The library of the future was a topic discussed by Paul Barclay as he interviewed librarians and an author on Radio National’s Big Ideas Program, which can be listened to at www.abc.net.au

Here is a summary of the findings which are both interesting and enlightening. The library of the future is an exciting, revolutionary and free search service. It is a content publisher, an agent for change and a digitiser of useful historical and other information. No longer do libraries simply loan out print books-there are libraries of all sorts serving needs in their individual communities with items for loan as diverse as even skeletons and telescopes! Increasingly, questions are being raised as to the likely changes libraries will go through as they respond to the increasing technology and advent of e-books. Libraries are also places for book-clubs and story-times and this will likely continue on as they meet the needs for sharing information in its many forms.

An interest aside is that according to Eli Neiburger, Associate Director for I.T. and Production at the Ann Arbor District library in the Unites States, sales figures for e-books are down and may have currently reached their peak in terms of sales. We may now be seeing the beginning of a decline, in favour of a return to traditional print hardback books. It remains to be seen as to how it will play out and there are niches for e-books that remain popular.

Jane Cowe, Director of Regional Access and Public Libraries at the State Library of Queensland has been working on a new digital library model called “Alice.” Although important, she refers to paper preservation as still important for the future. Paper is still the best preservation for books. The assumption that everyone has access to digital content is also not true – perhaps excepting countries like Finland which have made it part of everyone’s individual civic right to access the internet.

Here’s how Alice will work: The new library of the future will not solely be about digital content, simply because there is so much out there already available through the internet. The new library will be about YOU. You can sign in with your Face-book page or any other media. You won’t need a membership card. If you are looking for history, Alice will automatically search through the major accredited library sources for you.  For example, it will find the fantastic research repository known to librarians the world over as: “Trove” It contains numerous older, classic books that have been digitised and preserved online, all added by librarians, plus a lot more. Even if you don’t know what Trove is or that it exists, if you ask a question of Alice that involved Trove in its answer, it will bring it up for you.

You can put in your holiday reading list and it will come up with “oh, here are some other people with that interest too.” Then you can start sharing and having a conversation about your books. So the new library of the future is becoming a discovery platform.

“So, you like political biographies? Then this is newly released…or you may prefer this…”

Apart from reading interests, the new library will connect you deeply to that which is local – for example it will bring up the local public library even if you have never been there before. You can borrow, rent or buy content through a creator or owner of copyrighted material which would give you a right to rent or borrow content, especially local content that has no real commercial value.

Publishing your own unique material on this platform thereby has the library in a role of supporting a self-publishing component. You may want to share your family history book with other families throughout the world for free or you may want to charge for it. Your new local library can support you in this venture. You may want to have this content directly delivered online to you, or you may want to visit your local library to do this. Either way, the hypothetical new library will offer a way to do this. It offers a workspace, wi-fi, research, and a welcoming place for meeting up with other community members.

All of us have neighbours, but how many of us know our neighbours well, or at all? New opportunities can emerge through “Alice” to meet and greet, to get to know who is local. Organisations such as ‘neighbourhood watch’ put out newsletters – Alice would come up with the information for us.

Eli Neiburger has a number of “Production Librarians” on his staff. They spend some of their time helping users find fiction books, but the rest of their time is spent digitising photos, and creating content that could be useful for decades. Libraries are becoming content-publishers.

“The challenge for libraries is to remain curious” says Joe Murphy, Librarian and technology trend analyst and Director of Library Futures at “Innovative Interfaces.” Many librarians are already very curious and like to trial things, to make things happen, helping our community to become creators and connecting young people with high-end software that they cannot afford to get in their own homes. It remains to be seen whether libraries will be funded or will evolve themselves into the brave new world.

A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time mother of two.