Mapping the future of academic libraries: a report for SCONUL

8 Dec 2017

The library has traditionally been at the heart of the university. But today academic libraries operate within and contribute to a rapidly changing environment. Being aware of what is changing and ensuring that libraries can continue to play a useful role in higher education (HE) is a profound ongoing challenge. This report has been designed to help address that challenge.

Thinking about the future is difficult. Many of the planning processes in HE institutions focus on annual planning rounds, and strategy development often only has a three- or, at most, five-year window. We have, however, tried to set at least some of our remarks here in a ten year timeframe, but realise this is hazardous. Given the scale of change, we believe such a perspective is essential, but it may take a different type of thinking from what we usually associate with ‘strategy’.

Our study was based on a literature review, interviews and a survey (see Appendix 1 for a full description of the method). We engaged with a range of stakeholders, many of them experts in their field, about the future of academic libraries, carrying out interviews of 33 people from both within and beyond the library community, in the UK and abroad (participants are listed in Appendix 2). We also conducted a survey of staff employed at different levels in UK HE libraries (details of the 261 responses are in Appendix 3). Here we report our findings and our analysis of the recent literature on academic libraries (see Appendix 1).

In this report we highlight our key results, but we have not attempted to be exhaustive. We have tried to reflect the constructive but challenging tone of many of our participants. As well as presenting an analysis of the data, we also offer an interpretation of some of the major implications of our findings. We have tried to make our arguments easily identifiable by structuring the report around a set of propositions which are highlighted as sub-headings.

We begin by discussing key trends in the library and information domain and the way in which they are perceived. Our study has identified a large number of trends, many of which are interrelated and whose importance often lies how they combine together. Specifically, Mapping the Future of Academic Libraries 13 we highlight five major areas in which a nexus of factors is likely to have a significant impact on libraries (defined in detail in section 2: ‘datafied’ scholarship, connected learning, service-oriented libraries, blurred identities and intensified contextual pressures). We discuss understandings of these developments in libraries (section 3), including important continuities in library thinking and what we believe may be gaps in libraries’ current engagement with these issues.

We go on to discuss the issue of the positioning of libraries to respond to current challenges and opportunities (section 4), proposing a multi-faceted approach to the issue of alignment between the library and its parent institution. We then discuss (in section 5) the need for communication between the library and the institution as a whole. Understanding of the role of the contemporary library by stakeholders outside the library is often hazy; libraries need to do more to articulate that role. At the same time, there is an ongoing need for change in library organisations. To help achieve this, we propose that a number of ‘library mantras’ should be questioned (section 6). As a way of thinking about possible futures, we then advance a set paradigms or visions of libraries and their roles in their institutions and beyond.

We go on to identify some of the possible ways in which the role of SCONUL and similar agencies can be developed to help further support the library community (section 7). Finally (in section 8), to summarise our findings we present a set of paradoxes which reveal many of the tensions that libraries have to address. We then make a set of broad recommendations, for academic libraries in general and SCONUL in particular.

Consideration of our report and its recommendations will need to happen in particular contexts. We realise that although libraries are generally impacted by the same or similar trends, in many ways there is no single future for ‘the library’. Libraries differ, just as their user communities and their parent institutions differ. It is likely, therefore, that there may be various futures for libraries (both plural). A key part of these futures relate to the ways in which libraries are able to support their user communities and further the mission of their host institutions.

We hope our report will help the library community in the UK and beyond to think realistically and creatively about mapping the future of academic libraries. If our report gives rise to discussion, debate and reflection and stimulates further in-depth research, then we shall have been successful.

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