Knowledge economy: dlr LexIcon library – pictured before its books arrived – shows how a modern public library can be a place of exploration, play, performance and creativity. Photograph: Alan Betson
Futurologists predicted that libraries would have closed by now, but they have a key role to play in the knowledge economy.
In 2007 the futurologist Richard Watson published a slightly tongue-in-cheek “extinction timeline”, predicting the exact dates on which familiar parts of our world would “cease to be significant”, swept aside by technological innovation, social change or climate catastrophe. Telephone directories would be gone by 2017, petrol-engined vehicles by 2035 and physical newspapers by 2049. (Even at the time that last one seemed a tad optimistic.) The year 2019, said Watson, would see the end of libraries, those fusty, dusty old repositories of something called “books” (also nearing their end of life).
The general point seemed indisputable. Google and the cloud would soon deliver us all the information we required, anytime and anywhere we wanted it, so why would anyone need physical buildings, with shelves and reading desks and librarians and all that, y’know, stuff?
Twenty-nineteen is only three years away, and the prediction doesn’t look so smart now. Far from disappearing, libraries are going through a transformation that puts them in a central role within the much-vaunted knowledge economy and moves them into areas as conceptually challenging as they are exciting.