Seattle Public Library

The Future of Academic Libraries

The two library-related questions I hear most are:

1) Will ebooks replace print books in the near future?

2) How is the digital revolution changing the mission of libraries; what will academic libraries become in the future?

The first question frustrates me on a number of levels, primarily because I hear it so often. The question is asked either in a tone of horror at the thought that the Era of No More Print Books is imminent, or with a bit skeptical cynicism, wondering who would choose to be a librarian in an age when you might soon become “irrelevant” (sigh). My pat responses are: this shift isn’t happening as fast as originally anticipated, print books continue to have lasting power beyond device lifetime and software upgrades, and ultimately the ebook format isn’t killing literature, it’s simply another format in which to digest the content of books. Cultures originally related stories and information orally before turning to stone and scrolls, then becoming books. Books have remained in essentially the same form for centuries because they are cheap, portable, and when printed on quality materials can be preserved for eons. However, stories and information will last beyond the medium of the print book. This is simply a change in format: like VHS to DVD to Blu-ray. Yes, there are other issues inherent in this conversation (for instance, the relative cheapness of a paperback to buying an ereader), but that’s as far as I want to get into that issue now.

Mosaic of Libraries

The second question, what will academic libraries become in the future, is more interesting to me. This question is built on an assumption that libraries are currently defined by providing access to print books, that this mission is dying (see above), and that they must redefine themselves or risk losing cultural relevance.

I believe the issue comes down to: academic libraries have always supported the parent mission of their academic institutions. They will continue to do this. But there is no predictable all-encompassing “future of academic libraries” because there is no predictable “future of all higher education institutions.”

Let’s take this in stages. First is the misconception that there is broad commonality to institutions of higher education in the United States. The truth is that American higher education from colonial times onward has drawn from multiple models, including the German research university model, the liberal arts model (preparing “well-rounded” citizens), and the (more modern) home-grown U.S. model of community colleges with open access to all, regardless of academic preparedness. Aside from those and other broad models there are a multiplicity of institutional missions serving different student populations. Some institutions are supported by (continually dwindling) public funds, some are private. Some are backed and shaped by religious organizations. Some cater to young students living on-campus, while others primarily serve commuting professionals or “non-traditional” students returning to school after a long absence. Some were designed to serve specific ethnic or cultural groups. Some institutions focus on teaching undergraduates while others are havens of research that improves medical, technological, and other advances. Some institutions prepare individuals for specific careers by teaching practical professional or vocational skills, while others focus on broad concepts like critical thinking. This great variety is a strength of American higher education, providing an education as rich and varied as the needs of our diverse population. With all of this diversity of mission and execution of education, why would we expect that all academic libraries would evolve into similar organizations?

Second, higher education is shifting in unpredictable ways. The digital revolution isn’t just affecting academic libraries, it’s affecting educational practice. Online education is exploding as institutions continue to migrate or replicate face-to-face courses in online sections and as a variety of organizations and individuals offer MOOCs. Even traditional face-to-face courses often have technological components such as class websites for resources or discussion and technology-dependent assignments. And higher education is changing rapidly beyond technological considerations. Public institutions are scrambling for ways to keep tuition affordable even as state support for education crumbles, leaving them a far cry from the truly public-funded model upon which they were founded. Institutions and their academic libraries seek to supplement deflated budgets by increasing efforts in fund-raising, grant-writing, and seeking alternate methods of gaining revenue. Students and the public are up in arms about increased tuition costs and unsustainable student debt, demanding change. Companies argue that higher education must adapt to meet community employment needs, spurring arguments about the nature and purpose of undergraduate education in the U.S. Institutions react to these situations in a variety of ways, thus it stands to reason that their supporting libraries will similarly shift in different ways.

Third, academic libraries already exhibit different philosophies of service and purpose. If you walk into several different academic libraries across the nation right now, you will find that they can look very different from each other. Some libraries thrive in a traditional book-driven model, with formal reading rooms. They continue to see high student use of the physical building and high circulation of physical volumes. For the faculty and students at those institutions, this is an important and relevant way to interact with the information they need. Other libraries are minimizing or eliminating print collections and using their physical space for multimedia development and group study space, utilizing the “information commons” model or becoming a student union-like space. Public service librarians may continue to perform traditional reference activities at a reference desk, may use the “roving/roaming” model of seeking out patrons in need of help, or may only perform reference interviews upon individual appointment. Some librarians have become fulltime instructors or work on instruction teams with faculty members, spending their time teaching students how to use information. Some are highly trained to help students use advanced technologically saturated spaces to craft complex media presentations. Some librarians continue to provide traditional reference services, but completely via email, online chat, social media platforms, or text message. And some public services librarians have migrated to completely new kinds of positions at institutions, perhaps digitizing collections or working in assessment.

So the question of what academic libraries will become, what will be their new mission and services in an ever-evolving digital environment, doesn’t have a blanket answer. I do not believe we are facing the imminent death of academic libraries any more than I believe we are facing the imminent death of the book (print or otherwise). Yes, many libraries are under increased pressure to defend their relevancy to maintain their shrinking budgets. The real problem isn’t finding the magic answer of what all academic libraries should become, but discovering how each individual library can best meet the needs of its parent institution. That is the key to maintaining relevance, and always has been. It may be a more difficult problem than in the past, in the face of so many varied directions and potential services—but it is, as ever, a process of discovering what the libraries’ mission should be, and how to best align limited resources and services to serve it.

Under pressure from administration or peer institutions, too many libraries try to do everything and fail miserably. They try to juggle traditional reference, increase information literacy instruction, create new digital collections, engage with students on multiple social media platforms, develop rich print and electronic resources, renovate space for student use, and any number of other activities. This results in a budget and a staff stretched too thin over competing missions. It’s difficult to succeed when your energy, attention, and resources are running in multiple directions. In my opinion, the mantra “do more with less” is far too common in academic libraries, and instead of being a rallying cry; this can feel like a giant fist pounding staff into the ground. A realistic look at budget and resources that is carefully allocated over targeted strategies and limited to a clear mission will help a library evolve in a way that is meaningful and relevant to its parent institution.

So what will academic libraries become in the future? Academic libraries will evolve as an even more varied rainbow of organizations varied in physical space, collections, services, and staff, serving their institutions in increasingly creative and unique ways.

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4 thoughts on “The Future of Academic Libraries

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      I think print books are probably around for a while. And I’ve got print books myself–still in storage in another state for the most part, but still. It’s hard to beat the cheapness, portability, non-charging-ness, and insane long preservation life of a print book (particularly now that we’ve left acidic paper behind, for the most part). But moving to another country where I couldn’t ship all my books certainly did get me to love my iPad as an e-reader.

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