Our Libraries: The Second Hundred Years, A Vision
by Ruth E. Kifer
In 1905, leaders in the library profession would have had little way of knowing that in one hundred years the library as an institution would serve the role that it does presently, or that the library as a physical entity would look as it does today. Libraries in the first decade of the twentieth century were scholarly, quiet, intimidating, elite, restrictive institutions that served primarily as warehouses of books. Over the past one hundred years, libraries of all kinds have become more accessible, inclusive, service-focused, dynamic, learning-centered, and format neutral; and they have become less restrictive, stuffy, elitist, and prescriptive. Today’s libraries provide 24/7 access to digital resources, offer community programming, teach users to effectively retrieve and use information, serve as community and campus gathering places, and give access to the universe of information available via the World Wide Web. Both public and academic libraries include teaching library users lifelong learning skills as a crucial part of their missions; and all libraries hold sacred their commitment to provide open, uncensored access to information.
Questions about the future of the library abound in library literature and in conversations taking place within the profession. Will libraries as we know them exist in ten, twenty, fifty, or more years? Will librarianship as a profession remain viable? Will libraries as physical spaces survive? Will the book as a relevant medium for conveying information, knowledge, learning, understanding, entertainment, and discourse exist outside of museums? Are we in 2005 any better equipped than the founders of VLA to peer into the future and predict the state of libraries one hundred years hence?
What we do know is that libraries have developed and grown over the past one hundred years in response to the changes and advancements in our society at large. In 1905, although automobiles were owned by wealthy individuals, most people traveled by other means, including carriage and bicycle. When the cost of manufacturing automobiles was decreased in Henry Ford’s assembly line factories, ownership of this mode of transportation came within reach of the average American. That development dramatically changed the culture and society of the United States in ways that those early automobile makers would not have been able to predict. Similarly, information technology today is changing at an ever-faster pace, making the future of libraries and learning difficult to foretell. How-ever, we need to be able to see the information technology corollaries to the national highway system, the need for automobile registration, cars dependent upon computer chips, or GPS automotive navigational devices.… today’s students are not the people that our educational systems were designed to teach.
The number of individuals who have never known a world without computers continues to grow, and that population mass of consumers, learners, teachers, parents, legislators, and other library constituents think and behave differently than those who came of age in an earlier time. Marc Prensky, author and producer of video games, explains in his writings that today’s students are not the people that our educational systems were designed to teach. He refers to those who have grown up in a digital world as “digital natives” and those who have moved to the digital world later in life as “digital immigrants.”1Librarian Sarah Ann Long, building upon Prensky’s premise, suggests in a recent article that not only must our schools change to meet the needs of students whose brains have actually developed in ways different than those of “digital immigrants,” but libraries must also change in order to remain relevant.2If Prensky and Long are correct, and I believe that they are, then our libraries, academic and public, must make dramatic changes, and quickly. In his 2004 article, David W. Lewis challenges academic librarians to prepare to live in a library world shaped by disruptive technologies. He counsels that librarians must be ready to diametrically change our organizations, invest in new and sometimes untested technologies, take calculated risks, and trust groups within the organization to develop exploratory projects. Like Prensky and Long, he makes the important point that we must listen and act upon the needs of students (digital natives), not just their teachers (digital immigrants).3
The future of libraries is being shaped by visionary leaders in the profession today. These leaders see libraries as gateways to comprehensive digital collections, as institutions committed to access to information resources and not ownership of resources, as valued community resources, as interactive learning centers, and as institutions that have both retained a physical place and built a ubiquitous virtual place in the community. In this future library world, librarians will be not only collection developers, but also content creators. Librarians will continue to be the preservers of our intellectual, scholarly, and cultural heritage, but they will also be knowledge man-agers and serve as human portals. Librarians will not only teach library users to navigate the information technology terrain, but also be an important part of the design and development of information systems that are more intuitive to “digital natives” so that information literacy skills instruction will be embedded in the information resources themselves.
There are enormous challenges facing librarians as we make this transformation. Librarians must become active players in the national public policy debate surrounding intellectual property and licensing issues. We must partner with publishers, vendors, and leaders such as Google so that libraries are proactive and not reactive. We must engage our communities in the planning, design, and implementation of new technologies and services. We must reach out to our allies and prospective donors in the public and the private sector to provide enhanced funding for our organizations. We must look to the retail, entertainment, and mass media industries to help inform our efforts at creating library places that are inviting, dynamic, and exciting for our library users. Libraries are and will continue to be about much more than the information resources they provide—libraries are about lifelong learning, about relationships, about community, about place, and, most important, about people.
As we commence upon the next one hundred years of the Virginia Library Association, I challenge all Virginia librarians to look beyond the library as we know it; to look beyond the perceived differences between public, school, university, and college libraries; to look beyond the divisions between publishers and librarians; to look beyond our sometimes elitist view of the inadequacy of Google; to look beyond the current pool of prospective library recruits; and to effect change in our collective mindset and create libraries that will truly be responsive to the needs of the generations now born into a digital world. We need not compromise our underlying and historical mission and goals; rather, we must be willing to risk employing vastly different means to achieve the very same values held by our founders in 1905.
2 Sarah Ann Long, “Digital Natives: If You Aren’t One, Get to Know One,” New Library World 106 (2005): 187-189.
3 David W. Lewis, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: Disruptive Change and Academic Libraries,” Library Administration and Management 8 (2004): 68-74.