No future for libraries?


Will library buildings and library catalogs survive the web?


© Moqub
© Moqub

Some weeks ago a couple of issues appeared in the twitter/blogosphere (or at least MY twitter/blogoshere) related to the future of the library in this digital era.

  • There was the Espresso book machine that prints books on demand on location, which led to questions like: “apart from influencing publishing and book shops, what does this mean for libraries?“.
  • There was a Twitter discussion about “will we still need library buildings?“.
  • There was another blog post about the future of library catalogs by Edwin Mijnsbergen (in Dutch) that asked the question of the value of library catalogs in relation to web2.0 and the new emerging semantic web.

This made me start thinking about a question that concerns us all: is there a future for the library as we know it?

To begin with, what is a library anyway?

For ages, since the beginning of history, up until some 15 years ago, a library was an institution characterised by:

© Mihai Bojin
© Mihai Bojin
  • a physical collection of printed and handwritten material
  • a physical location, a building, to store the collection
  • a physical printed or handwritten on site catalog
  • on location searching and finding of information sources using the catalog
  • on site requesting, delivery, reading, lending and returning of material
  • a staff of trained librarians to catalog the collection and assist patrons

The central concept here is of course the collection. That is the “raison d’être” of a library. The purpose of library building, catalog and librarians is to give people access to the collection, and provide them with the information they need.

Clearly, because of the physical nature of the collection and the information transmission process the library needed to be a building with collection and catalog inside it. People had to go there to find and get the publications they needed.

If collections and the transmission of information were completely digital, then the reason for a physical location to go to for finding and getting publications would not exist anymore. Currently one of these conditions has been met fully and the other one partly. The transmission of information can take place in a completely digital way. Most new scientific publications are born digital (e-Journals, e-Books), and a large number of digitisation projects are taking care of making digital copies of existing print material.
Searching for items in a library’s collection is already taking place remotely through OPACs and other online tools almost everywhere. A large part of these collections can be accessed digitally. Only in case a patron wants to read or borrow a printed book or journal, he or she has to go the library building to fetch it.

All this seems to lead to the conclusion that the library may be slowly moving away from a physical presence to a digital one.

But there is something else to be considered here, that reaches beyond the limits of one library. In my view the crucial notion here is again the collection.
In my post Collection 2.0 I argue that in this digital information age a library’s collection is everything a library has access to as opposed to the old concept of everything a library owns. This means in theory that every library could have access to the same digital objects of information available on the web, but also to each other’s print objects through ILL. There will be no physically limited collection only available in one library anymore, just one large global collection.

In this case, there is not only no need for people to go to a specific library for an item in its collection, but also there is no need to search for items using a specific library’s catalog.

Now you may say that people like going to a library building and browse through the stacks. That may still be true for some, but in general, as I argue in my post “Open Stack 2.0“, the new Open Stack is the Web.

© Nicole C. Engard
© Nicole C. Engard

In the future there will be collections, but not physical ones (except of course for the existing ones with items that are not allowed to leave the library location). We will see virtual subject collections, determined by classifications and keywords assigned both by professionals and non-professionals.

On a parallel level there will be virtual catalogs, which are views on virtual collections defined by subjects on different levels and in different locations: global, local, subject-oriented, etc. These virtual collections and catalogs will be determined and maintained by a great number of different groups of people and institutions (commercial and non-commercial). One of these groups can still be a library. As Patrick Vanhoucke observed on Twitter (in Dutch): “We have to let go of the idea of the library as a building; the ‘library’ is the network of librarians“. These virtual groups of people may be identical to what is getting known more and more as “tribes“.

Having said all this, of course there will still be occurrences of libraries as buildings and as physical locations for collections. Institutions like the Library of Congress will not just vanish into thin air. Even if all print items have been digitised, print items will still be wanted for a number of reasons: research, art, among others. Libraries can have different functions, like archives, museums, etc. and still be named “libraries” too.
Library buildings can transform into other types of locations: in universities they can become meeting places and study facilities, including free wifi and Starbucks coffee. Public libraries can shift focus to becoming centres of discovery and (educational) gaming. Anything is possible.

It’s obvious that libraries obey the same laws of historical development as any other social institution or phenomenon. The way that information is found and processed is determined, or at least influenced, by the status of technological development. And I am not saying that all development is technology driven! This is not the place for a philosophy on history, economics and society.

Some historical parallels to illustrate the situation that libraries are facing:

  • writing: inscribing clay tablets > scratching ink on paper > printing (multiplication, re-usability) > typewriter > computer/printer (digital multiplication and re-usability!) > digital only (computer files, blogs, e-journal, e-books)
  • consumption of music: attending live performance on location > listening to radio broadcast > playing purchased recordings (vinyl, cassettes, cd, dvd) > make home recordings > play digital music with mp3/personal audio > listen to digital music online

From these examples it’s perfectly clear that new developments do not automatically make the old ways disappear! Prevailing practices can coexist with “outdated” ways of doing things. Libraries may still have a future.

In the end it comes down to these questions:

  • Will libraries cease to exist, simply because they no longer serve the purpose of providing access to information?
  • Are libraries engaged in a rear guard fight?
  • Will libraries become tourist attractions?
  • Will libraries adapt to the changing world and shift focus to serve other, related purposes?
  • Are professional librarian skills useful in a digital information world?

I do not know what will happen with libraries. What do you think?

11 thoughts on “No future for libraries?

  1. Hi Lukas,

    Excellent post. These are the questions. Unfortunately, the answer will probably “all of the above”.

    Think of travel agencies, a good example of an industry that has been hit hard by the coming of the net. The number of walk-in shops has decreased drastically. The ones that survived found a niche where specialist knowledge can add value – and usually, are operating more and more online, working out of the shop.

    The ruthless impact of the internet: a short peak, leading straight into a long, low tail. The good and bad survive, the average withers.

    My two cents are that libraries will wither. A few may stand out and become tourist attractions, or edutainment areas (nothing wrong with that, look at the success of the new OBA) or specialist centres of excellence in some field or other. And maybe, some will adapt and morph into something entirely new.

    But there will be no need for the average library. It’s good that we realize that.


  2. If we manage to be truly open (people as well as our software and buildings)we still have many chances.

    We are many…

  3. Over here the physical library is mainly used as a nice and quiet place to study. The physical library is still an important place though. I am surprised to see the number of people in for example the public library of Nijmegen or Amsterdam.

    Collections will be unimportant since everybody will have access to everything so the goal will be to assist people in identifying the right things.

    For academic and research library there will be a task to give access and promote the outpu of their staff. Thi smay be one of th emore important future tasks of academic libraries.

    So libraries are dead ! Long live the library !

  4. Hey lukas,

    Hmm.. I can tell you what the library was in my view when I was a scientist/student.

    – You are the people that pay the bills so that I can view the content of journals.
    – I did not really read books (psychology student) but at the rare times that i did; I dont like reading from a screen. Printing out a journal article is one thing, but when i comes to books I still prefer paper.
    – it is a great place to study (when i was a student), no fungus, no noisy roommates.
    – i did like bibliographies. Google is unsurpassed when you know what you want, but e.g. psycinfo restricts its results and yields less grey literature (although I must admit, google scholar is getting better every day)

    Now that I am a librarian, I am surprised at what those librarians know and how much it would have made my life as a scientist easier (especially the medical librarians). Who knew, searching for information is a science on its own with sensitivity, specificity, research methods etc. If only I had known..

  5. I fully support this discussion and it complies with how we are approaching this theme in our insitutes library (
    Who would argue that the future of librarianship lies in the professionalism of the librarians and not in the building nor collections? But are we able to make the change? Can we stop doing what we do, shift our activities from our traditional work (forget about cataloguing in a local system, rely on WorldCat as a primary search engine) and use the ILS for admin purposes only (for so long as we need it).
    We should concentrate on integrating information literacy into the curriculum, not just in an introductory session, but trhoughout the courses and integrated with the topics treated.
    I strongly belief that an important task lies with us: not so much in teaching people how to search (this was necessary in the days that information was scarce) but in teaching them how to find the best information, evaluate search results, as their number will only increase in the future.
    Let’s continue this discussion. I came across this blog via

  6. I like the idea of tribes of expert librarians engaging in public conversations. We need to concentrate on the development of expert tribes regardless of organisational or geographical boundaries. Library buildings actually do matter. There is a growing amount of youngsters doing their homework in the library using it as a pleasant, safe and rich space to meet and study collaboratively. Collections don’t matter but sharing knowledge and information really does.

  7. If you like it or not, most people (in particular digital natives: Google first to get information.
    Indeed, Michel Wesseling, we should concentrate on integrating information literacy into the curriculum trhoughout courses on each level and integrated with the topics treated. In a mixed media world knowledge about how information is processed is crusial to interpret messages correct. Teachers should know that, but librarians too. Librarians should not only become experts in “Googlen”, including SEO and Google’s ranking system, but also should they become more aware of the interests of stakeholders of mediamessages (for instance the use of Google and socialmedia in journalism or the impact of blogging on professional knowledge).

  8. Nice insights,
    I beg to differ on the aspect of the physical buildings loosing importance. Architects (like rem koolhaas) would describe libraries as the only ‘free public space’ left to us. Especially for children and youngsters it is a safe zone at a local community level.
    I am actually working on figuring out how the library space would look like in light of all the digitisation. This is for my MSc. thesis project in ‘user experience design’. I have started a blog to document my thoughts –


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