The Once and Future Library

I was recently asked to imagine what libraries might look like in two hundred years. Being a dedicated amateur futurist, I could hardly overlook such a tantalizing challenge. I started my analysis with a quick summary of what I understood the charter of public libraries to be right now.

They are first and foremost repositories of books. They typically take a broad view of their charter and try to provide a significant sample of all genres of books, both fiction and non-fiction. They also have collections of newspapers and periodicals although those are beginning to get scarce.

In recent years they have been adding other types of media. Everything from microfilm to DVDs, audiobooks to streaming media. They have also ramped up sponsorship of various activities and interest groups, taking on a role of social hub.

Being a public service organization they have taken on some unexpected roles of late. Homeless people have learned that they can take shelter from adverse weather whether it is torrential rains, scorching heat, or freezing cold, they can come in and read a book or talk quietly with friends. I understand that a number of them are happy to volunteer to do small chores around the library such as helping to set up tables and chairs for events or even suggest to disruptive people that they might want to move along.

Now let’s project into the future. Much of humanity’s knowledge is now kept in digital form. It is accessible through brain machine interfaces that connect people to digital stores of knowledge and to each other. People are concerned with archiving their experience for future generations. For that matter, they want to archive it so that they can remind themselves of it periodically as their live stretch out decade by decade and century by century. Death by natural causes is practically unheard of any more. The only way people die is by infrequent accidents, or more frequently by their own hand.

People are concerned about storing their creations, be they literary, musical, or artistic. Engineering, architectural, or dramatic. Libraries have realized the challenge of keeping up with hardware capable of running the archaic software as well as keeping archival copies of various applications capable of rendering the content that is stored in the archive. In just the span of my career, from 1976 through present (2017) we have seen such media as paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, magnetic drums, magnetic disks that have grown in capacity and density in an exponential fashion over time, floppy disks in ever shrinking size and ever growing capacity, solid state media consisting of USB thumb drives, embedded hard disk drive replacements, and extremely small storage cards such as are used in phones and other devices for highly dense magnetic story.

In short, I think that many libraries will start archiving the digital lives of their patrons. There will be terms of service that ultimately benefit the entire community after a period in which the descendants and other designees will have sole say over the access to the digital assets of the deceased.

The library will also provide holodeck like VR facilities for consuming VR literature. This will allow people of modest means the means to enjoy media originally created for people with enough space to have their own holodeck facility.

Their will be other services but these are just some of the low hanging fruit. Of course you’ll still be able to check out a book. Books will never go out of style. It may be printed and bound for you on demand at the checkout desk. And when you return it, it will be kept on a shelf for a while and then recycled if no one else wants to read it right away.

See you at the library.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.