The Librarian's Crystal Ball

June 23, 2010

Colleges with lucrative online arms will get their nonprofit statuses revoked! All library functions will be outsourced! Campuses will be replaced by temporary versions in rented spaces that are built and disassembled at the beginning of each term! Scholarship will become more efficacious than ever before -- or will stagnate entirely!

Welcome to the future -- or, rather, to a series of many of possible “futures” posited in a new study released this month by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).

The association culled journal articles, blogs, newspapers, conference talks, and the expertise of its staff to develop 26 (not necessarily mutually exclusive) scenarios based on possible developments in higher education over the next 15 years. The association then surveyed 404 of its members to determine which scenarios library specialists thought would have the most impact, were most likely to happen, and were likely to happen most quickly.

The idea was to get some sort of consensus on how the higher education landscape is likely to change in the next decade and a half so that libraries could start figuring out now how to adjust.

The full report, called Futures Thinking For Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025, can be found online, but here is a sampling of what its members consider some of the more plausible scenarios:

  • Breaking the textbook monopoly: Most states have passed legislation that requires textbook publishers to make textbooks affordable. Faculty members, sympathetic to their students, have embraced online open educational resources (OERs). More faculty create and share openly their course materials, modules, streaming videos, tests, software, and other tools. Although widely accepted seminal OERs exist for introductory courses, faculty create materials for advanced courses based on their own knowledge and interests, inviting student contributions.
  • Bridging the scholar/practitioner divide: Open peer review becomes the norm for many fields, speeding application of discoveries. Online publications, by scholarly societies in partnership with trade organizations and professional associations, are open access. They support robust community-based dialogue on articles as soon as they are accepted via traditional editorial procedures. Scholars and practitioners alike discuss the findings, how the theory would apply in practice, and suggest additional research needed.
  • Everyone is a "nontraditional" student: The interwoven nature of work/life/school is accepted in higher education as life spans increase and students are unable to fund tuition in one lump. Co-op education is widely embraced and faculty increasingly value students' life experience. Knowing what the work force wants, students are active in designing their own learning outcomes, and the personalized curriculum becomes the norm. Faculty members evaluate students on demonstrations of learning -- such as policy documents, marketing plans, or online tutorials -- rather than old measures based on “seat time” and “credit hours.”
  • Meet the new freshman class: With laptops in their hands since the age of 18 months old, students who are privileged socially and economically are completely fluent in digital media. For many others, the digital divide, parental unemployment, and the disruption of moving about during the foreclosure crisis of their formative years means they never became tech savvy. “Remedial” computer and information literacy classes are now de rigueur.
  • Right here with me: Students “talk” through homework with their handheld devices, which issue alerts when passing a bookstore with material they need to cite. Scanning the title page, this information is instantly embedded in proper citation style with an added endnote. Checking in on location-based services, students locate study team members and hold impromptu meetings without the need for study rooms. Their devices have whiteboards and can share notes with absent members.

David W. Lewis, dean of the library at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, who has also done extensive research into the future of libraries, has a prediction of his own: the report will not be very useful to libraries planning for the future.

“All in all, the report is an interesting effort that I suspect will not be widely used because the scenarios are too abstract and beyond what most academic libraries can control or influence,” Lewis told Inside Higher Ed.

A more useful report would have focused more narrowly on the shift from print to electronic collections, and how libraries might consider modifying how they purchase, manage and deliver electronic content, Lewis says, rather than on “broad future trends in the academy.”

The ACRL did recently release another future-oriented document that falls along those lines: the 2010 edition of its perennial list of top ten trends in academic libraries. The items on that list are a tad less sensational, although it did highlight certain themes -- such as the disaggregation of library resources, the rise of mobile technology, and growing pressure on libraries to demonstrate their value in the face of shrinking budgets -- that the “futures” report followed to logical extremes.

Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top