Robots, holograms and libraries

They are among society’s most important institutions and robotic butlers work in their archives. Your toaster can connect to their database and help you to cook. The lion’s share of their premises is used for research and teaching but they still go by the name library

Photos: CC0/Photomontage: Annika HjerpeThese are a few of the things that the investigators assumed would be commonplace in a research library in the year 2045, when the Swedish National Library’s major study “The students’ library” [Studenternas bibliotek] was completed in 1996.

The study is an analysis of the development of research libraries in Sweden. It describes and analyses the development of university and college libraries at the beginning of the 1990s, and its purpose was to provide basic data for political decisions concerning libraries.

In order to make plans and propositions that are also suitable for future library patrons, the investigators looked ahead and tried to describe a research library in the years 2000 and 2045.

A research library in 2045

Among other things, the investigators assumed that the name library would still be in use in 2045, despite dozens of proposals to change it, and that books, CD-ROMs and journals would be kept hidden away by then in subterranean archives.

They predicted that robots, or ‘butlers’, would help students and researchers to access the archived material by retrieving it from the basement, and that a large part of the library’s premises would be used for teaching and for research.

The study’s investigators predicted that by 2045 research libraries will have become hubs around which research revolves, and that by then libraries will be among society’s most important institutions. They also thought that by that time most everyday items will contain computers that can communicate with each other. Some computers, they assumed, for example a toaster or a hologram, will be able to assist with cooking through contact with the library.

A research library in 2000

In the year 2000, the investigators assumed that the process of borrowing would be automated and that book publishers would register all the data needed in the books’ integrated chips. They thought that research libraries would be open 24/7 and that universities would produce their own international journals. They also thought that the prevailing digital publication would have made journals that still are produced on paper cheaper.

How accurate are these predictions in 2016?

Well, nowadays libraries work with RFID tags to streamline their work. This is mostly when handling printed books – borrowing and returning books. Furthermore, libraries receive data from some book suppliers, which facilitates cataloguing. And there are research libraries that are open 24/7 for the university’s own researchers.

It is also correct that research libraries have started producing scientific literature, often through self-archiving. However, Swedish research libraries do not publish international journals and paper journals have not become cheaper because of increased electronic publication.

In 1996, the study’s predictions about what would happen in a research library four years in the future, in 2000, were quite accurate, but it is much easier to see what is about to happen than to look 50 years ahead. Only time will tell how well the predictions in the study match a Swedish research library in 2045 – until then, we will have to make do with what a couple of library experts think.

New predictions

Calle Nathanson, President of the Swedish Library Association, thinks that research libraries in 2045 will still be an integral part of universities’ research structure, supplying researchers and students with the necessary scientific resources.

“It will be through research results – all digital – and research data,” he says. “The research libraries will also work actively to spread the university’s research through different channels according to the principle of open access, of course. The pedagogical mandate will become increasingly important, and instruction in evaluating and finding sources of information – media and information literacy (MIL) – will be needed to a greater extent by both researchers and students.”

Ann-Sofie Axelsson is Dean of the Faculty of Librarianship, Information, Education and IT at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS) at the University of Borås, and Associate Professor in Library and Information Science with a focus on the digitalisation of society, its possibilities and its challenges. She also thinks that the development towards open access (OA) will have come a long way by 2045, and that researchers will work closely with research libraries to make their research data and research results accessible, and to get easy access to other data.

“The librarians at research libraries will be indispensable to researchers as knowledge brokers, to guarantee that researchers can establish their research at an optimum level in their field and then make their results accessible with the maximum impact,” she predicts.

“In addition, educational programmes about OA will be important to researchers, and also to the public who, to a greater extent than today, will be allowed access to research results and research data. Here, research and public libraries might need to collaborate more than they currently do.”

More room for students

Calle Nathanson thinks that more and more space will be created for students to enable them to study, and that the library will be a meeting place where students can work together.

“In 2045, the research library will also be used for teaching and it will be a place for different functions that the university arranges,” he says.

Like Calle Nathanson, Ann-Sofie Axelsson believes that students will need more library space in the future.

“For students, the need for quiet study places and access to eReaders with course books and group rooms will be vital in 2045, as unfortunately the housing shortage for young people in Sweden is hardly likely to have been solved by then,” she adds. “Quiet reading rooms and group rooms with ubiquitous and quiet on-line technology as well as accessible and knowledgeable librarians at our research and college libraries will be a competitive advantage in universities’ battle for students.”

Longer lifelong learning

Ann-Sofie Axelsson believes that the fact the Swedish population is aging and people are staying healthy longer will lead to people both wanting and needing to study for a longer time.

“A lot of people are already embarking on a second professional career, or studying further when they have reached today’s retirement age. Thus, lifelong learning will become increasingly important – and for longer – and the research library of tomorrow will have older students with long careers behind them. This will require research libraries to customise solutions and keep a high level of quality and resources accessible to a broad and demanding group of users.”

By 2045, Ann-Sofie Axelsson assumes that the Swedish population will be even more ethnically and culturally diverse than it is today, which will place greater requirements on both research and public libraries to, for example, conduct their activities in languages other than Swedish and English. The topicality of how to deal with customers will generally broaden.

Calle Nathanson also thinks along similar lines.

“In 2045, Swedish libraries in general will be multilingual which will be apparent in terms of staff as well as in terms of media and service,” he says.

Public libraries in 2045

Calle Nathanson believes that the mandate to educate in MIL will also be stronger for public libraries, and he thinks that digital material will dominate their collections.

“Promoting the development of language and reading will be reinforced and will become a self-evident part of ordinary library activities. And I take it for granted that every school in Sweden will have a school library in 2045, staffed by librarians.”

He believes that the public library’s mission to be a democratic meeting place will be as important in 2045 as it is today.

“When it comes to the library premises, they will be important as a place for reading, meetings and programme activities, while other library activities, such as language and reading promotion, will take place outside the library premises to a greater extent.”

Ann-Sofie Axelsson thinks that public libraries will be highly digitised, with research publications mostly being requested, read and used digitally. But she thinks that course books will still mostly be read on paper, or as e-books sold by publishers as subscriptions. However, she believes that in both cases the research library will be a central hub for both researchers and students and that the topicality of how to deal with customers generally will broaden in both public and research libraries.

Editor-in-chief National Library of Sweden