Through the Google Glass, Dimly

As media ecosystems shift, how libraries respond will determine their survival

June 23, 2014

Young librarians beginning their careers this year will retire in 2054 from public libraries vastly different from the ones they enter. A continual storm of disruptive changes will affect the role and form of the public library. In response, public libraries will have to profoundly alter what they do and how they do it. Indeed, the most important quality of the public libraries that will prosper in the coming decades will be adaptability—the capacity to move ahead in the face of external disruptions.

What kind of public library, if any, will the beginning librarian of 2014 retire from in 2054? What distinctive benefits will it deliver that will earn it a continuing place in its community? This article examines the external changes to which the public library must adapt during the next four decades. Changes in the five domains that affect the public library—information technology, media, the media ecosystem, society, and the economy—will be far-reaching and disruptive. My emphasis here will be on the first three. (My forthcoming book, Surviving the Cyber-Storm: How Libraries Can Thrive in the Cyber Era, contains a more complete discussion of the changes in all five domains and what libraries can do to adapt to them.)

Let us now put on our advanced Google Glass—the one that offers a dim and somewhat fuzzy view of the future—to observe, if only in rough outline, the forces that are shaking each of those domains and how they, in turn, will exert forces on the library.

The Cyber Era

Let’s begin with technology, specifically information technology, whose development has recently brought us into an entirely new era of civilization—the Cyber Era, which succeeds the more than five-century-long reign of the Print Era. This new era is characterized by the ubiquitous digital accessibility of virtually all of mankind’s knowledge, culture, art, and entertainment—the sum of which we shall, for brevity, refer to as “information.” The Cyber Era has lifted the constraints of price and place on access to information, vastly democratized its publication, and significantly reduced the intermediary role of editors and publishers.

The transition to the Cyber Era began with the open availability of the world’s information on the World Wide Web in the 1990s. It was given global scope by wireless phone and computer networks and was completed when the iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) liberated access to information from fixed locations—the home, office, or library. In the Cyber Era we carry access to the global wealth of information on our persons. Portals to much of the content of the world’s libraries are in our pockets, purses, or packs, traveling with us wherever we go.

To sharpen our vision, let’s consider the technology most directly relevant to libraries: the “cybermedia system.” It comprises three fundamental subsystems: (1) a structured store of information, accessible through (2) a global communication system, by (3) personal devices. Although a competent cybermedia system currently exists, advances in information technologies during the next 40 years will greatly improve each element. Mobile smart devices will be lighter and have higher-quality displays and more natural interfaces. Virtually all of the world’s public information will be accessible. Global communication systems will have greater capacity and speed, be more economical, and will reach everywhere.

From paper media to cybermedia

In recent years, the plates underlying media “continents” began to shift, knocking them into one another. A Cyber continent began to engulf the others and bring a new ecosystem to life.Paper was revolutionary when it replaced bone, bamboo, and silk in China in the 2nd century as the substrate for writing, and even more revolutionary when it enabled the invention of movable-type printing in Germany in 1450. In contrast to the bulky scrolls and codices of earlier times, the paper substrate enabled the creation of truly portable and affordable paper media, giving birth to new genres: the literary book, the monograph, the textbook, the newspaper, and the magazine. These became vessels for the collection, transmission, and storage of new bodies of knowledge and culture.

Consequently, printed media has been the core asset of public libraries since their founding—the collection and circulation of books, magazines, and newspapers their principal reason for being.

But the media substrates of the future will be smart display devices, whether in the form of miniature watch faces or eyeglass displays, as smartphones or tablets, or as vast wall-size and even stadium-size screens. Smart display devices are as capable as paper of showing finely detailed text and images in full color. In addition, they can display moving subjects with accompanying sound, even in 3D or virtual reality; connect to other media in multidimensional hypertext structures; and enable the viewer to interact with the displayed object. What’s most significant, smart displays have removed the last barriers to publication. In conjunction with web-based sites and services, anyone can use an application on a smart display device to write, perform, capture, or create something from anywhere and publish it to everyone in the world, no editors or publishers required. Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, and Facebook are among the services that empower them.

Consequently, smart display devices have vastly expanded possible media types, creating a new world of cybermedia. Even at this early stage of their evolution, a Cambrian-like explosion of cybermedia and  genres has begun.

The Cambrian explosion of cybermedia

Alternatives to paper as a substrate for media are not new. The first non-paper-based media—movies, radio, audio recordings, television, and video recordings—debuted in the 20th century. But the iPhone’s arrival in 2007, followed by the iPad in 2010, was something different. For the first time, portable media devices had good connectivity to the internet and phone networks; high-quality displays; a touch interface, including a virtual keyboard; access to web-based media stores; and a supercomputer to run complex apps. They were the first mobile cybermedia devices. They, and their competitive technology cousins in the Android and Microsoft families, sparked an explosion of new mobile cybermedia forms.

Many cybermedia devices were already available on desk- or lap-bound devices. The genres were numerous, among them the online store catalog, the crowdsourced encyclopedia, and the dynamic newspaper or magazine. But desktops were still confined to a room, and laptops were part-time companions, weighing down briefcases and backpacks when meeting or class demanded. Mobile cybermedia devices have broken the bonds of place and time; they are light and capable enough to be with us fulltime, serving most of our needs wherever we might go.

Cybermedia, such as websites, blogs, tweets, online games, streaming music, streaming video, ebooks, audiobooks, social networks, GPS programs, search engines, and dynamic books, are all now resident on mobile smart devices, accessible to anyone around the globe with a smartphone or tablet. Smart media devices, smaller and lighter than books, can emulate books but also televisions, music players, game machines, and other media devices. Their multimedia capabilities and supercomputer competence offer creators a completely flexible canvas for inventing cybermedia, which the million-and-a-half apps available for iOS and Android devices vividly demonstrate. This Cambrian explosion of cybermedia and genres raises significant questions for the public library:

What, if any, examples of these new media forms and their genres should the library collect? While many libraries have map collections, some historical, some practical, is it sensible or even feasible to collect Google or Bing maps, GPS devices or their map data, satellite images, or street views? Similarly, newspapers are now creating continually changing web and mobile cybermedia versions that incorporate video and interactive graphics and hyperlinks. Which of those should be collected? (See the sidebar on p. 27.) What should libraries do with the numerous blogs that greatly enrich understanding of such subjects as politics, economics, photography, astronomy, and, of course, libraries themselves?

Indeed, given the many other routes to access media now available, should or can access to collections remain central to the library’s role? More and more media of all types will reside in the cloud where various agencies (some commercial, some public interest) will make them available for downloading or streaming for free, for purchase, by subscription, or for rental. The library will retain the advantage of offering free access to some commercial media, but will various low-cost subscription- and advertising-supported alternatives substantially reduce that advantage, especially in the eyes of the taxpaying supporters of the library?

Nor will money be the scarcest resource for most potential library patrons. Rather, it will be attention. There have always been competitors for the time of potential readers, among them radio, film, and television. But smart digital devices deliver those and add social media, tweets, games, news sources, blogs, and many other media forms to the list. How will the library continue to earn its patrons’ attention against this always-at-hand, all-in-one competition?

Yet these challenges are not the most significant ones facing the public library. Those come from the ongoing reconstitution of the media ecosystems on which it depends.

The shifting tectonic plates of media

A media ecosystem comprises all the individuals and organizations that participate in the creation and distribution of a media species. In the Print Era, media species and their ecosystems could be thought of as grouped on separate and distinct “continents” according to their substrates. The book, newspaper, and magazine ecosystems occupied the Paper continent; television and radio ecosystems settled on the Electronic continent; and the Film continent held the motion picture and still photography ecosystems. These ecosystems differed greatly, depending upon the differences among the processes used to create, market, and sell each media species. Then, in recent years, the plates underlying the continents began to shift, knocking the continents into one another, sending shock waves through their ecosystems. Soon the movement’s cause, a new continent, erupted with volcanic force, flowing over the existing continents and disrupting their ecosystems. The Cyber continent, while slowly engulfing the others, was bringing a new cybermedia ecosystem to life.

Just as cybermedia integrate all of the features of print, electronic, and film media into one system that resides on smart display devices, so the cybermedia ecosystem is bringing all the previously distinct media ecosystems together. Over the coming decades, previous distinctions among media ecosystems arising from different processes for creation, production, manufacturing, and distribution will disappear. In the Cyber Era, there is little distinction among these processes with cybermedia, whether they are reminiscent of books, videos, music, or film. The creation of cybermedia by individuals and teams will use similar digital hardware and software tools; and sales will occur through multiple media venues like the iTunes Store and Amazon, rather than single-medium venues like Netflix and Barnes & Noble.

For libraries, a critical question is the future of books and their ecosystem, of which libraries are an integral part. Certainly, book authors will exploit the new possibilities opening to them when more and more of their readers use smart display devices. No longer limited simply to text and still images, some are already choosing to incorporate moving images, audio output and input, interactivity and linkage, or integrated computation when it makes their textbook, poetry, mystery, romance, self-help book, or monograph more effective or compelling. To do so, they will have the help of new book authorship and production software, such as Inkling Habitat or Lucidpress and their evolved descendants and competitors. The future will certainly see extended books and other media mix-ups in the mainstream.

Traditional books will require only good editing and illustrations, but extended books will require larger, multiskilled teams like those common in the film world. Their creators will draw from an online pool of writers, editors, book designers, illustrators, animators, audio specialists, marketers, and other experts to bring their concepts to life. Books will be distributed primarily online using one of a variety of marketing or sales sites offering differing levels of service: at one extreme, simple listing and e-commerce; at the other, near publisher-like combinations of editing, design, illustration, marketing, and fulfillment. A variety of payment mechanisms will be employed: sale, lease, rental, subscription, or advertiser support of downloaded or streamed books or their chapters. In general, the creation of simple and extended books will be relatively simple and many will enter the market. (See Peter Brantley’s article on p. 20 for more on future directions of ebooks and authors.)

The critical question for readers, and for libraries, is whether there will be reliable institutions to sift the wheat from the chaff and lead readers to the quality media they need. Clearly, this is a familiar realm for libraries and one that holds the promise of adding value for patrons overwhelmed by the choices available to them. But because of the volume and complexity of media available, it is a challenging one for individual libraries as well. Perhaps the library community will find a means to prepare or collect media assessments for use and local customization by public libraries. But the topic has many layers, and sadly, on this the view through the Google Glass is dim.

What can be seen clearly, however, are the challenges that libraries will face as serial disruptions shake the domains on which they rest.

ROGER E. LEVIEN is president of Strategy and Innovation Consulting and author of Confronting the Future. This article is a preview of his forthcoming book on the future of public libraries.

Brave News World

By Robert J. Rua

Like others in the newspaper industry, Ohio’s largest circulating newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, faces significant challenges resulting from a decline in print advertising revenue. As the industry transitions to new, more digitally focused business models, daily newspapers around the country work to maintain their subscriber base as they find new ways to deliver the news. While libraries have long served as purveyors of free and open access to news and journalism in a variety of formats, the role that libraries must play in supporting digital literacy becomes increasingly relevant when news is more squarely situated in the online environment. Libraries have an opportunity to add significant value to communities in this brave new digital world.

Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library (CCPL) identified an opportunity to support a community in transition when, in April 2013, the Plain Dealer simultaneously announced the reduction of its home delivery service, from seven to four days a week, and the launch of a new, daily e-edition.

When the Plain Dealer adopted the e-edition model, CCPL identified two clear community needs:

  1. Many residents’ access to the daily news would be limited with the reduction in home delivery;
  2. Navigating the e-edition would be especially challenging to those with limited computer skills.

Through an innovative partnership with the Northeast Ohio Media Group (NEOMG), the newly formed company responsible for the Plain Dealer’s sales and marketing, CCPL is addressing those needs by creating new opportunities for lifelong learning and civic engagement. The library has opened access to the Plain Dealer by making its e-edition available free of charge as a splash page on more than 700 public access computers in library branches. In addition, the library is collaborating with NEOMG to host free digital literacy workshops at every CCPL branch over the next year. As a result, CCPL branches have become go-to destinations for residents seeking assistance with accessing and navigating the e-edition.

Looking ahead, CCPL is developing news literacy programs to teach customers how to be informed consumers of news media, engage in virtual community forums, and contribute their own content to digital news platforms as “citizen journalists.” With a $50,000 grant from NEOMG, the library will install flat-screen digital media players and interactive “touch tables” in its new Parma and Warrensville Heights branches—technology that will be used to stream local news content and engage customers in making the most of digital platforms as forums for public discussion.

Additional opportunities to connect community members with the Plain Dealer—including live streams of editorial meetings and panel sessions with reporters on topics of local interest—provide new ways of keeping residents informed. The library’s collaboration with NEOMG not only improves access to information and supports digital literacy in northeast Ohio, but it affords customers unprecedented opportunity to look inside the news stories of the day.

ROBERT J. RUA is assistant marketing and communications director at Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library.


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