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What will the library of the future look like?

Rita Meade, a New York librarian also known as Screwy Decimal, has been finding out what American children think about the library of the future. She was interested and surprised to hear many digitally minded suggestions such as:

“The future library will be located in a spaceship. The spaceship will have blue tables and purple chairs.”

“Libraries will have flying desks and iPads for each person.”

“The future library will be open twenty four hours.”

“The library will have ninety thousand computers.”

“If you have a book that is out of date, it will warp back to the library.”

“As much as I love the library, I’m 100% sure future libraries would be even more awesome. Just think how amazing the library will be in the future, with robots and electronics.”

You can read more about the project on her blog. She says, “This topic is particularly relevant these days, with ebook controversy and the talk of libraries becoming ‘obsolete’ and having our budgets slashed to oblivion despite the fact that our usage is steadily increasing”. In contrast to the often bandied about view that librarians are old fashioned, she says most librarians she knows embrace change and look to improve library services through technology advancement and listening to readers’ feedback. One of the most poignant quotes she received from a young girl was, “What does the future of the library look like? It depends on you.”

This rings very true. As part of the London Word Festival, I’m co-curating a night of future book-borrowing called No Furniture So Charming, where 9 different speakers are being asked to give us their thoughts on where they think the library is going and what it stands for. They will talk to us about books being more than words, in fact books becoming social objects; about the the public image of the library, the architecture, the 21st Century use of the space; about the portability of libraries through digital, mobile or even suitcase; and perhaps about the simple frustration of simply having nothing to read.

The festival has taken libraries as a core theme this year, with Co-Founder Marie McPartlin stating, “It’s important to us to explore the public library in a way that celebrated its significance and looked to the future. Our focus as a festival has always been an artistic one – commissioning and supporting artists to create and present new and challenging work. We aim to curate a strand of artistic work that gives both artist and audience space to consider and create, but in very different ways.”

Other library themed events include The Goodbye Library with singer Emmy The Great and poet Jack Underwood creating a personal celebration of the space; and running every single day of the festival in reading rooms across London, Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells’ The Quiet Volume is a whispered, self-generated performance for two, exploring the tension of concentration and silence in reading.

Prompted by the No Furniture So Charming event, Jamillah Knowles has written an extensive blog post about “the Dewey Decimal Digital Destination’ where she discusses real vs digital libraries. She sings the praises of librarians as a knowledge base and in-house research tool, stating that humans still can’t be beaten by robots, “Human beings are still better at pattern recognition” but points out that the gap between printed word and digital is still broad, “Inside a library, carrying an e-reader, I often wish that I could bridge the gap between the digital and the physical. A physical book is nice to read but what if I could search that book using a gadget?” An interesting thought.

There are many experiments and new ways of thinking which should enable us to bring the library to the next generation and make it more useful and relevant. But as that young New Yorker pointed out, it is really up to us.

No Furniture So Charming (part of London Word Festival)

7pm, Thursday 21st April 2011

Bethnal Green Library, London

IMAGE: UNStudio‘s proposal for Waalse Krook, Urban Library of the Future and Centre for New Media in Gent, Belgium

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