In the future libraries may die, but they will be reborn


The future of libraries is a rich and fascinating topic. It’s over 10 years now since I first gave a keynote on the topic, to an an audience of over 1,200 members of the Australian Libraries and Information Association conference. In 2007 I gained notoriety on the topic when Richard Watson and I put libraries at 2019 in our Extinction Timeline, and have been drawn into strategy sessions with a number of major libraries since then.

Last week The Times (of Ottawa, Illinois) published a piece titled ‘They’ll be reborn’ What does the future hold for libraries?, sparked by discussion of the need for big new library projects in the region.

In the article I am quoted:

Futurist and professional business consultant Ross Dawson foresees most books converted into digital downloads within the next decade, meaning libraries will house less of the printed word.

“Libraries in their current form will cease to exist,” said Dawson, who works from San Francisco and Australia.

That does not mean people will stop coming to them. In fact, he believes the library will become the hub for information.

“They’ll be reborn,”he said.

The physical building will house online computer terminals with access to audio and visuals. Patrons will digest information from large screens geared toward more visual presentations, or read from handheld digital devices small enough to fit in backpacks or pockets. Periodicals and encyclopedias will be stored into databases.

In an environment where stockpiles of information can be integrated into a computer chip and seemingly infinite information is a click away online, patrons will visit libraries to make sense of it all.

“Having too much is worse than not enough,” Dawson said. “Librarians will serve as a guide to resources and help people find relevant information. Filing and validating information will be one of the most important skills of our future.”

Even in that world, however, there is room for printed books. While Dawson believes there will be far less books housed in the library, he understands visually-pleasing books, physical artifacts and other popular books will remain for those who prefer the printed word.

The article somewhat overplays the role I see for physical libraries in information access, as community will shift to the center of their raison d’être. However the librarians of today will certainly have jobs in the future, albeit possibly by different names.

In my large stock of content under development, I have a partially completed visual framework on the life, death, and rebirth of libraries which explains my views on the topic in more detail. I will try to get back to that, as the rebirth of libraries is an increasingly pressing topic.