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Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide
Posted On September 3, 2013
Ever wondered about the implications of a Google Glass wearer who walks into your library? Instantly, everyone who is there is under surveillance. And if automated translation tools benefit us by breaking down language barriers, do they also remove the cultural context from the text being translated? It triggers the question of whether results from search engines, driven by algorithms derived by commercial entities, can actually be trusted.

These are just a few of the perplexing situations that could transform libraries in the future. Ingrid Parent, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) president, touched on these issues during the presentation of the IFLA Trend Report “Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide?” during the 2013 IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Singapore in August.

Five High-Level Trends

The Trend Report identified five high-level trends in what Parent describes as an “insights document.” Here are the big trends:

  1.  New technologies will expand and limit who has access to information.
  2.  Online information will transform and disrupt traditional learning.
  3.  Boundaries of data protection and privacy will be redefined.
  4.  Hyperconnected societies will listen to and empower new groups.
  5.  New technologies will transform the global information economy.

But these trends are not unique to the library and information communities; they have implications for many parts of society. The process of compiling this well-reasoned report took nearly a year. In true library style, it started with a literature review, followed by a meeting of 10 experts in Mexico City in March 2013. An online discussion followed that meeting, and an expanded expert group looked at the issues.

It’s important to note that the experts were not librarians. They were social scientists, economists, business leaders, education specialists, legal experts, and technologists. Among the thought leaders were the chairman of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the director of the Global Libraries development program from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the director of the Internet & American Life Project at the Pew Research Center, the legal director of copyright at Google, and a presenter from BBC Click.

Colliding Trends

For libraries, the collision of the trends with each other and with library values present interesting, challenging, and potentially frightening future scenarios. Advances in technology raise concerns about privacy and the perception of libraries as safe places.

Read a print book and the publisher knows nothing about your reading behavior. But an ebook is different. The publisher knows how fast you read, what parts you skip, what you highlight, and what terms you use to search for a book. Publishers can change the text in the ebook without you even being aware that it’s happening. The amount of information that can (and is) being collected from ebooks and other information-mining activities raises questions about who profits from using this data.

When it comes to research, Parent wonders if libraries can actually deliver different vehicles for serendipitous discovery if everyone is getting from Point A to Point B using a search engine. Could the library community build a competing search algorithm?

Online education, which can transcend national boundaries and be offered to students at no cost, is another major trend. The collision comes with the challenge to traditional education in assessing how much value free courses accrue and how this will ultimately change workplace demographics.

Another question that arose at IFLA stemmed from the Trend Report: “When your phone, your car, and your wristwatch know where you are at all times—who runs your life?”

The report, according to Parent, is just a starting point designed to begin a conversation within the IFLA community. She encourages the library community to consider the trends and potential collisions, as well as how they might affect individual library environments. IFLA members are diverse and likely to have different views on how these trends might shape their future. So, it’s important to add the voice of the members to the report, according to Jennefer Nicholson, IFLA secretary general: “Without your input, it’s just another report.” Let the conversation begin.

Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search & Discovery.

Email Marydee Ojala

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