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What Will 21st-Century Libraries Become?

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar at NeoCon with this promising title: “Creating 21st Century Libraries.” Colleges have been grappling with that same issue since well before the turn of the millennium. What new secrets could this symposium have to offer?

As it turned out, not many.

Don’t get me wrong – the speakers were engaging. But the discussion focused only on one specific project (the new library at Grand Valley State University) that hasn’t been built yet (it’s currently in design development).

If the seminar didn’t have all the answers, it did ask plenty of important questions. How will the college library remain relevant? How can libraries adapt in the digital age of the Kindle and the iPad? And what implications will this evolution have on library design? Those who predicted that printed books would go the way of the card catalog have yet to be proven right, but it’s apparent that libraries are facing a culture crisis.

For a truly futuristic view of academic libraries, I turned to a report published last month by the Association of College and Research Libraries. Entitled “Futures Thinking For Academic Librarians,” the document outlines a total of 26 different “scenarios” in which the researchers map out possible alternate realities for academic libraries.

Some of the scenarios seem entirely plausible. Number 21, for example, describes a future in which students use their hand-held devices to locate research material, cite sources, and organize virtual study sessions. (Aren’t they doing that already?) Other scenarios are more far-fetched. Take Number 14, which predicts that droves of baby boomers will go back in college to “reside in specially designed communities, complete degrees, find new spouses and, ultimately, to be buried.”

In an effort to visually summarize their findings, the researchers diagrammed all 26 scenarios on a sliding scale of probability vs. impact, noting which scenarios are perceived as an opportunity or a threat. It’s not lovely like an Edward Tufte diagram, but interesting nonetheless. (The Society for College and University Planning posts the full article here.)

To the report’s 26 scenarios I would add a 27th entry: The library re-interpreted as a collective – rather than individual - experience. It’s not difficult to foresee a future in which the introverted study carrel has surrendered to collaborative, multimedia learning environments. It’s a scenario playing out at Grand Valley State, and at a college library near you.

Michael Hanley is a designer in the education practice at Gensler’s Chicago office and has a background in journalism. He’s interested in the unique design opportunities presented by urban college campuses such as Columbia College Chicago, and finding innovative ways to connect higher learning institutions with speculative development enterprises. Contact him at michael_hanley@gensler.com

Reader Comments (1)

I read that at Stanford University they are re-doing the Engineering Library and in the process getting rid of something like 80% of the books. The librarians are behind it because they will be able to provide more training and research services to the students. On a related matter either Barnes and Noble or Amazon announced yesterday that they sold more ebooks than actual hard copy books last quarter. Seems like the direction for the future is clear.
07.21.2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Zucker

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