Library 2040: Imaginings From a Proto-Librarian.


I decided to sit down and write this essay in response to reading Library 2020 — a collection of essays written by luminaries in the field, who were chosen by the text’s editor, Joe Janes, to share their vision for the future of libraries, academic and public alike. Some of the essays were rather invigorating. Others, dark, drab, even discouraging (actually, yes, discouraging). I couldn’t have read the text at a better time, as my own library — a not-so-small academic library in Southwest Washington — experiences its own identity crisis, with myself, the junior member of the team, poised to learn, grow and shape its future identity.

Libraries & I

My mother took me on a weekly basis to some rather sprawling public libraries when I was a small boy growing up in suburban Connecticut. When my family relocated to a rural county in Virginia, it just so happened we relocated to a county with a locally acclaimed public library. Instead of a sprawling, urbanesque temple of knowledge, I then had a more stoic, reserved, but nonetheless, exciting temple to roam. By the time I was a teenager, the Internet had begun to take shape into the entity we know it to be today, and personal computers became fairly ubiquitous. I was fortunate enough to be a teenager with a computer all to myself, locked with me in my room, with an ever unfurling web of information to explore at my leisure. Growing up in a disconnected community, it was a powerful connection to a world I was otherwise missing.

As a young adult, for a while, I was fervent about becoming a K12 educator. In college, I quickly learned that was not going to become a reality. However, by happenstance, I spent most of my undergraduate career working in an academic library, and soon learned that I had something to contribute to education after all — as an information sherpa — someone to help you find, evaluate and turn information into knowledge. What could be better?

I left that library, though, and was seduced away by other opportunities in the higher education community. Since then I’ve had a fascinating career, serving the aerospace community, conservationists, brand designers, trade publications, LGBTQ activists, and on and on. Nowadays, as it happens, with my twenties coming to a close, I find myself back in an academic library. This time it’s hardly a happenstance, but more a stroke of good fortune. I’m not at all surprised to be back in the field. It’s probably exactly where I should be.

And now here are some thoughts on what the future of such places might look like:

The Role of the Academic Library & Librarians

I often hear professionals reduce the role of an academic library into a few simple (and, I think, ambiguous) words: “to support instruction.” In 2040 this will remain true. Libraries will remain critical third spaces on campus for both collaboration and quiet retreat. Libraries with physical identities will still provide an array of services to support their respective institution’s programs. From media labs, to makerspaces, to coding collectives, to video game labs, and onward and upward. What will have evolved between now and then is instruction. Things we consider to be emerging trends today, like flipped and/or active classrooms, will not only have found their prominence in higher education, but evolved by 2040. Passive students will be few and far between. Constructivist pedagogies with real world problem solving embedded into curricula will be the everyday, not the domain of progressive instructors. Students will also have a plethora of new information to interact with, too. As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more of a reality and our devices talk to one another, quantify and maybe even qualitatively assess our lives, all kinds of new information will come available. The same technologies will enable anyone from a middle-income private citizen, to a small business, to a tier 1 research university to afford an array of sensors to monitor and/or measure anything under the Sun they choose: from the structural health of bridges, to sea-level changes, to algal blooms in a local lake, to the blood pressure of 100 test subjects. This will spur an increase in real-time, raw data which will be employed in the classroom — even collected specifically for instruction. I suspect for larger institutions, by 2040, may even be launching their own network of small satellites as both that technology and the commercial space economy comes out of its current infancy. This will allow for even more information to be collected, curated and analyzed on campus, by researchers and students alike.

Because of advances like this, and because of the sheer volume of information available, by 2040 the current emerging trend of employing “databrarians” will have boomed. Data services, as led by the library, will be a standard at many universities and ably-funded colleges. At the core of their mission these databrarians will be supporting . . . instruction. By providing the full array of what call “data services” for their institution’s researchers, they will be facilitating a process (research projects) that ultimately create learning tools/information for students. Some of them will also work directly with students, whether those students are involved with research projects or not, to teach them about why data has to be collected and measured in accordance with certain standards and reported to certain institutional bodies. In doing so, they’ll be teaching the next generation of scholars about the different apparati that exist in research environments and how their work will contribute to a growing global body of knowledge.

For the same reason, instructional librarians will continue to have their hands full. If my generation of librarians (those in MLIS programs now) are mindful of emerging trends, we will take advantage of an opportunity to increase our scope of expertise and utility, by broadening the scope of information literacy. The coming technological world (which will have arrived well before 2040) will have entirely new privacy issues. People will have new, deeper, more difficult concerns about privacy and personal data. We should be available to discuss, instruct and provide guidance short of actual legal counsel.

In 2040 there will no longer be a divide between digital natives and digital immigrants. Gone will also be the assumption that students are savvy about what they do online, about things like digital privacy, etc. We will make a universal (across curriculum) effort to educate students about the digital landscape, and the various invisible (coded) tools that exist to collect their information as they browse the web. We’ll teach all students about the algorithms that impact their life.

The global scholarly ecosystem will be far more developed than it is today. The current matters of communication ettiquette, copyright, the relationship between publisher and scholar, even matters of information rights in individual countries will all be magnified by 2040. Scholarly communication librarians will need to be prepared for this and available to support instruction by helping to raise students to become productive members of that ecosystem.

Even if all of that doesn’t happen, it’s my hope that, at the very least, by 2040 we move largely away from “one-off” information literacy instruction. Any academic institute, regardless of its size or fiscal prowess, should utilize librarians by having them spend more time working alongside instructors to embed information literacy into existing curriculums. It is my hope that by embedding information literacy, and librarians, into curriculum, that we can reduce “library anxiety,” or what I think is a broader “information anxiety” in general.

Information literacy itself will continue to expand and deepen in various ways that I cannot predict. Bodies like the ACRL will still exist and as a community we will still develop “frameworks” for instruction.

Just like today, there will be librarians who specialize in instruction and those who are technology-oriented (emerging tech, systems librarians). In 2040, the subsets of those groups will have evolved. Some instructional librarians will specialize in teaching at the community college level (on a broad and tempered scope), others will focus on privacy, others on data and data visualization, some will discuss scholarly communication more broadly, preparing students for future carers in research, and more. The majority of instructional librarians will also specialize in instructional technology and shape professional development in that area, and possibly help facilitate distance education programs.

The same goes for librarians focused on technology. Some will focus on mobile applications, which I expect will be almost exclusively how persons engage the web. Others on databases. Some, data mining. Others on how to integrate social media (which I suspect will exist and be even more vibrant) into library systems.

Open educational resources (OER) will have become largely prominent (as well open education). So much so that paying for textbooks will be a rare exception, reserved for highly specialized content in emerging areas. There will be instructional librarians who dedicate huge swaths of their career to helping faculty develop OER.

I imagine in 2040, “technical services” will be quite different too. Advanced ILS systems may make general cataloging incredibly fast. This will leave catalogers to work primarily with original content, produced at their institution of employment. Circulation will largely be autonomous as well. I suspect library cards will have largely given way as colleges and universities streamline the systems and physical objects used to indicate who is a student and who is not. Physical processing will most likely be something that the odd archivist does. Most print publications will be printed on demand and instantly bound by the latest standard office printer.

This will all make room for the library to employ technology savvy persons, who will constantly create new applications and web-based tools for students to utilize. There will be communication savvy persons, whose entire focus will be to facilitate the sharing of ideas between all of the various communities of persons on campus (and in the wider university community).

Speaking of sharing ideas . . .

Social. . . physics

Librarians in the future will be keenly aware of concepts like “social physics,” as described by MIT’s Alex Pentland. While they may not be performing the sort of “big data” experiments he and his students in MIT’s Media Lab are doing. The core of social physics will be at the heart of the library’s mission: to facilitate the sharing of ideas between persons of all backgrounds and thought; to provide environments, digital and physical, where information and ideas are readily exchanged.

Doesn’t this already happen? Isn’t that what the library is all about? Open access. Idea sharing. Intellectual curiosity?

Yes.

But, l like to think in the future we might try to track how ideas spread on campus, so as to improve its facilitation (and stay aware of how students are interacting with information/ideas).

Library As Space

The thing about life in 2040 is that reality will still be . . . reality. Funding ebbs and flows. Populations shift. The fortune of nations fluctuate. I do believe that we are moving out of the industrial era into the knowledge era, where/when the ability to turn information into knowledge will be more important than ever. Thus, academic libraries will remain. They could very well just look quite a bit different.

For community and technical colleges, particularly those with less than 5,000 full-time-enrolled (FTE) students, and a considerable distance education population, the library as a space may no longer exist. The library as a service will continue.

At such institutions, budgets may collapse and where there was once funding for physical items and digital resources, there may only be funds for the digital. As the world’s digital assets increase this will make sense. Remaining relevant physical items may be stored on campus and available upon request. By not funding a building (assuming the institution has created other commons spaces for gathering and collaboration, as well as other computer labs in academic buildings), an institution may choose to then increase library staff, arming them with what, in 2040, will surely be ultra thin slabs of sapphire crystal with more computing power than the current Mac Pro. Librarians will retain office spaces, but be embedded in academic buildings, making them more readily available durings a student’s day. They will, of course, continue to work with instructors to deliver information literacy instruction. Research assistants and tech support staff may find themselves roaming campus solving queries by appointment, or by instant, GPS-enabled, support requests made via the web or a mobile app (I’m including wearable tech in this). Support staff will still belong to “the library,” which will exist at this point as an overarching collection of people, scattered physical resources, and digital resources that are connected all over campus, rather than centrally located. It will be a sort of library on demand, where staff comes to you, wherever you are. . . on campus.

At tier 1 universities, libraries will be. . . amazing. Imagine something along the lines of the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University, and add more features. Institutions that can not only afford to sustain physical spaces, but make sure they thrive, will fund makerspaces to support engineering, science and health curriculums. They’ll fund coding labs where students will not only find machines dedicated for them to spend time experiementing with code, but also staff (and pre-programmed instructional modules) to help them along the way (not to mention circuit boards, little robots, and who knows what else, that they can program). They’ll have media labs, gaming labs, and virtual reality labs, with all the accoutrements for students to design, experiement and produce works of art.

Why house all of this in the library and not in respective academic departments? Because, the library will be the space where students experiment freely, across curricula. So the future poet laureate can learn how to code, and the next breakout aerospace engineer can learn how to make a documentary about their work — outside of established curriculum.

Earlier I discussed the idea that such universities will have their own networks of embedded sensors or even small satellites (micro and nano sats, too!). They will also have access to other networks of such devices, including networks provided by other institutions, government and various other entities across the globe. I imagine data labs where this information streams before students eyes on large, 12K (the future cousin of the modern 4K) screens. Students in the lab will pull out their sapphire slices of computing genius and upload data to analyze for assignments. They’ll review the data together and make observations, share thoughts, questions, ideas and work through all of those things together. There will be staff on hand to help them with their work, or to talk about the technology that captures the data, and the programs that show it before them.

Raw data will be a primary source of scientific information and libraries will collect, organize and archive it for univeristies. Eventually vast records of real-time data will exist about our planet, behaviors, experiments and more.

Another scenario might exist as well. As universities open avenues to enrollment via MOOCs via delivery channels like edX, student bodies will be spread across the nation (or the world). I interpret this as a positive step toward empowering persons, no matter their situation in life, to grow and improve their circumstances. However, I still wholeheartedly believe that learning is still an intrinscially social endeavor. Active learning requires interaction and even though information communication technology has come a long way and will continue to evolve, in-person communication will never lose value. To facilitate this, I imagine institutions funding small outposts in large cities and strategic rural locations, where students can meet to collaborate. They’ll utilize high speed internet, advanced software, secure access to databases and access to information professionals (librarians) and support staff. These outposts will be where it’s convenient. In office buildings, in towers, next to Starbucks . . . maybe even partnered with Starbucks.

Caveats

We really may come to a point in time where we have more information than we know what to do with. This is why while we (I, especially) get excited about emerging technologies and new positions like “databrarian,” we must remember the importance of the “instructional librarian.”

Those who learn how to turn information into knowledge will be the best equipped, most adaptable, successful persons in 2040. The librarians who can facilitate that skill will be in high demand.

It is 100% impossible for me to predict how the relationship between academic libraries and publishers will evolve. Not only because I am not clairvoyant, but because that is a part of libraryland my professional life has not come directly into contact with (yet).

Libraries must remain concerned with open accesss. I tend to be a bit of an optimist. I’m writing this with the hope that in 2040, powerful personal computing and internet connections are inexpensive (and that the average person has more access to wealth than they do today). This may very well not be the case. If it isn’t, libraries must remember that “trickle down techonomics” doesn’t work. Thus, libraries must continue to create avenues for all students to access technology and resources. At large univeristies that will happen much like it does today, by investing in space and infrastructure. At small community college with roaming support staff and no physical space, this will translate to loaning devices that enable Internet connections in the few remote spaces that will be left in the world (if hot air balloons from Google, or drones from Facebook haven’t solved that problem).

My Limitations

My perspectives are limited by my age and experience. I am under 30, only recently admitted to an MLIS program, and with less than five years of experience in small, community college libraries.

Things I am sure of:

There is no one size fits all outcome for academic libraries. They will all be unique. As they should be. Libraries are meant to serve specific communities, and although there will be many commonalities across libraries, they will all have their individual nuances, limitations, achievements, and exceptions.

Interoperability and an open mind are essential. I’m entering this field at a time when many librarians feel they are in danger of losing their identity. At the very same time, some librarians/libraries are finding their voice and turning things on their head.

Whether you work in a library, or another part of academia, or anywhere else. . . digging your heels into the ground and clinging to your ideas of tradition and reality will make you obsolete. It ruins your reputation and damages your field’s reputation. It’s a grave error.

Learning how to keep an eye on the future, while your feet are planted in the present, all while being mindful of the past, is . . . uncomfortable. But, a good mindset to strive for.

In the end, I feel my vision for the future is incredibly tame. Amazing things, in their individual circumstances, are going to happen. The majority of the planet will be online in 2040 and the exchange of information over the web will occur in measurements of data I don’t care to think about. The ability to reach new minds, wherever they are on the planet, will be exponential. I imagine some librarians may spend all of their time delivering instruction and assistance online. Some may even belong to organizations that have them traveling country to country to aid different institutions. Who is to say what the future will hold?

Not I.