All futured out: UK public funding and risks to libraries

The future, it seems, has never been as popular as it as at the present time. We talk, think and write about it endlessly. The transformations in the world we live in over the past few decades have induced so much uncertainty that we look to the future because we crave a place where certainty and sureness return. As librarians, curators and archivists, of course, it is a professional duty to keep looking at the future in order to plan ahead, to prioritise, to make maximum impact from available resource and to prove that we manage well. But the current preoccupation with prediction goes much further. It seems likely that we are living through the most future-obsessed era our profession has ever experienced.

My first awareness that librarianship was a profession deeply concerned about its future was with the publication of James Thompson’s The end of libraries, in 1982, which was still a relatively recent work when I first went to library school. Thompson, University Librarian at the University of Reading, was interested in library technology and its potential to liberate libraries from what he saw as a paralysed state of continual growth unrelated to use. In an article of the same title as his book which was published in the then new journal The electronic library the following year he wrote:

One way to by-pass problems would of course be to store in the electronic memory not just the surrogate references, but the full text of the documents.

He didn’t imagine Google, but he did perhaps foresee the changes which are now underway, though he would doubtless have been surprised that they would take 30 years to occur. If the changes have been slow, the pace of future-gazing has intensified over these 30 years, and seems to be currently experiencing rocket thrust. On a recent visit to the National Library of Scotland, I was given a copy of its new discussion document Thriving or surviving? National Library of Scotland in 2030. The National Library of Wales has been less daring by ten years, producing Twenty-twenty: a long view of the National Library of Wales. Both institutions are taking on the challenge of providing national library services within a new sector – what the Scottish report calls small, smart countries.

Beating both of these visions by some distance, JISC, in partnership with RLUK, SCONUL, the BL and RIN, has engaged consultants Curtis & Cartwright to work with a bunch of library sector directors on scenario planning in order to establish whither and whether libraries in the year 2050 – the Libraries of the Future project. Early last week I took part in a workshop where groups of us thought about polarised scenarios for the UK in 2050. All public or all private? Content all open or all closed? I suggested that it may be dangerous to assume that there will even be a UK in 2050, though this was a scenario some were not prepared to entertain.

I also received an invitation a few days ago to an exercise in prospecting the future of the university. The Edgeless University is the title of a recent pamphlet by UK think-tank Demos, which was sponsored by JISC, and gave rise – also last week – to a round-table panel session and seminar held at the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London. The experts were a group of UK university Vice Chancellors and Pro-Vice Chancellors, together with senior executives from funding councils and agencies. What made the event particularly interesting was the presence of two voices from parts of the UK system that may hold some answers to institutions that know they need to become edgeless in some new and probably quite frightening ways. The Open University was represented, and able to talk about operating at scale in ways that universities in consortia may need to emulate. And the University of Buckingham, the UK’s only private university, seems now to be listened to with more respect by universities (and, indeed, funding bodies) who see a need to think of market solutions previously regarded as either too vulgar or too inequitable to contemplate in the UK.

In short, the combination of what Demos calls progressive austerity, and the technology that exercised James Thompson to speculate on new library forms 30 years ago, has prompted a bolder climate of prediction than we have known perhaps at any time in our careers. As I was reflecting upon this, our own report on risk and systemic change in the US research library sector appeared (announced by Merrilee below). The risk scenarios presented here are as real for the UK and other developed countries as for the US, where the evidence was gathered. In presenting the research library sector within a framework of risks and responses, it contains the challenge at the heart of all of this:

It is also important to acknowledge that in research libraries, as in all industries, a risk and challenge may be the shadow of an opportunity.

And, as if to prove that opportunity can emerge in hard times, it goes on in the context of legacy technology to say something I don’t believe I have ever read before in library literature:

This is an area where less, rather than more, library investment may be needed.

Catharsis can be productive.

We future-gaze all the time, but perhaps we don’t pause often enough to consider the most recent conclusions of these efforts, and whether they seem consistent. If I were to hazard such a pause and synthesis on the basis of this recent welter of prediction, I would suggest the following summary of where we in the UK and elsewhere in Europe are collectively headed:

  • The extent of public funding of our libraries and universities will reduce progressively over decades to come. Survival will require some radical changes.
  • The risks we have ignored for years will now undo us unless we take some new risks.
  • New aggregations will emerge to run clusters and networks of the libraries we know today, whose edges are being lost.
  • The reduction in public funding will lead to a more diversified provision. The national libraries of small, smart countries will jettison some of their grander functions (or redirect them to ‘federal’ national libraries like the British Library) and refocus on their public and civic remits. Merged national memory collections – libraries, archives, galleries and museums – will emerge as the appropriate aggregations.
  • The university system will diversify more on the model of the US, with greater concentration at the research university end of the spectrum, achieved through more private investment and a higher share of diminished public investment.
  • Interlibrary-ness will confront a step-change as large as that of 40 years ago when cooperative cataloguing and interlending broke through into institutional operations. The management of library data will follow library systems into cloud provision by external agencies.
  • Multiples of libraries will be managed collectively (regionally and nationally), with institutional library effort largely based around management of place and stack. Research libraries will maintain greater institutional focus, on place and special collections, but will also operate many services in aggregated mode, on an international basis.
  • Reduced public funding will diminish the influence of public funding agencies, and weaken the reliance on progress via grant funding. Improved library services will result from determined leadership acting cooperatively in investment mode.
  • Some library leadership will become detached from institutions and based in consortia.
  • Libraries and what the 2008 JISC TILE report called the library function will remain, though not all individual libraries will, and certainly not all library roles and jobs. It is likely that not all universities will either. As the sector undergoes upheaval, the professional values we care about will be in the hands of library leaders, at institutional and consortial levels. And, as most of the reports and processes mentioned above agree, they had better be good ones.