It is quite popular to predict the future of libraries, not least among librarians. Often we notice a kind of strange contradiction in these predictions, of simultaneously being obsolete and at the centre of a brave new digital world. In some cases this turns into a kind of institutional schizophrenia, which is at best amusing and at worst destructive. Most likely libraries will not be obsolete in the decades to come. Most likely some libraries will change quite a lot in the decades to come. This is of course a truism, but to understand the logic of future libraries, we must look at the basic legitimacy of libraries as social and intellectual institutions. This can be defined in many ways. One way of describing libraries – and librarianship – is in terms of documentality. Documentality is in itself not an unproblematic concept, but it is basically about what documents do and how they make us act. We may speak of documentary practices or of ontological documentality, where documents are what de facto constitute institutions. In this respect libraries are interesting, because they can be said to be built upon a double documentality; 1. Documents that legally and administratively constitute a library, and 2. Documents that constitute the library in terms of its holdings. Without these two kinds of documentalities combined, there would be no libraries, and there would be no legitimacy to uphold them as social institutions. The same goes for librarianship. As a profession it is defined by a set of documents; degrees from LIS educational programmes, codes of ethical conduct, institutional or personal accreditations, memberships in professional associations – all which are legitimized through the very existence of a specific documentality. Traditionally librarianship has also been defined by a specific (often custodian) relation to the holdings of a specific library, or a specific type of library.
But, is it possible to speak of librarianship as a single profession? Yes, I do believe it is. Conditions vary though, between different library settings and types of documentary institutions, and so does the self-image fostered within them. It is interesting to see that the anxiety over professional identity and the future of libraries are very much tied to public libraries. In for instance academic libraries we don’t see these kinds of discussions. I believe that one of the reasons or this is to be found in the documentality of libraries and librarianship.
Public libraries are a relatively new phenomena related closely to western democratic ideals, stemming from the 18th century Enlightenment movement. The legitimacy of public libraries are tied to a specific form of documentary practice that we find in 20th centrury democracies. The documentality of this form of democracy, that is the basic structure of its institutions, includes public libraries as providers of documents reflecting views and cultural expressions of these societies.
Academic libraries, on the other hand, relies on a much longer history and are related to a specific documentary practice, namely that of scientific communication. Scientific communication has gone through several changes during the last three hundred years, all related to technological innovation, infrastructure, methodological changes in research, and social demands on sharing of results. The ontological documentality of academic libraries are thus much stronger than that of public libraries. The structure of scientific communication is in thorough and rapid change, but still there are several components that safeguard a kind of documentality that secure the role of librarians and libraries. Academic libraries are not threatened by the future. Instead it may even predict it – even if predictions tend to stretch from a total collaps of the system to a maintained status quo, due to the conservative systems of scientific quality control and structures connected to social and academic status and benefits.
If we look at it from a documentality point of view this leads us into an interesting situation. Public libraries may suffer from decreasing public support, and thus being forced into developing into something that differ from the ”original” intent of librarianship. On the other hand, we don’t see the ”end of books”, we don’t see user behaviour that differ much from what we might describe as traditional. So the ontological definitions of libraries based on stocks and holdings and activities tied to these seem, at least for the coming decades, to be secured. The threat instead comes from the socially constitutional documentality where local governments and society as a whole will fail to recognise the significance of libraries in future political development.
Academic libraries, on the other hand, face a situation where they, through an increased significance to university management and evaluation practices (for examples through bibliometrical resposibilities) find their ontological documentality intact, but an increasingly lack of holdings. Already today many university libraries spend less than five percents of their media budgets on physical materials. The rest is directed towards licences and subscription fees for journals and publishing services that are placed outside the libraries. Contemporary academic libraries have never offered so much and had control over so few documents as today. The documentality of academic libraries are in a process of being de-institutionalised.
These things are of course not new. What we might anticipate, however, is a reinstatement of documentality as a basis of legitimacy for libraries in the future, when documents come into a more general sphere of interest in society. The retrieval of documents is not the same thing as the retrieval of information, and I believe we already see a shift toward a more document conscious environment, in libraries as well as in society. Information is not free flowing, it is not like air. It is always bound in documents. In a society overflowing with documents, the need for, and recognition of, insitutions that may use this to further scientific knowledge, cultural expressions, ethical diversity and democracy will increase, and libraries will have that ability. They will have it through a documentality that is both ontological and tied to practice. What form these documentary practices may take, however, is difficult to predict. Two decades ago, who would have thought we would be where we are today, with a web full of dynamic documents and thriving libraries - side by side?