4 Very Different Futures Are Imagined for Research Libraries

October 19, 2010

Research is moving online, and more and more users have moved away from thinking of the research library as the gateway to it. In the brave new digital world, librarians have to figure out new ways to engage with communities whose interest they used to be able to take for granted.

It's difficult to determine how to revamp what you do and position your institution for long-term survival if you have no idea what kind of future you'll have to operate in. So the Association of Research Libraries prepared four scenarios that describe what the research environment might look like in 2030. Previewed at the group's annual meeting last week in Washington, D.C., those scenarios are being made public today.

The four story lines do not try to lay out what libraries themselves will need to do to be relevant 20 years from now. Instead they seek to describe the broader research environment in which libraries' "future users" might be operating. Libraries are encouraged to imagine how they might fit into that environment, said Karla Strieb, the association's assistant executive director for transforming research libraries. The scenarios come with a long user's guide and are meant to be used in a variety of ways, said Ms. Strieb. Those include organizing workshops and strategic-planning sessions along with more free-form exercises— "stretching your thinking and looking at the future differently," she said, and "understanding the dynamics that are playing out around us."

The elements that make up the scenarios came out of a two-day workshop involving 30 representatives from the library association's North American membership. Most were library directors, along with a couple of what she calls "provocateurs" who specialize in technology and culture. A strategic-consulting specialist helped guide the process.

Working for Researchers

The first scenario, "Research Entrepreneurs," lays out a future in which "individual researchers are the stars of the story." Corporations and philanthropists directly support the best and brightest, who "produce insights that dazzle readers, leaders, and markets." Creativity matters more than institutional or disciplinary affiliations; the best researchers write their own contracts. Research institutions "increasingly function to provide support services" rather than driving the research agenda.

Scenario No. 2, "Reuse and Recycle," describes a gloomier 2030 world in which "disinvestment in the research enterprise has cut across society." With fewer resources to support pathbreaking new work, research projects depend on reusing existing "knowledge resources" as well as "mass-market technology infrastructure." Research is likely to be less ambitious and to be "cobbled together in ephemeral and often small-scale projects." In this scenario, research institutions don't bring much to the enterprise "beyond loose organizing capacities, matching services, low-level overhead, and symbolic capital." The "crowd/cloud" approach is widespread, producing information that is "ubiquitous but low value."

The third scenario, "Disciplines in Charge," appeared to generate the most interest at the library association's meeting. In this projection, "computational approaches to data analysis" rule the research world. Scholars in the humanities as well as the sciences "have been forced to align themselves around data stores and computation capacity that addresses large-scale research questions within their research field." (Digital humanists might take issue with the choice of "forced" there.) Discipline-level "organizational structures"—not necessarily resembling the scholarly associations of today—set the research agenda and control who gets money and which researchers get to participate.

Scenario No. 4, "Global Followers," describes a research climate much like what we know now, except that the Middle East and Asia take the lead in providing money and support for the research enterprise. Globe-spanning collaborations crop up around large-scale projects. Institutions as well as individual scholars will follow the lead of those parts of the world, which will also set the "cultural norms" that govern research. That eastward shift affects "conceptions of intellectual property, research on human subjects, individual privacy, etc.," according to the scenario. "Researchers bend to the prevailing wind rather than imposing Western norms on the cultures that increasingly lead the enterprise."

Out of Control

All four scenarios lay out conditions that research libraries—and their parent institutions, not to mention individual researchers—have little control over. The forces at play are far bigger than any single entity. Anne R. Kenney, university librarian at Cornell University, said thinking in those terms may assist research libraries "in considering their options and priorities in a future not shaped by them."

At Cornell, Ms. Kenney said via e-mail, the library administration is beginning a new planning process focused on the university's sesquicentennial in 2015. "I plan to use the scenarios to engage staff and key stakeholders in mapping things out," she said. Asked for an example, she pointed to Scenario No. 4. Its emphasis on institutional collaborations "would lead me to strengthen special relationships with leading research and university libraries in China that will be critical to Cornell's research and scholarship," Ms. Kenney said. "We have already begun that by developing a mature partnership with Tsinghua University Library," she noted.

The cumulative point made by the scenarios is that librarians should think imaginatively about what could happen and not get hamstrung by too-narrow expectations. (The phrase "adapt or die" comes to mind.)

"The one thing about the scenarios that I would caution against is trying to 'fix' them or reshape them by some preconceived notion of what role research libraries will and should be playing," Ms. Kenney said. "The value of the scenarios isn't in the specifics they present but the process of considering alternatives and institutional responses to them."