At The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium a few weeks ago held at McMaster University & sponsored by Library Journal Jim Neal spoke about The Need for Systemic Changes Across Higher Education Libraries. As the Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University in New York, Jim is known for being progressive; some hear his approaches as somewhat ‘irritating’, but I hear his approaches as refreshing – as a rallying cry – as provocative pokes to keep us, or get us, moving towards the future we design – not a future that just happens to us or is designed for us.

Jim began with definitions for academic libraries for the last several decades:

  • 1950’s Exclusitivity
  • 1950 – 1970 Popularization
  • 1970 – 1990 Discord
  • 1990 – 2010 Decadence
  • 2010 – 2020 Parabiosis…..the natural or surgical union of two, or possibly more, organisms — or organizations
  • 2020 + will be Particularism….”what will define academic libraries will be the particularism we bring to our contexts”

He spoke of an academic library as an infrastructure of facilities and expertise, providing stable, reliable information, and as an enterprise working with faculty to build research. He then asked, ‘do we have the capabilities to do this?‘ Not alone. Not as separate institutional-bound entities.  But, as true collaborators, “radical collaborators” that finally go beyond cooperation (you do this & I do that) to working together to create new structures, services and breakthroughs, then yes.

He then listed the trends defining this age of parabiosis, casting a critical eye on what may have been strengths for libraries in a past ear that have now become weaknesses:

  • the web is totally customizable causing shifting user behaviours that need new literacies; Jim didn’t say it, but I immediately thought of the transliteracies Bobbi Newman and others are investigating
  • library operations are redundant; can’t libraries share some operations, and outsource others that aren’t mission-critical? We can move operations to the cloud to share.
  • our service paradigms are aging and ineffective; the panel of students who had spoken earlier in the day mainly used the library for study or groupwork; students are career-focused, not learning focused
    • what concerned me the most about this was that there were people in the audience who were surprised by the students observations & comments; how can we be surprised? We’ve been hearing the same opinions from students for years —-> that they don’t start with the library ‘catalogue’ (why don’t we just call databases & catalogues ‘websites’ so that students can relate to them?); that students just want to get their paper or project completed while librarians encourage thorough searches; that students have no idea who a librarian or non-librarian is and why there’s a difference; and that students see librarians as authority figures so are reluctant to talk with them, etc..  We can’t be surprised, we need to be changing the service paradigms.)
  • “we are an information poor information profession” that isn’t really aware of what other libraries are doing; Jim encouraged academic librarians to share their research results with each other and I’d go further — libraries need to look not so much at other libraries as at other service organizations and other information-intensive organizations (HR, IT, public sector), and at the very least at libraries in other sectors. What I’ve always valued about Information Today’s Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries is the inter-mingling and co-presenting of public, academic, government and corporate libraries.
  • most academic libraries have common resources, so what is the future of collection development; shouldn’t libraries be sharing the common and focusing on the resources unique for their specific research & study context?

Jim summarized these and other trends with a call to advance from Kumbaya to Radical Collaboration, to think differently and operate differently, by reaching out to other communities and collaborating in new, radical ways.

And for this radical collaboration to happen, there are 15 systemic changes required for libraries in higher education, almost all involving advancement, development or creation. I admit that I missed a few, since when I get excited about an idea, my hands shake even more than they normally do. And I find these ideas exciting:

  • advance a repository network
  • create a National Public Digital Library with  a dot.lib &  domain to search all libraries
  • develop the National Content Licensing Program
  • create a national strategy for website & content capture & curation
  • advance an e-research cyber infrastructure in which there’s a a collective role for libraries partnering with faculty
  • develop a National Preservation Strategy for analog, digital, etc.
  • create a Global Resources Network that will fill the gaps now being created as academic libraries aren’t collecting non-English international content
  • consider a regional network of library service agencies
  • advance a library R&D program and consortium to enable data-driven decision-making (yes!!!)
  • coordinate marketing & assessment (why is every library developing their own marketing & assessment programs?)
  • create new standards for academic library spaces (yes please!)
  • create other staffing models – and review, with the iSchool faculties, the future of the graduate program
  • advocate and support political candidates to advance the legislation required regarding copyright, open access and more…

Whew! There’s no doubt initiatives — I mean real, ‘let’s get this done’ initiatives – are critical in each of these areas. But, as I said to Jim, we don’t want the sector to choke on the enormity of this list and the demands before them, so what does he see as the priority? Where should academic libraries start? Recognizing that many of the changes required are inter-related and interdependent, and could be — and should be — started simultaneously, Jim  would first focus on creating the national or North American last copy print repositories. Makes sense, since the infrastructure is there, ready to be optimized, by libraries joining forces not as a consortium or a cooperative, but as a collaboratory blurring boundaries and integrating processes, practices and politics — yep, politics.

Jim is fully exploring these possibilities and topics right now; he’s keynoting the Interlending and Document Supply Conference on September 20, 2011, speaking on “Radical Collaboration & the Future of the Academic Library: The 2CUL Project as Case Study (pronounced “too cool” this is a Columbia/Cornell collaboration.)