AR — The Library of Today is Not the Library of Tomorrow

Augmented Reality (AR) seems to be the perfect solution from training employees to trying on clothes to helping surgeons train without the risk of injuring a patient. Its scope reaches from the child with autism who you can now be immersed in a calming environment wherever you are along with video games on the go.

If you think this is all hype, think again. Companies such as Apple are already releasing new integrated technology in their phones and other devices to make the transition from reality to augmented reality fluid. But once this transition happens and I assure you it will, how will we define reality?

The expansive nature of this question presses me to firmly believe a massive cultural shift is coming. Bigger than Facebook. Bigger than Instagram. The coming transformation will have impacts as great as the printing press. It will redefine social conventions, how we learn, shrink cultural gaps, as well as disrupt the ecosystem as we know it. As each of these are their own topics of discourse, I want to focus on how AR will lead to the disintegration of libraries as we know it and printed books.

Before we begin, let’s augment reality to time travel back to the libraries of Cleopatra. We start here to visit the Library of Alexandria.

The Library of Alexandria was created nearly 2000 years ago and housed mainly scrolls. The scrolls housed many forms of typography. Typography was an art form with a simple medium. There were no fancy computers or tools. There were only your hands and ink — an art form that remains powerful today.

Moreover, the library “was a place of study which included lecture areas, gardens, a zoo, and shrines for each of the nine muses as well as the Library itself. It has been estimated that at one time the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations. Over 100 scholars lived at the Museum full time to perform research, write, lecture or translate and copy documents. The library was so large it actually had another branch or “daughter” library at the Temple of Serapis.”

As one of the world’s greatest archive of knowledge, historians are still baffled by its demise. Many historians blame Julius Caesar for its destruction. He was believed to set fire to the library. The Library of Alexandria had nothing left to say but, “Et tu, Caesar?”

Burning of Alexandria

Moving forward to the 1440s using your AR system, we can virtually see Johannes Gutenberg. He was labeled as a goldsmith by profession, but I view him as the human who brought forth the turning point for typography. Now a machine could do what your hand did. Now, the world was changed.

I see you hovering. Just click it.

Fast forward and in front of you, you will see the projection of the early 18th century where Sir Richard Arkwright of England invented the spinning wheel. He used hydroelectric power and fore-fronted the Industrial Revolution by reimagining the way we worked and produced. He eliminated massive time-consuming steps in lengthy and arduous processes to change the fabric of our existence.

After all of these revolutionary pieces, it is no wonder that new and emerging technologies are making printed books less than the ideal form for consuming materials. Books are heavy and renting a book from a public library can make you feel like a germaphobe. On the other hand, there is something so calming for me about opening the pages of a book, holding something concrete in my hand, and having a shared book experience with another human.

But, the library and the printed book are dying. In fact, they are on life support. Pew recently released statistics on the demise: “the decline in library use is driven by technological change, so the report implicitly recommends that more libraries publicize their non-print services. Ninety percent of U.S. local libraries offer ebook lending, for instance, but 38 percent of Americans either don’t know or don’t think that their local branch does so.”

But, now the library will be disrupted again by another technology: AR. It can pages from a book in front of you. With advancing technologies, AR’s projection will soon be masterful rather than splinter with the current reality. What efforts can the library take to get itself off of life support, especially with consideration to the upcoming disruptors?

One blogger postulated that the way to save the library is to have them revamp the printed book. The library would somehow imbue its with the smells and nuisances of the printed book. However, this would be taking a step backwards. The printed book is dead but its offspring live.

The library has had several offspring including but not limited to audiobooks, Kindle books, ebooks, movies, and theatre.

Audiobooks are a great tool for easy and vernacular reads, but as I discovered recently, dense books such as Dante’s Inferno do not lend themselves to listening to while driving or distracted while walking. Thus, these books and others would need to remain printed or augmented.

Kindle books and ebooks were proposed to make a grand entrance into the homes of every reader, but the research failed to notice the harshness laptops and browsers have on the eyes. People simply did not want to stare at a screen. I think we will see the hype take effect in the next three years. You can make notes on the pages of ebooks (erase and rewrite them), search your pages, and highlight. An ebook can also be more interactive and help a child learn more quickly than a printed book. Some ebooks also provide feedback. For a child struggling to read, a well-done book with feedback could be the key to his/her learning.

AR can solve these problems presented with the ebook and enhance solutions to them.

By projecting the words onto reality, the eyes would not have to adjust. The light would be natural rather than blaring.

Moreover, this technology is already in place in a less advanced version — subtitles. Constantly in crowded bars, airports, and foreign countries, we sit through shows and movies while reading visuals on a screen. The movement of others does not appear to distract the user from the subtitle experience. This leads me to believe the visually projected cues will not have to overcome the obstacles ebooks have.

The library has to not only compete with ebooks and Kindles but also has had to compete with the growing awareness towards learning styles. As the Huffington Post points out, “Learning doesn’t necessarily mean reading books anymore, however. Educational courses, talks and videos are all methods that appeal to a variety of learning types, and reading is only one way to to acquire new knowledge or a new skill. A kinesthetic learner may benefit from a performance, an auditory learner from a talk, a visual learner from a film or book.” Thus, a book needs to be more than a book to most. It comes alive the Augmented Reality, but AR is a double-edged sword as it could be the savior as well the devastator to the library.

If AR is the demise, the decline of the library will not be singular. It will cost jobs, livelihoods, and the disintegration of a community. In terms of jobs, BBC reports “Librarians are custodians to a world of information and ideas, performing an important democratic role, their supporters argue. But with 8,000 jobs in UK libraries disappearing in six years, is that status under threat?”

But all hope is not lost. Something magical can still happen in the libraries.

As John McTernan wrote in The Telegraph, “We can, and should, still love books, but we should not be sentimental about libraries, because they are a means to an end.” The library and its devotees refuse to believe this statement. They have found the ingredients for magic. It is now up to the library to take in these ingredients and make the magic happen.

Before we go on, let’s take one more augmented time travel to the Dark Ages. As this is augmented, you won’t need to worry about catching the plague. We are here to visit William Shakespeare and his audience.

Back then, Shakespeare’s audience was a gang of ruffians and drunks. The front row was the worst seat, not the best. As Shakespeare described his audience:

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious 
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to 
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who 
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise.
(Hamlet, 3.2)

(The groundlings are the audience members of the front row. They were extremely interactive and sometimes their display during the show was as entertaining as the show.)

Or even better yet, Shakespeare cites his audience as:

These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse,
and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but
the Tribulation of Tower-hill, or the Limbs of
Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.
(Henry VIII, 5.4.65–8)

Seeing as these were the original audience members, what stops AR from bringing theatre in the forefront of the library? On the street, AR lends itself to distractions well. If people then could enjoy it amongst a vagabond crew, why can’t we today?

Akin to the audience of Shakespeare, there is a budget deficit. AR can cost a nauseating amount, which gives the library an exceptional opportunity to take the audience of today to the front row regardless of their packcheck. The library would rent glasses to patrons and turn their main source of revenue to augmented books and theatre.

Every week, the library patrons could gather and rent AR glasses for the performance at the library. If there was a Shakespeare performance, the AR glasses would add footnotes to help you understand the old English. The glasses could also provide you with interesting information about Shakespeare and the references he alludes to. More often than not, these references recall a popular grievance of the Dark Ages that is lost to a 21st century audience. But no longer with the AR glasses.

Above you will see the reactions to the Globe’s latest release. Image these scenes combined with AR.

AR theatre also changes the capabilities of the human. In the above experience, the performers were limited to props and constrained to movement on wires. In converse to live theatre, television can illustrate a gruesome demise or an intense fight scene. In live theatre, the actors are limited to fake stab wounds with a fake knife that draws fake blood. With AR, that changes. The illustrator can now project a gory injury onto the belly of a live actor. Live theatre and television will amalgamate to enhance the viewer experience. Just don’t go watch Titus Andronicus to start.

The library could also use AR glasses in lieu of reading circles. There would be an oval, white room designed to maximize the AR experience. In these room(s), children and adults alike can dive into the deep with great white sharks or explore the Great Pyramid of Giza, depending on the day. The possibilities for learning at the library with AR are endless.

The pitfall to my scheme lies in budget. As a public sector, the library may not have the resources to pour money into buying augmented reality products. Additionally, AR programs would have to be created specifically for the library. Be as it may, I believe this a budget and resource allocation that should be taken to avoid the library’s demise.

If all libraries across the globe began to make the transition to augmented reality, the possibilities for success and learning are endless.

Imagine if all of the libraries across the globe showed the same immersive scenarios on the same day. It would help humans share learning experiences, cultural identities, and shrink the gap between different and alike.

In the end, I believe the destruction of the library of the 21st century as we know it is nigh. Therefore, what will it be: To accept AR or not to accept. That is the question.