Questioning the future of the written word

Something this weekend reminded me of the time I was too lazy to transcribe the builder’s order for materials and just scanned the plank he’d been writing on, so I could email it to the merchants.


Later, I was talking to my friend David, who teaches at a university. These days, student papers are submitted and marked electronically. That won’t surprise you, I’m sure, but what impressed me was that David delivers his marks and feedback as audio files which the students can then listen to when they get their grades.

The students have responded positively to the audio feedback, and David finds it more efficient, too. He reads the paper once, then goes back through it dictating into his phone. Not only does he get the work done in less time, but it helps him to highlight the reading experience to his students: “By the time I get to this point in the essay, I’m lost, because you haven’t established your argument on the preceding pages.”

Another friend who works in a senior academic role refuses to give book reports in written form; instead, he will mark out two hours of his time and take editors and publishers through his comments orally, over the phone. It saves time, means he can work from his notes, and enables them to question him or seek clarification as they go.

Attendees working on tasks for Matt's workshop at the Royal Dutch Library

Earlier this month, I was leading an event for the Royal Dutch Library of the Netherlands exploring the future of our relationship to the written word. We pondered how new technologies and their social impact might affect this relationship, including developments in machine recognition of text and speech.

“If voice recognition and machine transcription were perfect,” we asked, “what would we gain? What would we lose?”

One of the first responses was immediate and positive. “No one would ever have to take minutes in a meeting again.”

We then started to explore issues around archiving and preservation, disability and accessibility, and division between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Such explorations formed the basis of our event’s opening activity, which encouraged participants to challenge their thinking about the future, rather than resting on the assumptions of the past. It’s part of an ongoing project at the library to develop a space which explores the Netherlands’ relationship to the written word.

The 1954 "Groene Boekje" guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
The 1954 “Groene Boekje” guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This is particularly interesting in a Dutch context, because the Dutch language is regulated by an international treaty which seeks to maintain consistency between use in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname.

The Dutch Language Union puts out a regular publication, the “Green Book”, which includes official spellings for all Dutch words. However, another publication – the “White Book” – suggests alternative rules which some Dutch publishers and firms have preferred to follow. (The official spelling reform of 2015 was particularly controversial).




All of this dispute, debate, and linguistic politics provided rich pickings for a group of Dutch culture and information professionals trying to imagine a library space devoted to the future of the written word in the heart of Den Haag.

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From speech recognition to linguistic treaties, graffiti and doodles, hate speech and ‘fake news’, the value of fan fiction, battles over privacy, piracy, and copyright, and the political power of the written word, there’s so much to be discussed when we imagine the future of reading and writing.

If you’d like to contemplate some of the questions we asked ourselves, you can read them in this PDF download.

Perspectiva colaborativa en las bibliotecas: Challenges & opportunities for Spain

Poster for the "perspectiva colaborativa" event in Spain, showing scissors and a silhouette of a human head full of gears on a cutting board

Courtesy of the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport, plus the Ubik Tabakalera library in San Sebastian, I’ll be joining librarians, architects, culture professionals, and other stakeholders in the future of public libraries for a one-day workshop exploring challenges & opportunities in community collaboration.

What does it mean for these institutions to join forces with organisations, institutions, businesses, non-profit entities, users and potential users, when designing & delivering the services of the future?

How might libraries serve as spaces of collective creation & learning, and how would this service relate to their traditional mission and brand?

How could awareness of the wider transactional and contextual environment affect the way libraries define and negotiate their own future?

I’ll be joined by librarians from across southern Europe to explore these issues in an open, participatory, multidisciplinary format. In addition, our host venue is Ubik Tabakalera, one of the most fascinating public libraries in Europe, headed by the fiercely impressive Arantza Mariskal.

Spanish speakers who love their library and want to help shape its future should join us  in the Basque Country on 30th May for a day of discussion and debate.

Read more at the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport’s website.

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.

#MyLibraryMyStory: Strengthening Communities in Times of Crisis

National Library Week starts today in the US, and this year the American Library Association is asking people how their library makes their community stronger, using the hashtag #MyLibraryMyStory.


There are countless ways in which libraries, by providing access to information, knowledge, and culture on the community’s own terms, strengthen neighbourhoods, institutions, businesses, schools, towns, cities, states, and entire nations. But you never realise just how much a library strengthens your community until disaster strikes.

In Ferguson, Missouri, it was the library’s acclaimed response to a period of civil unrest which made headlines around the world. When local schools closed, Scott Bonner and his team made a safe space for children in the community – they even carried on their lessons, thanks to the efforts of teachers who volunteered their time.

In Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, the libraries made sterling efforts in the wake of a series of devastating earthquakes; more recently, the same city faced crisis once again after a horrific shooting, and once more, librarians found their spaces pressed into service, providing safety and refuge for the community.

When crisis strikes, organisations can sometimes flounder: unexpected threats can cause fuzzy thinking, emotional responses, or injudicious implementation of rehearsed responses to disaster. In the worst case scenarios, ill-considered efforts to mitigate or resolve a disaster can exacerbate the situation – most famously with the reactor incident at Three Mile Island.

Yet crises also offer possibilities to learn, adapt, and renew the institution’s mission and value for the community it serves. In the case of Ferguson, Christchurch, and many other communities facing different forms of crisis, libraries have demonstrated exactly how they make their communities stronger, even when “business as usual” has broken down.

That might mean offering storytimes to comfort the children of shocked and traumatised families.

Leaving wifi on in abandoned buildings to enable people to obtain information, or communicate with their loved ones.

Protecting valued heritage collections from the effects of disaster, or documenting and acquiring new materials to record the crisis itself for posterity.

Libraries have even been known to offer guides to others affected by a disaster in how to preserve or restore their damaged belongings, as the State Library of Queensland has done when floods strike their state.

As part of the #UKLibchat discussion on social media this month, we explored some of the ways in which libraries deal with disaster, risk, and impending crisis. You can see some highlights and further reading gathered in this Twitter moment.

When disaster strikes, a community’s resilience is tested. Libraries, as information institutions serving a wide range of needs in communities large and small, public and professional, general and specialised, are powerful actors offering safety, continuity, and comfort in the times of gravest crisis.

No library service seeks to be tested in the way those of cities like Christchurch and Ferguson have been, but in such moments, hidden aspects of libraries’ social role are made starkly manifest, offering lessons for us all.

That’s why #MyLibraryMyStory is dedicated to information professionals who have been tested by crisis, and who stood strong for their community.

Workshop at the KB Atelier

This week I led a workshop at the Royal Library of the Netherlands in the Hague (it’s called the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, or KB, in Dutch).

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Just over thirty professionals from the library, archive, museum, and education sectors gathered to help the organisation develop its concept for the KB Atelier.

This will be a space for exploring, experimenting, and co-designing new formats for public engagement at the KB. The Atelier is in the business of finding fresh & valuable ways to celebrate and investigate the power of the written word for the 21st century, in collaboration with partners old and new.

I designed the workshop for Erik Boekesteijn and the brilliant team of KB staff assigned to this project, aiming to inspire debate, capture bright ideas, and build a community of interest and practice for further development of the Atelier concept.

The session combined design thinking tools and customised activities with elements designed to provoke debate about the future of our relationship to the written word.

The future is a difficult space for institutions – hard to predict or foresee, impossible to gather evidence from – and it was thrilling to challenge some of the Netherlands’ brightest cultural-sector minds as they contemplated possible futures for the written Dutch language.


The session served to illuminate the landscape through which the Atelier might take KB’s visitors and staff on future journeys. Now the business begins of designing and building the roads and bridges which will traverse that landscape.

Watch this space for more developments at the KB.

Play Without Limits: The “Immeasurable” Value of Libraries

I’m presenting today to Portugal’s [Re]Pensar conference, an event for public librarians to reimagine their services, with a focus on gaming and maker technology.

You can listen to the presentation via YouTube above, or read the text (PDF download) here.

Imagination Unleashed: Libraries’ Contribution to the Future of the Knowledge Economy


The global innovation foundation Nesta has just published Imagination unleashed: Democratising the knowledge economy, a report on building inclusion in the era of radical change shaped by digital infrastructures, networks, services, and products.

It’s a compelling document which explores current challenges to our societies and sets out a broad-ranging agenda for addressing them in ways which promote inclusion and equity.

Reading this report from an information professional’s perspective suggests a great number of opportunities for libraries and other information institutions to play a part in making a fairer and more prosperous world, where more people get to realise their full potential.

In this post, I’m going to talk you through the report, suggesting a few of the implications and opportunities – and I’d encourage anyone interested in the future of knowledge to check out the report alongside this commentary. Read more

The Librarians of Christchurch

The Tūranga central library in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand went into lockdown during the terror attacks which occurred in the city centre last Friday.

Librarians onsite looked after the visitors in their care, while the service’s social media team provided emergency communications, as they previously had during the earthquakes which struck the city in 2010 & 2011.

Exterior of Turanga Central Library, Christchurch, New Zealand

Image by Wikipedia user Isaacfreem – used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

A condolence book has been set up on the ground floor of Tūranga, so people can leave messages of support and sympathy for those affected by Friday’s mosque shootings.

Christchurch’s librarians have been tested by crises that no community should face, and proved themselves to be brave, compassionate, effective, and resolute. They are heroes of the information profession. Spare a thought for them this weekend.

[Re]Imagining The Public Library: Gaming & Makerspaces

Next month, I’ll be joining European library luminaries like Spain’s Ana Ordás, the Netherlands’ Jeroen de Boer, and representatives of Denmark’s Dokk1, to help reimagine the future of Portugal’s public libraries.

The municipalities of Albergaria-a-Velha and Ilhavo are hosting an international event focussed on games & makerspaces in the public library, with a range of workshops, presentations, round tables, and lectures to stimulate curiosity and help librarians to start building the public library service of the future.

Join us in Portugal for two days of library adventure on 28th and 29th March; you can sign up for the event via this Google Form.

Anywhere in the universe: a mission for libraries

Imagine a place on your average street corner: ordinary on the outside but bigger within, and ready to take you anywhere you could imagine – or a few places beyond even that. Sounds like science fiction? Well yes, and no…. I’ve spent the last few months talking with librarians finding new ways to frame the mission of the library in the 21st century. This video, and the text below, is the result.

When I was a kid, I was a massive fan of this British TV show called Doctor Who.

It featured a mysterious figure, the Doctor, who could travel anywhere in time and space.

The Doctor would take ordinary people on adventures beyond their wildest imagining in a machine called the TARDIS.

On the outside, the TARDIS looked just like a blue telephone box – but inside it was impossibly huge, perhaps even infinite. It could take you anywhere you wanted to go, and even places you didn’t intend. The past. The future. Distant worlds and parallel dimensions. Even the Land of Fiction.

I especially remember the last Doctor Who show of my childhood – it came out in 1989. The Doctor and his companion battled creatures who were marauding the streets of Perivale in suburban London. It was amazing and intense, because it wasn’t set on a far-off world. The adventure took place on an ordinary street with people washing their cars and going to the grocery store and living their everyday lives.

The show made you feel like the TARDIS might be on your streetcorner: ordinary on the outside but bigger within, and ready to take you anywhere you could imagine – or a few places beyond even that.

Best feeling ever.

That’s what libraries are to me. They are the TARDIS on your streetcorner: a magical place, maybe a little ordinary on the outside, which can take you anywhere in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture. Facts and fiction, maps and make-believe, movies and comics and even information about what day the city collects your bins, all jostling alongside one another, tended by the librarian.

You don’t have to have watched British children’s TV to get it: a library can take you anywhere you want to go in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture.

If you were going to write out a library’s mission, you might put it like this:

A library empowers communities to explore information, knowledge, and culture on their own terms.

And if I were trying to say the same thing to a 9-year-old? I’d put it like this:

A library lets people find stuff out for themselves.

Once you start looking at libraries that way, a lot of things about them become very simple.

Walls, books, and physical things

The library might be a physical building with walls and a roof, or it might not. A librarian could carry out that mission of empowerment in the streets, or another building, or on the back of a bus. A librarian could be embedded in a team, group, or organisation to support their goals. A great librarian could be parachuted into a community they didn’t even know, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, and they’d find ways to address that mission of empowerment and exploration.

The library might have books, it might not; it might offer experiences or workshops or digital services, it might not. Exploration of information, knowledge, and culture doesn’t just mean reading, viewing, or learning; it can mean making, experimenting, performing.

Finding stuff out for yourself isn’t always like checking the weather forecast or looking up the capital of Peru. Sometimes discovery is an act of creation. Think of a sculptor, pondering the stone before them, trying to find the sculpture within: “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set them free.”

Your community might want or need maker technology, Internet access, loanable tools and hardware, art supplies, an in-library recording studio. There are many ways to fulfil libraries’ mission and the medium is not specified.

A great librarian could address their mission and serve their community whether they had a library with vast collections, or nothing more than a smartphone in their hand.

That’s not an excuse to leave the librarian standing on a streetcorner with nothing but a smartphone — the institution will always need funding and resources sufficient to meet the community’s information needs — but rather to say that no one medium, no one gadget, no one physical object is necessary for a library to be great. People are libraries’ greatest resource.

Who is this library for anyway?

The library might serve a specific community such as students and staff at a college, or medics and health workers at a hospital. It might only serve registered users with library cards, or it might serve anyone who visits it. The mission can encompass tiny specialist libraries or wide-open public institutions.

Whatever kind of library it is, there’ll almost certainly be debate about the definition of its community, and what service is owed. Should non-students be able to use the college library? Does the hospital library need to serve patients too? In the public library, what welcome and support should be given to homeless people? To drug users? To new migrants, or people who don’t speak the majority language?

Questions of inclusion and exclusion will challenge any library, and must be wrestled with by staff, stakeholders, and the wider community. The voices of public librarians, who serve the broadest communities with the most diverse information needs, should be at the forefront of this debate across the profession.

“Exploring all information, knowledge, and culture on the community’s own terms” is a pretty lofty goal. Libraries must recognise that their services are inevitably built on imperfect systems and policies, riven with histories of power and prejudice which must also be addressed.

“On the community’s own terms” means also recognising libraries as institutions in need of decolonisation, institutions which may have histories of complicity in abuse and exclusion.

It means respecting Indigenous traditions of knowledge management, and understanding that some forms of cultural knowledge are not to be shared by all.

Great librarians recognise that for the community to have equity in exploring knowledge, information and culture, they will have to make extra effort to help some groups and curb the acts of some users if they impede the goal of access for all. They recognise that the negotiation of inclusion, exclusion, equity, and justice is dynamic, local, and held in dialogue with peers, stakeholders, and the community they serve.

What’s more, great libraries recognise that they require a diverse workforce. Information, knowledge, and culture are things which are lived, felt, and experienced by all of humanity. The wider the range of experiences and identities represented by the library staff, the better understanding they will have of the diversity of human information, knowledge, and culture, and the more ways they will have of relating to the communities they serve.

Not teachers, not preachers

Empowering communities to explore on their own terms means getting out of the way of those communities’ explorations whenever possible.

Libraries are places for surprise and discovery, not predetermined outcomes. Even when engaged in an unserendipitous act like seeking an item from a college reading list, or revisiting a book read once before, a reader has the capacity to surprise themselves and others: they are seeking something which they do not know or fully recall.

Serendipity is less magical than it sounds – it occurs within systems built on the largely unseen labour and tacit values of people who acquire, catalogue, and maintain the collections. Yet there is still wonder to be found in browsing. You can always stumble on something new in a library, or come up with a new idea based on what you discovered there.

Great librarians are not teachers or preachers, inflicting lesson plans, assessments, doctrines, and dogmas on those they serve – they avoid the instructional paradigm wherever possible, surrendering command and control to the user if they can.

The exception to this is when an aspiring explorer of information, knowledge, and culture requires instruction in exploration techniques. That might mean kids learning how to use an animation app, a lawyer learning how to search a new legal resource, or a senior citizen getting help with their new iPad. Sometimes, before you dive into an ocean of knowledge, someone needs to teach you how the scuba gear works and check you out on it before you depart.

Librarians may devise learning opportunities to help the explorers they serve – approaching the territory of the teacher via the middle ground of educational design – but they are distinct from teachers, and that distinction lies in the power dynamic between the librarian and the learner.

Librarians are proactive

None of the above means that library workers are passive. Great librarians venture out into their community and collect new material to reflect the changing times. They are as interested in popular culture and marginal forms of knowledge as they are official or esteemed items. They stay abreast of how society is interacting with information, and reflect on what that means for their own work.

Great libraries devise new opportunities to celebrate, provoke, challenge, and pique the curiosity of their community. They acquire, preserve, and develop collections to serve their communities’ needs; they negotiate with peer institutions and publishers for access to more information; they devise systems and procedures to share their collections and borrow from others as needed.

And great librarians are not separate from the communities they serve: they, too, are library users who freely explore the oceans of information, knowledge, and culture as they work

The one big question

Everything a library does should be assessed against the question:

How does this empower the communities we serve to explore information, knowledge, and culture on their own terms?

This question should inform every act, large and small. It should be the command intent of your library’s every single action, project, programme and policy.

It should be the question burning in the hearts of the security guard, janitor, board members, and volunteers too.

Try putting it in the language of a 9-year-old:

How is this helping people to find stuff out for themselves?

If what you are doing is not serving that wider intent, it’s time to stop and change.

It’s time to become that magic place, ordinary on the outside, which can take your community anywhere in the universe of information, knowledge, and culture.

Thanks to everyone who discussed “Anywhere in the universe” with me in its earlier drafts. Their inspiration, criticism, and feedback – including some lively disagreement – was vital. Of course, responsibility for anything you don’t like in the final text rests with me, not them!

Thanks to:

  • Warren Cheetham
  • Linda Hazzan
  • Rebecca Jones
  • Rachael Rivera
  • Erin Dummeyer
  • Jane Cowell
  • David Robertson
  • Donna Robertson
  • Rob Thomson
  • Justin Hoenke
  • Kat Moody
  • Sally Turbitt
  • Amy Walduck
  • Ludi Price
  • Jacinta Sutton
  • Donna Lanclos
  • Chris DeCristofaro
  • Ian Anstice
  • Ray Pun
  • Ellen Forsyth
  • Mylee Joseph