Futures Thinking and My Job in 10 Years, Part II

A few months ago I posted a fairly long essay on how I was approaching the challenge of thinking about the future. I modelled myself on a few articles by futurist Jamais Casico and focused on why thinking about the future matters, finding the right questions to ask about the future and recognizing that the future arises out of the present.

This time around, I'll use a few more of Casico's articles to explore further the challenges of thinking about the future, specifically mapping the possibilities (Parts I and II) and Writing Scenarios.

Mapping the Possibilities

As we scan the environment, as we ask questions, as we gather data, we begin to extrapolate the future from the present. We begin to map out possibilities and sketch out scenarios.

The goal of futures thinking isn't to make predictions; the goal is to look for surprising implications. By crafting multiple futures (each focused on your core dilemma), you can look at your issues from differing perspectives, and try to dig out what happens when critical drivers collide in various ways.

Whatever you come up with, you'll be wrong. (Mapping the possibilitie, part i)

What we have to do is consider a large number of possibilities and try and sort and classify, categorize and narrow down the ones that seem to make the most sense. The idea is to form clusters and patterns and use those to drive scenario building. Scenarios aren't definitive answers to the questions we've been posing, rather a variety of scenarios sketch out a range of possible answers.

In the aftermath of your "scanning the world" work, you will have come up with at least dozens and probably hundreds of interesting and potentially relevant data points and potential drivers. It's hard to work with hundreds, though; more useful would be about five or six. ...

What you'll then do is look for patterns and bigger picture categories that would encompass multiple topics. Try to focus the categories on subjects that are clearly important and hold a great deal of uncertainty. ...

You will eventually have a smallish group of categories with lots of members, and a largish group of categories with just a few. The big categories will be your key scenario drivers, and should appear in all of your scenarios in some form. The smaller piles will be minor drivers, and should be included in at least one. (Mapping the possibilities, part i)

All the data, all the questions, all the possibilities, it comes out of the other end of the futures thinking process as all the scenarios we imagine. The major and minor drivers for academic libraries are large and various. Some are huge and effect all the work we do, such as the incredible shifts in media and publishing business models that are part and parcel of the shift to an online world. Others are more particular to the various areas we operate in. Areas such as scholarly communications, collections, reference and information literacy all have their own drivers.

Let's Build Some Scenarios

The next step is actually taking all the information you have collected and the resulting lists of drivers and coming up with some ideas of how the future world will actually look.

Turning your drivers and data points into a sufficiently diverse set of multiple believable, internally-consistent worlds can be difficult, and most scenario developers rely on a set of heuristics to make sure that the worlds being built will both differ from each other in important ways and show clear and logical evolution from the present. (Mapping the possibilities, part ii)

Cascio has something he calls "futures architypes" that he uses to shape his scenario-building. He essentially takes four different takes on how the world will look (Mapping the possibilities, part ii):

  • The future is what I expect
  • The future is better than I expect
  • The future is worse than I expect
  • The future is weirder than I expect

For any given aspect of the world we're extrapolating, it can be instructive to come up with a different scenario for each of those possibilities. We in the library business often somehow tend to concentrate on one of those two: either the future being pretty well "what we expect" or in other words, a lot like the present or the future being "worse than we expect." I don't follow either of those dogmatically or in fact any of the four. What I do try and do is pick from those four archetypes and imagine which among them is most likely. Sometimes I will present one scenario as the most likely and sometimes I'll present one or more scenarios.

Writing Scenarios

But how can we actually present the scenarios? Cascio gives three main options for composing the description of the world that you imagine: "Scenario-as-Story," "Scenario-as-Recollection," and "Scenario-as-History." The first is couching the scenario as a sort of science fiction story, with a plot and characters. The third as a dry, detached, mock historical presentation. (Writing scenarios.)

The second, "Scenario-as-Recollection," seems to make the most sense for what I'm trying to accomplish with this project:

In Scenario-as-Recollection, the scenario narrative remains personal (usually done as a first-person perspective), but the structure is more linear and straightforward, with no pretense of a plot... The advantage of this approach is that you can easily add a bit of subjectivity to the scenario without making it all about the speaker. The reader can come away from the piece understanding that opinions may actually vary about some aspects of this world, just like in the real world. (Writing scenarios)

Which is more-or-less what I'm striving for in this project - personal but structured, subjective but grounded. It's about what I think the future holds, what I see as the scenarios and possibilities.

Making Sense of the Future

The point of all of this talk of Futures Thinking is not to turn this exercise in a scientific experiment or to somehow imply that the future is deterministic. There is no formula, there are no right answers, there isn't anything that I know that you or others don't also know. But, by putting down some scenarios and possibilities on paper, by thinking them through in a somewhat organized and systematic way, we can be prepared, we can guide our careers, we can advise others.

The same, better, worse, weirder, it's all there. It's all here. What I hope to offer as part of this larger project is some of the right questions to ask, a range of possibilities for our profession and maybe even a few plausible scenarios.

Each post, each chapter and section, will provide exactly that: some questions, some possibilities and some scenarios, some vision of what the world might be like in 10 years. Some of my ideas will seem more plausible, some perhaps less so. Some will seem more inevitable, to me or to you. Some will seem fanciful. Some will seem naive or pollyannaish. Some will perhaps seem to negative or dystopian. Some will seem to open up our roles as academic librarians too wide, to some to abstract or diffuse, too far from our core. Some will perhaps seem to narrow or restrict what we do, to hive off parts of our past and discard them or to close doors that perhaps could be opened wide.

And so be it. You'll all let me know when I'm wrong.

As usual, at this point I offer up the comments for comments and criticisms. Am I on track in the right ball park or just plain crazy?

(This will appear in slightly different form as part of chapter 1 of My Job in 10 Years: The Future of Academic Libraries)

2 responses so far

Buy where you shop: Bookstores, libraries and intellectual locavores

Nice article by Vit Wagner in Sunday's Toronto Star, Tough times, but some bookstores have a different story.

A couple of different independent bookstore owners/managers in the Toronto area talk about some of the challenges faced in surviving and even thriving in what should be a period of death and decline for bricks and mortar bookstores.

But while some of the competition is retrenching or worse, BakkaPhoenix, which recorded a double-digit increase in sales last year, is expanding. In stark contrast to the recently shuttered This Ain't the Rosedale Library, BakkaPhoenix is readying a fall move from the Queen St. W. location it currently rents to the larger, two-storey Harbord St. digs it has purchased.

"One of the things we were looking for was space for our community," says Chris Szego, who has managed the store for the past decade. "We already have had science-fiction book clubs approach us to see if they can hold their meetings there.

"We want to schedule writing an reading workshops. That's something independent bookstores can be great at. We offer community."


Joanne Saul, co-owner of Type Books, is similarly upbeat. While the small chain decided to cut its losses by closing its Danforth outlet last year, the company has expanded its two remaining stores on Queen St. near Trinity Bellwoods and on Spadina Rd. in Forest Hill. Sales slumped for much of 2009, Saul says, but picked up at Christmas and have remained buoyant through the spring.

"A successful independent bookstore has to completely and utterly cater to its community," says Saul. "That's something we strive to do by getting engaged with the schools near us, offering literacy programs, having weekly story time for neighbourhood preschoolers. You have to make those connections with people who support you. It's a two-way street."


Glad Day, the landmark gay and lesbian themed bookseller, issued in an appeal for financial support in the spring. Its future remains uncertain.

"Things have improved a little bit but it's not beyond what we'd expect for the season, given that we're coming up to Pride Week," says owner John Scythes. "It's touch and go right now. I've had a few nice orders from academia, but that won't run the store. The walk-in trade hasn't changed. People come and browse here and then go home and order the book on the net."...

"I can't blame people," says Scythes. "It's the kind of culture we've created. But is it worth it if the consequence is destroying retail book selling?"


Taking an entirely different approach is Marc Glassman, the former proprietor of Pages Books & Magazines. Driven off Queen St. W. last year by escalating rents, the veteran bookseller has rebranded his business as Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar.

Glassman has continued to sell books through This is Not a Reading Series, the program of regular author events he runs mainly out of the Gladstone Hotel. And, following the model established by New York's Mobile Libris, he is setting up shop at other events, including the recent Luminato and Subtle Technologies festivals. He has a contract to sell books and DVDs at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Very cool and very interesting and reminiscent of the article my friend Claude Lalumière wrote a while back that I blogged about, The Bookstore of the Future.

Tim O'Reilly's classic post Buy Where You Shop is probably the best encapsulation of why it makes sense to support local businesses. For many classes of products and services, they provide a kind of value for local shoppers that's hard to duplicate online. Using local business for browsing and research while buying online for price is unsustainable.

A few months ago, I was talking with one of my most loyal retail customers, a specialty computer bookstore in Massachusetts. "We survived the chains, and we survived Amazon," he said, "but I don't know if we're going to survive the online discounters. People come in here all the time, browse through the books on display, and then tell me as they leave that they can get a better price online."

Now, you might say, as the Hawaiian proverb notes, no one promised us tomorrow. Businesses, like individuals and species, must adapt or die. And if the Internet is bad for small, local retailers, it's good for the online resellers and it's good for customers, right?

But think a little more deeply, and you realize that my friend wasn't complaining that people were buying books elsewhere. He was complaining that people were taking a service from him--browsing the books in his store--and then buying elsewhere. There's a world of difference between those two statements. Online shopping is terrific: you can get detailed product information, recommendations from other customers, make a choice, and have the product delivered right to your door. But if you aren't satisfied with the online shopping experience, you want to look at the physical product, for example browsing through a book in the store, you owe it to the retailer--and to yourself--to buy it there, rather than going home and saving a few dollars by ordering it online.

Think about it for a minute: the retailer pays rent, orders and stocks the product, pays salespeople. You take advantage of all those services, and then give your money to someone else who can give you a better price because they don't incur the cost of those services you just used. Not only is this unfair; it's short-sighted, because it will only be so long before that retailer closes his or her doors, and you can no longer make use of those services you enjoy.

I'm not really sure yet how any of this applies to academic libraries directly, but I do see various strains running through. First of all the idea of intellectual infrastructure -- bookstores and libraries are part of a continuum that facilitates learning and discovery. Secondly, I do see the idea of a kind of intellectual locavore being somewhere in all this, that a physical place can connect people to ideas and facilitate learning. That learning communities are a part of that intellectual locavore infrastructure and libraries and bookstore can create, facilitate and nurture that infrastructure.

The ideas of learning commons and intellectual infrastructure will get increasing important as the content that students and scholars need for their work will get increasingly divorced from specific physical containers or reading devices.

Or I could be completely out to lunch on this one -- reaching too far and trying to hard to see the connection of retain bookstores to academic libraries and coming up with a lame concept like "intellectual locavores".

What say you?

(And yes, I shop at physical stores for books and music so I try and do as much of my buying there as possible. I also try and buy at Bakka as often as I can but it's not even remotely close to where I live or work. Although I only read a few magazines regularly, I do actually subscribe to them.)

(And I guess I have a question for Tim O'Reilly, if you're reading this. How would you update Buy where you shop for the coming world of ebooks?

Tim updates his original post here: Why Using ShopSavvy Might Not Be So Savvy)

2 responses so far

Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship, Spring 2010

Another terrific issue. I'm going to list everything but the book & database reviews & reports so as not to clutter the post too much.

No responses yet

The inherent insularity of library culture?

Or is that the inherent insularity of academic culture in general?

Joshua Kim has some great observations (in context of a review of This Book is Overdue) (Amazon) about the great chasm of misunderstanding between the culture of the academic library and the broader academic culture.

As academia shifts and changes, as budgets squeeze, as millenials millenialize, it's a constant struggle to make the case for the library's role in academic life. It's hard to know both who our best champion's are and who our most determined opponents are. Sitting in the library talking to ourselves is probably not the best way to accomplish to figure that out.

I like Kim's straightforward, honest approach to figuring out what the heck we're all about. And I think it's worthwhile to unpack some of what he says.

The more time I spend thinking about the library world the more I realize how little I know and understand. I'm not sure if my lack of understanding is due to my own limitations of perspective (coming from a teaching and technology background), or due to some inherent insularity of library culture.

Ah, the $64,000 dollar question. It is most definitely our job to make the case for our role in academic life, to make the case for what we do for students, what we do for faculty and what we do for staff.

To the extent that the people we serve and work with don't understand what it is we do, it's completely our failure.

Is library culture inherently insular? To a large degree, yes. At the same time, I think all the various silos that make up the whole of academic culture are also to varying degrees insular. It's called the Ivory Tower, not the Ivory Commons, for a reason. It's not a coincidence that towers are silo-shaped.

So, yes, we are insular and it's totally our responsibility to make sure there's a broad understanding of our role across campus. Easier said that done, of course, but that's another post.

At the same time, universities would be better places if we all made an effort to understand what our colleagues are trying to accomplish. This is especially true of the various support units who I think often work at cross purposes. It's what I'm trying to get at with my embryonic Science Foo proposal.

A couple of recent articles that hopefully will help explain libraries to a broader campus community: The Place to Go: Libraries reinvent themselves to serve digital-age students and Gutenberg 2.0
Harvard's libraries deal with disruptive change

The fact that librarians are so engaged in rethinking their profession and institutions probably would not come as a surprise to any librarian, but to an outsider this is an eye-opening notion. You will have to tell me if this observations means that librarians should be spending more time talking and engaging to non-librarians about their ideas and plans for change and re-invention, or if non-librarians need to spend more time hanging out with our colleagues (at library conferences, library blogs etc.).

As I mentioned above, it is 100% libraries' job to make our case to other parts of the campus, not the job of other units to figure us out. If we're rethinking what we're all about (and we are), it's up to us to engage others in that exercise. On the other hand, there's nothing more boring that other people's navel gazing, so non-librarians can be excused for not being that interested in the gory details of our introspections.

That being said, it is completely our responsibility to get the hell out of our libraries and talk about what we are becoming within our campus context, to engage our communities in our reinvention so we can serve them better. It is also completely our responsibility to go to non-library conferences and talk about what we do and what we're becoming.

Of course, I have no objections to people outside the library world inviting their local librarian out for a coffee and sharing some ideas about the future. So all you faculty, faculty support, instructional technology and campus IT people out there, you can also feel free to share with us where you want to go too.

Given all that however, there are some complicating factors.

  • Size Matters. Libraries are usually quite small compared to other units in terms of professional staff. For example, we're 40ish librarians on a campus of 1200+ faculty members and 50K students. The branch library I work in has about 300 seats for a student body of about 6k. It's a challenge getting noticed.
  • Silos are us. As I said above, academia is pretty insular as a whole. It can be a challenge to get through to busy people who are deeply involved in the mission of their corner of the institution, whether it's an academic department or campus IT.
  • Competition rather than collaboration. Many of the different silos are set up to sometimes provide competing similar services. The ones that affect libraries the most are for services such as student space or for access to technology. To the degree that some of these services are truly zero sum games (or even just perceived as such), the incentive for these different units to understand each other and collaborate rather than compete and cut each other down can be hard to get across.

At the end of the day, I'm not as interested in my own potentially insular responses to the question as I am to exploring both the library's and the broader academic institutional culture.

So, my questions for all of you out there:

  • Is academic library culture inherently insular?
  • Is it more insular that other parts of the academy, be they faculty or other support units? Why?
  • How should librarians fix that? Are there specific things that we can do?
  • For you non-librarians out there, any ideas about insularity in academia in general or about how different units can reach out to each other and work on common concerns?

(My Job in 10 Years: part of the chapter on campus outreach)

6 responses so far