v32#2 The Changing Library Landscape: From Digital Conversion to Digital Transformation

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

by Rebekah Shaw  (Market Research Analyst, SAGE Publishing) 

Day-to-day, change is hard to detect.  This article reflects on changes underway in academic libraries observed by SAGE Publishing’s market research so that those deep in the day-to-day can take a moment to appreciate how the small, familiar, and subtle forces of today are shaping the library of tomorrow.  In thinking about how the library landscape has changed in recent years and how it will likely evolve, every thought returns to the direct or indirect effects of technology developments.  Transitioning from print to digital resources has come a long way, but still has far to go before libraries, faculty, and students can fully realize the advantages.

New Possibilities

At its most fundamental level, the transition to digital is a conversion exercise.  Books and eBooks are an excellent example of this process and its limitations.  In 2020, 49 years after Project Gutenberg1 was launched, the stacks are still standing in spite of print book doomsday predictions.  Early conversion focused on simply changing the print format to a digital format, arraying content in a familiar way.  Granted, eBooks are less bulky and faster than getting a physical copy into a user’s hands, but the real value for going digital comes from how content is presented.  The library landscape is at a crossroads.  Having converted print to digital formats, the focus shifts and will now move on to transforming how content is communicated, thus realizing its full potential for supporting teaching, learning, and research in new and energizing ways. 

Freedom from print liberates content from two-dimensional layouts, linear paths, and turning pages.  Adaptive design, with responsive elements and branching, allows a more personalized experience customized to an individual’s needs.  With dynamic charts, a reader can engage with data in real time.  And tools like Project Jupyter2 facilitate communication between researchers by centralizing various content formats in one environment.  Instead of static text and images, academic resources can lead with the format that is best suited to convey information rather than retrofitting the content to suit the available medium.  Putting content first adds a new dimension and creativity need not be stifled by a paper page.

It’s now commonplace for students to access library books and journals online, without ever needing to visit the library building to complete a research paper.  With Quartex,3 a platform for exhibiting primary source materials, libraries can even make their unique archival materials readily available to remote users.  But remarkably, brick-and-mortar library traffic is healthy.  Students have been quick to fill empty stacks with working, multipurpose, and collaboration spaces.  In 2035, the Marist Mindset List4 might include something like, “For the class of 2039, the library has never been a quiet and solitary place.”  Digital transformation has changed the resources we provide as well as the space traditionally reserved for holding them.

Barriers to Digital Transformation

To achieve a digital utopia, some issues need to be sorted out.  In the following section, several challenges will be discussed, calling out areas for academic libraries, vendors, and publishers to confront. 

Students enter university with an innate comfort with technology that non-digital natives have taken years to achieve.  That doesn’t mean students are universally tech savvy, but that comfort has raised expectations for how technology works and what the user experience delivers.  And why shouldn’t patrons have high expectations?  Design dictates how effective technology can be; ineffective technology will not be used and if a technology is not used then it has no value.  While exploring a new resource concept, librarians participating in a focus group at the ALA Annual Meeting5 in 2019 encouraged vendors to design resources with students in mind, from look and feel to how the resource is discovered by users.  Good design is a fundamental feature for digital resources. 

Centuries of librarianship optimized the card catalog for print resources, building a robust foundation for modern cataloging.  Working with print, the unit of analysis was clear and title was functional, but with digital it’s possible and necessary to provide more nuanced metadata.  Patrons engage with digital resources in a different way than print resources which makes rich metadata crucial.  Historically, the quality and relevance of content determined a resource’s value, but for a digital resource, content quality and relevance is irrelevant if the metadata behind that content isn’t functional for user discovery.  As one librarian in a Charleston 2019 focus group6 said, “It’s not just about content selection anymore, it’s about what does it looks like in the discovery service.  And so I would challenge you or anyone at SAGE to stop thinking about metadata as an added cost and start thinking about it as a cost of acquisition.”

Digital resources yield an abundance of data, but it can be challenging to sift through, extract meaningful findings, and develop an engaging story.  Using data to make better decisions is an ambitious and laudable goal fraught with complexity in the best of circumstances.  In January 2020 the Kansas City Star7 reported University of Missouri was expanding a program which tracks students’ class attendance by monitoring their location with a cellphone app.  Tracking student data to improve student outcomes is nothing new, but this news came shortly after listening to a librarian in our Charleston 2019 focus group express apprehension about tracking student library visits for predictive analytics because of data privacy concerns, illustrating the broad spectrum of data privacy positions in higher education.  Technology has made such data collection possible, and just as Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA data privacy legislation have raised the profile of consumer data privacy policy, in higher education we should critically question whether data collection infringes on student privacy and find alternatives if needed.  Embracing digital should make our lives easier by delivering meaningful data we can use to make good decisions; managing data privacy responsibly does not preclude that.

The number of resources librarians can choose from has grown with the advent of digital content.  On one hand there’s a host of new resources that were never before feasible.  Data Planet,8 a statistical data repository, has collated and organized 12.6 billion datasets into a common structure in a user-friendly environment.  Without the technology to facilitate this resource, researchers and students would spend hours collecting and cleaning data to answer a question that is easily answered using Data Planet.  On the other hand, there is the conversion of physical resources to their digital counterparts, like digitizing microfiche for primary source archives.  But converting means replacing a resource you’ve already invested in, often with no additional funds.  Figure 1 illustrates how academic library budgets have remained relatively flat over the past five years.  Between more resources and stagnant or even shrinking budgets, going digital comes at a cost.

Figure 1:  Library Total Expenditures, 2018 Real Dollars

Note:  Average library expenditures for each institution category shown.  Annual adjustments calculated with the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI).  Data from IPEDS (2019).

Alongside new resources are tools for accessing and using content more effectively.  Tools like Handwritten Text Recognition9 use AI to recognize words in handwritten manuscript collections, allowing researchers to search original documents.  Such resource enhancing tools add a new consideration for librarians deciding where to invest limited funds.  It may be that investing in a tool to facilitate greater usage of existing resources is more impactful than adding to the collection.  Librarians are well-equipped and experienced in assessing the value of a resource, but technology has complicated that formula by adding digital tools competing for resource dollars.

Impact on People

Patrons are presented with a host of resources to support their academic work, and Figure 2 shows how digital circulations rapidly overtook print from 2014 to 2015, leveling off in recent years. 

Figure 2:  Digital Share of Total Circulations

Note:  Average share of digital circulations from total print and digital circulations for each type of institution.  Data from IPEDS (2019).

Changes in librarian roles reflect that shift.  Libraries are adapting their organizational structure to meet patrons where they can have the greatest impact.  Moreover, many librarians, especially at smaller institutions, wear many hats.  Rather than supporting one or two subjects, they’re supporting five or more.  A librarian in our Charleston 2019 focus group described, “The needs are changing.  Our reference numbers have been falling for 20 years and the justification for that deep liaison model is harder to make when you have people from multiple spaces asking the same kind of question.”  Roles fitted to functional areas have emerged, titles such as UX librarian, Digital scholarship librarian, and Data librarian, to name a few. 

Harnessing Technology 

Library technologies that support content generally fall into two categories, infrastructure and tools.  The technical infrastructure which enables digital content to exist in a searchable and usable form must provide content with a sturdy foundation.  The modern card catalog should support today’s range of resource formats and shapes in ways that are meaningful to the user and not simply copying outdated formats.  The tools to access, retrieve, and use resources should be designed to best serve the end user’s specific needs and plausible use case.  A useful tool will meet users where they are, whether it’s starting their research on Google rather than the library or completing a course remotely instead of at a residential campus.

To fully harness the potential of library technology, publishers and information professionals should evaluate how each technology addresses the previously noted barriers.  How does the library technology prioritize the user experience?  How does it make their professional life easier?  And how does it support rather than strain their materials and services budget?  In order to realize content benefits from the digital transformation, these issues must be prominent in conversations moving academic librarianship forward.  It’s the responsibility of publishers and vendors to reach out to librarians and listen as they develop new resources.  No other group than librarians has such thorough expertise across these issues, marking them as the most qualified advocates for steering technological transformation in academic resources.


With technology changing how information is presented, academic resources are breaking the monograph mold and changing the library landscape.  Breaking from simple page designs and not being physically bound to a building has allowed the freedom to create resources which convey information and use library space in ways that maximize their value.  However, there are issues around how to make technology work for the library and patrons to resolve before we can fully realize the benefits and move forward into the next phase of digital transformation.  Librarians, experts in resources, patrons, and systems are uniquely positioned to drive that progress.

We have come a long way from carving in clay tablets to streaming digital media, and academic libraries will persevere through the changing library landscape.  However uncertain one may feel at times, libraries have an incredible opportunity in 2020 and beyond to deliver resources in ways which invigorate teaching, learning, and research.  What a time to be a librarian!


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2019, Academic Libraries component.  Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/InstitutionByName.aspx on January 9, 2020.

Williams, M. R. and Terada, S.  (2020, January 21).  Invasive or helpful?  MU using students’ phones to track if they are in class or not.  The Kansas City Star.  https://www.kansascity.com/news/state/missouri/article239139523.html  


1.  https://www.gutenberg.org/

2.  https://jupyter.org/index.html

3.  https://www.amdigital.co.uk/about/quartex

4.  https://www.marist.edu/mindset-list

5.  SAGE sponsored focus group at ALA Annual 2019 Meeting inquiring about the skills students need to succeed.

6.  SAGE sponsored focus group at Charleston Library Conference 2019 inquiring about the trends and how libraries are impacted.

7.  https://www.kansascity.com/news/state/missouri/article239139523.html

8.  https://www.data-planet.com/

9.  https://www.amdigital.co.uk/about/blog/item/handwritten-text-recognition

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