Library 2023: A Provoked Discussion on the Future of Libraries

Why 2023, you ask? Because that’s when Gregg A. Silvis will probably retire.

The first question Silvis posed to the participants was, What if there were 100,000,000 books available for free in full text?

First the group critiqued NetLibrary’s business model, then brainstormed about a “killer app” that would make ebooks enjoyable to read. Some folks seemed more comfortable than others with the idea of a device that could be directly implanted into the optic nerve. This blogger was quite comfortable using her institution’s new tablet PC to read magazine articles on the airplane on the way to the conference, and just might download an ebook for the trip home.

Whatever happens with ebooks, everyone agreed that maintaining equity of access will continue to be an important and central concern for libraries, and that our role as a place for people to connect will continue to be one of our mainstays.

Next, Silvis asked, What if copyright legislation were rewritten to more reasonably reflect real world practices?

We know we’re supposed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, to obey the speed limit, and thinking back on the prohibition era, to abstain completely from alcohol unless given a written prescription by a doctor (nice graphic, Gregg), but, well, you know how it is. One attendee made the important point that copyright law was originally intended as a contract between authors/creators and our governing body, to insure that one’s intellectual property could be disseminated in such a way as to serve the public good, while still providing incentive for the individual to create (forgive me—and comment on this post, attendee—if I didn’t quite get that paraphrase right).

The conversation then turned to scholarly publishing, peer review, and one of my favorite topics, open access. There seemed to be a shared sense of optimism in the room about the future of scholarly publishing; specifically it was said that open access journals are developing a strong peer review infrastructure. That’s good news for those of us who won’t be up for tenure for a few years yet and who’d like to see all publicly funded research and scholarship be made freely available to everyone.

Then, What if Star Trek style reference became the reality?

Um, I don’t really remember Star Trek, especially those black and white episodes, but I’m all about Web 2.0, so I beamed myself back to my hotel room, went to Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki, and found this: http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/LCARS. Can we design computers that we can teach to answer the kinds of questions humans ask? Or will we have to train humans to communicate in ways our computers will understand? It was suggested that the semantic web is only about five years off, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. One thing that Star Trek-style computers, the semantic web, reference robots, etc., etc., may not be able to do anytime soon is conduct a reference interview. Until, that is, technology is developed that will allow us to network directly into our patrons’ brains. Won’t that be cool.

The last few minutes were spent talking about What will happen when nanotechnology and quantum computing become reality?

For one thing, books will be really, really small, so we’re going to need better glasses. Also, we could find ourselves suffering from information overload like never before—imagine being able to search the full text of the entire contents of the Library of Congress (not just the records, everything). Sound scary? Fortunately, humans are highly adaptable creatures, as evidenced by recent studies highlighting real differences in the brains of children who’ve spent their young lives plugged in. Plus, we’re talking 2023 here, and at least a few of us will be retired.


  1. walt crawford

    “I don’t really remember Star Trek, especially those black and white episodes”

    To the best of my knowledge, there were no black-and-white episodes of Star Trek, unless they did one as a stunt. Star Trek started airing in September 1966, by which point color TV was quite well entrenched.

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