Libraries and their place in the fourth industrial revolution

Over time, the world has been fundamentally changed at pivotal moments in history.

The First Industrial Revolution was one of harnessing the power of water and steam to create mechanised production.

The Second Industrial Revolution expanded the means of production through electric power and changed the way humans lived.

The Third Industrial Revolution used electronics and information technology to automate the way we work and live, putting a computer in almost every home, and transforming the way we communicate.

Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and the scope of change is unprecedented. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It represents new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even the human body. This includes emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, The Internet of Things, 3D printing, virtual and augemented realities and autonomous vehicles.

We are starting to see that increasingly everything will be more accessible. Already we can see the beginnings of this as our mobile phones and personal computing devices have turned into extensions of various technologies with advanced embedded functionality (consider for example wearable technology e.g. the Apple Watch). Cars, houses and offices have become controllable through the Internet of Things (IoT), and every day another solution to a problem of everyday living is delivered to us in a new program, new platform or a new piece of technology.

But how do libraries fit into this extraordinary new world?

As information and technology becomes even more prevalent in our lives, the difference between, "having access to all the information in the world," and, "knowing things," will become even more important. The Internet and the related technologies that surround it are not only the holders of all the information, but also all the misinformation. A quick Google search on, "the reasons Germany lost World War II," creates a search with millions of results, including solid points backed by meaningful analysis, and conspiracy theories from neo-Nazi groups. All these results are sorted and delivered according to Google's algorithm. However, this algorithm is not necessarily based on what is true and false, and further to that it is delivered to us via a corporation with its own agenda, which means web neutrality effectively doesn't exist. In a post-truth age, we need libraries more and more to educate their communities in how to access veracious information that serves the purpose of the customer's need.

In the world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, libraries will undoubtedly become filled with even more technology and ways to access information. In 2017, we will create more data than ever before, creating new challenges around consuming that data to make strategic and tactical decisions. More data was created in the last two years than the previous 5,000 years of humanity. In 2017, we will create even more data in one year alone, such is the exponential growth. Data must get transferred into information in order to become meaningul. We are on the receiving end of a tsunami of data and information. The challenge will be to make sense of all of that data and information, to categorise it, to make it accessible, to make it meaningful, and then to transfer that information into knowledge, and where necessary, to use it to make meaningful decisions. Libraries will be critical to support this function for their communities.

Librarians are also often tasked with telling and collecting stories and creating narratives of the cultural information of the day. This will be just as important in the 21st century as it was 100 years ago. Libraries are of critical importance to help categorise, preserve and make accessible data and information for the purpose of facilitating lifelong learning and telling the narrative of a time gone by. These narratives and collections are used to empower the learning of those in the present and future, to learn of the wisdom of generations gone by.

Speaking of cultural information, we are facing a real challenge of collecting born-digital information on the internet. 21st century libraries will increasingly be charged with preserving the digital record for future generations, just as they have with physical books, resources and artefacts. This function will be of increased importance, particularly as technology changes, formats change, and media changes. Collection visualisation (that is, bringing old collections to life with new discovery services) will be a challenging, but we will see old, dusty collections brought to life through digitisation and collection discovery mechanisms, bringing new understanding and new meaning to our collective history. For great work in this area check out the DX Lab at the State Library of NSW.

DX-Lab-SLNSW.jpgSource: DX Lab, State Library of NSW, retrieved from

Education will increasingly be of importance as we progress through the fourth industrial revolution. If libraries are to be a physical duplicate of a virtual Google search, then they will not likely survive. One hopes though, that the library brand will be strong enough to facilitate consistency in delivering a safe space, both physically and digitally, accessed for the right information, with a focus on the quality of information, and with a focus on education. Education will increasingly be important for sections of the community who will not be able to access new technologies and information in a format accessible to them. At risk communities include ageing community members, culturally and linquistically diverse communities, indigenous communities, small business owners and people from low-socioeconomic areas. Libraries will continue to democratise not only access to new technologies, so that at risk communities can participate in the new world, but also to provide the support and education required to participate in day-to-day life, and be active, engaged digital citizens.

On the other hand, they will need to cater for digital natives who must be able to participate in the 21st century economy. A report commissioned by Fujitsu and Intel found that 65% of kids will end up in jobs that don't even exist yet! Libraries will need to provide access to the latest digital and technological resources to prepare children with the skills they need for these jobs. These can include coding, robotics, AR and VR, gamified learning and other STEAM skills. 21st century libraries are the perfect place to provide access to the development of these skills and functions, especially in regional and remote areas. Makerspaces that allow digital natives to explore, create and play are great tools that help facilitate the development of these skills.

The fourth industrial revolution will also most likely see libraries move into service-based organisations, rather than just product-based (i.e. book) based organisations. Their physical spaces will be used in new and unique ways, we will see spaces co-created with their communities, to cater for the specific needs of specific community groups. These physical spaces will continue to be the 'third space' - that safe, walm and welcoming third space to work and home. These spaces will need to cater for, and attract new audiences to ensure that they remain relevant. This will mean that marketing and branding will become an even bigger challenge for libraries to help them reach new audiences, design programs, activities, events and services for current and non-current customers, and to reach the community on their terms, not on the terms of the library. Thus we should start to see much more customer engagement in the design and iteration phase of creating new services and new spaces in libraries.

Customer service will also be of critical importance in the fourth industrial revolution. Libraries have too many competitors to afford to deliver poor customer service. Along with numerous other organisations, libraries are fighting for the attention and affections of their community. They will need to connect with people in meaningful, human ways that deliver enormous value to them. The customer service will need to be relationship-based, as opposed to transactional service. Human connection will be more important in the fourth industrial revolution than ever before, as people crave belonging, meaning and connection with each other. Whilst social media has connected us, it has also simultaneously disconnected us, and our human-to-human interactions will become more precious as time goes by. Libraries are in the perfect position to facilitate these relationships and connections.

Personalisation will be increasingly important. Due to the nature of new technologies solving new and meaningful problems for customers, we will start to see them expecting services on their terms according to their ideals and needs. Thus, we will need to develop new business models that cater to our customers' needs on their terms. The physical library will increasingly be shifted out into the community, such as pop-up libraries, market libraries, home delivery, bus shelter libraries, train libraries etc. The scope and reach of libraries will need to meet customers where they are, rather than expect customers to come to the library according to the library's expectations and requirements. 

An increased focus on partnerships, will see libraries sharing resources and providing access through large platforms, along the lines of Europeana or Trove. Thus, libraries will be working not only with each other, but other cultural institutions (e.g. Galleries, Archives, Museums and Records), educational institutions (such as schools, universities, TAFEs, private training organisations etc.) and community groups (such as local not-for-profit organisations, local businesses, large corporations etc.) to deliver meaningful services for their customers. 

I see a bright and positive future for libraries, as long as their stewards - current library staff - adapt and update their skills, knowledge and mindsets to ensure agility and effectiveness in a new world order. Libraries are only as good as the people who lead them, work in them, and support them. So let's empower them with a mindset of abundance (even in times of scarcity), and let's use entrepreneurial thinking and positive mindsets to make the impossible happen. Because everything is possible in the fourth industrial revolution!

The future is bright for libraries.

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