On 12 January, 2012, I attended the 2012 Libraries@Cambridge conference, the annual one-day meeting of librarians from the university’s 100+ libraries. This year’s theme was ‘Blue Skies… Thinking and Working in the Cloud’ with a focus on what users expect from libraries and how libraries can change to avoid obsolescence. All the presentations were stellar and gave much food for thought. There is excellent coverage of the breakout sessions at the Libraries@Cambridge blog.
This post will focus on the keynote address by Deborah Shorley, Directory of Library Services at Imperial College, London. Her address resonated very strongly with my current questions and concerns about the future of librarianship.
I thought that Deborah Shorley’s talk, entitled ‘Bibliotheca agilis: Survival of the fittest in libraryland’ was provocative. Her comments about how libraries must change were spot on. Her main point, that research libraries must radically restructure to meet changing times, not just tweak existing services, was excellent.
It’s time perhaps, she mused, for libraries to do away with subject specialists — ‘subject’ being a bit of a dodgy term (to use Shorley’s wording) in today’s interdisciplinary world and the fact that subject specialist librarians often only dimly understand their researchers’ topics. Libraries can better use their resources on more useful services such as text mining, disseminating information on behalf of users and helping organise digital research output. To Shorley, libraries exist to connect users with information, and if libraries don’t do it well, others will — users won’t notice or care — and libraries will become extinct.
Shorley noted some other factors that will compel libraries to change such as shrinking physical collections and growing digital ones (thus creating new possibilities for our physical spaces and driving the need for open access); evolving models of scholarly communication (here Shorley mentioned a favorite of mine, Mendeley, the social networking reference manager, as an example); and the rising costs of journals and other services, such as cataloging, which will require consortial efforts on the part of libraries to control costs and duplication of effort.
What matters, she says, is that librarians must be out there more with their users, talking with them about their research processes and partnering with them on their projects. It simply is not enough to sit back and wait for enquiries while curating a physical collection. And, to be fair, a lot of research libraries are attempting to do just that, my place of work — the Judge Business School Information & Library Services — being one. We are, for instance, interviewing faculty about how they seek information, producing regular and helpful information pieces on our blog and offering workshops about finding information using social media.
But there is a serious nagging feeling on my part that we (my library, that is) could be doing more, and I guess it is that sense that will compel us continually to evaluate the effectiveness of our services. Luckily, some major library organisations also are brainstorming how to change for the better. Shorley highlighted some important initiatives:
- The Libraries of the Future project, sponsored by the British Library, JISC, the Research Information Network (RIN), Research Libraries UK (RLUK) and the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL). This project envisages scenarios for research libraries in 2050 and encourages libraries to use them for planning and strategic development.
- Transforming Research Libraries from the US-based Association of Research Libraries (ARL) also contains future-looking scenarios (out to 2030) with detailed descriptions of four possible futures for libraries and very helpful ideas for how to use them for organisational planning.
- Research Libraries UK’s 2011-2014 Strategic Plan, entitled ‘The Power of Knowledge,’ outlines many new ways that research libraries can evolve.
Academic librarians should read the reports and recommendations of these initiatives and think hard about whether they are positioning themselves within their institutions to take advantage of current and future trends in research and publishing.
It’s always exciting for me to be in a roomful of Cambridge librarians, as they represent a wide-range of libraries, backgrounds and opinions. There is an idea ‘out there’ that as a group (with some bright exceptions), Cambridge librarians don’t want to change and are perfectly happy to continue to curate their dusty old collections. But this is a crude over-generalisation, and I know that many of my fellow librarians embrace the idea of changing. The problem I think is that we/they are not sure exactly how to and where to begin. Many will need to retool their skills. Many will need to conduct far more outreach to faculty and students than they are perhaps used to or feel comfortable with.
And, to be fair, I think that most research libraries try hard to provide easy access to information, but are constrained by the premium silos of information they (we) subscribe to which must be offered as individual search sites, instead of being able to offer the ideal Google-like search. That type of search, which searches across databases and presents information intuitively, is certainly the holy grail of the library world at the moment. Everyone knows it’s what’s needed, but no one has yet to accomplish it well. We heard a brief description of Summon by Serial Solutions (owned by ProQuest, one of the conference sponsors), which is a new attempt at solving this problem, and fingers crossed it’s a step in the right direction (but I have yet to see this work well from any vendor).
But we must change: I feel very strongly about that. I could have written Shorley’s address, though she did it far more eloquently than I could have. Shorley used the term ‘evolution’ a lot in her talk, and illustrated her presentation with images and examples from bird life — especially (not surprisingly) with those of extinct dodo birds — where libraries are going if they don’t experiment with radically new services — and soaring eagles, where libraries will go if they get a new mix of services right.
I am absolutely committed to being the eagle (as it were) — I didn’t get into librarianship because I love books or physical collections, I got into it because I love connecting researchers with the resources they need to do their work, and I love managing the technology for doing that (complete ‘how-I-became-a-librarian’ story here). There are so many ways librarians can support the efforts of researchers these days and really partner with them in their endeavours. I fantasize about a library where faculty regularly consult with us before, during and after their research projects to learn about how/where to seek information, how best to organise the tools and fruits of their research, and how best to curate the output of their research.
It all comes down to promotion, as Shorley notes. We must be out there more talking about research data management and show that we are competent allies. We are not just dim support staff — never were, but somehow have gained that stereotype. Librarians must get more involved and prove their worth, or there will be no place for libraries in the future.