The Future on Wheels

For me, the future arrived back in the 1960s. It came on wheels, packed with books, and when the door opened, it smelled like a cool breeze from heaven: It was an air-conditioned bookmobile.

We lived in Northwest Florida at the time and air conditioning was still a luxury. This may account for the vividness with which I remember the event, but the very idea of a cool bus filled with books, free for the borrowing, was (and still is) enough to tantalize me.

Good books have always seemed like complete worlds awaiting exploration. The bookmobile might as well have been an interstellar portal, linking my adolescent self to a universe of experiences and knowledge.

My preferred reading material at the time was science fiction, so I hurried to see that they hadn’t overlooked this category. I can’t recall the titles I checked out, but I’d bet there was something by Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein in the fat bundle I carried home.

Now as a longtime resident of New Hampshire, a state known for the ancient stone beneath our feet more than for the stars overhead, my devotion to science fiction — and air conditioning — has lessened a bit, but one of my favorite current science fiction authors happens to live here, so when we elected to plan a feature story on the Future of NH, I reached out for his thoughts.

James Patrick Kelly, who won the Hugo Award for his novelette “Think Like a Dinosaur,” was willing, and he turned in a provocative essay that we’ve attached to the main bar of our “Next Hampshire” story (it all starts on page 40). Kelly’s speculative fiction tends to avoid post-apocalyptic scenarios, as he prefers to deal in the “what ifs” of the future with the assumption that folks will still be around to enjoy or endure whatever progress brings to humankind. His glimpse into the Granite State of tomorrow is mind-expanding the way that good fiction can be, but his predictions are not far-fetched at all.  

While composing this note, I asked Kelly for some future-thoughts about libraries. After all, the ability to store our knowledge and wisdom and to make the information available for others to learn from or challenge is the basis of all our futuristic aspirations (not to mention our present-day civilization, such as it is).

He replied, “To me, the future of libraries lies in the curatorial expertise of the librarian. It may be that librarians will be freed from the tyranny of molecules and will do their jobs at home or away from stacks of books — not in a physical library. Instead, you’ll want your freelance librarian to point you toward some particular corner of the internets where you can find the precise cross-platform materials to satisfy your information needs. The librarians of the future will be web tamers, sorting the signal from the deafening noise of the Age of Big Data.”

I asked the same question of NH State Librarian Michael York, who was just sending out a note summarizing activities in 2017, the 300th anniversary of the first state library in the country. He offered a different take:

“Libraries are, of course, information centers, but they are vibrant community centers too. No longer exclusively used for quiet reading and research, libraries hum with the joyful noise of babies enjoying lap-sit sessions, teens preparing for a FIRST Robotics Competition, adults sharing tips on everything from cooking to car repair to astronomy … and seniors creating models using their library’s 3D printer. The activities that take place at your public library are a direct reflection of your community’s interests.”

My hope is that, like a cool rolling bus that can contain a thousand worlds, our future will be big enough to host both these visions.

Categories: Editor’s Note