I am intrigued with the ongoing discussion over the future of the Nobles County Library. As a professor and an author, I find myself both using and making contributions to libraries as part of my everyday job. I’ve also, for better or worse, spent a lot of time in libraries: 4-8 hours a day during grad school.
I’m not a civil engineer or a city planner, so I’ll withhold my amateur opinion on the question of location. But, working for various academic institutions in the last five years, I can speak a bit about the future and purpose of libraries. I believe we need to ask: Will a library be relevant for the next 30 years?
I use the Nobles County Library—I was there on Tuesday actually. I also remember going there as a child. Thirty years ago, a library was different. It was our entire world of knowledge. If a book wasn’t at the local library, it practically didn’t exist. It’s not that way today. The same information is now a simple Google search away. From my iPhone, I can order nearly any book in the universe and have it in two days. If I can’t wait, I can buy it, or check it out, NOW on a Kindle. Sure, we still check out books at the library—why buy a book when you can check it out for free—but the local library is no longer the only option, and by no means the entire world.
Many people are predicting the demise of the book. Bookstores are disappearing. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Physical books are going digital. Publishers find digital books more profits. For consumers, it’s cheaper. And, we prefer our information in headlines and YouTube how-to clips rather than the laborious task of reading (are you tired yet?).
With books becoming dinosaurs and communities tight on money, one might ask: Why build a library at all? I see libraries is perhaps more important than ever before. But, the library of the future–the library still relevant in 30 years–is dramatically different. We need to rid ourselves of view of the library as a quiet place filled with books where you get yelled at for talking too loudly. More importantly, the library of the future is no longer about books. Yes, you read that right. The library is no longer about books.
Universities are typically on the cutting edge of library innovation and, in my nine years at Pepperdine University, I saw our library change dramatically. They divested book collections, tore out bookshelves, installed computers, put up flatscreen TVs running announcements, built community spaces, and added coffee bars. Universities are building the library of the future, and here are three ways they are changing:
Meeting Space – There are few places anymore that allow for community meeting space. In the last several decades, we’ve designed our homes, offices, and cities around the individual, and to the detriment of community. We wanted private offices and fences around our homes. In recent years, there’s been a shift back to redeveloping community spaces. Companies like Pixar attribute their creative success to building collaborative environments where people bump into each other and are forced to meet. At Pepperdine, nearly half our library became comfy chairs for people to meet and study together. We added rooms for community meetings. We even installed a coffee shop area (yes, IN the library) to encourage people to stay and mingle. The library of the future might host town halls and even wedding receptions. The library of the future is grand central station for community forums and civic meetings.
Accessing the World – I am finishing writing my next book—a historical narrative. I estimate that 75% of my research came from digitized books and newspapers ion Google Books. I didn’t need to go to a library. And, it was much more efficient to do my research digitally. The other 25% of my research came from obscure physical books that only several libraries in the US had. My local library didn’t need the book, it just needed to borrow the book from another library. The library of the future won’t have an exhaustive collection of books; it will be a part of the networks to access any book or piece of information. And, most importantly, it should make access available to everyone.
Specialization – If I were a New York City student writing about westward expansion of America, where would I go? I wouldn’t expect a New York library to have original documents. I would expect to find it at a library in Worthington, MN, a pioneering town settled furthest west on the St. Paul & Sioux City Railway. Libraries serve a special purpose in collecting and preserving culture—history, art, and local knowledge. The library of the future will be a specialized. It will do one thing really well. There’s no reason for the Nobles County Library to amass the best collection on the history of the Revolutionary War when it can instantly, digitally access an amazing collection at a library in Massachusetts. The Nobles County Library should amass the best collection on the culture of Nobles County and Southwest Minnesota. We need libraries to archive and preserve culture, or we will lose it.
There may be a day when we have physical libraries with no books. The library of future won’t be about books, or even about a location, it will be about the experience. The library will be an experience where community, information, history, art, and culture all co-mingle. The library of the future will be an integrated experience where an artist’s display inspires a future International Festival event; where the Nobles County Historical Society informs a researcher in Oxford, England; where high school students come to study together because they like the environment. If the next Nobles County Library looks anything like the library of the future, it’s something to be very excited about.