The Future of Libraries

In 2013, TopiaU Library Services set out to investigate the big questions about our future. The big questions were:

·       How will libraries remain relevant for users?

·       What changes will institutions and individuals in the educational sector experience?

·       Will ‘library and information professional’ continue to be a necessary and desirable occupation?

TopiaU received challenging, insightful, inspiring responses to our request for feedback from around the World. These are as follows:

1.       The Invisible Library

The more seamless the access to information and resources, the less visible the library becomes. With the advent of global search engines such as Google, Google Scholar, the Free Library and others; the ‘library research experience’ is direct; i.e. 99% of searches are done personally by students and faculty in a modern university sitting at their desk in home or campus; and do not require the help of a third-party librarian. This has been a dilemma facing university libraries, with so much service delivery taking place online and without the intervention of a staff member.

Powerful search engines are making it very easy for users but the quality of the information is often the problem. Librarians can provide a coherent user experience; but should not create unnecessary friction for the user. One strategy is to build strong and deep alliances within the university community; who need quality research.

2.       Switched to digital.

Fewer than 15% of journals today are acquired by university libraries in print format, and while a university’s existing print collection will remain important, contemporary information will predominantly be available in the form of eResources. This increases access to the university’s materials for staff and students, but it changes the dynamics for publishers and aggregators.

Resources must be affordable for university libraries, and commercially viable for the producers. University libraries were the first to get to grips with the digital environment, and over the last 25 years they have developed a balanced approach that works for all. However, there are still challenges around economic models for the future. There is dissatisfaction with the ‘big deal’ — where eJournal publishers bundle together titles, and libraries find themselves with a substantial collection, only a portion of which is used.

3.       Libraries, MOOCs and online learning.

Large student cohorts engaged in online learning will be a game-changer for university libraries. There are many issues that still need to be resolved; such as (1) the copyright implications of MOOCs, (2) the need for library and information professionals to help improve students’ research skills and digital literacy, and the potential for university and public libraries to work together to support distance learners.

While there were concerns that MOOCs might not reach the less advantaged, as originally intended, there was a strong feeling amongst the respondents that large student cohorts engaged in online learning would be a game-changer for tertiary educators in the future. There is a need to find new ways of making materials available to the many thousands of students involved in free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) worldwide. Instead of earning substantial revenue from relatively few users, vendors will need to look at gaining modest returns from many more customers.

 4.       Making space.

Libraries will reimagine spaces for resources, study and research. For print collections, the ‘five-year rule’ has become standard practice internationally. If a book has not been borrowed in the last five years, it is a candidate for removal from the open access shelving and for relocation to the deposit library or offsite storage. While eminently practical, this practice has drawn fire, especially from Arts and Humanities academics, who view the library as their ‘laboratory’. This will continue to be an issue for traditional university libraries, as the opportunity to reimagine library spaces in exciting ways for study and research competes with the traditional view of libraries as places for books.

 5.       Patron driven acquisition.

Users will play a greater role in collection development and resource acquisition. The digital publishing environment has made patron driven acquisition achievable for academic libraries. Instead of staff purchasing resources ahead of use, library users find a journal article they need and it is purchased for their use, as well as being available to others. Automating these processes has already begun to change the roles of acquisition teams and liaison staff.

 6.       Libraries as publishers.

University-produced data and materials will become even more accessible via the library. Research and publishing are interlinked. As university libraries become even more engaged in academic research projects, the greater the opportunity to explore new ways of publishing content and disseminating the basic research data. Library and information professionals are strongly supportive of the open access movement, and while this approach may not be possible with commercial publishers, university produced materials can be made available through an open access model.