Library of the Future—between Non-Existence and a Multimedia Fiesta

For Borges the library was the universe. It symbolized infinity, confusion, chaos, it was impenetrable. You moved around it like through a maze—alone until you died. At the same time, for the Argentinian writer the library was eternal. “The library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, armed with precious volumes, indestructible, mysterious,” he wrote.

Times are approaching when you will have to ask: is that really so? Let us leave aside the intriguing Borgesian metaphors; the universe will be all right, but the question is what will happen to one of its modest components, that is the physical library stripped of all metaphors. Will the thing we know under this name—the good old collection of aged books, causing a thrill in people hungry for knowledge and allergy in people allergic to dust—survive, and if so, in what form? What will happen to its basic constituent item, namely the book, that is an object for which some people foresee (as they once did with history) an imminent end?

The question about the future of libraries is not new. It was asked by Umberto Eco in his humorous essay “De Bibliotheca.” He notes that in ancient times one of the most important functions of the library was to collect scrolls and volumes in order to protect them from disappearance. In the Benedictine times books were copied there. And later we had libraries with the job of hiding and protecting books. What will the future bring? Eco wonders if the civilization of books is really threatened with destruction by the civilization of e-readers and microfiches.

Indeed, our times are not propitious for libraries and books. In the changing reality the library also must change its nature. For a long time it was perfectly in tune with its somewhat pretentious name, the “Temple of Books”—it was an important public place, a repository of knowledge equipped with venerable archives, a type of public institution based on the idea of sharing and free access to its resources. It had one more thing in common with the Temple—a similar degree of piousness you had to exhibit inside. Silence and seriousness were mandatory there. The books collected in the library generated respect—they were symbols of a mystery so profound that to unravel it in those ancient times, you had to spend many evenings by the candle and sacrifice a lot of things beginning with your eyesight. Books had a monopoly on providing access to information; it was in the days before Google.

This was in an era when paper was treated with respect—it was, as it seemed, the most perfect medium for preserving knowledge, successor to stone, bamboo boards, silk, clay tablets, papyrus, and parchment. In pursuit of convenience, also the form of the medium was transformed—from the scroll to the code. The invention of print made it possible to produce books in large numbers; an eternal book was available as early as in the 16th century and the Enlightenment popularized it through reading rooms.

In general, books once had an alarming status. They were feared like the Beast of the Apocalypse and fiercely fought against. They were placed on the index of prohibited books, and in 1933, on a Berlin square, they burned by the thousand after being put on fire by people brainwashed through reading other books. Although in more recent times it sometimes happens that books have a strong impact—like Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” or Saviano’s “Gomorra”—it cannot be denied that they lose their subversive power. What ignites the imagination of millions counts in the number of web hits rather than printed pages.

So is the world possible without them? The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk claims that it is, that we can imagine a civilization where methods of making the human person what it is would be taken over from culture by human-made technologies. We do not know what this civilization would be like, but one thing is certain: it would be inhuman. In his short story “The Futurological Congress” Stanisław Lem shows a civilization where paper books have disappeared—rather than reading books, you eat them. It is a world where bookshops and libraries resemble pharmacies and everything there is available in a form intended for consumption— for example, books are offered in glass vials. You acquire knowledge through ingestion of a given substance.

Things have not gotten that far yet, though perhaps that is a pity—if people could acquire knowledge by way of consumption, we would live in a civilization of sages. But it is true that a lot has changed. Electronic books increasingly compete with printed versions, patterns of readership or distribution of texts change—Internet resources replace lending libraries. Indeed, the whole shape of culture is changing—traditional institutions interact with grassroots movements, often amateurish ones. Acting in the physical space is supplemented with acting in the Internet space and professional work intermingles with that of a layman. Culture is extremely diversified and access to it is much easier. The library of the future will take shape in such a space—and it will probably be an entity suspended between the pessimistic vision predicting the death of books and the optimistic one heralding the full flowering of the availability of knowledge and culture.

The rhythm of the new times is, of course, dictated by the Internet. It sparked a revolution similar to that stemming from the invention of the industrial method of printing more than 500 years ago. In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan claimed that print actually had caused a revival of human thought, thus leading to the industrial and scientific revolution.

This revolution continues. It has been estimated that it takes humanity two days to create as many gigabytes of content as it had created since its birth until 2003. Culture is becoming a zone of excess, and Google is one of the most important supranational actors determining its shape. The most urgent change which the library of the future must face is the pressure of digital culture, redefining its role as an institution providing texts. This raises many questions, starting from the fundamental one: will the libraries survive in the times when the Internet is increasingly satisfying all kinds of human needs? Will the recipients, immersed in the digital world, need direct forms of contact at all? Assuming the optimistic variant with the library surviving, what shape and mode of functioning should it take? Should they defend printed content as an especially valuable format or perhaps become a “intermediary” providing content in every existing form? It seems—as shown by the example of many modernized libraries across the world—that the second option is better. The traditional role of the library, that this providing access to books and journals, is becoming a thing of the past. Libraries are turning into hybrid forms, multimedia centers allowing for a legal and free use of multimedia collections, operating not only with texts, but also with graphics, sound, video, or animation.

Of course, some sacrifices cannot be avoided. Digital, media-free content forces libraries to work out new techniques of access, as well as methods related to the protection of digital collections, which in practice is even more costly than the same work with printed resources. Digital resources have to be constantly transferred to new software and adapted to new technologies.

The technological revolution also creates new opportunities for libraries, involving more generous support for the educational process, including e-education. They are already engaged in the process of publishing, managing, and distribution of content. Many libraries publish—in the form of e-prints or digital repositories—teaching aids for universities, as well as other kinds of books and electronic documents. Some documents from the library collection can be ordered in the form of printouts or digital copies.

When debating the future of libraries, you cannot bypass the question about the role of the government. The government’s contribution to modernization and defining the future shape of libraries will greatly influence the ultimate result. The optimistic scenario assumes that the government will protect intellectual property and support culture. It will introduce modernization programs for libraries, turning them into user-friendly places of free access to all kinds of attractive content; this would answer the needs of the public, demanding a cheap, easy, and safe access to culture. In the pessimistic version, government resources for financing public institutions of culture will shrink or even completely vanish, and the libraries will founder, become archaic.

Some changes are occurring right now and are easy to observe. One of them is the end of the notion of the library as a place of seriousness and seclusion. The library about which Stephen King wrote in his novel Dallas 63 (“The library smells of old books… I smell something musty, I hear the ticking of the clock, I see an empty chair. Should someone ask me now, I would answer that the library is simply a place where you can’t listen to music or eat.”) is definitely becoming a thing of the past. Libraries evolved from places serving exclusively as collections of books, visually and socially unattractive, towards a public space where you can also meet friends, contact people, witness an important social or cultural event.

In Poland, this change occurred in 1999 when the Warsaw University Library was opened. It was the first open access library in our country— people could simply take out any book straight from the shelf. Serving as places for study can be not only desks, but also armchairs, stairs, or the lobby, you can even read books lying on the floor. Today it is a norm—libraries are designed in such a way that readers could use them freely—and some degree of noise, conversation, or group learning is allowed. In the library of the Falun University in Sweden students sitting over desks are outnumbered by those leaning against walls or on stairs. Stairs are a popular place for reading and exchange of ideas also in the reading room of the Tokyo University of the Arts.

Libraries are created in new, unexpected places, and they extend their functions to the maximum. They are becoming cultural centers, places enlivening the local community. One example could be station Kultura, a library founded at the railway station in Rumia– next to the ticket offices there is a modern space with a reading room, computers, and a lending library. You can also listen to a concert, meet people of culture, or watch a theatre performance. More and more places based on this idea are created—combining the function of the library with a place of leisure and access to new technologies. Besides paper books, their collections also contain e-books, films on DVD, or even a vintage item—gramophone records. They are friendly to senior citizens, people with disabilities, they extend their offer to the unemployed, or the children of divorced parents. A library conceived in such a way probably performs the most important function in small towns or villages, but as the example of Warsaw shows, also in the cities it can become a center of social life or even a kind of a status symbol.

Such an operating mode saves the library from the onslaught of the digital era. You can allegedly find everything on the Internet, but the invaluable direct contact with others is unattainable there. The library also has other advantages over the Web. First, it constitutes an ordered collection, which is a great value in the times of chaos. Second, as an intermediate formula between a repository of books, a place of work and social life, and a cafe, it is perfectly suited to our times, when a lot of people work as freelancers, which means that they are deprived not only of permanent contracts, but also, more importantly in this context, of office space.

Libraries of the future also help people in another way—through promoting equal opportunities. They are places making culture available to those who otherwise could not afford it. Here you can use the Internet or acquire the necessary information free of charge. In this way they combat exclusion, which in the increasingly unequal societies is an urgent task.

In his 1995 book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte described intelligent personal aides helping Internet users in obtaining relevant information. The prophecy was fulfilled in part—in the form of the Google search engine. Thanks to its algorithm it is capable of “answering questions” or finding content on the basis of specified phrases. This technological change raises questions about the future of librarians. Will they be necessary at all in the 21st-century libraries, when connecting to the library catalogue, ordering books, extending loans, and perhaps even paying overdue fees with your mobile phone may become commonplace? Perhaps librarians will be replaced by a worker who is always available, always in good mood, never asking for a sick leave—that this a robot? This is also already happening. In the public library in Silkenborg an industrial robot sorts returned books, while in the Johns Hopkins University in the United States a prototype robot, if requested by the user, can find the needed content and deliver it to the table along with a scanner.

One thing is certain—the technological change presents library employees with urgent challenges. If they stay stubbornly analogue, they will not survive. To survive in the library of the future, they must constantly develop their digital skills. In this way, they can become officers— qualified guides to digital resources. In the positive scenario, they would also be responsible for deciding about what shall be in the libraries within the limited pool of works, their licenses guaranteed and paid for by the government.

It is impossible to fully predict the future of the book and the library. The uncertainty inextricably linked with our reality, the pace of cultural changes and the large number of directions they take mean that we have no other choice than to ask questions and, in effect, to use the same method we often practice to survive in the world at all—to stubbornly cling to the optimistic scenarios.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of a novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for Gdynia Literary Prize. In 2018, the novel will be published in Argentine. She received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Winner of the Adam Włodek Prize. Currently working on her second novel Maszkaron.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.