Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Technology in the Future of Libraries

Most people might consider technology and libraries to be at odds with each other. After all, libraries are just relics for dusty old books, right? When talking about where libraries will be 20, 50, 100 years from now, nothing says futuristic more than technology. Technology is the cutting edge. Things will be faster, easier, and more efficient. It is the end-goal, the aspirations, the way life will be. Technology promises hope: and we are all waiting for our flying bookmobile.
Technology and libraries intersect in many places. Technology has infiltrated our cataloging systems, our materials, even the way the library communicates and interacts with the public. We are slowly adopting it in every aspect of librarianship, especially as technology costs decline and the demand for digital goodies increase. As one librarian soothsayer said years ago, “The future will be like the present, a mix of new and old existing side by side” (Dougherty, 2009). Some of us are on the cutting edge with new services and products, others of us are still playing catch-up. The important thing to remember about libraries and technology: we simply follow the trends of society; we are a response to the needs of our community, which are ultimately our focus.
If we asked a patron where technology and libraries do intersect, they would probably first say eBooks. eBooks are the material trend for the future. Daniel Freeman, an ALA affiliated writer observes: “Anything with the potential to transform reading has the potential to transform librarianship” (2009)—but this does not mean print materials are going away anytime soon. Hardcover and paperback sales are an increasing, $10 billion industry (Malmsheimer, 2013).
Still, Freeman has a point. EBooks are quickly becoming the checkout material of choice at public libraries, and the academic and school libraries are not far behind. We do not even need to look at the sale statistics to know eBooks are on the rise...but we will: fiction eBook sales rose 42% last year (Bosman, 2013). Instead, look at the news and gasp at the recent $30 million deal the Los Angeles School District agreed to pay Apple to give every student an iPad (Blume & Watanabe, 2013) Technology is not just changing the way patrons read, it is affecting the way we consume information. Will our students in 10 or 20 years reach adulthood without ever holding a book?
This is the role of libraries for the future. Many suggest, and more of us know, that we need to be less attached to a library as a physical place and more into the digital realm.
Rather than act as gatekeepers to knowledge, museums and libraries can be facilitators and teachers, providing the context, content, and tools that empower people to question, search, inform, and explore the worlds of information, experience, and memory. (Hines, 2013)
For school and academic libraries, the term “iCentre” has been used to describe a librarian’s roles in helping students make this digital shift as “chief information officers” (Hough, 2011). Instead of the school library being the place where kids read books and use the nonfiction materials for school reports, these are becoming technical learning centers, device training hubs, and are essentially the information center, eponymously named above. Academic libraries are in similar boats, absorbing student help centers and I.T. departments as they become the central location for everything information related. 
One of the ways libraries continue their roles as information leaders is through databases. Libraries rely heavily upon databases to deliver non-fiction material that we find relevant. Anyone who has done a research report or has worked in a library has seen people use a search engine as the first point of discovery for sources. But libraries are responding. Instead of buying expensive non-fiction tomes that get lost, damaged, or are out of date in 6 months, they are purchasing online subscriptions to databases instead. The Library of Michigan for example, will receive somewhere around $4.5 million from the Library Services and Technology Act this year (Biggs, 2012). In Michigan, the Library of Michigan uses almost the entire Institute of Museum and Library Services money to fund the Michigan Electronic Library (MeL), which the state uses to provide databases to nearly all of the Michigan libraries; if these databases were bought individually, it would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $61 million (Biggs, 2012).
Databases are a form of virtualization, another growing part of librarianship. Libraries use servers to connect to client computers and workstations across entire library branches, systems, and consortiums. Not only does this drive down the costs of technology, but it protects data from corruption and loss (Dougherty, 2009). One server could power many clients, whether they are staff machines in an archiving department to public internet computers, to catalog machines. We will see this huge shift to virtualization as libraries begin replacing older equipment. Virtualization in the form of conferences has shaved off hours and costs to librarians seeking to educate themselves. I can look at my own library’s budget to know how many thousands my library saves by doing webinars instead of paying for mileage.
Copyright issues and net neutrality are the forefront of our issues today. In this new age of iTunes and YouTube, we expect media to be streamed to us instantly—and often times for free. Welcome to the instant-gratification era. On the other side of this are censorship and copyright issues which have always been issues for libraries and are becoming serious legal battles in the United States, such as the 112th Congress’s Joint Resolution 37 against the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality open access decision (Library of Congress, 2011).
Unfortunately, libraries are just caught in the middle, trying to work with publishers and information curators. Already libraries pay a premium for eBooks, easily 300% more than a regular consumer, with some librarians quoting paying 600% more than print editions (Kelley, 2012). Libraries struggle to meet patrons’ demands and bridge the gap with free access to information, media, and other paid services. This is not even considering the host of issues that crop up when dealing with the first sale doctrine, resale, and the plethora of other battles libraries face with copyright issues. This has typically been one of ALA’s most pressing issues (2013).

As future librarians, we must be prepared for the organizations we work for to undergo dramatic shifts as they react to changes in technology. And if we do not accept the demands for changes we will be swept down the metaphorical river—the river of Styx that is. As professionals learning librarianship, we are preparing ourselves for the torrent the rivers of change will bring to us. But it is good to keep in mind the core mission of libraries: “A library is nothing more than a passage or gateway into the world of information” (Dougherty, 2009).

American Library Association (n.d.) Copyright. Retrieved from
Biggs, D. (2012, May 15). Michigan eLibrary. Beginners workshop. Meeting conducted at Shanty Creek Resort, Bellaire, MI.
Bosman, J. (2013, May 13). E-book sales a boon to publishers in 2012. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Blume, T. & Watanabe, H. (2013, June 18). L.A. Unified awards Apple $30-million contract for iPads. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from
Dougherty, W. (2009, March 28). Virtualization and libraries: The future is now (or virtualization: wither libraries or libraries wither?). The journal of academic librarianship, 35(3), 274-276. Retrieved from:
Freeman, D. (2009, April 29). A TechSource Blogger Forum: E-Readers and Libraries. ALA techsource. Retrieved from
Hines, S. (2013, April 10). What will libraries be when they grow up?: Responding to the innovations of technology and imagining the future. Retrieved from
Hough, M. (2011, April). Helping schools face the future. School Library Monthly, 27(7). Retrieved from:
Kelley, Michael. (2012, March 2). Librarians feel sticker shock as price for random house ebooks rises as much as 300 percent. The Digital Shift. Retrieved from
Library of Congress. (2011, February 6). Disapproving the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission with respect to regulating the Internet and broadband industry practices. The Library of Congress. Retrieved from
Malmsheimer, Taylor. (2013, May 17). E-book sales almost doubled E-book sales almost doubled and online book sales rose 21.3% in 2012. Daily News. Retrieved from



  1. This is a great discussion of many of the technology issues facing libraries. Personally, I think that the biggest opportunities for libraries is to use technology to create a better customer experience. At PCCLD, where I work, ( we installed Automated Materials Handling equipment that uses RFID tags enabling our circulation staff to move out from the work room and into the lobby of the library to assist customers. The positive response we have received from our customers has been impressive.

    Other libraries are using technology to lessen customer wait time. At the new library at Liberty University in VA, robots can access materials in minutes instead of days:

    Still other libraries are using mobile technology to give customers access to resources from government services to German culture:

    I think this is an exciting time to be entering the field of library and information science.

  2. Another comment people have is why don't we just have internet labs instead of libraries. Libraries are working hard to keep up with technology has it comes. It isn't an easy feat, and some libraries are better at keeping up than others. This was a great discussion Christian!