The library in a new digital age

The last decade has seen the arrival of the new digital age. The Internet has become more important then ever and digitization of everything around us has been going on at full speed. The way we consume and pay for products in changing drastically. Digital payments are going up, as a digital sales. Even the physical vs. digital goods are changing where digital distribution of games, movies, tv shows, music and books are slowly but surely moving towards digital distribution. Business models that worked 10 years ago have no chance of succeeding due to the way people use digital devises in their day to day lives.

How does an institute like the library carry over from the “old” business model into a new digital business model?


Before we ever can understand how a business can survive in the “new” environment we must first identify what it is that makes it different from the situation it was before. It is not just the library business that has changed, it’s foremost the media industry that has changed. I think that it can even be described as forced to change. Over the past few years the digital revolution has done a lot with the world. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook have changed the way we use media on a day to day basis. But how does that affect the industry?

Change: consumer culture

With the introduction of iTunes and the rise of Amazon prices of media goods have gone down drastically. Not only because the goods have become more digital and there is almost no physical cost left but also due to the fact that both are taking out the middle man. Anyone can very easily put their own songs on iTunes and there are more and more authors that only use an editor for proof reading and do the distribution on their own.

It’s not just about cost. People are looking for a closer connection to the creators of the content. Sales directly from the musicians website have gone up over the last few years not because it is cheaper. Not because it is cheaper but because the consumer wants to reward the artists instead of paying the middle man. Rewarding the creator of a piece comes with a price… allowing the consumer to extensively sample the content before them buying it. Consumers are no longer content with a reviews or promotions in the media, they want to judge for themselves. For musicians it has become of vital importance to publish free samples.

One of the most interesting new changes in what consumers want is ease of use. No technical implementation is getting away with multiple authentications, giant forms or things that don’t seem work. Apple, Google and Amazon made sure it is easy to use and get access to their products. Consumers now expect that from every service.

Change: information

Over the years new media types did emerge and they all have their own unique set of meta data and terms. The meta data has become more and more freely available. Sites like Wikipedia, IMDB, and LibraryThing hold almost all meta data anyone could ever need. People are creating and maintaining bigger and bigger knowledge bases and they are very frequently completely free.

The current age is not as much the age of the computer, but it is the age of information. The Internet allows us to access almost unlimited sources of information from all over the world. News travels around the world at light speed and new discoveries are shared instantly. With the revolution in hand-held Internet devices we even call it the pocket brain. Forgot that name of that athlete that won a gold medal on the Olympics over 20 years ago? you’ll find it in seconds!

This is the experience people expect. Pocket brains and live news are normal to many people across the world. And they expect it to be free and unbiased.

Change: Smaller world

Actually the word has not physically shrunk… it is the access we have to the world. It used to take 80 days to get around the planet, now the international space station does it almost 16 times a day. A flight from London to New York takes about 8 hours, with the boat it used to take 6 days in the day of the RMS Titanic. The distances are the same but we now have access to travel methods that allow use to be there much faster.

And it’s not just about the distance. Although we have been traveling the globe for centuries we are now settling in new locations a lot easier. One used to get a place to live in the village one was born. Nowadays it is more likely you will end up somewhere else due to work or partner. This makes it that we get in contact with more cultures. Not just from immigrants, but also customs from other parts within the same country.

Locality has also changed with the introduction of better methods of communication. I have friends living in Arabia, Japan, Australia, the USA, Brazil and the UK and I keep in contact with them regularly. This does not make the physical distance less or the travel shorter, but it does provide me with a way to keep in contact with them. Our world has not shrunk, our definition of local has gotten bigger.

Just like information we expect to hear and see more from across the globe. More sources and a bigger range or cultures and opinions.

The problem

So, what is actually wrong with the library?

well, not much. A lot of the public libraries are doing their jobs fairly well. They organize local events, act as a community center, loan out books and other media. So why are there so many issues surrounding the library? It is hard to answer this question. A questions like; Why are visiting numbers dropping? is already very complex and is a symptom of what is actually happening.

It might be hard to swallow… but I think the library as an information and entertainment provider is loosing its relevancy.

Why would I go to a library to find the same information I can find online? Why would I wait for weeks for a movie to be in the library while I could download the movie before it is premiered? Why would I go to a library with a couple of thousand Cd’s while online I could get everything? It does not matter what the library does to try and keep up with online sources, but it will always stay at least one step behind. The web is just too fast to keep up with.

Remember. This is saying nothing about the services it provides to the community. Providing people with free Internet access, organizing readings, giving shelter to book clubs, having a place for kids to discover reading and for students a quite place to study. The library is a lot more than the books in the collection.

The future

The one part the library is best known for is becoming less relevant. But that doesn’t mean that the library is loosing its way. I think a pivot is in order. Refocus on areas that need serving and move the original purpose more to the background. Focus on what works best in the library today and expand on these activities. Keep organizing events, keep making kids enthusiastic about reading and keep providing community services. The locality and the local impact is important as it is THE thing that differentiates the libraries from the Internet.

To stay relevant when it comes to the collections, steps will need to be taken to provide easy access to them. Not only to get people into the collection, but also other data. Provide a platform to discover the collections and all the surrounding information. And keeping in spirit with the figurative shrinking of the world allow access to other collections from near by libraries. It might even be a good idea to make one global collection for a certain area and not see them as these separated silos. In the age of information, why keep data locked in a place where nobody can access it?

Although I’m currently not working on a solution for libraries I do hope that this pivot in focus will happen, soon. The library is so much more than just a place to lend books from.

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