Envisioning The Future of Library


Random thoughts on the roles and meanings of future library.

The Event

Attended Service Design Thinks Toronto event in Thursday (April 23rd) evening and had a great time there. Speakers from Toronto Public Library, BiblioCommons, and Toronto Tool Library provided their perspectives on service design in the context of library.

Two speakers from Toronto Public Library talked about how they have been dealing with complex factors — policies, data challenges, legacy systems, among many others — in order to offer up-to-date digital experience. While speaker from BiblioCommons made a strong point about what modern library should be about. Speaker from Toronto Tool Library made another case for physical sharing in the bigger context of a resource-efficient sharing economy (why buy a tool you’d probably only use once in a lifetime?).

All those great talks really get me thinking about the complexity of real world problems, as well as the very concept we take for granted in our daily lives.

What is a library anyway? How does it remain relevant nowadays?

The Stream of Thoughts

I’ve been think about the future of book stores and libraries for quite long, since I got into the publishing industry years ago.

(Most) Libraries & Book Stores Are Boring

Most book stores are kinda boring. So do most libraries. Why? Partly because digital counterparts have gradually obsoleted some of their meanings and functions, taking over some of their roles and relevance — they’re no longer the only channel or medium for access of information.

Will they still remain relevant in the future? Depends on how we perceive them. There could be things that bear the same labels while have nothing similar in essence. The symbols they once so firmly represented have been transplanted into more mediums and channels.

Should we redefine their roles and meanings so that they can still be so useful that they’re integral part of our daily lives? I really think we should, because whatever the form or medium could be like, we always need part of what they offer.

What Is Library About

I really like what the BiblioCommons speaker said about the concept of library, that library was a place about access to books, but it can be, now and forward, about access to learning.

I do think library, public or not, is a cultural (in its broadest sense) community:

  1. Where people get help (primarily in terms of learning and “practicing” or “developing” culture), the kind of “culture” or “knowledge” assistance or development that might not be sufficiently provided in other means (e.g. formal education).
  2. Where people immerse into cultural learning or development. Library builds on what people absorb elsewhere and provides a deep cultural context for learning, practicing, and human communication — by all means library was a place where people sit down, read and look for information.
  3. Where people carry out activities as part of their own bigger context of cultural learning. That could mean many touch points (service design!) and their consistency. To me the subtle issue is defining the boundaries, since many places can provide all kinds of “cultural” services, and surely library can’t be jack-of-all-trades. And thus that core boundary (besides many additional things), likely to be a little bit vague but effective, could somehow have certain traits that differentiate library from other places or efforts. Could a consistent context for cultural learning be one of those traits?
  4. Where people continue their daily digital experience in the context of cultural learning. That could mean a race for relevance (exactly like what all other online services are facing), and that relevance emerges from establishing, affording, and encouraging meaningful contexts. Traditional book stores once were struggling to remain relevant by having all kinds of activities (events, readings, signings, etc.) that are supposed to provide additional meaningful contexts, and they failed in the digital era (I wonder what can be learned from that).

Relevance Is About Meaningful Contexts

Nowadays major or minor ebook publishers are also racing for relevance, and there’s this real subtlety between library and publisher — copyrights, business models, and benefits etc..

I find myself constantly being pulled into either buying or borrowing through mostly a strong context — an blog post about certain things which mentions a few books, or people talking around about things that occasionally triggers a recall of books or related service/products. Probably everybody does so.

Thus even tough amazon provides a really great context of relevance to push sales, it’s just direct relevance — you like this, you may like that, and that not only create a filter bubble (a great concept proposed from the book of the same name), in which we only get access to what we want instead of what we need (therefore a big let down for learning), but also is less meaningful than a bigger, indirect, cultural context.

The Future of Library

Does that mean, I’m just indulging here, what we perceive as library actually stands a better chance at providing more meaningful contexts than a book store?

A library could actually do everything a book store does. Yes even now library may not be your ideal place to buy books, and especially in this digital age, publishers are probably struggling to survive, so much that it’s probably not to their best interest to afford any efforts that’d let libraries surpass them. But how about these:

  1. Libraries could become the cultural hub supported by both public and private efforts, a go-to place for access to learning and cultural development, so significantly integrated to people’s lives that book stores would actually want to take part in it?
  2. A merge of roles? Both publishers fronts (stores) and libraries become the place for discovery — a physical experience of actually walking around and explore. That’d still be a better experience than the pure digital one because, after all, there could be social interactions in-place and in-context. Both could have virtually unlimited catalog (there’s a challenge here). Both could sell or lend. Both would struggle for relevance by providing more meaningful contexts. Just as publishers can lend, and just like sellers can turn into distributors (Netflix creating original content, amazon becoming publisher itself), could libraries also take bigger part in the creation efforts (they are already doing so)?
  3. Library could be a good place to integrate many other services, physically or digitally. Quotation web sites simply suck, and it’s painful to find a suitable quote that I can’t remember clearly but want to use it instantly in the stream of my online conversation. Quotation itself may never be a sustainable service, but with greater meaningful context, it just works (I’ll talk about quotation service in a future post).
  4. Even if the publishers don’t want the libraries to delegate their selling capability, libraries could still be an extremely good referral service, where I find stuff in a relevant context and then I either borrow or purchase.

Nowadays, it seems, libraries are facing the relevance challenge, while IMO it simply can’t follow most of the practices from the monetary world wide web, who is struggling with revenue through creating a closure (a.k.a. filter bubble) of personalization. Library is about cultural community and personal learning in a bigger context — discovering, exploring the needs, instead of wants.

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Creative Commons License
This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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