A future without libraries? A radical new idea


On a librarian listserv there was the following post today. Wanted to put it on LISNEWS so people could comment:
(Because the post is slightly longer than LISNEWS allows on the front page make sure you click the "read more" link at bottom of post. You will know if you have the whole thing if you see the last line that says: What do YOU think of my idea? )
This is only my opinion and has been posted to many lists for feedback. (Sorry about any duplicate posts you may receive)

I can envision a future without libraries. Yes, without libraries...but with more librarians.

1. More and more resources are online. Even ones formerly available only in print are now also online. And many are available only online.
2. Users increasingly want resources only if they are online. They don't want to have to go tot the library to answer their questions.
3. Is it fiscally responsible to require users to spend their valuable time to come to the library?
4. Is it fiscally responsible to allow users to spend their valuable time looking for information online when they a) do not know where to search, b) do not know how to search (effectively), and c) probably do not know how to determine if the information they find is correct or reliable?

So, I can see a future without physical libraries but with librarians embedded within the units of the organization. These librarians would be professionally trained (degreed) not only in librarianship, with an emphasis on customer service, but also in the subject matter of the users.

This would be a reasonable scenario for corporate, medical, law, and non-profit organizational libraries. It could also work in school libraries with classroom collections and a librarian that visits each classroom on a frequent schedule (or as requested) to teach and answer questions and help with research projects. This system could even work with academic institutions, with the distribution of the main library (which often serves as a sort of archives where 98 percent of the books never leave the shelves) to departmental collections and librarians in each department.

I know that this is a radical departure from current practice. However, I am at a point in my career (almost retired) where I am free to look back and forward at the same time, leading to this type of thinking.

What do YOU think of my idea?


The value of library as a place seems to be diminishing. I work at a medical library, where the clientele is different. People who come to the library in person either want to use our computers or need a quiet place to study. Since we can send books to our folks by interoffice mail, they don't even have to come to the library for a book! So perhaps adapt an Amazon-like model where we are accessible online but we do have a "book warehouse" where we keep our minimal print collection? I guess an argument can be made for either side but with more people wanting online resources, it makes sense to have a bigger online presence than a physical presence.

Some corporate/special libraries did that long ago--and it made sense for them: Eliminating the library as place and having librarians available to directly serve researchers.

For academic libraries...well, there's no single "academic library" model, and I won't go further.

For public libraries: A flat-out disaster.

"The value of library as place seems to be diminishing' is only true if qualified by type of library and individual instance. The value of good public libraries as places is, if anything, increasing, as we enter a time of limits that's likely to stick around for a few years.

As is so often the case, "the library" is a dangerous misnomer--and attempting to generalize from special libraries to public libraries (or even academic libraries) is particularly dangerous.

Our Cambridge Public Library and Boston Public Library need to do more to make the buildings more welcoming. The experience of visiting our libraries fails because not enough clues for navigating around are provided in a useful way.

Yes and no....

Yes for the reasons you suggest....

1. More and more resources are online. Even ones formerly available only in print are now also online. And many are available only online.
2. Users increasingly want resources only if they are online. They don't want to have to go to the library to answer their questions.
3. Is it fiscally responsible to require users to spend their valuable time to come to the library?

No.....for my own reasons....

1. The idea of a Public Library is to encourage people to READ.
2. We provide books, movies, audiobooks, computers for those who do not have access at home, storytimes, adult & teen programming, a place to gather, a place to sit and read away from home, a place to connect to the internet away from home.
3. Seeking Information is different from seeking Leisure..... so then: Is it fiscally responsible to require readers to spend their valuable time and money to go to a bookstore and purchase a book/movie/audiobook that they do not want to add to their personal collections?
4. Not everyone (thank Creator) is so inclined to make librarians do their research for them....some researchers are responsible enough to know how to do it themselves.
5. Do not kid yourself, online resources, such as OED, Encyclopedia Britannica, & Gale resources are far from inexpensive to purchase and update, especially in larger library systems.... These high end resources are not available to most private users (let alone public libraries).... If you don't have an Academic library card (user privileges), how do you access them online?

Actually, I believe libraries are here to stay...at least during my lifetime.

Actually, I think what you've laid out is a scenario not only for the end of libraries but for the end of librarians, as well.

The obvious first--a "librarian" without a "library" is not really a librarian. Such a person may be an "information manager / -concierge/ -what-have-you," but, with no ties to a physical collection (i.e., "library"), there is no "librarian."

Moreover.... I think it's more likely that the "librarian work" you describe in your scenario-- customer service, subject expertise, teaching-- could all be outsourced to other employees. I suppose an organization might hire a "librarian" to do some combination of these things, but more likely they will fill the need as it comes. If they need someone to answer questions from students about information resources, they could hire a librarian... or they might just add that responsibility to someone already on payroll. They might even provide special training or hire part-time staff or --who knows. But the notion that organizations will continue to hire specially trained (used to be called) librarians to do these things... well, I just don't think they would. I can easily imagine administrators outsourcing these jobs to IT staff, to administrative assistants, to graduate students (in higher ed), "subject experts" with master's degrees and doctorates in those fields--and maybe even to a few librarians. But I think the "no more books" scenario will not be a rosy one for librarians.

So long as there are collections of printed books, there will be libraries and librarians. After that time?... all bets are off I'm afraid.

We discussed this issue at the Frankfurt Bookfair - and came to the conclusion that there will (and should!) be libraries in the future.
But of course that doesn't mean that we shouldn't think of new ways and new possibilities - which, in some cases, might acutally mean that there'll no longer be a phyiscal buidling called "library" you would go to.
I guess it very much depends on the kind of library, the users you serve - and how important your library is for a community. Especially public libraries might become even more important as places to go to in the future; places where people can learn, discuss, share knowledge, get educated, communicate, and read.

As a children's librarian, I do not foresee a future without libraries. There are as I sit here at the children's reference desk, only a few of our many computer terminals not being used. Not all children have home computers (digital divide, anyone?) and the library is one of the only places you can use a computer for free. Also, parents bring their children here to find books (browsing is big with kids and parents) and to look at our fish. (Kids love looking at our aquarium of fish.) Parents also bring their children to the library for storytimes. I run two storytimes for kids 6 mos old plus parents and siblings back to back on Wednesdays. I average 40 people each session.

Maybe libraries aren't a "third place" for upwardly mobile increasingly electronic adults, but the children (and their parents) are here every single day.

The radical aspect of libraries, that they are cooperative purchasing projects, can continue if we want it to. If consenting adults wish to pay to share books or other objects, I imagine it can happen. It might be a battle in a digital age if digital rights lose all concept of fair use and if they evolve to prohibit sharing, but parties in agreement usually find a way to satisfaction.

I just can not understand why the only internet archive is not operated by any library. Or at least, not start by a library. It just become a library.

Why no librarian feel guilty about that?

It is, in some ways, the direction my special library is headed. We've been looking at embedding librarians directly in the production units, even while we still have a physical library, with the knowledge that we're hoping to be virtual within the next few years (which will likely mean losing the library as physical space). In our case I don't think it'll mean a loss of jobs, because we're quite specialized, but I think for many people loss of visibility will mean loss of position, as people forget about librarians.

1. Studies do show that reference collections are much more useful in online, electronic formats. But print will never go out of style & decades of research materials will likely never be digitized. Books don't take batteries.

2. Users do increasingly want answers online & librarians are meeting that demand by offering IM & email Reference Services.

3. Even institutions with strong online reference collections find that patrons still come to the library because it is an intellectual & recreational sanctuary, a place of community & institutional pride.

4. Library instruction has long been a part of a librarian's job. It can be done on site or online. Nine times out of ten, however, patrons would rather just be handed the information they seek than be schooled on library use.
The world could use more information literacy, of course, but it's only useful if instructors & others demand information accountability.

I am not sure what fiscally responsible refers to? I go to the library because I want to and enjoy going there. Evidently, it has been awhile since the author of this post has been to a public library. The public library is not just books anymore. There are teen nights for gaming, children activities scheduled, author signings, computer classes, book reading clubs, study groups, the list goes on and on. I worked in a public library system the patrons lived in the 3 poorest counties in the state. The article assumes the library users actually have access to the Internet and other on line resources. This simply is not true.

I totally agree. I am an MLIS Student working in a large Academic Library. My primary responsibility is working with collections, that can be used to create a "Bridge" from the classroom to the Library.

I have a Marketing background (Undergrad), and I am constantly thinking of our patrons as customers, and how we can make the overall product - Libraries better. I am not sure who wrote this entry, but i would love to hear more about it.


The public library is evolving, not going away. We are becoming community centers that offer programs, movies, DVD's, computer use and services, databases, etc. The nature of our services is changing but our usage is going up, not down, pretty much across the country. I am the library director of a small library in New Hampshire looking to provide our community with what they asked for in a long-range planning gathering over several meetings-- a community center that values and participates in preserving the town history and provides meaningful programs, materials and services.