Everything that reference librarians do may change in the next ten years, but they will still be needed. This was the consensus from four panelists at the RUSA President's Program Time Odyssey: Visions of Reference and User Services, one of the final presentations at the American Library Association conference in Washington, D.C.
The future is not magical, according to Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist from Intel. There are always unforeseen consequences of technological change. Libraries will survive, she said, as people want the library as a place and books are stubborn, persistent artifacts. Libraries are "centers of gravity" - important to society for the tradition they foster, for the distribution of knowledge, and for the stamp of legitimacy they give to the materials they collect.
Bell said that libraries have always been high tech. In the 19th century they broke ground in the use of indexes and filing systems that would be the backbone of business and government. In today's world there is a crisis in the disorganization of digital information. Society need libraries to make sense of the information explosion.
She went on to say that libraries are needed to preserve civilization. They have done it before, especially when Islamic libraries preserved classical Greek and Roman literature.
Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet & American Life Project said that there is a new twist on Andy Warhol's statement about everyone being famous for fifteen minutes. In the Internet age, everyone is famous to fifteen people.
Rainie said we have several questions ahead of us. First is "What kind of Internet do we have?" There are more kinds of information and more methods of dissemination than ever before. Soon there will be smart doorknobs that know when the owner will come home because of Internet transmitted information. Is this good?
We have questions about our national information policy. Are we going to let rural areas and the poor be left out? Are we going to allow corporation to buy higher speeds than anyone else? Who owns information?
Third, we have personal identity questions and security problems to solve. The Internet was built by trusting people who expected good behavior. Some users have abused this trust, so the Internet needs to be redesigned.
Allen Renear of the University of Illinois told a long joke about a girl approaching the reference desk ten years from now. The point was that scholarly publishing, especially for scientific and technical knowledge, will no longer be reliant on expensive periodicals.
The most interesting statistic he mentioned is that scholars are reading many more articles now than ten years ago but in the same length of time. So reading is not as deep. In ten years it is thought that scholars will be reading only little bits of articles as needed.
Wendy Schultz of Infinite Futures said that there will still be reference desks in 2017. She said librarians are in a great position to thrive, as they will be needed more than ever. She urged librarians to plot out alternative futures as to be able to adapt to the actual outcomes as they develop.