Inspiration Architecture: The Future of Libraries

Adapted from a chapter that I wrote for Library 2020, a book edited by Joseph Janes and published by Rowman & Littlefield (May 2013).

The library in 2020 is the last bastion of truth. Sure, you can search yottabytes of free data by simply batting an eyelash. But it’s dangerous to believe what you see through the iGlass lens. As you learned the hard way back in the Facebook era, if you’re not paying for it, you are the product. That research study about the safety and efficacy of Lipitor Lollipops™ was sponsored by a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Pfizer. That consultant you almost hired wrote his own customer reviews. And while you can’t tell for sure because the algorithms are opaque, it sure seems like the first page of web search is pay-to-play. You routinely skip past the top ten results.

Unfortunately, this state of corruption isn’t limited to the Web. Politicians are in the pocket of lobbyists. Doctors push pills for profit. Teachers and bank clerks work on commission. And journalists? Well, they don’t really exist. And neither does evolution, climate change, or Newton’s Law of Gravity.

Polarization was solved by personalization. Now, people learn their own truths. We should have known back in 2015, when the ratio of adults who believe “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years” hit 51 percent, that we had passed a tipping point. At least we’re not burning witches at the stake, except in Texas, which doesn’t really count.

The good news is we still have the library. In a world that won’t stop spinning, it’s the one place you can go for truth. Their articles, books, and databases are mostly ad-free. And librarians are the folks you can trust. Is it safe to ride your bicycle to work? Do vegans live longer? Which refrigerator has the best privacy controls? And why does your self-driving car sometimes take the long route home? Librarians help you find the best answers. As a result, you make informed decisions, and over time all this learning adds up to improve not only your quality of life, but your longevity as well.

The bad news is nobody uses the library anymore. Most folks are too busy or too lazy to venture beyond the fast food of the free Web. Plus, they have absolutely no idea what they’re missing. While many schools and colleges make half-hearted attempts to integrate information literacy into their curricula, only the best students learn much from these tutorials. If their brains fail to explode when the librarian begins speaking in Boolean, their patience surely runs out when told they must know, before they start to search, which database (of dozens, each with unique interfaces and query languages) contains the answer to their question.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when librarians had the chance to change the future. People’s infatuation with Google had begun to ebb. They were hungry for something better. If libraries had offered a good alternative – an integrated search and discovery tool that enabled fast, easy access to popular content, scientific research, and scholarly sources – we might have moved forward, not back. We almost did.

Those “web-scale discovery tools” with single search boxes, faceted navigation interfaces, and aggregated indexes brought us so close to success. But many of the older, more powerful faculty and librarians resisted this “dumbing down.” They preferred the native database interfaces because only they knew how to use them. And, thanks to the squabbling of database vendors and the greed of journal publishers, seamless access to full text content remained a mirage. There were a few brilliant open discovery projects at the crossroads of open source and open access, but librarians lacked the money, power, and resolve to scale and sustain these systems.

To be fair, librarians got a lot of things right. After a period of panic about the shift from physical to digital, folks realized the power of “library as place” is timeless and unbound by technology or format. Universities and cities built a new generation of libraries to serve not only as cathedrals of knowledge but also as comfortable, collaborative spaces for learning and co-creation. Most included room for books, which is lucky considering that eBooks remain subject to format wars, legal ambiguities, viral contagion, and high prices.

At the same time, the lens of “library as people” launched an army of embedded librarians into departments, classrooms, and online courses. Their integration into student and faculty workflow dramatically improved the real and perceived value of librarians. And each time they helped a patron find and evaluate information, they improved that person’s learning skills for life.

There was even a big move towards the vision of “library as platform.” Noble geeks developed elaborate schemata for open source, open API, open access environments with linked data and semantic markup to unleash innovation and integration through transparency, crowdsourcing, and mashups. They waxed poetic about the potential of web analytics and cloud computing to uncover implicit relationships and emerging patterns, identify scholarly pathways and lines of inquiry, and connect and contextualize artifacts with adaptive algorithms. They promised ecosystems of participation and infrastructures for the creation and sharing of knowledge and culture.

Unfortunately, the folks controlling the purse strings had absolutely no idea what these geeks were talking about, and they certainly weren’t about to entrust the future of their libraries (and their own careers) to the same bunch of incompetent techies who had systematically failed, for more than ten years, to simply make the library’s search box work like Google.

So, that’s how we landed in 2020 in Pottersville rather than Bedford Falls. It’s not that the truth doesn’t exist. It’s just hard to find. If you live in a wealthy town or work for a major university, you’re likely to have a good library. And, if you know where to look and how to search, you’re able to make informed decisions that improve your life. But most folks lack access and know-how, so they stick to tradition, trust their gut, fail to learn, and fall behind.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The story of the library was rags to riches, not the rich get richer. Andrew Carnegie nailed it back in 1889. His commitment towards the establishment of free libraries derived from the firm belief that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Now, for many, that spring has failed. We’ve left our kids with Grickle Grass instead of Truffula Trees. What’s most disturbing is that we had all the puzzle pieces: beautiful physical spaces, vast digital collections, powerful algorithms, and usable interfaces. We talked about service design and cross-channel user experience. But we never walked the walk. Some said it was all about information, while others obsessed about architecture. The part we missed was the whole.

A library is an act of inspiration architecture. It lifts us up, not only by enabling our search for the truth, but also by serving as a symbol of past accomplishment and future potential. It reminds us that the path to discovery isn’t always, or even usually, a straight line. It invites us, in the interplay between physical and digital, to explore strange connections between intellect and emotion, wisdom and knowledge, mind and body.

A library, like a national park, teaches us that we all benefit when our most valuable treasures are held in common. In the wonderful and wacky intertwingularity of information and architecture, it inspires us to better ourselves. If only we’d put it all together, back then, when we had the chance.

by Peter Morville