Ever hear of Schrodinger's cat? Really smart dude named Schrodinger came up with it. Go figure. The idea is that if you put a cat in a box with a deadly poison that can be released at any random time, the cat can be thought of as both alive and dead at the same time until you open the box and find out. It's a physics thing. Now that I have horrified the cat lovers, let me explain how this relates to libraries.
The cat represents the library's future place in society, the box is time moving forward, and the poison is new emerging technologies. Great things can be accomplished if librarians have the stones to grab hold of technologies in interesting and user friendly ways. Dead things will happen if we either lag behind or adopt the wrong technologies at the wrong times. The problem is we will not know until we cross that event horizon in the future and see if what we have done is worthwhile.
So why am I going on about this? I wanna look into the future. Now, I will steer clear of Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity because, frankly, it illicits both shock and awe out of my tuccus. Check out his books and lectures on the subject if you want a real scientified view. As a librarian who has watched tech unfold these last 15ish years while hanging around libraries, this is what I think and at times hope will happen. Hit the jump for the timeline.
2 Years - eBook Access to All
Now, I know what you are thinking: "eBooks are already accessible to all" and "Get out of my head, demon!" The answers to both are "nuh-uh." Today, eBooks are licensed to either specific machines or carriers. With exclusivity rights, that means some carriers (cough, Kindle, cough) cannot access certain content or have their content accessed on other platforms. All well and good, but I bet you in two years people are going to get fed up with having five apps on their phones just to read their favorite books. A universal format will emerge (probably ePub with more DRM) and books will be set free once again.
3 years - Universal eBook Carriers
A year after the eBook format war ends, a universal book carrier will emerge. One entity, possibly the LoC, Project Gutenberg or more likely Overdrive, will rise and begin collecting and distributing ebooks in much the same way a Baker & Taylor does now. They buy from the publisher and libraries buy from them at lower rates with less risk. This sounds like what Overdrive is doing now, but not really. At the moment, services like this are at the publisher's whim, as evidenced by the Harper Collins 26 checkout limit. After publishers agree on a format and the rules, i.e. less tempted into hissy fits, universal carriers will evolve. Companies will rise to cover the wholesale markets, such as libraries.
5 years - 3D OPACs Online over broadband
Now that eBooks are in the norm, people begin to look for access. In five years, broadband service will be as common and cheap as the telephone. This will allow for greater connectivity speeds and use for the average OPAC catalog search. Innovation will arise for the user interface. Imagine an OPAC where instead of a list of books and maybe a cover photo, the OPAC was a 3D representation of the library. As most video games today, the user could "walk" around this 3D world, pull books off the shelf, and browse looking for that moment of serendipity that only comes when wandering through the stacks and finding that perfect book.
10 years - Universal WiFi, Realistic AI Reference Help
With broadband now expanded to every area of the civilized world, people will turn to high speed wireless communications. Speeds over wireless will be possible that will make 3G look like dial-up. Libraries will be at the forefront of this revolution as we expand our already free signals out into the communities, either by partnering with large companies or buying the transmitters. Every mobile device, meaning even your toaster by that point, will be able to connect to the Internet for free with access increasing at an exponential rate.
At the same time universal WiFi begins to spread, artificial intelligence will spread as well. That artificial intelligence will respond to humans in a convincing way, enough to answer any question it is asked. Sounds scientific and too crazy modern? Text "Weather" and your zip code to the number 466453 (GOOGLE) on your cell. Some computer out there will respond to you with accurate and up-to-date information in a matter of moments. Also, they have already beaten us at Jeopardy, so let us just get ready for them to answer our reference questions. Just do not think about that dumbass robot "team mate" on Call of Duty that keeps shooting you and the wall.
15 years - Full AI Hologram Librarians
Riding on the coattails of a better functioning AI will be the representation of that AI. Full holograms will begin to be used throughout society in a fully responsive way, not just recordings like the London airport holograms. The self checkout station will come fully equipped with a 3D model librarian that offers full librarian functionality on the fly. As long as they do not call it "Marian the Librarian," all should be well.
20 years - All Information Digitally Archived
Although the process has already begun with groups like Google and Project Gutenberg, digital information will become the medium of choice for future generations. The idea of going to a place, like a records department, to access books of information will be preposterous to a society that will essentially live online. The effect this will have on libraries will be immediate as libraries become more sparsely populated with only those patrons who need our services because they do not understand how to navigate the information super-duper highway that will be created.
30 years - Public Libraries Become Museums
The public library as we know it will cease to exist. Look around the library of today versus 20 years ago and see how much it has changed. Think about the exponential growth from the card catalog to the OPAC to the WiFi enabled netbook that when it passed its 2 year anniversary the staff began calling it "Old Bessie." Think about what the librarian you grew up with would say if she saw someone sipping out of a Starbucks cup that he or she bought downstairs. With universal WiFi, AI to assist patrons, nearly all paper scanned and cheaper electronics to access information, libraries will become more about knowledge than pure access. School groups and study partners will become our main patrons. The public library will become more like museums of today, quiet places to sit, contemplate, and eat cocktail wienies while talking to pretentious artists, authors and local public officials. The library will become a status symbol for a town.
50 years - Government agencies will stop requiring faxes
This is optimistic, but I can hope.
What do you think will happen in the future of libraries? Am I just projecting too much like Back to the Future II (only 4 years left to get me a hoverboard, science guys) or do I have some valid points? Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org