Outlook for libraries in the year 2027

Review of Hands-On Lab I at the 106th Bibliothekartag

The NMC Horizon Report 2017 > Library Edition published in March served as a springboard for the hands-on lab “Outlook for libraries in the year 2027 held against the backdrop of the 106th Bibliothekartag in Frankfurt.

The workshop was designed to test which ideas a group of people working in the library sector would come up with while examining the topics of trend analysis and future scenarios for two hours.

The ambitious goal: to enlarge upon and refine selected key trends and technologies in the report with a view to making their long-term impact on (academic) libraries more apparent. The NMC Horizon Report 2017 > Library Edition had been reported on extensively in the run-up to the Bibliothekartag within the scope of a BibCast.

Hands-on lab programme

The participants worked in four randomly selected groups, each of which was devoted to a trend topic and the corresponding technology. They focused on the following question: “How will the library of 2027 work and what will it look like if the trend and technologies become routine?”

In preparation, the organisers (Claudia Lienhard and Gabriella Padovan, both from ETH Library, and Rudolf Mumenthaler, HTW Chur) had selected and arranged the following four trends and technologies from the NMC Horizon Report:

  1. Rethinking Library Spaces
    • Internet of Things
    • Robotics
    • Near Field Communication (NFC)
    • Makerspaces
  1. Cross-Institution Collaboration
    • Crowdsourcing
    • Social networks
    • Digital scholarship technologies
    • Library services platforms (LSP)
  1. Valuing User Experience
    • Information visualisation
    • Wearable technology
    • Artificial intelligence (AI)
    • Virtual reality
  1. Shift away from Books
    • Mobile learning
    • Flexible displays
    • Big data
    • Virtual worlds

The methodological basis to tackle the question was the design thinking process, the individual phases of which (inspiration – ideation – iteration) were examined one step at a time. The main focus was on the ideation phase; due to limited time resources, the other two phases were addressed more fleetingly:

  1. Inspiration: the starting point was ascertained and defined (e.g. what do the trend and technologies mean? What are the opportunities and risks?)
  2. Ideation: ideas were generated, prioritised and implemented in the form of prototypes.
  3. Iteration: each group presented their prototype while two people from other groups provided feedback.

Results of the four groups

Group 1’s prototype: Rethinking Library Spaces

  • The duties are reshuffled: robots are the first port of call for questions. Librarians are still present, but perform a supportive role behind the scenes. The main focus is targeted, personalised information and procedures involving minimal effort for the customers.
    In the prototype, this is illustrated by the robot Roby (made of tin foil in the model), who welcomes visitors at the entrance and provides information on current (daily) services, such as new literature, the canteen menu, lectures, talks etc.
  • The library should be accessible to different user groups (democratisation). The distinction between academic and public libraries is erased. The space is upgraded and flexibilised.
  • Besides zones for communication and collaboration (in the centre of the model), a children’s area with a cuddly rhino and a cuddly seal also exists (on the uppermost level in the model). The cuddly toys are equipped with digital technology (e.g. touchscreens and voice control and introduce the children to the literature etc. Various apps can also be used in the library, including a “flirt” app, which responds if users with similar interests are close to each other. 3D printers are also on hand.
  • Modern displays are scattered everywhere to enable a virtual “walk” around the shelves. The stacks with the physical holdings are stored in the smallest possible space (underground) and accessible via an app. If books are selected, the stack rooms open automatically at the right place and the book is dispensed.
  • “Makerspaces” become equivalent library services as creative rooms.

Prototype: Rethinking Library Spaces

Group 2’s prototype: Cross-Institutional Collaboration

  • “The Brain” is envisaged – a global network that connects information, data, services and people. Information and knowledge is compiled collaboratively or by the crowd. Information institutions, customers and leading academics are involved.
  • The library’s main duty remains data and information management (collecting, networking, storing and rendering it accessible). However, libraries also act as participants and mediators in this sharing economy to also boost their own visibility.
  • Cross-institutional collaboration of the future is characterised by more efficient and effective processes and better-networked and compatible tools. Thanks to easy access, a higher participation rate should be achieved. Trust is another key factor.
  • The financing works via crowdfunding, for instance. 

Prototype: Cross-Institutional Collaboration

Group 3’s prototype: Valuing the User Experience

  • The vision is the library as a fluid place, i.e. the form of the location (whether it be with or without walls, in digital space etc.) takes a backseat. The customers are the key focus.
  • The library remains a door-opener when it comes to accessing the contents. New technical possibilities bring advantages. For instance, guidance systems are integrated in clothing (“talking shirts”), translations are perfect and language barriers are virtually non-existent.
  • Data and information is openly available (open data/open access). The customer can use the content from anywhere, on location or remotely. The cloud and data network showcased in the model (tin foil and pipe cleaners) underscore the fluidity.
  • Collaborative work becomes central. For instance, people work jointly in a knowledge space, not individually.
  • The model is also supposed to convey a certain uncertainty as regards the 2027 situation: in 10 years, we may no longer think in the categories physical/digital; instead, a completely new third concept might exist that we are currently unaware of. The physical location, however, will remain a place of sensory experience and discourse.
  • Risks continue to exist as regards data security, data protection, espionage and fake news.

Prototype: Valuing the User Experience

Group 4’s prototype: Shift Away from Books

  • A “marriage” takes place between digital and physical space and virtual reality.
  • In the process, the library transforms into a place of learning. As it is predominantly a virtual place, there are no longer any classrooms.
  • The goal is to generate personalised services to guarantee an optimum user experience. The customer’s location makes no difference.
  • The zoning is also relevant in the virtual library (e.g. quiet vs loud zones).
  • The focus is on the content – in whatever form. The important thing is that the users can get at the content. It is possible to access it from everywhere.
  • The librarian acts as a navigator in the information space. New challenges emerge, new skills become important.
  • In the virtual library, contact can be made directly with librarians, professors and academics etc.

Prototype: Shift Away from Books

Conclusion and feedback

As the hands-on lab on the NMC Horizon Report 2017 > Library Edition was conducted for the first time in this form, it was also an experiment for the three moderators.

And the experiment was a success: in no time, an intensive collaboration took shape and interesting insights and results were gained. A comparison of the four prototypical, visionary library concepts reveals that user-centric, i.e. personalised and simple, access to content takes priority. Moreover, the library will remain a meeting point, albeit supporting various interfaces with virtual applications and offering some virtual applications, as well as being experienceable in its entirety in the virtual sphere.


Comparison of the four prototypes

The majority of the feedback from the participants was positive. Here is a selection of the written comments received:

“Thanks to your professional introduction and the systematic breaks between the individual steps (as soon as the time was up), I found the method surprisingly effective to actually translate a working theory (in our case) into results. With the almost ‘unlibrary-like’ trends selected (‘get away from books!’), it could just as easily have descended into discussions (on the ‘value of printed books, ‘cultural disintegration’, ‘they smell so nice’).

“It would be great and exciting if another workshop on trends were held next year or the year after. Perhaps only with a maximum of one or two topics next time? Then you wouldn’t feel ‘oh, I’d like to have worked on that, too’ 😀”

“I found it enthralling to be part of a guided innovative process, which was extremely productive given the brief time available and the heterogeneity of the team. Generally, it was fascinating to learn how a systemised process can spawn ideas and generate innovation – and just how quickly creative energy can be generated if a democratically organised, heterogeneous pool of staff works together.”

“What I take away with me is that it’s well worth building on and thinking beyond the Horizon topics in this form!”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

DOI Link: 10.16911/ethz-ib-2856-en