In this article we're going to take a look at some emerging trends in library technology and how digital resources can contribute to a better experience for library users and staff alike. Before we dive in, though, we should make one point clear: the traditional role of public libraries as repositories of books is not a thing of the past. Far from it.
In fact, in a recent column for Publishers Weekly, publishing-industry veteran Tim Coates cited data showing that the vast majority of library patrons visit the library expressly to check out books, with all other activities (such as using the internet or accessing WiFi) trailing distantly behind.
Bring back the books
Coates further points out that, in the US and the UK, public libraries have pulled millions of books off of their shelves in the past decade and have not replaced them. He argues that this has been a major contributing factor to declines in library patronage:
I believe that refocusing library service on access to print books, replacing the quantities of books they have removed, and committing to adding more books would rapidly, measurably, and visibly increase the usage of public libraries, and begin to reverse the negative trends of the last decade.
Librarians led the way in the pandemic
Coates is not incorrect, although it would be a mistake to conclude that books alone will allow public libraries to thrive well into the future. Emerging technologies and digital services will also have a large part to play.
We certainly saw how important technology can be to the survival of libraries when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In a 2021 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Scott Carlson looked at how the pandemic affected the way libraries delivered their services to communities. He was speaking specifically of libraries at colleges and universities, but the lessons are applicable to public libraries as well.
Carlson writes that lockdowns were an unexpected development that led to libraries being deserted. Under duress, librarians were compelled to accelerate their delivery of remote services and other digital technologies to users.
Carlson noted that academic librarians had effectively led their institutions into the COVID-19 era of social distancing, “in part because libraries had already spent decades figuring out how to offer online services and get information to people who rarely came into the building.”
Placing greater value on technology
As we noted in our blog post about how digital information technology can help academic libraries survive, Carlson wrote that the post-pandemic library of the future will likely place greater value on its digital information technology and related resources and services. This will also compel library staff to do more to engage users.
According to Carlson:
Libraries need far more-aggressive outreach programs to patrons and more careful curation of digital collections and e-resources, just to keep the library’s expertise and resources in front of students and researchers.
Technology in the library
Here are a few of the technology trends shaping the future of your local library.
1. Digital resources
Think about your morning routine. Do you like to kick the day off old-school, savoring your morning latte with the daily newspaper spread out in front of you — and perhaps a pristine vinyl copy of Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits spinning on the turntable?
For those of us who are not so determinedly retro, digital devices tend to play an increasingly important role throughout the course of the entire day. We keep up with the news by scrolling Twitter and catch up with friends on Facebook. We discover new music on Spotify, and wind down at night with a good read on our Kindles.
The changing landscape of content
We at PressReader published our first report on the future of libraries in 2019. Back then, we noted a significant shift in the way people discover and access content — whether it’s videos, music, news media or peer-reviewed academic journals.
COVID-19 accelerated this shift, but librarians have seen it coming for years. In 2012 an OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) study found that librarians at educational institutions predicted this shift. According to the study, most foresaw students and staff moving toward using the library to access information and educational resources online rather than borrowing print books.
Many public libraries offer digital platforms such as PressReader, which features thousands of newspapers and magazines from around the world. With remote access, patrons can use PressReader from anywhere, at any time, all on their own mobile devices.
(For a deeper look at how digital resources such as online databases and digital archives can create a better user experience for library patrons, see this recent blog post.)
2. Artificial intelligence
As we observed in a previous blog article on how academic libraries use AI to improve their services, controversies surrounding the use of artificial intelligence in academic work are likely to continue as the technology becomes more sophisticated and its use gets harder to detect.
On the other hand, university libraries have found a number of practical applications for AI, along with related technologies such as machine learning and natural language processing. These tools have the potential to transform academic librarianship for the better.
The fact is, most academic librarians have been employing AI applications for years — whether they realize it or not. As the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) observes in the introduction to its new publication, The Rise of AI:
Librarians are uniquely positioned to rise to the challenge that AI presents to their field. Libraries and their like have existed for millennia; they progress with society, altering and adapting their services to meet the information needs of their communities. Academic libraries today have greatly expanded their digital offerings, not just to include electronic books or journal articles but also to support software application discovery and use. Some academic librarians might say they lack a foundational knowledge of AI or that they are ill-equipped to speak on the subject, and yet they have likely been interacting with AI through the different types of software applications they support.
AI in public library systems
Public libraries, too, can benefit from AI. Recently, the Urban Libraries Council issued a new leadership brief outlining five ways public libraries can integrate cutting-edge artificial intelligence in their work:
Move from informing to practicalizing such as leveraging AI tools for performance improvements at branches and in program design.
Leverage prompt engineering skills of library professionals who are already trained to find bodies of information using keywords or phrases.
Advance information literacy of staff and patrons through hands-on use of AI, such as workshops where participants learn how to generate short stories and poetry with AI.
Create an AI-focused digital inclusion network to ensure equitable access to the economic benefits of new AI powered technologies.
Advocate for the responsible use of AI to ensure these advancements benefit the community at large, and that foundational standards of education, innovation and access to information are preserved.
“As generative AI tools become more accessible, effective and less expensive, there are new opportunities for libraries to lead,” said ULC President and CEO Brooks Rainwater. “While there are persistent concerns that must be addressed on AI being used for misinformation, the opportunities in front of us are manifold. This includes responsible applications that improve efficiency, speed up communication and serve as a useful tool for showcasing and validating library services and resources.”
3. Library automation
Public libraries can benefit from automation in various ways to streamline operations, enhance the user experience, and improve efficiency. Among other tasks and processes, the following can be automated at a public library:
Cataloging and inventory management: Libraries can automate the process of adding books, digital resources and other materials to the library catalog. This includes importing metadata, generating call numbers and updating records. Staff can also use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to conduct regular inventory checks and locate missing items more efficiently.
Circulation and check-out: Self-checkout stations and RFID can help automate the borrowing and returning of library materials. Library users can check items in and out without the assistance of a librarian.
Hold and reservation management: The process of placing and managing holds on books and other materials can be automated. Patrons can reserve items online, and the system will notify them when the items are available.
Fine and fee collection: More and more libraries are moving away from charging late fees altogether, but those that still do can automate the assessment and collection of fines and fees for overdue materials. Notifications and payment processing can be handled electronically.
Interlibrary loan requests: Libraries can use an automated system to request and receive materials from other libraries. This can streamline the process of borrowing items not available in the library's collection.
User account management: Patrons can manage their own library accounts online, including updating contact information, changing passwords and renewing materials.
Book reshelving and sorting: An automated sorting system can quickly and accurately sort returned materials back into their proper locations on the shelves.
Visitor analytics and recommendations: Library automation can collect and analyze patron data to better understand usage patterns and preferences, which can inform collection development and program planning. Automated recommendation systems can also suggest relevant books and materials to patrons based on their preferences and borrowing history.
Acquisition and ordering: The process of ordering new materials can be streamlined through the automation of purchase requests, vendor communications, and order tracking.
Security and access control: Libraries can implement automated access control systems, including card access and surveillance, to enhance security and protect library resources.
Staff and volunteer scheduling: Automating the scheduling of shifts for staff and volunteers can ensure adequate coverage during library hours.
4. Open source software
While many libraries run their systems with proprietary software, more and more are turning to open source software instead. What's the difference?
The term "proprietary software" refers to software that is copyrighted and to which its publisher, vendor or developer has imposed limitations to its use, distribution and modification. Proprietary software is sometimes called “closed software” to distinguish it from “open software”.
The code for open source software, on the other hand, is written with a license that allows it to be modified and enhanced by the end user. Library professionals like open source systems because they are endlessly customizable — and also because they are often free, which frees up a bit of the library budget.
Balance is the key
By embracing technology, libraries can significantly improve the efficiency of their operations — by automating certain processes, for example, which enables library staff to focus on more complex tasks.
However, it's essential to balance automation with personalized human interactions to maintain the essential aspects of library services, such as enhancing the patron experience.
Digital formats may never replace books entirely, which means that the librarian's traditional role remains relevant in the 21st century, even as it continues to evolve and expand, adopting new innovations and responding to the needs of the community.