Eying the future of libraries

iSchool Associate Professor and MLIS Program Chair Joseph Janes has created something a of a stir with his newly released book “Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library,” published earlier this year by The Scarecrow Press. iNews sat down with Janes for a question-and-answer session on the work.

iNews: How did you get started on this project? What was the impetus for your book?

Janes: There’s lots of discussion about the future of libraries these days from lots of different perspectives, and that conversation has deepened over the last couple years. My publisher came to me last year and asked if I would do a book about the future of libraries.

The publisher gave me the title, “Library 2020,” which I think was meant to be a sort of play on 20/20 vision. I didn’t take that bait, but I did like the date—it’s just far enough out to be interesting, but not so far as to be science fiction. So I reached out to a variety of people from many different aspects of the profession in the library world, and I asked them to write a piece starting with “The library in 2020 will be [fill in blank].” I didn’t dictate the topics, just the starting point, and let them go from there.

The result is a collection of 24 short pieces, each three to seven pages long, that are quite focused and quite varied. I put them in fairly broad categories of my own devising. Several authors wrote about materials, resources, collections and so on; that would up in a section called “Stuff.” A number of people focused on the library as a building, a web presence, a community center, and they wound up in a section called “Place.” There’s also “People,” “Community” and “Leadership and Vision.”

Combined, it makes for a diverse and interesting read. The response has certainly been positive, which is gratifying.

iNews: Who is the audience?

Janes: It’s not written for any particular segment of the field. It’s meant to be broad and accessible to anybody, from the head of a library that is thinking about where the profession is going to the new person who’s trying to map out a strategy for their career. I did a book signing at ALA a while ago and one of the first people to talk with me was the head of a state library trustees association, saying they’re going to use it as a training piece for trustees to help them understand what’s happening in public libraries. And I know of at least two people who are going to use it as a supplementary textbook in classes this year.

iNews: How did you select your authors?

Janes: My approach was that I wanted it to be fun, but it must be professional. It’s mainly people I’ve met along the way as I’ve made my way through the profession. I’m fortunate to have a good range of contacts within the community. I wanted to get a good mix: people from different types and sizes of libraries in U.S. and Canada. Also, I didn’t want it to just be the old guard—I specifically sought out a few people who are new to the profession.

iNews: Can you tell us about some of the contributions?

Janes: I absolutely do not have a favorite, but several stand out as really provocative. A number wrote pieces about how the nature of resources is changing as we move from analog to digital to streaming to cloud-based. Cliff Lynch described how the marketplace for cultural objects seems to be migrating from sales to licensing. Meaning the objects aren’t yours to do whatever you want with for eternity—you just have it for a while until the publisher decides to change the license. That’s a different way of thinking about what a library is—it isn’t a repository so much as it is a switchboard, and the library model becomes one of rights management and finances.

Others talked about the public library as an agent for civil engagement. Susan Hildreth wrote that in a nation and communities that are very divided, the library is still one of the really neutral, trusted places, creating an opportunity for bringing communities together to talk about important issues—and just to interact in general.

Another one I really love is by James Rosenzweig, one of our alumni, in which he describes the library of the future as an information base camp. He uses the mountaineering metaphor of a basecamp as a place where people can get advice, share ideas, share the benefit of experience, and then strike out on their own in an information environment that is increasingly wild. He also has a great line: “…we need to recognize that our job isn’t to convince people not to use the world of information we don’t control or maintain.” Which to be honest, we kind of do! So it’s the same paradigm: how much effort do we put in the traditional world, and how much in the new world?

This is contrasted by a piece by Ruth Faklis, who runs a suburban Chicago public library system. Ruth injects a little bit of day-to-day reality, saying we’ll still have gang kids and people sleeping in the stacks and you’ve got to keep the fire extinguishers charged and so on. As a librarian, you’ve just got to keep going.

I end with a piece by Dan Chudnov in which he fills in the blank by saying the library in 2020 will be a crumbling ruin. Then he looks back at the missed opportunities and things libraries could have or should have done over the years to prevent it. It’s really depressing, but then he finishes by essentially saying that’s why we’ve got to fight. We’ve got to fight for our communities, and for our right to determine our information future. That’s what librarians do.

iNews: Actually, the book doesn’t end there, does it?

Janes: That’s true. My piece appears at the end in a section titled “My Turn.” In it, I talk about how much of librarianship going forward can legitimately be about access. If we just present ourselves as “come to us and get stuff,” well, that’s not a game we’re going to win, because in the future there’s going to be way more ways to get stuff that there is currently. So where do we put our effort?   How much time and money and effort do we dedicate to traditional media, typically high in quality and interest, with tons of restrictions, increasingly held by fewer companies which charge higher prices?  And how much do we encourage and foster the freely available world of information, still emerging, where we can have a significant impact long term?  That’s a powerful question for the long term of the field and the institution. 

From my own perspective, from what I’ve seen over the last year or two, there is a real sense of possibility. A feeling that all is not lost, we’ve come through the economic crisis—it’s not fantastic for us right now, but we’ve come through it. I see lots of reasons to be optimistic and hopeful. So I wanted to end with something encouraging. I didn’t want people to go through the journey of reading this book only to hear “we’re all doomed!” Nobody wants to read that, plus, I don’t believe it.

iNews: Earlier you said the response has been very positive. Can you elaborate?

Janes: Well, the first print run sold out before there were any reviews. When you consider how much the library market is tied to reviews, that’s saying something. It’s also gotten some attention in social media and the blogosphere. I think my favorite was a tweet that said something like, “I’m simultaneously really irritated and intrigued by this.” I tweeted back, “Good, that’s exactly what I had in mind.”

If after reading this book you are a little mad and kind of incited to do something, then my work is done.