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Last month, there was the widely reported story about a private school in Massachusetts that removed all of its books from its library. (I’ve written about it before here.) Later, it became clear that other departments had the chance to take books from the collection before the rest were removed. There was a lot of discussion in the online library community about the move and brought up the integral question: can a library exist without books?
For those who can't imagine a library without books, that kind of future has already been visualized. This was my recent epiphany watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Sci-Fi (I refuse to call it SyFy). As I watched the crew of the Enterprise deal with the episode's problem, I could not help but notice the use of handheld devices, people reading nearly exclusively from monitors during their down time, and a computer system of near infinite cultural material storage and retrieval. And so here it was on the screen in front of me: a popular, highly regarded vision of a future space based society and nary a book to be found. The few books that do appear are highly prized personal possessions described by their owner as having been passed down from other family members or some other sentimental reason. No one ever appears to use their fabulous replicator technology to have a book created. They are content to use their view screens or handheld devices to do any reading. There is no ship library nor librarian nor even a information officer on a space ship that was reported to carry over 1,000 people. It simply did not exist within the confines of the Star Trek universe. And yet, it is an advanced and complex thriving intellectual and curious society that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge.
Of course, it's a science fiction series, not an actual depiction of the future. But what may seem depressing to some who read this, I see the ultimate in information interfaces. Upon second glance, this future meets some of the very needs that we want for our customers now. Information is instant, free, and on demand. The computer acts as a reference librarian with a vast database of all forms of knowledge; a person can make factual inquiries as well as user defined analytical requests as well. The holodecks take visual learning and content immersion to a whole new level of information presentation. The closest we get to this future vision is the handheld reading devices of the 1987 series that have an eerie resemblance to the modern handheld e-reader devices. And I would guess that someone has to program the computer and instruct it how to store and organize information lest the whole system become too unwieldy.
The truth of this future vision is that the entity of the library has wholly integrated itself into the daily lives of society. (Or, to take the line from that awesome library video, “everywhere is here”.) There is no need for a library as its own space when access is universal at the personal level. Effectively, in this future vision, librarians have been put out of business by a society that has realized the goals that we strive for now. Can this presentation of the 23rd century be any more of a positive reinforcement of the principles and goals of librarianship?
While I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think about Steven Bell’s article on the Library Journal website, “We need a new Sputnik”. While he was addressing the future research function in academic libraries, it really got me thinking about the types of changes that should be considered for the future public library. I’m going to think about it for now since it deserves its own post. But it has certainly lit my imagination afire with the promise and potential. How can we go from where we are now to make this aspect of a future vision a reality?