In the middle of the block I live on, there are two fire hydrants right next to each other. The reason for this is that half the block is in the town of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and half the block is in Montclair, New Jersey. In the past there were incidents when fire trucks from the two towns rushed to the scene of a fire alarm, only to get into lengthy discussions about which town had responsibiity. That doesn't happen any more. In 1991, Glen Ridge closed its fire department and contracted with Montclair to supply fire protection services.
Will the same sort of consolidation happen with libraries? I think it will.
In my "Ten Predictions for the Next Ten Years" article, my first prediction was that the number of public libraries in 2020 would be half of what it is today. I also predicted that the number of public library locations would increase by 50%. I got plenty of feedback on Twitter that these predictions needed some explanation. Roy Kenagy thought that my prediction couldn't possibly apply to Iowa, where "new [libraries] sprout like weeds and people tend to them as their own".
There were two considerations, book digitization and the shift to e-books, that led me to these predictions, and neither is peculiar to New Jersey. I admit, though, that New Jersey's high taxes and density of services affected my estimate of the magnitude of coming changes.
Over the next ten years, book digitization will completely change the way most people use libraries. Instead of browsing the stacks or searching a catalog, people will increasingly make use of full text indexes and digitized resources to find books. This already happens with Google Books. They will then try to obtain the physical book in the library, or alternatively, use an e-book reader. Public libraries will need to adapt their physical plants to accommodate this changed usage pattern. Stacks will become more warehouse-like; public spaces will have fewer books and more coffee. Patrons will demand larger collections, but will accept less physical access to print. Home delivery of library materials will become much more common.
At the same time, libraries will struggle to adapt to the e-book economy. The most likely outcome will be a shift to licensed resources. Publishers will discover the benefits of putting much larger numbers of titles into e-book subscription packages such as those currently offered by Overdrive, Netlibrary, Ebrary, and others. When these packages can be used on patrons' Kindles and other e-readers, libraries will need to have them.
All of these trends will put pressure on libraries to work together on shared services, and ultimately to merge. Larger libraries will more effective at delivering both print books and e-books, and patrons will care less about where the print books are stored when they're not being lent. Smaller libraries will find it difficult to support the technical and operational expertise needed to run the public library of 2020.
While the shift to digital media will cause library organizations to become larger and fewer through mergers, it will also allow branches to be effective at smaller sizes. Without the need to store a critical mass of books, tiny, storefront branches will become more practical and cost efficient. Guys in vans carrying books will become more important. When people go to their local branch, they'll be able to use the free Google Books terminal (libraries are to get one free for every building) or other computers, check out some books, then have a coffee and socialize for an hour or so until the van makes its hourly delivery. Or they'll do their shopping rounds and come back to pick up the bag of books waiting for them. Establishing branches in shopping areas is not only a smart thing for libraries to do, it's also very cost-efficient.
In my own town, it seems that almost every year there's talk of closing the branch to save money. If you look at it, you can see why- the building is massive and has to be very expensive to operate. Eventually it will be shuttered and sold, but a storefront branch down the block could deliver the same services and cost much less to run. Does it make sense for the town high school to run its own library? Not really, but that could be another branch. We'll have fewer libraries, but more locations.
While consolidation and mergers will reduce the number of libraries, it can't be ignored that public library budgets are being slashed, and some libraries are being closed for purely financial reasons. Part of this is that the perceived value of libraries is less than it used to be. Many critical information services that used to be available only through libraries are now readily available through the internet.
There's also the possibility that public library services could be outsourced. My town's library gets annual funding of $3.8 million, roughly $100/resident, paid through our property taxes. If, in 2020, people are mostly reading books on e-readers, how much will they be willing to spend on a library? Will people prefer to spend the $100 on a commercial e-book subscription? I'm not sure, but I'm guessing that some towns will go the outsourcing route.
As I've said before, I'm an optimist about the ability of libraries to adapt to changes in media. If you look carefully at my picture of the Montclair Public Library van guy, you'll notice that what he's collected from this drop box is a newspaper, some VCR tapes and a whole bunch of DVD's. The print books were in another box, and there was not a single e-book to be carried to the main library. Makes you wonder...
Update 1/8: Some follow-up here.