The Future of Public Libraries

As you may know I’m involved with a scenario planning project looking at the future of public libraries. Usually these projects are confidential but on this rare occasion I can talk openly about what we are doing and what the scenario team is thinking.

There are about 45 people working on this project although the core scenario building team is much smaller. We have now developed 2 framing questions, which are roughly as follows:

1. What professional skills and attitudes will public library staff be demonstrating in 2030 in order to be successful in the alternative futures in which they might operate?

2. Where will the leadership and funding that drives this success come from?

We have also developed a series of indicative scenarios and briefly discussed around 20 key influences. The next stage is to create some conversations around these influences, edit the influences down to a handful of key drivers and develop a scenario matrix. From this matrix we will then create a series of scenario worlds and create a logical narrative around each scenario.

If anyone out there in library land (or anywhere else) would like to comment or contribute to the long list of key influences this would be most welcome. The list is currently as follows (not ranked):

• Sustainability

• Pricing (free versus user pays)

• Demand for space (third spaces and refuge)

• Media formats (fixed versus fluid)

• Trustworthiness of information

• Changing attitudes to work (especially mobility)

• Funding (high versus low – all sources)

• The value the local community puts on information/knowledge

• Service provision (stand alone versus integrated)

• Demographic change (ageing, ethnic shifts etc)

• Access equity

• Social cohesion / identity

• Democratisation of information (web 2.0 etc)

• Demand for literacy/navigation

• Library network (fragmented versus unified)

• Supply of new professionals

• Staff resistance to change

• Pace of technological change

• Demand for recreational use of libraries

So:have we missed anything? All comments extremely welcome and from anyone.

8 thoughts on “The Future of Public Libraries

  1. Looking at your list of key influences, I believe your group is on target. There are so many opportunities and threats out there affecting libraries. As a librarian of 30+ years and as someone who now works mainly with public libraries, I can safely say that all of these influences are driving the services that public libraries are providing their users.

    Unfortunately, the economic situation, e.g., sustainability, (in California, at least) is starting to really rise to the top. In the short term, libraries will need to do more with less money, fewer staff, reduced hours, while at the same time demand is at an all time high.

    It is a challenging situation to be in: keeping up with technological change, responding to more complex information requests, meeting the needs of those who have no other access to the internet, keeping staff interested in changes … The list is endless. I look forward to whatever documents result from your work.

  2. Hi Rosario,

    As far as I am aware all documents relating to the future of public libraries will be freely available from about Aug/Sept onwards. Of course the interesting question is what format(s) does one create documentation in given that we are talking about public libraries in the year 2030?

    For my money i think we should cover all bets:

    – A book
    – An e-book
    – A PDF summary
    – A podcast
    – A series of short clips on Youtube
    – A series of public lectures

    I will be posting on this on a regular basis from now on.



  3. Hmmm….interesting question about how the documentation should be made available. It will be even more interesting to see which of the “futures” really come to pass.

    BTW, here in California we had a two day meeting almost a year ago where we invited about 80 folks from around the state to come and envision the future of libraries. We worked with two futurists who led us through a series of exercises. For me it was fascinating to watch people really struggle when trying to look beyond now or even two-three years from now. We asked them to put together scenarios of what libraries might be doing by the year 2020 (the futurists wanted to go out further, but we thought that might be too difficult for the attendees).

    I look forward to your posts on this topic. And, overall, I enjoy your blog.

  4. I suggest an axis for “public service” (given that English seems to lack a better term). The library/information “profession” is only a profession anasmuch as it interacts … on a very personal, conversational, level … with a given public.

    Technology is a powerful enabler. However, we stumble when we ask people to rely on technology rather than “a professional, plus technology.”

    This requires an entirely new recasting of our professional education … as Jesse Shera pointed out long ago when he coined the phrase “social epistemology.” We can no longer simply be fluent in a technology (once cards, now computers). We need to become fluent in ideas.

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  7. Very interesting topic. Where is the project at? I have not seen much posted/reported since 2009.

  8. It was all finished and a final report produced.

    Currently putting together a project looking at the future of sport but still very interested in anything around scenarios for libraries/books/museums


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