A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Looking at the Future of Libraries

by R. Toby Greenwalt on February 2, 2015

“A library is a collection of possible futures.”—John Barth, Browsing1

The future of libraries is a lot like my office clock. It has your standard 1-12 numbering around the outside edge of the device, along with an inner ring that marks off the minutes in five-minute increments. Each hand ends in a circle, and you can read the clock by checking to see which numbers are inside each circle. In order to do so, you’ve got to realize that the hour hand is the bigger of the two—countering more than 1,000 years of conditioning telling us which clock hand is which. The clock is a subtle reminder about disruptive thinking—reversing the conventional wisdom that frames our approach toward many of the issues we face in libraries. How do we create content instead of just collecting it? Can we provide grants instead of seeking them out? Is it possible for technology to drive people to our physical spaces in addition to our virtual real estate? Flipping these scripts is the key to healthy creative destruction, and might just help push libraries forward.

The future of libraries isn’t having any of that. If you follow the tech world, then you know that “disruption” is one of its core tenets. From taxicabs to drinking glasses, every new startup seems to be targeting yet another mundane concept. Despite the industry’s exponential growth and unbridled enthusiasm, there’s a creeping suspicion that we’ve hit peak innovation. In a world where everyone’s a disruptor—and has written a “future of libraries” think piece of their own—does the term “disruption” actually mean anything? When tiny supercomputers reside in three out of every four pockets,2 how can a public library make people feel more informed, entertained, and connected? The next big thing isn’t out there. It’s in all of us. With the raw materials for digital connection, curation, and creation becoming more evenly distributed, this is the moment for libraries to take advantage of their roles as community connectors.

The future of libraries is a firestarter. We’ve talked a lot this past year about kickstarting innovation, both in terms of staff capacity and among our users. Every book, answer, and program can provide the spark for someone to start something big. (At least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.) Digital tools can help us bring each of these sparks out in the open, turning each individual spark into opportunities for collaboration and skill sharing among our audience. As we build this connective tissue, it’ll be on us to make sure the quarter of the population without ready access to bandwidth is left out. The relationships have to come first. Once those are in place, it’ll be time to start exploring ways to deliver these services through technology. The future of libraries is a ripping yarn. In most cases, the relationship between library and user ends at that initial spark. We don’t often get to see the final product that comes from that initial checkout or reference transaction. Sharing our users’ creation stories is key to documenting the library’s role in the act of knowledge creation.

The runaway success of the Serial podcast serves to demonstrate just how compelling an ongoing narrative can be. By stretching out the story and ending each installment at just the right moment, the producers have brought an incredible story to the ears of millions. We may not be able to go as in-depth (and hopefully not as dark) as Serial, but the act of  documenting the ongoing process of knowledge creation can provide compelling new reasons for people to follow library activities. The continuous bite-size nature of most social media channels was made for this. Converting our patron’s efforts into an ongoing narrative can help us show our work and provide additional sparks to outside observers.

The future of libraries is a developing collection. While the stories we tell might help to capture the quantitative data, we’re going to need to continue to take a deliberate look at what measures continue to make an impact in our communities. Using open data tools to synthesize our disparate statistical silos will be key to sorting through all the noise. By finding new ways to cross-reference these measures with one another, it’ll be possible to identify new correlations between library use and community development.

This continues to be daunting, but we don’t have to do this alone. With proper anonymization measures in place, we can build open datasets, offer code repositories, and allow more members of the public to experiment with library software. This can provide a natural jumping-on point for groups like Code for America—a national initiative devoted to cultivating greater public participation with community open data projects. Trading the library’s reach for this local expertise can be one way to facilitate ongoing improvements and building new literacies.

The future of libraries might get a little weird. In the effort to push things forward, we can’t forget to have a little fun. Our collections have always harbored quirky or outright strange titles. (The same might be said for our patron bases, as well.) It’s always been a point of pride for us to champion undiscovered gems. Similarly, injecting a little oddity into our online presence can provide a little extra garnish to the overall library story. For example, the Orkney Library’s (in Kirkwall, United Kingdom) @orkneylibrary Twitter account3 is living proof that a taste for the absurd can help to raise one’s visibility.

The future of libraries isn’t always going to get everything right. By this point, the concept of “fail quickly” is getting to be about as cliché as “disruption.” The idea of building steady improvements through constant iteration is gaining traction. But it’s tough to take such risks, especially for public institutions that likely face strict scrutiny from their taxpaying user base. Risking failure with public funds is a tremendous leap. Just as one should focus on failure as a learning tool, it’s possible to trade on trust to get members of the community on board with seemingly “risky” ventures. By keeping the risks small and the process transparent, libraries can give their users a better understanding of why they’re trying something new—even if things don’t always work out.

The future of libraries is human. Keeping the focus on the people and the community serves as our strongest hedge against the ebbs and flows of technology. We can’t predict the next big thing, nor can we be ready for the next big tech bubble to burst. But once again, it’s in the ways we build strong ties with our public that will open the doors to technological insight. As long as we keep an eye toward building continuity in our relationships, we’ll be able to develop the right tools for our audience.

The future of libraries is nothing without a strong present.
During his keynote address at the Next Library 2014 conference,4 educator John Palfrey spoke of creating a “new nostalgia” for libraries. While libraries are known to generate fond sentiments in large portions of the population, it’s often steeped in the traditional notions of books and quiet. Given all the changes taking place in our institutions, perhaps we should look into transferring those warm fuzzies into something that better reflects current library practices.

This certainly won’t be the last piece you ever read on the future of libraries. Everyone has an opinion on the topic, and that will continue to evolve over time. But I like to think Palfrey has a point: feelings about the future can’t get started until we shape hearts and minds in the present. Shaping those feelings now is a gift we pass along to our future selves.


  1. John Barth, Browsing (Chestertown, Md.: Literary House Pr., 2004).
  2. ComScore Reports September 2014 U.S. Smartphone Subscriber Market Share,” comScore press release, Nov. 6, 2014, accessed Dec. 14, 2014.
  3. Alan White, “Here’s The Story Behind Orkney Library’s Hilarious Twitter Account,” BuzzFeed, Dec. 1, 2014, accessed Dec. 2, 2014.
  4. Sanhita SinhaRoy, “A New Nostalgia for Libraries: DPLA Chair John Palfrey Discusses the Role of Libraries in the Digital Age,” American Libraries Magazine: The Scoop blog, June 24, 2014, accessed Dec. 14, 2014.