Thursday, May 19, 2011

what is a library[an]

I think we can all agree on what a library was, and we may even be able to agree on what a library is. I think the trickier question is: What is a library going to be in the future?

Image: GlobalWeb snagged w/o permission from

This question goes beyond the bricks-and-mortar buildings, that have traditionally housed what we consider to be the modern library, to include other questions like: What forms will knowledge media take, and how will we access those media? Will some, or all of our research and learning be done remotely, or will there still be a place for a library, that is still an actual place? And as knowledge media becomes more complex, interconnected, and diverse, how will librarians provide their much needed services to help us navigate?

According to Jedi Master and Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives, Jocasta Nu "If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!" Not exactly the answer Obi Wan was hoping to hear, and I'm sure librarians the world over, gnashed their teeth, and rent their garments as one, when they heard it. But another thing that scene tells us: George Lucas, for one, believes that there will be a 'place' called library in the future, where librarians work to help people navigate the vast amount of data they will eventually help to catalog, organize, and annotate. We are going to need professional help.

When I'm looking for information, my first and quickest route is now online, but in all the Google searches I've done, I have ended up with results from inside a library's collection only a few times, and that's probably because I'm occasionally searching for things like old books. I bet there are some who never get information from a library's collection returned in a Google search. That information is searchable, but only if you go to, or log into the library.

In a blog entry, three days ago, Seth Grodin posits: "the library ought to be the local nerve center for information... The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian..." I like that. The Next Library.

And yet, just three days earlier, LA Times reporter ALIA Information Online ConferenceInfoventurer (real name: ehmmm...?) got some great answers to some of these questions. According to these librarians, the new librarian: needs to meet users where they are, connect people with information or other members of their community, act as facilitators and guides to the new media, and be what their users want them to be.

This was echoed in their descriptions of the new library (or Next Library, shhh). They see the library as still a physical space, complimented by online space, a place of connections; between people and information, and between people and community, a community gathering space, and a social, cultural and learning hub, where people can find information, or create their own information.

This last thought is an exciting one. Libraries have always been used for research to support studies and the development of new ideas, but more and more, they are becoming places where the actual creation of new information and media happens. From writing, to video production, to web pages and image editing, all with help and instruction at the library.

So what will the library of the future be? Sounds like it will be, what we want it to be. According to Herbert Samuel, "A library is thought in cold storage." In the digital age, this may be an even more fitting description, but if "Your library is your portrait", as Holbrook Jackson said, we should be careful to insure that our library doesn't become a portrait of closed-mindedness and lack of foresight.

We need to make our libraries as we want them, because no one will do it for us. And if we let them try, they may just unmake them altogether.

* - For thoughts on whether or not robotic librarians of the future will fall in love and get married, click here.


  1. 'Just visited the Mansueto Library this weekend. My son just graduated from the university. What a great building. 'Lots of light! and yes, a robotic arm does get the book for you ( books are stored by size, not call number). However, there were librarians at the circulation and reference desks.
    I have a whole new outlook on architecture, as we had the pleasure of taking a historical architectural cruise down the 3 branches of the Chicago River.
    Great reflection, Phil! And I like your book recommendation also.

    Sue Crowther

  2. Thanks Sue! I'm glad you stopped by. Sounds like you had a great time in Chicago.

    I wonder what the long-term costs for care and upkeep are for the robotic cranes that help the librarians at Mansueto.


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