Panlibus Blog

The future of research and the research library

According to a recent report from DEFF, Denmark’s Electronic Research Library:

There are three aspects of the functions of the research library that can be seen as providing potential scenarios. The library as a learning centre focusing on the provision of learning materials and support for learning processes. The library as a knowledge centre being a co-creator in the production of knowledge closely connected to active research groups. The library as a meta-knowledge institution working as a catalyst for knowledge synthesis, the organisation, evaluation and consolidation of knowledge.

As well as exploring this typology in greater detail, the report The future of research and the research library also describes a couple of more concrete and familiar scenarios.

Firstly, one that might have benefited from a deeper exploration in the report:

… up-to-date physical locations where the students can study with other students and in that way get a sense of a working day and a working community. In that way, the library will become more of a social zone, instead of the quiet room for lonely absorption which it is traditionally known for.

And secondly, one that is very much informed by the information literacy role of modern university libraries:

“’The touching library’, i.e. a research library which can touch and move its users through its competence to select and qualify knowledge, and which is touched and moved by its users in order to deliver the best possible product.”

What about the report itself?

It’s ambitious. Very ambitious. It’s also universal in its scope – only occasionally delving into Denmark-specific structures and scenarios. I can’t hope to do justice to the richness of its content in one single blog, so I can only present a subjective take.

Essentially, the report seeks to answer the following questions:

–          Does the research library have a future?

–          What future roles are open to the research library?

–          Would a roadmap be useful?

Instinctively I draw away from the idea of a roadmap. There are simply too many variables and broad forces over which we have so little control, notwithstanding the excellent framework that this report has provided. I’m unsure after reading the report twice whether it has answered these questions, Certainly no roadmap is forthcoming. Nevertheless, for those of us who spend time pondering over the future of the university library, it provides excellent food for thought.

Seismic change and disruption

It’s especially useful in terms of the material it presents for understanding the scale of disruption that the research library is undergoing.

Massive technological changes in the area of research, knowledge production, publishing and communication are influencing the way research is done and the functions of the research library in supporting and facilitating research and learning. Digital technology in its many forms is at the centre of the changes. The old functions of the research library are thus served in new ways. New forms of research emerge and new ways of learning too, and consequently not only new ways of serving old functions but also new functions serving new needs.

On the historical value of the research library, the report states:

The original form of value creation of the research library was based on minimising expenditure for acquisition and availability of books and journals. By having a central store it was possible to acquire fewer entities and by making these available it was possible to maximise their use. Books were expensive and few could afford large private libraries.

The report goes on to make the point that this cost-effectiveness is found today in licensing of e-journals and database, but the value is surely diminished where the number of users is factored into the cost of the licence, in a way that was not the case with a printed monograph.

There are also broader changes in terms of the research and educational systems, not least the expansion of higher education which is a global phenomenon, and the role that digital technology is perceived as a means of resolving the resultant problems and tensions. In research too there is much change – more collaborative styles and the ascendant trends towards interdisciplinary research being two obvious examples.

I know that one bright and joyous day I will pick up a report that talks about the impact of cultural relativism on an institution (the library) that has served as an absolutist custodian of authoritative artefacts. Sadly, that day is not today, and I just have to live with that (or write my own).

What history tells us

By and large, this isn’t an easy read. It’s highly theoretical and enormously broad as I’ve said. However, the report does present a very digestible history of the research library. Space constraints preclude even an attempt to do this justice, but what I will say is that it clarified in my mind many unanswered questions about how precisely the research library model has been disrupted. As is so often the case, it is not simply the case that the Internet has somehow thrown a deadly missile into a centuries-old static model, and instead should be seen as the latest and most disruptive change in the history of the research library, following on the heels of other catalysts such as the shift away from books in favour of scientific journals.

Research library and the innovation economy

The other interesting thing about the historical narrative of this report is that it presents a degree of historical continuum in the relationship between the research library and more focused problem-driven innovative activities in the broader economy. The report notes that a massive amount of research is being done in the knowledge-intensive private sector. It makes a very valid point that the limitations experienced in terms of access to digital resources (being mainly restricted to academia) is problematic, especially for SMEs.

What about curiosity driven research?

The report states that:

The British sociologist of science Steve Fuller has made a distinction between two ways in which research and universities create value. One is the direct creation of knowledge that can be used in making processes and products available in a market. This is the role of research in innovation. It contributes to the creation of financial capital. In this knowledge is seen as instrumental. The other way is through the creation of degree programmes and public education and making knowledge publicly available.

It wasn’t clear to me when reading the report where curiosity-driven research sits in this model, and indeed in the report as a whole. Yet it is surely of vital importance, even in today’s instrumental thinking around research and economic innovation. You could even argue that it assumes an even greater importance – we surely need to make huge leaps in our thinking to achieve the necessary scale of economic restructuring in most Western economies, and thinking needs to be as unrestrained as possible.

The central dilemma of the intermediary

The report provides some valuable pointers in terms of the role of the librarian and the competences that will be required. Our old friend disintermediation plays a major role in the discomfort that librarians have experienced for many years now:

New players are appearing as important and can take over some of the functions or parts of these. Publishers can provide access to journals on-line via their own servers, and universities and scientific groups or societies can provide access to digital repositories of papers and books.

As one interviewee said:

The dilemma is that you on one hand do something for the user and make yourself indispensable, and on the other hand you create the user in your own picture [sic] and thus make yourself dispensable.

This quotation surely goes to the heart of the pain of disintermediation, and reminded me forcibly of my days as a special librarian in the metals industry.

To my mind, the most optimistic statement in the whole report was this one:

Our belief about who we are does influence what we perceive as possible.

It really is true that even in adverse conditions, a little bit of self-belief can make a lot of difference, and this report has at least delivered some clarity to a highly complex landscape.

3 Responses

  1. Steven Says:

    Thanks for this, Sarah.

    Coming from the public library sector I was interested to see that the issues flagged up in this report are just as relevant in our environment, the major differences being that our audience base is considerably more messy to deal with and that our resource base necessarily has to be more diverse. Certainly, the tensions listed would be all too familiar to many if we substituted “local authority” or “community” for “university” and “institution.”

    I, too, am wary of roadmaps but this one provides useful reminders of the “where are we going and how would we know if we got there?” type of question, with the potential for quite a few positive answers.

  2. Sarah Bartlett Says:

    Hi Steven,

    I found your comment very interesting, and re-read my post, thinking about it from a public library perspective. Thanks very much.

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