The Post-Digital Library

A few years ago, I began thinking of the future of the library in terms of a post-digital future. By “post-digital” I do not mean a post-apocalyptic library, like the analog libraries reconstructed after the nuclear war in William Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or after the flu pandemic in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I am thinking of a time not when digital infrastructure collapses but when it is taken for granted—when the qualifier “digital” is no longer necessary.

When I went to library school some twenty years ago, the digital libraries we built were more like digital cabinets of curiosities—selected or small collections of things that could be digitized and publicly shared. Libraries had special departments for this work, and as interesting and as expensive as it was, it was not typically a core function within any library. Libraries were, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, already digital in many ways: online catalogs and research databases, as well as electronic journals and books, were common. But libraries as entities were largely synonymous with their buildings and the people, materials, and functions contained within them. Some of us, though, who used online public catalogs and found through libraries resources on the open web, sensed that libraries were extending beyond their traditional boundaries.

When I became a library director about a decade ago, I became more intentional about thinking about the library as a hybrid entity—our resources, services, and spaces were both non-digital and digital. As libraries like mine pressed into integrating digital technologies into every dimension of our work, we added more digital resources, services, platforms, and expertise to function online as well as offline. As we did this, we emerged as leaders within our institutions in areas such as digital literacy, digital pedagogy, digital scholarship, and digital institutional transformation. 

A few weeks ago, many of our libraries became entirely mediated through digital technologies. We closed our buildings, we suspended the circulation of physical materials locally and throughout our networks, and we moved all of our services online. In all of my communications, I am careful to say that the library building is closed; library resources, services, and staff remain accessible online. 

Fortunately, after many years of investing in digital resources and infrastructure—and in cultivating digital expertise among my faculty and staff—we were ready for this sudden and complete digital shift. We were even able to add new resources and services. But when people ask if the library is open, and we respond that it is online, we know that we are not fully functional. And we lament that.

When I imagine the future form of the library, it is neither purely digital, online, nor purely physical, offline. It is the best of both of these—a blend of digitally networked enhancements to physically situated experiences, adaptable to individual and community needs and preferences. The qualitative difference is like that between the internet, virtual reality, and chatbots and the Internet of Things, mixed reality, and robots.

The present pandemic has revealed the impressive extent to which libraries have become digital. There is of course more work to be done—especially related to improving digital presence and place beyond video conferencing and learning management systems. But now, I am looking forward most to creating what comes next: the post-digital library.