It is really hard to think about the future of the book and not link it to the future of libraries. But increasingly it seems that this is something we must do. The nature of the book will change in many ways in the future, so will libraries, but I believe that the changes may not be exactly the same or connected.
Ebooks are of course at the the root of these thoughts. Ebooks seems such a transformative technology, but is in many ways an extremely conservative way of handeling digital literature.
Two years ago I was lucky enough to be involved in the creation of a Digital Literature project at the University of Bergen. The ELMCIP project opened my eyes to the extreme diversity that is possible for literature in digital form. Ebooks are basically just the paper book in a digital straight-jacket. Not that that is a problem as such, there is much to be said for a familiar image to make the transition more comfortable, but in reality it is the equivalent of the “horseless carriage” that eventually became the car.
So the future of the book looks to be one of many parts. Ebooks may dissapear as concept, replaced by digital texts, digital stories and digital literature. Of course the word digital will dissapear as well, and we will be left with… texts, stories, literature, just where we are today. The format you can access these texts, stories and literature will be multiple. As a digital file read on your screen of choice, ereader, tablet, mobile phone, PC-screen or as an overlay inside your glasses, or if you are a radical, a subsection of these texts, stories and literature will be avaliable to be printed on paper bound together in a sequence and inside a cover (probably printed on a POD-machine in a cafe, library or supermarket)
Where does libraries enter into this development? First, libraries have already moved away from paper books as the only supplier of texts, stories and literature. Some more than others, academic libraries are at the forefront, small rural public libraries are at the back of this development. But that might change in the near future.
Today libraries are trying out new formats in an abundance of creativity. Not just digital, but also physical formats are experimented with. Some libraries go for an expansion of the physical realm with collection of fishing rods, toys, power tools or computer equipment.
Some libraries experiment with digital formats, installing Microsoft surface tables for members to browse picture collections, or using QR codes to give access to digital content.
We need these experiments today, we need to push de boundaries of what it is possible for a library to do. For it is by doing this that we will know what works and what does not. What is possible and what is not. I applaud all my creative colleagues around the world for their courage and determination in this grand exploration of what the library can be.
What has changed for the book has not changed for the library. The core mission for libraries is still there, just with some twists. Collecting does not seem to be such a big thing any more (it’s all in the Cloud), describing is done better by others (google does it better?), delivery is a major commercial industry these days (Why don’t libraris do as netflix or Amazon?)
But the twists are still there. Collecting is done at the academic libraris more than ever. Today it is all about open archives and scholarly communication. Libraries are at the forefront in the conflict with the academic publishers.
I believe that this will also happen in the public library world. Not because there is a great monopolistic publisher cabal to fight, but because of the “great amnesia.”
There is so much content that are produced today that have a very limited (in numbers and time) audience, but that deserve to be collected, preserved and distributed to an future audience. Public libraries are ideally suited to this purpose. Most public libraries have great local networks and commnicate well with local content creators.
In the future the death of the local historian will no longer mean that most of his research and written material will dissapear when his unknowing relatives erase his harddisk and sell his PC. In the future a disc crash will no longer disable the genealogical research of the next door grandfather.
Because both will have stored their material in the “library cloud” in agreement with the local library who will curate and see that formats are kept up to date.
This is a part of the future of the library. The curator of nonpublished material. There are other roles as well emerging, like social integration of immigrants or school work support. All of which are equally important. But at the core it is about knowledge, as David R. Lankes writes in the Atlas of New Librarianship: