Research libraries in the 21st century

Digital technologies have created new opportunities for one of the cornerstones of university scholarship, says the University Librarian, Anne Bell.

By Michael Visontay

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Major university libraries the world over are reassessing how they operate in response to the changes generated by the development of digital resources, the networked environment and new technological opportunities. Traditional university library services were built around the development and curation of physical information resources, typically books and journals and, at scale, required large numbers of staff providing a range of high-volume services involved in borrowing, returning and providing space for reading. Collection size was all. This stable world ended in the early 1990s as electronic journals and the internet began to revolutionise not only the publishing industry but also the practice of scholarship and learning.

The University Librarian, Anne Bell, says that today, across the major Australian university libraries, an average of 85 per cent of the funding spent on information resources is used to purchase content in digital form. At the same time, loans of books and other physical items have declined substantially; an average drop of nearly 40 per cent was recorded from 2002 to 2012.
It’s not that university libraries are less busy. Indeed, the opposite is true. It’s just that the majority of resources and services are now delivered virtually. “In 2012 the University of Sydney issued 1.4 million physical items but users downloaded nearly 3 million e-readings and over 8 million journal articles,” says Ms Bell.

“The level of e-book use at nearly 1.3 million downloads each year will shortly overtake loans of our entire stock of physical books. We received approximately 2.5 million physical visits to our library in 2012 but received over 5.5 million ’visits’ to the library website alone.”

This data reflects a level of accessibility that could barely have been imagined 20 years ago. The University’s Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Garton, underlines the significance of this revolution: “It frees the researcher, teacher and student from the tyranny of time and place –increasingly they can undertake their research and studies at any time and from anywhere in the world.”

However, Professor Garton adds that despite the reality of how most users now access library resources and services, “the collections still represent a vital research resource. But there can be tensions between traditional patterns of library use and emerging patterns of utilisation”. Many research libraries have been remodelled to deliver a wider range of study accommodation, including high-tech shared study spaces as well as traditional quiet study areas, to reflect changing teaching and learning practices in particular, and this has meant some collections have had to be relocated or put into storage, a point of friction for those wanting immediate access to vital research resources. Nonetheless, he adds, “most of the major libraries in the world have substantial parts of their collections in storage and sophisticated retrieval systems. Sydney is no different”.

Bell acknowledges that some commentators see this as somehow symptomatic of a “dumbing down” of the library experience. “This reflects the growing tension between change and continuity in libraries. Some look back wistfully to their perception of a golden age of research libraries while others bemoan what they see as the glacial pace of change,” she explains.

“What can get lost in the broader debate is the huge increase in access to knowledge that digital resources and the networked environment have enabled. In 1990 researchers, academics and students at the Group of 8 research-intensive institutions in Australia had access, on average, to approximately 16,500 current journal titles through their university libraries.

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“By 2012 that figure had increased to over 100,000 titles. Whatever the concerns about retaining the best of the past, we should celebrate the academic and other benefits that this increased access to knowledge brings.”

This fundamental shift in how users interact with library resources begs the question of what it means to be a research library in the 21st century. Initiatives in the US, UK, Canada and elsewhere have all attempted to support discussion around the future of both academic and public libraries. Bell says that although there is no single view of how to proceed, there are opportunities to deliver new, distinctive services.

The University’s plan for the development of its Library proposes a range of new opportunities. These include the allocation of increased resources for the digitisation of rare books and special collections to bring them to new local and international audiences.

A further proposal is to facilitate e-research and digital scholarship by providing infrastructure to enable academics, researchers and students to deliver digital projects. By way of example, Bell refers to a project her team had been involved with when she worked in the UK. “The institution had a unique collection of French theatre prompt books and plays from around the time of the Great Terror and the French Revolution. Students in the French Department were closely involved in the process of selecting and digitally preserving plays from the period They then had the opportunity of producing original research based on the plays they had selected and an online journal was published to disseminate their work.”

Critically, there are also opportunities for librarians to reinvent themselves through close engagement with students, academics and researchers. Today’s technology-enabled landscape can lead to creative and genuinely user-centred research library models based on engagement, partnership and understanding of the workflows, processes and communities of practice as well as the information needs of users.

Bell says the University is also considering making some of its facilities open 24 hours, seven days a week. “Under this plan, study facilities at the Fisher Library and at four re-developed sites would potentially become 24/7 operations, with students and staff using swipe-card technology to access these facilities.”This is an essential measure to improve the student experience. Students have consistently highlighted longer opening hours as a key priority for the Library.

In conclusion, Ms Bell says that despite the understandable concern of some users, it has never been a better or more exciting time to work in research libraries. The opportunities to re-position traditional professional skills and expertise in support of digital scholarship and independent learning have never been greater. The old certainties may have gone but the new digital landscape promises a bright future for those libraries that choose to embrace it.