Libraries: The Past Offers Clues to Their Future

By Ruth Coates, AIA, Principal
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The debate about the longevity of libraries and books has been around for some time now. The persistence of this conversation perhaps lies in its ability to tap into people’s values related to information, community, and sharing — all three at the root of how we communicate and learn. That said, what if the real future of libraries doesn’t consist of an “either/or” scenario, but an “and” scenario? Meaning, it’s not about how libraries either a) continue to communicate in the same manner, or b) stop communicating all together: it’s about c) how they continue to fulfill society’s need for communication and information sharing in new and different ways.

To imagine the future of libraries, it’s helpful to widen the analytical lens and observe them from the beginning. By doing that, we realize that library spaces have been continuously evolving for centuries in response to developments in media type and user skill. They started as economic record repositories, but have transformed over time to provide access to stone tablets, paper scrolls, handwritten manuscripts, mechanically printed texts, newspapers, books, online databases, internet research, blogs and downloaded media! According to Yale University Librarian Emeritus Scott Bennett, today’s amount of information is actually making a new paradigm of library spaces possible: one that is learner-centered — demanding proactive discovery — rather than passive information regurgitation.

Considering all the different media types libraries have stored over time, it’s tempting to think that the advent of new communication methods automatically dictates the extinction of older ones. However, this doesn’t recognize the merits of previous methods or devices — or that they could both exist simultaneously and complement each other. This concept is more fully explored in “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal” by William Powers who examines the potency of paper as a communication technology.

To respond to changes in 21st century information ecosystem, libraries will need to continue to evolve — as they have for centuries — in order to maintain a role in society’s communication. But what if libraries found solutions to this reinvention not just by looking ahead in time — but by blending tips from the past and the future into a new paradigm? According to Alex Wright in “Glut,” “…the future of our information age may lie deep in our cultural past;” because we are not the first generation to grapple with information overload or the desire to communicate it.

Our need to share and connect is an enduring one — regardless of the tools of conveyance. Our job is to imagine a library that allows that to happen.

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