21st-Century Research Library Collections

I was fortunate to attend the final session of the recent Association of Research Libraries membership meeting on this topic. The panel of presentations served as the occasion for the release of a new briefing paper for research library directors, “21st-Century Collections: Calibration of Investment and Collaborative Action.”

The paper is the work of the ARL 21st-Century Research Library Collections Task Force, co-chaired by Deborah Jakubs at Duke University, and Tom Leonard at the University of California Berkeley. It’s worth your attention. The paper (pdf) focuses on the collaborative future of collections and looks at the future contours from the perspective of scholars/researchers, content, publishing and infrastructure. It’s very short and intended to be evocative and provocative as opposed to providing a blueprint or schematic on how to assemble the future it outlines. This caused some discussion during the meeting – should ARL be distilling the sense of the community and presenting it back or should it be an organization that organizes its members around an action plan to assemble the future? Given the diversity of the membership and the varying aspirations and resources of the institutions it’s hard to imagine that grand plan execution should be an ARL aspiration. That seemed to be the sense of those still assembled.

The closest to an action schematic in the discussion was the presentation by Wendy Pradt Lougee at the University of Minnesota, who said content is still a core role but the context for investments is changing as are the strategies which will require coordination and collaboration on a new scale. Her presentation titled Content & Collections:Rubrics and Rubiks is a must-read.

Her new rubric presents what I think is the correct formulation of the change that’s imperative and it highlights the inherent problem in arriving at that new equilibrium state. Essentially that state requires us to solve an equation whose left side is the newly optimized local circumstance (priorities, infrastructure, uniqueness) and whose right side is a set of shared supra-institutional factors (goals, priorities, infrastructure and services). The problem with the equation is that it has no constants. For local optimization to occur it needs to be aware of and rely on the supra-institutional factors – those are not yet in place and their characteristics not yet codified in a way that allows local choices to be made and operational processes to be confidently altered..

It seems to me that the challenge to supra-institutional providers of infrastructure and services is to define some of that future infrastructure and service provision in concert with the collective goals and priorities of those they intend to serve. Once defined those providers need to declare their intention to build, offer and sustain those services so that local institutional decisions can be definitively made. In the US there are quite a few actual and aspiring providers of shared infrastructure and services. OCLC is certainly one of the largest and is a pervasive provider along some important dimensions of the library service portfolio. Our challenge is to listen to the emerging desires of our members for a different class of shared services and then exercise leadership that commits to the provision of that infrastructure and those services where we have a unique capacity. This is the kind of change that would provide our members with the constants that let them optimally solve the local equation.

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