Today our reliance on the physical location of libraries, their geography in relation to our own, is changing, the constraints imposed by physical location have faded considerably and we can now access the works of Freud from the library in Alexandria as we can from the Monash University Library in Melbourne or the British Library. Moreover the text is sometimes available in a more readable form, may be annotated and shared, and may even be read out loud to us at the click of a button. The elimination of the tyranny of distance and geographical location must have a continued profound effect on the way we conceptualize libraries and plan to deliver services from the libraries of the future.
It is undeniable that libraries have played a significant part in the development of human civilization as we know it today (and the lack of surviving libraries may explain why we know so little about some previous civilizations). Libraries have been explicitly linked to physical constructions that were used to store, stone or clay tablets as long ago as the 25th century BC and later to store papyrus scrolls and paper. Throughout the ages libraries have formed a key part of many communities and their value was proportional to the access that their patrons had to their physical location.
Physical location on its own, however, is not the only way that digital technologies are changing the way we view, use, and exploit libraries. The modern library is under pressure to reinvent itself now, and this pressure is increasing. There are probably five key ways in which the digital age is impacting on the work of university librarians:
1) the need to preserve existing physical collections of books and materials in the face of mounting pressure on space;
2) the place of the library as a preserver and manager of digital assets;
3) the ability to easily digitize books and journals and to convert the images to electronic full-text;
4) the ability to create “virtual” on-line libraries integrated with other education and research resources; and
5) the increasing availability of tools that enable the searching of text with reference to the context of that text or the meaning of the search term as opposed to its form, its semantics.
As populations increase and space becomes scarcer and more valuable there is a very real increasing cost of maintaining physical collections. Each book adds to a requirement for floorspace, shelving, and environmental management (air conditioning, power and so on). In addition a physical book has a price in terms of the logistics of its manufacture, shipping, handling, and eventual replacement.
A difficulty in meeting demand, particularly in some academic libraries, is that these costs are often hidden to those responsible for making a choice between physical and electronic versions of books and hence buying decisions may be misinformed. The costs though are real, and they are reflected in lost opportunity to improve space, cost of employing staff to maintain physical collections, and lost benefit for students in the realization that they need not be dependent on the physical material’s location.
It is the library’s challenge to ensure that costing models are appropriate and costs understood, and that consumers of the library’s resources are delivered the optimum amount of material and service in the optimum way to meet the medium and long-term needs of the wider community, not just of the immediate consumer cohort.
As electronic file formats change and web sites are published and republished the short life-span of intellectual property on the Internet is becoming clear. Documents may be produced in formats that suit a popular software package as a reading tool or editor at a particular time and place, but these file formats may not have longevity as software, and the companies that produce it come and go. There is no guarantee that we will be using jpeg, pdf, gif, hypertext markup language, or Wordstar and Word Perfect file formats in years to come. There are no archives that snapshot the entire Internet every day and, even the websites of relatively small organizations, are subject to constant change and refresh.
The end result of this change is that much of the information that we once expected to be stored in archives, possibly as paper collections, is now obliterated without trace, sometimes soon after it is created. Within Universities it behooves libraries to engage in the preservation of appropriate digital assets and the resources that will make these search-able, and hence useful, in years to come.
In addition to the above, institutions are publishing increasingly significant amounts of intellectual property in the mode in which it was transmitted, much of this never becomes printed material. Hence there is a proliferation of modalities such as podcast lectures, discussions, and video material that requires collection, management, and indexing in a sophisticated as it is produced lest it offers an insurmountable challenge in the future.
Of a more profound and challenging nature are the online conversations that are increasingly being engaged in and the need to preserve some of these as a record of the world as it once was. Blogs, wikis and social network discussions are being created electronically and, as rapidly they disappear, many representing a lost opportunity to capture an event of significance to humankind.
As it become simpler and cheaper to digitize text and convert to full-text publications which are search-able and manageable using digital right management tools, it is likely that the resources of libraries will be increasingly pressured to enable the management of these digital collections and to ensure that publishers and authors are appropriately compensated for their use. It is relatively simple now, by placing on expiry date on the right-to-use for an electronic publication to lend published materials from a digital collection with none of the associated cost and inconvenience of trying to track down tardy returns, lost materials, and damage books.
The challenge lies in the ability of libraries to negotiate effectively with publishers and to work with consumers of their services to ensure that they not only recognize the value of using electronic resources but to reap the benefits of a reduced expenditure on physical collections.
With the decreasing importance of the physical library as a repository for printed material comes an increase in the importance of the library as a place where students, academics, and researchers can find the information literacy support, information resources, collaboration tools, and collaboration spaces that they need to be optimally effective in their endeavors. Traditionally the skill sets to do some of these things have been a core part of those required to be a “librarian”, today there is a need to diversify and build upon these skills to produce seamless and more user-friendly web-sites and portals that maximize the benefit that consumers are likely to obtain from their experience. Libraries need to work collaboratively and closely with stakeholders in their own organizations who publish electronically, with commercial publishing organizations, with those who develop and maintain virtual learning environments and their content, with student bloggers (and vloggers), and with the audio visual staff who produce vodcasts, and podcasts.
The ability to link these resources together and to present them coherently and in a way that enables equitable access regardless of location will be a key factor in determining the quality of a University’s library endeavors.
Most of us have seen the nature of search change dramatically over the past decade, as Google, Amazon, and others have continually improved upon techniques to ensure that search is not just based on a words but on the wider context in which we might wish to find those words. The challenge for libraries in this environment is to understand and leverage the state-of-the-art so that knowledge seekers have the most effective resources available to them and that these are continually being improved upon.
This will include adding value to the information collected and stored by the library to ensure that it is search-able using these new techniques (adequately indexed) and to ensure that collections in various modalities and formats are accessible, indexed, and linked appropriately to search facilities.
I hope this gives people something to think about and to have some insight into where I am coming from on this issue. I am disturbed that much of this blog is perceived by some to be in some way anti-library, of course it is not, and I hope this is becoming clearer. The blog is asking the question “what would a university of the future look like?” and as such the way in which the library functions as an entity and as a group of people with the essential skills of helping others to acquire knowledge is, perhaps the most important supporting component.