Future Libraries<br>Dreams Madness & Reality<br>By Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman
For a long time the rate of change in libraries was slow and incremental. True, the scale of libraries varied widely but still, beyond scale, the term library meant essentially the same thing at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz, New York, as it did at the New York Public. But almost imperceptibly the amount of information was expanding and libraries were wrestling with it. Fast forward to the mid-1990s and several trends were converging. The cost to purchase and integrate new material in libraries was sky-rocketing even as library control over the material was declining. For the first time, individuals could access substantial amounts of information directly and they did.
For libraries life has not been the same since and the ability to adjust has been limited by their very successes in the past. The traditional concept of the library as aggregator and redistributors of information now goes head to head with individuals’ ability to obtain the information directly without entering a library, even remotely. The basic model of the library is undone.
Confounding those of us who believe that libraries must and will find a way to remain relevant is the library’s instincts to protect itself by resisting change. This, not very subtle message, is already apparent in Future Libraries in 1995 and libraries today have more in common with the United Autoworkers of the 1970s than they may care to contemplate. Libraries, that have always represented the advance of literacy and knowledge, also represent the enormous population of librarians and support staff that earn their livelihood by devoting their lives to providing a significant public good for less than they are worth. So then to be confronted by significant changes in the way information is purchased, handled, stored and distributed seems grossly unfair.
The good news is that there is an enormous body of intelligence in the library community that is at work resolving these issues. As there are in every large community there are conservatives and liberals and all the shades in between. The futurists can not forget that libraries will change incrementally and the conservatives can not sit by their radios waiting for FDR’s next broadcast. And all who deal with these issues must recognize that change will be dictated by outside events and libraries, for so long the captains of their ships, are now passengers in a vessel that is continually evolving.
One logical, if unhealthy, trend is for libraries to insist on controlling the future of the technologies they employ, on the theory that if the wolves of the future are their wolves it is better than that they are others’. But it won’t work and it will bring neither praise nor joy to the libraries when enough time has elapsed for those that render judgment to deliver their verdicts.