The Future of Library Systems, Seen From the Past

by Karen Coyle

Preprint. Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship, v. 33, n. 1, pp. 138-140.

Today's Future

There are times that lend themselves to speculation about the future, and this seems to be one of those times. The future library is being referred to as "Library 2.0," although there is little agreement on what that new library will look like: Walt Crawford claims to have found as many as sixty-two views and seven definitions of the term.1 If nothing else, there is plenty of fodder for a lively discussion.

There are hints of change on the horizon and the potential change agents in libraries today are numerous. Library cataloging practice, one of the more stable elements of library activity, has been challenged by the theory of Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, or FRBR. New cataloging rules (Resource Description and Access, or RDA) are being discussed that would incorporate that theory. In the area of technology, the desire to work seamlessly with web services and to integrate the library catalog into the larger networked information universe is causing some questioning of the functionality of the catalog and the assumptions behind the Integrated Library System.

Before delving into our future, it might be instructive to look at some of the futures that preceded us. There may be lessons that can help us in our own divination process. I have taken some predictions covering the years 1949 to 1984 to inform this investigation. These are not by any means the entirety of relevant works on the future of libraries. If you are interested in this topic I suggest the almost 300-page annotated bibliography by Gregg Sapp.2 The earliest of the predictions come on the cusp of the computer revolution, and those, not surprisingly, see stunning changes taking place. Later authors, especially those in the library field, are struggling more to see beyond the existing systems, and are closer in their views of the future to today's library futurists.

What Most Got Right

There were certain predictions regarding technologies and libraries that many of the authors got right. These may seem obvious to us today, but the authors, and especially the earliest authors, were working from a very different perspective than ours. What nearly all of our past futurists seem to have agreed on was that it would be possible to interact with the library from a remote location. Users would access the library catalog from home or from other locations around town. Most authors correctly predicted online access to the library catalog, access to databases of information, and even direct access to full text. Although there was not yet talk about the computer making some experiences "virtual," Taylor3 may have been the first to coin the expression "library without walls" in his 1975 article in which he envisioned remote access to the library and to various information resources provided by the library.

Nearly all of the authors predicted that new technologies would reduce the storage requirements for information, an important use of the technology since there was general agreement that the increase in the amount of information is one of the great challenges of our electronic world. Vannevar Bush, the creator of the "memex" concept, predicted the miniaturization of documents through micro-reprographics: "The Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox." 4 He can be forgiven for missing the seemingly obvious computerization of documents since he was writing in 1949. Griffin in 1962 boldly stated that computers would "Take over the storage problem." Of course, working for IBM might have influenced her viewpoint.5 Interestingly, Branscomb, a computer scientist, is the one who appears to have coined the measure of information based on the number of characters in all of the books in the Library of Congress (which he estimated as 70 trillion bits).6

Although Lancaster is often derided for his prediction of "paperless" information systems, a careful reading shows that he was not proposing that there would be no more use of printed documents, but that it would be possible to create and exchange documents in digital form.7 He successfully predicted everything from word processing and email to markup of documents by reviewers. His concern was the need for greater efficiency, a concern shared by others in this roundup.

Various authors went into great descriptions of this future technology and how people would interact with it, such as:

"When I press a key, a code goes into the system, and the system then sends back a code [that] activates the marking unit." 8

"[The memex] consists of a desk ... On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levels." 9

Although their exact details look somewhat silly today, conceptually they were on the right path with networks delivering information resources and technology that allowed the creation of research documents using machines to take on some of the mundane aspects of that work.

It is interesting that as early as 1962, Griffin predicted that there would be regional catalogs, and that these would facilitate inter-library loan. The expansion of the geographical scope of the catalog became a common theme as soon as the existence of online catalogs was in sight. Like the prediction of an "always open" library, the ability of networks to remove geographical boundaries caught the imagination of our futurists. Griffin also predicted that it would be possible to automate the launching of an ILL request whenever an item was not found in the local catalog. A form of this is realized today as patron initiated interlibrary loan.

It is particularly impressive that in 1949 Bush essentially describes hypertext links, social tagging and peer-to-peer networks, at least if you interpret his ideas generously. He saw researchers creating associative maps between documents and exchanging these with each other in an early form of social tagging. Kilgour has the advantage of speaking in 1984, but he did declare that the 1990's would bring a new information culture.10 Unfortunately, he thought that the focus of that culture would be the online public access catalog when in fact the focus was the World Wide Web.

Wishful Thinking

Early thinkers on the future of libraries had what we would consider rather generous ideas about the capabilities of computers. That makes sense, of course. They hadn't had enough experience with these modern machines to have witnessed their limitations. Some of them fell into the trap of seeing the computer as a thinking machine. Griffin predicted that computers would be answering reference questions and guiding users through their research. Kilgour and Branscomb expected actual speech to be the interface between computers and humans, implying that computers would answer questions posed by library users or would guide them through the research process.

The division of labor between computers and humans varies in these visions of the future. Licklider11 anticipated a working relation between men and computers in which the computer would be relegated the repetitious work and humans would do the intellectual work. He referred to his idea as a "pro-cognitive system" where machines aid humans in the cognitive function. Griffin sees computers taking over the cataloging of information and acting as reference librarians, while Licklider anticipates a one hour interview (!) between a researcher adding a paper to the store of knowledge and a human indexer who will make the necessary connections between this document and ones already indexed. Egeland saw a relief from routine tasks: "... machines, not librarians, should be ordering and cataloging materials, checking in serials, checking out books, and compiling bibliographies." 12

Both Lancaster and Garfield saw a glowing future for librarians, if not for libraries themselves. They anticipated a new role as information consultant for those with library skills. Kilgour saw the utility of librarians growing, although he was not so optimistic about the future of libraries themselves: "Libraries as we now know them will diminish in usefulness. The functions of librarians, as distinct from libraries, will, however, almost certainly enlarge intellectually as well as usefully." 13

There was some optimism about the economics of automation. Egeland14 took the position that computers would free up the time of librarians, thus leaving more time for patron service, and Auerbach15 stated that libraries in general would be less expensive and therefore more special libraries would be created. Bauer16 recognized that a future generation of librarians would appear with specialties in library automation, although it is still a matter of debate in some institutions whether management of the technology is a role for librarians or if it is best assigned to non-library staff with technology skills.


Futurists tend to be an optimistic bunch when describing the world to come. In addition, in professional literature it is probably considered unseemly to predict dire outcomes for your colleagues and their institutions. Some of the authors did have cautions to offer, however. Egeland warned that there would be more opportunities for libraries, but only if libraries could move from the passive "caretaker" role to a more active role in disseminating information. She saw the main barrier to be the reluctance of the profession to make changes, and warned that such change would take a number of years. Kilgour chided his audience that although librarians have used computers to improve the efficiency of certain management operations like circulation and serials control, they hadn't yet used the computer for radical change in the management of information delivery. Today's work with web services may finally be fulfilling Kilgour's vision.

Branscomb acknowledged the difficulties of using computers for truly intellectual work. He provides many calculations relating to the growing power of computers but admits that no computer has come near the capability of the human brain to make associations. He also had the insight to state that it is relatively easy to store data in a computer, but much harder to retrieve that data.


There are some predictions that are nearly universally missing from the future scenarios of these authors. With the exception of Branscomb, who made a brief mention of copyright law ("If we can solve the problem of protection of intellectual property... there will be an effective market for knowledge in itself, since distribution to the consumer will be easy and direct and very inexpensive."17), no one anticipated the difficulties that would arise over intellectual property in this new digital age. Griffin stated: "The library of tomorrow will have eliminated the overdue notice. A permanent copy of any document will be available at a small cost to a reader."18 There was mention by others of the delivery of copies of documents to researchers, both electronically and in a print-on-demand format, but the legal aspects of this were not examined.

Disintermediation and user independence was also missed by many of the authors. Garfield went so far as to say: "I cannot envision information retrieval as being entirely self service!"19 Although not one hundred percent self service, the migration of library users to web sites and search engines was no where in the vision of librarians in our past.

Of course, any prediction of a specific technology is unlikely to survive the actual passage of time. Bauer, in 1980, saw great potential for videodiscs both for home entertainment and for information storage. The videodisc had a brief heyday in the early 1980's but was surpassed by the DVD format in short order. Many of the authors thought the home access and display device would be the television set. Although still in existence, WebTV does not appear to have made significant inroads into the market despite the fact that televisions are still vastly more numerous in homes than personal computers. The personal computer hit the public consciousness in the early 1980's (in January, 1983 the computer became Time Magazine's "Person of the Year"), but it wasn't a common home appliance for another decade.

The key "miss" on the part of the librarians mentioned here was to totally ignore the burgeoning computer industry and therefore to assume that information access would remain the purview of libraries. Perhaps the greatest lesson for us in these writings is that we have to look beyond libraries in our long range planning. The future of libraries is inherently integrated with the future of a larger context: economics, technologies, social developments.


There is a certain pleasure in playing the "what if" game, in trying to move ones thoughts forward into a world that does not yet exist. Key members of our profession, from the early thinkers like Jewett an Dewey to our recent colleagues such as Garfield, Avram, and Kilgour have not only looked forward they had a profound effect on the direction of the profession and on its development and use of technology. In future articles, I'll explore some more recent visions of our future, ones that could guide us to the next generation of library systems.

1 Walt Crawford, "Library 2.0 And "Library 2.0"," Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large 6, no. 2 (2006).

2 Gregg Sapp, A Brief History of the Future of Libraries; an Annotated Bibliography (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002).

3 R.S. Taylor, "Patterns toward a User-Centric Academic Library," in New Dimensions for Academic Library Service, ed. E. L. Josey (Scarecrow, 1975). pp. 107-108.

4 Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Atlantic Monthly (1949).

5 Marjorie Griffin, "The Library of Tomorrow," Library Journal (1962).

6 Lewis M. Branscomb, "Information: The Ultimate Frontier," Science 203, no. 12 (1979). p. 144

7 F. Wilfrid Lancaster, Toward Paperless Information Systems, Library and Information Science (New York: Academic Press, 1978).

8 J. C. R. Licklider, Libraries of the Future (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1965). p. 46

9 Bush, "As We May Think."

10 Frederick G. Kilgour, "The Online Catalog Revolution," Library Journal (1984). pp. 319-321

11 Licklider, Libraries of the Future.

12 "1985: New Technology for Libraries," Library Journal (1980). p. 1477

13 Kilgour, "The Online Catalog Revolution." p. 321

14 "1985: New Technology for Libraries."

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Branscomb, "Information: The Ultimate Frontier." p. 147

18 Griffin, "The Library of Tomorrow." p. 56

19 "1985: New Technology for Libraries." p. 1475

The copyright in this article is NOT held by the author. For copyright-related permissions, contact Elsevier Inc.