Libraries of the Future – session 1

After a ten-minute delay, Vincent Gillespie welcomed the fashionably late delegates to the afternoon’s conference, What is the library of the future?  Not only are there attendees present at the Martin Wood Lecture Theatre in Oxford, but also in Second Life; and coverage of the day is available via this blog and Twitter.

He handed over to Dr Sarah Thomas, of the University of Oxford, for the formal welcome. She talked about the foundation of the Bodleian library, the collections available in Oxford, and the importance of libraries in the future.  She argued that the past and the future are not polar opposites, but need to be integrated to move forward.

Malcolm Read, executive secretary of JISC, thanked Dr Thomas for her welcome.  He expected this conference to shed light on the ideas currently circulating and hoped that it would shape both libraries and librarians of the future.

Perspective: librarian – Dr Sarah Thomas (Bodley’s librarian and director, Oxford University Library Services)

The container of the content has changed, but the content itself lives on.  What will be obsolete in the next few years? Getting lost; house keys; ugliness; cosmetic surgery; death – and libraries, circa 2018?  Google contributes to confusion with its mission to organise information and make it universally accessible and useful – something no single library or consortium has achieved – but it doesn’t actually serve all the roles of a library.  There is a fallacy that everything is digital, and that what is digital is freely available, and that libraries only store books – this fails to recognise the library’s real role.

The library’s central core of identity has stayed the same over centuries.  Although methodology changes with technology, this stays the same, and meeting user needs remains crucial in the library of the future.  Physical libraries will serve as destinations for people who wish to engage with other people and artefacts in the pursuit of understanding; but technology makes it possible for almost anywhere to become a library.  Library buildings can include traditional reading rooms – cherished by all ages of readers, and likely to remain over time, but undergoing transformations as students and scholars use computer technology in their creative work.  Less formal rooms with soft chairs, coffee, conversation and consumer devices are developing in the future – libraries won’t just be silent.  Group study spaces will bring students together to work on team assignments according to the curriculum, supporting peer learning.  Masterclasses will reach new groups of users. In the physical library environment, fewer books will be housed in immediate proximity to readers. Outreach work will become a greater part of the librarian’s role.

Today, libraries devote their budget to managing their print inventories.  In future, libraries will receive batches of content from suppliers with appropriate meta-data.  Text-based information will be augmented by visual and aural media.  Users will expect seamless integration.  Geographical references will be linked to maps and atlases.  Some digital publications are already pointing the way to this state, and some libraries are already using this concept – it will become ubiquitous and pervasive.

For some time now, devices have become smaller – the iPhone points the way.  Kindle is available on the iPhone. Phones are data-enabled, and libraries can be wherever that phone is, streaming data at requests.  There will still be a need for hardware and software to enable editing of multimedia compositions.  Against the backdrop of social networking tools, libraries will offer their services via those media.

Librarians have been active in the world of scholarly communications.  Placing academic work in open-access repositories is likely to become more common.  There is a growing recognition that research data should be accessed and re-used.

Partnerships will become more prevalent – sharing cataloguing, sharing responsibility for preserving materials, integration across institutions (eg a common service for cataloguing mutual acquisitions).  Today, institutions find that resource sharing is making shared collection building a desirable alternative to costly duplication.  There is a trend towards shared storage – in the UK, universities are collaborating to decide which journals should be held by the British Library.

As the library develops, it will need new skills – lawyers to assist in interpreting intellectual property; MBAs to support entrepreneurial activities; audio-visual experts; statisticians to prepare surveys as part of evidence-based managements; IT skills will be essential.

Rumours of the demise of the book are greatly exaggerated. Special collections will rise in importance. Library buildings will remain at the centre of the university, bringing people to explore exhibitions, to house teaching, to provide spaces for study.  Libraries will be for collaboration, learning, and creating new knowledge.  Staff will expand their skills, but most important will be their ability to collaborate with many partners.

If you’re standing still, change looks fast.  If you go with the flow, it will seem effortless.  Libraries remain thrilling places.  The future of the library is bright.  Libraries will continue to evolve but remain true to connecting knowledge-seekers with the accumulated knowledge of the past for the advancement of individuals and society.

Perspective: public sector – Chris Batt OBE, head of Chris Batt Consulting

It’s more important to talk about librarians of the future, not libraries of the future.

First, which future are we talking about? Clay Shirky (in Here Comes Everybody)  and Susan Greenfield (in Tomorrow’s People) have different visions.  Are we talking about social networking changing the production of books?  Or are we talking about e-book readers?  Why haven’t we all tried them?  It’s different to reading a book, but it’s just as engaging.  We need to understand how to react to change – but making sense of today is also difficult.

Different sectors respond to change at different speeds. Traditional print media is disappearing. The music industry is trying to deal with ideas like iTunes. In the third sector, we see rays of light – people are applying themselves to trying to change the world.  On TheyWorkForYou.com, people work together to change policy.

A SWOT analysis of libraries –

Strengths – public libraries are still very popular; libraries can target particular audiences, and targeted offerings are vital parts of the future; the reading group movement; experimenting with new technologies.

Weaknesses – fragmented service (credit cards can be used everywhere; library cards can’t be, and the rules and regulations are different); the leadership paradox (too much leadership means nobody can agree what to do); lack of resources to explore a collective present, let alone a collective future.

Opportunities – all institutions have the chance to respond to government reports, and be part of learning for life; public libraries have a strong network and brand potential, and act as community interface.

Threats – the public good value is not recognised; there is a lack of national coherence; private sector creep (moving into areas traditionally covered by libraries, eg Amazon renting DVDs); failure to plan for change (you can prepare for uncertainty).

So what?  What does that mean for us and the future?  I can offer some things to do.  Library workers of the country unite!  We used to have Inspire, but that was trying to get libraries to work together and share resources – this ought to be the norm everywhere.  Start to be reflective.  My experience is that library workers tend not to – they are focused on doing things.  Stop and think about what the future could be like, and do some practical scenario planning.  After that, build a common narrative.  Find some new friends – friends that matter.  The Chancellor.  The Prime Minister.  Whoever it’s necessary to talk to.  Other sectors do it.

We must shift from “librarian” to “knowledge warrior” – people committed to wanting to change the relationship between the information and the people who want it.  We need a knowledge sector that can define, mediate, manage and lead the public landscape of the learning society.  This will lead to people with new skills, new organisational structures, and new partnerships.

The mission needs to be to remove all barriers to access.  In terms of public access, we need to forge a universal right to knowledge.  That means integrating knowledge into everyday life, and empowering everyone to want to learn.

Perspective: scientific researcher – Peter Murray-Rust 

What is happening in the world is bypassing university libraries.  I talk to colleagues and the feeling is that libraries for STM (science, technical, medical) are not useful. That’s not my polemic view – that’s reporting on having spoken to people.  When I got feedback from technologically-aware librarians, they informed me that they are doing a good job that is not being appreciated, and I should stop criticising.  I wasn’t criticising – I’m trying to tell it as it is.  The librarian of the future will not come from the librarian of the present.  The librarian of the future will be a revolutionary.

What do scientists want?  They want quality peer-review.  They want immediate access to published information, and to access it electronically, and possibly in chunks, rather than the entirety of a paper.  They want help in writing papers and grant applications.  They want a personal collection of papers. They want recognition for their work.

In the future, all information will be free and online, and everyone will be pervasively connected.  Things change on the web through evolution, not through planning.  Neglect the major players at your peril (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft).

Putting information and research (including code and demonstrations) online in open-access repositories is vital.  If your repositories don’t look like SourceForge, you’re not doing it right.

Publishing giants govern the direction of scholarly publication. We had the chance to control scholarly publication through the university presses, and we didn’t. Vice chancellors need to feel that they are losing the plot, because they are.  Google may Do No Evil today, but what will happen in the future?

Tim Berners-Lee’s phrase is “Just do it”.  Why are universities not helping Wikipedia become a teaching and learning organisation?  The bit of Wikipedia I wrote is in my view correct.  Wikipedia is all versioned.  Stamp it at a point in time and say that a page is fit for purpose.  I don’t know how librarians of the future will do it, but they need to get out there, and just do it.

Questions and answers

Q: Chris, when you talked about the fragmentation and the lack of national coherence, I had a strong view – it’s not a problem for Tesco and M&S.  Why can you not have different types of the same thing?

Chris: The issue is that the range of difference between libraries is quite significant, but it’s not clear to the users.  Services need to interoperate much more.

Q: I asked librarians to become informaticians.

Sarah: Rhymes with mortician!  I don’t worry about labels, it’s more important what you do.

Chris: Knowledge is an important word because it means something. The government are interested in the knowledge economy. Informaticians is something you’d have to explain.

Q: What role do university presses have to play?

Peter: I don’t think they can recover. I have great praise for some organisations that publish and research, but others see themselves as profit-making organisations.

Q: Can you each give us one skill a librarian will need in the future?

Peter: Programming.

Chris: Advocacy.

Sarah: Multi-tasking.

Q: What about the library as a collaborative workspace and the role of 3D virtual worlds?

Peter: I am a great believer in virtual worlds.  I have a Second Life avatar with no clothes on. I say go for it, make it work.

Chris: It’s something that has to play a part in the future.

Sarah: We have an increasingly global world with people using that technology to break down barriers and we’ll continue to see that.