Build libraries for the fourth industrial revolution

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The traditional understanding of a library has been akin to the scene in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast leads Belle to his library. The magically ornate library was the stuff of fairy tales. Cascading stairs, walls stacked with beautifully bound books, and gold leaf accents. As Belle tells the Beast, “your library makes our small corner of the world feel big.” With the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), our traditional understanding of the concept of the library is changing. Libraries are becoming less about the brick and mortar and more about access to knowledge in a digital space. 

Already, with a click of a button, we have access to millions of books without ever having to leave our homes. The classics, textbooks, biographies, and fantastical fiction are freely available with an internet connection through sites such as the Internet Archive, which holds 7.8 million books, Google Books, which boasts 30 million books, Amazon Kindle Store with 3.2 million titles, and Apple iBook with 2.5 million books.

Going back to Beauty and the Beast, even though the library of Beast was somewhat of an architectural feat, it was not readily accessible by the townsfolk, and it was just for him and Belle. In the 4IR, library buildings are transforming into more than beautiful shelves for books. The library is now a virtual space that we access through Kindles, iPads, or smartphones. As Anthony Mandal of Cardiff University puts it, “The future library is bigger than all the world’s historical libraries combined and smaller than a book on one of those libraries’ shelves. Such a thing has only previously been conceived of in fiction.”

For any traditionalist librarian, it is difficult to resign to this cyber library reality. However, the nature of libraries has always been fluid. The origins of libraries were somewhat elitist. In the United States, one of the oldest public libraries opened in 1790 in a town Franklin, where residents circulated books donated by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin started his lending library in 1731 in Philadelphia called the Library Company, but it required a subscription fee. At the time, it was for the use of only a tiny elite who was literate– and decidedly inaccessible to anyone else. Here in Africa, in the 13th century, the Timbuktu Library in Mali carried some of the most valuable manuscripts in Arabic and local languages such as Tamasheq. That it took foreign governments such as Norway and Luxembourg, to digitise the Timbuktu manuscript, is damning for African countries.   

Libraries have changed and are now sanctuaries, intended to be accessible to anyone. Now, libraries do more than house books. They are central to communities; they provide a space for knowledge, access to information for all, and sometimes offer an escape from the harsh reality. The African American poet Maya Angelou credits the library for saving her life after being abused as a child. As she skillfully told the story of how she discovered the library to an audience at the New York Public Library, she said, “Information helps you to see that you are not alone. That there is somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who have wept, who have all longed and lost, who have all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you are not really any different from everyone else.” So libraries, whether digital or physical, are liberating.

Nevertheless, in the 4IR, this also marks a time of disruption for libraries. The 4IR is predicated on the confluence of the physical, digital, and biological technologies and includes artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. The 4IR is changing so many aspects of our social, political, and economic lives that we now have entirely digital banks such as the Zero Bank in South Africa, and we have devices such as Siri that can listen and respond to our voices. What we need to achieve still is to put these devices such as Siri into our indigenous languages. So 4IR libraries have a new role in storing our languages, especially those that are in danger of extinction.

These developments in the 4IR, are happening as South Africa still grapples with the first three industrial revolutions. Recently, we were once again plunged into darkness after another bout of load shedding. Business Day reported that unreliable electricity supply had hurt the production of Volkswagens despite back-up generators. The power outages halted assembly-line robots in their tracks, causing the robot to forget where it was in the assembly process and vehicle bodies already on the production line had to go back to the start. Perhaps the answer to our electricity supply problem is to use artificial intelligence to forecast electricity demand, generation, and weather by predicting and managing fluctuations in production. Using artificial intelligence to solve our electricity problem can only be possible if we archive weather data and develop advanced data analytics capabilities.

Libraries are essential because they can increase literacy rates. Statistics South Africa found last year that more than three million South Africans are illiterate, meaning they cannot read and write in at least one language. More devastating than this is that the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which assesses children’s reading comprehension in 2017, placed South African children last in 50 countries. According to the study, 78% of Grade 4 pupils in South Africa cannot read for basic meaning in any national language. In other words, 8 out of 10 9-year-olds in South Africa are functionally illiterate. 

How do we use libraries to foster literacy? It is not enough to give children digital devices, but these devices should be education, rich with interactive learning systems that ideally include our indigenous languages. While illiteracy is staggering, smartphone penetration in South Africa in 2018 was nearly double that of 2016 at 81.72%, according to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.  These smartphones have Wi-Fi connectivity, web browsers, touchscreens, and apps. Herein lies the potential to address the high illiteracy levels in the country.

Libraries have adapted to technological change. In the 1800s, librarians had to write in “librarian hand” when curators of early collections believed that legible handwriting was a must for card catalogues. This practice faded as typewriters grew in popularity. Similarly, automated systems in libraries such as the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) have seen web-based indexes replace the printed predecessors. Libraries have digitised their collections and networked their catalogues. They have introduced e-books and e-readers to read them with. They have installed computers for people who do not have access to the internet at home, provided free Wi-Fi, and added extra plug points so people can use their own devices.

Still, there is much technology that could augment the library experience. For example, Ivy Guide, which is a concept device, can be attached to a pen and used for translating words found in the print book. Ivy Guide opens up access to learning and can be useful, particularly in a country like South Africa with 11 official languages. 

The 2017 Horizon Report Summary suggests that the shift in focus to digital resources will directly impact on the role of library professionals who “will be challenged to learn new skills to be able to implement the new technologies for learning, research, and information for their patrons.” As with much of the 4IR, librarians may need to extend their professional development. Many universities have started working together with the industry by incorporating the required skills into their curriculum. Employers are now partnering with universities to co-create tailored learning programs for their employees to prepare them for emerging job opportunities.

As the poet TS Eliot said, “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”. Let us be hopeful as we build the libraries of the fourth industrial revolution.


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.