by Michael Baldwin, MLS, MPA
Librarians are rightly concerned about the future of the American public library. We worry that accelerating technological change will make the library obsolete as it becomes ever easier for people to access the Web for information, even though much of that information is either untrue, irrelevant, or lost in the general deluge of data. The technophilia crowd has been predicting for many years that strong artificial intelligence will soon appear and solve the problems of interpreting our needs, finding the appropriate information, and even applying it to solve our problems. Alas, that utopian vision seems as far away as ever. We humble meat-mind librarians are still the best resort for those who need to know anything more complex than where to find the nearest McDonalds.
Adam Wright, Executive Director of the North Texas Regional Library System, and I have developed a presentation titled The Future of Libraries Thru Science Fiction. It’s part whimsical, part very serious look at how libraries (and society in general) may be affected by futures depicted in the literature of Science Fiction. We use Science Fiction as our forecasting lens because we both are familiar with it and because Science Fiction deals with the future and tries to do so in a scientifically valid, though imaginative, manner.
Our readings in Science Fiction have led us to postulate four possible futures for society:
- The Singularity, in which strong artificial intelligence (AI) is realized and it becomes a conscious, independent entity which may affect society benevolently, malevolently (think Terminator), or may ignore us completely. This scenario would probably spell the demise of the library as such.
- The Super Future, in which strong AI is realized but remains humanity’s tool, along with other technologies, for the improvement of the human condition in various ways. This future would create a utopia for the majority of humanity or, at least, open up tremendous possibilities for rapid human advancement. Again, human-maintained libraries would be little needed.
- Dystopia, in which technology continues to advance, but is controlled by or its products only afforded by the wealthy few. A totalitarian society then develops with the vast majority of humanity living in poverty and degradation. Libraries will be needed, but probably outlawed in this scenario.
- Muddling Thru, in which technology continues to advance to the general benefit of humanity, with the wealthy benefiting disproportionately but not able to gain control, and with many problems created by technology along with the benefits. Libraries will definitely be needed in this scenario, which is also the most likely in our estimation.
Our conclusion, then, is that technology will continue to advance rapidly but its benefits will take time to disseminate in society and it will be accompanied by problems the technologies also generate (the computer has provided many benefits but has also allowed fraud and terrorism to proliferate). Technology is not cheap now and won’t be in the future. As we become more dependent on technology, the wealthy will benefit more because they can afford more and better technology. Thus, as long as important information is expensive and/or difficult to find, public libraries will be necessary to help the mass of humanity afford to access and utilize information effectively.
The question remains, however, that though libraries and expert librarians will probably be needed in the future, will they be willing and/or able to perform that critical function of providing important information?
In this time of national and global recession, funding for public libraries is being reduced to the point that most libraries have severely cut back hours and services. This situation of high unemployment and a sluggish economy may be long-lasting even as technology advances. Library cutbacks may continue despite ever greater demands being made on library services by citizens who, themselves, are in much reduced circumstances: jobless, homeless, ill without health insurance, overwhelmed by debt. And I tell you frankly, it is their own fault for not being properly informed, and it is ours for not assertively informing them. If the five thousand public libraries in America had for the past 50 years adhered to a professional philosophy of providing information to help people act as responsible citizens of our democracy, America probably would not have succumbed to the political alienation, economic flim-flam, and social chaos we have experienced during that time and which has now brought America to its knees.
Five years ago I wrote the article Librarians As Knowledge Provocateurs (Public Libraries, March/April, 2006) in which I predicted many of the economic and social problems we now face. I wasn’t prescient; I simply read books and articles by reliable experts warning of these impending disasters. Most of our libraries made at least some of these books available, but we didn't market them to the public as actively as we promoted our mysteries, romance, and action fiction. Now that we can see that the path of “give ‘em what they want” has led to the devaluation of library services by those who control the budget, will we begin to “give ‘em what they need” by marketing the library as the citadel of relevant information or will we simply continue to promote those sexy vampire romances?
Michael Baldwin is currently director of the Benbrook Public Library and previously taught American Government at Montgomery College.
Other articles by Michael Baldwin are available here.