Future is More than just Mobile

Prediction season is upon us. We’re coming up on 02012, and prepping for my library’s 6 month review of our annual plan. So, why not a few thoughts on the future of libraries?

Obviously annual plans only look a year out and so immediate technologies are top of mind in that particular document: mobile, Quick Response Codes (QRC’s), location-based services (LBS) and eBooks, to name a few. But I’m a far-focused futurist, so allow me to indulge that perspective as I consider the future of libraries and what we’re doing at DePaul University’s Libraries.

Let’s start with mobile. This is a hot topic among librarians, but few understand that the long-term mobile story is just getting started. In just a few years, brands such as Android and Apple will offer the truly killer app of mobile technology: Google Goggles and iShades. And when that happens, those augmented reality devices will dwarf the techno-social impacts the Internet has stirred thus far.

Think back to when Bill Clinton began heralding the age of the Information Super Highway back in the mid-1990s. Readers of Mondo2000, that shining, but short-lived Silicon Valley technobabble magazine (before there was Wired!), will recall its pages filled with dreams of global social uprisings spawned by the freeing of information from the oppressive clutches of the physical world. Anything would be possible…perhaps, gulp, a psychedelic, neo-anarchistic Utopia that would make Occupy Wall Street shudder!

Mondo2000 and the Clintonians had big ideas and many have come true in one way or another. But nowhere in that vision was mobile.

Fast forward to 02012 and mobile is changing the Internet once again. We hear about “responsive design” for our websites that take the mobile view as the starting place and build out from there. We hear about mobile reference services. QRC’s in the stacks. Mobile-friendly knowledge management services embedded in our web services.

But this is near-focused planning that, by 02022, will prove as naive as Mondo2000’s 01991 musings on Mandelbrot fractals that will one-day synch with your CD Player!

Google Goggles and iShades will be about taking the Internet and laying it over the physical landscape: Your street, your friends, your sports, your own person and, yes, your libraries. Information formerly at your fingertips, will now be on your eyeballs, on demand, curated to your personal, social and professional history with relevancy also weighted by your actual location. And I might emphasize, that physical location itself will be embedded with a history of FAQs built up by previous Killroys that stood there before you.

So, you might ask, if I’ve got Wikipedia, Yelp, Google and Angry Birds super-imposed over my world, why do I even need a library in my town or university?

Let’s be honest, many people will not. Quasi-intelligent web services (akin to today’s forerunners like IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri) will be able to field most public library-type questions, basing their answers on all the kinds of data curation variables listed above. Information commons will also be made redundant for most people as software moves to web versions that you can manipulate in the air just in front of your physical body. And books…give me a break. Print…and text for that matter…will soon be confined to a narrow set of use cases. Video, web-demos and avatar instructors will be the new medium of most communication in the world of Augmented Reality. And I would add, web pages will be as antiquated in 02022 as the yellow pages are in 02012.

But all this said, the library will still have a role, some of it fulfilling its traditional mission of bringing information to those without the means or skills to access it on their own. And let’s face it, we are moving into a world of reduced resources and scaled-back prosperity; a world that will need to go through some painful transitions in how it supplies affordable energy, right down to affordable calories for those 7+billion human engines going viral on Spaceship Earth. So, there will be no shortage of people requiring a central technology and information access point…that place we will call the library.

But new services will also be core to their work. Despite a more humble economic outlook, the world of 02022 and beyond will hardly be standing still. Technological change will be accelerating and with it, there will be pressure for even extraordinary people to cope. Enter the techbrarian: an expert in emerging devices, web services and information resources whose job it will be to train students, business people and the general public on how to keep up with the dizzying changes hurdling us into Tomorrow.

At DePaul’s Libraries, we’re laying the groundwork for this Age of Augmentation (and disruption). QRC’s are our starting point, even though they are really just a bridge technology like the Prius is to Electric Vehicles and the Walkman was to the iPod. Layering our stacks with those distorted crossword-puzzle-looking codes is akin to assigning a URI to a physical location, which is a baby-step toward augmented reality.

Our plan comes in three initial phases, starting with creating QRC access points to reference services, leading to integration of our LibGuide Research Guides with relevant sections of our stacks and then on toward taking the QRCs outside the library to other locations around campus. Eventually, we envision applying this technology to allow users to check out computer terminals and reserve rooms.

But QRCs are small potatoes. Ultimately, we envision taking the URI’s assigned to physical locations and generating augmented reality services. Imagine walking into our library with your iShades on and being able to instantly identify available rooms based on green indicators super-imposed over our library doors. Imagine being able to have a virtual chat with a reference librarian/machine whose avatar appears in a window hovering over the rare book you are examining…a librarian who can see what you see on the page and help you understand the nuances of the book’s illustrations. Imagine coming in to the library broke and confused, but with an urgent information need that requires you to visit the sub-surface oceans of Ganymede to understand the recently discovered xenocology swimming in all that Jovian brine.

Welcome to DePaul’s Libraries of 02022! This is your techbrarian speaking: Check out the latest in augmented eyeware, sit back and prepare for liftoff!

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