Vectors of Change in Academic Libraries

February 22, 2019

Academic library operations have undergone tremendous change since 1993, when I took my first library job (a student worker position at my undergraduate alma mater). In fact, in many ways, the nature of today’s library work bears little resemblance to what my co-workers and I did 26 years ago. Now solidly in the middle of my career, I’m keenly sensitive to the notion that what libraries will be doing as I approach the end of my career will probably be very different from what we’re doing now. Moreover, that statement assumes that, 20-plus years from now, academic libraries will exist in a recognizable form—hardly a given.

As I contemplate the prospects of continuing my career in library management, I realize that the process of ongoing change will prove to be uncomfortable from time to time. That said, I can’t surmise that I and others will be better off if we simply let the future happen and do nothing to anticipate or shape it.

Predicting the future accurately and consistently seems, well, impossible. But even if that isn’t a realistic goal, I believe that the academic library community can strengthen its capacity to adapt to—and even influence—the future by examining what I refer to as “vectors of change.” When I use this phrase, I mean to say that past change has tended to establish a direction of sorts. Regardless of whether the pace of change has been steady, and even if we expect that human or technological factors will constrain change at some point, understanding the trajectories that have led us to our present situation will likely enable us to achieve a measure of foresight.

The table that follows summarizes changes that I’ve observed in academic libraries during my career. I envision that most, if not all, of these trends will continue for the foreseeable future, though not necessarily at a predictable rate.

Assuming that these vectors of change will remain in place, one can begin to develop a sense of what the future may hold for academic libraries. Below are some aspects of academic library practice that I expect to intensify over time.

    1. Contract negotiation: As outsourced production, access to remote collections, and cloud-based processes increase, library professionals will need to devote time to, and develop skills in, the negotiation of contracts with outside parties.

    2. Vendor management: The mere execution of a contract does not mean that vendors and partners will render the intended services as expected. Rather, depending on the nature of the contract, librarians and staff members may need to monitor the delivery of service, troubleshoot, co-create, and/or hold the outside entity accountable. Blind acceptance of their services is not a viable option.

    3. System administration and integration: As libraries become more dependent on automation technologies, increasingly using software-as-a-service models, they will find it necessary to allocate labor to system administration and integration. These efforts will entail concentrated effort at initial setup, but the work will not end there. Networked resources and conditions are continuously evolving—for example, through the emergence of new security threats and the release of new versions with upgraded features. Iterative maintenance will be necessary, and in some cases, near-constant monitoring will be in order.

    4. Data analysis: The ongoing automation of staff work and digitalization of information service delivery mean that library systems will generate a growing mass of data. These data will contain a wealth of information that, at least in theory, could lead to enhanced labor efficiency and service quality. However, if libraries are to achieve these objectives, they’ll have to acquire skill in, and allocate labor to, the analysis of ever-expanding data sets. Alternatively, they might be able out outsource these functions, thus accentuating the phenomena described under #1 and #2.

    5. Donor cultivation and management: Whereas libraries once sought to achieve favorable comparisons with other libraries, particularly in regards to the published materials in their collections, the tide is shifting. As digital collections continue to eclipse their print counterparts, libraries will rely more heavily on acquisition models that incorporate direct evidence of user need. Libraries will differentiate themselves by seeking to acquire collections that others will find it difficult or impossible to duplicate. This will entail courting donors and maintaining relationships that encourage further philanthropic action. Most graduates of information school programs probably haven’t developed these skills, but that doesn’t minimize their importance.

    6. Technological and scholarly innovation: Libraries will be expected to house emerging technologies, at least to some degree. Recent and current emphases include makerspaces, device checkout, collaboration and communication technologies, and data visualization. Research data management and support for digital humanities are concerns that will probably grow. Many libraries have begun to shift their resources toward the development of a new scholarly ecosystem that includes open access journals and open educational resources, and economic factors make it likely that this trend will continue.

    7. Marketing: If libraries are to achieve their potential, they’ll do so in collaboration with their users. In other words, they’ll engage in effective marketing—not solely in the sense of reaching their audiences with clear and impactful messaging, but also in that of co-creating the next generation of services. To this end, they’ll need to set up feedback loops (surveys, focus groups, social media analysis, etc.), designate employees to communicate with key stakeholder groups and represent their interests, organize outreach events, embed themselves in face-to-face and online curricula, and more. Today’s students and faculty have choices; if their institution’s libraries fail to provide a simple and effective user experience, they may well go elsewhere.

    8. Change management: All of the aforementioned emphases will require library professionals and staff to be more flexible than ever before. The transformation of service delivery and back-office processes may occur more through evolution than revolution. Libraries will benefit from learning to engage in rapid prototyping. The capacity to accommodate ambiguity and change will not come naturally to many of us. Library leaders will need to cultivate these skills in themselves and in others, whether directly or through facilitators who possess expertise in organization development.

If this forecast of the pace and extent of coming change seems daunting, well, it is. The past quarter of a century has shown that librarianship isn’t for the faint of heart. It has also shown that libraries and librarians are remarkably resilient—able to adapt to challenging conditions and capable of generating more value with limited resources. This is both our legacy and our future.

Want to learn more about organizational change and related topics?

Click the buttons below to see relevant entries in my bibliography, SmithFile.