There is no argument even from traditionalists that the library role is changing. But there is a great deal of confusion and sometimes fear about what that means, and what the future might look like.
On 3 June, Lorcan Demsey* came to speak to staff at Cambridge University Library about how the role and purpose of libraries are changing. The slides from his talk are available on Slideshare.
The one sentence headline from the talk was that research libraries are moving from licensing published content to managing workflow and research outputs – which means the print collection needs to be managed down to free up resources for the new roles. The subhead is – if we don’t do this, the publishers are waiting in the wings to take over.
Modern libraries in research environments
The Library role is distilling from owned materials to facilitating access to many things. Changing focus to ‘discovery’ in the collection means there must be a loss of some of the items.
Lorcan noted that his sense is that there is still a low uptake of this concept. As someone who has been working in scholarly communications for over a decade. I agree.
The collection as a means to an end rather than an end it itself – in some ways this is obvious but in others it is a huge psychological shift.
- In a print world, researchers and learners organised their workflow around the library. The library had a limited interaction with the full process.
- In a digital world the Library needs to organise itself around the workflows of research and learners. Workflows generate and consume information resources.
In libraries there is a separation of the discovery and the collection – library users are on the global level. The library will make some available and own some of those.
Change of focus
The research endeavour has moved from a focus on outcomes to begin to think about a range of activities around the process and the aftermath.
The traditional role of a library – outside of special collections and manuscripts – deals with outcomes like the books and journals. In this model students and researchers interact with the books and journals and then turn it into classically published works that come back into the library.
But we live now in an online world and the Library is interacting with the content in many different ways. There is interest in the process of research –methods, evidence and research data. There is also interest in the discussion around research through pre-prints, working papers and a variety of prepublication activity. This involves revision, derivative works and reuse. Copyright is important in these cases to let people know how things will be used.
This means that ‘collections’ from a library perspective now include the process, methods, discussions and outputs as well as books and journals.
From curation to creation
Mediated access to licensed material is becoming more streamlined, and other items becoming more available. Libraries are supporting creation, not just consumption.
Libraries need to be seen as a source for collaboration. There needs to be a partnership between the Library and the Faculty. The library is a partner in terms of the creation activity. The mediating role will continue.
Managing this transition is often done opportunistically – when people retire they are replaced with new skill sets.
The repository was seen by the Libraries initially as something in relation to artefacts but now it is seen as part of the workflow of the research lifecycle. There is less attention on what is coming in and more focus on sharing material back out.
Show me the money
There is a question around how much of this activity will be supported by the institution? And how is the resource shifting occurring in the libraries?
Lorcan said that while libraries talk about a growing interest in special collections and archives, there is no evidence from a budget perspective that this is being supported.
Publishers are trying to muscle in
Managing online identities
There is considerable interest amongst researchers in having a carefully tended online presence. This is time consuming, and would appear to be important to the researchers. This process is becoming intimately tied to publication – it is where people are announcing their publication.
Lorcan mentioned a study in Nature which was a survey of 3,000 scientists and engineers. They found 6% used Google Scholar, but more than half were using ResearchGate more regularly than LinkedIn. Not surprisingly this behaviour can be broken down by discipline. The social sciences tend to use Google Scholar, and academic.edu has low use by engineering and sciences. There are many solutions to the workflow to help researchers. Many of these will go away, but some are quite heavily used.
Thinking historically, a catalogue covers the material a library owns. The library has a discovery layer and a license. However this activity will have to shift to support creation. We have repositories, Google Scholar, ResearchGate etc. The incentive to use the repository is very low compared with these services.
A gap in the market?
Workflow is the new content – managing identity is where a lot of the focus is. Publishers are trying to position themselves as the service provider in this space.
Many libraries do not see their role as managing evolving scholarly records – the research and learning material. The curation of identity for researcher profiles is a big interest. This is often currently managed by research offices.
However this is a space into which publishers are moving. Several big publishers are now trying to be part of the full cycle for researchers.
For example Elsevier has two products – Pure is a content management system for research reporting and Mendeley is an academic social network. It is no coincidence that the word ‘solution’ is in the url thread. Similarly, Macmillian (publishers of Nature) recently bought Digital Science the company that created the equivalent products Symplectic and figshare. Digital Science was not included in the Macmillan Springer merger, possibly because they still need substantial investment. Lorcan noted that people see them as ‘plucky start-ups’ but they are owned by big publishers. There has been a big take-up of these services.
Lorcan showed a quote from Annette Thomas, CEO of Macmillian Publishers about ‘A publisher’s new job description’.
Her view is that publishers are here to make the scientific research process more effective by helping them keep up to date, find colleagues, plan experiments, and then share their results. After they have published, the process continues with gaining a reputation, obtaining funds, finding collaborators, and even finding a new job. What can we as publishers do to address some of the scientists’ pain points?
As Lorcan observed – you can take out the word ‘publisher’ and replace with the word ‘library’.
Managing down collections
Libraries are increasingly wanting to organise their space around the student experience not around collections. Lorcan used a grid to illustrate the changing focus. The two distinctions were:
- Whether items are in many collections or are rare or unique.
- Whether items require stewardship. Items that are high stewardship items are looked after and resources are spent on them. Items that are low stewardship don’t get looked after in Libraries.
At one extreme is licensed materials which are high stewardship/many collections. The opposite corner is research materials which are only available in a few collections and are low stewardship.
Lorcan said he thinks in the future there will be a focus on distinctive collections. There needs to be a lot more money to do this. So licensed purchased material will be more streamlined. Management attention 15 years ago was on highly managed, licensed items, but now the focus has shifted to items of low stewardship.
Inside out library
Market materials: licensed/purchased stuff. Library as broker and telling users that these things are available in a special way.
Distinctive collections: Library is provider and want to maximise discoverability. Want other people to know about faculty expertise, and research data. Putting into own discovery layer doesn’t help there. Think about metadata and which aggregators are important. Been slow to realise that discoverability is vital.
These have very different dynamics. We want to share material held within the library with the rest of the world. The licensed stuff is external and libraries bring it in to share internally. This is inside out.
Traditionally libraries deal with published, purchased material (including special collections). However there is a shift away from acquisitions to demand. This means that libraries need to redirect their resources towards research support. One way of doing this is to manage down the print collection.
There was an explosion of publishing after the Second World War. In the same way that baby boomers are all retiring at the same time, we are now faced with the challenge of managing these collections down.
Challenges for identity
The managing down of print collections coincides with the push to repurpose space in libraries. There are many discussions with architects – managing down print means there must be refurbishment.
One of the issues emerging for libraries is: Without the books, does the campus see this as the Library? Is the space needed for the Library – could they be replaced by learning commons or the student union?
We can see the identity discussion about libraries emerging now. If we are managing down collections, what is the space for? What are the new services we offer? Lorcan mentioned media stories where librarians are being attacked by historians who see this as managerial, technocratic activity.
Lorcan described some of the shared collection activities happening in the USA.
We used to think of the Library as a collection. Now we need to think of the Library in terms of the user and their workflows.
We must move to more facilitated access to items, also move to the management and disclosure of curated materials. The print and digital scholarly record needs curation and co-ordination at a conscious national level.
The job is about restructuring the means but we need to make decisions about moving resources or bets on the future. Libraries must shift from an organisation where the end was known to one where we must take some risk.
Published 6 June 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
* Lorcan coordinates strategic planning and oversees Research, Membership and Community Relations at OCLC. He has worked for library and educational organizations in Ireland, the UK and the US. His influence on national policy and library directions is widely recognized. He is on Twitter – @LorcanID