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Emerging trends and the implications for libraries

02 September 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gus MacDonald

As the 21st century progresses, what roles will libraries play in connecting communities and users with knowledge and knowledge creators? As information becomes ever more digitised and omnipresent, what physical space will libraries require? What impact will relentless technological advance and social change have on the skills required of a librarian to deliver services of value, against a back-drop of increasingly limited public funding? 

Some weighty questions in there, that librarians all over the world have no doubt pondered many times before. Although we can’t claim to know the future, a recent report by Arup sheds some light on what trends and themes libraries can expect to see – and the opportunities that they present for the 21st century information professional.

Why research Future Libraries?

Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, offering a broad range of professional services. Our involvement with libraries goes back a long way, and includes projects such as the British Library, Centre Pompidou, Tower Hamlets Idea Stores, Seattle Library and the University of Aberdeen’s library.  

To deliver work of quality and value to our clients, it is essential that we not only address the current needs, but we look to address their futureneeds. “The Future of…” is an Arup University initiative that explores a particular topic of relevance to the built environment and aims to develop a vision for its potential future. The results of each of these studies becomesa report which sets out a summary of our findings and highlights the key emerging insights of what a likely future may be. Publications we have produced to date includeCities, Highways, Rail, Retail and Urban Buildings.

These reports support business development opportunities for Arupby allowing us to have informed conversations with our existing (and prospective) clients, and to develop our position as thought leaders which enables us to offer our clients something different from our competitors.


Earlier this year, an investment application was made by one our Senior Librarians in the Sydney Office to explore the topic of Libraries. More specifically, to researchchanges that might occur to their spaces, their operations, and the user experiences they deliver over time. We felt that this would not only be good for our clients, but it would also be good for Arup too!

Arup has a series of Library teams across the globe which would directly benefit from understanding what the potential future holds. This is especially important to us now as a number of our Library teams are planning to move into new spaces, and we want to ensure that the environments we create are able to meet new demands as well as take advantage of any significant technological changes. As with any support service operating in a commercial environment, we are constantly required to ensure (and demonstrate) the continuing value and relevance of our offering. Understanding possible future requirements will also help us to develop and diversify our support services, and not only to remain relevant,but meet–(and hopefully exceed!) -the ever increasing expectationsofstaff within the firm.

With funding in place, we were able to progress to the next stage. We combined desk research with the discussions and outputs from four workshops held in our Sydney, Melbourne, San Francisco and London offices earlier this year. The ninety nine workshop participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds including library designers and stakeholders in public, academic or corporate libraries, and gave us access to a diverse set of experience, opinions and insights. CILIP was represented by Mark Taylor.


Given the diverse geographies and library types contributing to this exercise, it will be no surprise to learn that we will experience many different “futures”. There is no “one size fits all” utopia forecast! What might be hugely relevant to one type of library, sector or location, will be of little interest to another. This is why Arup University took the research and outputs from the workshops and identified twenty one emerging trends that will shape public, academic and corporate libraries in the medium to long term. Some will have greater resonance with you than others.

These trends were then grouped into four broader clusters

  • Seamless Learning Experience – facilitating life-long learning by delivering services that fit the lifestyle of the communities they serve
  • Hubs for Community Wellbeing – engaging with local communities and ensuring egalitarian connection to information
  • Participatory Knowledge Preservation – ensuring rights of access to, and preservation of, physical and digital content
  • Enabling Collaboration and Decision Making – providing spaces where meaningful interactions can take place, information can be accessed and new knowledge created

This diagram shows how they all fit together.
Some of the 21 trends which have been identified will come as no surprise: ensuring equal access to knowledge through licensing of data systems for example, or teaching end users how to connect to the information they need are hardly revolutionary. However, the impact of smart systems, robotics, urban migration and ubiquitous access to information presents very real, new challenges.

How will they affect you, your library and your users? How, for example, would you address the issue of filter bubbles?Or, what about the opportunities arising from crowd sourcing/funding through social media to ensure your archive of local history material can be transferred from a dead format to something more current? As more information is produced and consumed digitally, how will you best make use of the physical space this frees up?

Many of the themes really only make sense when given context. We used case studies and persona based scenarios to demonstrate what the emerging themes may mean in practice from the perspective of both librarians and the communities they serve. These stories illustrate how these emerging trends may touch our working lives and help to identify the benefits they may bring.

So what?

We are beginning to see evidence of some of these changes and trends already. In corporate environments libraries are playing an increased role in the provision of collaborative workspaces and maker-spaces. In communities they are evolving into hubs for education, health, entertainment and work. These trends include increased efforts by libraries across a range of sectors to bring people back into the physical space. These trends will continue and expectations intensify. 

Yes the emerging trends are challenges, but they also represent new opportunities.

Libraries and librarians have always had to adapt to survive, and that is truer now than ever before. Our continued success and relevance relies upon us embracing those challenges and expanding our already broad skills set. Looking beyond the “traditional” librarian activities of cataloguing, material/systems selection and preservation (which will still remain vital capabilities) we need to supplement our skills toolkit with additional abilities. Whilst some would argue that the advancing sophistication of algorithms could give digital curation the potential to replace the librarians’ function, having skilled professionals with the knowledge of when and how these resources and tools are best deployed still enables more complete and effective outcomes. That said, the ability to adapt, to connect disparate stakeholders and knowledge creators, to share resources and physical space creatively, to develop new revenue streams and budgets and to harness new technologieswill need to be part of our arsenal to help us face the future head on.

The pivotal skill, now, and in the future, is one of community engagement, whether that community be staff intheworkplace, students and lecturers at an academic institution, villagers in rural community or urban dwellers. Listening and responding to their needs should be paramount to all information professionals. Making sure members of our communities are engaging with the library, whether through visiting a physical building, exploring a virtual noticeboard or downloading e-books is just part of the story. Understanding their motivations, frustrations and requirements should be our raison d’être. This is not something statistics can compensate for – there is no substitute forengagement if you want to understand your community.

Influencing and project management skills will also be integral to the continued success of any library. This may require a shift in focus that impacts upon the way information skills are taught within the profession and at universities. Alternatively, is it better to leave the community engagement, influencing and fund raising to non-librarians who have the skill and passion to network, inspire and raise capital?


“Future Libraries”is not a prescriptive prediction of the future, but instead outlines implications on the design, operation and library user experience over the next few decades.

It seeks to identify the direction and opportunities for the library of the future and the factors which will impact not only those organisations that provide library services, but also those who use and access these services, both physically and digitally. It suggests what we may expect to see, feel, and do in the library of the future, and identify the direction and opportunities for the information professional.We hope this will inspire information professionals to think about their skills sets and how to evolve them so they are fit for the challenges with which the 21st century presents us.

Please download and read a copy of the Future Libraries report. 

Published: 2 September 2015

Contributor: James Griffith is an Information Manager at Ove Arup & Partners, an international engineering and design consultants.

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