February 17, 2018


Predicting the Unpredictable | Designing the Future

ljx160902web140berry8Even when we see change coming,
we usually misjudge its impact

The modern library movement began in 1876, a year that saw the birth of both the American Library Association (ALA) and Library Journal (LJ).
The January 1, 1976, issue of LJ celebrated that centennial. Under the title “The Need To Know,” we asked 25 experts and leading librarians to write essays projecting the future of libraries over the next 25–50 years.
Now on LJ’s 140th anniversary, we’ve taken a sampling of those forecasts and briefly assessed their accuracy. The result is evidence of how inadequate current knowledge is to predict the future.

Government Support

ljx160902web140berry1Major R. Owens (1936–2013) was serving as New York State Senator when he wrote “The State Government & Libraries” (p. 19–28). He predicted a much more important role for state government and state library agencies than ever developed. Owens began his career as a community coordinator
at the Brooklyn Public Library, which perhaps explains his optimistic view that states would move to greater support of public libraries to foster workforce development and the democratic process, particularly the increased demand for open government.

Alas, state support for libraries has not grown, and while many libraries have worked to fulfill the role of information centers for both industry and government, and some have succeeded, they are only a tiny percentage of the total.

Social Engagement

In her “Social Responsibility: An Agenda for the Future” (p. 251–254), Patricia G. Schuman’s disappointment with the social responsibility movement in librarianship was palpable. As one of the leading activists of the Sixties who founded the movement, Schuman had hoped it would make libraries “important and effective instruments of social change.” She was an editor at R.R. Bowker in 1976 and went on to found Neal Schuman Publishers with colleague Jack Neal. She remained an activist leader
in the field and was elected president of ALA.

ljx160902web140berry2Schuman’s agenda urged libraries to call town meetings with users and community leaders, initiating a national communication with other professions and groups (women, minorities, etc.). She predicted that future library conferences would become “think tank” sessions in which librarians would “talk with, not at,” one another. She went on to push for the development of programs to bring all segments of the population and professions together to plan new information structures.

Schuman is relatively happy with the result now and says that the current library advocacy movement developed from that time. “I think my major contribution to the field was that the word advocacy is now acceptable to librarians and used regularly to describe what we’re trying to do.” ALA’s importance as a force in the development of U.S. information policy and its influence at the national level are part of that development. Schuman believes there is much more to be done and that a new dose of activism would be good for the field.

Formats in Flux

Dan Lacy (d. 2001) was senior VP at McGraw-Hill when he wrote “Books and the Future Revisited”
(p. 117–120). He had delivered a Bowker lecture on the same subject 20 years earlier and was optimistic for growth in the need for books, especially to serve higher education. “The future of books over the next 20 years will depend largely upon whether we, as a society, recover our faith in education, in research, and in our capacity to use knowledge to achieve a more abundant, humane, and egalitarian life,” Lacy predicted.

While he was right about growth in higher education, he was wrong about the way new technology
and media would transform the packages in which knowledge is delivered. Books are no longer the medium of choice for research institutions and their libraries. Instead, most knowledge, especially research results, comes in shorter articles, primarily online.

Despite his dark view of the state of academe in 1976, Hendrik Edelman, now retired from his posts as director of the Rutgers University libraries and on the faculty at the School of Communication and Information there, was optimistic (“Redefining the Academic Library,” p. 53–66). “There are good reasons to believe changes and different concepts may be very beneficial and indeed may open a new future of continued successful development,” he wrote. Edelman forecast that collections would not grow at the pace of earlier decades, pointing out that “there is no new technology in sight that would reduce the cost of books and journals.” To him that meant that “judicious selection decisions will have to be made.” Edelman saw the number of publications aimed at the research library market decrease. He was both right and wrong, since rising prices are driving academic libraries to prune subscriptions. Nonetheless, scholarly publications have increased in number, and new methods of purveying them make the price and cost a variable for each customer.

Edelman did prophesy that resource sharing by research libraries wouldn’t work. He did not foresee the drastic decline of the monograph, or the current tensions with publishers and vendors over licensing terms, which have made contractual relations crucial to library collecting. Twenty years later, James Neal (now ALA president) came closer to the mark with his predictions for academic libraries in LJ’s
120th anniversary issue (LJ 7/96, p. 74–76).

Gates Arrives

ljx160902web140berry3In his “The U.S. in World Librarianship” (p. 221–223), Norman Horrocks, then director of the School of Library Service at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, and a longtime contributing editor to LJ, reported that U.S. involvement in world librarianship was active but needed organization and direction, for which Horrocks looked to ALA. Most of what Horrocks (1927–2010) wrote became irrelevant as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Initiative created new global leaders, bringing library services, digital technology, and access to the Internet to people worldwide, especially in poorer areas, contributing greatly to economic
and social development. The Gates Global Libraries effort, led by Deborah Jacobs, 1994 LJ Librarian of the Year and former director of the Seattle Public Library, was massive
and truly magnified the influence of U.S. librarianship around the globe.

Meanwhile, ALA’s 2015 International Strategic Plan (adopted 2012) set out a huge list of goals and objectives for ALA’s international library activities. Many took place, though the descriptions in the plan give them much more substance than has actually been realized so far. ALA is still at work strengthening its international efforts. With the Gates Foundation’s impending exit from the library space, Horrocks’s call may have been ahead of its time.

Cataloging at the Core

ljx160902web140berry6Maurice J. Freedman’s “Processing for the People” (p. 189–197) lamented the deterioration of standards for bibliographic description brought about by the growing use of catalog records supplied by the Library of Congress (LC), vendors, and other bibliographic resources. He, then coordinator of technical services for the branches of the New York Public Library and later president of ALA, foresaw the total domination of cataloging, especially in medium-size and smaller public libraries, by these new centralized suppliers of records. As it turned out, he was right, although LC contributed less and less to the supply. OCLC became the worldwide center for catalog records. While the deterioration of bibliographic records did take place, experts such as Sanford Berman and many others kept up the critique, and LC and OCLC were open to improving quality.

Transformed by Feminism

ljx160902web140berry4In her “Toward a Feminist Profession” (p. 263–267), Kathleen Weibel,
a librarian and a doctoral student at the Library School at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1976, predicted progress that had already begun
to happen. Her words tell it best:

“Implementation of feminist rooted library services would be based on
a concept of equal services for all users…children as well as scientists.
Free access to information will continue as a central tenet of librarianship…. However, demystification of information and advocacy will be given equal billing. Rather than attempting to build institutional empires, libraries will act as catalysts in the larger communication environment. Service plans will be flexible and designed with user input and evaluation. Because feminist values imply a reworking of national priorities, more financial support will be available for institutions such as libraries, if they respond to needs in a feminist and humanist mode.”

Weibel’s predictions have been realized to a greater degree that nearly all the others. This is, perhaps, the most promising sign from the whole exercise. It gives us hope that libraries will remain flexible, growing institutions; gain support through more effective advocacy efforts; and achieve significance as centers for the delivery and analysis of sorely needed information and knowledge for the world’s future.


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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