Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Academic Library Futures
Librarians have every right to wonder what their future holds in an age when Google is digitizing entire research libraries and our users routinely go to Internet search engines for the things they formerly used libraries. My colleagues want to know what they should be doing, what further amazing changes they must learn to expect, and how best to cope. I was not surprised, therefore, to be invited to a "Summit on Technology and Change in Academic Libraries" organized by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The 30 or so individuals from libraries, higher education, and the private sector (including Google, Blackboard, and Elsevier) were called together to focus on key questions facing the future of academic libraries. Although the summit title specifically identified technology, from the outset it was clear that we were talking more generally about the future and survival of libraries within the academic enterprise. Admittedly, the forces that are wracking the foundations of academic libraries are also wrenching at the foundations of the academy itself, making it all the more necessary to respond. The challenges We identified a number of trends that challenge the way academic libraries have typically conducted business. Collection size as an indicator of value was pronounced dead. In an age where much of the material our faculty and students require is available on the network--whether licensed or free--the number of physical volumes held no longer carries the same weight it once did. Libraries are also no longer the sole gateway to information and knowledge they once were. As more information becomes freely available on the Internet, our gatekeeping role is lessened for a significant portion of our users. Code blue Described as the "canary in the coal mine" by one university administrator, academic libraries can draw perhaps some small solace from the description of university presses as "code blue." As someone who has worked with our university press to enable new forms of publication and scholarship, I took this as inspiration to redouble our efforts to capitalize on the opportunities offered by a robust and ubiquitous network and effective software applications to recreate scholarly publishing. Such changes will clearly not be trivial, since academic libraries are a conservative institution deeply embedded within a conservative institution. Our nature has been one of our core strengths--an institution charged with preserving the intellectual record should change carefully, if at all. But those days are well behind us. We no longer have iconic status within our institutions--indeed, virtually overnight, we are now perceived as irrelevant by many. New mission, people, tools The comments of one summit participant helped crystallize the main issues for me, although time will tell whether my impressions are borne out in the coming white paper. Academic libraries have three huge challenges that we must address to be successful. We must reconceptualize the role of the academic library. It is no longer sufficient to buy content and "mark and park" it. Volume count is irrelevant. We must recast our value proposition. We must again become indispensable to the teaching and research missions of our institutions. We must help transform scholarly communication. We need an agile, imaginative, and engaged staff. We need people who are not afraid of jettisoning traditional activities in favor of new ones. We must have people who can learn constantly, foster change, and create new kinds of collections and services. Some of these people are already in our buildings, others will need to be hired. We must train, support, and encourage them. We need new tools that many library vendors are not even considering. For example, how about a desktop or web application that would enable faculty and students to not only find information more easily but also capture, organize, and manage it and output it in various forms? Wouldn't academic libraries rush to site license such an application? Wouldn't faculty rush to support a library that did so on their behalf? In the end, we all came away from this meeting with a profound sense that things must change. Academic libraries might just have a window of opportunity to leap into a future where we add value to our institutions in ways we've never imagined before or are only beginning to envision. But that window may already be in the process of slamming shut. If I were forced to judge the sense of the group, most would describe the glass as half empty. As an optimist, I think it is half full. But I also know that if we choose to stand idly by, there are many who would be glad to empty it for us, no matter how much water the glass contains.