The Library of the Future?

During the closing keynote speech at LITA National Forum this year, Sara Houghton encouraged us to engage in a little thought exercise. She wanted us to imagine the ideal library of the future, without the limitations of what we believe is possible or what we’re currently doing. We should, she suggested, set aside some time to think about what we would like a library to be 20 or 30 or 40 years from now.

There are many different kinds of libraries, and what they’re going to be in the future will be vastly different from each other. My experience has been in academic libraries almost exclusively since I entered college at 18 years old. I’ve worked in academic libraries since 2007, and yeah, I have a lot of ideas about what the ideal academic library of the future should be. I work in technical service (metadata and systems), so I do tend to think about how the background systems will enable public facing services. But here, I don’t want to be limited by what I think the technology can do, so I’m focusing more on what we collectively will do, in the big picture.

To begin, I do believe that the library of the future will still inhabit a physical space. Our libraries will be beautiful, welcoming, well-lit spaces where students will come to work independently and in collaboration with other students. Library spaces will be flexible, to accommodate groups working together and students quietly reading and studying. Our library spaces will still hold physical collections, and patrons will still come into the library to access those collections, though they won’t be as large, or used in exactly the same ways. Our physical collections will likely be historical collections, special collections, and archives. Print collections may or may not circulate, and librarians will be on hand to help students new to primary source and historical collections access and interpret the materials they are working with (for example, historical government documents and maps, which won’t be searchable and manipulable in the same ways students are used to working). Physical collections will more likely than not be unique to a library, and will likely also have been digitized (or be in the process of being digitized).

Reference and Research Librarians will be an important part of the library services, though traditional reference desks may not. Students and researchers will have a relationship with their department’s librarian from the moment they enter the institution, and their librarian will be available in a variety of ways (email, text, chat, or whatever new communication mechanisms pop up) to assist with research, data organization and management, and as a liaison to other key services like writing centers and tutors. Librarians will frequently meet with students and researchers in their offices and in other locations on campus (computer labs, cafes, faculty offices). Librarians will teach information literacy embedded in the curriculum, from introductory composition classes to senior year thesis seminars. Rather than offering one-shot classes and hoping for the best, the information literacy curriculum will be built into the overall learning curriculum, and will expand over the course of a student’s time at the university, teaching the skills needed in a layered and integrated way. Librarians will also offer faculty workshops on data management and data and information literacy. Where possible, librarians will work collaboratively with faculty to enable faculty to teach information literacy to students, in a train the trainer model.

Most current resources will be accessed digitally, including monographs, fiction titles, journals, data sets, current government documents, and reference resources. All members of the university community will read on the digital device of their choice, and digital titles will be available in many formats to accommodate the technology used by the community.

Nearly all academic resources, like University Press monographs, journals, data sets, government documents, and reference sources, will be open access. The digital files themselves will rarely be hosted in the library itself or “owned” by the library, unless the library itself has digitized or published the resource. Users will be able to freely download these resources, read them on their device of choice, and annotate them however they wish. The library will serve as a curator of open access resources. Librarians who are familiar with the school’s fields of study and the resources required for teaching and research will build the library “collections” by curating links to resources hosted elsewhere, and providing access to resources hosted locally.

For titles that are not open access (contemporary fiction and non-academic titles), libraries will purchase (not lease) access to digital files, as well as a copy to be archived locally for preservation. Costs will largely be based on size of institution and download statistics, but cost models will be transparent and consistent. This will not be the bulk of future academic library collection development.

Funds that have previously been spent licensing access to academic journals will be spent instead on funding open access publication. Researchers at a library’s institution will apply for library grants to pay their own open access fees for publication. Libraries will also act as publishers, either in conjunction with a University press or on their own, if their institution doesn’t have an existing press. Libraries will host open access journals that are managed and edited by faculty, and will have publishing departments that acquire, edit, and provide access to journal and monograph titles in an open access model.

Libraries will also be the homes of subject repositories where feasible. Rather than merely collecting research, libraries will become the publishers of research in a global network of open access research publications and repositories. Libraries will also house institutional repositories, although these will focus almost entirely on preserving the administrative records of the institution, rather than the research outputs.

In addition to the Research Services and Publishing departments, libraries will have a Collection and Curation department. These librarians will be responsible for maintaining the physical collections, but also for curating links to appropriate resources. They will be responsible for ensuring access to external servers and managing relationships with other libraries and publishers. Additionally, they’ll be responsible for creating the metadata for locally hosted and published resources, digitizing local resources, and ensuring that access to local servers and digital collections is stable.

The ILS of the future will be almost unrecognizable from its current incarnations. They will integrate resources and metadata from the web, serve local metadata and resources back to the web, and act as workflow managers and statistics gathering tools.

Cataloging will be a very different activity, and will again consist of curating and collecting metadata from around the web to provide access, as well as creating local metadata for digital and print resources, and making it available on the web. Discovery will happen through locally-aware search engines. Users will set a library preference in their browsers or with their preferred search site that will prioritize the resources that have been curated by your library. But most library resources will largely be available freely, so discovery doesn’t necessarily have to happen through the library, and users can decide to prioritize a library entirely separate from their campus.

In the future, academic libraries won’t be stand-alone institutions, providing collections solely to their own patrons. The Library, instead, will be a global network of information, publications, and research, each library contributing to the whole by publishing, digitizing, and creating metadata. Our roles won’t be as gatekeepers, but as creators of scholarly resources and facilitators of scholarly communication. Our local services will consist of assistance to researchers, helping them gather the information they need to do research, and then helping them find the right place to publish it. Libraries, not for-profit publishers and journal aggregators, will power the scholarly communication engine. Our role will be not only to provide access, but to ensure preservation of the scholarly record, in all formats.

Of course there are details that I haven’t covered here. This is, after all, just a thought exercise. But if I were to use this vision as a source for strategic planning, I’d probably think seriously about how the library could become involved in scholarly communication and publishing at my institution. I’d put a lot of energy into re-modeling Research services. And I’d be actively engaged with the library community in building new models for metadata discovery and cataloging that are not based on local systems and local records. I’d apply for digitization grants to start digitizing local special collections. And I’d be actively engaged in global work to change the tenure model and reform copyright.

What is your ideal future library? Are there things in this vision of mine that make you cringe? That you absolutely can’t imagine happening? What do you think we should do now to create the library vision of your dreams?

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