The Future of Libraries

For thousands of years, humans have created spaces to preserve important docu-ments and records – spaces which encourage knowledge and learning. From clay tablets in ancient Babylon through the world’s first tax-supported free library in Pe-terborough, New Hampshire, to the sparkling new global architectural gems which make today’s repositories as much places of exploration as tourist destinations, the story of libraries is strong and growing. Libraries – and the archival spaces they often contain – were once chiefly for books. Now, they have also become cultural centres, gathering places and so-called “mak-erspaces”. Above all, they make books, technology and learning accessible to eve-ryone, regardless of gender, religion or socio-economic background. As libraries look to the future – moving from the hushed, book-lined halls of the past to the vibrant, technology hubs of tomorrow – Guy Berthiaume, the outgoing Librar-ian and Archivist of Canada, gives us a sense of where things stand now, where they are going, and why libraries are here to stay. 

By Catherine Clark

What are some of the emerging trends when it comes to libraries?

There has been a very big change in how people use libraries. In the past, people used libraries to take out books, but the new generation has a whole new relationship with almost all institutions, including libraries. They are not in borrowing mode, they are in participation mode: they want things that let them use libraries in brand new ways. We are in an age of “experiential learning” where we learn not through theory but through lived experiences. That can mean many things for a library – participating in a round table, debate or conference – but whatever it is, today’s users are all looking for ways to be less passive.

How is technology impacting libraries?

Technology evolves so rapidly, we simply have to adapt. We used to have paper index cards, then we had computers, now we can reserve a book using our mobile phone.

When we return books, a machine does a read-through of what’s going in and what’s going out. Soon enough, it will be robots getting books out of the stacks. We can now search not just by subject but by words or phrases. And we can figure out exactly what book is using that word or that expression because texts are now available electronically. These types of technologies are evolving at a dizzying pace, which is why we have to look at libraries not just as brick and mortar places, but also as a place that millions of people are using online. Over the past 10 years, the library space – which was once almost entirely filled with stacks of books – is now left open for the use of computers. The stacks are now offsite, in the basement or in other locations, and the main space in the library is given over to tables for work, for makerspace, for computers – meaning that it is now dedicated to the library users and not to books.

Architecture also plays a huge role. So many cities around the world are embracing statement architecture for their libraries, and this becomes a form of city branding. Like a museum, the library is now a tourist attraction – people go to see a beautiful library, which in turn shows that the library is an important part in the city. This has become a significant branding strategy for cities.

What are some of the strategies being used to ensure that libraries remain relevant to younger generations?

Many libraries now create groups like a Youth Advisory Council specifically to ask younger people what changes they would like to see in their library, rather than having the administrators try and figure out what they might like. We ask basic but essential questions like: “How can we be more relevant to you?” They might say, “We’d like more video games,” and in fact we see that lots of libraries now lend video games or have video nights. This leads to more youth becoming or remaining interested in libraries, and it’s just one example of the things we can do when we listen to young people.

There are also a few cities which are building teen libraries. One of the first ones was built in Queens, NY about 10 years ago, and I know that Montreal has also discussed creating a space for young people. If you want to offer unique services to younger patrons, you also have to keep in mind that it could be a bit loud; it might bother other patrons, so the idea of creating a separate space for adolescents and teenagers is gaining momentum.

What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of libraries?

My worries are not about the libraries themselves but about our archives, our capacity to document the electronic data that surround us. How are we going to capture Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? How are we going to capture all of the important electronic government documents? Or the literally billions of emails sent every year within government institutions? How are we going to make the right choices in terms of keeping only what is useful? That’s what keeps me up at night. Libraries are in great shape all over the world, but archiving and preserving relevant government records for future generations is a challenge for us.

At this stage, we are developing tools that can be used by the people who are creating documents or sending emails. We are creating codes that can be used to differentiate between when you’re emailing a colleague about lunch plans and when you’re announcing a major government decision on Twitter. One of those emails is important, the other is not. When you apply the code, a copy of the important emails will be sent to Library and Archives Canada in about 10-15 years.

We need a technological solution to document this important electronic information, but we also need to train government employees on why and how to use it. We’re going to need more and more access to those kinds of tools because of the mass of documents coming our way. The sum of human knowledge is doubling year after year, and we just can’t do things the way we used to.

Is there one achievement of which you are particularly proud?

There are a lot of national libraries that see their role as primarily serving the intellectual, but that’s not a vision I share. I think my biggest contribution was to insist on giving greater access to our centres.

Our mandate at Library and Archives Canada is based on three pillars: receiving materials, preserving them and giving access to them. I reversed the order to make giving access the most important. It doesn’t make sense to accept and preserve materials if we don’t put the emphasis on giving access. Library and Archives Canada had a building that was built only for research. We made no effort to let the people know what or who we were. But, by opening the doors and inviting people in through conferences, interviews and exhibits, we let them know that we existed, and showcased the kinds of materials that had once been hidden behind closed doors.

Do you believe that libraries have a future?

Yes, I do, and it’s not just a thought or a hope; it’s a reality that there will always be libraries. As technologies develop, there are MORE people in libraries, not less: the number of users is actually going up in a great many countries.

Remember that of all the great cultural institutions like museums and theatres, libraries are the only ones that are completely free. Libraries are fully democratic institutions; no one is barred from a library because they can’t pay. And the fact that libraries are quick to adopt new technologies and develop new experiences means that they are more relevant today than ever.

Another important role that we’ll be playing is in trying to counteract fake news. Increasingly, people don’t believe that the news they are reading or seeing is true. However, they still see libraries as being truthful, and it’s up to us to safeguard that reputation. Libraries also have to look at ways to fact-check, to provide information that’s seen as legitimate, and all libraries and archives must develop methods to help citizens and media see the difference between what’s true and what’s not.

What gives you hope when it comes to the future of libraries?

I have confidence in future generations. If our generation was able to figure out a way to keep important materials, to digitalize them and find ways to integrate technology, then the next generation can certainly do it too. I have confidence that they can find solutions that will enable them to receive, preserve and give access to materials that are important to our collective history.

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