The Shape of the 21st Century Library

Howard Besser

Visiting Associate Professor

UC Berkeley School of Info Mgmt & Systems

from Milton Wolf et. al. (eds.), Information Imagineering: Meeting at the Interface, Chicago: American Library Association, pages 133-146

Social institutions today look vastly different than they did 20 years ago. A variety of forces, most specifically economic changes and technological developments, have reshaped and redefined our notions of what constitutes a bank, a service station, or a bookstore.

Libraries are not immune to the societal forces re-shaping other institutions. As we approach the millennium, we can expect the library of the early 21st century to bear as much resemblance to a 1970s library as a 1990s service station resembles a 1970s service station.

As the library rapidly evolves into something that looks quite different than it did just a few decades ago, it is critical that librarians not only become aware of this evolution, but that they actively intervene to help reshape the institution in ways that are consistent with the core mission of libraries. Changes to libraries are inevitable, and if librarians do not get actively involved in shaping those changes, it is likely that the 21st century library will carry very few of the core missions and values that have historically been associated with libraries.

This chapter is an attempt to help librarians understand some of the changes that will affect libraries in the coming years, and to prompt librarians to think seriously about how to deal with these changes. The chapter begins by outlining the sweeping changes affecting other types of institutions. It then reviews how technological trends have been affecting library services, and focuses in on the implications of an increasing reliance on resources not controlled by the local library. The chapter then lays out a set of key areas that will challenge libraries in an online age, before discussing a number of the hazards that libraries will face, particualrly if library services move out of local libraries into more centralized external sites. It then recommends that libraries examine their core missions, and using public libraries as an example, shows how one might focus in on the vital functions we need to preserve in a changing environment. The chapter then concludes with some recommendations about areas of public discourse that librarians can get involved in to help preserve the key missions of libraries.

Other Institutions Are Changing; the rise of large stores and chains

Technology and economics are changing all our institutions, particularly those that shape our towns and cities. The replacement of "mom-and-pop" grocery stores by chain supermarkets over the past several decades has been supplanted by a movement to ever larger superstore markets (such as Safeway's Pak & Save) and warehouses (such as Price Club and Costco). These mega-discount stores now account for 35% of grocery sales by volume (Saekel 1991).

The average size of a supermarket today is 7,000 square feet larger than in the beginning of the decade (Saekel 1991) and supermarket chains are closing stores that are not large enough. Twenty-nine percent of supermarkets employ professionally trained chefs in an effort to serve gourmet foods that rival restaurants (Saekel 1991).

Local pharmacies are being replaced by chain "drug stores". Hardware stores are being replaced by "superstores". Many of what we used to call "service stations" have become automatic-feed gas-pumps, often accompanied by "convenience stores" which have replaced the service bays.

Thirty-four percent of grocery stores now have coffee bars and 27% percent of markets have banks inside their stores (Saekel 1991; Sinton 1996b). Drug stores are moving into banks (Sinton 1996a). And banks are moving into copy shops (Glendale 1996).

This recontextualization, consolidation, and movement to larger, less-personal institutions is also affecting the institutions we rely upon for culture. The single-screen movie theater has given way to the mall-based multiplex. Repertory cinemas have almost disappeared, and access to older films is now primarily through video stores. Even the relatively new (1980s) institution of the neighborhood video store is rapidly being replaced by the chain video superstore. And Blockbuster, the largest such chain, has laid out its vision of "A Store in Every Neighborhood" (Blockbuster 1997).

Local independent bookstores are disappearing. The proliferation of chain bookstores (such as Waldenbooks) in the 1980s has been replaced by the movement toward superstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders in the mid-1990s.

Our whole social landscape is changing. Institutions that were a consistent part of our social landscape for decades are becoming unrecognizable, and services are becoming like commodities -- divorced from any particular domain and shifted from one institution to another. Libraries are not immune from these kinds of changes. We will first examine changes in library service emanating from technological developments, then we will turn to changes in the library’s broader role as a public institution.

Technology Trends Change Library Services

Since the 1980s each new step in library automation has changed library services. In hindsight we can see a number of trends, among them: access from multiple locations, making more resources available, making information available in rawer forms, and a diminishment in the role of intermediaries. These trends have been enabled by technological developments in the areas of networking, file storage, and more graphic user interfaces (Besser 1997). They have also been enabled by agreements on standards and protocols (such as Z39.50) which permit the linking together of resources from disparate sources.

Access from multiple locations: A key result of automation efforts was to make access more convenient to library users. In the days of card catalogs, library systems often forced users to travel to a central catalog or multiple branches just to discover holdings. Today those users can consult all holdings from workstations throughout the system (and often from home).

This notion of access from multiple locations has also affected the use of indexing and abstracting services. In the 1970s unless a user was willing to incur a significant pay-per-use fee from a private online service, s/he had to travel to the site in his/her library system that had the published volume containing the sought after index. In the 1980s that user had to go to the location that had the CD ROM of that particular index mounted. Today those indexing and abstracting services are mounted as online databases or on CD ROM servers, and are usually accessible throughout the system. Divorcing library services from a physical location provokes a profound difference in what a library is.

Making more resources available: For many years library automation systems were thought of as merely ways of delivering only bibliographic records (essentially online card catalogs). But over time these systems have been augmented with more services. Many library automation systems currently deliver indexing and abstracting services. And on a number of college campuses other non-library information services (such as phone listings, course descriptions, class schedules, pre-enrollment capabilities) are being delivered through the same system that delivers library automation.

Making information available in rawer forms: The types of information available to users in digital form has continued to grow. If we consider a bibliographic record to be a "representation" of an original book or article, then over the past decade we have been providing users with progressively truer representations (i.e. representations that are closer and closer to the original raw material).

In indexing and abstracting services, we have moved from providing searchable index terms or descriptors, to searchable abstracts, to (more recently) full-text of articles and books. In online library catalogs, we have moved from bibliographic descriptions and subject headings, to providing tables of contents information, to full-text and page images.

This movement toward rawer information or more detailed representations is often called "enhanced records," and has been a key element for those studying information retrieval. But if one considers that catalogers and indexers have always been in the business of "abstracting" from original materials to create searchable records, another way to look at these "enhanced records" is as abstracts which are a little closer to the material that they are abstracted from.

Diminishing roles for intermediaries: The success of library automation has meant that users increasingly interact with online systems, and have less reliance upon library staff. Many of today’s systems allow users to check circulation information without ever contacting the circulation department. Many ILL experiments let the user request a work without ever interacting with a library staff member. And we’re seeing an increase in experiments using strategies from the artificial intelligence community to help aid user searching.

Implications of Library Focus on Remote Resources

We are already seeing a transformation in the world of libraries. Libraries are becoming less important for the materials they collect or house, and more important for the kind of material they can obtain in response to user requests. This movement from collecting material "just in case" someone will need it, to delivering material from elsewhere "just in time" to answer a user's needs, is a profound shift for the library as an institution. This shift is a direct result of the recent proliferation of digital networking in an environment where standards for description were already well established.

Along with the changes in libraries as institutions have come changes in the roles of librarians. With the proliferation of networked digital information, the librarian's role is shifting from caretaker of a physical collection to someone who identifies resources in collections housed elsewhere.

This is currently evident in major research libraries where librarians spend much of their time creating (World Wide Web-based) electronic pointers to resources on the Internet. Efforts like this are likely to greatly increase in the foreseeable future. These trends imply less in-person mediation by library staff (as patrons access information directly), but more of a behind-the-scenes mediator role in selection and creating annotated/evaluative guides to external resources. This also means a greater role for library staff as instructors, trouble-shooters, and guides.

Divorcing libraries and their services from physical collections raises serious issues. Libraries that need to provide access to materials that they don’t themselves own and control should worry about assurances that they will be able to access that material far into the future. This problem is particularly acute with WorldWide Web resources.

At this point in time libraries need to be careful about becoming too dependent upon WorldWide Web resources. Web resources often change location, and until location-independent naming schemes replace URLs, updating a library’s links to external resources is likely to be a serious problem. Few information providers have the kind of commitment to long-term information maintenance that libraries have; libraries need to be concerned that the creators of the key resources they link to today may soon tire of updating these resources. Finally, libraries need to avoid relying too heavily upon external information resources which are free today but may become expensive some time in the future; some information providers have learned the same business principle as drug dealers -- give out free services until the user is hooked, then start charging.

Libraries that shift their focus from acquisition to access need to realize its implication for other parts of their operation. This often requires a significant investment in equipment and training. It requires the development of an infrastructure to support document delivery. And the process of selection can become even more time-consuming for a library that is pointing users to remote materials than for a library that is buying its own materials. (This is particularly true on the WorldWide Web where pointers have to be constantly maintained, and where there are fewer clues as to the reliability of information sources.)

Key Challenge Areas for Libraries in an Online Age

A number of societal trends have the potential to severely affect libraries, particularly as these move into the online information delivery environment. Key among these trends are the movement from flat-fee to pay-per-use models, the best-seller phenomenon, the consolidation of electronic information distributors, erosion of privacy, and issues of access and cultural diversity.

Flat fee vs. pay-per-use: The movement towards pay-per-use models is likely to severely affect users habits, particularly as this begins to penetrate Web-based delivery systems. Pay-per-use models tend to discourage exploration and encourage a viewer/reader to examine items that others have already deemed popular (favoring best-sellers over more esoteric works). Libraries’ 1980s experiences with pay-per-use online indexing and abstracting services led many librarians to embrace newer flat-fee models that arose (such as CD ROMs).

Best-seller phenomenon: Economies-of-scale makes mass-distributed information cheap and available, and can lead to an environment where smaller-audience information is more expensive and harder to find (Besser 1995d). Over time this may well lead to the favoring of electronic delivery of entertainment over delivery of information (Besser 1994a).

Consolidation of electronic information distributors: As corporate mergers, buy-outs, and consolidations leave us with fewer and fewer independent information providers, how will that change what information people get? Will large conglomerates with interests in many different types of industries begin to treat their information distribution divisions the same way they treat all their other commodity distribution divisions?

Privacy: As people begin to pay for the information they receive electronically, what kind of privacy issues does this raise? Will reading and buying habits be traced and sold as demographic data? Can libraries continue to take their strong traditional privacy stand when providing pay-per-view information?

Access: Who will guarantee access in an era when someone must pay for each byte of information that is accessed? Can libraries continue to provide free (or flat-fee) access to all their constituents in a pay-per-view era? Will society become divided between information haves and have-nots?

Cultural and economic diversity: Will the world of online digital information lead to more or less diversity in that information? Will the best-seller phenomenon take hold and make available only least-common-denominator information (as in broadcast television)? Will the information needs of the less affluent be met in ways that they can afford?

Hazards of the Mass Library Service

On a broader level, libraries are not immune to the trends shaping other social institutions.

A key trend affecting all types of commercial enterprises is the movement toward spreading costs over a broad area. Large chain stores have realized economies of scale and have put local stores out of business. In the future there is bound to be pressure on libraries not to duplicate the services of other libraries, but instead for all libraries to rely upon a core set of central services. While experiments like the Internet Public Library (IPL) are exciting and useful, they may prompt a movement toward elimination of local services that some taxpayers think can be best served centrally.

The 1990s has been an era of shrinking funds for social services. We have seen the decoupling of all types of bundled services along with pressure to make each portion "prove" itself and pay its own way or be eliminated. This kind of pure capitalism is beginning to dominate all forms of public activity and cause restructuring everywhere. Bookstores that previously used the high revenue from best-sellers to subsidize more esoteric works can no longer do so in the face of competition from best-seller discounters. Even Universities have adopted the philosophy of having everything pay its own way. For example, the University of Michigan’s "Value Centered Management" system will require each academic department to pay for its own custodial services and electricity, and will allow the departments to spend their savings on other activities. Over time it is expected that certain activities which prove costly will be eliminated.

Libraries heavily cross-subsidize their activities. If the cross-subsidy model was ended, one can imagine a scenario where a library would institute a surcharge for checking out expensive books but still allow users to check out cheap books for free. And best-sellers might be more freely available because of the economies of scale realized in cataloging multiple identical copies, while rare books might be eliminated because of the heavily subsidized cost of cataloging relatively unique items.

While such a scenario may appear far-fetched, it’s not very hard to see pressure developing to contract out services. With advertisements already claiming that "the entire Library of Congress is on the Internet", and the popular discourse about the WorldWide Web as a library, it won’t be long before taxpayer groups and parent organizations ask libraries why they can’t replace many of their services with some generic library like the IPL. The kinds of economic arguments that have been used with many other types of institutions will be pointed at libraries -- why are there thousands of similar institutions delivering almost the same set of services? Couldn’t you realize great economies of scale by having only a very few institutions deliver these services to the entire country?

Elsewhere this author has discussed the implications of this kind of mass-delivery in more detail (Besser 1995d, pages 65-67). Services taking the mass delivery approach tend to steer clear of controversy for fear of alienating part of their clientele, as Apple did when it dropped Voyager’s Making of America CD from its bundled services (Meyer 1995). And these services often engage in self-censorship to avoid ever getting to the point of controversy. Mass delivery services usually try to focus on the least common denominator, ending up with the blandness of network television. And they focus on mass-appeal ideas over narrow-appeal ones, partly because of economies of scale and partly because these are less controversial.

The chain video, music, or bookstore’s relation to independent stores may parallel the relationship between a mass-based set of library services and today’s local libraries. In general, chain stores have less diversity. They carry a large number of mass-appeal items and fewer low-volume sellers. Chain stores are more prone to censorship. (Most chains refused to carry Salmon Rushdie’s works when threatened, while many independents prominently featured his works. Wal-Mart has refused to carry recordings that satirize the store (Bates & Philips 1996).) Chain stores focus on national rather than community or regional tastes and standards, and frequently impose these on every local community. (For example, Blockbuster shies away from sexual or politically controversial material even in communities that do not find this offensive.) The market clout of chain stores can affect an entire industry, creating a situation where independent stores cannot obtain certain works even if they want to. (Because they control such a high percentage of the audio CD market, Wal-Mart’s insistence on the elimination of certain themes within the music they sell is making the recording industry reluctant to produce music that Wal-Mart won’t carry (Strauss 1996).) Over time, chain stores tend to put independent stores out of business and alter both consumer choices and the social landscape (Zoll 1997, Greenwald 1994). And chain stores tend to relate more to advertising and popular culture, while often being divorced from the history of their field. (For example, a recent Crown Books advertisement touted the book based on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (Crown Books 1996).)

If libraries do rely increasingly upon large-scale external information providers like IPL, these providers themselves will eventually face financial pressures that may lead them to institute new cost-recovery models such as pay-per-item. Pay-per-item models will likely force libraries into multi-tiered services, giving more extensive services to those who pay more. We’ve already begun to see multi-tiered services that have responded to budget cuts, such as information desks staffed by non-professional (to alleviate the load on the real reference desk), experiments in "reference by appointment", and online searches for some key clients.

But the pay-per-item model can have some substantial negative results over the long term. Where flat-fee models encourage exploration, pay-per-use gives people the incentive to focus on information, books, etc. already highly recommended by others. People don’t look for new things, but focus on already well-known paths. Pay-per-use discourages browsing. (Imagine how people’s reading habits would change if they had to pay for each article they looked at in a newspaper or magazine?) And pay-per-use models lead to a focus on best-sellers which are cheaper to deliver because of economies of scale (Besser 1994a, 1994b).

As libraries move to redefine their sets of services, they need to be careful not to be caught in a squeeze play between other institutions that are essentially competing for the library’s traditional "customer base". Commercial information services (ranging from Ovid to Lexis to Britannica to Microsoft Network) may skim off many of a library’s users. Losing its more affluent customers may cause a cyclical decline in the library’s financial support: as people with less clout begin to make up a higher proportion of the library’s users, the library will lose stature with more powerful groups who, particularly in an era of deep cut-backs of public services, will be less interested in fighting for library funding.

At the same time libraries are facing increasing inroads from the larger bookstore chains who are currently trying to make their customers feel comfortable browsing, sitting, and reading. The migration of users from libraries to another physical place to sit and read will both undercut the specialness of libraries, and will serve to further erode the library’s support based on the justification that it is the only entity providing certain services.

What Are Public Libraries About?

In an era of changing institutions, libraries need to examine what their missions have been in the past, and how they can concentrate on the part of their core mission that is not repetitive of what other institutions do. Librarians need to find the parts of their core mission that will be sustainable in a changed environment. In this section the author will focus on public libraries, though much of this is relevant to other types of libraries.

We need to look at what public libraries are about besides just books, and focus on extending these important parts of the mission into the information age. As many of our tasks get usurped by other bodies, and as we lose much of our clientele, we need to ask ourselves, "what are public libraries really about? And what would they be about in an age where checking out books was far less important?"

McClure has outlined a set of "Public Library Roles" (McClure 1987) including: community activities center, community information center, formal education support center, independent learning center, popular materials library, preschoolers’ door to learning, reference library, and research center. This set of roles needs to be rethought in an age when physical location and service can be separated from one another; some of these roles are more tied to the library’s physical presence in the community, while others may function very well if delivered from remote sites. For example, it is very possible that public libraries will give up much of their local roles as reference libraries and research centers, having those services provided from central or external sites (perhaps supplemented with a set of locally maintained information or pointers).

This author believes that the four core missions of a public library are: that it is a physical place, that is a focus spot for continuous educational development, that it has a mission to serve the underserved, and that it is a guarantor of public access to information.

Public libraries are, first of all, a physical place. They serve the role of a gathering place and a community information center. Even in a virtual world, the library must maintain this kind of role.

Secondly, a public library is a focus spot for continuous educational development. With popular discourse stressing the importance of "lifelong learning", this is a set of traditional library activities likely to command public attention and funding in the coming years.

The third key function of the public library is to serve the underserved. This means serving as an onramp to the information superhighway for those without the resources or skills to do this elsewhere. It also means transforming digital information into alternative formats for people who can’t see, understand, or control the printed word. It means helping to serve the poor and the technologically illiterate. And it means giving people a voice, through the establishment of electronic discussions, bulletin boards, etc.

The library also needs to promote diversity. According to Leonard, "the great majority of public library patrons continue to be white, middle class, and fairly well-educated" (Leonard 1993). But early in the 21st century racial and ethnic groups are expected to outnumber whites in many areas of the country.

How do we reflect this kind of diversity? Ideally not by following the "one size fits all" model of broadcast television, which gave us a very whitebread environment during its first 30 years. Instead we need to rely upon local communities who will have to develop the diversity in personnel, in services, and in materials. This includes diversity efforts in staffing and recruiting. It includes provision of services important to a more diverse clientele (including survival needs, education of life skills, legal and political assimilation needs, heritage needs, entertainment needs, and multilingual services). Our collection development also needs to reflect diversity, providing materials that reflect different cultural viewpoints, gender equity, more than a single historical rendering, multilingual materials, and avoidance of clichés, stereotype, superficial portrayals, and demeaning differentiation.

The final key function of the public library is as guarantor of public access to information. This goes far beyond providing access to those who partake of the library’s services. In an online world where an increasing number of people get their information from sources other than libraries, this means fighting for core library principles (such as equal access and fair use) in environments outside library walls. As technological developments and legislation threaten to erode these principles in an online environment, librarians need to join with other public interest groups such as the Digital Futures Coalition ( to extend some of the principles of our field into the information age. Unless a strong campaign emerges, principles such as equal access and fair use will disappear in the online environment. These principles are critical even in environments where the information is not delivered by libraries. Librarians still have a vested interest in defending these principles within other environments.

Librarians should exert pressure to extend the "library bill of rights" into cyberspace. They should push for "equal access to information", which implies subsidies for the have-nots and for public institutions such as schools and libraries. They need to fight against censorship. They also need to fight against the commodification of information, pay-per-use schemes, intrusions into users’ privacy, and the increased concentration of information content providers into a few corporate hands.


The library is an integral part of the society that surrounds it. It is shaped and changed by many of the same forces that shape other types of institutions. Librarians need to recognize the changes that have already taken place in libraries, and to be aware of the ways in which broader societal changes are affecting other institutions. Then (rather than sitting idly by and passively observing the evolution of the library as an institution) they need to use this knowledge to actively reshape the library. If librarians do not become involved in this reshaping, key principles from librarianship may disappear in the library of the future.

Because many library functions will migrate to other environments (and because libraries are affected by the society around them), librarians must resist the types of changes that threaten basic principles such as equal access to information and fair use. They need to realize the disadvantages of mass delivery of library services and be wary of moving services outside the local arena. And they need to be concerned about issues such as pay-per-use, privacy, cultural diversity, and the consolidation of electronic content owners and distributors.


This chapter was given as a talk entitled Threats to Public Access in the Digital Age: What will happen to Libraries? at San Francisco Public Library on August 7, 1996 and reformulated into a talk titled Impact of Information Commercialism: The Downside for the LITA/LAMA National Conference on October 15, 1996. Small portions of this chapter previously appeared in the author’s chapter in Resisting the Virtual Life (Besser 1995d) and in the ASIS Bulletin (Besser 1994a). Discussions with Paul Peters inspired a number of these ideas. The persistence of Milton Wolf and GladysAnn Wells brought this chapter into print. Sharon Seidenstein provided editorial assistance.


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Last modified: 8/25/1998