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Libraries May Outlive More Than Just Books

by on February 11, 2016

Adapt to survive. This simple mantra may be a bit clichéd, but it is thus for a reason: it is a truth, especially in a business. Libraries may be community services, but they are also businesses, or else they couldn’t keep their doors open to serve their communities. They must adapt to survive. This may mean that the library of 2100 will look nothing like the library of today, though today’s library looks very little like the library I visited when I was a child. That library was a central hub in my hometown, serving everyone. There were no computers and no library networks – there were barely interlibrary loans, and I was too young to know what those were.

Today’s libraries are moving away from vast stacks of books and expanding their catalogs of e-books, special collections, and audiobooks as the publishing industry itself changes. Future Tense, a partnership among Arizona State University (ASU), New America, and Slate held a panel in November with experts in the field of library sciences. The experts were asked to describe the library of the future and whether or not they believed libraries will outlive books. All of them pointed to the concept of adaptation when answering the question.

From the Middle Ages . . .

Miguel Figueroa, director of the American Library Association’s Center for Future Libraries pointed out during the panel that people “still like their books in all different formats.”[1] That includes the print format, which can be traced to public libraries established in the Late Middle Ages but originating even earlier as well-rounded personal or restricted collections. Printing was so unique in medieval France that, in the fourteenth century, the oldest public library still open today, the Bibliothéque nationale de France (BnF) was created, based on King Charles V’s royal collection of printed texts. This eventually morphed in a legal depository of all published works in France. In the 500 years since its establishment, the BnF still adapts to meet the needs of its public. In 1988, then-President François Mitterand surprised everyone, including the library’s staff, with his announcement of the construction of an additional new research library.

The BnF isn’t the only ancient library to bring books from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century. Traced back to a small library room in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the early 1300s, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library has successfully navigated nearly 700 years of constant change to stand as one of the oldest libraries in Europe. When I visited it in the late nineties, it was ahead of its time in how readers navigated its vast stores.

Stretching throughout more than one huge building, including the famous Radcliffe Camera, it had a digital catalog from which I had to request books. My request was sent to the appropriate stack, where a librarian found it, and then the book was “shipped” to the reading room I was assigned. The catalogs were, compared to my small college where we still used a card catalog, as high-tech as one could get in 1998.

To Infinity . . .

Even the Bodleian, or the Bod as those of us who have studied in it call it, curates a large library of e-books for its users. The collection is searchable via an online portal, and this is in line with what Future Tense panelist Deborah Jacobs cites as a need for libraries to focus on the preferences of the customer. Director of the Global Libraries Initiative for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jacobs points to the Boston Public Library (BPL) as a beacon of adaption in the face of customer needs.

Not only does BPL have cafés, but it also produces television shows for teens and has teen librarians who curate collections at various locations in the BPL network. The content of libraries evolves, as does the customer base. Each community serves a unique customer base. In large cities like Boston, the customer base is going to be diverse; thus the evolution of the library will have to grow with the population. As Jacobs stated, libraries “have to be where the information is going.” For Boston, much of that information is going through the eyes of teens.

Even smaller library networks, like the one in my hometown of Boise, Idaho, are serving increasingly global audiences. The Boise Public Library offers a conversational English course for second language learners. Libraries are moving beyond providing books and are branching into providing educational services to meet their communities’ needs.

Beyond the Books . . .

What will libraries look like in 2100, or even farther into the future? If ASU’s librarian James O’Donnell has anything to do with it, they may look a lot like the Library of the year 5100 featured in the sci-fi series Doctor Who. O’Donnell’s primary vision is for a global library where all the world’s libraries will be brought together in one massive collection, like the planet-library hybrid explored by the Doctor. O’Donnell has already achieved this in a smaller scale at his university, as its library collections are accessible worldwide by ASU students who are learning via online programs. My own university uses a similar platform to make its library collections available to international learners, proof that a global library isn’t so far-fetched.

At the same time, it is likely that while libraries will indeed outlive books, and even perhaps the people who read them, they will also have to remain as adaptable to the communities that use them. Our libraries may someday be, literally and figuratively, in Clouds.


[1] Miguel Figueroa. “Will Libraries Outlive Books?” (panel, Future Tense, Washington, Dc, November 12, 2015).”


Gravalt, Nancy. “Will Libraries Outlive Books?American Libraries, November 17, 2015.

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