The role of the librarian in the 21st Century

Keynote address for the Library Association Northern Branch Conference, Longhirst, Northumberland, 17th November 1995.

Professor Tom Wilson
University of Sheffield

Introduction - the problem of forecasting

The future is, by definition, unknowable. This is the unalterable fact of all attempts to forecast what may happen. All we can do is guess, aided by more or less information about the present direction of the economy, technological development, the political stability of the country and the probable direction of policy, the possible environmental developments that may take place (e.g., in relation to the warming of the atmosphere), demographic trends (e.g., the replacement ratio in the birth rate, the trend towards the aging society), and so on.

In other words, we can draw trend lines: we can look at what is happening now and project the possible future, if things continue as they are. In this way we get projections of the growth in road traffic and, on a more absurd level, the forecast that by the year 2000 everyone in the world will be connected to the Internet.

There are two problems with drawing trend lines, however: one is that growth curves are never actually straight - the so-called S-curve is the more usual growth curve and is reflected, for example, in plant and animal life and all other phenomena that show growth, maturity, decline and death - from the birds and the bees to corporations. The other difficulty is that the unexpected always happens: that is, our trend lines are thrown into confusion by discontinuous change - when sudden, unexpected events change the course of history. Herman Kahn's [1] forecast for the world in the year 2,000 did not include the downfall of communism - a highly significant discontinuity.

Anything I attempted to say, therefore, about the future role of the librarian in the 21st century would almost certainly be doomed to be wrong: a) because I do not know the life-cycle of the professional role called 'librarian' - I don't know what the S-curve looks like; and b) I cannot forecast the unexpected - I could only project the trend lines.

Starting from where we are

If I accept that I cannot be absolutely right, it would be possible, even then, to make some forecasts on the basis of known trends. It is usual in these circumstances to refer to the STEP functions mentioned earlier: scientific, technological, economic and political factors. (Some writers add an additional E for environmental factors.)

But how much can we actually foretell? We can argue that science and technology are going to continue to bring developments that will see an increase in the impact of information technology in virtually all occupations - a growth in robotics in production, a growth in the home use of computers, a growth in network connections and applications, an increase in the accessibility of information over the international networks, and all this at a steadily reducing unit cost. Simple linear projections will tell us this much. But I don't know, and you don't know, and no one knows, how fast these developments will take place and how far they will be inhibited or encouraged by economic and political factors.

We also know that even predictable events may not be properly accounted for: the current problems over the change of the century in the year 2,000 is a case in point - everyone knew it was going to happen but thousands of computer programs were written without any reference to the change and are likely to result in costs of millions of pounds to remedy.

Scenario building

An alternative approach is to assume that certain underlying feature of life are crucial to future development and that alternatives are offered, in broad terms, by considering the extent to which the future will be formed by the direction these key features take.

This approach is called scenario building and, quite by chance, as I was preparing this paper, a special issue of Wired came through the post, devoted to the future and with an article on building scenarios.

The author, Lawrence Wilkinson [2], posits two dimensions of importance:

  • individual vs. community, that is, the dimension of uncertainty about what kind of society we hope for - one in which our individualism triumphs over the community, or whether our group dependency will prevail; and
  • fragmentation vs. coherence, that is, the "uncertain character of social structure" - will society will provide stability and coherence, or will the centre fail to hold, and fragmentation take place?

Making these dimensions the axes of a matrix gives us the diagram shown below, with the terms attached to the quadrants assigned by Wilkinson:

The "Egotopia" scenario

Wilkinson names the first, upper left quadrant the "I will" scenario, but I have renamed it "Egotopia" to fit in with the names of his other scenarios. The consequences of this future are that work will be decentralised, communication systems (necessary to link the fragmented individuals) will dominate in society, and that the Internet (or whatever replaces the Internet) will become the ‘space' within which most people carry on their work. As a result of the fragmentation and the domination of an individualistic ideology, community infrastructures will decline.

What can we say of the role of the librarian in this future? It seems to fit in with the notion that the library will disappear as an institution - Dennis Lewis's "Doomsday" scenario was based on this idea, although his comments appeared some time before the Internet became a significant force in the information world.

If work becomes decentralized and teleworking becomes the norm, we are going to have to have "virtual" libraries, with a vast increase in the range and variety of electronic information resources. The "electronic cottage" worker becomes the norm, working on a contractual basis for different kinds of organizations, connected to corporate databases and information files on-line.

The logical consequence of this is that the librarian, too, becomes a predominantly on-line worker, supporting the citizen/worker by similarly selling services and working to contract. Finding relevant information faster than competitors, faster than the not-information-worker can find it, and surviving on the basis of superior knowledge of the networks and of the information resources available through them.

We already have the words to describe these roles: information broker and ‘cybrarian', for example, and no doubt we'll have more new coinages. We also have people filling these roles already and, if this scenario comes to pass, we'll have more of them.

There's another interesting question (and one I wasn't asked to talk about), and that is, ‘What is the role of the library?' There is a tendency to leap from one consequence to another in thinking about the future, without considering, perhaps, all of the inter-relationships. This is understandable, given the complexities. However, when we look at libraries and information services, they divide into those that have some kind of institutional basis - like university libraries and public libraries, and those that are generally smaller, more specialized and serve specialised interests: voluntary agencies, bus iness and industry, local government departments, and so on.

Under this scenario the latter are likely to disappear, while the roles of the special librarian and information officer will take the form I described earlier. However, where the special librarian manages to turn him/herself into a corporate information manager, an organizational role may also persist. (In conversation with a seller of small library automation systems recently I was told that special libraries were falling into two types: those that were being transformed into information centres, coping with organizational documentation as well as external information, and those that were not. The former were flourishing, the latter were dying.)

The educational insitutions are likely to persist, unless there is massive investment in creating the networks and funding the development of distance learning. Even then, the educational institutions seem likely to persist (at least some of them) as centres for research and the development of the network teaching programmes.

There is a strong probability, to my mind (and I stress that I am speaking about the conditions under the "Egotopia" scenario - not generally), that university libraries as we know them will fragment, as departments and research centres claim responsibility for servicing their own information needs - after all, this is implicit in the ‘fragmentation' dimension of the model.

Public libraries, on the other hand, would not survive - the general decline in ‘community infrastructures', as teleworking and network communication became the norm, would result in the decline of the libraries. Those that survived would survive as nodes in the network, supporting, perhaps, local government departments (such as needed to exist) or providing digitized information resources based on specialized collections, for example, in local history and archives.

The Consumerland scenario

Wilkinson's Consumerland scenario is a view of the future in which the ‘shop ‘til you drop' philosophy predominates: people are consumers first and citizens second - if at all; products are heavily personalized to fit individual demands - Henry Ford's philosophy of "Any colour you want, as long as it's black" becomes "Any colour you want - or colours, flat, patterned, psychedelic or straight". White collar work becomes computerized and leisure increases - real leisure, since the machine makes every worker much more productive in the time spent at work. There will be increasing privatisation, since the consumer is king and the market prevails.

The Consumerland scenario is different only in respect of its location at the ‘coherence' end of the scale, but it suggests that the stress on the individual will result in the replacement of community structures by privatised services, with individuals living not as citizens, but as consumers, pandered to by the manufacturers of products and services that are tailored to individual needs and to the changing fancies of the times.

The loss of white collar jobs to computers increases the number of people either fully occupied in servicing the liesure industries, and/or taking advantage of those industries as the need to work declines. How this is to be paid for will be one of the big debates of the 21st century, but the tendency towards coherence, rather than fragmentation, probably means that the politicians of the day will insist that the profit levels of multi-nationals and large businesses are reduced to transfer resources to the ‘under-employed', so that the consumer society can be maintained - otherwise coherence could not be maintained.

The role of the librarian in this scenario will be somewhat similar to that in ‘Egotopia' - the information broker and the cybrarian, selling highly individualised services to organizations and individuals but, perhaps, forming companies to pursue an entrepreneurial role more effectively.

Educational libraries may flourish because many people will be engaged in ‘life-long learning' as a full-time occupation, but education may also be privatised and the impact of that may be to reduce the number of institutions and, again, to increase the use of distance learning networks, more dependent upon digitized resources than upon print. The role of the librarian here becomes fused with that of the teacher -providing network learning support to students and preparing guides to resources anywhere on the networks.

Whether public libraries survive will depend upon how far reference and study materials appear in electronic form, to what extent specialised resources are digitized, how far reading persists as a liesure activity and how far that activity can be carried on through book-buying instead of borrowing.

If borrowing declines (or continues to decline?) then smaller, more specialized services will persist as privatised commercial services.

The Ecotopia scenario

Under this scenario, growth is slow because of the dominant community orientation. Business takes on its civic responsibilities, which directs profits to community ends rather than to uncontrolled growth. Needless to say, community values prevail and access to networked information resources and communication systems becomes a subsidized right.

This scenario is, perhaps, closer to the generalized notion of a ‘utopia', since it assumes a great deal of rational decision-making to conserve natural resources and to establish and maintain civic responsibility and community values. It may be the kind of future that many people would like to see, but I have to confess that I see no great probablity of it coming about.

Let us suppose that it does, however: what will be the role of the librarian? Fairly clearly, I think, this future world would be one in which the librarian would flourish. The establishment of civic responsibilities and community values would ensure that public librarians and those in educational institutions would flourish and be valued for their work. Slow growth (but how much slower could it get than it is today?) would limit the development of services, but that would be a price to pay.

Slow growth would also inhibit the pace of technological development and innovation and, while Net access might be a subsidized right, the resources on the Net and the extension of the network infrastructure to provide that access, might limit its usefulness. However, while business might not be so readily attracted to the Internet, community networks would flourish and libraries of all kinds would become connected to such networks to ensure fulfilment of their civic responsibilities.

Again, therefore, we can see the development of the librarian as the network navigator, albeit in a rather different form from that envisaged under the Egotopia or Consumerland scenarios.

The New Civics scenario

The community and coherence of this scenario point to small group cohesion around the family, the tribe, or perhaps the neighbourhood, with shared values creating the cohesion. Electronic networks help to bind the groups together, even when they are separated by space and time. Wilkinson suggests that the groups will favour ‘less government', but I suspect that is a sop to the prevailing right-wing values of the American Republican party - certainly it does not accord with his suggestion that, in this scenario, public works will flourish (a very Rooseveltian idea!).

Again, this would seem to be a future in which the librarian could flourish, although the settings for his or her activities might be very different from those we know now. We might expect that the values of community would support ideas of access to information, the wide availability of knowledge, and the use of information in educational settings. However, the small group focus of values might result in the fragmentation of existing systems, especially public library systems with, possibly, a move towards self-governed branch libraries on the same model as self-governed schools.

Because of technology, however, these branch libraries might be very different, with less space for book and journal storage and display and more connections into the electronic networks, thereby providing community links for local citizens and network support for their efforts to access information. As in the other scenarios, the future of academic libraries in this case is difficult to envisage, given the possible impact of information technology and networks. The university as we know it now may become a ‘virtual' institution, existing only on the networks, with remote learners in local community study centres, with tutorial support provided on-line and by face-to-face communication with personal tutors from a national university teaching force. This would satisfy both the requirement of valuing public goods and small group interaction.


Perhaps it is too obvious to state, but I'm sure you draw the appropriate conclusion from this analysis of the future - you will have seen that the prospect is that libraries (or their successor systems) on something like their present model, of public-funded, community agencies, will flourish if future society is one in which coherence and community are the dominant characteristics, while fragmentation can only be coped with if community persists. If fragmentation and a focus on the individual define the future, the outlook for our present model is less rosy.

If I take my brief, however, and analyse the situation from the perspective of the role of the librarian, the situation is much less clear - it all depends upon what you consider the role of the librarian to be. Under either the Egotopian or Consumerland scenarios we can see a future for the librarian as network navigator and is individual information consultant and we can see their role as network learning support agents in whatever becomes of academic and public libraries.

The scenarios painted have been relatively benign - perhaps you would like to work out for yourselves the possible futures when we use one different dimension:

And - having done that, work out where the best opportunity for a role for the librarian might lie, and what names you would give to your scenarios.

In the end the future role of the librarian is going to be what you want it to become - and I speak to those for whom the early years of the 21st century will be within their working lives. The younger you are, the longer you are going to work in the 21st century and the greater the impact you can have on the role the librarian takes. While, inevitably, we are to some degree prey to the stronger forces of politics and economics, we can have some say in the kind of future that evolves. If we spot trends early enough, and move with them, we can be in advance of the general tendencies in society and in our professions, and if we embrace the excitement of change we can be part of the process of change and, to a degree, put our own ‘spin' on the course that events take. We cannot all be ‘movers and shakers' but we can be ‘nudgers'!


Kahn, H., Brown, W. & Martel, L. The next 200 years. New York: Morrow, 1976. Wilkinson, L. "How to build scenarios." Scenarios: the future of the future. Special Wired edition. 1995. pp. 77-81.

Maintained by Professor Tom Wilson Last update: 19th November 1995
©T.D.Wilson, 1995.