The library of the future

The Future Next Exit.

Image by Flickr user Buck

The other day I had a conversation with some fellow librarians about the future of public libraries. I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since then, so I thought I’d share my ideas here and ask readers to do the same in the comments. This post describes my ideal future library; I don’t predict all of these things will happen in libraries, but I think it would be awesome if they did.

First and foremost, the public library of the future is driven by the community. Libraries exist and will continue to exist as a community forum, a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to gather and exchange ideas. This can take the form of book discussions, town hall meetings, or just casual conversations. People will come to the library of the future to explore topics of interest to them, discover new interests, and learn new skills.

I realize that description is pretty vague, so I’ll break this down with some more detail.

Spaces:
The library of the future has a variety of flexible spaces for different uses. There are quiet areas for individual research; comfortable reading and café areas that accommodate different volumes of conversation; and group study rooms equipped with dry erase boards, projectors, and other equipment to facilitate collaborative projects. There are designated computers for gaming/pleasure and for research/business in separate areas, so the groups of Minecrafters or League of Legends players (or their future equivalents) working together don’t disturb the woman applying for a new job or the student writing his thesis. All of the furniture is easily movable to allow for a variety of arrangements and uses.

I think the library of the future will also be equipped to facilitate some kind of making or creation, though what that looks like will vary depending on the community. If there’s a big film festival in the area, perhaps the library will have a video recording studio or video editing software on some of its computers. If the city hosts a music festival, maybe there will be a sound recording studio and software to edit audio recordings. If there is interest in coding or robotics, maybe there will be a robotics lab with Arduino boards (or their future equivalents) and equipment that allows creators to experiment with building and programming interactive electronics. Whatever type of creation the community engages in, there will be experts on hand to help creators of all skill levels use the software and equipment. The makerspace will be a collaborative learning environment in which people are comfortable trying new things and patrons and librarians learn from each other as they work to improve their skills.

Collections:
Yes, the library of the future has plenty of eBooks, digital audiobooks and magazines, streaming videos and music, and research databases. But it also has a robust collection of print materials, especially in the fiction section. In an ideal, perfect world, everyone would have mobile devices and Internet access at home; but my ideal library of the future will still accommodate the less-than-ideal reality that people’s circumstances and situations vary. Also, there are many readers today who prefer print, and I don’t see that changing in the future.

The fiction collection has new and popular books, as well as classics and older works that still circulate often. These are presented in appealing displays on easily browsable shelves. Though I have mixed feelings about genre shelving, I think the ideal library of the future will be arranged this way. While some books may be hard to classify by genre (a book like Patrick Lee’s Runner could fit with the thrillers and the science fiction), and arranging fiction alphabetically by the author’s last name could lead the occasional browser to discover a new favorite book, I think readers will prefer the convenience of genre shelving. This still allows readers to browse within the genre they’re interested in, and if they’re looking for books outside their usual reading habits, they probably won’t choose to start browsing a random shelf in the library anyway. They’ll go to a friend or a librarian or an online recommendation service like NoveList or Goodreads to discover their next great read.

Print nonfiction has more of a place in future academic libraries than in the public library of the future. Most people conduct their research online using the public library’s databases, which are arranged by topic on the library’s website. The library does carry some print nonfiction, but this is limited to current/timely topics and books by popular authors like Erik Larson and Steve Sheinkin (or their future equivalents). As with everything else, the nonfiction collection is driven by the community, so if there is a lot of interest in true crime or books on race relations, these collections will be more robust.

The library of the future also has a local history collection that allows both residents and visitors to explore the community’s past. These materials are in a separate part of the library designed for more in-depth research. Note, the library may not need this collection if there is a local historical society that collects these materials.

Finally, the library may also circulate other materials, such as mobile devices, gardening tools, or cookware, based on the needs and interests of the community.

Programs:
Like libraries of the present, the library of the future offers a variety of educational and recreational programs that allow community members to explore their interests, discover new ones, and make meaningful connections with one another. There are workshops, classes, discussions, and activities for all ages that foster and promote all types of literacy — information literacy, digital literacy, and traditional literacy (the ability to read, write, and understand a piece of writing). Community needs and interests guide the topics of these programs.

So, that’s what my ideal library of the future looks like. What about yours? I’m especially curious to hear what those of you who aren’t librarians see as the future of libraries.

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