Monday, August 25, 2008

Libraries and Futures

The library is, of course, the central laboratory of the institution. It is more important than any other part of the equipment. It is the heart of the institution, sending its life-blood into all different departments.
—Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman College President, 1923
The concept of the modern American library, most concretely manifested in prominent buildings in the centers of our cities and college campuses, began to take form during the latter half of the 19th century. This conception of the library was principally concerned with the products of print culture, but this concern was never absolute—a fact evidenced by the collections of photographs, audio-visual materials, and other special collections that came into libraries of all types long before computers and electronic resources became ubiquitous. Today, as the computer screen is quickly replacing the book as our primary means of—and our metaphor for— accessing information, there is much talk about how the proliferation of networked digital resources is causing a radical transformation of the concept of the library.

One recent report on this topic is Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, available from: This report examines perceptions of three “roles” of the library—purchaser, archive, and gateway—which are explained in a footnote:

The purchaser role was described in the survey by the statement “the library pays for resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases,” the archive role by “the library serves as a repository of resources—in other words, it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources,” and the gateway role by “the library is a starting point or ‘gateway’ for locating information for my research” (5).

The most highly rated role is that of library as purchaser, and the role of library as archive is “also uniformly high and has remained static over time.” But “the importance of the role of the library as a gateway for locating information … has fallen over time” (5).

This report does much to highlight the confusion that surrounds contemporary conceptions of the modern library. The report itself uses the word “library” in a few different ways. In some places, it uses the word to refer to a physical place. It states: “scientists are particularly uninterested in paper journals, and prefer to do their research online and away from the library” (13); and the study used this survey question: “I often find using the library to be difficult and time consuming—I’d much rather be able to get the information I need from a computer in my office or home” (16). But elsewhere, the report makes it clear that libraries pay for electronic resources and make them remotely available through its infrastructure.

Among its recommendations is this statement:

An important lesson is that the library is in many ways falling off the radar screens of faculty. Although scholars report general respect for libraries and librarians, the library is increasingly disintermediated from their actual research process. Many researchers circumvent the library in doing their research, preferring to access resources directly. Researchers no longer use the library as a gateway to information, and no longer feel a significant dependence on the library in their research process. Although the library does play essential roles in this process, activities like paying for the resources used are largely invisible to faculty. In short, although librarians may still be providing significant value to their constituency, the value of their brand is decreasing (30).

The report concludes with this:

This period of transition poses serious questions about the future roles of the library. Information—the historic province of the library—is the focus of more attention than ever before, and yet the profile and relevance of the library is in decline. There are a number of possible futures for the academic library, and strategic thought and change is needed to ensure that we move into a world in which the library continues to play an important role in the intellectual life of the campus. The library exists to serve the needs of its campus; a clear understanding of these needs will allow the library to maximize its value to its constituency, both improving its own stature locally as well as facilitating scholarship, teaching, and learning among its community (33).

Another recent report, CLIR’s No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century, is available from: This vision presented in this report builds on tradition and looks for opportunities for innovation:

The library’s traditional position at the center of campus reflects its function as a crossroads for intellectual activity. Although students, teachers, and researchers increasingly obtain information electronically, the library retains that time-honored position. And in fact, the library’s role has become more compelling, given that many of the current challenges in scholarly communication stem from the need to resolve cross-discipline issues in sharing digital resources. Libraries are uniquely situated to work at the nexus of disciplines (5).

The research library of the future includes continuing core functions:

These roles include preserving, with an emphasis on resolving the challenges of digital preservation and conservation; maintaining special collections and repositories; curation; and teaching research and information-seeking skills. Many believe that these traditional roles have become even more important as the economics of information have changed (8).

But new scholarly methodologies and forms of communication, combined with changes in higher education, mean that there will be some discontinuity between past and future manifestations of libraries. Indeed, the report claims that “the library of the 21st century will be more of an abstraction than a traditional presence” (8).

Among the recommendations here is the call for more collaboration, both on campus and through consortia. Libraries (and not only research libraries) serve a local community, but they are also part of a larger cultural infrastructure. For example, in an academic context a library must “be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level” (11). But as the library serves its local population—Paul Courant argues that an academic library’s “signal contribution to undergraduate education is the teaching of scholarly methods” (22)—it collects, creates, and curates resources that benefit from and benefit what Abby Smith calls a “transnational research cyberinfrastructure” (18).