Future Libraries: Once a Refuge, Now They Mean Business

librarians-4931Establishing new relevancy standards amid a sea change of technology options and budget constraints

Traditionally a quiet place for lovers of books to unwind, libraries are a place for serious students to escape to, a treasure trove for aspiring writers – and even a great hiding place from bullies where a kid can find cover among a labyrinth of shelves. They always have been a refuge.

These days libraries are becoming something more than a place to hide out. Only recently did libraries become a bustling resource center for a growing number of jobless. People seeking work and budget-strained families seeking entertainment are now flocking to libraries as never before. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news: The modern day Carnegies are in short supply because libraries are busting at their well-worn seams.

So what happened? Only yesterday, the tech elite were fervently forecasting the imminent doom of the library. Their contention: Libraries will become irrelevant in a modern world?

Predictors of doom never understood the true nature of libraries. They are more than a stack of books. The remarkable structures and modest converted buildings that are libraries, these institutions are really living, breathing organisms. Much like plants that flourish in fertile soil, water and sunshine, libraries are thriving in an information-rich environment. The newfound popularity will be more than a short-term inconvenience. Libraries are here to stay.

Over the past few years I have visited hundreds of libraries and spoken to many library groups across the country. Common throughout my travels, I have witnessed a vibrant and dynamic relationship between users and available resources. Libraries are moving forward and new roles are emerging. In one of these roles, I witnessed the catalytic connection between people, many in poverty, and their aspirations for the future.

Relevancy is key. Response to needs of constituents is the measure of a good library. Much like Google’s approach to calculating the relevancy of search results to individual search queries, a vibrant library continually assesses offerings and functions and their relevancy to the community.

While declining budgets may scale back expansive thinking, significant change, nevertheless, is on the way.

Atoms vs. Electrons

Although we never think of it this way, there is a war being waged between “atoms” and “electrons.” The world of electrons, which includes all things digital and virtual, is moving exponentially faster than anything that requires manipulating physical materials (atoms).

Products made of wood, plastic, metal, and stone constantly battle for limited resources. The physical world beyond the flowing electrons translating this document and making it readable on your monitor is intensely digital. Sure, the materials make our interaction with digital possible. But, when studied through the lens of bottom-line business executives, atoms are on the losing end.

Physical products require teams of designers and engineers to create and refine them. They require shipping and storing at warehouses. Legions of marketers work on matching supply with demand.

Digital products, on the other hand, place very little strain on natural resources. Missing, too, are shipping containers, warehouses and armies of sales people.

While they may still require designers and programmers to produce a product or service, digital products are invented, created, manipulated and delivered 10,000 times faster than anything requiring the handling of atoms. Needless to say, the electrons are winning the war.

We can see the shifting of talent and jobs happening all around us as people move to where the rich veins of digital opportunities are being mined.

In this battle for commercial superiority, libraries stand alongside knowledge-based industries such as IT, communications, information and web-based services, which are poised to lead our economic recovery.

Diminishing Value of Print

In medieval times, books were valuable possessions far too expensive for most people to own. Libraries that were enjoyed by the non-peasant class were often nothing more than a collection of raised reading tables with hand-crafted books chained to them.

In 1455, Johann Gutenberg unveiled his printing press to the world by printing copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Later Gutenberg had his printing press repossessed by Johann Fust, the man who had financed his work over the previous 10 years. The sons of Johann Fust were largely responsible for a printing revolution that saw over 500,000 books put into circulation before 1500.

Gutenberg and his printing press were largely responsible for taking books out of the hands of the wealthy elite and placing them within reach of common people.

During the past five centuries, the price of books dropped another order of magnitude with mass production presses turning out efficiently spun collections accessible to virtually everyone.

Today, a new level of disruption is knocking down the door of book publishing – the electronic book reader. The Amazon Kindle introduction on November 19, 2007, was greeted with a collective yawn. Too expensive, too large and not well received by critics, it was a flop. However, on February 9, 2009, Amazon introduced the Kindle 2 to a far more receptive marketplace. Still expensive, the product reborn in a sleek and convenient case would bear an interface many are bragging about. And there is now a waiting lust for people wanting one.

Making a somewhat quieter entrance, the Sony Digital Reader and the iRex Iliad came along with different options. Introduction of these products has bolstered the belief that book readers will soon rival print.

That day is coming far quicker than most imagine. This transformation won’t take place over the 500 years it took technology to get to this point. Within five years, book readers will drop to a price around $20 and find their way to that magical status marketers call ubiquitous. Libraries will begin to make the transition to book readers. As we move to an era of inexpensive book readers, we will begin to see libraries loaning out book readers instead of paper books.

Within 10 years the economics will drop out of the publishing industry, and books as we know them-ink on paper-will soon begin to disappear. Bibliophilism, the love and collecting of books, will still consume many, but will involve an ever-diminishing part of our culture.

library-483sBooks have long created an impressive backdrop for library activities, but those days may be numbered

Electronic Outpost – Libraries without Books

Even before the mass popularity of book readers, libraries will experiment with a version of the digital library I’ve termed the Electronic Outpost. Traditional books require vast amounts of library staff time, with sorting and organizing often coupled with repairs and replacement. So it begs the question, what would a library without books look like?

Think of an Electronic Outpost as a type of library that is designed to inspire the mind, serve as a place for intellectual spontaneity, a safe haven for creative ideas, where visionary thinkers can go for solitude and support. Sometimes they will serve as the branch of an existing public library, other times as a specialty library in support of specific groups or organizations. Size, shape, and purpose will vary.

Some may fit well in shopping centers while others may be better suited to function as stand-alone buildings. A few may be very small, others quite large. Many will be planned with a homey, living room-like feel to them, while others will go with a more eclectic atmosphere to inspire industry-specific thoughts. Electronic Outposts will evolve over time around the core services most relevant to a particular user group.

As communities begin to experiment, the Electronic Outpost will evolve to serve a different role than that of a traditional branch library.

The Emerging Library-Business Relationship

Several major shifts are happening in business, and this will cause a change in the way business will be conducted in the future. Libraries need to pay close attention to these shifts because they signal new frontiers in both opportunity and constituency.

1.) Employment costs are rising. Because of overhead costs associated with hiring people, more and more businesses will work with teams gathered on a project-to-project contract basis.

2.) With the tools available on the Internet, far more power and control is being placed into the hands of the individual.

3.) Fewer businesses require people to physically move to accept a job. Consequently, shifting positions frequently is far less disruptive.

The trend I see is business moving toward a much more organic style of operation where available talent will form around specific projects, and once completed, will disband and form around the next opportunity.

Libraries and information services will become central to the Empire of One style of business and Business Colonies, which I discuss below, will begin to spring up around the country.

Empire of One

The traditional solo business is a one-person practice, most often a professional service well suited for lawyers, accountants, and doctors. However, a new breed of solo business has emerged that allows people to leverage the power of the Internet and control a vast empire from their home office or wherever they happen to be. Across the world, thousands of people are giving birth to what I call an “Empire of One.”

An Empire of One business is a one-person operation (though, sometimes a married couple) with far reaching spheres of influence. Typically the business out-sources everything – information products marketed and sold online, or products manufactured in China or India, sent to a distribution center in the US, with customers in the UK and Brazil. Manufacturing, marketing, bookkeeping, accounting, legal needs, and operations are all outsourced to other businesses around the world.

In addition to product based businesses, other Empire of One models will include coaching and consulting businesses, freelancers, Internet-based businesses, solo practitioners and much more.

Yes, much of this has been done before, but a person’s ability to leverage talent and products across country lines, and still maintain control of a vast and virtual empire is refreshingly new.
The Empire of One business model is one with great appeal to former corporate executives with global contacts and ability to manage far-flung operations remotely.

Over 80 percent of all new startups will be created by this kind of lifestyle entrepreneur – people who’ve gone into business to take more control over their own lives and to build a lifestyle that suits them. Health and happiness have replaced wealth as the new mantra of the mid-life professional. Fifty-seven percent of the work force now insists they will not take on the extra stress associated with greater responsibility even if it means more money.

Once economies improve, middle-age workers searching for meaning and significance in their lives will cause an exponential increase in this type of business in the years ahead.

Business Colonies

Business will become more fluid with talent and projects converging for short periods of time. In the way the movie industry works, where a single movie project will attract camera people, script writers, lighting and sound people, actors, and makeup artists, the Empire of One will attract various skills for temporary assignment. Once the project is complete, team members will disband and form around other projects.

One-person operations involve numerous challenges that not all individuals are equipped to handle. As a support mechanism for their growing numbers, business colonies will begin to form around such diverse industrial sectors as photonics, nanotech, biotech, IT niches and many more.

Often times the colonies will form to support large corporate players in a specific industry. As an example, companies like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo could easily spawn gamer colonies as a way to drive the development of new games for their consoles.

Over the next few years, experimental colonies will proliferate, testing a variety of operational and support systems. Individual members of the colonies will be drawn to the prospects of steady project flow. Project leads will be attracted to the available talent pools. And host cities will be most interested in generating jobs and employment for their constituencies.

Libraries are a natural partner for business colonies. The need for information services, research assistance, as well as meeting place and work space will form the foundational underpinnings for the library-business colony relationship.

Tools of Production

In his 2006 book The Long Tail, WIRED Magazine Editor Chris Anderson asserted, “When the tools of production are available to everyone, everyone becomes a producer.”

People are no longer satisfied with information flowing one way. They want to participate in it, add their own contributions, and claim a stake.

To accomplish this, libraries need to expand their technical offerings, make themselves tools of production. These tools will allow visitors to transition from readers to writers, from listeners to composers, from television watchers to television producers.

We are in the midst of a new age of experimentation for libraries. While funding may fall short, the outlook could not be brighter for a library full of the creative idea-people who will reshape commerce and business. Here are some examples of new library functions:

Aligning service with need is key. Supporters don’t hesitate to fund things they find important. How do you increase the relevancy of the library service offering?

The ultimate “library of the future” for your community is a home of highly relevant informational experiences, where great ideas are born, and people find tools and facilities to act on their ideas.

By Thomas Frey