and indices, almanacs, encyclopedias and a variety of other reference tomes. The bound periodicals frequently represented year upon year of past issues of magazines, newspapers and other serial publications. With the ascendency of the consumer Internet, beginning in the mid-1990s, these reference books have been forever and indelibly changed. No longer do many libraries host the row upon row of shelves of reference books and bound periodicals in the vast quantities of earlier times. The Internet—especially the World Wide Web and digitization of content—has made these older formats nearly obsolete. Basically, the reference books we once knew and cherished no longer exist and have been supplanted by a combination of simply-used desktop PCs, the intuitive World Wide Web, nearly ubiquitous high-speed telecommunications, and sophisticated search engines, such as Google, Bing, and DogPile. Libraries adapted to this new order by replacing the reference and bound periodical collections with row upon row of public access computers and related services.
It is clear that another significant change is occurring now. The consumer market is now replete with wireless handheld devices and networks that are making vast quantities of information more portable than ever before. Technology again is converting learning and information delivery. This change is beginning now to impact the public library. Libraries are evolving yet once more.
This time it appears that libraries are shifting from being warehouses of information to focus on space, place, and equipment. Library customers seek a place to study, learn and collaborate, and libraries now find themselves in the position of meeting this need in new ways. The future library may look less like a repository for books and more like a public space that is conducive and comfortable for information access, use, and the exchange of ideas via devices. A place that facilitates human interaction with appropriate apparatuses and ambience.
Picture this. The customer brings her/his portable information appliance into the library. This device could be a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop, or some yet-to-come technology. Connecting to the local wireless network, the customer finds a quiet place to comfortably attend to her/his study and pursuits. Now, a colleague enters the library and uses a library-provided sharing appliance to connect her/his device with the other in order to form a multi-user, interactive capacity to seamlessly integrate the work of the two. The result offers opportunities to increase yield and bring their exchange of ideas to a new level of richness. A third person enters now and uses a tablet provided by the library to join the meeting. Others also can join their team by connecting, sharing, and learning using joined intuitive, multi-touch user interfaces. Information is highly accessible, meetings are more collaborative, and productivity soars.
Is this the future library? Time will tell. But one thing is certain. As Bob Dylan wrote several years ago, “The Times They are a-changin’.”
at May 14, 2012
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