The future of libraries (and how to stop it)

I’m on a panel tomorrow about the future of libraries. This is atypical for me because, as I have said many a time, I am Not A Futurist. I’m a technologist, yes, but my interest in technology has always been primarily in its impact on society, which means all the predictive questions that interest me are second-order — not merely “what will the technology be” (a hard enough question!) but who will we be when it has become technologically boring enough to be social interesting. But hey, Griffey and Dan needed a panelist on short notice, and they’re pretty good at suckering me into doing them favors, and it sounded fun, so what the heck.

And then Erin Leach and Courtney Young opened a really good conversation about the panel on Twitter and it’s making me all thinky. So here you go: two possible futures of libraries.

Future one: I am afraid that the future of libraries looks like this panel: the one where we don’t make the time to cast a net widely, to discipline ourselves to consider the wide range of perspectives that might be relevant, to do the outreach.[ref]And for the purpose of this paragraph, “we” means people with power or influence or resources, big levers for affecting what questions and priorities get large-scale support in the profession. There are many other “we”s, many of whom are already having fantastic conversations and doing wonderful work on a wide range of questions. Pronouns are hard.[/ref] The one where we answer our top-of-mind problems with top-of-mind people – people who may, mind you, be perfectly good, may even be extraordinary, but who don’t represent the full range of excellence in the profession. I am afraid that the range of answers we find to our problems will be too narrow, and that the range of things treated as problems worth solving, by people and institutions with large-scale resources, will be too small as well. I am afraid that people with power and platforms won’t decenter themselves – not just let more people visit the space but let the space itself be changed by its constant inclusion of more people. I am afraid that public conversations only count as “public” when privileged people are having them, no matter how long and loud and intellectual and pragmatic and, yes, public these conversations have been among other discourse communities. What rich and extant conversations about library futures will we not be having tomorrow?

And I’m even more afraid because — as a white technologist, I know I’m unlikely to bring novel ideas to a future-of-libraries table, and as an Ada Initiative advisor I think a lot about diversity and inclusion and intersectionality and decentering — and I didn’t even think to ask, who else is on the panel. Because there was a short timeline, and I’ve got a million other things taking up headspace, and it’s easy for Griffey or Dan to sucker me into doing them a favor. And if I didn’t ask…how many will?

Future two: I hope that the future is otherwise.

Dear readers, I teach code because I don’t know the future, but I am certain it will be better if more people, and more kinds of people, have more tools for building it, and because I am so excited to see what you make. So you tell me: what pockets of unevenly-distibuted future am I missing? What rich conversations would I already been paying lots of attention to I were better at disciplining myself to listen for what’s best, not only what’s closest?

You know, Dan, I’m pretty sure our last email exchange ended with you owing me a favor. So how about it? Let’s do another future of libraries panel, and take the time to think this one through. To put people on it we’ve never seen on a library futurism panel – people who are having rich and extant conversations somewhere you and I might not have even been paying attention to. People who represent library roles and demographics we maybe haven’t seen in our last two or three or ten library futurism sessions. To hand them the mic and get out of the way.

How about it?

4 thoughts on “The future of libraries (and how to stop it)

  1. Who is on the panel, and who isn’t, is huge. Marginalized people have different lenses for seeing the present, past & future


  2. Andromeda, I’d like to offer you and Jason (who I know will be at Internet Librarian, Oct 26-28 in Monterey CA) a forum for another discussion of the future of libraries. Interested?


    1. I’m flattered…but I think I’d be much more interested if you offered the forum to, say, Cecily Walker or Safiya Noble or Patricia Hswe or Junior Tidal or Alison Macrina or …there are probably a ton of youth services people who would be amazing and I don’t even know who they ARE offhand, which is exactly the problem, right?

      On the other hand, if we’re talking about organizing a thing where I’m not on stage, we might have some overlapping negotiating spaces; in that case, shoot me an email.


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