The Library Website Will Disappear

A new year always elicits thoughts about the future, but this month, my library has been considering our next strategic plan, which has focused those thoughts for me on my library and the profession in general.

Since I’m principally charged with managing the online aspects of my library, I come to these kinds of discussions focused on web platforms, online communication and consumer technology trends. One of the biggest trends (you may have noticed) has been the adoption of mobile, touch screen devices like iPhones and tablets. I include even Microsoft’s attempt at reinventing the PC with its Surface Tablet, despite early failures to woo consumers. And given this apparently irresistable move toward mobile, tablet-like computing, I have to ask: what does this ultimately mean for the library’s web properties: our websites, our online instruction guides, our discovery systems and our digital collections?

Palo Alto Venture Capital firm KPCB recently explored this very issue in their 2012 Internet Trends Report. Some major insights from their report include:

  • Mobile traffic is now 13% of all global Internet traffic, up from just 1% in 2009. In some countries, like India, mobile Internet traffic has surpassed desktop traffic.
  • Almost 1/3 of US adults own a tablet or e-reader
  • Together, iOS and Android are 45% of the OS market share, vs. 35% for Windows
  • The install base of Tablets + Smartphones will surpass PCs + Notebooks this year

But one trend that stands out in KPCB’s analysis is that of the Asset-Light generation. A long-form definition can be found via a very Asset-Light resource: Quib.ly. But to put it more succinctly, being asset-light means your lifestyle is one less reliant on physical commodities and personal know-how, but instead, relies on cloud and crowd-sourcing just about everything. You don’t carry around notepads, you don’t buy maps, you don’t rely on “experts” for medical advice or which movie to see next. Asset-lighters, meet their needs by streaming, connecting and sharing.

From KPCB’s perspective, this is quite important in terms of where the web is heading. Some notable examples relavent to libraries include: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Amazon Textbook Rental and of course, good-ole Wikipedia.

So, socially, we’re moving toward a very different economy and radically different means of information distribution, especially when it comes to learning.

Add to this, two major and imminent innovations and you will get a glimpse at just how different the world will be in only 5 years:

  1. Wearable devices, especially eyeware will give people the ability to navigate the Internet by voice command, gesture and all through lenses fixed to their faces. Status: Google Glasses are expected to enter the market in early 2013 and Apple won’t be far behind.
  2. Artificially-intelligent agents will not quite resemble HAL from 2001, but be very capable of understanding your vocal commands and then ferreting quite reliable answers to your questions or carrying out mundane tasks, like creating appointments or sending messages for you. Status: Did you see IBM Watson slaughter Jeopardy’s world champions or used SIRI on your iPhone?

So, the way we gather information and where we go to get it is already changing. And the interfaces are already being revolutionized and that pace will accelerate dramatically over the next 5 years as voice and sight overtake the the very impractical and immobile keyboard…even the touchscreen may be reduced to the point where iPads seem like a whimsical dead-end much like 8 track or Beta tapes.

All of these changes will have an immediate effect on the core of our current Internet paradigm: the Web Page.

Text and links with a smattering of images have been the key content types of of web pages since Tim Berners Lee first formulated the WWW. Mobile devices have changed all that. Not only do they steer away from typical web interfaces in favor of “apps,” they actually de-link parts of the web from each other. The result, in most cases is a much more curated and manageable Internet.

And this is important for libraries, whose pages are almost hard-wired around interconnecting pages together in rather daunting tangles of hyperlinks, portals and gateways. Unfortunately, this paradigm is increasingly less relevant to today’s devices and today’s Asset-lighters, who expect a web page to cut through the clutter and get them the answer. In fact, they want an app to do the heavy-lifting for them.

And add to this, semi-intelligent software agents and a re-conceived commercial Internet based around voice and sight and you can see how much work libraries have ahead of them.

The users 5 years from now that enter our libraries’ virtual spaces, will expect a curated, largely automated experience. Already, we see this on the ground where incoming students are completely beside themselves in the antiquated library environment. One recent Facebook post on my library’s newsfeed noted: “The Library has a website?”

Another telling anecdote: One colleague of mine defined her job as teaching people to fish. I then asked: How many people actually go fishing anymore. Fishing to them is dropping by the supermarket. Full-stop.

The world is just getting too complicated for people to be expected to take the time to find information on their own. Information will continue to be a commodity, yes. Information will continue to badger the human mind. But AI servants and wildly different means of gathering information, will mean that single individuals will never have to tackle almost any information problem alone. The crowd, the bots and the apps will do the fishing.

And the web page will be like Matrix code that few ever need to concern themselves with. Get ready…

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4 thoughts on “The Library Website Will Disappear

  1. Pingback: Mobiles, asset-light and the future of the library website « Libwebrarian's Blog

  2. If that spells the end of the “web committee” it can’t be all bad :)

    I think it’s not so much “death of the website” as it is a by-product of “death of the browser.”

    My guess is academic library websites will be a lagging indicator…and not just because we’re often a bit out of sync with the latest trend. Much of what an academic does in a library (e.g., research and notetaking) is still really painful and inefficient on a unitasking, mobile device. And as long as you’re using your laptop you’ll probably still have a browser.

    But I completely agree that at some slightly more distant point, those productivity issues with mobile computing will have been resolved and we’ll just have “headless” web services (no UI) running in our libraries.

  3. Maintaining the open linked web is crucial to the mission of libraries as systems for freely spreading ideas and information. Your post here confuses interfaces with the systems behind them. Are you really saying the future of libraries is to give in the self-interested walled-garden business models of Amazon, Google and Apple? To deliberately break the links between pieces of information? After centuries of making connections and improving shareability?

    Library websites are mostly rubbish, but that’s not because web pages are poor tools, it’s because our own sites are badly designed for the task.

    • To be clear, I was strictly discussing interfaces, not systems. That’s a whole other can of worms: but I will add that those systems are improving, but what difference will it make if the first impression an incoming Freshman has of the library is a medium (the link-heavy web page) that doesn’t play well with their device…and fails to provide as efficiently as a web-based Watson or intelligent Google agent. They’ll chuckle and be gone. Actually, let me rephrase that: they are chuckling and they are leaving. Reading your second line, I think we totally agree here.

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