The Public Library of 2027

The libraries of the future will be very different— and yet, their original charm will remain much the same.

The Public Library of 2027

The libraries of the future will be very different— and yet, their original charm will remain much the same.

I’m  an avid user of public libraries. During a recent visit, I began  thinking — what could the public library look like ten years from now?

So  in this story, I turn the clock back by twenty years — around the time I  first joined a library. I reflect on my experiences to date, and then  use them to imagine what the public library could look like ten years  from now, in the year 2027.

Mid ‘90s

My  first experience of joining a public library was in 1994. The catalogue  was a green-screen, text-based terminal. Many books still had paper  inserts that were stamped at the checkout. The library was a place to  study quietly and research.

True to its traditional model,  the library provided mediated access to information resources. Books,  cassettes, and micro-fiche databases were the dominant media of the day.  We could borrow them or access them for in-library reading, via a  librarian.

As  time progressed, new storage media started to appear. My borrowing  repertoire slowly increased to now include music and game CDs. By the  time we reached the mid-00’s, libraries offered a smorgasbord of items  to borrow. The model was still traditional but with a lot more variety  and diverse range of media added to the collection.

Mid 00’s

Around  this period, a jointly procured web-based library catalogue was rolled  out across all libraries in the Auckland region. This revolutionized my  use of libraries.

The  modern catalogue better exposed the variety of services and collection  resources that libraries offered. More importantly, we could easily  ‘request’ a book (or other collection item) online and have it arrive at  a library of our convenience for pickup.

My  library use increased dramatically. I was borrowing at least one item  (book, CDs, DVDs) a week. Newer media, like eBooks, were also starting  to emerge. This meant the curtains descended on old media forms like  audio cassettes, which were slowly withdrawn from circulation.

By  the turn of this decade, electronic storage media itself was starting  to be rendered obsolete by the Internet. As the Internet became more  pervasive in our lives, libraries started to offer free WiFi.

The  service offerings of libraries also started to broaden in comparison to  a decade earlier. Most notably, libraries now hosted many more events  and activities. A self-checkout facility also became available. Overall,  the model was still traditional but broadened to accommodate new  technology and services.

2017

Today, when I walk into a public library as a customer, there are several things that I can expect:

  • The library occupies a physical space, staffed by librarians
  • There is a wide range of collection items to borrow
  • There is an online catalogue
  • There is free WiFi, and a facility to copy/print/scan
  • The library hosts learning and social events for children and adults alike. The trend towards including ‘Makerspaces’  — areas where people can get come together, share ideas, and work on  creative DIY projects — can also be included in this baseline.

During  a trip to Melbourne, I had time to spare and ended up visiting a couple  of public libraries. There, I made use of two remarkable new services.

First,  there was a facility to borrow iPads. With free WiFi, the Internet  effectively became a ‘freely borrowable’ item at the library. It is only  natural that contemporary content consumption devices like iPads follow  suit.

Second,  there was an area for gaming — both online (PlayStation) and  traditional (board games). This was a great opportunity for both  personal enjoyment and wider social interactions. I really liked both  these services and feel that, over time, other libraries will also begin  to offer them.

Libraries  offer many other services as well, such as accessing archives, storing  local history, or getting research assistance. But, from an everyday  customer perspective, that would be my equivalent of a ‘service  catalogue baseline’: the things that I would expect in a modern public  library in 2017.

2027

With  that baseline established, let’s fast forward by ten years and tackle  the fundamental question: will the brick-and-mortar library exist in  2027?

The  answer, I think, is yes. Libraries have remained relevant in the face  of two decades of fundamental technological change. They will continue  to evolve by adopting service delivery models and new technologies.

Extrapolating  from my experiences, the change will not be sudden, in the form of a  big bang. Libraries have always evolved with time; there’s no need for a  radical course-correction. Instead, it will be an evolutionary change  subtly working its way up towards a paradigm shift.

To understand the value of libraries to myself, I asked myself three questions.

Why  have I used libraries in the past? Why would I use them in the future?  And, how has the value proposition shifted, from my perspective as a  customer?

Under  the traditional model of providing mediated access to resources, the  library was a place to study quietly, refer to informational material  and gain knowledge.

One way to look at this is through the DIKW pyramid.  Put simply, it shows the relationship between Data, Information,  Knowledge and Wisdom. You need to have data before you can get  information; you need information before you can gain knowledge, and so  on.

Original image credit: Longlivetheux on Wikipedia

Originally,  libraries were a source for all three layers. Since the turn of the  millennium, however, the bottom two layers — data and information — have  been gradually ‘outsourced’ to the Internet. Nowadays, we’re at the  point where we get all our data and information online.

For me, the library now adds value mainly in the knowledge realm. It has morphed from being a place to ‘study’ to now being a place to ‘learn’.

What’s the difference between ‘study’ and ‘learn’? I think of them like this:

  • Studying is to read, memorize facts, attend school, and so on, in order to learn about a subject.
  • Learning, on the other hand, is to gain knowledgeor skill— either by studying, practising, being taught, or experiencing something.

Physical  spaces are increasingly being made available for people to learn and  interact. Makerspaces and associated learning activities are great  examples of this shift.

In  addition, with a trend towards self service in government, many  traditional activities involving librarians — like issuing books, using  the printer, or changing coins — are being automated.

The  traditional ethos of intermediation is, paradoxically, being both  supplemented and replaced by disintermediation. The library is becoming a  portal to learn and interact. It is becoming a means to an end.

Depicting  this shift as a chronological diagram, I feel the public library of  2027 will sit somewhere near the middle of the blue arrow.

My perception of library value over time

The  library of 2027 will have a similar baseline offering to what we see  now — allowing, of course, for advances in technology, such as wireless  printers, and a more modern delivery service, such as pop-up  micro-libraries or kiosks.

By  2027, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and AI bots will be so intelligent that  the answer to everything will just be a search phrase away — if not  already being pumped into our heads via numerous notifications and  sensors.


With its original value proposition of ‘information access’ evaporating, the generic competitive strategy of libraries lies in differentiation.

Libraries  need to be different. They need to provide value that their very large  and well-heeled online ‘competitors’ cannot. To do this, libraries will  need to leverage their key asset — physical spaces — and add value by  providing more opportunity for people to learn and interact.

The  trend will be to move away from storing information, instead becoming a  place for people for people to interact. Interaction can occur across  various media such as with collection items (books, toys, games) or  physical devices (pianos, electronics) and does not need to be  restricted to human interaction.

I  think the public library of 2027 will have a smaller section for  borrowable items. Most of the borrowing would be done via the online  catalogue, which would mean that libraries could save space by  displaying only curated items.

Those  curated items —such as recent fiction and popular books — could be  based on librarian knowledge or, more probably, by data mining  algorithms. The rest of the items can be stored away someplace else and  brought back on-demand.

There  will be a section for specialist services, such as research or  archives. Some traditional seats or desks would exist, but most of the  remaining space will be ‘free area’: space to cater to numerous  activities and diverse usage.

Visitors  and patrons will use the space as they want — to play games, watch  videos over WiFi, make electronics or even practice drums in a  sound-proof enclosure. One person may be conducting a group-tuition. A  budding pianist could be playing a piece in the background. Indeed,  there might even be an open-air space in the library for outdoor  activities.

In short, it will be an area for the community to interact.


By 2027, the physical space occupied by libraries would have replaced a library’s collection as its main asset and attraction.

Today,  libraries do offer patrons a chance to interact — mainly with their  collections, but also with the wider community. I see this changing to a  point where libraries will provide avenues for interaction in the  widest sense. A place where people can interact with library  collections, each other, the wider community, and indeed, even the  physical space.

The  library could be completely integrated with a public space — imagine  having one inside an airport or railway station. Or, the integration  could be partial. For example, the library could have a main building to  itself, but also have ‘book return’ kiosks, in high-traffic public  spaces, giving people a convenient way to return what they’ve borrowed.

Architecture  is another field where libraries can play in the future. In older  cities, libraries often occupy ‘heritage’ building sites. Similarly,  when new libraries are built, they have state of the art architecture —  in particular sustainable features like eco-heating, water recycling  etc.

When  my local library opened, its biggest drawcard was its eco-design,  which, around fifteen years ago, was quite novel for public places.  Libraries housed in historic buildings could become visible reminders of  the cultural heritage of a city. Some might even become tourist  attractions. There is great potential for new or refurbished libraries  to become specimens of modern, cutting edge architecture. Providing a  distinctively historic, modern or futuristic physical space would be a  value add service in itself.

Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future.
Niels Bohr

This  is only one view of the possibilities. The reality, of course, would be  different for each city, dependent on the service models libraries  choose, characteristics of the community, and the vision the respective  local government bodies have for libraries they operate.

Beyond

In  many ways, the future of libraries is about space and time. Libraries  will be portals for activities that mix leisure and learning. They will  add value by providing avenues for interaction and opportunities for  using disposable time constructively.

Regardless of what the future holds, the library that evolves successfully to witness 2027 will be thinking strategically, sensing the future proactively, and providing great customer service.

These time tested basics will never change.


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