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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2013

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Vol. 33 No. 10 — Dec. 2013
Uncertainty and the Future of Libraries
by Daniel W. Rasmus

Here are 11 questions to ask about how the future will turn out for your library.
Public libraries have changed significantly since my childhood. Gone are the card catalog and the abundant staff (replaced by fewer staff and various forms of automation). And in many local libraries, only a few research items, such as encyclopedias, remain. Research libraries with their large stacks and historical collections retain an air of legacy, but they too have changed. The most significant changes for all libraries lay ahead.

In the 1960s, only a few saw the potential of the internet, then a nascent defense system project, to disrupt libraries. And few, if any, saw the disruption in bookstores and retailing.

As we look forward, we can be much wiser about the questions we ask than about any conclusions we may draw. In the discipline called scenario planning, uncertainty drives stories with rich, multiple, branching chronicles of future history that create a safe place to explore what might be. For uncertainties to be useful, they must be named, their outcome or impact or very nature must be highly uncertain, and they must be critically relevant to a question such as, “What will be the role of libraries in 2023?”

At the 2013 Computers in Libraries conference, I was given the opportunity to explore the critical uncertainties related to libraries in the closing keynote and in a workshop. The following 11 items reflect the most important issues that are likely to reshape libraries, regardless of the answers to them. Because each uncertainty can have different answers under different circumstances, libraries need to create a nimbleness to respond rapidly when uncertainties start to become clear. That means practicing for different futures and planning not with rigidity but with fluidity so that the organization can adapt quickly to whatever future might unfold.

1 How will we access information?

Tablets will eventually replace personal computers. That is a statement of fact made by many, but a declining market does not equate to a dead market. More importantly, as we look out over the next decade, we must ask if anything will disrupt tablet computing, and if so, what that might be. The possibilities range from streaming audio over WiFi headsets to the advent of large, communal information spaces where people not only read together, but perhaps edit or contribute together. The hardware portals used to access information will likely be even more diverse than they are today with peripherals gaining direct access to cloud storage, eliminating the need for a computing device of any kind. Amazon pioneered this approach with Whispernet, delivering cloud purchases directly to devices. This was, however, invented before high bandwidth communications and cloud services allowed for everything to be streamed. As connected devices become smaller and larger, entirely new ways to read (projected directly on Google Glass?) or experience books (interactive versions read or played on game consoles?) will emerge.

2 How will we represent books?

With words, of course. But it isn’t so simple. Amazon’s Kindle isn’t the only game in town. Apple’s iBooks continues to grow steadily, as do Kno and Inkling. Some publishers, such as Disney Publishers Worldwide, are experimenting with the intersection of apps and content. Reading Rainbow, now an iPad app owned by RRKidz, creates highfidelity experiences for readers through middle school. Each book is narrated and animated. Many books in the Reading Rainbow app also exist in other forms. Even for individual books, there will not be a single answer how those books are represented.

Kno and Inkling—and to a lesser degree, Kindle—have introduced collaboration features: shared highlights, chat, and the like. The collaborative elements of these systems aren’t compatible. If you start a chat with a community of readers in a Kno book, that chat won’t be available on a Kindle version of the same book. And if you can experience that, you have probably paid twice to own two incompatible versions of the same book.

And the multimedia attributes of books are just starting to be felt with animation. Some forms (such as motion comics from DC Comics; Marvel Entertainment, LLC; and Dark Horse) explore new forms of narrative.

Digital technology is more revolutionary than the printing press because it introduces diversity into the output process. And, of course, when output modes change, authors will soon write to the technology, creating experiences that exist only in the digital realm.

3 How low, or how high, can computer memory go?

The cloud presents several issues for consumers and publishers alike. Although the cloud is highly reliable, it isn’t always reliable. Outages from Microsoft, Amazon, and other cloud service providers periodically remind consumers that they don’t own the storage of their own stuff anymore. Publishers lose con trol of the distribution channel, pricing, and, increasingly, the internet protocol (IP) itself as digital copies of books join movies and music as downloadable files on illegal filesharing sites.

At the same time, the cloud becomes a nearly infinite storage location, and personal storage prices continue to drop while capacities rise. Memory cards with 32GB of storage are nearly disposable commodities, running at prices less than $20. We don’t know how far memory prices will fall or how big capacities will reach, but we can be fairly sure that most personal libraries will fit on an inexpensive storage chip smaller than a fingernail. That raises these questions: Will people in the future make the choice to own their libraries, at least a copy of them, on media that easily interchanges between devices? Will they even be given the right to own digital copies to exchange between devices? Depending on what happens with Barnes & Noble, we could, within a few years, know the legal ramifications of owning something digital that belongs to a defunct company in a format that is no longer supported. (As a sidenote, although major legal battles never raged from disgruntled users, CDROM and Apple’s HyperCard books exist that are no longer supported by those who published them.)

4 - How will we represent knowledge?

For several years, computer scientists have forecasted the coming of the semantic web, a laying on of metadata and other constructs that help represent knowledge on the internet. If knowledge comes to be represented in ways other than books (for instance, in visual maps that demonstrate relationships and create 3D exploration pathways for knowledge explorers), then books and the houses designed to store them may become superfluous. If, however, we continue primarily to engage in linear narratives, then the book will continue to be an adequate representation of knowledge whether in digital or physical form.

These forms need not be exclusive, nor those two alternatives exhaustive, though nonlinear digital representations o f knowledge offer the primary alternative to linear narratives today. This uncertainty is important to libraries be cause it forces them to ask about their purpose (see items 6 and 8).

5 - How will we find stuff?

Depending on your preference (Google, Bing, or some other choice), search engines have become the way people find information. But they are not the only options. Companies outside of the big search engine providers are bringing proactive search into the mix. Evernote Premium identifies related notes as you create new ones. Xobni, now part of Yahoo, delivers intelligent contact lists based on email and social network analysis. In a decade, the world could evolve beyond search to information finding you. For libraries, this means that metadata won’t just be limited to authors, titles, publishing dates, and other traditional information. It is highly likely that every word of every book will be indexed and that the best way to find something for a customer is to create rich profiles that are as detailed as possible. Then link those profiles to other profiles, projects, or interests so that the context can converge on the best and most useful books, magazines, and information (if using a leisure profile, include music, casual reading, and movies).

If that sounds a bit daunting, it is, because most libraries won’t be able to afford to build this kind of software. They will have to turn to big search vendors that, by then, may well be publishers (as Amazon is already). Then the question becomes, “What value does the library add in a completely distributed, electronic, and fully indexed world?”

One potential answer is that the library remains valuable for all of the things that the digital world can’t do. Libraries retreat from the digital realm and go back into managing their collections, making people aware of t hose collections via connections through the digital world. Yes, Google is scanning every book it can get ahold of, and it may disrupt even the uniqueness of various collections of physical books.

So when we ask the question about search, we are led to a classic question of existential threat. Regardless of where libraries turn, the future challenges current assumptions about purpose and value.

6 - What do we hire a library to do?

And that brings us to what else a library might do. I borrowed this concept from Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma , who shared it with me during a discussion on strategy. He was talking about an ice cream chain, but I think the question is equally valid for libraries. Are libraries in the future a source of knowledge, curated and delivered electronically? Perhaps they are a location that competes with Starbucks as a source of WiFi. Or maybe they are home to knowledge curators with deep networks; critical thinking skills; and synthesis, serendipity, and discovery.

Are libraries simply a house for books, or do they serve as curators of knowledge and active contributors to the semantic web or its alternatives? Do libraries become places where people go to learn and to share knowledge—the place where those processes converge and the semantic web comes into being? Or does the library become the victim of new knowledge representation, therefore being made irrelevant as the capture of knowledge becomes ever more diffuse and distributed?

7 - What will we need to know?

This is a bit of a trick question, as it applies universally to knowledge, as well as locally to what knowledge particular libraries need. Libraries in universities and other institutions are slow to change and thus experience a lag in current knowledge. When someone is trying to learn the latest computer language, the library may not offer tutorials until the language becomes more established, at which poi nt expertise may be found outside the library. This isn’t going to change unless libraries make a concerted effort to offer a new value proposition around knowledge anticipation and curation, which would do well to help them define their role in the future. Libraries can contribute to a collaborative body of knowledge that generally anticipates knowledge as it becomes valuable to society. They can also scope that curation process in order to align their own collections and connections so that they have access to the knowledge that is most relevant to their local communities.

8 - What will be the role of place?

23% of American’s age 16 and older have read an e-book, according to a 2012 report by Pew Research Center’s Pew Internet & American Life Project. Will the physical place of the library remain a key attribute of the library concept as physical book readership declines? Some libraries may choose to compete with Starbucks and others as meeting locations, but couldn’t that public service be served by cities and counties at a much lower cost if libraries stopped carrying books and simply became Wi-Fi-enabled community centers? Do libraries become true information hubs, acting as an intersection point where the physical and the digital converge, creating a new value proposition in the wake of change?

9 - How will we measure success?

Much of the world uses industrial measures to define success. With automated checkout systems and automated returns, libraries also seek ROI for those systems and higher productivity for employees. It is the goal of modern libraries to be efficient distributors of whatever they hold on their shelves or have licensed on their servers. Contrast this to a knowledge economy approach that would seek to define the knowledge impact of the library on the local population. Do people have jobs, even better jobs and higher pay, partially because they have a local library? Does a correlation exist between all types of literacy and the existence and use of the library?

These questions are hard to answer. In a world where production is so easily measured, they often get left out of equations of value, but they are more a reflection of the library’s true value than its efficiency. By 2023, will global competition get to the point that pro ductivity of libraries seems silly in light of a waning of knowledge workers? Will the potential inspiration found in books and the curated, proactive engagement with local citizens that libraries can provide push new metrics? Or will the ease of downloading eliminate the need for local libraries, driving traffic to the web where people can easily count how many downloads were achieved in a day, regardless of the impact of those downloads on the citizens who requested them?

10 - Who will decide what to trust and who will censor?

Censorship remains a major issue in many parts of the world. As books become more digital, two interesting phenomena occur related to trust and censorship. First, consider the editing of a book after purchase. Who is to say that what you buy remains in the state of first purchase? In the case of error correction and second editions, etc., electronic books make an argument for enhanced services since books, similar to apps, are constantly updated to reflect the current knowledge of their authors and the needs of the reading community (although current second editions are usually considered new purchases, unlike apps, most of which permit perpetual upgrades after purchase).

Consider a book that becomes controversial over time or that is historically controversial, such as The Catcher in the Rye . What if a digital edition existed with the offending words and passages excised similar to the bowdlerized edition of Shakespeare? What if a state passed a law that made the modified, “clean” copy the only legal copy to own? That may sound farfetched, but, at a more subtle level, what if controversy drove an author to change his or her work to reflect popular sentiment or political correctness? What if it only pertained to a small part of the book? What if the publisher never notified the owners of the change? Unlike print books where myriad copies of Shakespeare existed before the Bowdlers modified it so that the original (as much as “original” can be used when referring to Shakespeare) is preserved in other editions. It could be that changes would occur that would never be seen, easing out controversy without readers ever knowing.

Another consideration is personalization. Eventually, books will be chunked up and available for repackaging. Consider a biology textbook that adequately, according to core curriculum, covers high school biology. In Texas, the school boards and legislators don’t like the way evolution is portrayed. The publisher offers a personalization for Texas students that includes intelligent design and eliminates some of the more definitive language about evolution. The readers fall victim to confirmation bias, receiving only information that others believe is true or accurate, which may differ from that of the majority of authors. Go back to The Catcher in the Rye, and imagine a conscious exorcism of offending passages so that students in each state or school district could receive a different, personalized version of the book that meet local standards.

How will these personalized copies be labeled? Will the students be notified? If a student wants to dig deeper, will the book support links to what some consider orthodox science, or will that search be curtailed by those who consider orthodoxy heresy?

Digital books permit all of these conveniences or atrocities, but which extreme is tolerated depends on the individual’s point of view. And how people influence their legislators will define this uncertainty, an uncertainty that may extend well beyond 2013.

11 - What rights management model will predominate?

For some people, digital rights management (DRM) would better be called digital restriction management, because it usually says more about what can’t be done than what can. DRM continues to be an area of regulatory, political, and legal uncertainty that will evolve over the next decade. As books become more digital, the role libraries play in mediating the loans will become more intense, leading libraries to answer the uncertainty about what we need to know with DRM attorneys. Will it make sense in the future for the publishers of digital books to offer content to libraries if they create their own loan programs to cater to the economically challenged? Wouldn’t the creation of distributiondriven, directtomarket methods be less expensive for everyone, including the libraries and their supporters, than wrangling with individual libraries over licensing and administration?

With each of these uncertainties, new business models suggest themselves for libraries, for publishers, and for distributors. We don’t know how they will play out against the eventual reality that emerges.

While writing down the names of the uncertainties and giving them shape is a good starting point for exploring the future, it constitutes only the front end of a much longer process of grappling with the variety of ways the future will unfold. Under different social, economic, technological, and political values and situations, each of these uncertainties may gain a different value or answer, and many of them will prove tangled and interwoven, with the value of one helping to determine the value for another.

Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent strategy consultant and analyst who helps organizations put their future in context. He has conducted extensive research into the future of business and education for Microsoft, Cisco, and many other leading organizations. Rasmus teaches social media and strategy at Bellevue College. He can be reached at
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