Libraries in the Digital Age

Image by un-perfekt from Pixabay

Libraries are today’s secular version of a church, but then, they had their start in religious institutions. The earliest of libraries and for over a thousand years, were built, protected and nurtured within churches and monasteries. Many of their scrolls and books were, naturally, religious by nature. Later, they began to hold other types of texts and enabled us to evolve as a species. Now, digital technologies and AI are changing libraries yet again. How might the library evolve?

The oldest known library was believed to have been built in Assyria, what is today Iraq, sometime around 668 and 631 BCE, which you can now visit. Some believe the oldest is the Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, built in 1,359 CE. The role of the library has evolved from largely a place of religion to a place of academia and today, to being a central place of culture in most every society. They are considered a public good.

Cities around the world are increasingly investing in new libraries with some, like in my own city of Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, winning architectural awards. It’s almost as if there was some competition. While they remain filled with books, many now feature auditoriums, recording studios, publicly accessible computer terminals and ever more community rooms.

Below I look at how AI, Virtual and Augmented Reality may enter the library and why this is a good thing.

And we are still expectant of being quiet, a rule that hasn’t changed in thousands of years. A piece of cultural code that is woven into the fabric of all societies. Some may listen to music through headphones as they read, but long have we seen reading a book as a quiet, solitary practice, a place where we lose ourselves in unwinding stories or contemplating the knowledge one human is passing on to others. Books are the nutrients of our brain and seeds of ideas.

They are in a way, a different time and place altogether. In a way it is perhaps strange that over time, we began to invite the community into them. To do things that are creative and filled with expression, all part of creating and sharing knowledge, but beyond just the act of reading.

Digital technologies have crept slowly in. To some this is anathema, a violation of the purpose and intent of a library. Perhaps. But digital technologies are today, and important part of human knowledge creation and sharing. So it is too, a part of what a library is. But what happens when Artificial Intelligence, especially Generative AI, bursts through the door of the inner sanctum of the library?

Much of our world is text driven. Has been ever since we created writing. The vast volumes of text ChatGPT and similar tools can create is astounding. But they’re not creating any new content. They’re just summarizing what we already know, and often times creating its own facts.

All of this to say, libraries will likely evolve in new ways, but they will remain a key centre of culture for a very long time to come. Even with more AI coming into our world. Libraries are a cornerstone of the aesthetic aspects of our culture like music, literature, art and architecture. They have been deeply enshrined in cultures around the world for thousands of years.

There is a certain beauty in inviting communities into libraries in an age when some technologies like social media and smartphones are making us feel more isolated and disconnected. We see that a popular and growing trend among Gen Z is to put aside their devices and read real-world, physical books made from paper.

Cultures are constantly evolving and changing as societal structures and political systems are part of the code of culture and they too, are always evolving. So it is natural that libraries too, will evolve.

We may see AI enter libraries through visual and musical arts, with virtual displays. Perhaps in the near future, libraries will have Virtual Reality rooms for not just playing games, but other forms of entertainment that brings community together in a social way to explore VR, ideas and pass on knowledge.

Imagine how Augmented Reality could help us navigate a library and find physical books we want to read, with a look at key highlights of a book, other peoples reviews and notes, adding a whole new contextual layer through AR glasses or our smartphones. Perhaps we will be able to check a book out through our phone and maybe if we’re late returning it, fees will be automatically dinged from our bank account!

We can’t of course, be certain exactly how libraries will evolve, but technology will play an increasingly bigger role because technology is part of who we are as a species. How libraries will evolve will be through culture. A very human thing.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.