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Will there be contemplation in future libraries?

When I’m not occupied with urgent matters (aka firefighting), my preoccupation is the future of libraries.

Here, this topic is known as “America’s Libraries for the 21st Century,” a formal OITP Program–though obviously this theme cuts across all of the office’s work.  Of course, the digital revolution currently taking place challenges the services, content, physical organization, staffing, funding, and every other facet of libraries.  Indeed, the investigation of these topics is addressed in recent OITP policy briefs:  Fiber to the Library, Checking Out the Future, and There’s an App for That!

Some of our inquiry depends on seemingly direct lines of thought, such as the rise of high-speed broadband, mobile technology, or e-books, and the consequences for libraries and public policy.  But there are also less obvious implications.  I’ve been contemplating one of these implications for the past months–which is, well, “contemplation.”  But reading Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, has re-energized my thinking about this topic.

The advent of widespread networking, digital content, and the Web is causing a shift towards a fundamentally different way of information access, which may be characterized as unpredictable, dynamic, abbreviated, and frenetic.  Of course, this is not news to us folks in the library community, steeped in e-mails, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Web surfing, and so on.  These new capabilities have great benefits and many of us couldn’t imagine living without them.  Among other things, people can now integrate and link diverse people, places, and pieces of information in ways that could not have been even imagined before–and enable us to think in new ways–or, alternatively, to rewire our brains to compel us to think in new ways.

But there is a potential downside to this rewiring.  Some–or many of us–have increasingly short attention spans and difficulty in concentrating on longer-term tasks such as reading a book (much less writing a book).  This phenomenon resonates with my personal experience–indeed just trying to read Carr’s book took some effort–it isn’t conducive to reading a book when checking e-mail every 10 minutes…  I can even get impatient with e-mails of multiple paragraphs.

And what of libraries?  Contemplation is central to traditional library services and uses:  Reading books, newspapers, and magazines; doing homework (offline); participating in storytelling hour; playing a board game; or daydreaming (uninterrupted by electronic gadgetry).  How will future libraries support contemplative activity of this kind when the technology encourages the opposite?  Or does it even matter?

Will contemplation become mostly the province of an elite few as it was centuries ago?  Broad access to intellectual works to facilitate thinking beyond society’s elites is a recent phenomenon in historical terms, enabled by the widespread creation of public libraries in the 20th century–thanks again, Mr. Carnegie.

Might “contemplation” become the new digital divide?  Can future libraries be shaped as a venue to promote contemplation?  Should they?  If so, who will become the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century?

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Alan Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is the director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy. Previously, he was the coordinator of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President and a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.


  1. I don’t believe “contemplation” will be the new digital divide. I think the difference between “contemplation” now and then is that information resources are readily available now and easily reached from multiple access points. With the ability to quickly research details, it can reduce the number of variables present in a decision.

  2. Pam Pam

    Someone once said that the greatest luxury of all is unscheduled time. Contemplation, like everything else, competes for those few hours a day when we get to choose our activity. And of course, people come to libraries for a quiet space every day, along with those who come for community. But I would rather try to sustain funding for community than for contemplation any day.

  3. blogger blogger

    I think you have some valid points but I have to say, as a librarian, I am SO SICK of hearing and reading about the future of libraries. Let’s focus on the present and let the future take care of itself. When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path. Let’s walk the path people!

  4. I was thinking about this as well and recently posted about it. Would a possibility be creating spaces in libraries for contemplation? This is traditionally what libraries were: quiet places to read, write, think and perhaps share ideas with others in hushed tones.

    Now, many libraries are bustling places with computers, wifi, community events, and general connectedness (in person and online). I really love this shift and think libraries are adapting well. But perhaps going back to the future with quiet contemplative spaces is something libraries should think about.

    There are not enough places these days that lack wifi or ban cell phones. Maybe creating such a contemplative space amongst our more connected places would be a welcome refuge for our users. Places to think, contemplate and reflect in silence without computers or TVs or music blaring. Places to connect once again with our inner life and make sense of all the information we are bombarded with.

  5. Nancy O'Leary Pew Nancy O'Leary Pew

    I have often thought of the library as the secular temple, a place to reconnect with your highest self, as well as a place to connect with information, stories and community. I value areas of quiet as well as interactive spaces in the library.

  6. Ooh, I love Andy’s suggestion – that we *create* contemplative space – it could be kind of a selling point for the library as a third place. Certainly the quiet study space in my academic library is extremely popular and well-guarded/self-policing, showing that many library patrons need and value contemplative space. But it is only the large and rich that will have the room to devote to it, so in that sense it is kind of a new digital divide. I am reminded of when I worked at a small suburban branch of the San Diego County Library – I had to deal with a rather upset patron, a mom, who was trying to teach her child that the library was a quiet place to study and read. Obviously, this tiny branch wasn’t that and couldn’t be – even if there had been enough space to have well-defined children’s, youth and reading areas, the library was located in a strip mall next to a barbeque/pizza place that played very loud music you could hear through the wall. When libraries have to adapt to those kinds of spaces, contemplative is a pipe dream. I didn’t feel any sympathy for her because I thought she wasn’t being realistic, but her complaint did me make a little nostalgic for hushed reading rooms and shushing.

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