Back to the Future…and All It’s Uncertainties.

Chicago has been all a buzz with the Cubs’ winning streak these past couple months, and a number of times I have heard the correlation made between the team winning the World Series, and a prediction that was made in the 1985 classic Back to the Future. After hearing about it so often, and therefore being reminded of how GOOD the movie is, I recently re-watched it.

And let me tell you, it is a fantastic movie. If you haven’t seen it…change that.

But it got me thinking about a discussion we recently had in my Management class after a classmate of mine gave a presentation on libraries during the Great Depression.

Libraries were particularly popular during the Depression. They organized programs for the unemployed and sending book mobiles into areas that did not have access to literature. The reason I bring this up is because I think both now — and in the future — this is an important thing to remember. Amanda L. Goodman, in her article “Libraries: A Canvas for Creating Meaningful User Experience” writes that library focus has “changed from providing books and reference services to user experience — a change that has been partially facilitated in recent years by the economic downturn.” Goodman’s article discusses the shift in focus public libraries have made from “scholarly research” to patron experience and learning.

Goodman argues that “user experience is an important tool for libraries to employ against a number of competitors like bookstores and at-home Internet access” as well as providing services and resources that are not available anywhere else.

Eighty-five years ago during the Great Depression, this was easier to do than today. Libraries are up against mega-book stores like Barnes & Noble, local coffee shops, and the Internet as a whole. To be able to win the race against Google and Wikipedia will take a lot of creative thinking.

This David Weinberger describes is the “library’s tragedy”. In his article “Let the Future Go” he argues that the ideal existence of a library is to be “infused everywhere” — for what the library knows to be merged with resources offered by the Internet’s power mongers:

“We want Wikipedia to know — or at least have available — what the world’s great libraries know. We want Google Books to be that smart. We want Amazon to be that expert. We want books to be as easy to find and reference as a Wikipedia page, a Google map, or an IMDB cast list. We want everyone to know how to link to all the different types of items in libraries so that all those references and conversations can be found, learned from, and elaborated on going forward.”

I think there is reason enough to be concerned about the future of libraries, but not to the extent that Weinberger illustrates. I think I side more with the argument made by Goodman — the focus needs to change, and fortunately many libraries are making this easy transition:

“We make sure our shelves are full of items patrons want and need. The surroundings are designed to be home-like with fireplaces, couches, power outlets, lamps, and meeting rooms. Across the country, libraries are thus transforming themselves from book warehouses to places where people want to come and hang out.”

My local public library did exactly this. Always being a popular spot — especially for teens and children — when they remodeled they built a teen cafe, expanded their children’s department and installed a fireplace and more study nooks for adults. Keeping their community in mind, they successfully kept themselves integrated in their patron’s lives.

No longer can public libraries get away with directing their attention only at the intellectually elite. More often than not, it is the exact opposite of the type of person who uses the library most often. It is families, children, single parents, students or the elderly who find true value in the unique services offered by their library. The future of libraries relies on keeping those patrons happy.

What does this have to do with Back to the Future? Not a whole lot. Unless you think about how easy it was for Marty to change the future of his parents. It doesn’t take a lot to promote change, and I think that if libraries continue to try and forward their thinking, the chance of growing obsolete lessens.


Goodman, Amanda L. “Libraries: A Canvas for Creating Meaningful User Experience.” UX Magazine. 6 May 2013. Web. 16 Oct 2015.

Weinberger, David. “Let the Future Go.” The Digital Shift. LibraryJournal. 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

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