For more than a decade, debate has raged over the future of our institution. As Library Journal editor-in-chief John Barry wrote in a recent editorial, "Fatalists and futurists, library users and those who never stop in, professionals and peons, politicians and voters have all participated in the various processes we have dreamed up to divine the future role of the public library."

In late spring 2001, the Fairfax County Public Library in northern Virginia joined the fray by asking three national experts to discuss their scenarios for the future of public libraries at a staff workshop, entitled appropriately "Library. Future." The speakers included Marilyn Gell Mason, former director of the Cleveland Public Library and now with the National Commission on Libraries and Information; Walt Crawford, information architect with the Research Libraries Group and author of numerous books and the popular online newsletter, Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large; and Gary Strong, Director of the Queens Borough Public Library in New York, a system that has developed a national model for integrated service to a multicultural community. Their message was reassuring for both the fatalists and futurists in our profession. To paraphrase Mark Twain when he heard news of the publication of his obituary, "Rumors of [our] death are greatly exaggerated." To survive, though, the speakers emphasized, libraries must concentrate on discovering and developing technologies and services that work.

Mainstream or Marginal

In her portion of the presentation, "Libraries of the Future," Mason, who is also author of Strategic Management for Today's Libraries, focussed first on how technological change is affecting libraries.

She noted that libraries that have embraced technological change have remained mainstream institutions, while those that have not, risk becoming marginal in their societies. As an example, Mason explained that in the United States and Sweden, where libraries have adopted new technologies, usage hovers around 65 to 75 percent, while in Great Britain, where libraries remain traditional repositories of books only, usage is just 25 percent.

As an example of the rapid technological change society is experiencing, Mason reviewed statistics that reflect Internet growth familiar to all library professionals (2.5 million documents, growing at a rate of 7.3 million pages per day), and reminded the audience that less than one percent of the information is indexed. "It's becoming harder to search and searching is becoming more specialized," she said. "But there is one profession-ours-that can deal with it."

She also shared the widely-circulated estimates from Microsoft predictors that e-books will outsell print books in 2009; newspapers will abandon paper in 2018 and Webster's Dictionary will alter its first definition of "book" to refer to "writing read on a screen" by 2020. While many remain skeptical of such forecasts, she reminded the audience that several years ago, many of us did not read newspapers online, and five years ago the Internet as we know it today did not exist!

Mason suggested that the future of the publishing industry and its effect on libraries could resemble what happened in the music industry with the success of Napster, the online music service that allowed users to trade music. Several years ago individuals suggested that a "heavenly juke box" might be created in which consumers would subscribe to music in the same way they subscribe to cable. In the spring of 2001, three companies announced just such a concept. A "heavenly library" is not that far-fetched, and it will definitely change the way libraries do their job.

These and other environmental changes, according to Mason, have raised issues for libraries in four areas: services, staffing, archiving, and filtering. In the three major service areas provided by libraries-reference, circulation, and readers' services-noticeable changes include:

  • decrease in the number of reference questions
  • increase in the difficulty of the questions
  • rise in circulation, but more in non-print media, such as audio-visual materials-book circulation down
  • decrease in the proportion of population using libraries (For example, in Pittsburgh, the library system serves 1.3 million individuals, but only 8,500 people are responsible for 60 percent of the circulation)
  • more competition for readers from online services, such as and .

These changes illustrate the notion that what libraries are doing is not less important, but different. A service-based, rather than a collection-based library model is emerging. In the past the breadth and depth of a collection determined the level of services. This is no longer the case. Content is changing. Few individuals would expect to find just books in libraries these days. Also, buildings are becoming important in new ways and enjoying a renaissance as centers for computer and literacy training and hubs for the communities in which they are located, rather than just repositories of collections. In addition, networking is becoming more important. Many libraries have created Internet portals to information sources, but everyone is duplicating that effort. Libraries are also becoming electronic publishers of local history, genealogy, and other resources owned by no one else in the country. Technological changes have also pushed libraries toward a 24/7 service model, with interactive Web sites, that include reference chat service. Mason recently observed such a phenomenon at the Suffolk County Public Library in New York, which has initiated an after hours homework support reference service, called "Live Librarian."

In addition to technological changes affecting libraries in the future, a key demographic change will affect staffing. According to a recent issue of Occupational Outlook Quarterly, by 2008, 39,000 librarian jobs will go unfilled, as many librarians reach retirement age. More and more individuals receiving their M.L.S. degrees at present are going into private industry, because "they do not want to take a vow of poverty." To attract the best employees, libraries need to rethink staffing. One solution, admittedly controversial, which Mason offered is redefining job requirements with entry level jobs requiring a B.A. and those with an M.L.S. working at a higher level.

Finding the Ways That Work

Walt Crawford echoed many of Mason's concerns. But, even though he is the former president of the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) and the author of 14 books on information technology issues, Crawford emphasized the importance of viewing technology simply as a tool necessary to fulfill a library's mission.

"I think 'finding the ways that work' is a particularly good slogan for libraries and librarians in the new century," he said.

According to Crawford, 80 percent of new innovations fail. Therefore, it becomes essential to try to identify those that have a chance to succeed. Using the example of DVDs as a technology that is succeeding, Crawford suggests that new developments need to meet certain criteria to flourish. They must:

  • do something better than existing devices and media, or do something that existing systems just don't do
  • resonate with popular need and desire, or at least with the needs and desires of a target audience
  • be incremental-with enough familiarity to help users understand how and why to use them
  • be supported by more than one agency or producer. Single vendor innovations often don't survive.

What About E-Books?

Applying these criteria to e-books, Crawford believes the final form of e-book technology is still to be determined. "There are at least nine different things mixed up in the term e-books," he said, "and some of them are almost certain to succeed. Others won't. As a whole, as with other media, e-books are likely to offer new possibilities but not replace print books, except in those areas where print books don't work very well." Crawford acknowledges that his belief in the endurance of the printed page separates him from many other futurists.

Another new technology that Crawford believes will impact libraries is "Print-on-Demand" (POD) capability. POD technology allows books to be published as purchased using machines that combine high-speed laser printers, full-color cover printers, and binding mechanisms. Crawford envisions most large bookstores will someday have POD systems in their backrooms and perhaps library consortiums or large library systems will arrange to own or borrow them. This technology will affect libraries in three ways:

  • Out-of-print materials can be brought back into print as quickly as they can be digitized.
  • Midlist and backlist materials may never actually go out of print, which will be good for readers, but not writers, who often regain rights to their books when they go out-of-print.
  • Technology in vanity and self-publishing will be greatly expanded, which could pose a problem for libraries in determining what POD material to acquire.

Shaping the Future: A Model for Multicultural Service

Gary Strong, Director of the Queens Borough Public Library, also believes good service, even if it is non-dtraditional library service, is the key to shaping the future, not only of libraries but also of the cities and towns in which they exist. Serving an extremely diverse community, the 62-branch system has developed an integrated "New Americans" program which offers 116 popular collections in 16 languages, 80 English-As-A-Second-Language classes, cultural events, "WorldLinQ," Internet access to foreign language sites, and an International Resource Center for scholars and students.

"Multiculturalism," Strong believes, "is one of the social and economic resources that should be nurtured as part of every community's social capital." The challenge is to convey the spirit and nature of one cultural group to another cultural group. "I happen to believe libraries are the most important and effective means a community can have to accomplish that challenge," he added.

Mainstreaming Special Collections

In the past foreign language collections have been developed for special populations using grant funds and often involving someone else's selections. The collections were often not fully catalogued, specialized staff was not fully integrated into the libraries' structures and when grants ran out and libraries failed to pick up the expense, these collections floundered. According to Strong, the Queens system has attempted to remedy this problem by making service to its multicultural population a key component of its strategic plan. In developing the plan, staff were asked to try to define the full range of human diversity. In addition to common characteristics such as appearance or age, staff developed 17 additional categories and then put together bibliographies of material needed to serve these groups. They discovered they held less than 30 percent of the needed material and sought and received a $1 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation to provide the additional resources.

Responding to Demographic Change

To remain responsive to their diverse community, staff continually reviews language demographics and is ready to establish new collections as needs arise. When it became apparent that the need for a collection in Turkish existed, the Queens system was able to establish one in three months. In addition to collections in various languages, the "New Americans" program provides resources for such topics as job training, locating health and social services, and entrepreneurship training. Certified teachers teach "English Speakers of Other Languages" classes, and volunteers lead conversation groups between classes. Programming also reflects the system's commitment to serving its multicultural population. More than 30,000 programs were offered last year, many featuring the cultural heritage of the more than 100 nationalities represented in the Queens community. Through "WorldLinq," the Queens system offers links to Internet sites in five languages and also provides Internet training in those same languages. Two years ago, an International Resource Center for scholars and other users was established at a branch and provides thousands of titles, including hard-to-find resources, such as a guide to doing business in Bahrain, fiction from Bosnia, and feature films from China.

Recruiting in the Community

Responding to its diverse population even carries over into recruitment efforts for the Queens system. To encourage members from the community to join the library profession, Queens has established a "Page Fellows Program" for high school and college age pages, latchkey monitors, and volunteers. Each individual is paired with a librarian for 15 hours a week. "Our hope is to keep our talented, diverse staff with us," Strong explained.

Cultural Awareness-A 21st Century Skill

The success of the Queens system's integrated approach to serving a diverse population rests on several guidelines, which Strong shared with the audience:

  • avoid the tendency to group all cultures together or view them as the same
  • stress cultural pluralities and stress diversity
  • watch for stereotyping in language, roles, media and institutional practices
  • recognize that treating everyone the same does not mean that everyone is being treated fairly
  • become familiar with different world views that various cultures represent;
  • develop a contemporary perspective about race and culture
  • read cultural publications and listen to speakers about other cultures.

Strong ended his presentation by urging his audience to be proud of the library profession in our rapidly changing environment and to be eager to say, "I'm proud to be a librarian in a public library today."

The Future: Our Choice

The three futurists at the Fairfax County Public Library workshop all agreed that librarians may not be able to divine their future, but they can shape it. The continued success of the profession, they believe, rests on recognizing the areas where change is necessary, finding the tools and services that work, and offering non-traditional solutions to the meet the customers' needs.