I’m behind on my reading. Seriously behind. There's a stack of reports printed out on my desk or saved to some drive and I know that most of them have at least some insight that will help me better understand the future of libraries. Then, of course, there's time - and that's never stacked up anywhere. But I was lucky enough to find myself with some free time on a recent trip and I had with me a recent report from Arup the design firm most popularly known for their engineering work on the Sydney Opera House – and most recently in New York City for their lead role in downtown’s Fulton Center. Their Future Libraries report is one of many publications they make available and it summarizes a series of workshops held in London, Melbourne, San Francisco, and Sydney throughout 2015.
There’s a lot to like in this report. They get libraries. We’re in a period of change. These changes affect our spaces, operations, and our users’ experiences. We’re faced with funding challenges at a time when we are also challenged by the exponential growth of information, especially digital media. And we occupy a unique and important intersection of learning, community, preservation, and collaboration.
The report is structured around four scenarios of individuals interacting with libraries and information center. Cailtin is a retired artist volunteering at the library. Susan is a busy professional with a complicated research project. Loh Ki is a branch librarian considering the future of his facility in a neighborhood that is undergoing change. And Pete is an adult learner commuting between cities and exploring new career opportunities.
These scenarios provide opportunities to examine the trends that Arup considers important for libraries. Cailtin’s scenario is built around a digitization project and the interwoven trends include data decay, alternative funding, crowdsourcing, and creative reuse. Additional trends playing into the other scenarios include open information, copyright legislation, information overload, smart systems, robotics, universal access to knowledge, community engagement, immersive personalized experiences, and mobile lifestyles. The scenarios are a great way to see these trends in action and Arup does a very good job defining the trends and sharing examples of the trends playing out in our own time.
Ultimately, what I liked most about this report was its ability to provide futures that we could love and hate at the same time. I loved the fact that the library used the crowd to caption a newly digitized photo collection, but I kind of hated that they had to check in to their crowdfunding platform to make sure they had enough money to continue their re-digitzation work. I really loved that the busy professional sent her complex search query to the library and information management team, but it was kind of depressing that the selected resources were delivered by robot and then collected by drones. There were, of course, some pure love scenarios. I didn’t have a problem with the librarian who listened to the community’s needs and created a flexible space that could provide a haven for the community in difficult times (#whatlibrariesdo) and accommodate older adults during the day and younger entrepreneurs in the early evenings. And I had no real problem with the librarian who helped the working dad find an online course on coding and then facilitated a group study session with other users taking the same course. That love/hate experience is one of the signs of successful scenarios. They have to show us how things could work out the way that we would like, but also some of the ways we might not be expecting.
Arup’s report leverages these scenarios to push us further than we might currently be thinking. It’s a reminder that we have to keep pushing those trends beyond the comfortable places we can easily imagine to the places that start to make us uncomfortable (confession – yes, I’ve been told I really need to start doing that). It’s a tough, brain-hurting challenge. I appreciate Arup’s help in getting us started.