• August 28, 2015

4 Very Different Futures Are Imagined for Research Libraries

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."


1. sivavaid - October 19, 2010 at 05:30 am

Oh my. The assumptions embedded in each of these scenarios are troubling and unfounded. What a profound waste of time!

2. daveapostles - October 19, 2010 at 05:59 am

There is a real problem in the UK. This Coalition is removing support for the humanities and social sciences. The implication will be that our universitiy libraries will have difficulty funding the purchase of anything beyond the basics for these broad areas in the future. Concurrently research funding is being squeezed, so researchers in these broad areas will either have to fund their own visits to specialist (i.e. the legal deposit) libraries or have some solution through electronic delivery.

3. azfaculty - October 19, 2010 at 09:23 am

Interesting article. I think we're likely to see a mix of these scenarios, as opposed to "one-or-the-other." In fact, I think that libraries are already following some of the tenets of this proposal. For the humanities, the problem with Scenario #2 (reuse and recycle) and #4 ("global followers") is that they don't encourage, and even discourage creativity. I think about my colleague who got tenure for getting other people to run his website that consists of documents gathered, not authored by him, and who measures his scholarly productivity in terms of how many "hits" his website gets.

4. matthewsm - October 19, 2010 at 09:45 am

azfaculty: Your colleague isn't a parasite, he's an aggregator! Expect him to deliver a lionized presentation at ACRL, be promoted to associate professor, and have a write-up as a "mover and shaker".

Meanwhile, you, with your quaint notions of scholarship will be mousing around with musty books in the basement of the university library. I hope you packed a lunch, because you're going to be in Nowhere-ville for a while.

5. cdwickstrom - October 19, 2010 at 10:28 am

If I am reading this correctly, as the digital cloud continues to grow, developing tools to navigate through it with precision, creating mechanisms to gather the dew drops of interest, and arraying the contents of the vapor container in some logical order will drive research librarians in the future. Interesting that we have come around to the point where having your head in a cloud is not only useful, but necessary.

6. gnodean - October 19, 2010 at 10:55 am

I would be interested to know what researchers in the humanities think of these scenarios. What do we need from the academic library now, and given where research in our fields is going, what will we need from libraries in the future? How can we influence our institutions to invest in the libraries--and the library futures--we need?

7. kar88692 - October 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

Typical of libraries...they look for answers from within instead of from their users. Librarians do not use their own products, so they are the last people to ask about future use.

They have chosen to devote their souls and energies to the mostly irrelevant monoliths, like OCLC, that have kept them from exploring more forward looking information navigation strategies.
Clearly, libraries have already lost their preeminent place in the process of research. They must look towards the services that they alone can provide, namely access to the unique materials they hold. Sadly, as their relevance declines, notions of free access and the preservation of our history are likely to get lost in the process.

8. 11893310 - October 19, 2010 at 01:33 pm

kar88692 makes a very useful point. Unfortunately, undergraduate and master's degree serving libraries, fancying themselves mini-research libraries, will imagine they must accommodate to one or more of these scenarios or those of the June 2010 ACRL document, "Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians," which lists 26 (count them) possiblle scenarios all neatly organized into a "scenario space visulaization tool," reflecting the presumed expert judgement of ACRL members.

Whatever happened to the idea of making, designing our own future rather than trying to guess at it? I think it highly unlikely we can make enough correct assumptions about the "future" for these scenarios to serve any useful purpose. They do, however, serve to keep libraries and librarians busy, busy, busy planning and executing for a future they hope to control and manage. You wonder why sensible provosts and CFOs let them do it. The track record of "futurologists" is most discouraging, if you trust them, that is.

Instead of worrying about a future we cannot control, no matter how rational our planning, perhaps we should focus on the present learning needs of students (which will always be with us), and how those needs intersect with the information environment and the experiences teachers want their students to have (and by this I do not mean "information literacy"). Many of our students can barely read, write, or enumerate, and these are the basic information seeking and handling tools.

The future never arrives; the present is all we ever have to work with. But, librarians wish to remain employed, of course. I also suspect librarians may be somewhat panicked, to say nothing of the profs in the library and info tech schools, who like graduate English profs, have to keep enrollments up, regardless of what happens once the grads are out the door. In a way, it's rather sad to read all the wishful thinking embedded in scenarios of the future and hear the whistling in the dark increasingly prevelant among librarians. There's lots of very good work to be done with learning and information, if they could only see it and embrace it, instead of the tea leaves that will get them nowhere.

9. g8briel - October 19, 2010 at 02:51 pm

I agree with #7 and #8 that it is more important for libraries to look to their users needs rather than guess at the future. I disagree with the implication that they are not doing that. In fact I would argue that often there is often an over-emphasis on assessment in libraries; librarians are constantly surveying their users and running them through focus groups and usability tests-- or at least the ones I work with.

The occasional visioning of what the future might look like can actually be useful if it doesn't drive the whole library. Educated guesses can be a good way to get the ball rolling early in academia. Since it takes a long time for most academic institutions to adapt to new environments starting early can hardly be a bad thing, especially if you don't accidentally over-invest in what turns out to be a bad idea.

Also, not all librarians are panicked by the changes occurring in the information landscape. I take confidence in knowing that my library skills are more relevant than ever because the deluge of information scholars have to deal with today. It is true, some services within libraries are becoming obsolete, and perhaps that is what the negative commentators about the library profession are focused on. That focus, however, misses the larger picture.

10. popboy - October 20, 2010 at 12:04 am

Chinese scholars are busy with political struggle while doing their research, even in top universities. I cannot imagine how they become dominant within 20 years. However, this is entirely possible, because China is a place where whatever might happen. Anyway, this is sad.

11. techadopter - October 21, 2010 at 04:09 pm

The availability of journals electronically has revolutionized literature research. When I run into a relavent citation in my work, I 1) go to my university's list of e-journals to find it, or 2) go to the journal web site if we do not subscribe. If it appears that I need to read the paper, I'll download a PDF. Gratefully, I have access to a small budget that I can apply to such things.

Within the past hour, I was reviewing a paper and identified a needed reference. I quickly got to 2) above, but this time, I was not prepared to spend $25-35 for something needed in a review. This points out a snag as we move to the future. The entire publishing industry needs to move to a new financial model, much in the way the recording industry has. I don't think author-prepared copy is the answer. We need reviewers and copy editors. However, the role of the local library will diminish, I believe. The web gives me access to all literature published in recent times. The library's role is in the fiscal model, only. If the fiscal model evolves, the library's role pertains only to the old print stuff, and will ultimately shring away.

12. sand6432 - October 21, 2010 at 10:31 pm

There is some irony in the fact that librarians have been among the strongest supporters of "open access" which, if it is successful in becoming the future model for scholarly publishing, will dispense with the need for libraries to be repositories of journals and books. What will remain will be the "special collections" that are unique to each library. However, if Robert Darnton's vision of a National Digital Library is realized, then those special collections also will become the common property of everyone--and will leave libraries with nothing uniquely to offer, except perhaps services to undergraduates in helping them locate materials they need on the Internet beyond what search engines can already provide.---Sandy Thatcher

13. tbstoller - October 22, 2010 at 01:26 pm

techadopter: Your personal example points to the need for a strong academic library. Many libraries have been forced through shrinking budgets to cut their periodical and database subscriptions, which may be why they did not have access to the journal you needed. Rather than contacting your librarian to get it through InterLibrary Loan, you went online yourself, and ultimately did not get the article due to the cost. Without your library, our way will limit scholars to what they and their departments can afford.

14. belindalibrarian - November 09, 2010 at 07:27 pm

I agree with tbstoller. Techadaptor seems to think that the e-journals site at his/her library was magically created out of thin air. Who do you think is providing the access to the e-journal search engine so that you can find your journal articles? Librarians do that. Publishers too need to be talked to and negotiated with to obtain access (with no additional charges to the patron) to their publications. Again, librarians are providing that service.

No matter how much goes online, librarians will be needed, not just in the physical sense (keeping a building open and provided with services) but also in an electronic sense so that our users will receive items flawlessly and effortlessly from anywhere. And as long as users require this 'magic' librarians will provide it.

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