Mark my words

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

Ray Bradbury


I’m a words man. It’s what I love and a major part of my identity.

Recently, I had the privilege of running a round-table discussion for Identity Journal around one of the bastions and champions of words, the library, and its contribution to the identity of a place. It raised a number of fascinating questions around the future of these pillars of society. How will they remain relevant? Will they still exist and in what form? And will books be a thing etched into history?

Here are three key things I learned:

A book by any other name

One thing is for certain: in the 21st Century a library can no longer exist as a repository for books. It has to be many things to many people. And it has to take many forms.

It’s much more than giving people access to books. Yes, that’s still important and will remain important. But it’s more about giving access to knowledge. A book is a fixed way of learning. Information changes every second and libraries need to be smarter and more innovative in how they give people access to knowledge – and reach out to new readers.

The New York Public Library, for example, launched a mobile app called Find the Future: The Game, where players could uncover secrets behind the library’s 40 miles of books and end up writing their own story.

Ebooks and audio books are other ways of appealing to a wider audience than just the traditional bookophile; and libraries are becoming better at using data to profile their audience so they can stock more of what people want. It’s this type of thinking that will continue to define libraries as dynamic places of learning and knowledge.

If you build it, people will come

The physical form of a library is likely to change dramatically. In fact it already has.

In Columbia, 100 tiny libraries are now found throughout the country in public parks. Chile has small libraries in their metro stations. In Melbourne, a similar scheme is looking to get off the ground where a book-crossing will be set up in the Yarraville Goods Yard where books can be swapped for free.

All great examples of how the library is reinventing itself to remain relevant and practical in a world where time is in short supply. It’s why we’ll also start to see self-checkout kiosks becoming more and more prevalent in libraries to get people on their way quickly.

The traditional form of the library – within a building – has also moved significantly with the times, and has to continue to evolve as the community demands more from it. It’s not just a book or knowledge exchange. It’s a social exchange, whether that includes a cafe, a child care centre, a function room, a church or even a job centre or virtual offices. Libraries have a tremendous opportunity to exist as the heartbeat to a community’s identity.

They can still be a place where people can come for solitude and reflection. But also a place where they can connect in, whether that’s with people or with other services such as free Wi-Fi.

It’s placemaking on a grand scale.

Will the paperback go forward?

It’s fair to say that the paperback is going to be under pressure as we continue to forge ahead in the digital age. But I think there is a future.

It hit home to me when on holidays recently. I decided to leave the faithful paperback at home, choosing the iPad as the source of novel nourishment. While it worked for me OK in some situations – on the plane or sitting on the couch – it lost me completely in others. Namely, laying on a beach with a good book. It wasn’t the same. For one thing, it was hard to see the screen. And it was awkward holding it. I also had the worry about leaving it out; because of the sun and passers-by.

The paperback has none of these. In fact in these situations the paperback thrives. Easy to use, completely flexible and designed to add to the user experience – all the things that a digital device aspires to.

And there’s still something comforting (you could say romantic) about the tactile feel of holding a book and flicking through its pages. It’s a unique connection with the reader that a tablet or screen will never replace.

The final word

So, do libraries have a future?

The simple answer is yes, but only if they continue to be re-imagined to remain relevant and useful for the community – their main custodians. What is certain is that they will become increasingly difficult to define as they blur the lines between knowledge spaces and community spaces.

And that’s a good thing.


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Richard Foster
BY Richard Foster ON 27 March 2013
Richard Foster is the head of writing at Melbourne branding agency TANK. Richard’s focus is helping organisations find clarity and meaning in their written and spoken communications. For more information visit