libraries of the future – more feedback

I’m grateful to all those who have commented on my posts – from experience I know that most posts get few comments. There is also a considerable ground swell in Twitter and FriendFeed – I gather it’s not good practice to quote from those, but if you have logins then “library of the future” should get some useful threads.

My initial postings were intended to gather information for what I might use in my presentation. This type of exploration is very common in the scientific blogosphere and, indeed, many specialist sites have sprung up to help answer questions and provide links. So I thought it would be a reasonable thing to do in a field where I had but little learning. I got very little response indeed and this, in itself, is important – and potentially worrying. Not many scientists naturally approach librarians – or at least not a high percentage – and so the online approach is an important one – it’s a good antenna and concentrator – which indeed it has done.

Some people are upset by this process – along the lines of “what right has this guy to …”. That’s a natural response, perhaps, but the key challenge is to bridge gaps.

Among the feedback – thank you – is a long comment from

John MacColl


I will be at the Oxford meeting next week, and look forward to your contribution on the panel. The fact that you have used a blog in advance to garner ideas, while no one else on the panel has done the same, does tend to bear out Peter Morgan’s comment about communication habits. Librarians who are in leadership positions, and so able to make the sort of changes which are undoubtedly necessary, feature very little in the blogosphere. Those librarians and information professionals who are active there are usually not able to make the changes, but increasingly have influence upon the leaders, so there is hope! Of course, there may also be a professional cultural reason for this. Academic libraries manage knowledge in the round. They are essentially interdisciplinary. The librarians who manage them instinctively wait for ideas from all quarters before taking action – again, for reasons Peter mentions. I’m not sure they can continue to behave in this way, but I think it is a professional instinct. […]

and from Christina Pikas who gives a long and useful summary of what science ULibrarians do:

So where to start? Libraries connect people to information. Librarians touch every bit of this by:

  • selecting information sources (books, journals, protocols, spectra/data collections) based on balancing
    • subject (and relationship of subj to organization’s research mission, vision, etc)
    • customer requests, discussions with customers, interlibrary loan requests
    • cost considerations
    • measures or indicators of quality
    • reviews
    • usage (global, local)
    • packages, special deals, consortial agreements, existing contracts that can’t be reduced
    • global statements from management on what you’re doing with electronic vs print or trying to build capacity or whatever
    • our professional expertise
    • government documents are just a class of their own
  • deselecting things (if only to send to off site storage)
  • selecting finding tools like research databases – which ones, and then also which platform (for example, you can get Inspec on maybe 10 different platforms like Web of Knowledge, EbscoHost, FirstSearch, Ovid, EngineeringVillage2), once again balancing
    • functionality
    • cost
    • consortial agreements
    • how far back it goes
    • if it’s standards compliant
    • if it can be searched using z39.50, if it’s open URL compliant, if it can be proxied — if it will talk to machines
  • negotiating access, negotiating licenses – here librarians are between corporate lawyers from the vendors and university lawyers, and also incorporating what they know about how the end users/customers actually need to use the stuff (like in course web sites or whatever), and ideological statements, and pressure from the selection folks to just get it done
  • picking the companies that distribute and help us manage journal subscriptions (did you know we don’t go directly to most journal publishers, but use a third party? we also use big distributors for books most of the time)
  • paying the bills and accounting for things, managing the acquisitions process
  • organizing information so that it can be found
    • cataloging books, journals – this is very complicated, also standards-based, and takes a lot to make sure that things can be found by people who need them
    • entering things into several content management systems – one that runs an open url referer (links you from a citation through to the full text), one that runs the web site, one that helps you track the licenses (some people manage to combine these things)
    • changing all of the urls all of the time when the #$%^ vendor updates their system or the @#$% publisher moves to a different vendor
    • see Catalogablog for some insight into being a cataloger at a research organization (small and not a university)
  • building tools to connect people to information
    • the online catalog, you know how it comes out of the box, right, needs lots of work
    • the open url referer SFX thing? oh, yeah, that needs to be customized
    • the web site? yep
    • the federated search? yep
    • who maintains the servers? do we pay the IT department, or do we have librarians with masters degrees swapping out broken drives – you’d be surprised!
    • usability testing
    • reviewing usage statistics, etc.
    • refer to Bibliographic Wilderness for some more on some of this category
  • teaching people how to help themselves
    • quick 30 minute classes on databases
    • teaching 1-3 credit “intro to” or “cheminformatics” or other classes
    • teaching a session of every section of every engineering 101 class in the university
    • consulting with individual students, faculty, staff, researchers on how to get what they need, keep what they find, and use it
    • creating screencast tutorials, handouts, self-paced online instruction
    • creating finding guides/pathfinders
  • managing the circulation of materials – including putting stuff on reserve for classes
  • collecting and preserving rare, special, or historical materials – everything from rebinding to specifying climate controls and security, to actually picking and using DRM, to licensing out materials
  • collecting, organizing, and providing access to the organizations knowledge – doing knowledge management and archiving
  • institutional repositories, well, see Caveat Lector
  • sitting at the reference desk and answering questions and generally dealing with the public – unjamming the copier, refilling the printer, fixing the public access computers, keeping track of the stapler, getting the roof leak fixed….
  • working as a consultant to departments and labs and groups and individual faculty on new projects, classes they might offer, assignments they might give
  • working with vendors to improve their offerings, and to learn about their new stuff
  • getting grants and working their own research projects to study how people use information, presenting to other librarians
  • management, hr, strategic planning, development
  • committees, lots of committees!

So whatever the rough edges this is helping to start public discussion. Since at Oxford the panel is expected to answer questions I’m ready for some to be thrown.#

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3 Responses to libraries of the future – more feedback

  1. I’m glad that more comment and feedback has been coming in, and I hope that on the day you will get a good response to your ‘provocation’ 🙂
    I’m sorry not to have commented earlier in the process – there is a lot to take in from what you’ve said, and only limited time (on my part) to respond. What follows is a ragbag of comments I’m afraid that responds to parts of what you have written.
    Where to start? In terms of considering the historical perspective of libraries and what they are, I’m not sure you go back far enough (!) – it would be interesting to consider the origins of libraries (some general background at and I would specifically highlight the fact that libraries seem to have come out of the need to organise bodies of knowledge (I would suggest reactive rather than proactive), and the role of the scholar in the history of the library – before there was librarianship, there was scholarship. I think it is important to note that the idea of a ‘librarian’ as a profession is a relatively recent concept – only appearing in the mid-19th century.
    That your list of ‘librarians of the future’ doesn’t contain many librarians (in a professional sense) is perhaps not so suprising – what would this look like taking a historical perspective? Of course, we might see librarians such as Dewey appear, but this would be alongside people such as (I would suggest) Andrew Carnegie, William Caxton, Pope Nicholas V (founded the Vatican Library), and whichever of the Ptolemys was responsible for the Library of Alexandria – none of them librarians.
    You suggest that librarians should have “a central role in guiding scholarship”. I’m not sure what you mean by this? You argue that librarians should have stopped the transfer of copyright to publishers – perhaps you are right (although I would suggest that predicting the outcome of this practice is only easy in hindsight). Now the implications are understood, many librarians are giving advice about this – but who is listening?
    Perhaps the Harvard model of establishing an ‘Office of Scholarly Communication’ ( is something other institutions should consider – making the role you assumed librarians had more explicit?
    I would certainly agree that libraries simply haven’t reacted to the vast amounts of information being pushed out on to the web as quickly or as smartly as they should have done. There is still considerable work to do here, and I’m not sure we are close to understanding this as a profession yet. You mention Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive – a truly impressive idea I agree, and I do wonder why libraries weren’t more proactive in establishing something of this nature.
    One of the challenges of the ‘information age'( is that managing and accessing incredibly large amounts of data is a challenge everyone has to engage with – not just librarians. We are all custodians of growing amounts of information that we ourselves are producing. For example I have a collection of over 10,000 digital photographs taken in the last 5 years. If this is to be accessible over a reasonable period even to just me, then I need to be able to manage this ‘library’.
    We also all have access to a huge range of information on the web – whereas even 15 years ago you might have expected a librarian to be an intermediary between a scholar and the information in various databases. In a University context, we can assume that scholars have access to the web from their office or home.
    I would argue that we all need to understand some of the principals of organising information – I would say this is part of the ‘information literacy’ and ‘digital literacy’ agenda. Even this week those engaged in progressing these ideas are gathering in Liverpool ( Librarians are getting more involved in teaching Information Literacy – covering how to find and assess information, aspects of copyright, what plagiarism is.
    Given the need to be able to manage and access information we all need to take on the skills that are embodied in the profession of ‘librarian’. For me, we are all the ‘librarians of the future’.

  2. Oops – LILAC 2009 (as opposed to 2008) is actually happening in Cardiff this week –

  3. Martin Lewis says:

    Not sure if I can claim to be the first research library director to find my way to your excellent blog, but I wanted to comment if only to demonstrate to John MacColl that we’re not completely absent from the blogosphere! And sorry to leave it so late – possibly too late to say anything useful for your debate contribution. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and the comments they’ve elicited, which are important and entertaining contributions to discussion about the university library’s continuing role in research. Here are a few thoughts in no particular order:
    (i) I echo Peter Morgan’s observation that a real and vigorous debate is taking place in a number of spaces, which is not to say that it’s as visible or as inclusive as it needs to be.
    (ii) I agree that we need to come to you (researchers), but we also need – urgently – more researchers like you to joint the debate. Hopefully cloning technology will come to the rescue.
    (iii) For good reason your focus is primarily on our research support role, but it’s important to understand that many university libraries (and I include most Russell Group libraries here) have been highly successful at re-engaging with their institutions’ learning and teaching missions, moving out into academic territory to discuss pedagogy, projecting knowledge-based content into VLEs, teaching information literacy, commissioning bold and vibrant new learning spaces (, etc etc
    (iv) Even the libraries of research-intensive universities are finding that this partnership has proved easier to re-energise than the relationship with researchers, particularly STM researchers, but it does mean that debate about whether there is a future for the university library has a rather passé feel. I’d contend that there’s never been a more exciting time to work in university libraries; and I’d also contend that UK university libraries have by and large been incredibly successful at changing their professional practice and services to meet the challenges of digital knowledge-based information, even if we have collectively missed some opportunities to leverage reform of the scholarly communications model (and the blame for that can be shared with research funders and researchers themselves).
    (v) We are also, certainly by comparison with north America, remarkably cost-effective. Away from Oxbridge (with apologies to my opposite numbers there), our spend per student and researcher fte is generally far lower. But as new workflows are emerging (repository management, rights management, information literacy) faster than the old ones are going away (book issues up, student visits up), we are trying to move ahead on a very broad front, and we’re thinly spread. When Tony Hey castigated librarians for their inactivity on e-research data management I got the impression that he thought the move to digital content had left us with plenty of capacity!
    (vi) In fact we are increasingly active in the emerging areas of research content management such as data (, and you rightly note the importance of JISC to our efforts. But we also face the challenges of dealing with a fragmented national policy arena for research infrastructure, with multiple research funders who have varying degrees of interest in scholarly communications and data, funding for projects but not for sustainable infrastructure, and the added complexity of the dual support system. University libraries cannot deliver this capacity alone, not least because they don’t have the subject domain skills and aren’t likely to be able to afford to acquire them.
    (vii) So a major strand of our debate is about the future size and shape of the research library workforce, if it’s to add value in the ways that you’d like to see. It may be that for a scalable solution we need to attract postdocs into informatics and embed them with research teams (and make them chargeable as directly incurred costs under fEC), and they may not be (nor think of themselves) as librarians, which personally I don’t think matters. I’d also like to see more STM graduates coming into academic libraries, and the STM research community might have a part to play in making that possible, along with our own professional associations.
    I need to get off this train in a minute. Hope the debate goes well and I look forward to following it live-ish.
    For the avoidance of doubt my views are personal ones and not (necessarily) those of the University of Sheffield, or Research Libraries UK, of which I’m a board member.
    best regards
    Martin Lewis
    Director of Library Services & University Librarian
    University of Sheffield

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