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Libraries are about People, not Media

The Future of the Library
The Future of the Library | © raumlaborberlin on behalf of Kulturprojekte Berlin

Libraries create a future. Their own is uncertain. Start of the “Future Libraries” series on the libraries of tomorrow.

By Leonard Novy

It was not so long ago that the book was looked upon as the gateway to the world. And for those who wanted to go through this gate, there was no way around the library. Here knowledge was gathered, tapped and made accessible. Today, in times of Google, Wikipedia and a gazillion digitally available books and magazines, all the world’s knowledge seems just a few clicks away from your smartphone, laptop or e-reader. Do we still need libraries? Or will libraries and librarians soon join the long list of services and job descriptions that we say have been swept away by the disruptive power of digitization? The debate on these issues is in full swing. It oscillates between the rhetoric of decline and spirit of optimism, and it eludes simple answers. The related developments and challenges are very different, very complex and sometimes contradictory.

The one library doesn’t exist

At first glance, libraries don’t seem to be in bad shape: despite the ubiquity of digital media, Germans are using university libraries as well as public libraries more intensively than ever before. Around 220 million visits a year make them one of the most popular cultural institutions in the country – even more popular than museums, cinemas and the stadiums of the German Bundesliga. Moreover, the diversity of the approximately 10,000 public and academic libraries in Germany is still immense. If the huge number of visits to academic libraries is primarily about the acquisition and production of knowledge, in many city and community libraries emphasis is placed rather on the quality of the stay and encounters there. The functional equipment of the former lending stations has given way to comfortable seating, in many places cafes invite you to linger, and readings and a broad program of events round off the services.

Dinosaur or case for restructuring?

Sociologists attribute the renaissance of libraries to their function as non-commercial “third places” (Ray Oldenburg) apart from living and working spaces, and to the yearning to unplug from a globalized and networked world. For some, libraries are a retreat; for the others they make participation in cultural and public life possible in the first place, regardless of income. Because of their non-commercial nature, which makes them open to everyone, public libraries are considered a factor in democracy. So far the theory. The political and economic realities that many libraries face often speak a different and crisis-ridden language. Nor would this predicament even require digitization. The de facto erosion of the library began long before the internet became a mass medium. Empty public coffers dictated massive cuts for libraries. The budgets for new purchases and equipment shrank, staff was reduced, opening times shortened. In recent years, mergers and closures of libraries have been the order of the day. And so a series of eye-catching new library openings in German cities cannot hide the fact that many of their little sisters in the provinces are often showing signs of wear and tear. No wonder the impression arises that the idea of the library has seen its best days. Case for restructuring or dinosaur – who can tell the difference? 

Move on and preserve

In the meantime, the services required of libraries have not grown slighter and the tasks have become more extensive and diverse. Along with books, libraries have long also been loaning electronic media, music, games and films. But where everything is available online from anywhere at any time, libraries can no longer establish their raison d'être just by providing information. It is becoming increasingly important to provide people, regardless of their age and social background, with skills that enable them to deal with the flood of available information. Libraries are predestined for this task. But they need the appropriate materials and economic resources and, not least, a changed self-image. Instead of traditional functions such as work on the existing collection, the focus is now on working with users. “Libraries are about people, not stuff”, says the American library expert Rebekkah Smith Aldrich. They are about people, not media. This should be obvious, but for some representatives of the guild this will demand a mental changeover. Skeptics, on the other hand, fear that in the course of all the necessary changes something will be lost – the focus on the printed word, the book, for example. The charge of “eventing”, of arbitrariness, is the issue.
Developing contemporary spatial, media and pedagogical strategies in a rapidly changing environment, without jettisoning what is at the heart of their success, is no easy task for libraries. Storehouse of knowledge and cultural heritage, educational institution and meeting place, physical space and idea – libraries were and are always many things and at the same time, depending on their purpose and target group, very different. Above all, they are good for surprises. This is noted by Michael Knoche, Director of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar until 2016, in his 2017 book Die Idee der Bibliothek und ihre Zukunft (The Idea of the Library and Its Future). He observes that users also come across content and subjects that they are not looking for. And this “beyond the well-established search algorithms and beaten tracks of knowledge” such as the internet provides for us. Libraries may quite rightly be described as pre-Google search engines, but they also have always been more than that, more than tools.

Libraries create a future

According to experts, libraries are more important than ever for the cohesion of a society and its ability to respond to new challenges, especially in a changing world and in view of exponentially growing knowledge. So it could be said that if libraries did not already exist, they would have to be invented. However, they would then probably look different from the places that were handed over to today's generation of librarians as their place of work. How must the layout, architecture and design of libraries change when it is no longer the collection but the user that is the focus? What do contemporary contributions to democratic participation and media literacy look like in times of growing inequality, fake news, and digital manipulation? What can libraries do to attract educationally disadvantaged people to their services? And what role will librarians play in future?
Questions upon questions. Taken together, they give the image of a sector and a public good in transition. There are no simple answers and patent recipes for how libraries can meet all the expectations that will be placed on them in future. And so their future will be decided, on the one hand, by whether each individual institution succeeds, in the midst of ongoing operation, in reinterpreting its role for society; and on the other hand, by the question of what they are worth to us as a society.
Since its inception in 2009, the Next Library® Conference has become one of the most important conferences on the future of public libraries. In September 2018, it will take place for the first time in Berlin. In a series in the coming weeks, the Goethe-Institut will take this opportunity to document challenges, trends and success stories surrounding the future of the library.