Friday, December 14, 2012

Some big picture thinking - my favourite "future of academic libraries" articles in 2012

It's the end of the year, and perhaps it's time to take stock of what went right and what to work on the next year.

Like every year before this and perhaps all the way back to the dawn of librarianship, we librarians held conferences, symposiums, seminars, unconferences, library camps, to discuss about the future of academic libraries and or librarians (I was even a panelist on one!), while visionary keynote speakers, library/publisher think tanks released dozens of scenarios, white papers, position papers, manifestos, top trends trying to predict how the future will turn out or how we should be in the future.

Throw in the new wrinkles caused by potential disruptions caused by the rise of MOOCs and the promise of Open Access finally bearing fruit and it seems it never gets old talking about the future.

Unlike 8 Articles about the future of libraries that made me think (my 5th most popular post ever), which were mostly more devil's advocate type posts that postulate the death of the libraries, these are more positive ones trying to map out a viable strategy to get to a positive future.

Here are some of my favorite talks, articles on the subject in 2012.

1. Reconfiguring Library Boundaries by Lorcan Dempsey

Lorcan Dempsey  Vice President and Chief Strategist from OCLC is of course a very well known thinker. He has a nice Wikipedia page that summarises the impact he has had on the field, while I was aware he popularized the term "web scale", I wasn't aware he also coined the term "amplified conference" and "discovery happens elsewhere" etc.

So what does such a influential thinker have to say about the future of the academic library? Watch the video below entitled "Reconfiguring Library Boundaries" given in Feb 2012.

This video encapsulates a lot of the ideas he has developed on his blog over the years, with regards to discovery and the concept of libraries operating at different levels from institution to group to network/web scale (I admit to be confused on the difference if any between web-scale and "network level")

At the risk over simplifying & mis-interpreting his ideas, he (and OCLC), recognize that our researchers are starting to operate at web scale or is it network level (remember discovery happens elsewhere - Google, PubMed, Mendeley etc ) while our libraries are still currently mostly at institution scale.

This is because as the environment moves from resource scarce to resource abundant and attention becomes scarce, researchers are shifting away from building their workflow around libraries and operating directly at network level via gateways like Pubmed, Google Scholar and tools like Dropbox, Mendeley etc.

So libraries should also move up to the higher levels, to aggregate both demand and supply (another interesting idea from him) and "make data work harder"

The video also gives a very nice framework about how libraries are a bunch of Space, System, Collection, expertise & systems & how there are 3 main strategies
  • Customer relationship managemet/ Engagement
  • Product Innovation
  • Infrastructure 
He believes that increasingly libraries will focus on engagement & in-particular infrastructure will start becoming externalised (think all the in-the-cloud developments with Discovery systems and web scale management systems), due to economies of scale & the fact that most of what libraries do now are not very distinctive or unique anyway & we are all better off sharing the load or outsourcing it somehow and focus our efforts on unique value added activities that are specific to our community. 

There are many many interesting ideas there, from

  • the idea that libraries traditionally have done "outside-in" - bringing in licensed content to be discoverable to our users but are now taking on roles of "inside-out" - getting content generated by our institutional repositories, open access journals and other digital content to be discover-able by outside users  
  • Managing down of print collections
  • The different types of externalization
  • If the library wants to be seen as expert, then its expertise has to be visible 
  • Putting our services and data into the researcher flow that is being increasingly disrupted by network scale innovations (Mendeley is one example)

Seriously I am not doing justice to the breath & depth of his ideas. More recently he released, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention which is a more detailed article but using examples from an impressive array of diverse services.

I admit to a slight bias of sometimes shying a way from reading his blog posts because for whatever reason (inability to think at a high level of abstraction? use of jargon?) , I have to work hard to absorb his ideas & concepts , but they are always worth the effort and I always go away feeling smarter rather than going "that's obvious".

This was technically released year end 2011, but is still a great read so I included it here. It's pretty much in the same vein as #1 , but perhaps in a more digestible form (less jargon) and with clearer concrete action plans.

It introduces the concept of the The Four Horsemen of the Library Apocalypse
  • Unsustainable Costs (Serials!) 
  • Viable alternative (Google!)
  • Declining usage 
  • New Patron demands. 
I believe, Roy Tennant gave a keynote "The Once and Future Academic Library" around the same idea.

I also particularly like a slide showing "Local Physical Distribution Models Displaced
by Remote and Fully Digital Approaches".
  • Border was destroyed by Amazon
  • Blockbuster was destroyed by Netflix
  • Tower-records was destroyed by itunes
  • Libraries? was destroyed by Google?
I can think of others.. Kodak destroyed by flickr/instragram etc. 

The slides are simple, elegant and yet pulls together in my view some of the best thinking on the trends facing academic libraries & the most promising strategies to manage the migration. I highly recommend them.

A lot of the ideas in #1 and #2 are arguably not new & have been slowly creeping up on us since about 5 years ago.

Steven Bell, ACRL President 2012-2013, originator of the blended librarian concept addresses in this interview a newer disruptive force - the rise of MOOCs and the possible impact on academic libraries.

4. Moving towards an open access future: the role of academic libraries by Siân Harris/SAGE

So this year we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. I am going to be bold & stick my head out and say that I have a gut feeling that 2013 is going to be a turning point for Open Access and academic libraries around the world will have to start to pay attention to this, if they haven't already as more researchers start to ask about this.

I could be wrong of course, but just in case I am not, I have been researching on Open Access/Institutional repositories for a while, just in case.....

5. Think Like a Start-Up by Brian Mathews

Brian Mathews, Associate Dean for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech's University Libraries released a interesting white paper entitled Think Like a Start-Up .

Compared to the rest of the entries on this list, this one is more micro in scale focused on encouraging Entrepreneurship & innovation, but still one of the more interesting things I have read all year.

6. Others 

There are of course plenty of "future of academic library"/"scenario planning"/top trends type views out there. Here are some others that I liked

Common threads?

Of course I know this listing is limited by my interests and ignorance - for example I know practically nothing about linked-data (though I should probably read more by Karen Coyle), though some of the trends mentioned here on shifting the focus from institution scale to web scale, leveraging research gateway, making data work harder, pretty much implies linked data or similar.

Makerspaces is another hot topic in 2012 while interesting probably is too micro to be included though it fits nicely into strategies on engagement of community and space related strategies.

Still, I think you can see a common ground emerge if you look at the material presented above.

I know there's a bit of irony in seeking common ground, when perhaps one of the themes is that libraries should specialize in something unique, distinctive of value to their community or perhaps bring/connect the local community to the world and try to externalize everything else that is routine.

I am not saying there should be "one true academic library future", but it seems to me at least for certain types of academic libraries of a certain scale, including my own, the one lesson or principle that applies is this, "your library is not the sun among which researchers orbit" (apologies to K.G. Schneider - the user is not broken meme but I think not just OPAC but all library services & resources apply).

I don't believe we should give up though and totally give up the discovery role & just focus on delivery but I believe we should also continually work to embed ourselves in the flow of our users whether it be through supplying our holdings to services like Google Scholar, Mendeley, etc (see 6 Library related services online that use your library holdings), while working to showcase our expertise & spaces to attract & engage our community.

Collection wise, we should focus on building up our specialised collection which are what makes each library distinctive and ensure they are preserved if not digitized, though I understand the pressures of catering to day to day needs (think redspot books!) makes it hard to focus on the long term.

I guess that's why Patron driven acquisition just makes a lot of sense for everything else like books published by major publishers.

I just came across the fascinating idea of Wilkin profiles which visualize books from libraries in terms of how rare they are.

So a library with a left-leaning wilkin profile, would have a lot more unique collections that are held by only them or few other libraries, while a right-leaning library would have fewer unique collections and more common collections everyone has. Should we all become more left-leaning? (I see problems if we all go that way!)

Infrastructure wise it makes a lot of sense to externalize but there are many dangers to such an approach, as it means giving up a degree of control. Do we dare to move our all holdings to in the cloud without a local copy is perhaps the most trite example. I guess it depends on the type of externalization.

Hope you enjoyed this roundup, please add in the comments other great insightful posts you have read this year.

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