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Scanning the Library Horizon
August 26, 2014 - 7:53pm
It’s funny how much the popular image of libraries is highly traditional, considering how fascinated by the future librarians typically are and how quickly librarians embrace new technologies. References to shushing never seem to go away, and in an era when most of the library’s budget goes to licensed content, the firm belief that libraries are still mostly about books is hard to shake. We could fold into this the gendered nature of the image of librarians, who are imagined to be prim women of a certain age who wear buns and sensible shoes while doing hyper-clerical work whereas IT folks are inventive, adventurous young men with a deep knowledge of secret arts.  Yet despite the image (and I can’t wait to read a new book about it) librarians’ work is deeply tied to technology. Likewise, librarians seem to continually try to predict the future in terms of technological change, as they do in a special Horizon Report about library futures.  
 
I have not been a great fan of the annual Higher Education Horizon Reports from the New Media Consortium. They tend to highlight trendy tech in a way I find problematically uncritical, while also making predictions that often fail to pan out. To check that impression, I just looked back at the 2004 report, which predicted that within four to five years computers would be so ubiquitous and context sensitive that “the obvious next step is for these devices to become more invisible and responsive to human needs.” For instance, “smart dust” could collect data through tiny sensors no bigger than a grain of rice, able to do things like shut off students’ cell phones as they enter a classroom.  That was supposed to happen by 2009. Though  we’re hearing the same kind of hype about the “Internet of things” right now (including in the 2014 library-focused report), the combination of techno-utopianism and techno-determinism is a bit dismaying. The 2014 higher ed edition seems a bit more interested in unpacking the challenges we face, but predicts within the next year or two the widespread adoption of learning analytics, the use of big data to “provide a high-quality personalized experience for learners.” I hope that will go the way of smart dust, but there’s a lot of money pouring into these schemes and not so much going into hiring faculty who also provide personalized experiences for learners. Even in my wildest nightmares, though, as hot a topic as it is, I don’t think predictive learning will be the norm for institutions of higher learning in a year or two, though some large institutions have already embraced it
 
So I’m a skeptic, but I was heartened when I read the list of contributors to the Horizon Report – Library Edition. I know a lot of these people and they have good heads on their shoulders. 
 
It was interesting to see that “research data management for publications” was called a “fast trend,” one that is predicted to be sorted out within a year or two. Funders want data to be available in shareable form. For small libraries like mine, this is a new and not-so-simple issue, but it’s one that needs solving because our faculty get grants from funders who expect it. So we’ll have to figure it out. Changes in scholarly communications  and open access to scholarship are expected to take a bit longer. The report’s three-to-five year prediction is actually wildly optimistic, considering we’ve been talking about changes in scholarly communication since, oh, around 1980 in my experience. We've made a lot of progress recently, but it's still going to take time sorting out who will fund open access publishing and whether scholars will accept non-traditional kinds of scholarship.
 
Embedding libraries into the curriculum and developing new roles and skill sets for librarians are considered solvable challenges. That’s reassuring, I guess, though I’ve been working on this embedding thing for over two decades now. I would have gotten further if we didn’t keep getting new students and faculty every year. More difficult, according to the report,  are preserving digital content (I cosign that one) and “competition from alternate avenues of discovery” which . . . well, I don’t see this as a problem. If people can find what they need through channels other than the library’s website, I’m all for it. But what I’m afraid we’re seeing is something other than competition: increasing corporate control of content, more and more stuff that libraries are not allowed to buy or cannot lend even if they could afford it. The faculty, many of whom still don’t seem to realize what they’re giving up when they click through publishing agreements, are developing underground means of evading that control. That’s not a competition problem. That’s a work-around for a purposefully broken system. 
 
The only things in the report that seem to exist primarily as hype are the semantic web (how long have we been hearing this is right around the corner?) and the “Internet of Things,” which is predicted to arrive in four to five years. This prediction is a kind of strange full circle for libraries since the rest of the report implies that things aren’t all that important in libraries these days unless they are digital.
 
There are, however, a lot of things missing from this report. The word “surveillance” doesn’t appear at all, and privacy only comes up as a problem to be solved.  Preservation is mentioned frequently, but the emphasis is on digital materials; preserving print only comes up a thing that the Internet of Things can help care for. The word “environment” is used only in the artificial sense, not in terms of a warming planet. No mention of poverty or debt or the collapse of the middle class or the rising power of the super-rich. 
 
This seems like a major omission to me, but it’s typical of how we think about the future of academic libraries, as a set of technical problems and opportunities. I keep thinking about something Rory Litwin of Library Juice Press said when I interviewed him here last May.  
 
Changes to modes of information organization and access are getting most of the attention now, but I think if you want to look at the future of libraries you need to look at the future of everything else, and I think we have to admit that the demise of much of what we take for granted is a possibility in this century. 
 
Why do we so often forget to consider the broader context for the futures we imagine?
 

 

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