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.