The library profession has long had a problematic relationship with technology and the future. Its vast (and ever-growing) literature concerned with the “library of the future” is simultaneously replete with both enthusiasm for high-tech possibilities and existential fears of institutional and professional obsolescence (for example see Drabenstott; Duderstadt). While much of this literature may be classified according to its embrace of (or caution regarding) digital technologies, it does tend to be rather instrumental in its focus on institutional priorities, considering the challenges of the future solely from perspective of librarianship, despite the broad social forces in which libraries exist – forces reflected in the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries’ Trends webpages (“Trends”). As Karen Coyle observes, “we have to look beyond libraries in our long range planning. The future of libraries is inherently integrated with the future of a larger context: economics, technologies, social developments” (140). In other words, libraries must be understood materially and relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a part of larger societies – which is to say dialectically (Bales 2015). As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships over time, dialectics emphasizes the materiality of institutions such as libraries (including their technological bases), while recognizing that they are inseperable from both intrinsic and extrinsic ideological foundations and historical circumstances.
In addition to inadequately situating libraries, the library literature about the future also neglects its other ostensible focus: the future itself, and our discourses about it. As a consequence, our ability to plan ethically for potential futures is unnecessarily constrained. This is particularly true for understanding, preparing for and addressing the very sustainability of future libraries, which suffers from a number of fundamental – but little-understood – threats. To address these gaps in the literature, and to better equip library practitioners with the tools necessary to plan for their institutional and professional futures in uncertain times, this article suggests that the prescriptions and potentials for the future of libraries be viewed through perspectives and ideas drawn from futures studies, a discipline intimately concerned with forecasting, anticipating, understanding, planning, evaluating and deliberating about the future. Such a lens can help us to better understand the promises and perils of future libraries, not just in terms of libraries in the future but how our own professional planning in the past has been rendered problematic by future-oriented ideologies.
Futures studies concerns how societies may achieve preferable futures and avoid potential threats while maintaining an ethical stance towards the future (Adam and Groves; Bell). As futurist Ziauddin Sardar (2010) argues, futures studies compels us to interrogate technologically-driven futures for their potential to preclude more pluralistic alternatives. Grounding our dialectical deliberations regarding the future of libraries in the external theories of futures studies can assist library professionals in mapping out future pathways characterized by stability and enduring principles rather than anxiety-ridden reactions to constant, external change.
For example, Hal Niedzviecki in his 2015 book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future identifies our culture’s tendency towards what he calls “future-first thinking”, a toxic and anxiety-generating ideology that leads to anxious existential questions about the future —certainly a theme in the LIS literature. In Niedzviecki’s view, our culture’s obsession with the future is about the goal of “owning” or “seizing” it, largely by disrupting the present through the rejection of traditional or current practices, technologies and values. Most relevant for our purposes is his observation regarding the eagerness with which we as consumers adopt new technologies even though the history of technology is “littered with unintended consequences” (224). With disruption being at the core of the ideology of the future, Niedzviecki warns that “we are adopting a techno-scientific notion of owning the future as a replacement for the social certainty we crave and have now irretrievably lost” (125).
All of this emphasis on owning and seizing the future begs the question: from whom or what? What might we irretrievably lose? What does owning the future imply about our obligations towards it? Barbara Adam, a futures studies scholar at Cardiff University observes that our ethics towards the future are fundamentally dependent on our metaphysical worldview: that if the future is “owned” and set in motion by the gods or ancestors, then we are compelled to act responsibly towards it. However, in the secular modern world, she writes,
we assume to own the future. The future, we say, is ours to take and shape. We treat it as a resource for our use in the present. As such we plan, forge and transform the future to our will and desire. It means we see ourselves as owners, producers and managers of an open future, which we shape to our designs and intentions (112-113).
Further, Adam and sociologist Chris Groves in their book Future Matters note that the acts of shaping, making and owning the future by necessity means that one is also invariably taking it from someone else; and that one is ultimately responsible for all outcomes (Adam and Groves).
What might such taking mean in the context of future libraries? For what outcomes are we responsible? I would argue that there are at least three potential ways in which the digital library of the future threatens to take – and has already taken – the future from others.
An uncritical embrace of unproven technologies as a pathway to dramatically reinventing libraries has already compromised collections and forever foreclosed future access to older materials. As preservation librarian Randy Silverman argues in his 2016 paper “Surely We’ll Need Backups,” the library profession in the late 20th Century, enamoured of visions for digital libraries of the future and buoyed by an extraordinary level of groupthink and a failure of LIS scholarship, convinced themselves there was a brittle books “crisis” and therefore an urgent need to microfilm and then pulp millions of books, journals and newspapers. For 20 years this federally-funded and ideologically-motivated campaign of “destroying print in order to save it” sliced, scanned and shredded en masse until all that remained of historic runs of great American newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and New York World were housed at the British Library — and even these were only saved from oblivion because author Nicholson Baker (Author of Double Fold) founded a non-profit organization and won them at auction in part with his own retirement funds. While microform companies and advocates claim microforms will endure as long as 500 years, these estimates are based on optimal storage and use conditions which do not always obtain. In any case, microfilm should never have been considered the “object of record” – yet so many originals are now lost forever (Silverman).
But what about the longevity of digital media? Our profession is greatly occupied with preventing a “digital dark age” and in archiving the fast-changing Web, but what will future generations know of all of the scholarship of our era – including journal collections largely replaced by online databases – in the event of catastrophic technological failure or collapse? Such a possibility is not confined to the realm of science fiction: in July 2012, Earth narrowly avoided being blasted by two coronal mass ejections from the Sun which, had they struck one week earlier when Earth was in a different position in its orbit, would have caused electrical grids all over the planet to collapse as transformers burst into flames, reducing “bookless libraries” such as the one at Florida Polytechnic University to little more than architectural curiosities, and sweeping into oblivion all online scholarship (Baker et al.). It would have sent us back to the 19th Century – but a 19th Century with almost no copies of The Chicago Tribune and New York World.
Even absent threats from outer space, our dependence on digital information platforms is premised on reliable electrical infrastructure into the future; however, in North America at least this is a problematic proposition at best. As Jason Makansi argues in his 2007 book Lights Out North America’s energy infrastucture is facing an interconnected series of crises: aging power plants, rising fuel prices, dangerously extended supply lines, neglected transmission systems, the ravages of climate change including frequent extreme weather events, a dangerous reliance on imported liquid natural gas, the introduction of deregulation into the supply chain, and an aging workforce and therefore a dwindling pool of expertise to address any of these problems (Makansi). The widescale replacement of owned print journal runs and paper books with licensed digital access is, as a result, a gamble that these tenuous present conditions will always persist.
The third future-foreclosing dimension of the library of the future – and the information age more generally – is that of the essentially unknowable environmental impacts of the decades-long transition to digital information delivery, and which have been thoroughly – and quietly – externalized. The rapid obsolescence of ICT in public and academic libraries has generated vast amounts of e-waste from standalone catalogues, PCs, CD-ROM drives, servers, monitors, VCRs and DVD players, etc., an enormously complex and toxic waste stream which has only in recent years come under regimes of recycling, which themselves may not be all they seem. Only half of the U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws in place, and in Canada an action plan for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was adopted for provincial jurisdictions only in 2009. Prior to these recent developments, 90% of e-waste in Canada was historically sent to landfills or illegally exported to developing countries with no such regulations at all (McClearn; Schroeder). To give some sense of the scale of the problem, a 2014 article in the Annals of Global Health found that
the amount of e-waste produced in 2012 is enough to fill 100 Empire State buildings …The final destination of nearly 70% of e-waste is either unreported or unknown. Eighty percent of e-waste generated in the United States reportedly contributes to the global “hidden flow” of e-waste; it is not registered meaning it is either unofficially exported [to Asia or Africa], dumped into landfills, incinerated [or] recycled…in scrap yards and homes [often by] by children (Perkins 287-290).
Remarkably, considering the transition to widespread computer use in libraries has been underway for decades, very little empirical research has been done or data gathered in the LIS literature on the environmental sustainability of the digital library. University of Toronto Communications scholar Sabine Lebel, in her analysis of environmental impacts in the ICT field, finds them “radically under-theorized” (1) despite ICTs constituting the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and the clearly racialized impacts of this waste stream. She considers our technological ideology according to what David Nye refers to as the technological sublime – in which ICT is exalted as inherently green, positive and future-oriented away from a dirty industrial past – as well as Rob Nixon’s notions of slow violence against poorer populations in the global south who suffer environmental degradation and as-yet unknown health impacts from the globalized economics of e-waste (Lebel).
In economic terms, libraries have almost entirely externalized the ecological costs of the unceasing transition from one technology to another, rather than internally accounting for, preventing or ameliorating these impacts. This is not to place undue censure on libraries, given the lateness of appropriately-scaled regimes of reclamation and recycling in which they could feasibly participate. Yet we must acknowledge that the digital library of the future — far from being technologically sublime — is now, and has always been, unsustainable ecologically and socially, yet is a vision that has been for decades now pursued with barely-recognized ideological fervour. Adam & Groves would further add that
the modern drive towards innovation… has produced fundamentally different correlations of action knowledge and responsibility… contextuality and embeddedness have been displaced by decontextualized, disembedded relations in order to produce a world of pure potential where anything is possible, thus subject to our design (164-5).
Such disembeddedness, I would argue, has contirubted to libraries casting print newspaper runs aside and nearly driving them to extinction, then with similar blithe trust betting everything on highly vulnerable digital pathway dependencies into an uncertain future, dependencies fraught with grave — but unrecognized and unaccounted for — ecological and racialized social consequences. While driven by what Niedzviecki calls future-first thinking, they ironically make the future of libraries less certain, not more — what philosopher William James described as “the sacrifice of the future for the present” (quoted in Kunstler 185).
What we see, then, is that any discourse about the “library of the future” includes but must transcend the scope of librarianship itself. As we progress through the ever-more difficult and troubling terrain of the 21st Century, characterized as it is by rapid technological changes, demographic transformations, growing inequality and concomitant political, economic and climatic uncertainties, as well as competing extremist ideologies, the dialectical situatedness of libraries takes on paramount importance to any discussion about their futures – a reality to which ALA’s Roundtables for Social Responsibility, Ethnic and Multicultural Exchange and Sustainability attests. Indeed, the “library of the future” in many respects meets the standard of a “wicked problem” as set out by Rittel and Webber in their classic formulation: it has no agreed-upon causes (what are the most pressing issues that will need to be addressed in the future?), is always a symptom of other problems (the “digital divide” is also an inherently intersectional and structural one), no end point (when will we have achieved the “library of the future”?), and is so affected by every intervention (any technological innovation or implementation represents a different pathway-dependency) that they can have no ultimate, universal solution (Rittel and Webber).
This is why we as library professionals instead need to bear in mind a dialectical understanding of the situatedness of our institutions (Bales): how their materiality (including unseen energy, mineral and toxic footprints) and interrelatedness with the rest of the planet is influenced by our ideological assumptions — such as our own confidence in the public library’s inherent progressiveness and technological sublimity. Futurist Ziudden Sardar further reminds us that that actual location of futures studies’ discourses is in the present: that our conversations about the future – in this case about libraries — have a very real impact on their contemporary existences (Sardar). Accordingly, the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries stresses that futuristic technologies and service models must be weighed against the existing core values of librarianship (“Core Values”). Sardar also recognizes the colonizing potential in much of the futures studies discourse, which he sees as inherently Eurocentric, masculine and technologically deterministic. “The future is defined in the image of the West” he writes. “There is an [sic] built-in western momentum that is taking us towards a single, determined future” (182). Diverse knowledge systems, he argues, have the potential to temper and decolonize technocratic impulses.
Futures studies approaches can aid us in identifying these potential risks in our future-library discourses, policies and practices, while pointing to the need for alternative pathways to enriched, more humanistic, pluralistic and sustainable future for libraries.
(Image: SnarkleMotion )
Presented under a different title at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians conference, Ryerson University, Toronto May 30th 2017.
Adam, Barbara, and Chris Groves. Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Brill, 2007.
“Core Values of Librarianship” American Library Association. 15 Sept. 2017, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues
Baker, D. N., et al. “A major solar eruptive event in July 2012: Defining extreme space weather scenarios.” Space Weather vol. 11, no. 10 (2013): 585-591.
Baldé, C. P. The Global e-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, Flows and Resources. United Nations University, 2015.
Bales, Stephen. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA, Library Juice Press, 2015.
Drabenstott, Karen M. Analytical Review of the Library of the Future. Washington, DC: Council on Library Resources, 1994.
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Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. 1st ed. ed., New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
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McClearn, Matthew. “Where Computers go to die.” Canadian Business. May 28 2013. https://tinyurl.com/y6wqgqra
Niedzviecki, Hal. Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2015.
Perkins, Devin N., et al. “E-waste: a global hazard.” Annals of Global Health vol. 80, no. 4 (2014): 286-295.
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Sardar, Ziauddin. “The Namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight—What’s in a name?.” Futures vol. 42, no. 3 (2010): 177-184.
Schroeder, Harold. E-waste management in Canada. Environment Canada: Fredericton, NB, Canada (2013).
Silverman, Randy. “Surely, We’ll Need Backups.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture vol. 45, no.3 (2016): 102-121.
“Trends” American Library Association 15 Sept. 2017. http://www.ala.org/tools/future/trends