Futures in Things: Locating the Promise of Infrastructures in Public Libraries

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Public libraries in the U.S. and around the world are rapidly changing due expanding technological and social needs of their communities. The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the debates about the future of public spaces and public services. In this paper, we report on a qualitative study of librarians in a U.S. urban public library system. The focus of the study was to understand how the concept of “the future of library” is constructed and contested both socially and materially. Using mixed methods, including participant observation, interviews, participatory design and action research, we developed insights about the socio-political dynamics of futures in a public infrastructure. We argue that futures can be shaped not only by socio-technical imaginaries, and representations, which tend to be abstract and distant, but also by socio-material conditions in the present. Specifically, drawing on the work of infrastructure studies, we show how specific objects of librarians can be used to construct and impose a particular version of the future with which librarians have wrestle and to which they have to respond. In this paper, we focus on three examples in the public library: the circulation desk, the bookshelf, and the self-check machine to show how they instantiate narratives and expectations about the future of libraries. During our study, these objects were redesigned as part of ongoing library renovations. The traditional circulation desk was changed to a small pod, thereby changing the embodied experience of librarians and setting up new kinds of interactions and expectations between librarians, the patrons and library space. The traditional stacks were replaced by smaller movable bookshelves making the space more configurable and more adaptable to future needs of the library. The new self-check machine ascribed a set of values to the labor of librarians and introduced new management practices. Based on this argument, that the futures are socio-material and infrastructural, we propose strategies for researchers who study the future and contribute to the growing body of research in anticipatory ethnography. Article citation: 2021 EPIC Proceedings pp 317–328, ISSN 1559-8918, https://www.epicpeople.org/epic

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