Public libraries have changed significantly since my childhood. Gone are the card catalog and the abundant staff (replaced by fewer staff and various forms of automation). And in many local libraries, only a few research items, such as encyclopedias, remain. Research libraries with their large stacks and historical collections retain an air of legacy, but they too have changed. The most significant changes for all libraries lay ahead.
In the 1960s, only a few saw the potential of the internet, then a nascent defense system project, to disrupt libraries. And few, if any, saw the disruption in bookstores and retailing.
As we look forward, we can be much wiser about the questions we ask than about any conclusions we may draw. In the discipline called scenario planning, uncertainty drives stories with rich, multiple, branching chronicles of future history that create a safe place to explore what might be. For uncertainties to be useful, they must be named, their outcome or impact or very nature must be highly uncertain, and they must be critically relevant to a question such as, “What will be the role of libraries in 2023?”
At the 2013 Computers in Libraries conference, I was given the opportunity to explore the critical uncertainties related to libraries in the closing keynote and in a workshop. The following 11 items reflect the most important issues that are likely to reshape libraries, regardless of the answers to them. Because each uncertainty can have different answers under different circumstances, libraries need to create a nimbleness to respond rapidly when uncertainties start to become clear. That means practicing for different futures and planning not with rigidity but with fluidity so that the organization can adapt quickly to whatever future might unfold.
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