21st-Century Academic Libraries

I just finished reading Checking Out the Future: Perspectives from the Library Community on Information Technology and 21st-Century Libraries, a policy brief from the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy. Yeah, I’m a little late to the game on this one, seeing as it was published over a year ago. There’s not a whole lot that’s new here, but it was good to see it all in one place, summarized and compiled. The essential concepts at the heart of the policy brief are that libraries need to be adaptable and flexible, and that our roles in terms of services, information, and space will be changing. Uh, duh.

That’s a little unfair, because it did give me a lot of food for thought. I guess I have a vision in my mind of what 21st-century libraries should be, and this policy brief helped focus that vision a little bit. I thought it would be fun to lay out some of my nascent ideas here. There are a lot of pieces to this vision, and I’d love feedback and conversation, if people aren’t already tired of having these conversations. I like to think that I’ll expand on some of these ideas in future blog posts, as well, but I’ve learned never to make promises about what I’m going to write in the future.

I think most of my thoughts revolve around a few roles for libraries, and they are not new roles. They will just be inhabited in different ways. We need to continue to preserve, provide access, organize, and instruct. We do all those things now in academic libraries (well, I hope we do, anyway) but we will be doing them very differently in the future.

Preservation of the scholarly record has always been a big part of what libraries do. We preserve books that grow dusty on our shelves. We preserve journals that have long since migrated to digital formats. And we preserve our own colleges’ records and pieces of academic history. This role will continue, and will have an increasingly digital component. I think it’s important that we keep preserving those printed books, even if we don’t keep them in the library in open stacks. I see those dusty books being moved to off-site storage, as digital copies become the more widely used formats.

And therein lies the big new change, and where we currently aren’t doing a great job. We’ve outsourced the preservation of digital formats to vendors, often for-profit companies who have no cultural or ethical obligation to stay in business and continue preserving that work. Libraries should be digitizing where we can, and keeping copies of digitized works, if only for reasons of preservation. This is already happening to some extent with journals, through JSTOR and LOCKSS. I hope it happens with books as well, as we move into license arrangements for ebooks.

We should also be stepping in to help scholars preserve their own work, including datasets, manuscripts, and teaching materials. Institutional repositories are going to become more important as more and more grant-giving institutions require open access to funded work.

Publishing and Scholarly Communication
I think libraries are going to have an increasingly important role in evolving new methods of scholarly communication. Our models for scholarly communication are antiquated, and they are in trouble. Publishers aren’t moving particularly fast to adapt, and I don’t blame them: The evolution of scholarly communication will likely mean their demise, at least in their current guise.

Libraries can step in to help scholars on our campuses publish and provide access to their own work. Whether that means simply providing an institutional repository for preserving work, or managing the infrastructure for open access journals and ebook collections, we could have an important role here.

What I really see are University presses working in collaboration with libraries to find new ways to provide access to research and ideas. I think our histories have often pitted us against each other, or at least kept us out of each other’s realms, but there is so much potential, and really, our missions aren’t that different. As someone who worked in publishing before becoming a librarian, I think we could work together very nicely.

The library’s real strength is in information organization. So many people think about libraries and only see the public services side of it all, but there is so much work that goes on behind the scenes (or in what I like to call my dungeon). I think the role of metadata librarians is going to grow as there is more and more information to organize.

Tech services and metadata librarians need to come out of the dungeon and start working with scholars. We can help people organize their own research, and provide excellent metadata for work that is being made publicly available. We can organize all kinds of information, beyond just downloading cataloging records from OCLC. I think organizing digital information is going to be a huge role for academic libraries in the future.

Access to information is closely related to organization: Libraries will always provide access, and in order to do that, we need to make sure that information is clearly organized and usable. We have so many systems and silos that hang people up and confuse the heck out of our students and faculty, and we really need to work on streamlining access to all the things we have. Again, we need to do that by taking back some of the work we’ve allowed vendors to do and start providing access in ways that are locally usable and determined.

Teaching and Learning
A lot of my rambling so far has focused on the output of the scholarly enterprise, but that is, of course, just a small part of what academic libraries are here for. Teaching students and being part of their learning is going to be increasingly important. I think that much more frequent collaboration between faculty and libraries around teaching will be key: Faculty and librarians will work together to create a whole semester’s syllabus, integrating information literacy into every part of the learning process. And outside of the classroom, librarians will collaborate with students. Instead of answering reference questions, we should be seen as partners for students in the research and writing process. I think librarians, faculty, writing instructors, and students should be seen as one big team, there to produce excellent work and achieve learning outcomes.

Finally, I think the physical space of the library must change significantly. Rather than being book warehouses, academic libraries should become work spaces. We should create room for all kinds of different needs: quiet spaces for reading, group study rooms for collaborative work, big and small classrooms for all kinds of teaching, working spaces where people can set up temporary “offices” and have access to otherwise unattainable software and hardware, and media rooms where they can access all kinds of multimedia resources. And yes, I still think we should provide cafes, because working students need coffee and study breaks, and so do librarians.

There is no doubt that academic libraries will be changing in some very big ways. If we don’t adapt, we will become obsolete. I’m not sure that my vision is the future, but these are the things I keep coming back to the more I read and think about our roles on campus and in the greater academic community. We aren’t just service and support institutions, we are an integral part of the scholarly endeavor. Sometimes it seems like academia adapts pretty darn slowly, and so it feels like we keep talking about these changes while nothing really happens. Well, maybe it’s time for libraries to take the lead on this one. We have a lot of passionate, intelligent, and dedicated people, and that can really go along way to making change happen.

What do you think about some of these ideas and propositions? Is it overreaching? Not reaching far enough? Are some pieces going to be more important than others? Are there things I’ve clearly missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of academic libraries.

2 thoughts on “21st-Century Academic Libraries

  1. Michael Lewis

    I think you have a lot of good ideas to make the library more accessible and comfortable for people who are not quite used to being there. I didn’t understand everything as clearly as I should but the parts I understood sounded great.

    1. lkrier Post author

      Thanks for the comment. If there were parts that weren’t clear, let me know and I’d be happy to elaborate or clarify!


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