The library beyond the library

This post was co-authored with Rebecca Bryant and Richard Urban.

Image of a yellow traffic sign indicating merging, from two directions into one.
“Center lanes merge” from Wikimedia Commons

Research libraries have changed radically over the past thirty years. The library of the past was primarily focused on managing an “outside-in” collection of externally purchased materials made available to local users. This was a well-understood role for the research library, and one that was recognized and valued by the library’s stakeholders, including university administrators, other campus units, and faculty and students. In carrying out this collections-focused mission, the library functioned more or less autonomously on campus as the primary provider of collections-related services. Of course, research libraries did act in collaboration with other libraries in supporting certain aspects of collection management, particularly resource sharing and cooperative cataloging. 

Today, libraries still manage important local collections for use chiefly by local users, but with less insularity and more connection to the network: think of shared print programs, collective collections, and the “inside-out” collection (e.g., digitized special collections, electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs), and research datasets). At the same time, the library has become increasingly engaged in the university research enterprise through an expanding array of research support services, assuming new responsibilities in areas such as institutional repositories, research data management (RDM), institutional reputation management through researcher profiles and research information management, and bibliometrics and research impact services. Activities in these areas are often closely aligned with and directly advance institutional needs and priorities, such as decision support.  

OCLC Research has documented these shifts through its research on collective collections, the evolving scholarly record, research support services, and more. This work has led us to two observations: 

  1. Libraries are increasingly engaged in partnerships with other units across campus in order to address new responsibilities in emerging areas of research support. 
  1. For many of these new responsibilities carried out in the context of cross-campus partnerships, the library role, contribution, and value proposition is not clearly defined or recognized by other campus stakeholders. 

In many instances, the partnerships libraries are forming with other units on campus are new, ad hoc, and sometimes experimental, and the roles, responsibilities, administrative organization, and even the partners involved are often in flux and vary from institution to institution. But we also observe examples of more formalized arrangements emerging (more on this below). Looking ahead, we expect that library engagement in these cross-campus partnerships will need to be accompanied by: 

  1. New operational structures that formalize and facilitate library engagement with other campus units to support the university research enterprise. 
  1. Clear articulations of the library value proposition as it is manifested within the context of these new operational structures. 

The emergence of these new operational structures and value propositions are the foundation of what we call the Library Beyond the Library. Research libraries are engaging in new operational structures that extend beyond the confines of library hierarchies. Through these new structures, libraries are projecting their skills, expertise, services, and roles beyond the library into the broader campus environment, in partnership with other parts of the institution. As libraries support institutional priorities through these new channels, they will need to find ways to communicate an increasingly complex value proposition to campus stakeholders who may be unfamiliar with the library’s new roles and responsibilities. 

The Library Beyond the Library conceptual model is closely aligned with our previous OCLC research on social interoperability. We define social interoperability as the creation and maintenance of working relationships across individuals and organizational units that promote collaboration, communication, and mutual understanding. In many ways, social interoperability is about strengthening the “people skills” needed to support robust cross-unit partnerships that increasingly involve the library. Our work on this topic highlighted the need for improved social interoperability between the library and other campus units in the context of deploying and sustaining research support services.  

But ad hoc cross-campus partnerships are maturing into new operational structures. In this sense, the Library Beyond the Library is an amplification of social interoperability, moving beyond personal relationships to more formal connections that can outlast the tenure of specific individuals, and moving beyond partnerships built on temporary, project-focused goals to more permanent arrangements that become part of the institution’s operational structure. 

The Library Beyond the Library is not about changes in internal library organizational structures. These have been evolving, too (see, for example, Ithaka S+R’s report on library organizational structures, which provides strong evidence of the expansion of library capacities and positions in research support). But there seems to be less recognition and documentation of evolving operational structures where library services and expertise extend beyond the library and across the campus enterprise, in collaboration with non-library units. Many research libraries will find these structures increasingly germane to carrying out their mission in a landscape of new roles, responsibilities, and institutional priorities.  

Navigating these changes effectively is an important strategic and risk management consideration for libraries: failure to do so may result in diminished resources, impact, and influence, with a value proposition that becomes increasingly opaque to the rest of the institution. In light of this, extending the library beyond the library is something that we not only observe, but also advise as a strategy for ensuring ongoing library visibility and impact.  

Although it is still early days, there are some examples where new operational structures involving the library and other campus units have emerged: 

  • The University of Waterloo Library has invested in a Bibliometrics and Research (BRI) Librarian who not only monitors institutional performance and provides analysis for institutional leaders, but also serves as the leader of a campus-wide community of practice around research analytics. Through this leadership role, the BRI librarian provides consultation and expert guidance to other campus units using research analytics tools, leveraging a new operational structure that engages other parts of the institution and extends library expertise and influence. 
  • Saskia Scheltjens, head of the Research Services department at the Rijksmuseum and chief librarian of the Rijksmuseum Research Library, joined that institution in 2016 to establish a new research services unit and combine several existing departments. The resulting research services unit is built around the research library, where digitized collections, digital scholarship, digital knowledge production and sharing, as well as digital learning and communications, act in unison with a world-famous physical collection. Saskia has described how “the library needed to be more than a library,” and it now sits at the center of a new “fundamental hybrid reality,” where the library extends its services and expertise beyond the traditional library collection.  
  • At the University of Manchester, the library is extending its role and leadership for research support with the establishment of a new Office of Open Research (OOR). This new unit supports institutional strategic goals to create a more open and responsible research environment, and the OOR website provides a single point of contact for researchers to connect with services provided not only by the library but by other units on campus. The library is positioned at the center—and as a leader—of campus open research activities. While Manchester seems to be the first UK institution with this type of Open Research unit, other institutions are moving in a similar direction: for example, Sheffield University has also been recently been recruiting for a director to lead a new Office of Open Research and Scholarship. 
  • At Montana State University, a new Research Alliance, composed of both library and non-library research support units, is collocated in the library. This partnership includes non-library units in research development, research cyberinfrastructure, and undergraduate research, in addition to library scholarly communications and data management offerings. Each unit retains its place in the existing campus hierarchy, but the library is operationally positioned as the hub of research support for the institution. 
  • At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the library manages a research information management system (RIMS) that is financially supported by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. By managing a registry of the institutional scholarly record, the library extends its expertise with bibliographic metadata to manage not just library collections, but also faculty profiles, patents, honors, research facilities and equipment, and more, combining data maintained by other campus stakeholders to create a knowledge graph that can inform enterprise-level strategic directions, make expertise discoverable, and support institutional reputation management.

These examples reflect the two key characteristics of the Library Beyond the Library conceptual model:  

  • The partnerships in which the library engages to provide research support services have been formalized into new operational structures that combine the capacities of library and non-library units. A novel operational configuration was created that transcends traditional administrative boundaries, and reflects the array of units around campus contributing toward provision of the services – including the library.  
  • The new units closely connect library value propositions with institutional priorities. For example, Manchester’s Office of Open Research emphasizes that “[t]he University supports the principles of Open Research and researchers are encouraged to apply these throughout the research lifecycle. While engagement with the principles is voluntary, the University expects researchers to act in accordance with funder mandates.” Similarly, Montana State’s Research Alliance makes clear that it brings together units around campus for the purpose of “working together to support and increase the excellence of the university’s research enterprise.” The library’s contribution to these units is surfaced in light of key institutional priorities. 

The Library Beyond the Library is the focus of a new research project at OCLC. Our goal is to describe and illustrate these key changes in library operational structures and value proposition through models and examples. We will also provide an assessment of future directions for libraries regarding these changes, and where possible, suggest gaps and opportunities for data, tools, and other types of operational infrastructure. 

This work builds upon past research at OCLC related to research support (especially research data management) where we have observed the trends underpinning the Library Beyond the Library. But we believe that the main ideas – cross-campus partnerships formalized into new operational structures, along with new articulations of the library’s value proposition – can be extended to other areas of strategic interest to libraries as well.  

To inform our work, we are convening an invitational discussion as part of the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) Leadership Roundtable on Research Support during the week of 17 June, where RLP affiliates will discuss how their libraries are collaborating with other campus stakeholders to provide research support services. Participants have been asked to consider:   

  • How are the library’s research support services evolving in response to university priorities? 
  • How is your library partnering with other campus stakeholders to achieve institutional and library goals in the research support space? 
  • Have cross-campus partnerships in research support led to, or will they lead to, new operational structures? 

RLP Leadership Roundtables provide an opportunity for partner institutions to share information and benchmark services and goals while providing OCLC Research with information to synthesize and share with the broader library community. Participants must be nominated by the RLP institutional partner representative. The RLP Leadership Roundtable on Research Support first convened in March, to discuss current practices and challenges in the provision of bibliometric and research impact services. This gathering was attended by 51 individuals from 33 RLP member institutions in four countries, and highlights from the discussion were synthesized in a recent post.  

We encourage participation from all RLP partner institutions in this upcoming discussion, which will help us refine and expand the ideas in this post as we continue to explore what they mean for libraries and their futures. As with the previous roundtable, we will synthesize the conversation in a blog post for the broader library community. If you have questions about nominations or participation, please contact Rebecca Bryant. We hope to see you there!  

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