The Future of Libraries

Yesterday, The New York Times published Libraries Must Change, an opinion piece by president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx. I first started thinking about the future of libraries in Fall 2019. I took a writing creative non-fiction class and wrote two essays about libraries. The first was basically a love letter to the libraries I have used throughout my life, which my professor loved and raved about to the class. The second he steered me to write. He wanted me to explore the future of libraries, and I could tell from his attitude towards the final draft, that I hadn’t been able to get where he wanted me to go. In Spring 2020 I was finishing my last two classes. One class was a class in Archival Administration where we were planning to visit different archives around us in person and write a report. COVID-19 closed our campus before that happened and we did virtual visits to libraries and archives instead. One of the libraries I chose was The New York Public Library. I was in awe of the massive online collection they have built and continue to add to. Since then I keep thinking about that essay and how I will rewrite it someday with what clues to the future of libraries have been revealed in the wake of this pandemic.

Here is the essay as it was turned in to my professor. Any thoughts or comments as I think about its next form are welcome.

More Than Just Books: Libraries and Service Trends

I was at my mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving and her friend asked me what I was going to do after I get my bachelor’s degree in the Spring. I told her I had applied to Wayne State University (WSU) and hoped to be accepted to their Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program for next fall. “Well, you do like books,” she said, waved her hand, and moved on to the next topic. I should have told her that while I do enjoy reading, I want to be a librarian because I love information. I love organizing it, storing it, and helping people find it. The stereotype of librarians reading all day expands to include libraries as quiet spaces presided over by a judging, bespectacled spinster with a tight bun. She places her index finger to her lips and shushes all talk, even whispers, that aren’t directly related to due dates of materials. These misconceptions persist even though today’s library is a noisy, collaborative hub staffed by people of all genders, and often with tattoos, body piercings, and pink hair. This generation of librarians is more likely to be shushed by a patron while teaching someone how to file their taxes online, than to do the shushing.

When I was in middle school (1983-85), I began collecting music. I collected it on vinyl records and cassette tapes bought in record shops like The Vinyl Solution in Grand Rapids, MI, department stores like K-Mart, mail order via the Columbia House Record and Tape Club, and yard sales. I once scored a copy of the Jackson 5’s Third Album for ten cents. It had a skip on it and the anti-static sleeve was gone but I cared for it like it was a mint, first edition, copy. I had a cheap tape player/audio recorder that I propped up against my radio to capture music and comedy bits onto blank cassette tapes. I wrote the contents of each tape down in spiral bound, one subject notebooks. I sorted the records and tapes by artist (last name first for solo acts) and then by the album’s year of release.

As information professionals, most librarians are excited by the latest technology because it can help them provide the best user experience for their patrons. My simple paper system was effective for my small collection, but with the amount of information available today, and the variety of formats it is stored in, libraries need powerful online systems that allow patrons to access their collections wherever they are. While e-book and online serials are replacing a significant amount of print material, we still need libraries because they broker deals with book publishers and vendors and teach us how to use the platforms they are distributed through. We may be able to Google everything, but we still cannot access most e-books and magazines without a credit card or a library card. Articles proclaiming the death of libraries often forget this.

Public libraries not only provide access to information but valuable social services. The Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL) offers programing for all ages. As a mother, I have borrowed books that I couldn’t afford to buy for my son, participated in a Dog Man Party (a popular graphic novel series by Dave Pilkey that my son adores), brought him in during summer break to play with other kids, and enjoyed animal shows by Binder Park Zoo in library meeting rooms. Probably the most unusual thing I went there for was a pair of solar eclipse glasses. As a person who lives in a 600-square foot house, what I am most grateful for is the number of e-books and mp3s I can borrow and stream from KPL on my laptop and phone.

The library at Western Michigan University (where I currently work as a student employee) has been boxing up books with low circulation numbers and moving them to storage. It has also been digitizing master and PhD theses, and while they typically keep one original print copy in the archives, second copies are being withdrawn. Several years ago, new theses began being submitted only digitally. Copies off all these digital files are being uploaded to ScholarWorks, for researches around the world to use in the comfort of their home, office, library, or coffee shop. As books disappear from the stacks, shelving is removed and replaced with tables, comfortable chairs, and white boards for students to use during group study. Other changes include a café, a virtual reality lab manned by the library’s Information Technology department, and a makerspace where the Innovation Club houses 3D printers and other tools for student projects.

I asked, two WMU librarians Amy Bocko (Digital Projects Librarian) and Marianne Swierenga (Cataloging and Metadata Librarian) where they thought libraries would be in twenty years. They both believe there will be an increase in technology-based services. Amy’s position didn’t even exist ten years ago and now her department is recreating “unique, rare and delicate materials online for many people to use.” Marianne believes libraries will still be at the “center of our communities, offering access to information in whatever formats exist.” I overheard another librarian talking about an aging database titled Making Modern Michigan. This database, built by fifty-two Michigan libraries and housed on one of Michigan State University’s servers, is not as attractive or easy to use more recent databases. The documents and photos were scanned as low-resolution grayscale images (I assume this was standard practice due to server space being expensive), instead of high-resolution color images and PDFs as is current practice. Each page of personal diaries are individual files and not easy to read. I am interested to see if the collections will remain in their current form, be reimaged using newer equipment and standards, or if both will happen. Perhaps we will have a legacy edition and, if these institutions have the time and funding, a new high-resolution edition. I think this would be an excellent way to document how libraries change with technology.

As public libraries evolve, we may see fewer books, but there will always be a commitment to the community and its most vulnerable citizens. An example of this is the Hilary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library (part of the Central Arkansas Library System), which has many patrons who live in poverty and are food insecure. This library used input from patrons (some as young as eleven) to design the new building and grounds. They built a teaching kitchen, food greenhouses, and a 165-seat theater, in addition to traditional library areas like book stacks and a computer lab. Another example I would love to see become a model for other communities, is here in Kalamazoo, Michigan. KPL has a partnership with Kalamazoo Public Schools, and last year they launched the OneCard. The card works as a student’s school ID and library card, and a KPL library card. High school students also receive free rides on city Metro busses with their OneCard.

I continue to be excited by new technology and use in the organization of my music collection. Like most libraries I have had to reorganize my space. My records, cassettes, and CDs have been moved off site to remote storage (AKA a friend’s house). Now my collection consists of roughly 10,000 mp3s ripped from my CDs and others purchased from Amazon and other retailers. I still enjoy organizing them and often edit the metadata to correct display problems with music apps.

In the future, I see libraries as being even more fluid than they are now. I see them shifting focus and transforming spaces well ahead of coming trends. They will be pillars of their communities and provide technology and job training. They will be hubs of creativity where people can paint, write, and work on other crafts, either alone or as part of a group. They will be places to meet with friends and play a classic boardgame or the latest videogame. They will also be keepers of their community’s past by being part museum and art gallery. They might even have a corner where someone can choose to read a print book or listen to a vinyl record.

I can speculate about the technology and layout of future libraries, but ultimately the people graduating high school in the next few years will be the ones who shape libraries in the next twenty to thirty. Seeing how these young people organize around the political and social issues that affect them, I believe it is going to be an exciting time. I look forward to seeing how they reinvent libraries to suit the needs of their communities.

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