Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thomas Frey on The Future of Libraries

Thomas Frey, futurist and Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute, recently published "The Future of Law Libraries: Beginning the Great Transformation." I'm actually not a great believer in futurists. In the short term, some trends are predictable, and I still stand by my observation that at some point in the next future--meaning the next five to twenty years--law library collections will be almost completely digital; I just don't see how that can be considered debatable. But larger global trends and worldwide changes are much more slippery, and anyone who claims to predict with any confidence on that scale is likely to look foolish. While the article is surprisingly poorly written, some of Frey's comments are provocative, and some are indisputable--but others are sheer nonsense.

Frey lists "ten key trends that are affecting the development of the next generation library." Right off he sets himself up for error by neglecting to consider the differences in types of libraries: public libraries generally are different from academic libraries as a whole, and within academia, general university libraries are different from law libraries, health science libraries, engineering libraries, business libraries, music libraries, and so on. Still, looking at libraries generally, let's see what Frey has to say.

Trend #1 - Communication systems are continually changing the way people access information

OK, I'll buy that. But that observation raises what is for Frey "one obvious question to consider: what is the ultimate form of communication, and will we ever get there?" First, that's two questions; second, neither question makes sense. What on earth does "ultimate form of communication" means, and who on earth is looking for it? Depending on the circumstances, the best form of communication at the time might be a multi-volume treatise or a journal article; in other circumstances, it might be a touch of the hand or shared silence. Communication is not always reducible to technology.

Trend #2 - All technology ends. All technologies commonly used today will be replaced by something new.

My friend and co-blogger Betsy McKenzie, like me a student of the late Walter J. Ong, S.J., will recognize this as nonsense. Most communications technologies used in history have not been replaced, but still survive. Handwriting still comes in handy from time to time. Radio did not replace the telephone, television did not replace radio. Particular hardware components may become obsolete, but that does not render a technology dead; I haven't seen a rotary phone for years, but I still use a fountain pen. It is a common observation that computers have not replaced print, but rather produced great floods of it. How many piles of papers do you have stacked on your desk?

Trend #3 - We haven’t yet reached the ultimate small particle for storage. But soon.

Could be. Maybe. I don't know. But let's see what follows.

Trend #4 - Search Technology will become increasingly more complicated

An alarmingly sloppy choice of words. Will the search interface become more complicated, or the algorithms behind it? Does "complicated" mean "confusing and hard to use," or "sophisticated and easy to use"?

Trend #5 - Time compression is changing the lifestyle of library patrons

"Basically, we have more needs faster. However, 'needs' are a moving target, so the library of the future will need to be designed to accommodate the changing needs of its constituency." Again, a sloppy choice of words. Does the library's "need" for changing design mean the same as the consituency's changing "need"?

Trend #6 - Over time we will be transitioning to a verbal society

We have always been a "verbal society." Arguably, verbalization--language--is what makes society possible, and what makes homo sapiens human. Frey probably means "oral society"--and ignores decades of research that have long recognized this "key trend."

Frey goes on to predict that "by 2050 literacy will be dead." I find this extremely unpersuasive, and not least because it ignores the existence of over 5,000 years of humanity's written record.

Trend #7 - The demand for global information is growing exponentially

Trend #8 - The Stage is being set for a new era of Global Systems

Trend #9 – We are transitioning from a product-based economy to an experience based economy

"As the world’s population ages and the Baby Boom generation approaches retirement, many of them will begin to shed their belongings to create a more free and mobile lifestyle. Each item that a person owns demands their attention, and the accumulation of physical goods to demonstrate a person’s wealth is rapidly declining in importance. Experience becomes the key.

"How would you rate your last library experience? Chances are that you’ve never been asked that question. However, in the future, the patron experience will become a key measurement criteria."

True, perhaps, for the wealthier among us. But ask 80% of the world's population if the accumulation of physical goods is becoming less important for them.

Trend #10 - Libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture

"With the emergence of distributed forms of information the central role of the library as a repository of facts and information is changing. While it is still important to have this kind of resource, it has proven to be a diminishing draw in terms of library traffic."

After all of this, Frey's "Recommendations for Libraries" are something of a disappointment. "Evaluate the library experience." "Embrace new information technologies." "Preserve the memories of your own communities." "Experiment with creative spaces so the future role of the library can define itself." Nothing there is particularly new, but perhaps if Frey's article finds its way to some librarians, teachers, and administrators who do find it new and thought-provoking, it will have served its purpose.

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