The future of the academic library as a data services hub
Is there a future for libraries, or more specifically: is there a future for academic libraries? This has been the topic of lots of articles, blog posts, books and conferences. See for instance Aaron Tay’s recent post about his favourite “future of libraries” articles. But the question needs to be addressed over and over again, because libraries, and particularly academic libraries, continue to persevere in their belief that they will stay relevant in the future. I’m not so sure.
I will focus here on academic libraries. I work for one, the Library of the University of Amsterdam. Academic libraries in my view are completely different from public libraries in audience, content, funding and mission. As far as I’m concerned, they only have the name in common. For a vision on the future of public libraries, see Ed Summer’s excellent post “The inside out library”. As for research and special libraries, some of what I am about to say will apply to these libraries as well.
So, is there a future for academic libraries? Personally I think in the near future we will see the end of the academic library as we know it. Let’s start with looking at what are perceived to be the core functions of libraries: discovery and delivery, of books and articles.
For a complete overview of the current library ecosystem you should read Lorcan Dempsey’s excellent article “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention”.
“Discovery happens elsewhere”. Lorcan Dempsey said this already in 2007 . What this means is that the audience the library aims at, primarily searches for and finds information via other platforms than the library’s website and search interfaces. Several studies (for instance OCLC’s “Perceptions of libraries, 2010“) show that the most popular platforms are general search engines like Google and Wikipedia but also specific databases. And of course, if you’re looking for instant information, you don’t go to the library catalogue, because it only points you to items that you have to read in order to ascertain that they may or may not contain the information you need.
And if you are indeed looking for publications (books, articles, etc.) you could of course search your library’s catalogue and discovery interface. But you can find exactly the same and probably even more results elsewhere: in other libraries’ search interfaces, or aggregators that collect bibliographic metadata from all over the world. Moreover, academic libraries are doing their best to get their local holdings metadata in WorldCat and their journal holdings in Google Scholar. As I said in my EMTACL12 talk: you can’t find all you need with one local discovery tool.
Also, the traditional way of discovery through browsing the shelves is disappearing rapidly. The physical copies at the University of Amsterdam Library for instance are all stored in a storage facility in a suburb. Apart from some reference works and latest journal issues there is nothing to find in the library buildings. There is no need for a university library building for discovery purposes anymore.
Utrecht University Library has taken the logical next step: they decided not to acquire a new discovery tool, discontinue their local homegrown article search index and focus on delivery. See the article “Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue” .
So, if discovery is something that academic libraries should not invest in anymore, is delivery really the only core responsibility left? Let’s have a closer look.
Delivery in the traditional academic library sense means: giving the customer access to the publications he or she selected, both in print and digital form. In the case of subscription based e-journal articles, delivery consists of taking a subscription and leading the customer to the appropriate provider website to obtain the online article. Taking subscriptions is an administrative and financial activity. For historical reasons the university library has been taking care of this task. Because they handled the print subscriptions, they also started taking care of the digital versions. But actually it’s not the library that holds the subscription, it’s the university. And it really does not require librarian skills to handle subscriptions. This could very well be taken care of by the central university administration. For free and open access journals you don’t even need that.
The selection and procurement of journal packages from a large number of publishers and content providers is a different issue. Specific expertise is required for this. I will come to that later.
The task of leading the customer to the appropriate online copy is only a technical procedure, involving setting up link resolvers. Again, no librarian skills needed. This task could be done by some central university agency, maybe even using an external global linking registry.
As for the delivery of physical print copies, this is obviously nothing more than a logistics workflow, no different from delivery of furniture, tools, food, or any other physical business. The item is ordered, it is fetched from the shelf, sometimes by huge industrial robot installations, put in a van or cart, transported to the desired location and put in the customer’s locker or something similar. Again: no librarian skills whatsoever. Physical delivery only needs a separate internal or external logistics unit.
So, if discovery and delivery will cease to be core activities of the central university library organisation, what else is there?
Selection of print and digital material was already mentioned. It is evident that the selection of printed and digital books and journal subscriptions needs to be governed by expert knowledge and decisions in order to provide staff and students with the best possible material, because there is a lot of money involved. Typically this task is carried out by subject specialists (also called subject librarians), not by generalists. These ‘faculty liaisons’ usually have had an education in the disciplines they are responsible for, and they work closely together with their customers (academic staff and students). Many universities have semiautonomous discipline oriented sublibraries. The recent development of Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) also fits into this construction.
The actual comparison, selection and procurement of journal packages from a large number of publishers and content providers requires a certain generic specific expertise which is not discipline dependent. This is a task that could well continue to be the responsibility of some central organisational unit, which may or may not be called the university library.
And what about cataloguing, a definite librarian skill? If discovery happens elsewhere, and libraries don’t need to maintain their own local catalogues, then it seems obvious that libraries don’t need to catalogue anything anymore. In fact, in the current situation most libraries don’t catalogue that much already. All the main bibliographical metadata for books (title, author, date, etc.) are already provided by publishers, by external central library service centres, or by other libraries in a shared cataloguing environment. And libraries have never catalogued journal articles anyway, only journals and issues. Article metadata are provided by the publishers or aggregators. Libraries pay for these services.
It is usual for libraries to add their own subject headings and classification terms to the already existing ones. But as Karen Coyle said at EMTACL12: “Library classification is a knowledge prevention system“, because it offers only one specific object oriented view on the information world. So maybe libraries should stop doing this, which would be in line with the “discovery happens elsewhere” argument anyway.
What remains of cataloguing is adding local holdings, items and subscription information. This is very useful information for library customers, but again this doesn’t seem to require very detailed librarian skills. As a matter of fact most of these metadata are already provided in the selection and acquisition process by acquisition staff and vendors.
The recent Library of Congress BIBFRAME initiative developments in theory make it possible to replace all local cataloguing efforts by linking local holdings information to global metadata.
There is still one area that may require the full local cataloguing range: the university’s own scientific output, as long as it is not published in journals or as books. The fulltext material is made available through institutional repositories, which obviously requires metadata to make the publications findable. However, the majority of the institutional publications are made available through other channels as well, as mentioned, so the need for local cataloguing in these cases is absent.
More and more students are coming to the library buildings every day, that’s what you hear all the time. Large amounts of money are spent on creating new study centres and meeting places in existing library buildings, even on new buildings. But that’s exactly the point: students don’t come to the library for discovery anymore, because the building no longer provides that. They come for places to study, use network pc’s or the university wifi, meet with fellow students, pick up their print items on loan, or view not-for-loan material. The physical locations are nothing more or less than study centres. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they are very important, but they do not have to be associated with the university library, but can be provided by the university, on any location.
The reference desk, or its online counterpart, is a weird phenomenon. It seems to emphasise the fact that if you want instant information, books are of no use. On the other hand, it suggests that you should come to the library if you need specific information right now. In my view, although the reference desk partly embodies the actual original objective of a library, namely giving access to information, this could function very well outside the library context.
The reference desk service is also somewhat ambiguous. In some cases subject specialist expertise is needed, other cases require a more general knowledge of how to search and find information.
Statistics of the use of library holdings, both print and electronic, are an important source of information for making decisions on acquisitions and subscriptions. These statistics are provided by local and remote delivery systems and vendors. Usage statistics can also be used for other purposes, like identifying certain trends in scholarly processes, mapping of information sources to specific user groups, etc. Administering and providing statistics once again is not a librarian task, but can be done by internal or external service providers.
Special Collections are a Special Case. Most university libraries have a Special Collections division, for historical reasons. But of course Special Collections divisions are nothing less than a Museum and Archive division with specific skills, expertise and procedures. Most of the time they are autonomous units within the university anyway.
Now, if the traditional library tasks of selection, cataloguing, discovery and delivery will increasingly be carried out by non-librarian staff and units inside and outside the university, is there still a valid reason for maintaining an autonomous central university library organisation? Should academic libraries shift focus? There are a number of possible new services and responsibilities for the library that are being discussed or already being implemented.
Content curation can be seen as the task of bringing together information on a specific subject, of all kinds, from different sources on the web to be consumed by people in an easy way. This is something that can be done and is already done by all kinds of organisations and people. Libraries, academic, public and other types, can and should play a bigger role in this area. This involves looking at other units and sources of information than just the traditional library ones: books and journals. This new service type evidently is closely related to the traditional reference desk service.
Obviously this can best be taken care of by subject specialists. To do this, they need tools and infrastructure. These tools and infrastructure are of a generic nature and can be provided by technical specialists inside or outside the libraries or universities.
Techniques are often referred to as “mashups” or “linked data”, depending on the background of the people involved.
Linked data deserves its own section here, because it has been an ever widening movement since a number of years. It finally reached the library world the last couple of years with developments like the W3C Library Linked Data Incubator Group, the Library of Congress BIBFRAME initiative and the IFLA Semantic Web Special Interest Group. Linked data is a special type of data source mashup infrastructure. It requires the use of URIs for all separately usable data entities, and triples as the format for the actual linking (subject-predicate-object), mostly using the RDF structure.
There are two sides to linked data: the publishing of data in RDF and consequently the consumption of data elsewhere. A special case is the linked data based infrastructure, combining both publication and consumption in a specific way, as is the objective of the above mentioned BIBFRAME project.
Again, we need both subject specialists and generic technology experts to make this work in libraries, both academic and public ones.
University libraries are more and more expected to increase the level of support for researchers. It’s not only about providing access to scholarly publications anymore, but also about maintaining research information systems, virtual research environments, and long term preservation, availability and reusability of research data sets.
Again, here we see the need for discipline specific support because the needs of researchers for communication, collaboration and data varies greatly per discipline. And again, for the technical and organisational infrastructure we need internal or external generic technology experts and services. Apart from metadata expertise there are no traditional librarian skills required.
The Final Frontier: the library turning 180 degrees and switching from consumption to production of publications. According to some people university libraries are very suitable and qualified to become scholarly publishers (see for instance Björn Brembs‘ “Libraries Are Better Than Corporate Publishers Because…”). I am not sure that this is actually the case. Publishing as it currently exists requires a number of specific skills that have nothing to do with librarian expertise. A number of universities already have dedicated university press publishing agencies. But of course the publishing process can and probably will change. There is the open access movement, there is the rebellion against large scientific publishers, and last but not least, there is the slow rise of nanopublications, which could revolutionise the form that scholarly publishing will take. In the future publishing can originate at the source, making use of all kinds of new technologies of linking different types of data into new forms of non-static publications. Universities or university libraries could play a role here. Again we see here the need for both subject specialists and generic technology.
Special and general
So what is the overall picture? Of the current academic library tasks, only a few may still be around in the university in the future: selection, acquisition, cataloguing (if any), reference desk, usage statistics, and only a small part actually requires traditional librarian skills. Together with the new service areas of content curation, linked data, research support and publishing, this is rather an odd collection of very different fields of expertise. There does not seem to be a nice matching set of tasks for one central university division, let alone a library.
But what all these areas have in common is that they depend on linking and coordination of data from different sources.
And another interesting conclusion is that virtually all of these areas have two distinct components:
- Discipline or subject specific expertise
- Generic technical and organisational data infrastructure
I see a new duality in the realm of information management in universities. Selection, content curation, reference desk, linking data, cataloguing and research support will all be the domain of subject specialists directly connected to departments responsible for teaching and research in specific disciplines. These discipline related services will depend on generic technological and organisational infrastructures, available inside and outside the university, maintained by generic technical specialists.
These generic infrastructures could function completely separately, or they could somehow be interlinked and coordinated by some central university organisational unit. This would make sense, because there is a lot of overlap in information between these areas. Some kind of central data coordination unit would make it possible to provide a lot more useful data services than can be imagined now. Also, usage statistics, acquisition and the potential new publishing framework, yes even the special collections, could benefit from a central data services unit.
Such a unit would be different from the existing university ICT department. The latter mainly provides generic hardware, network, storage and security, and is focused on the internal infrastructure, trying to keep out as much external traffic as possible.
The new unit would be targeted at providing data services, possibly built on top of the internal technical infrastructure, but mainly using existing external ones. And it is obvious that there is added value in cooperation with similar bodies outside the university.
“Data services” then stands for providing storage, use, reuse, creation and linking of internal and external metadata and datasets by means of system administration, tools selection and implementation, and explicitly also programming when needed.
Such a unit would up to a point resemble current library service providers like the German regional library consortia and service centres such as hbz, KOBV or GBV, or high level organisations like the Dutch National Library Catalogue project.
Paraphrasing the conclusion of my own SWIB12 talk: it is time to stop thinking publications and start thinking data. This way the academic library could transform itself into a new central data services hub.
(Subject expertise AND data infrastructure) OR else!