Will libraries still exist?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to do a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Archives. The sense of history was very palpable as we passed around the journals of Lewis and Clark, Sigmund Freud’s sketches, and the military telegram announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Which sort of leads me to my topic for today: libraries. As the pictures below show, the world contains some beautiful pantheons of learning. Will they become dusty relics, set aside for gawking tourists? In our digital age, what will we do with these places that used to be national centers of learning? Fifty years from now, will the local town library have any relevance or purpose?

I’m sure that Doug Johnson, Carolyn Foote, and others have some thoughts…[click on pictures for larger images]

Trinity College, Dublin


Real Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, Rio de Janeiro


Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Operation Chamber, Lower House, States-General, The Hague


British Library, London


Russian National Library, St. Petersburg


National Library of France, Paris


New York Public Library, New York City


Photo credits:

See this comment noting Candida Hofer for many of the photo credits

and also

16 Responses to “Will libraries still exist?”

  1. I think that libraries have changed already. At the local level anyway. Ours is wired.

    I think the librarians will need a place to work. In an information age, it is the librarians who know where the information is and how to get that information. They will become even more valuable assets to a community.

    I just wish my local library looked like any one of those pictured!

  2. I think libraries will exist, but they will be somewhat different and more of a place of entertainment/pleasure that an information source. On the local level, you will still need a place to take your kids to get children’s books and whatnot. And, I think there will still be a place for the local library in housing novels and other general pleasure reading material for adults. Finally, I think local libraries will still serve a huge role in maintaining local information such a records of the local paper, etc… So there is still going to be a big role. But, as far as being a resource for information, I think they will serve a somewhat diminished role. Most of the questions people WANT answers to that used to be sought at a library are now available online (wine recipes, college info, etc). Also, many of the questions that people NEED answers to are now being directed to accountants, lawyers, doctors, financial planners, etc. So, just as a general source of information, libraries are going to have to find a different role or face budget cuts due to declining usage. Thus, I think they will spruce up their entertainment side (adding couches and Starbucks and more children’s spaces) to keep usage up.

    I do think that the libraries like the ones posted above and university libraries will continue to exist in close to their present forms as there is still value in vast stores of information in hard copy form.

  3. Hi Scott,

    It’s a topic that I’ve been interested in for many years. For folks who are interested, I’ve written about some things that libraries (mostly school libraries) will need to do to transition into something useful in an age of ubiquitous information:







    Just as a friendly reminder, all my writings have been approved by the FDA as a non-addictive sleep aid.

    All the best. Thanks for the beautiful photos!


  4. Those images are from Candida Hofer’s “Libraries” book. I wrote about it here:


    It’s a wonderful book of photographs.

  5. Scott,

    Much more to say on this issue than any of us could fit into one post.

    Libraries are adapting and changing, definitely. But they have always been about more than just collecting materials–because they have always been places for community, connection, and exploration. I think libraries are practiced(probably more practiced than schools) in doing outreach to their customers.

    Also, conferences like AASL and Internet Librarian(where I am headed shortly) embrace the idea of libraries on the cutting edge of being innovative in providing services.

    But like businesses, and education in general, we do have a challenge in keeping ahead of changes and in touch with the customers we serve.

    It will be fascinating to see the evolution. But I think as information grows more and more overwhelming, the conduits that help sift through that will become even more critical–whether they are virtual or in person.

    Are you just trying to provoke us today or what? 😉

  6. Uh, no. Libraries won’t exist as they are much larger. You can see that with the design of the new Minneapolis central library, which is designed to be reconfigured to be anything but a traditional library in the near future. You and I (and a roomful of others) discussed this at the Horizon Forum last year. Is your question purposefully moot? Or, as Carolyn suggests, are you trying to provoke us??????

    So, I hope that you’ll step up to the plate to answer this question: WHAT IS THE “LIBRARY” OF THE FUTURE?


  7. Argh. Bad typo. I meant to say “Libraries won’t exist as they are much LONGER.”

  8. Although I’ve been known to provoke now and then(!), I’m genuinely curious what’s going to happen to these beautiful monuments to paper-based learning. A couple of thoughts on the comments so far…

    1. Nearly every past and current reference item in any library, including government documents, would better serve the general public if it was digitally scanned. To the extent possible, making those items searchable, even if it was just metadata, would be even better. I’m guessing that in 50 years most, if not all, of the stuff that doesn’t have important historical significance will be gone.

    2. If #1 happens, what’s left? Popular fiction and nonfiction that gets checked out frequently, music, videos, etc. Anyone want to place money on the fact that in 50 years all of these won’t be digital (particularly as online text/multimedia delivery systems and on-screen type contrast rates improve)?

    3. Without denigrating the importance of librarians / information specialists, I don’t think that 50 years from now we will be traveling to a physical building somewhere to ask someone how to find the information that we need. The number of people who do that now, after an Internet era that for most folks is only about a decade old, is increasingly small.

    4. Except in small towns where competition is limited, I’m not sure that local libraries can ever compete with corporate-funded information/entertainment venues and/or the increasingly-robust Internet.

    For argument’s sake, let’s assume I’m right on #1 to #4. Where does that leave libraries? For the most part they’ll be gone, I think, except for a few prominent ones that will serve as repositories for historically-important paper documents that will be of interest mainly to historians.

    Okay, fix my faulty thinking here, friends…

  9. I had to come back to leave another comment.

    I’m quite disappointed that you’ve failed to credit Ms. Hofer for these photographs. You went out of your way to give “Photo Credits” to bloggers, etc. who simply reproduced Hofer’s images and you still haven’t recognized her work.

    Since when does a conduit or a reproducer of art deserve more credit than the artist?

    I wouldn’t be so disappointed if I hadn’t seen that you’d taken time to write a few hundred words in the comments while ignoring credit to Ms. Hofer. Crediting bloggers when credit is due is fine; raising their status beyond that of the actual owner/originator of the intellectual property we’re celebrating is irresponsible.

    Hopefully I’ve fixed one small element of your faulty thinking.

  10. Scott,

    We’ve been talking a lot about this at my campus because my library is about to be completely renovated, and I am trying to “Future proof” the space as best as I can, making it flexible and useful over a long period of time.

    You’re right things are changing. Normally you build a library with lots of “extra” shelving for growth, and in some parts of the library I am(like fiction, which is getting more used than ever), and in others I’m not, like reference, which is getting more compact as more sources go online and the web gets deeper.

    We’re building our computer lab space with sliding glass walls, so we can open it out to the main space when there comes a time that we don’t “need” a separate lab because of every student having a laptop type of device.

    We’re making things more portable and flexible and avoiding built ins, so that we can repurpose areas.

    Probably more detail than you wanted, but my point is, that libraries evolve with time, just as other institutions do.

    So it’s not to say that things don’t change or won’t.

    I’d be interested in locating some statistics on library use and see what information they bear out, as to whether use is dropping off or not, because in my own realm, my perception is that we are far busier than we have ever been, and our local library is as well. So I’m just as curious as you are about that.

    One important aspect of libraries is equity of access. Not everyone has a computer or the know-how. Not everyone buys their own books. Some people just want to get out of the house and talk to a person, in person.
    Parents want their children to be read to, or to interact with other children, or to have an infinite myriad of books to handle.
    I worked at the public library years ago, and there were many reasons people came there.

    Will libraries become more like community centers, with multimedia, computer access, coffee and meeting areas, and books? Possibly so? Many already are.

    To view libraries as just a warehouse for information is to look backwards I think. And frankly, if you work in a library, you know that it isn’t a warehouse–you know that it is a place for people to gather, to get help, to talk, to work, to think, and to read.

    Will all those things move online 100 years from now or 40 years from now? I don’t know. Will we still want to get out of the house, use some item we can’t afford to buy, ask someone how to do something, gather our children to read? Possibly?

    Lots of good questions that I think librarians are working hard to define.

  11. Matthew, I’m sorry. I left my comment late last night and forgot to do what you said. Thanks for the kick in the pants. I’ve made the change in the original post.

  12. Funny…from far away the pictures of those libraries look like server rooms.


  13. Scott,

    Hoping sometime you can attend the Internet Librarian conference and see what’s going on in school/public/academic/corporate libraries. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.

  14. Scott,

    Thanks, I didn’t mean to come down on you so hard. I’m not a big fan of crediting to the nth degree [really, using a ‘clip art’ image from a given website doesn’t warrant a hat tip], but I do try to respect credit when someone is a) making a living off the intellectual property or b) has dedicated themselves to the production of it.

    Second – that server room comment got a real laugh – you’re absolutely right. Where are all the cords?!?

  15. No problem, Matthew. My legal training made me tough… =)

  16. Fifty years out seems kind of hard to predict, I’d feel more comfortable with looking out 20 years. Here are my thoughts:

    Scott, people want to meet even if they don’t talk. Just as we don’t have to meet in person to have a conversation, I feel that there is a need to physically be around people (and not just your immediate family) even if you don’t talk to them. Parks are outdoor public places, and libraries are an indoor version of that.

    We are social creatures, and centuries of evolution haven’t changed our need to gather. What strikes me is how current libraries in this transition are really making a mark as gathering places.

    My local library is next to the community center. The community center has lots of teens, and is a noisy and boisterous place. The library still has the teenagers, but also has older folks who are in search of a quiet place with others.

    Archival libraries will be needed for the tons of paper archives that still exist. I imagine by the time most of these papers are digitized, the digital formats for the first generation of documents digitized will be out of date (a problem Doug and librarians will tell you librarians have been anticipating since the advent of digital archival formats).

    I will say that I think librarians have made a better shift towards the future than the teaching profession, but with mandatory attendance laws we have a captive audience.

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