Charting the future of libraries has no simple alchemy to it. Part prediction, part forecasting (and, possibly, part playing the jeremiad), academic research libraries are learning to re-orient their vision. In “Futures Thinking For Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025,” the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) spells out 26 scenarios, or characteristics, of learning in institutions of higher education that will affect the function and direction of libraries over the next fifteen years.

(Czech National Library)

The paper uses a visualization tool to represent the probability (of the Bayesian sort) and impact of these scenarios, as well as how close they are to becoming reality. This technique projects librarians’ “collective imagination” onto the graphic plane, charting a future in which, for example, 3-D printers will print “copies of objects from distant archives,” teachers band together to break the “textbook monopoly,” and campus IT officials divulge student viewing habits to Homeland Security, seeking to stave off cyberterror threats from rogue states.

One dean of a university library does not see much value in this report. Without specific recommendations for actions, the study simply delves into abstractions and circumstances beyond the immediate control of most individual libraries. In talking to the EdLab’s resident information scientist, however, I learned that the urge to action may not necessarily best prepare libraries for, well, 2025. Though libraries must adapt, they must also continue to define, and affirm, their purpose.