:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Academic Library Futures


   Librarians have every right to wonder what their future holds in an age
   when Google is digitizing entire research libraries and our users
   routinely go to Internet search engines for the things they formerly
   used libraries. My colleagues want to know what they should be doing,
   what further amazing changes they must learn to expect, and how best to

   I was not surprised, therefore, to be invited to a "Summit on
   Technology and Change in Academic Libraries" organized by the
   Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). The 30 or so
   individuals from libraries, higher education, and the private sector
   (including Google, Blackboard, and Elsevier) were called together to
   focus on key questions facing the future of academic libraries.

   Although the summit title specifically identified technology, from the
   outset it was clear that we were talking more generally about the
   future and survival of libraries within the academic enterprise.
   Admittedly, the forces that are wracking the foundations of academic
   libraries are also wrenching at the foundations of the academy itself,
   making it all the more necessary to respond.

   The challenges

   We identified a number of trends that challenge the way academic
   libraries have typically conducted business. Collection size as an
   indicator of value was pronounced dead. In an age where much of the
   material our faculty and students require is available on the
   network--whether licensed or free--the number of physical volumes held
   no longer carries the same weight it once did.

   Libraries are also no longer the sole gateway to information and
   knowledge they once were. As more information becomes freely available
   on the Internet, our gatekeeping role is lessened for a significant
   portion of our users.

   Code blue

   Described as the "canary in the coal mine" by one university
   administrator, academic libraries can draw perhaps some small solace
   from the description of university presses as "code blue." As someone
   who has worked with our university press to enable new forms of
   publication and scholarship, I took this as inspiration to redouble our
   efforts to capitalize on the opportunities offered by a robust and
   ubiquitous network and effective software applications to recreate
   scholarly publishing.

   Such changes will clearly not be trivial, since academic libraries are
   a conservative institution deeply embedded within a conservative
   institution. Our nature has been one of our core strengths--an
   institution charged with preserving the intellectual record should
   change carefully, if at all. But those days are well behind us. We no
   longer have iconic status within our institutions--indeed, virtually
   overnight, we are now perceived as irrelevant by many.

   New mission, people, tools

   The comments of one summit participant helped crystallize the main
   issues for me, although time will tell whether my impressions are borne
   out in the coming white paper. Academic libraries have three huge
   challenges that we must address to be successful.

   We must reconceptualize the role of the academic library. It is no
   longer sufficient to buy content and "mark and park" it. Volume count
   is irrelevant. We must recast our value proposition. We must again
   become indispensable to the teaching and research missions of our
   institutions. We must help transform scholarly communication.

   We need an agile, imaginative, and engaged staff. We need people who
   are not afraid of jettisoning traditional activities in favor of new
   ones. We must have people who can learn constantly, foster change, and
   create new kinds of collections and services. Some of these people are
   already in our buildings, others will need to be hired. We must train,
   support, and encourage them.

   We need new tools that many library vendors are not even considering.
   For example, how about a desktop or web application that would enable
   faculty and students to not only find information more easily but also
   capture, organize, and manage it and output it in various forms?
   Wouldn't academic libraries rush to site license such an application?
   Wouldn't faculty rush to support a library that did so on their behalf?

   In the end, we all came away from this meeting with a profound sense
   that things must change. Academic libraries might just have a window of
   opportunity to leap into a future where we add value to our
   institutions in ways we've never imagined before or are only beginning
   to envision. But that window may already be in the process of slamming

   If I were forced to judge the sense of the group, most would describe
   the glass as half empty. As an optimist, I think it is half full. But I
   also know that if we choose to stand idly by, there are many who would
   be glad to empty it for us, no matter how much water the glass