Libraries of the Future

What will they look like? Prediction about vanishing physical infrastructure intrigues some college librarians and frustrates others.
September 24, 2009

NEW YORK CITY — The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.

That's what Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California System, told a room full of university librarians Wednesday at Baruch College of City University of New York, where the higher education technology group Ithaka held a meeting to discuss "sustainable scholarship."

“We're already starting to see a move on the part of university libraries... to outsource virtually all the services [they have] developed and maintained over the years,” Greenstein said. Now, with universities everywhere still ailing from last year's economic meltdown, administrators are more likely than ever to explore the dramatic restructuring of library operations.

Within the decade, he said, groups of universities will have shared print and digital repositories where they store books they no longer care to manage. “There are national discussions about how and to what extent we can begin to collaborate institutionally to share the cost of storing and managing books,” he said. “That trend should keeping continuing as capital funding is scarce, as space constraints are severe, especially on urban campuses — and, frankly, as funding needs to flow into other aspects of the academic program.”

Under such a system, individual university libraries would no longer have to curate their own archives in order to ensure the long-term viability of old texts, Greenstein said. “What is the proportion of a library budget that is just consumed by the care and cleaning of books?” he said. “It's not a small number.”

Greenstein said he expects universities to outsource other library duties as well. For example, universities may increasingly use cataloging services like those provided by the Online Computer Library Center, Inc., and Greenstein later told Inside Higher Ed he could imagine providers like Google developing open-source platforms where librarians could divide up the task of cataloging shared collections. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify some of Greenstein's statements.)

Research data services, meanwhile, are increasingly springing up directly out of academic departments, said Greenstein, pointing to the Cultural VR Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles and the Environmental Information Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

As archives and services at individual libraries shrink, so would their staffs — and so would their operating costs. In economic times such as these, Greenstein said, “reallocation practices are now not just good business practice, they are fundamental and essential if we are to preserve the integrity of the core academic mission.”

Some university librarians in attendance reacted coolly to Greenstein's presentation. “I don't think we need your office to reallocate funds in order to achieve the types of information services leadership and change which you described,” said James Neal, university librarian at Columbia University. “I think that if seed funding and empowerment were enabled within the libraries at most of our colleges and universities, we would find great capacity to build ... the types of changes that you outlined.”

“I think that's not a very accurate depiction of what I see happening at research libraries,” said Deborah Jakubs, vice provost for library affairs at Duke University. “I see the exact opposite happening, that libraries are taking on new roles — [such as] working with faculty in introducing technology into teaching... there's a lot more intersection with libraries and faculty than he would lead you to believe.”

Jakubs added that universities have already equipped libraries to provide the whole buffet of services at the level of individual campuses. It does not make sense, she said, to abandon that infrastructure and rely on outsiders.

Shawn Martin, a scholarly communication librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, said Greenstein's points largely rang true, but he doubted university libraries would transform on the 7-to-10-year time scale he suggested. “We already have a legacy of stuff that we have to do,” Martin said, “so just shifting funds quickly is a very difficult problem.”


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