The Future of Academic Libraries: A Utopian Vision for 2040 and Beyond

Envision a not-too-distant future, in which society has been completely transformed by digitization. Printed books have become obsolete and data management is completely run by artificial intelligence. What would happen to university libraries and their role in higher education? In this scenario, they would be anything but irrelevant.

This essay is part of a series that provides think pieces and resources for academic librarians. It was originally published in German in a thematic issue of the journal “Bibliothek Forschung und Praxis” and has been slightly edited for this blog.

Before I begin, I would like to clarify that this is not an academic article but an essay based on my personal experience and my vision of a future reality. On the basis of a number of assumptions, I formulate a possible role for libraries in the year 2040. My vision is of a utopia, although of course pessimistic scenarios, which would have different implications for the functions of libraries, are also conceivable.

What factors will influence libraries, especially university libraries, in 2040 — that is, 17 years from now? To judge from my personal experience, some of the developments I foresee will take longer than 17 years, and old structures and patterns also need a longer time to be broken up and changed. However, there are also disruptive changes that can change the fundamentals in a very short time and accelerate future developments.

One example of the persistence of old structures and patterns is the discussion about open access, which has been going on for more than 20 years. About ten years ago, I decided not to include the topic of OA in my overview of the most important current trends and challenges in library science because it already seemed to be firmly established. However, today we are still discussing the financing of gold open access, the development of diamond OA, and the fact that publishers have given up their initial resistance and discovered that open access is a lucrative business model that will ensure further rising prices.

One example of disruptive changes is the digitalization of communication that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020/21. Suddenly it became possible to make changes that people had previously been struggling to enact, with limited success. Purely digital work and collaboration, virtual meetings held from anywhere in the world, attending such meetings from home, teleworking, and much more became the norm in less than a year.

Speculations About the Future

I’ve made a number of assumptions about societal developments during the period until 2040. Due to advancing digitalization, many jobs have disappeared because of rationalization or are at least in danger of disappearing. Almost all the countries of western Europe have introduced an unconditional basic income, which is partially financed by taxes on AI and robots. The obligation to work has thus been eliminated, and this has caused an unprecedented social transformation. People no longer work primarily for money but instead because they regard their work as a calling. In the public sector in particular, people work in order to advance their personal development and make a positive impact on society and the environment. This has fundamentally changed previous forms of collaboration and organizational culture.

“Lifelong learning is a huge topic, especially at universities.”

People now also have more time for themselves and their interests. Libraries provide an important framework for these activities. For example, they enable people to continuously pursue further education in an informal setting and to contribute their knowledge and talents to their communities. Studying at a university is no longer as strongly motivated as before by career ambitions and the desire for greater earning opportunities. Instead, a university education contributes to self-realization and serves as a basis for social engagement. Subjects such as psychology, sustainability, and environmental science have experienced enormous growth. Lifelong learning is a huge topic, especially at universities.

Technological developments: In an initial stage, AI and robotics have ensured that unattractive and less challenging jobs have initially been taken over by machines. At a later stage, many jobs in other areas have also disappeared, including more challenging jobs that require an academic background. Developers, programmers, and technicians are still needed to further develop the systems and keep them operating. Digital procurement and communication have established themselves as the norm, partly because travel has become very expensive due to high environment-related surcharges. People travel to events only in exceptional cases and normally use digital tools for lectures, meetings, and collaboration. In order to avoid a widespread sense of individual isolation, both real and digital communities have been strongly promoted.

After the collapse of the commercial version of the metaverse, a decentralized version is now being widely distributed by nonprofit communities. University libraries fulfill this function within universities. People meet in real or virtual spaces within libraries to discuss what they have learned, cultivate their communities, and plan shared activities.

“People meet in real or virtual spaces within libraries to discuss what they have learned, cultivate their communities, and plan shared activities.”

It has not been possible to stop climate change, so every individual now receives a certain number of energy credits. Individuals who consume more than 2,000 watts within a predefined time period are penalized with high taxes. This has also motivated people to travel less and to work and learn from home or at nearby libraries. The use of digital media within the library also conserves personal energy accounts.

These have been evolutionary developments — but what about disruptive events? In scenario planning, we speak of wild cards, or unforeseeable events that completely overturn everything. In the context of our current experience, such an event could be a global war. In 2022, nuclear war suddenly became conceivable again. If such a catastrophe were to actually happen, theories about libraries in 2040 would be senseless, so no scenarios of this kind will be explored. Pandemics have been very real since 2020 and will continue to be possible in the future. As a result, people have generally become very cautious about physically participating in public life. In conjunction with the ban on fossil fuels and changes in travel behavior, individuals are increasingly living within their own four walls.

In the field of technology, computers have become smaller and much more powerful, thanks to the successful use of quantum technology. This has made AI even more efficient, and extremely powerful virtual models can now be used in daily life. Thanks to wearable devices, individuals are always online and connected with one another, with their smart homes, and with a range of services. In the area of mobility, economical electric vehicles running on former railroad networks have prevailed. These are small modular units that autonomously travel the last mile but are connected to form larger units traveling over medium distances on railroad lines. People can find these mobile vehicles by means of search systems that retrieve real-time location information about all mobile units and offer it to users. The search systems automatically offer a range of transportation that is tailored to each user’s needs and preferences. A magnetically operated underground hyperspeed network is being developed for long distances; it will eventually connect all of Europe’s capitals and major cities.

How are the social, technical, and other developments that are described above affecting the role and the tasks of university libraries?

University Libraries 2040

Libraries have undergone significant changes. They are now referred to as learning centers that are seamlessly integrated into the teaching and learning activities of universities. The social integration of individuals into student communities has been shown to be a key success factor for individual learning. Libraries have taken over this function. Libraries’ media collections are largely archived in storage libraries that are cooperatively operated, as for example in Switzerland. The physical collections have been synchronized between libraries and cooperatively archived. Printed media are still mainly needed in disciplines doing historical work. However, since every printed medium also exists in digital form, physical delivery and on-site use are now the exceptions.

“Libraries are now referred to as learning centers that are seamlessly integrated into the teaching and learning activities of universities.”

There are still some analog research libraries that provide the original literature that is required for certain historical disciplines. Historical collections are still maintained in “collection libraries” and presented to the public in the form of book museums. However, most information is read and used digitally. One new feature is users’ ability to annotate digital publications, which provides additional contextual information that benefits all subsequent readers. These annotations are interpreted by machine learning algorithms and enhance the search portfolios of digital libraries.

By outsourcing their collections, universities have created space that is used for various learning environments. Because students do a lot of their studies alone at home, they have a great need for opportunities for social contact and physical collaboration. Additionally, working in the library reduces personal energy expenditure (see above). There is a range of group workspaces of varying sizes with digital basic equipment that can be conveniently reserved online. The core feature is interactive screens on which notes can be recorded and saved directly in one’s own user account and shared with fellow students. In the digital setting, instructors (or their assistants and tutors) are always available and can be consulted to answer questions. The same applies to the liaison librarians who support students in specific subject areas. They offer introductory sessions and training regarding tools and information sources, academic work, and information management. They can also be contacted online for support and included in the learning sessions.

The Use of Media

Digital media have made a breakthrough in the 2030s. Previously, analog media (books, journals) were simply offered in digital form. In 2022, the focus was still on the search process (I know the question and I want to find the corresponding content), but by 2040 exploration has become much more important. Because the portfolio of (heterogeneous) content is now many times larger, users’ information needs are often undefined and opportunistic. They don’t know what they’re looking for or where to look. Nonetheless, modern exploration systems guide users toward interesting content whose existence they had previously never suspected.

“Modern exploration systems guide users toward interesting content whose existence they had previously never suspected.”

In cooperation with researchers from the University of Zurich, Swiss libraries have been able to put the so-called “3DD Information Hub” into operation. 3DD refers to three-dimensional diving or immersion into information spaces. In the past, information was acquired sequentially by flipping through books and browsing in libraries. This changed very little over time — until the development of the 3DD process, which encompasses the entire information space of scientific sources and texts. Unlike the traditional search system, in 2040 multiple perspectives on digital objects and object spaces are always offered in order to simplify the users’ overview, orientation, and navigation and conduct them in parallel.

In the topmost layer, you navigate in topic clouds that are fed by the semantic linkage of metadata. When you dive down one layer at a node, works in different formats appear. Here you can see at first glance AI-generated keywords that lead to individual works. From this level, you dive into an initially abstract third level, which is a mixture of keywords and abstracts dynamically generated by AI. Here you go from the title, which provides an overview of content and keywords, to the next deeper level and the next, receiving longer and longer readable texts as summaries. Finally you land on the level of real content (texts, data, multimedia objects). Research data and other digital sources are also made accessible and usable in this way. And of course all of this content can be marked, commented on, and saved in your own personal cloud.

Libraries update the content of this innovative platform and make sure it is described in a standardized and user-friendly way by training the AI. The integration of multimedia content is still in the beta stage, because here deep navigation is only possible through metadata and automatic transcriptions. The 3D diving experience becomes particularly immersive if you use powerful 3D glasses to navigate through the information.

Open Science and Training Programs

The principle of open science has been fully embraced, which means that everyone has access to all published content. This has given an enormous boost to continuing education. The teaching materials that are now publicly accessible are especially popular. Libraries filter relevant content from the vast range of available content and offer supervised training courses. People meet for discussions and form study groups in order to learn the course content and deepen their understanding through exercises. The activities of the “teachers” — the coordination of learning objectives, learning activities, and forms of examination — take place entirely within the library context. Libraries also play a significant role in ensuring that teaching fosters significantly more competencies than it did in 2022. Knowledge is created through networking based on learned information.

“The activities of the ‘teachers’ — the coordination of learning objectives, learning activities, and forms of examination — take place entirely within the library context. ”

At the university, alumni meet to refresh the knowledge they learned during their studies, because the content changes very quickly. In close collaboration with the institutes, the liaison librarians (LLs) select content and lectures and conduct refresher courses. It has recently become possible to earn certificates for refresher courses. Such certificates and credits are important assets in the job market. A diploma that was awarded a few years ago has only limited significance if it is not accompanied by a refresher-course certificate. The LLs are supported by volunteer alumni who teach in their field alongside their part-time work and thus earn credit points. Active credits (those earned through active participation in teaching) are worth more than passive credits, which can be earned by attending continuing education courses.

This applies not only to the university environment but also to public libraries, where learning communities are supported by volunteer experts who contribute their knowledge and experience. The libraries provide physical spaces that serve as meeting points and learning environments, as well as providing the administrative framework for organizing events and enabling people to form networks. Here too, people work with freely available teaching materials, and there is very close collaboration between university libraries and public libraries. They operate a joint platform on which this content is merged and can be edited by users.

The Tasks of Library Staff

Library staff members require specific knowledge for the activities described above. This knowledge is transmitted in the corresponding training courses, which focus on didactic skills in a hybrid setting, the teaching of target group-oriented content, community management, and the necessary knowledge in the areas of information technology, data management, data visualization, and search technologies.

“Liaison librarians constitute the human interface between the systems and the users.”

Liaison librarians now make up the majority of the library staff. That’s because they are also in demand in research fields and offer researchers support for the retrieval and use of information, and especially for the management of research data. Data management is almost entirely done via AI, while library IT specialists mainly develop algorithms and are responsible for incorporating new sources of information in order to improve results. Only in situations where complete automation would be disadvantageous are human-in-the-loop approaches required. Such activities are conducted in close collaboration with the LLs, who constitute the human interface between the systems and the users.

Some traditional library tasks are no longer performed by humans. For example, formal cataloguing is largely carried out by AI procedures via the joint platform. The initially controversial establishment of the Swiss Library Service Platform has proved to be a strategically foresighted measure. AI ensures that metadata are uploaded correctly and that the content is “indexed” (see above). The libraries are responsible for integrating university sources — that is, publications of the university press, research data, and teaching materials. In fact, in the early 2030s it finally became possible to also integrate teaching materials into a unified search interface.

The globally operating scientific publishers that were still so influential in 2022 have become obsolete because of these developments. The previously dominant publication format of scientific articles in specialized journals has been replaced by new formats — namely, interactive data publications and micropublications. These are now controlled by specialist communities, quality-assured, and published and archived via university infrastructures. University libraries play an important role in operating the infrastructure, maintaining standards and, above all, handling the metadata. The metadata, in turn, form the basis of interconnection and retrieval in the 3DD platform.

“New publication formats are now controlled by specialist communities, quality-assured, and published and archived via university infrastructures.”

The platform is accessed through a personal account that contains all the relevant user data, from which the authorization for system use is derived. Blockchain mechanisms safeguard security. This personal account is linked to the electronic ID that is used for all the digital services of the Swiss authorities and state organizations, including those in the education sector. The personal account is also used to make personalized recommendations regarding digital content. Unlike the recommender systems used in 2022, the personalization is of course designed to keep users continually aware of their individual filter bubble and thus to prevent subjective interpretations and biases in information retrieval.


University libraries have evolved on the basis of societal changes. They have retained their central function as actively operated learning spaces, and in particular they also support hybrid settings for group work and serve as social meeting places. However, there have been radical changes in media usage and thus also in the process of scientific publishing. The 3DD platform offers AI-based access to various levels of knowledge. Open science is an important basis for this access and for the widespread use of scientific information in areas such as continuing education. Universities and university libraries have taken scientific publishing into their own hands and thus replaced the major publishing companies that existed previously.

Find more essays about Libraries in the Year 2040 in this German-language thematic issue (Open Access)

[Title image by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Rudolf Mumenthaler

Rudolf Mumenthaler has been Director of the University Library Zurich, Switzerland since 2020. Previously, he was Director of the Central and University Library of Lucerne (2017-2020) and Professor of Library Science at HTW Chur (2012-2017.)

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