Posted: March 15, 2012
The once and future library
They were never about booksThomas Frey
Question: As physical books go away, and computers and smart devices take their place, at what point does a library stop being a library and start becoming something else?
Somewhere in the middle of this question lies the nagging fear and anxiety that we see brimming to the top among library insiders.
People who think libraries are going away simply because books are going digital are missing the true tectonic shifts taking place in the world of information.
Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books.
Libraries exist to give us access to information. Until recently, books were one of the more efficient forms of transferring information from one person to another. Today there are 17 basic forms of information that are taking the place of books, and in the future there will be many more…
Gas Station Maps
As a young child, I was enamored with the free maps I could pick up at gas stations. Over time I had collected maps for nearly every state and some of the Canadian Provinces.
Along with the early days of the automobile and a generally confusing road system came the need for maps. Oil companies quickly realized that people who knew where they were going often traveled more, and consequently bought more gasoline.
Over time, anyone driving a car soon came to expect free maps whenever they stopped for gas, and companies like Rand McNally, H.M. Gousha, and General Drafting turned out millions to meet demand.
In the early 1970s, when I was first learning the freedom of owning a car, I couldn’t imagine a time when these maps would not be an integral part of my life.
Today, as GPS and smartphones give us turn-by-turn instructions on where to go, printed road maps exist as little more than collectibles for people wishing to preserve their memories of a fading era.
Are printed books likely to go through a similar dwindling of popularity?
Our Relationship with Information is Changing
As the form and delivery system for accessing information changes, our relationship with information also begins to morph.
If we treat this like other types relationships, we can begin to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Gone are the days when we were simply “flirting” with our data, occasionally glancing at it, hoping it would pay attention to us as well.
In school we had more of a “dating” relationship, lugging books around, hoping they would impart their knowledge even though the parts that got read were few and far between. Much like dating a popular person, we became known by the books under our arms.
Once we started working, we became “married” to a relatively small universe of information that surrounded our job, company, and industry. People who became immersed in their particular universe became recognized as experts and quickly rose to the top.
Today we are beginning to have “affairs” with other exotic forms of information such as social networks and video chatting. All of these new forms of information seem much more alive and vibrant than the book world we had been married to for the past century.
Alone, on some dusty shelf, lie the books we had once been married to. On some level, many of us feel like we were cheating by abandoning our past, never getting closure for a divorce that left us with mixed loyalties haunting us on both a conscious and subconscious level.
If you think this is a crazy analogy, many will argue that its not. If anything, information is the heart and soul of our emotional self. Even though we may not feel it touching us like a finger pressing on our arm, a great piece of literature has a way of caressing our mind, adding fire to our inner rage, sending chills down the length of our spine, and giving us a euphoric high as we join our hero to reach a climactic conclusion.
Books of the past remain the physical manifestation of this kind of experience, and without their presence, a part of us feels lost.
Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker. At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come. His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.