The library of the future – Guardian of Scholarship?

I am still working out my message for JISC on April 2nd on “The library of the future”. I’ve had suggestions that I should re-ask this as ““What are librarians for?”” (Dorothea Salo) and “what can a library do?” (Chris). Thanks, and please keep the comments coming, but I am currently thinking more radically.

When I started in academia I got the impression (I don’t know why) that Libraries (capital-L = formal role in organization) had a central role in guiding scholarship. That they were part of the governance of the university (and indeed some universities have Librarian positions which have the rank of senior professor – e.g. Deans of faculties). I have held onto this idea until it has become clear that it no longer holds. Libraries (and/or Librarians) no longer play this central role. That’s very serious and seriously bad for academia as it has left a vacuum which few are trying to address and which is a contributor to the current problems.

I current see very few – if any – Librarians who are major figures in current academia. Maybe there never was a golden age, but without such people the current trajectory of the Library is inexorably downward. I trace this decline to two major missed opportunities where, if we had had real guradians of scholarship we would not be in the current mess – running scared of publishers and lawyers.

The first occasion was about 1972 (I’d be grateful for exact dates and publishers). I remember the first time I was asked to sign over copyright (either to the International Union of Crystallography or the Chemical Society (now RSC)). It looked fishy, but none of my colleagues spoke out. (Ok, no blogosphere, but there were still ways of communicating rapidly – telephones). The community – led by the Librarians – should (a) have identified the threats (b) mobilised the faculty. Both would have been easy. No publisher would have resisted – they were all primarily learned societies then – no PRISM. If the Universities had said (“this is a bad idea, don’t sign”) we would never have had Maxwell, never had ownership of scholarship by for-profit organizations. Simple. But no-one saw it (at least enough to have impacted a simple Lecturer).

The second occasion was early 1990’s – let’s say 1993 when Mosaic trumpeted the Web. It was obviou to anyone who thought about the future that electronic publication was coming. The publishers were scared – they could see their business disappearing. Their only weapon was the transfer of copyright. The ghastly, stultifying, Impact Factor had not been invented. People actually read papers to find out the worth of someone’s research rather than getting machines to count ultravariable citations.

At that stage the Universities should have re-invented scholarly publishing.The Libraries and Librarians should had led the charge. I’m not saying they would have succeeded, but they should have tried. It was a time of optimism on the Web – the dotcom boom was starting. The goodwill was there, the major universities had publishing houses. But they did nothing – and many contracted their University Presses.

There is still potential for revolution. But at every missed opportunity it’s harder. All too many Librarians have to spend their time negotiating with publishers, making sure that students don’t take too many photocopies, etc. If Institutional Repositories are an instrument of revolution (as they should have been) they haven’t succeeded.

So, simply, the librarian of the future must be a revolutionary. They may or may not be Librarians. If Librarians are not revolutionaries they have little future.

In tomorrow’s post I shall list about 10 people who I think are currently librarians of the future.

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3 Responses to The library of the future – Guardian of Scholarship?

  1. bill brouwer says:

    Great to read you again, Peter!
    Your post brought to mind a truly fierce librarian in High School, who shattered the mousy stereotype. We raised his ire by playing library tennis; books served as racquets, crumpled paper a ball and stacks the net. He would bear down on us like a heat seeking missile declaring “you have the brain of a lobotomized snail; leave!” and we would scatter, postponing the match. He was truly a guardian of scholarship.
    Good luck with your talk; can I suggest you work Conan the Librarian from UHF into the yarn ->

  2. James says:

    Hi Peter. Thanks for your post. You speak truth to power about libraries and missed opportunities to be driving forces in the scholarship process. I have often thought that libraries should have been more forceful about continuing to build collections when journal literature went digital. Instead, they largely left the field to commercial publishers. We have been dealing with that mistake for the last 15 years as journal prices have skyrocketed.
    By way of defending libraries, might I add a bit of context to your cogent analysis? While libraries have, as you rightly pointed out, been somewhat risk-averse, there are plenty of examples of libraries creating and/or participating in projects to increase access to scholarly information — Jstor, Project Muse, OAIster, LC’s American memory Project. Open Access, Internet Archive and the Open Content Alliance just to name a few.
    I’m also not sure that your estimation about academics unwittingly giving up their copyright is completely accurate. I agree that librarians should have been — and should continue to be — more vocal about copyright (I’m playing my part by working with However, I think academics have to take some responsibility for that as well.
    My takeaway from your post is that librarians and academics need to work more closely and communicate better so as to build systems like institutional repositories, share information about the best ways to facilitate research, control information and make sure it is always put under a system that facilitates and expands scholarship. I take up your challenge. I hope other readers of this post will do the same.

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