This weekend saw National Libraries day. It’s a good time to put the short term turbulence into a longer frame.

Here’s a short thinkpiece to help shift to a longer, and eventually more positive, narrative, in which this is just one turning point.

[Charing Cross library, banners in English and Chinese, February 2012]

In Wim Wender’s 1987 film “Wings of Desire” Hans Scharoun’s library in Berlin is the place where the elderly storyteller Homer is seen recalling the city’s layers of history, silently, in his mind. They city’s story is told, over again, in the library. It is a space where different layers of time and experience cohabitate side by side, on the shelves and in the minds of visitors.

Last week 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”.

The future of the library is, in some way, a paradox. So many of the long term trends are running against it that it is easy to assume that it is an anachronism of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is worth spelling this out. 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 digitization of books generally. 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.

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, but 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, as knowledge transfer research has shown), the hackers, nomads, chatterers of our children’s children’s generation. What role will libraries play for them? How can we, today, imagine the unknown users of the future?

The conversation needs to stay fully rooted in the long past of libraries, and fully explore what British society might become, and then look at the role of the library as experience, service, community, commodity, to all kinds of imagined, and hard-to-imagine future people. Let’s tackle this from the outside in as well as the inside out.

Two current discussions feel like they have a bearing on library futures.

On Radio Four on Saturday, Alistair Campbell was talking about what he thought was one of David Cameron’s few virtues: his interest in happiness and well-being. Asking the question about the future of the library through that lens can lead to some very different longer-term approaches, in contrast to the cuts and closures that dominate the present discourse.

And this weekend Richard Sennett’s new book was reviewed in the Guardian. Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation is the second in a series of three, of which the first talks about the craftsman and the third returns to a familiar Sennett theme, the city. In “Together” Sennett argues that community is pretty easy to create – like-minded people come together. Cooperation is much harder to achieve: different people meet across boundaries and negotiate cooperation. The more active stewardship it takes to bring about cooperation is a dimension of possible future libraries and their role in society.

It’s nicely prescient that the research Sparknow did between 2007 and 2010 into knowledge transfer between the cultural sector in London (people, places, collections, expertise) and business went by the name of “the bridge builder programme” between us colloquially and Sparknow was quite specifically badged as bridge-builder.

It’s not just with libraries that the intensity and swirl of present emotions and debates can crowd out the past and the future. One project that Sparknow was involved in a few years back was the gathering of lessons of watershed management in Bolivia, Mali and India, each project using different narrative tools to find, consolidate and transfer experiences and insights. The Bolivian project had done long videos of farmers elaborating on water disputes. They’d also developed a way of visualising the story in which the present disputes were put into a 400 year history of water in those mountains, which weighed the present, in relation to past and future in quite and a different way.

It’s important not to squash or sweep aside today’s raging debate and fierce campaign. It’s also important to lift ourselves out of it a bit and shift ourselves into looking at the longer sweep of the narrative and the other narratives that it interacts with. Without a past and a future the weight of the present is distorted. Without a past, the future cannot be imagined. The past, sometimes so heavy with nostalgia, can also obscure the future. As Stewart Brand has put it, the present is a ‘long now’ with a deep past and a long future.

There’s been much, in the current exchanges, about the past, so it’s worth spending a bit of time here on library futures, shifting the perspective from that of the library and those who currently have a lively relationship with it, to the future worlds in which a library will play a role and the people who will then have a lively relationship with it.

There are several ways of doing this, of which two are to imagine vivid future worlds, and to look around, today at the surprise, delight and potential in the activities libraries house.

First, let’s imagine what future worlds look and feel like, with different kinds of library playing a role in them. Let’s deconstruct the word library for the future and understand it better:

Library is

  • warmth
  • safety
  • books
  • community
  • cooperation
  • market
  • advice
  • books
  • support
  • childcare
  • job hunting
  • retreat
  • memory
  • meaning
  • belonging
  • provocation
  • enquiry
  • access
  • signpost
  • …and so on….

We can also use that description of the future that has been maybe a bit over-borrowed from William Gibson, the science fiction writer, who says that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. In parallel with stretching our imaginations about future libraries in future worlds, we can look around today and piece together clues to the future from what is already happening in and around libraries. These small stories accumulate and can break open the crust of the default narrative we have now taken up in Britain, whose summary is something like ‘good campaigners fight evil coalition’. That kind of oppositional, reductive storyline crowds out variety and gives no room to the texture and complexity of today, which holds at least some of the clues for tomorrow.

Iconic buildings such as Southwark’s new library in Canada Water, and Birmingham are great examples of inspirational possible future library space, bridging the gap between today and tomorrow. They are also strongly authored, by an architect, with input, but all the same, they are signature pieces by individuals. The activities they house, on the other hand, are mostly anon. That means that as well as the “cathedrals of our millennia” (and cathedrals were anon for the most part too, built by unknown craftsmen), libraries are also bazaars, co-created by users, providers and stewards of the activities that happen there. Let’s make sure we’ve fully discovered the potential in today’s libraries and carry that forward as well as figuring out the new.

If we open up the conversations that are taking place we have a chance to hold a thoughtful extended national conversation, even if it is one fueled by strong emotions. From that conversation can emerge the strands of vibrant but credible futures that can shape longer term policy and practice and put the campaign for libraries at the heart of the campaign for a different kind of future Britain.

[This piece was written by Andrew Curry of The Futures Companies, and Victoria Ward and Sabine Jaccaud of Sparknow. It is being published both on the Sparknow (longer version) and The Futures Company (shorter version) blogs.]


‘Getting down to business’ is a collection of documents and reports made by Sparknow in three years of research into knowledge transfer between museums, libraries, archives and businesses in London, done on behalf of MLA London and largely funded by the London Deveopment Agency. There are examples of great ideas from local libraries in the final ‘Getting down to business’ report.

What would wolf say is a recent blog about one of the techniques that can be used to give voice to an absent stakeholder.

The Role of the Librarian in a Knowledge Society is a paper written by Victoria Ward and Wendy Jordan, then at the British Council, following a workshop by Sparknow at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman.