This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, Nov. 12, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of the library. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Discussions of the future of libraries are often surprisingly nostalgic endeavors, producing laments for vanished card catalogs or shrinking book stacks rather than visions of what might be. Even at their most hopeful, such conversations sometimes lose track of the pragmatic functions that libraries serve. Imagined as unchanging archives, libraries become mere monuments to our analog past. But envisioning them as purely digital spaces also misses the mark, capturing neither what they can be nor the way their patrons use them.