The Futurist Interviews Librarian Futurist David Lankes

Libraries Move Beyond Books

As more information moves online, traditional libraries are losing relevance, but librarians are becoming more important than ever. This is according to R. David Lankes, author of The Atlas of New Librarianship (MIT Press, 2011). Himself a librarian—he is the director of Syracuse University’s Library and Information Science Program and an associate professor in Syracuse’s School of Information Studies—Lankes sees librarians’ roles evolving into that of “facilitators of conversation” who interact with their communities to support each one’s informational and learning needs. Rick Docksai, staff editor for THE FUTURIST, spoke with Lankes about his book and his views on libraries’ future.

THE FUTURIST: A lot of people question whether libraries have much of a future. They say that young people read fewer and fewer books, and that libraries are losing relevance as the world becomes more and more digitized. But your book takes a much more hopeful stance: If libraries learn to be more interactive and innovative, they will have a very positive future.

Lankes: I think so, and I think there are a couple of things going on. One view is that libraries need to be about a lot more than books. Kids are actually reading more than they used to; it’s just more than books—Web sites and online gaming, for example.

Books and printing have been the most successful user interface ever for a couple thousand years. But as they have evolved and gotten cheaper, they have evolved into a communications channel and less of a broadcast channel. This happens with any technology. Television started as broadcast and now its more reality TV. We see the same thing happening on the Internet. The first web sites were brochure-ware: This is what my company does. Now it’s evolving into a more of a communications medium.

THE FUTURIST: In your book, you cite young people who wanted their libraries to deploy blogs for holding conversations about books. This intrigued me because many commentators think that digital media and books are opposed to each other. Your examples suggest something different: Digital media can enhance book reading. How hopeful are you that most libraries will learn to use digital media to their advantage?

Lankes: I'm very hopeful. The reason the book focuses on librarians, not on libraries, is that it’s the people in them that make something happen. I predict that the future is going to be fewer libraries and more librarians. The facility is transitioning from places where librarians do their work and to places where communities meet and gather. The physical space is simply where the librarians sit. The electronic medium is where they can research and read.

THE FUTURIST: Some library systems now let patrons download rental copies of the books online. This seems ideal for a world where iPads, kindles, and other mobile systems on which people read books are becoming the norm. To what extent might libraries’ patrons shift from physically borrowing books to virtually borrowing them?

Lankes: Let me give you a thought experiment. Imagine if every time you bought an e-book-like device, they charged you 10 bucks more than whatever the cost they were going to charge, and that 10 dollars goes into a big pool. And for your 10 dollars, you can download any book you want from the beginning of time. Would it be a good thing or bad thing for libraries? If you look at libraries as a physical collection of stuff, it’s a horrible thing. They’re out of business.

On the other hand, if you look at libraries’ mission as to increase the knowledge of their communities, it’s a wonderful thing. If your ideal scenario is knowledge building, then the more information that’s available in more modes, the better.

THE FUTURIST: I would imagine that if libraries’ physical space were downsized, fewer librarians would be needed.

Lankes: By disconnecting the librarianship from the physical maintenance, yes, we would need fewer libraries in the physical world. But if we’re looking at this as opening up libraries, this could actually mean more librarians.

THE FUTURIST: You also write about libraries hosting more community social events, such as lectures and writing workshops. Here, too, I wonder how digital media will impact this. Web sites such as Craigslist and Meetup are popular means for residents of a community to organize social events or jumpstart public discussions. What use do you think libraries will make of social-networking sites? In what ways might social networking sites compete with libraries for the public’s attention?

Lankes: The first point is not to feel like they’re competing with all these folks. Working with Craigslist, working with these tools, is important. The other point is that a lot of people look at libraries as a place to consume information, not about communications. The medium is becoming more about communications.

Some scholars in the UK did a survey where they sent people to look at online databases and the people said it was awfully quiet. They said, “When I go onto these spaces, I feel very alone. There is no one to talk to me and help me through it.” We need to look at the online world as more social environments.

THE FUTURIST: Libraries used to hold volumes of archived newspapers and magazine articles on microfiche slides. Then they shifted them to computer disk drives and to online archives. What will libraries’ media archives look like in the future?

Lankes: There is still a role for libraries to coordinate knowledge. Microfiche is still the most permanent form we have for documents. That said, things are available in digital, and digital has a lot to say.

There are studies about when you look at an object, how separable are the information aspects of it? You wouldn’t buy a house online. You need to walk through the house. There will always be some things where the physical object matters. As a society, as a community, we need to decide which ones these are, and that’s an ongoing conversation.