Predicting the Future of Academic Libraries
Earlier this summer, I received an invitation to speak to the librarians at a university. They wanted me to offer my predictions for the future of academic libraries. The campus is in a beautiful location and it’s the kind of invitation I might have accepted on the spot a few years ago.
After thinking about it, I declined. That was partly financial, but the financial issue wasn’t necessarily fatal. What stopped me was simple enough: A small amount of humility and a large sense that I don’t know the future of academic libraries.
Talking it over with someone who is still actively speaking, I noted what I could have done with confidence. I could have discussed aspects of likely futures and extreme cases that strike me as improbable and dystopian futures, while urging librarians to work on building the futures they prefer. So, for example, looking at “the future” in terms of the next decade or three, I could make some projections I regard as desirable and probable, such as these:
Ø Every good academic library serving the humanities and social sciences will still have a substantial and growing print collection, even as the balance of digital and print, particularly in science, technology, and medicine, seems likely to keep shifting toward digital.
Ø Every good college and university will have libraries that serve as places—perhaps not in the vital “third place” role of public libraries, but certainly serving place-related functions. Simultaneously, and with no conflict, every good academic library will continue to offer place-independent services, probably more than they now do.
Ø Academic librarians and the vendors and others that support them will develop different tools for different users, more differentiated in the future than in the past and present. “One size fits all” never really worked very well. When the “one size” is AltaGoogleYahooMSN, which may be appropriate for undergrads and survey courses, it becomes particularly important to provide richer tools for those with more sophisticated needs and abilities.
Ø Academic libraries will continue to benefit from and, I hope, support cataloging and professional indexing and abstracting. Whatever the power of folksonomy and full-text retrieval, there’s still a place for professional organization and taxonomy.
I could also point to some futures worth avoiding, in addition to those implicit in the preceding points. I could note some extreme cases being made, caution against treating “most” as “all” (abandoning print acquisitions because most students in most courses only want to use what’s readily downloadable), point out the dangers in becoming little more than rental agencies for privately-maintained collections (as in most e-journal agreements), discuss the importance of and the questions surrounding open access, and so on.
My colleague responded that such a talk would probably satisfy the librarians who had invited me and might be just what they needed. Maybe that’s true. I know that, to do a good job on such a speech, I’d need to put in more effort than I could justify for a no-honorarium occasion. And I’d still be wondering whether the librarians didn’t want The Message.
Great speeches, especially great keynotes, have a clear and generally simple message. The speaker pounds that message home with anecdotes, examples, narrative, logic, and emotion. They start by telling you what the message will be; they provide that message in as much detail as suits the occasion; and they finish by repeating the message in different words.
I’ve heard The Message in several forms. One dazzling speaker is convinced that KTD (kids these days, the Millennials, whatever) are mutants who will always do everything different than we did, and offers scores of catchy examples and flashy PowerPoint slides to drive home The Message.
I’ve heard other messages as well, although I admittedly tend to avoid The Message-style speeches. Google is the future. Collections don’t matter; only access counts. MARC is dead. Cataloging is dead. Print is dead. Integrated library systems are dead. I could emulate some of the messengers, developing my theme, becoming known as the go-to speaker for a particular shtick (oops, sorry, Message). But that’s not going to happen.
By traditional standards, I do terrible keynotes. I don’t have One Clear Message. I cover too many topics, offering some thoughts on each and leaving the audience to synthesize. This hasn’t stopped me from doing keynotes in the past: My vita shows nearly forty of them. Fortunately, there has been room for people with mixed messages—and that’s my forté. My goal in most speeches is to encourage people to think and offer them some possibly provocative points to think about. I’m not terribly interested in getting people to believe or to agree with everything I say.
Consider the messages I offered in a mere seven minutes, at a wonderful small session during ALA (put together by YBP Library Services, sponsor of Cites & Insights), offering my own thoughts about technological issues relating to my own institution and others like it:
Ø How do institutions with million-dollar budgets meet user expectations in a time of Google and its billion-dollar capacities? Is it better to get a full answer in 30 seconds or a possible answer in five seconds? Is it acceptable for paid services to provide “some answers” with no expectation of comprehensive results? (Have you ever tried to look at all 22,000 records in a Google result? Do you know for certain that they exist?)
Ø Can we make the case for professional indexing in a time of free-text anarchy?
Ø More generally, can we find and maintain professional niches in an amateur field, and in a time when digital hotshots seem to think they know everything about librarianship?
Ø Working against GooYahAltaMSN isn’t an option. How can we work with them effectively?
Ø Opening resources is wonderful—but we still need to pay the bills. It’s unclear how this plays out for some sectors of scholarly communication.
Ø One clear aspect of RLG’s role and those of similar institutions: Working to make good standards, make those standards understandable, and lead and support cooperative initiatives in areas where we have special expertise.
That’s a lot of messages for seven minutes; it’s really too many for a full hour. In this case, the intent was to spark discussion. It worked (aided considerably by two other speakers).
I’ve talked and written about the future. Some variant on “future” appears in more than two dozen speech titles, with more discussing “change” and “tomorrow’s libraries.” I seem to remember a book or two carrying my byline and focusing on future libraries.
But I’ve always disclaimed “futurist” as a title. Even the full titles of those speeches show something other than a proper futurist’s clarity (and assurance that nobody will look at their track record!). Consider half a dozen speech titles from 2002, 2003, and 2004:
Ø “Tradition and Transition: Some Notes on Survivable Libraries.”
Ø “The Flexible Evolving Library: Complex Services for Diverse Communities.”
Ø “Books and Beyond: Evolving Libraries and Media.”
Ø “Shared Understanding, Complex Service: The Evolving Academic Library.”
Ø “Plausible Futures: Finding the Ways that Work.”
Ø “Change, Continuity, Perspective: Where Do We Go From Here?”
Notes. Complex. Evolving. Plausible. Ways (plural). Continuity. Hardly the proper elements of a clarion call to an assured future!
What did I talk about, the last time I focused on the future in a keynote for an audience composed entirely of academic librarians? I could include the complete speaking notes (not all of which made it to the final speech), but that would be ten print pages. Here’s “nine central assertions” I used at that point, noting “you might call these my current credo”:
Ø Good public and academic libraries are both physical institutions and sets of services. They serve a variety of purposes within real communities and colleges, and some of those purposes can only be served effectively through physical libraries.
Ø We will continue to see revolutionary predictions based on oversimplification, bad economics, infatuation with technology, and failure to appreciate people. Librarians who fall prey to such predictions will suffer, as will their users. Librarians and library supporters must be ready to challenge unlikely projections, analyze faulty economics, and assert the need for choice and the importance of both history and the present.
Ø Technology and media will continue to interact in unexpected ways, but ways that will lead to more rather than fewer media. Different media serve different kinds of stories well, and new media should enable new kinds of stories—but the kinds of stories that books serve continue to be critically important for libraries.
Ø Print books will survive, and will continue to be at the core of all good public libraries and the humanities and social science portions of good academic libraries.
Ø All libraries and librarians need to deal with increasing complexity, not as “transitional” issues but as the reality of today and tomorrow.
Ø Libraries must serve users—but all users, not just today’s primary users. There’s a difference between being user-oriented and pandering, and it’s a difference librarians should understand.
Ø Libraries matter, and librarians should build from strength. There are many fine public and academic libraries and many more that do remarkable work with inadequate resources. The goal should be to improve and diversify from what libraries do well, not to abandon existing services and collections in search of some monolithic futures, whether all-digital or otherwise.
Ø Libraries will change, just as they have been changing for decades. Good libraries will maintain live mission statements—and the missions won’t change rapidly.
Ø Effective libraries build communities, and the need and desire for real communities will continue to grow. Libraries that work with their communities should prosper; those that ignore their communities will shrivel.
But wait! There’s more! These are the section headings for sections that may have made it into this particular speech (some of them suggested by the person who invited me):
Ø Balancing electronic and print resources
Ø Providing useful and used resources for faculty and students
Ø Understanding the difference between problems and situations—and that every change has consequences, intended and unintended
Ø Muddied waters: The imbalance of copyright power and the “serials crisis” in access to scholarly information
Ø Sharing resources and how new technologies improve sharing (e.g., OpenURL, ISO ILL)
Ø Maintaining distinctions among libraries—avoiding homogenization
Ø Building shared understanding (whether you call it marketing or communication)
Ø Expanding your resources—and appreciating complex libraries with complex resources
Good grief. That’s too many topics for a book, much less an admittedly long keynote. And if you look at those topics, you’ll note one clear omission: A single vision of a single future. I don’t have such a vision. I don’t trust such visions.
Now that I’ve ruined my chances to be a hotshot futurist keynoter raking in big bucks by giving The Message, consider some commentaries by or about people who may know what they’re talking about. Most of these notes come from the commendable LITA Blog (litablog.org) coverage of ALA Annual, with one MSNBC column preceding (and related to) ALA and one separate weblog entry following (and unrelated to) the conference.
Michael Rogers posted “Turning books into bits: Libraries face the digital future” on June 19, 2005 at www.msnbc.msn.com. He starts with a disturbing story from a Harvard extension journalism class, where the teacher, John Lenger, asked students to write a story about a particular incident in the early 18th century.
[A]fter a week of research, most came back with almost nothing substantial to report. The problem: They had done most of their research using the Internet, walking right past Harvard’s library and archives, where the actual information could be found. When Lenger questioned their research methods, one student replied that she assumed that anything that was important in the world was already on the Internet.
Sad as that is, I’m more saddened by Brewster Kahle’s response: “For kids today, the Internet is their library. We are giving them an instantly accessible resource that is much worse than what we grew up with.” [Emphasis added.] Kahle, who styles himself a librarian of sorts, should know better: While some kids can’t get past the internet, many young people know and love libraries. (I’m also saddened by Rogers’ uncritical acceptance of Kahle’s apparent claim that digitized information is inherently more dependable than physical collections, a claim unhindered by evidence.)
When Kahle’s vision comes true and books are accessible from any browser, exactly where will the neighborhood library fit in? That’s a key topic at this week’s 124th annual American Library Association conference in Chicago.
Whew. “When,” even after stating the largely unsolvable limits that copyright places on “Kahle’s vision.” Some books are already accessible from any browser; many never will be. Was the place of the “neighborhood library” in this all-digital future a key topic at ALA? Maybe. Maybe not. And although Rogers notes that library visits more than doubled between 1992 and 2002 and circulation increased about 30% during that period, he dilutes those numbers with this: “Librarians, however, acknowledge that the increase in visits was in part due to the availability of Internet access—begging the question of what happens when, someday, everyone has Internet access at home.” I’d love to explore the connection between library internet access and a 30% increase in circulation, and I’d love to see evidence for Rogers’ later claim that “in the long run, [libraries] will, almost inevitably, house fewer physical books.”
Moving beyond Rogers, we have notes from a range of ALA meetings. LITA’s “Google and libraries” program included representatives from the five libraries participating in Google Print. None of them believes that completion of the Google project will doom physical libraries and their collections. Most see the chance for increased access. Some see the possibility for academic libraries to pay more attention to their unique resources. Google’s Adam Smith stressed that the project is an indexing or finding project, not a book distribution system.
At least two sessions (one that I attended, one with notes at LITA Blog) looked at metasearch—and in both cases, there was clear recognition that Google is not a universal model. In the session I attended, each participant was working to make metasearch work better by narrowing its reach—by putting together resource clusters that work for specific groups of users, sometimes by doing brief preliminary user interviews. These projects speak to a future in which academic libraries serve the diverse needs of diverse groups of scholars, as they always have but with perhaps more clarity as to the ways technology can serve or hinder that diversity. The other session included projections of rapid change in the metasearch market, more use of standards, and more customization to individual campus and user needs.
LITA’s Top Tech Trends panel is a frequent source of challenging predictions for the near term. Many of these are focused predictions covering small areas—but the future arrives through small changes such as:
Ø Disintegration of integrated library systems (into interoperable modules).
Ø Growing use of web services to enhance and enrich existing resources.
Ø Users carrying their entire computing environment with them on flash drives, and what that means for shared computers.
Ø Preservation, preservation, preservation: We’re creating digital resources like crazy, and we probably can’t preserve them all.
Ø Increased customization.
Ø Tomorrow’s retirees (the Baby Boomers) who aren’t retiring from life; they will be active library users, supporters, and volunteers.
Ø Long-term stewardship of data—data curation—will be a growing need.
Ø More use of data mining and manipulation.
I’ll close with a few notes on John Dupuis’ June 30, 2005 post, “My job in 10 years—Collections” and July 4 followup, “Further thoughts on books & journals” (jdupuis.blogspot.com). Dupuis is a science librarian at York University, so his projections are within the context of science libraries. He believes he will be buying some print in 10 years—specifically monographs in the history and philosophy of science. He expects most technical manuals to be online only, and points to some interesting models for online access to commercial texts not designed to be read in full.
He doesn’t expect to be buying many print journals a decade from now—and in a science library, he may be right. “Perhaps I’ll still get stuff like Scientific American and Wired in print because they’re fun to flip through while sitting in the comfy chairs drinking a latte.” In a slightly more daring prediction, he “suspect[s] that virtually all journals will have abandoned the ‘issue’ model and will be article-based.” He expects many journals to be “overlays” that provide peer review services to articles in repositories. Dupuis expects scholarly societies to move heavily to the overlay model, where subscriptions pay for peer review and infrastructure, while commercial publishers will still be very active. He expects open access journals to multiply, but doubts they will replace traditional journals—although he suspects that expectations “that everything will be free and instantly available” will totally transform scholarly publishing beginning 10 to 15 years from now. He expects even more aggregated content, even as aggregation eliminates some of the librarians’ selection role.
The rise of blogs, wikis and other social software will start to have an important impact on scholarly publishing in the next 10 years. Important articles will start virtual conversations that will bounce back and forth. Conferences will probably see the same sort of transformations. While face-to-face networking will still be important, a lot of the true exchange of ideas will happen after the conference has ended. By then, we’ll probably figure out a way for libraries to contribute to the infrastructure of this process, and that will be part of my job.
While this is from the first installment, it’s a good coda for both: “I think our biggest challenge in 10 years will be marketing to students the resources that we do purchase—convincing them that we have something to offer that beats what they can get for free online.”
This paragraph contains my list of flat disagreements with Dupuis’ predictions. End of paragraph.
Oh, okay, I guess I’m a little less convinced that overlay journals will be enormously successful in the next decade and a lot less convinced that “virtually all journals” will have abandoned issue models. Within STM, he could be right, but “virtually all” is a tall order for a mere ten years.
Otherwise—here’s an example of a sensible, thoughtful librarian providing detailed possibilities for an aspect of future academic libraries. ALA offered other possibilities along with the usual nonsense.
I have no clear vision of the future for academic libraries. I believe that future will be guided by John Dupuis and others like him: People who look at the specifics, pay attention to the generalities, and work toward futures that work for them and for us all.
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