FutureCast – the synthesis

To close the FutureCast conference I provided a summary and a synthesis of the two and one-half days we’d been together. Given the series of posts that Merrilee provided you’ve already gotten a very nice summary of the sessions so here I’ll just offer up a brief version of my synthesis.

Our hope for the conference was that we’d create some shared context and arrive at the elements of a shared agenda. We certainly established a shared context and while I can’t say we arrived at a shared agenda we did divine some important places to focus attention.

To synthesize I parsed the various discussions and records of breakout groups into categories that I thought were associated with values of one kind or another. It was these shared values and needs that seemed to me to provide the foundation on which we could build an action agenda. The values and needs sorted into these categories:

Service values – Here I put services that research libraries should be offering and that are likely to be more highly valued by our constituents. There was general consensus on these during the meeting and in many cases we were able to explore how these services would be different than what we’re doing now.

Rising/emerging values- These were needs that participants agreed were on the ascendancy and likely to create a new value proposition for the library but not part of the prior generally accepted set of service needs.

Established/traditional values – These were professional and domain values that kept asserting themselves in discussions representing activities and processes that are currently embedded in the library. They are things we think we have to do.

Some common culture and boundary conditions frame these values and needs and they shape the nature, type and effectiveness of our services, at present and in future. These conditions need to be explicitly acknowledged in discussions. Here’s the picture I used to talk about these values and conditions.

Distinctive Services

Among the service values we heard things where there was consensus that we should be doing them but they were not yet getting attention. In general these might be new to our value proposition. For instance:

  • Collection Development becomes Collection Services.
  • Resource management is configured like a fulfillment agency – this is a necessary infrastructure that lets the library concentrate on and offer other services which in turn joins up with a move to
  • Purchase/Supply on demand which is made more effective through
  • Interinstitutional sharing of services e.g. area studies. Research libraries seem ready, willing and wanting to rely on one another’s scarce services – including scarce or expensive systems. If we reconfigure in this way it lets us get into the business of
  • Providing rich context for information (beyond title metadata) – libraries could be a locus for adding rich context to information objects. This is a value that would be appreciated and noticed. However if we’re going to invest in something like this it demands
  • Staff reconfiguration which is required by many of the things we want to be doing for the future; all of which lead to libraries
  • Expanding boundaries, unbundling and connecting horizontally across the university

The above are examples of an emerging shared expectation of a new configuration of valued services.

Among the rising/emerging values there was some consensus but they are not defined enough yet to be a shared expectation. For instance:

  • Student experience – a renewed attention to the ways the libraries contribute to the student experience
  • Researcher support – provide a different bundle of services in their support, stepping back from something else in order to do this
  • Mix and Re-use – we need to make our collections and items ready for this kind of use
  • Impact amplification – we could play a much bigger and successful role in amplifying the outputs of our local institution
  • Courseware creation – participate in this in a different kind of direct way
  • [Social & crowd-sourcing] – bracketed because we don’t talk about them in a sufficiently precise way to act on them. There is an urge to do these things but not many good examples and a lot of uncertainty that we know the right scale at which they should be done.
  • [Open Access & open access] – there is a distinction between the two – the latter is about interoperability so stuff can play nicely while the former is about changing the business models of scholarly outputs – but neither of them may be very effectively shaped by our actions.

Our shared view of a future set of services is often derailed by our established and traditional values. We can’t do the new things because we need to do such things as:

  • Collect the Scholarly Record
  • Preserve what is being produced
  • Support Global Studies that is, collect for those who don’t collect for themselves.
  • and…

There is a huge tension when we pull forward these established values and needs and impose them on a future service set that has different contours. We need to have an explicit conversation about this. In the future these activities will not be everybody’s job. We need to know who is taking these on. As a small part of our community continues to discharge these traditional services there must be a broad community conversation that sets expectations for the future, that permits a part of the community to rely on the others, that allows the others to sustain these traditional activities and allows everyone to feel confident that these responsibilities will get discharged in a well understood system-wide way.

It’s not only our traditional and established values that stymy change. We struggle against circumstances that are in large part general cultural and boundary conditions. Among those are:

  • Local management systems – so for instance our urges around rich data are bounded by local systems and what they can support making them gating when it comes to change.
  • Work processes – traditional work processes built around format silos and tailored to another operational era persist and keep us from moving on to do the new and the valued.
  • Mission alignment & confusion – we try to align our activities but it is difficult to establish direct impact and often difficult to reconcile university rhetoric with what is actually done.
  • Peer review and tenure – our ability to provide rich context for information is bounded by the traditional academic drivers of reward and promotion. We can understand this but we can’t change it.

All of this suggests that within the OCLC Research Library Partnership there should be a focus on new and emerging distinctive services that define and instantiate some of the new service values that were discussed or that shape some of the rising and emerging service values. OCLC Research in the context of the Partnership can provide:

  • Models – can distinctive services be abstracted from early successes and generalized so that others can provide something similar? do they look the same from place to place?
  • Infrastructure – where some of these services might require new bits of infrastructure to be as good as imagined
  • Prototypes – where they are needed to define the service and ensure general community understanding
  • Socialization – of the expectations that our institutions should have of the future library.

The reinvention of research libraries will challenge familiar expectations about both services and space. We will unbundle the library into a set of services that is separable from the space and more directly joined to the distinctive aspirations of the institution that supports the library.