Frail, Fatal, Fundamental: The Future of Public Libraries

By Norman, Mark | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Frail, Fatal, Fundamental: The Future of Public Libraries


Norman, Mark, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


Public libraries will survive and thrive by recognising their changing role. With the digital world of content, the role is shifting to that of content aggregators, access managers, and educators in digital literacy. Often pc skills workshops are filled with the same people who demonstrate digital dexterity in the knitting and quilting groups, but lack a new kind of digital dexterity in making a mouse or touch pad do what they want it to do. The questions public libraries have challenging them are 'what will be the future mix between digital and physical access to content and services', 'what service model will we adopt or adapt', and who has the skills to teach in the digital environment'? This paper is based on a presentation made to the city of Sydney's library staff development day 13 March 2012.

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A few months ago I was at a meeting where a futurist was projecting the future of public libraries. He had interesting things to say but, upon reflection, was not suggesting anything wildly shocking or thought provoking about libraries--basically he was saying people crave knowledge and a sense of belonging to a community, so the future of libraries is sound and a physical building should reflect those very human desires. Those of us who work in libraryland already know this.

Having thought about the futurist I decided that when I come back in another life, I want to be either a futurist, or a meteorologist, because people seem very forgiving if what you say does not happen when you said it would, or does not happen at all. Imagine if you do not deliver on your annual workplan's KPIs and agreed targets. For example 'deliver accurate and timely forecasts that will guide the strategic direction of the organisation to ensure its viability through meeting the expectations of the community'. At your performance review, you say 'Sorry boss, I got it wrong'. And your manager says 'Don't worry about it. Hey, what do you think we should do next?'

Views on the future of public libraries

So, to the future of public libraries--we could spend days talking about this and be none the wiser. In research for this paper, here is what I found from futurists and library futurists--those who specialise in the future of libraries.

Jessica Reader says that

Libraries are a place for social transformation.

   They're a place that you can go to get computer
   access, or access to technology that you can't get
   anywhere else, and access to people. I think one
   of our greatest resources in a library are the
   librarians. They're able to help people track
   things down and make connections, and really
   bring the skills of a community together in one
   place. (1)

Phillip Torrone offers a series of suggestions at http://blog.makezine.com/2011/03/10/is-it-time -to-rebuild-retool-public-libraries-and-make-techshops/about what libraries could become to stay relevant in the digital era. Instead of providing access to books, Torrone envisions a place where people will be able to go to engage in the making, creation or invention of things.

He sees TechShops, (2) Hackerspaces (3) and FabLabs (4) as contenders for what the library could be. Rather than provide access to data everyone already has through the internet, he believes these new spaces should give more hands on opportunities to access technology that is expensive and out of reach. These spaces would include devices such as 3D printers, laser cutters and Cad stations. They would provide unfettered access to hacking, robotics, fabrication--providing public spaces for people to learn about these field. (5)

New York city may be the utopia Torrone thinks he is living in (98% of NY city's population has broadband access) but the reality is that only 46% of NY city's population subscribe to high speed internet connection. In the Rockdale local government area, (6) 46% of the population either have no internet connection (27.

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