Nothing is the Future

Prognostication isn’t something librarians tend to be good at, just prone to. We often have to hear about the future of libraries from people who aren’t, it turns out, from the future. (Or at least I don’t think they are). The future of libraries is Second Life. Wait, I mean Facebook. Or maybe it’s Twitter. It’s librarians in pods. Etc.The beauty of talking about the future is that it never happens.

Because someone has chosen to bombard RUSA listservs with notices of new iPhone apps and the like, I’ve been forced to see more statements about "the future" recently. Apparently, "the future is mobile." No doubt it will also be "fast paced" and "challenging" and "constantly changing" as well. It’ll probably be an exciting place where we’ll all have to adapt quickly or else die off, but also a place where savvy librarians won’t see problems, only opportunities for solutions. And there’ll be flying cars.

The kindest interpretation of statements like "the future is mobile" or "the future of reference is SMS" or "the future is librarians in pods" or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so. At the very least, perhaps everyone will believe it’s true, even if it’s not, and that’s good for speaking invitations. After all, the future never arrives, so it’s not like we can verify it.

The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers. They’re hedgehogs with their one big thing, but perhaps aren’t aware it’s their big thing, not the big thing. I suppose it’s all part of "branding" themselves. I should be jealous. I don’t think I have a brand.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

Communications technology seems to drive speculation on the future of libraries. There’s some new tool–Facebook, IM, Second Life, the telephone, cable television, etc.–and it’s going to revolutionize libraries. Except it doesn’t. If the new technology succeeds at all in libraries, it will join most of the older technologies rather than replace them.

What older communication technologies have gone away completely? The oldest is probably the letter, but libraries still get letters. Real letters, on paper and everything. Some of them are even handwritten. They’re not as popular as they used to be, but that’s only because we now have an electronic equivalent. I don’t know if the telegraph was ever a way for patrons to communicate with libraries. I doubt it, but if so I guess that one’s dead. The telephone is probably next. People still call libraries. A century and more after it became popular, and people are still making phone calls. Amazing, but true!

They still email, too, even the young ones. Just letters in another form. I’ve heard some vague claims that these kids today are doing nothing but texting, and they don’t use email. Maybe that’s true in high school, but it’s not true in college. Students email me all the time for help. It’s a reliable medium where significant questions can be asked. A student just emailed me to set up a research consultation. She sent a 254 word email that included a two-page attachment. It’s difficult to ask serious research questions in a text message. I have no problem with SMS reference, and I think we’ll be adding it soon. But if there are students for whom a library without SMS reference is invisible, they probably aren’t very good students anyway and no amount of reference will help them succeed.

What’s next? Maybe those static query boxes on websites. Our library has several of those, and they’re used by all sorts of people, from students to scholars in foreign countries. They’re probably not going away. Then there’s chat reference, which I find a bit unwieldy for some types of questions, but ideal for others. That one’s still pretty new in the scheme of things, though, so it will probably be a long time before librarians pretend that some new technology revolution has killed it.

If librarians still interact with their users through letter, telephone, and email, there sure seems to be a lot of past in this future. There’s always a lot of past in any future. We are living in the past’s future, and we still have most of it with us. What is the chance that our future will somehow be different?

I’ve used "mobile" just as one example. The same could be said of various service or organization models. You can plug in any term you want, and know that when anyone tells you that thing is "the future," they’re wrong. And to be clear, my criticism isn’t of any particular services or trends. If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it. My criticism is the hype and the reductionism, and the implied claim that some librarians really know what the future holds, and that it just happens to be centered around whatever they happen to like at the moment. Maybe they’re convincing themselves, but they’re not convincing me.


20 thoughts on “Nothing is the Future

  1. This is the same response I have to the “life is so much more difficult these days” statements. To which my answer is no, no, No, No, NO! Every age has its own difficulties; every individual must handle them. No generation really has it easier or harder.
    This is akin to the blog post Walt at Random had about absolutist statements, with which I totally agree. And the reason why the term “radical trust” just makes my skin crawl.

  2. Tim, I just read the post. Maybe I’ll comment in both places. You ended by saying,
    “The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. Forget Web 2.0. I don’t think libraries have really got Web 1.0 yet. “The future is X” isn’t the best vapid response to that change, but it’s a response.
    I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.”
    There’s nothing here I disagree with. If anything, I think the heated rhetoric makes it easier to ignore the difficulties of changing significantly or improving services, especially in a large library. Libraries can be sclerotic organizations, but in dealing with a large system there are a lot of people who need to be convinced and a lot of effort to make significant changes. There are bureaucracies to please and committees to form that have to be managed effectively. I see a lot of cheering, but not much discussion of how to persuade the powerful but unpersuaded that such changes are indeed good for libraries and their users. There’s a lot of complaint about systematic barriers but not much discussion of how to use or bypass them.

  3. One thing we must keep in mind is that each of us does have a say in what the future will be. We tend to speak and act as if our futures are predetermined, or rather that they will be determined by someone else. This is especially true when it comes to the role that technology will play in that future.
    Our ingenuity is providing us with a steady stream of new technologies to incorporate into our personal and working lives. Corporate interests all want us to believe that their technology is the future. It is our responsibility to have a clear vision of the future we want, and to assess these new technologies and make use of them to the extent that they help us to build the future we desire.

  4. I’ve been saying similar things for considerably more than a decade now, mostly summed up by “And, Not Or.” The thrill of absolute statements seems so great that many people just can’t get past it. Thus, the stream of “Death of” pronouncements and “The future” pronouncements: Almost always wrong, but who cares?

  5. I think I’ve figured it out, the library world uses “always” and “never” when they talk about the future just like a bad relationship because they are in a bad relationship with the future!

  6. You’re right, Walt. It’s nothing you haven’t been saying for years, only not in such long-winded fashion.

  7. I’ve also noticed that these “someones” have apparent little regard for the actual interests of their audiences and they never actually engage in conversations that transpire on the lists they target (it’s not just the RUSA lists). This actually bothers me more than the emptiness of their message, and has led me to autofilter their posts.

  8. I don’t know, Tim. We’ve been together with the future for a long time, but those incessant, repetitive love letters get old and patrons come to us expecting things to be like they were two weeks ago. I think we just should say “it’s complicated.”

  9. Wayne, I thought this was a great post full of some excellent points. I’ve written two replies on it (linked below), and I’m hoping it will spark discussion and action that relates to both where information tech is head and what the needs of our patrons are.
    Thanks again for this honest and thoughtful post.
    #1 #2

  10. Sometimes I wonder if the underlying issue here isn’t more relevance-anxiety than it is actual relevance. Which is to say that I’d personally worry more about students and classroom faculty thinking of us librarians as over-eager to prove our relevance than as irrelevant per se, though perhaps the former perception can feed the latter.
    I love this liminality between the latest moment and the convenient singularlity of “the future.” So often, prognostication is much more about the present that defines it than the future it defines.

  11. While I agree with you that the hype is a little too much, I think libraries need to quickly jump on the bandwagon in order to stay relevant. I just did a post about this on my blog – why text reference could help or harm libraries. People are already using services like kgb but they never think about texting the library (if available) whereas the library would be free and more reliable. If libraries are slow to adopt “faddish” technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months)they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.

  12. Excellent points, Wayne. I am pleased that you had the courage to take the future by the horns — and throw it back at us. I am glad that ALA Direct picked this up and is giving it the attention that it deserves.
    This is something that some of us (Walt, you, me) have been saying in different ways for some time, but you put it all together very well. The future never is absolutely “insert new trend here”. I have heard futurists say that we always overestimate the short term impact of new trends and underestimate the long term impact. And the long term trends are never (or at least rarely) what the short-term futurists claim them to be.
    Libraries are actually very good at adapting to change. Melvil Dewey or Samuel Green would be shocked to see the programs, services, and technologies that we use today to help our users. We use technology in a wide variety of ways to give our communities the information and services that they need. Just during our careers, that technology has changed dramatically — and will continue to do so.
    But these are just the tools. The functions of what we do — build relevant collections, develop tools for linking our users to them, and providing direct assistance to those users — have remained the same for the past 150 years. We perform those functions in very different ways than we used to, but they remain the core of what makes a library a valuable component of its community. I do not see those functions changing much in the next 150 years, although the means of delivery will be drastically different (and something that no futurist has envisioned yet). As long as libraries continue to deliver valuable information and services to members of their communities, our future is solid.

  13. Pupfiction, I think bandwagons have to be evaluated for different librarians before librarians jump on them, but I’m not arguing against jumping. I’m arguing against a certain style of hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric coming from certain types of librarians. You’ve given a good example:
    “If libraries are slow to adopt “faddish” technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months)they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.”
    What does this really mean? If EVERY library doesn’t adopt EVERY tool/software/service model that YOU say is crucial then they will ALL become obsolete? That’s what you imply, and there’s no way something that extreme could be true.

  14. What every new form of communication that is birth from the abyss of microchips and wi-fi is relevant only as long as it enables me to provide the best reference and liaison services to students and faculty without losing the integrity of the services. Not everything suits the function of my reference position, but some technological breakthroughs are perfect for specific kinds of reference work. I may receive a text message that needs a different “venue”. When I ask the person to email me, they do not balk and act as if I requested for them to chisel the information into a stone tablet using cuniform. They send me an email and are often deligthed that I am willing to take the extra step to help them.

  15. A. I agree that people, and maybe some librarians, who think the library will be gone/dead eventually, are wrong as your post says.
    B. How anyone defines a library can be critical to such a discussion, but is often left unsaid, undefined, by the “library is dead” author.
    C. One of my New Testament scholar professors, William Hamilton said that God was Dead, and became known as the “Death of God” philosopher, but many people who read and mis-read, what this Neo-orthodox teacher understood was happening and writing about back in the 50s, misunderstood and were wrong about the coming “death of God” and professor’s statements. And likewise many are seeing trends in technology that would preclude one from needing to visit a building (Library) perhaps. That’s only one part of the Elephant.
    D. I remember telling one friend and library director back in the early 80s that he should look into solid state drives instead of CD-ROM for storage. If he had, he would have had to wait another 20 to 30 years before changing, and people would have said that library was dead too; so we’re glad they adopted CD-ROM based information systems…as did the vendors.
    E. Like in the original post. We as librarians, archivists, and preservationists, have had to deal with all sorts of storage methods, formats and technology, and as things move along, we will probably find some things that will not transfer without the older machinery to do it, and we will/could lose some valuable materials, such as material on wire recorders, transcribing machines, and 8mm film. But someone will be working on solutions to those things too…and have. Similarly, we are required to handle information and our public…people who don’t always want important interviews that are still on reel to reel tape in my garage because they can’t find a machine for transfer to see if they are important enough to keep.

  16. As with anything else these days with everything changing so fast, being fluid to change is the best way to be prepared for the present and the future.
    I’m reminded of a quote I read on a wall a few weeks back, I think it’s a buddhist quote…
    “If you dwell on the past and worry about the future, you will struggle with the present.”

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