ala | As e-books and the emerging digital library occupy today’s headlines, there appears to be a tacit consensus emerging from the discourse among academics, journalists, and librarians about the future of the book. That vision of the future, as portrayed in the trade literature and popular press, consigns this centuries-old technology to obsolescence, as if it were merely another information format.
This report explores alternative scenarios, where the technology of the printed book does not disappear or become extinct, but occupies a different position in a technological ecology characterized by the proliferation of e-books and digital libraries. The printed book has for centuries been the chief cognitive object of the library. The future status of that object should be of interest to all librarians, especially as they plan for the future; therefore, this report intentionally favors the continued existence of the printed book as a viable technology.
The goal of this report is to draw attention to our assumptions about the future of the book, assumptions that are grounded in our current e-book zeitgeist. Strategic decisions are often based on underlying—and often unexamined—assumptions about the larger environment in which those decisions will be carried out. The future often turns out not as expected because we do not entertain alternative possibilities and base strategic thinking and actions on one specific belief about the future. Much of our current thinking about the future of libraries appears based on the assumption that printed books will give way to e-books and the digital transmission of textual objects.
This research report presents four scenarios so that academic and research librarians may expand their thinking about the future to include a richer set of environmental conditions:
- Consensus: a scenario where e-books overwhelm and make obsolete the printed book
- Nostalgic: a scenario where printed books are still highly in demand and e-books haveproven to be a fad
- Privatization of the book: a scenario where printed books are vestigial to an ecology dominated by e-books
- Printed books thrive: a scenario where e-books and printed books exist in balance and have equal importance
Scenario thinking exercises can help to develop situational awareness. Mica R. Endsley defines situational awareness as “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.”
Futuring is an exercise in expanding situational awareness by developing greater comprehension of the elements that make up the larger environment of libraries—indeed, viewing the library as a complex dynamic system affected not only by operational elements such as collections and user services but also by political, economic, social, and technological elements of the environment within which the library is situated. Beyond comprehending these elements and understanding the complex ways in which they interact, academic and research librarians must also be able to envision the future status of that system. We assume that the complex system that is the library will itself undergo change, and librarians must be able to anticipate those changes. Thus, using the language of situational awareness, scenarios should be viewed as one effort to describe a future state of the system in which decisions will need to be carried out. As academic and research librarians undertake strategic planning for their organizations, awareness of the larger environment and understanding the potential for changes in that environment will prove critical to improved decision making.
After reviewing each of the scenarios, those involved in strategic decision making should then consider their own plans—and their budgets— with respect to these questions:
- Which state of the system do you believe best describes the environment in which your library’s strategic thinking and planning will unfold?
- Which of these models of the future currently guides your strategic thinking and actions regarding printed books?