Libraries of the future, plurality and multi-scalarity

April 4th, 2009 by John

JISC and Oxford University Library Services hosted a meeting in Oxford on Thursday to mark the conclusion of JISC’s Libraries of the Future Campaign. The event took place in the afternoon, with a series of challengingly short presentations from a set of well-known librarians and commentators: Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford; Chris Batt – former Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council; Santiago de la Mora, of Google Books (Europe); Peter Murray-Rust, Reader in Molecular Informatics at Cambridge; and Robert Darnton, Harvard University Librarian. The event was amplified – in the way JISC is now becoming very good at – with bloggers and microbloggers in place, a Twitter-feed beamed onto one of the three projection screens; a Second Life version of the event (featuring the usual Star Wars cast of avatars) displayed on another; and a live video-stream of the event available from JISC’s website. In fact, it was possibly overamplified, as I realised at one point when I checked the website to see not only that a particular colleague was obviously present in the audience somewhere behind me, but that his laptop screen was also in view (fortunately displaying only innocent windows, as far as I could see). Next moment, a tweet appeared on the Twitter-feed screen exclaiming about the fact that people’s screens were visible. While there are some obvious benefits to amplification, the splitting of attention that it engenders can sometimes seem to defeat the point of having a conference, which is an opportunity for concentration. I expect we will move towards a happy medium in due course, and JISC is leading the way in helping us find it.

There were several useful insights. Sarah Thomas presented the Bodleian as intertwining past and future with the interesting phrase used in its literature about the New Bodleian, Rediscovering our radical past. Chris Batt thought that librarians should turn themselves into ‘Knowledge Warriors’ (and a glance at the Second Life audience suggested some had already done so). Santiago de la Mora, talking about Google having digitised seven million books, estimated that 75% of books in library collections were in-copyright but out of print, and so off-web. Google wanted to ‘bring them back to life’. Peter Murray-Rust’s presentation was eagerly awaited, since he had prepared for it by blogging as he did his research over the last couple of weeks. I had sent him a comment, of which he reproduced only the first paragraph in his blog (which gave my theory as to why so few librarians had responded to his requests for views). The piece he omitted sketched out my interests in how libraries need to be plural and address issues of multiple scale, and what this means for library leadership. It said the following:

We have many opinions within our group about the future of libraries. Lorcan Dempsey, who leads the Research Division, talks about them a lot on his blog, as do my colleagues and I who work with our ‘RLG Partnership’ – an international grouping of research libraries, museums and archivists – in hangingtogether.org. Some recent library future-gazing has been prompted by the recent visit to OCLC in Dublin Ohio by Richard Ovenden, Associate Librarian at the University of Oxford, whose Distinguished Seminar presentation was commented on in our blog by Merrilee Proffit. Merrilee mentions the recent Taiga Provocative Statements document, and our own Information Contexts document of almost two years ago.

I am increasingly aware that ‘the library’ in a university means very different things to its different constituencies of users. For the humanities scholars considered by Richard Ovenden in much of his presentation, the library is still a place, but one with an imaginatively created digital alter-ego which supports rich scholarship for users both on- and off-campus around the world. For you and your colleagues, and many researchers in the natural sciences, the library is really about information engineering. Those two views of library have some features in common, I think. There is unity around the concepts of authority and archive, for example. What library leaders need to be able to do is to assert the functions which are common to different views of library on campus, and at the same time be prepared to present the library in different guises to different communities without pretending that a single model can be relevant. In order to do this, they need also to accept that the task is not achievable on an institutional basis. There are new scale challenges at work – because of digital networks and Web 2.0 – which mean that they must look to collaborations and global-level solutions in order to deliver the various presentations of library successfully to their institutions (see for example Lorcan’s comments on shared systems and ‘scalar emphasis’). The library leaders who can achieve this will be valued by their senior academic colleagues in the way library directors once were, but seem to be more rarely these days.

I think perhaps I was one of several commentators who urged Peter to read things, because it seemed to motivate him to base his presentation on the idea that librarians spend too much time thinking and reporting, when they should just go out and do things (by which he meant write software). So, plurality and multi-scalarity got rather short shrift – though I was aware that Lorcan (on Twitter) was commenting about the latter, and Ken Chad, warrior-like in the audience, fired a hefty cannon at libraries (including OCLC and the BL) for having let Google steal the initiative and failing to aggregate to achieve the scale required.

JISC has done us a service by raising a debate on this topic – even if this event could only provide a partial airing to its issues. Jennifer Schaffner pointed me at a recent Chronicle article by Johanna Drucker on libraries and digital humanities, which contains the fascinating claim that the future of the library is largely the responsibility of scholars, rather than librarians. But I feel most indebted of all to Dorothea Salo who, on her own blog, independently of the JISC event, pointed to a very relevant discussion from two and a half years ago:

Second, John Dupuis’s well-done fisking of the latest Taiga Forum effort led me to hunt for antidotes to Taiga poison. I found an excellent one, in the shape of transcripts and webcasts from this University of Texas event on the 21st-century research library. I commend especially to your attention Cliff Lynch’s jawdroppingly brilliant lecture on the 11th. When I say that Cliff Lynch has a very shiny brain, this is the kind of thing I mean. His is a future that makes sense to me and that I want to work for, grounded in a realistic, recognizable present.

I took Dorothea’s advice on the morning after the JISC/Oxford event. The first thing that struck me is Cliff’s description of his talk as about research library futures (plural). He goes on to provide a typically eloquent analysis of the future of the research library in the university, which takes in the role of e-science across all disciplines, the challenge of data curation, and the as yet not properly faced task of preserving and curating data and resources of undoubted evidential value, which don’t fit the research library acquire/license paradigm. Much of what needs to be collected will have no capital cost associated, but will present an ongoing maintenance burden for which we might need to think about using endowments. In a comment which could almost be taken as the motive for our new Research Information Management programme, he suggests that – beyond writing cheques for the scientific literature which is presented in journal form – many of our research libraries have not had real interaction with scientists over the last decade. Scale issues are addressed with reference to data too. How much should be done institutionally, and how much at national level (and here Cliff applauds the UK data centres, including the late-lamented Arts & Humanities Data Service, ironically closed down following the decision by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to withdraw funding last year)?

This is an excellent verbal essay on the research library of the future. Cliff’s conclusion seemed to me a very fitting contribution to the JISC issues debate:

The question should not be ‘What is the future of the research library in the 21st century university?’, but ‘What are our collective strategies in research universities for organising, collecting, providing access to and preserving the evidence, output and communication of scholarship?’ That is the way to frame the question. It points to the need for a coherent, systematic institutional strategy that encompasses not just our libraries but all of the cultural memory activities that are based on our campuses.

I agree with Peter Murray-Rust that it is sometimes right to just do it. But there are also some people around whose thinking is so helpful that we should allow them to help us just think about it first.

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