In the beginning

Libraries are remarkable places.  They serve as the collective memory of society, indeed of our civilization.  They are places of inspiration, of learning, and of opportunity.  They offer opportunity for reflection and for interaction - with people, space, and technology.  And they offer a destination for knowledge creation - through words on paper and on screen, and through production of digital and physical artifacts in makerspaces.

Ranganathan reminded us that the library is a growing organism - his fifth law celebrating the vital and lasting characteristics of the institution of the library.  He wrote of the need for constant adjustment, for fear that an organism which ceases to grow will petrify or perish.  Meanwhile, the process of growth takes in the new, casts off the old, changes in size, and takes new shapes and forms.  But he characterized this change in two ways, a slow continuous change leading to variation, and a sudden, apparently discontinuous change, a metamorphosis.


Libraries, and their librarians, have rightly been credited with tremendous change over the past 30 years, especially in building content and services around online technology.  However, in many instances, this has been an elegantly constructed technological adaptation, migrating print content into digital form, and translating in-person interaction into online services.  Whilst at times the pace of change may appear considerable, it bears more similarity to a slow and continuous evolution.  But is that sufficient in an age when students, and a growing number of faculty, have grown up surrounded by the tools and technology of the digital age?  How do we add value when headlines declare that students rarely seek the help of librarians, and in an age when dominant information seeking behaviors take place independent of the library.  Are we poised on the brink of metamorphosis?

As I write this brief introduction, I am conscious of a long-held tendency, shared by many of my colleagues, to write about the library rather than the librarian.  This, in itself, is an interesting observation: in the pre-digital age, the two were symbiotic.  The library, as a building, served as home to the librarian.  The librarian's profession was conducted inside the library.  But for many, the library was the destination, rather than the librarian.  In many other fields, the practitioner was the destination, rather than the place of service ('I am going to see my physician', rather than 'I am going to the clinic').  One of the main themes I intend to explore is the increasing need to separate the librarian from the library, at least from the perspective of our user base.  Of course, librarians will continue to spend at least some of their time in libraries, but as faculty in particular meet their needs online, library service must be delivered outside the library.  The librarian must interact with his or her clients wherever they are: in laboratories, clinics, offices, and lecture theaters.  Again, we find context from Ranganathan, quoting, in 1931, the writings of  Manu: "To carry knowledge to the doors of those that lack it."  Whilst this may be simplistic, or presumptive, we need to carry our professional expertise to the doors of our clients, offering to be team players in the research process.

If the librarian's profession is increasingly to be conducted outside the library, then what of the building itself?  We know that our libraries are busier than ever, but studies point to much of the use of our facilities being independent of our traditional roles.  Interactions with librarians are increasingly rare, and the use of print collections has declined in many universities.  Demand is high for quiet study spaces, and for flexible study environments.  The construction of makerspaces and other technology-rich facilities has offered a draw card, certainly at my own university.  But what is the long-term future?  I recall the Follett Report foreshadowing cheekily a future where library buildings, constructed to bear the immense weight of densely packed bookstacks, could be redeveloped as multistorey car parks (parking garages*)!  That hasn't come to pass, yet, and the demise of the book is not nigh, but we do need to reflect upon the long term disposition of some of the most valuable real estate on our campuses.

Is this the Library of the Future?

By DooMMeeR [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

And finally, in this overview, what of our place on campus?  Many view the library as the heart of the university, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically.  But the directions signaled above have set some alarm bells ringing - is it the library's job to manage playgrounds (as one complaining professor wrote to me once)?  Are we a black hole into which more and more money could be poured, and still, like Oliver Twist, the demand would be for more (as one university President once observed)?  

Clearly, from the perspective of the Dean of Libraries, these are misplaced views, but ones that have been formed through a misunderstanding of what it is we contribute to today's research university.  I'm grateful to Dave Lankes for the analogy of the library as a spleen as it depicts the perceptions of many: no-one is sure what it's there for, they are not quite sure where to find it, and they suspect they could survive perfectly happily without it.  We can take comfort from study after study which points to the difference we make: to student recruitment and retention, to faculty grant awards, the improvements in research quality and productivity, to showcasing the products of our institution's research.  The problem is that we know it.  How do we share that message?

This blog seeks to explore many of these issues - trying to understand what it means to be a great library in the 21st century.  We will consider how libraries find ways of adding value to their parent institution.  We will explore how technological, cultural, economic, and policy changes all will impact on the institution of the library, and on the profession of librarianship.  More substantially, we’ll dive into the worlds with which we interact.  How might policy makers evolve early-stage open access mandates into a framework that might bring lasting change to scholarly communication?  How will the many start-up and spin-off companies and cloud-based services entering the research information space impact on institutional systems?  How do we move our libraries into contemporary research workflows, rather than hoping that researchers will design their workflow around the library?  Can libraries truly collaborate to leverage economies of scale and scope?

The conversation (I do hope that this doesn't become a monologue) is unlikely to take a linear form.  Hot topics and pressing issues will be mixed in with a more considered review of trends and warning signs. Engagement with teaching will be debated alongside enrichment of research.  Libraries will be viewed alongside other players in the world of scholarly communication.  I look forward to your company on this journey!

* I’ll make this point once, and once only.  I’m British, have lived in New Zealand and Australia, and am now resident in the United States.  Whilst technology “corrects” my spelling and grammar into American English, my vocabulary is caught up in a mid-Atlantic, mid-Pacific mix.  Bear with me.