Volume 27, Number 4, Winter 2005

The Future of Library Service

by Rose Nelson, Technology Consultant, Colorado State Library

This article is based on trends from the Top Technology Trends discussion at ALA Annual Conference 2005, the Emerging Technologies discussion forum on WebJunction, and a number of library technology related journals and websites to which I subscribe. As I began to research this article, I was quickly overwhelmed with the number of new technologies penetrating the library landscape. However, with more thought, I did notice some larger trends in technologies related to libraries:

  • information as a conversation,
  • the changing landscape of the Internet, and
  • an increase in remote access to library services.
I will further explore these trends throughout this article.

Information as a Conversation

“Information is becoming more of a conversation,” remarked Karen Schneider from The Librarian’s Index to the Internet at the ALA Annual Conference 2005. This trend is evidenced in the growing use of blogs and wikis. Librarians have used blogs, personal online journals, since 1998. Today there are hundreds of library-related blogs on a variety of topics ranging from technology to reference services.

Librarians are also beginning to use blogs to engage patrons in an ongoing discourse. The Ann Arbor District Library is a great example of this. They have created blogs, front and center on their homepage, on a variety of topics from building construction to the new automation system. Patrons have added their own entries to these blogs. One of the benefits of blogs as opposed to a feedback link on the library web site is that blogs encourage an ongoing dialogue between patron and staff. They also create a sense of community because everyone can see the comments and participate in the conversation.

Like blogs, wikis are also collaborative tools that allow anyone to add or edit content in a specific knowledgebase. Meredith Frakas, a leader in development of online community, has created two well-known library wikis. The first is a best practices site which is intended to be a one-stop shop for good ideas and success stories of library programs and services. While the site doesn’t have many entries to date, the framework is there for adding content. Frakas is also known for the 2005 ALA conference wiki which included information on local attractions, bars and restaurants. Conference goers contributed their own tidbits to this popular wiki.

One of the concerns related to wikis and blogs is that there is no authoritative source behind the entries that are submitted. There have been waves of concern, particularly from the academic sector, that entries from wikipedia, a collaboratively created online encyclopedia, receive little scrutiny. One way to mitigate this concern is to encourage academicians to become involved in this project.

The Changing Landscape of the Internet

Anyone who has used GoogleMaps to find the closest pizza parlor to his or her house, or to map directions to an unfamiliar location, has experienced Web 2.0, the latest web development, expected to transform the Internet into a highly interactive environment independent of browser or operating system. Web 2.0 uses a powerful set of tools known as AJAX, or asynchronous javascript and XML. AJAX pulls data from multiple, disparate systems and renders it into a rich, highly interactive interface in the user’s browser.

U.K. libraries are using Web 2.0 in a beta project that allows a patron to zoom in to a particular region on a map and then search for a library within a certain radius of this region. Once they identify the library, the patron can search the online catalog and place holds on items; all of this appears seamless to the patron.

Another interesting use of Web 2.0 is the Chicago crime statistics application. Similar to GoogleMaps and the U.K. Library Locator, the Chicago project allows you to zoom into a particular region within the city and get up-to-date statistics on various criminal activities as they are reported to the police.

No longer is the Web a collection of sites with hyperlinks and downloadable files. Web 2.0 takes the user to another level where interactivity is part of the Web and doesn’t require a separate software application. What does Web 2.0 mean for libraries? I think it’s hard to tell right now, but being able to run applications directly from the Web without underlying software is sure to make for a more robust yet simple computing environment particularly for the end user.

Increase in Remote Access to the Library

With the proliferation of portable computing devices and a generation of new library users who have never known a world without computers, libraries are offering more remote services. Virtual reference, access to the library catalog from the PDA, and wireless Internet access for patrons are some common examples of remote service.

A growing trend in remote access to the library is in the audio arena. Libraries can now purchase licenses to music collections that can be accessed with a patron card. Patrons can login to the library website and listen to music right from their PC. They aren’t able to download this music due to copyright restrictions. The Oshawa Public Library in Ontario is a good example of this. It has subscribed to Naxos Music Library which has a collection of over ninety thousand classical titles. If you are a patron of the Oshawa library you can listen to the music library from the comfort of your own home.

An up-and-coming audio technology that adds flexibility to remote access is portable audio books. These self-contained devices, which require no downloads, weigh about six ounces, are half the size of a deck of cards, can be worn around the neck, and even come with headphones. It’s still too soon to tell if libraries will adopt these audio players. However the convenience of portability and not having to hassle with downloading software are great selling points for the device.

Tying It All Together

Trends in technology provide an opportunity to rethink what is a library service and how we provide it. It begs the question: Where do the library walls end and the user environment begin? Patrons have always been able to check out library items, and remote access has actually been around quite some time with text-based access to catalogs and databases. However, some of the newer technologies such as blogs and downloadable audio make the library experience even more personal to patrons, because they are able to participate in online community and, in a sense, experience the library from their home computer.

So what’s next? I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I do think there is still a need for library as place. People still like going to their neighborhood library and checking out books, taking a class, or participating in a program. Summer Reading programs still draw in crowds of kids, and I haven’t noticed a decline in the number of people visiting my local libraries. However, this is also a great time to experiment with technology and see how we might change or expand services to patrons. One thing is for sure—it’s an exciting world out there and the tools we use to deliver service will likely change as will the types of service we provide.