Wednesday Reading – The Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel Report “The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory”

Released in November 2014, this one is a big one – 225 pages – and maybe that’s why it’s taken me a little while to get through it. The Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel Report “The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory” is worth reading, both for the broad landscape of institutions covered by the report – academic, school, public, and government libraries, associations, consortia – and the deep understanding of our work – collections, services, spaces, partnerships, values, education. Also of great value are the detailed and creative recommendations provided throughout the report. While written for a Canadian audience and very clearly focused on the needs of Canadian libraries and archives, many of the insights and recommendations are applicable to libraries in any context. 

The Future Now: Canada's Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory

One of the first things to appreciate about the report is the balanced consideration of three key categories of change: technology, communities, and space.

The highlight for me, and what I can’t stop thinking about, is a question about how architectural space and digital space can coexist in dialogue (p. 111). We’re making big investments in libraries’ digital spaces – websites, portals, collaborative projects, digital resources, and more. And we still know that the physical space is really important and that cool things are happening there. But how do these work together? And how important will this togetherness become? Users are more and more accustomed to brands that easily transform between digital and physical availability. How are we preparing our users for that seamless transition? How do we make it so that our digital offerings are in harmony with our physical, in-person offerings? “The Future Now” report posits how and when libraries’ digital and architectural spaces will “answer each other, meet each other, intersect with each other, inspire each other.” I will say that the authors leave some of this open ended – it is, after all, still to be discovered – but I was so happy to have this door opened and to spend at least some time thinking about that as an important part of our futures.

I was also really happy that this report helped me reconsider the ways digital natives will shape our futures. Many of us still notice that for all the technological savvy of newer generations, they may still be ill equipped for the increasing complexities of information discovery, retrieval, and usage. They may be more technologically savvy than previous generations, but we need to consider how that savvy stacks up in comparison to a more complex world than any of us have experienced. Maybe they know more about technology, but that’s only in the context of an ever-increasing amount to know. So our current and even future users will likely continue to need the help of librarians or information professionals (especially as information multiplies and becomes more complex), but we also need to consider how our usefulness will be contingent on our ability to keep pace with change.

Speculation about the plural and the singular also resonated with me. In the context of space, the authors shared a lot of what we keep hearing. The physical shared space is an increasingly important part of the library experience. Spaces that provide room for collaboration, inspiration, and creativity will prove popular. Our spaces’ hallmarks – quiet and reflective – may still prove useful, but they are giving way to space for the “plural” (p. 108). Even as our spaces may emphasize the plural, our services may increasingly need to emphasize the singular. People want the satisfaction of intuitive design. The authors state, “the more successfully readers can independently find responses to their individual needs, the more successfully librarians will have done their work” (p. 104). In the future, will we have done our job best if individual users can each take control of their own library experience?   

These are just three observations that have stayed with me after reading this interesting report. There’s value in the individual relevant sections as much as in the whole and I’m sure something that will resonate with each of us.