A version of this post, which I wrote with Victoria Ward and Sabine Jaccaud of the change consultancy Sparknow, is also on The Futures Company blog.

Recently Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten talked about their design of Birmingham’s future library as a “living room for the city”. More than just storage, a dynamic space for movement, openness and exchange. In a blog she calls libraries “the cathedrals of our millennia”, which seemed a useful precursor to last Saturday’s National Libraries Day

The future of the library is, in some ways, a paradox.The trends that are running against it are more obvious, especially when combined with the financial pressures facing the British libraries system. But there are a surpring number of trends running in its favour. When you look at them together, the library becomes an object which allows us to have a discussion about the notion of the ‘public’ in the digital age.

A building? With books in it?

The long term trends which are running against the library make it easy to assume, at first sight, that the institution is an anachronism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Such trends include the rise of digital technologies, and the accompanying rise of audio-visual culture; the long wave of individualism since the late 1960s; the shift from public provision to personal provision; the pressures on public expenditure; the emergence of the e-book and the digitisation of books generally. A building? With books in it? It seems only a matter of time before the library withers away.

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

Re-inventing the library

Look again, and you can start to think that if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. But what sort of library would we invent?

For some, the building remains essential: engagement with the library is a ticket to – and a membership card for – a local community.

Some say the building needs to be there, not as “a warehouse of dead books“, but as a place to invent yourself, individually and socially.

For some it is a place of memory – and of memory yet to come, a place of inter-generational commitment, a place of conversation and convocation.

Others focus on its place in the digital world, where the library – founded on the principle of open knowledge – acts as a bulwark against the digital enclosure they see by media and technology companies.

Some see the wealth of digital data that a library holds as a resource waiting to be released, and reconnected, in the way that travel information and data has opened up a once closed world.

Others have a simpler view; as inequality rises, the library has a traditional role to play, of providing access to all who need it. The symbolism of the library at Zucotti Park and its destruction by New York’s city authorities remain powerful.

Some of these future libraries would complement each other. Some seem to have a common core. Some suggest a fundamentally different model of provision and engagement.

Then there are all the users and non-users of the future: the X-box and BBM generation, students, parents, tomorrow’s refugees and immigrants, businesses (so often left out of library planning), the hackers, nomads, chatterers of our children’s children’s generation.

Libraries as conversations

I have written elsewhere about the idea that one of the functions of futures work is to create ‘boundary objects‘, a term devised by the anthropologist Susan Leigh Star. A boundary object enables an opportunity for people from different domains and disciplines to have a shared conversation.  What’s striking to me about the list above is that the future library provides this boundary object, but not just for conversations about libraries. It opens uo a much wider conversation, about the nature of the ‘public’, of shared use, and of public space in a digital age.

The purpose of looking at the future, as the French futures pioneer Gaston Berger said, is to disturb the present. So let’s deconstruct the word library for the future so we can understand it differently today. Library is:


















And so on….

And these words create a different space for the current conversation about the library, in which it becomes meaningful part of the next Britain, as well as a part of the last one.

A longer version of this post, together with some further resources, is on the Sparknow blog. The picture of Charing Cross library is by Victoria Ward, and is posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.