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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thinking Out Loud: The Library of the Future

On a Saturday afternoon most libraries are buzzing with activity. Children are exploring their areas and favorite books. Computers are constantly on and the printers are just as busy. Adults casually browse books or movies for something to with the family or for quite time. The scene as it is played out here is similar in every public library. It's a very nice scene but a nagging question keeps turning up like a bad penny, What happens when everything goes digital? Will citizens want or need to go to a library? To put it bluntly, how will the library survive? This is by no means a gloom and doom post. It is merely observing the changes that have come about in the past ten years, taking note at the technology of today and predicting what may become a reality ten years from now. For example, the iPod gave music lovers the ability to carry all their favorite tunes with them everywhere they went. The demise of audio cd was close at hand. Are they still used today? Absolutely, but iTunes has made purchasing and downloading painless. How long will physical audio CD be around? Hard to say but it would be a guess that it won't be much longer before children today will be telling their kids what a CD looked like and how it was used. Another example that pops to mind is the GPS systems that help drivers navigate their way through unfamiliar areas. Again, a tool that has made life simpler but has not destroyed all print formats of maps. At least not yet. Books too have become questionable in the next several years. Frankly, it is hard to believe that e-readers and tablets have made it at least conceivable that printed books are on the way out. So again the question remains how will the library survive? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to think about the needs of the typical public library patron. They need and want information as quickly as possible. Entertainment, whether it is reading, viewing or listening, is also important. They like to be self-reliant in retrieving their information yet on certain occasions when they've hit the proverbial brick wall, they seek the advice of a library professional. Put all of this together and it becomes a very interesting future indeed. Indulge these questions for just a moment: !. Will the "physical" library card be needed in or will it be a digital card? 2. When will publishers stop printing books switching totally to digital form? 3. When the majority of the library's collection is digital, will patrons still need or desire hard copy editions of books? 4. More importantly than questions one to three: Will patrons still come to library for their information or entertainment needs? These questions are quite loaded to be sure, However, they are important to explore. Taking on the library card issue, there will always be a need to issue a identification number for each patron in order to give them access to the library's resources The question here is whether the library card will be an e-reader encoded with the library's information and GPS given to patrons to use to download materials they desire. First reaction is that e-readers/tablets are very expensive. Yes, they are now but in five to ten years there could an economical e-reader produced just for the libraries purpose to buy in bulk and provide them to their patrons. Especially those who do not have the means of purchasing their own e-reader. Books are still be printed today obviously, but go to any bookstore and check out their inventory on display. Just as with the library, there is a mix array of books in the traditional forms, e-readers and the accessories that go with it, games, toys, and stationary products. The book areas are getting smaller due to the fact that technology is claiming more space. This is especially true in the libraries. At the moment the collection development budgets of most libraries are split down the middle to pay for databases, subscription to services like Overdrive, and printed books. It won't be long before the printed book budgets will be smaller due to the lack of printed books to buy. This lumps in to what the patrons will desire. Sales of e-readers are increasing, not decreasing. Sales of printed books, are not on a decline at the moment but as more readers get comfortable reading digital books, will they still want the printed. Think of the die hard vinyl record fans. There are those who claim they would never go to a CD, the music didn't sound the same. That's true, it didn't sound the same, it was better. Once audio CD were accepted, the rest is history. There will be those who will cling to the pages and hardcover books, and to be sure there are plenty of them out there. (Myself included) As time rolls on, even the diehard fans of books will be looking at e-readers as an acceptable evolution of the written word. If everything becomes digital, it may be a harder sell to get patrons into the door. This is where library programming will have to become the top service they provide. Storytime, book clubs, discussion groups and other programming will be the only reason why the community will come together at the library. In essence, the library will become a social gathering place. However, that is not as bad as it may seem. Books and stories have always had the ability to bring people together and libraries will always be the conduit for authors to get their message out. No doubt that the staffing of libraries will be greatly effected by the change. This is not the time to fret over what's the come. This is the time to plan to make the future what librarians' envision it to be in order to serve future patrons. If the profession as a whole ignores the planning process, and goes along with the flow then surely the libraries will fall into the pages of history as a really wonderful place that use to be there for everyone. For the librarians, who are not afraid of what the future holds, than this is the time to plan. Whether you are in a position of leadership or not, the moment is ours to carve out the future and make it a good one. Think of it this way, future library lovers are depending on this generation of librarians to bravely go where no librarian has gone before. The devoted library patrons deserve no less than the very best planning now for the future.
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