Wednesday, April 15, 2009

future scenarios for the college library

I'm giving a talk on cloud computing at a library/IT conference sponsored by NITLE in next week at Centre College, located in Danville, KY, the heart of Kentucky Bluegrass country.

One of the things I'd like to discuss is possible futures for college library and IT departments given current trends in cloud computing and digital technology more broadly. Guess this ties back to that "core vs. context" session at the NITLE Summit. My idea is to present two visions of the future: a "dark" future and a "bright" future, the dark one making the case that libraries and IT department will basically shrink in size and importance, the bright one supporting the idea that their role will in fact strengthen in importance and influence.

A college library in 2020, the dark scenario:

In this case, libraries play a much less important role in bringing people and information together. Electronic access to book and journal content through open access academic publishing models combined with new models for purchasing content on an on-demand, per individual basis have removed the library as intermediary. Because the network allows it, smaller actors with specific needs now purchase, license, and manage content in more focused ways. Faculty license access to research databases for specific courses and maintain their own mini digital libraries in the cloud. Students purchase e-content on their own as they do their research, similar to the way they buy textbooks.

The library still exists as a rump organization. Physically it serves as a somewhat charming study hall. Much space formally devoted to books has been cannibalized by various other interests on campus. The library still provides a few general purpose electronic research tools to the community as a whole, doles out micro-credits to purchase electronic content and maintaining a small collection of print materials for those disciplines still interested in the physical book. The reduced physical and electronic collections and correspondingly low usage statistics have led to smaller staffs in all library departments supporting the discovery-to-delivery chain: acquisitions, cataloging, collection development, systems, circulation, and ILL.

With more sophisticated search systems, finding basic academic articles and books on a topic has gotten easier and this has undermined the role of reference/instruction librarians. Students still need help with research, but because librarians no longer manage the most important research sources, their tacit authority in this area has waned. Students turn to other figures on campus for research help such as the faculty, more senior level undergrads, graduate students, etc.

Compared to other library departments, special collections has fared rather well, maintaining their existing staffing levels. The digital environment has amplified the impact of their work, making it visible to a wider audience and because it is of a unique nature, it faces little competition from the network. Nevertheless, their ability to grow is hampered because they are disconnected somewhat from the teaching mission of the institution. Efforts offer digital archiving services for various constituencies have fallen flat as most campus departments prefer self management of digital archives in the cloud.

A college library in 2020, the bright scenario:

In this case, the role of the library as information provider and mediator stays strong and even grows.

The library still maintains its role as purchaser and provider of information for its institution for several reasons. The marketplace for academic information products remains complex, with many different commercial and non-profit providers, a wide range of formats, both physical and virtual (many of which we've never heard of right now), knotty copyright restrictions, a wide range of purchasing and licensing options. The library is needed to manage this complexity. This environment is also ever changing and consequently the library has a particularly important role in providing access over time to information in out-of-date format.

Furthermore, there is continued consensus on the value of giving students in an institution a bundle of information sources in which they can explore freely without incremental cost. Finally, a general inertia in academia, and the publishing and library worlds prevents too much change in they way academic information is bought and sold. The libraries love their budgets too much, and so do the publishers, and the symbolic value of the library prevents most schools from being too ruthless with budget cuts.

For these reasons, staffing in the entire discovery-to-delivery chain has remained fairly strong, though the roles have shifted somewhat from lower-paid physical processing positions to somewhat fewer higher paid, higher skill digital content management positions. Circulation and traditional acquisitions and book processing work have fallen off with less printed content being purchased. ILL has become mostly irrelevant but for esoteric items, as economical digital purchasing/delivery of per-item content has taken over.

Collection development has shifted away from picking individual books to purchasing and licensing aggregated sets, and the management of these sets is done using a globally connected integrated library systems, where much of the management data is already populated. Managing (or synthesizing) this content requires strong analytical skills and the positions in charge of this work are fewer than the old paper acquisitions/serials management jobs but pay more and require more knowledge and skills. The systems work required to specialize and mobilize this content for the college lightens as it shifts to the network level.

As digitally formatted information becomes more of the norm, the outside demand for expertise in older printed and digital information formats unexpectedly grows and some librarians specialize in this kind of expertise. For instance, there is now a "printed materials" librarian specializing in book preservation and the nuances of the traditional codex. This person works in special collections and the main collection, which more and more is about book as art and artifact rather than book as just information delivery device.

Because of the very complex information environment, the demand for reference and instruction increases. As scholarship and scholarly communications evolves in the digital environment, navigating it becomes ever more complex. Expectations for what constitutes a college research project increase, with faculty demanding more than the traditional 10 typewritten page paper. Some of these increasing expectations could include: the increased use of images, multimedia, sophisticated manipulation of statistics, mining digital archives, and actually making the research a public contribution to a body of work. These increasing expectations correspond to the types of demands placed on students when they go to work in 21rst century organizations after graduation. Faculty, already overworked, are even more so in 2020, and they need to leverage the library and librarians to make these complex research projects happen.

The evolution of research, scholarship and teaching in the digital environment creates new opportunities for what would have been cataloging and systems personnel in the old library. Faculty together with their students are creating organic niche digital collections of knowledge that they build on over time. Digital initiatives librarians and metadata experts serve as consultants in the construction of these archives, which provide a Web 2.0 style participatory style of learning and advance knowledge in their own right.

The physical library, while perhaps relinquishing some of the space formerly occupied by physical books and journals, becomes ever more the congregating space for this type collaborative learning and scholarship, and can now incorporate an array of student support services. The library remains a sanctuary for individual study and learning but also a collaborative place.

Special collections enjoys ever more relevance in the long tail world, especially as it makes it case that it's presence on the network increases the institution's prestige globally. As the web matures and people began to miss material from earlier decades that is suddenly lost, digital archiving becomes a high priority and a role that the library can fill for the college. Some of the positions devoted to circulating and processing print materials are re purposed in this area.

Overall, the library plays a bigger, better role than ever on campus.


Next up, the two scenarios for IT. And then a prescription to make the bright scenario happen. Actually, no, I'll be making the case that the library has some influence over which of these plays out but that much of it is out of our control.

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