‘Libraries are forever’: The future of libraries in the digital age

Bates Hall at the Boston Public Library
Bates Hall at the Boston Public Library

We tend to think of libraries as collections. But the libraries of the future will be more about connections, said Harvard professor Jeffrey Schnapp on Wednesday. He spoke on a panel discussion for HUBweek, co-founded by The Boston Globe about the next generation of libraries. The event was hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The challenges facing libraries today are no secret. Panelist Dan Cohen cited chronic underfunding as one example. Cohen is the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, a project that helps people access public-domain and openly licensed works. Another challenge to libraries is the transition from print to electronic media, Cohen said.

Panelist Andromeda Yelton, a librarian and coder, described the tensions that are arising as libraries do more of their work digitally. For example, there may be a conflict between access and privacy. If you sit at the library and read a print book, no one has to know. But to use a library app or access an e-book, you might have to hand over data about yourself. Yelton said the Library Freedom Project is one group fighting these losses of privacy.

It’s not all about reading, though, Yelton said. “Libraries are really about transforming people through access to information.” In the past, that meant access to books. But for the next generation of libraries, information means everything from Internet connections to maker spaces.

As the roles of libraries change, so will the physical buildings they occupy. A library that lets people eat, drink, and converse while they share information would be “a strong mission statement,” Schnapp said. Cohen pointed to the Boston Public Library’s central branch as a library that’s becoming more “permeable” thanks to ongoing renovations. Big new windows have made the library more open and inviting to the public.

The panelists said libraries can still do crucial work, such as archiving online content. A company like Google, for example, might not care when you lose information because it discontinues one of its services. But libraries are committed to making knowledge accessible for the future, Cohen said. “Libraries are in the forever business.”