The future, it seems, has never been as popular as it as at the present time. We talk, think and write about it endlessly. The transformations in the world we live in over the past few decades have induced so much uncertainty that we look to the future because we crave a place where certainty and sureness return. As librarians, curators and archivists, of course, it is a professional duty to keep looking at the future in order to plan ahead, to prioritise, to make maximum impact from available resource and to prove that we manage well. But the current preoccupation with prediction goes much further. It seems likely that we are living through the most future-obsessed era our profession has ever experienced.
My first awareness that librarianship was a profession deeply concerned about its future was with the publication of James Thompsonâ€™s The end of libraries, in 1982, which was still a relatively recent work when I first went to library school. Thompson, University Librarian at the University of Reading, was interested in library technology and its potential to liberate libraries from what he saw as a paralysed state of continual growth unrelated to use. In an article of the same title as his book which was published in the then new journal The electronic library the following year he wrote:
One way to by-pass problems would of course be to store in the electronic memory not just the surrogate references, but the full text of the documents.
He didnâ€™t imagine Google, but he did perhaps foresee the changes which are now underway, though he would doubtless have been surprised that they would take 30 years to occur. If the changes have been slow, the pace of future-gazing has intensified over these 30 years, and seems to be currently experiencing rocket thrust. On a recent visit to the National Library of Scotland, I was given a copy of its new discussion document Thriving or surviving? National Library of Scotland in 2030. The National Library of Wales has been less daring by ten years, producing Twenty-twenty: a long view of the National Library of Wales. Both institutions are taking on the challenge of providing national library services within a new sector – what the Scottish report calls small, smart countries. Read the rest of this entry »