In a recent talk on a conference about the future of public and university library one speaker explained what the role of libraries is. At first, he recognized, that with the Internet the libraries are different and then he explains, that in the future the libraries will become maker spaces, in which beginners can try out robotics hardware, 3d printing and get access to the internet. That vision get a lot of applause and the talk was celebrated as an important contribution.
Before I can explain the future role of libraries it is important to take a look back into the golden years of libraries. That was a surprising long period, from the invention of the first books until around the 1990s, in which the CD-ROM was invented. Over all the years, the library has fulfilled lots of tasks: it gives access to education for broader audience who were not able to buy books, it gave scientists a huge amount of academic literature and the library was a public space for meeting each other. If the internet were never invented, the library would have all these roles until today. But in mid 1990’s the well known Tim-Berners Lee has invented something which was better then the printed book: the World Wide Web. At first, the Internet wasn’t a threat for the library because a dial-up telephone line was very expensive and the connection speed was to slow to transfer fulltext books. But around the year 2000 the situation changed dramatically. Overnight some improvements to the original internet were available, for example search engines, flatrate internet access providers and affordable microcomputers and smartphones.
Now it is time to go back to the statement from the introduction about the future role of libraries. Their role is very clear: they will disappear. The idea of converting old school libraries into modern hackerspaces won’t work, and the hope that printed books will have a future is also an illusion. Both is a vision which is present in the todays debate, if this debate is held by the libraries itself. As far as i know, on the conference about the future of libraries no real stakeholders how is important was invited, for example AT&T, Apple, Google or Microsoft. These companies will decide (in the name of their customers) what future education will look like, and what valuable content is. The customers of AT&T for example will decide if a 100 mbit fiberconnection is sufficient, or if 1 gbit is a must have. The customers of Google will decide which information has to be on top and the customers of Microsoft will decide, if they need a Linux subsystem or not. None of these companies is involved in the library business or earns money by borrowing books. And perhaps, they have forgotten what a library was. And they are right, if somebody has tried out the fulltext search of Google for searching inside a book he will lost all the faith in a traditional librarian who has to ask personally.
Education and information of the future will need manual work, like in the library before. Bits & Bytes are not able to travel without costs to the enduser. There is somebody in the chain who selects informations, provides a space and builds up the infrastructure. The prediction is, that future media will need more of manual labor then the systems from the past. But, the work will be organized around the classical library. For example, if AT&T want’s to provide super-fast internet connection in every home, the company will need construction workers and an excavator. If Microsoft want’s to program better operating system they will need also stuff who is well skilled. They new think is, that no libraries are needed in the future. That means, people who have learned to sort books into a shelf and are able to advise the younger generation which books they should read.
Or to make the point clear. It is not possible that apart from internet economy there will be a need for an institution who is able to collect, store and sort media. Everything what isn’t managed by the internet itself, isn’t there. Today’s libraries no longer provide a service, they are only a customer for a service. Todays libraries pay a lot of money for getting internet access, getting computer hardware, computer software and so on. The problem is, that according to the definition a company or an institution is at first a system which provides a service. What can a library provide? Right, they have lost everything what they had in the past. The ingredients for future education, media and information are owned by Apple, Google and Microsoft. Or to be more specific, the customers of these companies own the information.
The only way to compete with these companies is to make them obsolete. For example a better search engine then Google would be an answer, a better operating system then WIndows 10 or a better internet connection then AT&T has to offer. The problem is, that the libraries are not interested in become one of the Google replacements. They belief that Internet will disappear itself or that the public will change their mindset. How realistic is this outcome? Right, not very realistic, and that’s the reason why the story told by the libraries is broken. They explain something to the audience, but it makes no sense.