Libraries as a Convener, Enabler, Distributor, Advocate, and Archive in the Future Knowledge Economy

James Neal

James Neal

James G. Neal, University Librarian Emeritus, Columbia University, and President-Elect of ALA, said that libraries have entered a state of constant change, massive leadership turnover, and essential creativity in advancing our visions.  We must have hope; we must achieve power to have authority influence and respect; and we must focus less on ideas and more on action: getting things done. We need deep and systemic partnerships and must redefine the physical: the “where” and “who” infrastructure of our libraries to understand the methodology of progress.

Our 20th century skills still matter; acquisition, synthesis, archiving of information. intermediaries, aggregators, publishers, R&D organizations, and entrepreneurs all present fresh opportunities for innovation. The library must be virtual and engaged with users in ever more effective ways. We must also be virtuoso: smart, ready to learn, expert, and compassionate, always working in the interest of our public.

Two main theses for the future are:

  • Libraries will be defined as conveners, enablers, distributors, advocates, and archives and less as infrastructures, platforms, and portals.
  • By 2026 there will be no infrastructure and service industries targeting products to the library marketplace; they will be targeting to the consumer. Self-publishing and niche technology development will dominate, so libraries must be effectively integrated into new creative environments.

We will also be much more focused on developing the market, and we will find ways to add value and think deliberately about meeting unmet needs.  We will change in character.

Libraries spend their money on content, staff expertise, space, and technology. They are rethinking space planning. Technology is a catalyst: we are building learning, creative, and collaborative spaces. We are seeing professionals with more diversity in backgrounds. We are seeing more fluid organizational structures and are striving to build organizations marked by diversity. Quality = content + functionality. Multimedia is central to the digital future.

We have been focused on management systems; the real action is in new technology and platforms: mobility, AI, smart objects, games as learning tools, 3D printing, etc., all of which will take a lot more resources.

Here are 5 commandments that we must follow:

  1. We must preserve the culture and scientific record. The world is producing vast amounts of born-digital content, and we must think creatively about its capture, preservation and long-term accessibility. We have done a modest job in preserving the analog record but are failing in our management of digital records. We must maintain human records as complete and unimpaired as possible: maintain the content, secure it, and take care of it.
  2. Fight the information policy wars. We must advance the public interest and needs of our users in critical policy areas. Too often, we find ourselves in conflict with each other. We need to get our act together. Copyright is a topic of particular concern.
  3. Support the needs of our users. They are much more diverse than we realize. We intersect with them way beyond the walls of our physical spaces. The infrastructure is important and totally inadequate today. Users want access and the ability to have control of their information environments. They want us to be authoritative, expert, and trusted sources: reputable and relevant, accessible, omnipresent, audacious, attentive, and not in front of or too far behind where they are.
  4. Cooperate in more rigorous ways. We need a deeper integration of operations and commitment to a shared network. Cooperation will become much more necessary for the health and survival of libraries. The measures of success must be quality, leadership, and transformation. We have made little progress in building a partnership between libraries and the publisher community.
  5. Work together to improve knowledge creation, value, use, and preservation. Researchers want to share the results of their work; it is part of their culture and how their ideas are preserved for future generations. They need support in navigating, analyzing, and assessing literature. They want guidance in working in an open research environment, require more robust databases, subject ontologies, and support for research data management. The library has stood on the side of the research environment for decades.  We need innovative applications of technology and quality assessments. In spite of significant investments, open access remains a work in progress.

We must forge a new economy for libraries and publishers and invest more resources in technology, space, a deeper involvement in learning, and playing a large role in the discovery space. Our users will evaluate us  on what we can enable them to do and accomplish. Libraries no longer will pay for content that is not used. Open content will become more accessible as openness is mandated by law. We need to spend a lot more time thinking about where we are going.

Don HawkinsDon Hawkins
Charleston Conference Blogger and Against The Grain Columnist

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