The Future of Academic Libraries: Our Role

download

In a recent piece published on the Huffington Post College Blog, librarians Jane Carlin (University of Puget Sound) and Barb Macke (University of Cincinnati), tackled one of the biggest questions facing the future of academic libraries: Do they need to keep collecting books?

Although these two librarians admit their bias (as most of us in the library world foster) toward the physicality of actual books, they examine the situations that are consistently facing academic libraries in the 21st Century.  These center on the lack of usage for physical books by student patrons and the new demands for library spaces.  They also focus on the “Three C’s” of academic library services as dictated by student visitors.

These include Collaboration (creating collaborative spaces in academic libraries for students and faculty), Creation (making the academic library the center of knowledge creation on campus), and Contemplation (creating that “awe” moment in reading rooms or library facilities that enriches academic programs).  In addition to these three criteria, the authors encourage academic libraries to look to the future of academic models, shifting from collection-based experiences to engagement-based experiences with an emphasis on advanced technology, special collections and flexible environments.

This engagement-based path of academic libraries, in lieu of massive print collections, has also been under scrutiny due to unclear, and often unfair, copyright laws that govern the ways in which academic libraries can share and utilize subscriptions to ebooks.  A recent effort led by library directors from 66 small academic libraries, known as the “Oberlin Group,” has attempted to fight back against publisher restrictions on sharing ebooks between institutions.  The ability to utilize inter-library loan allows smaller academic libraries to build competitive collections without spending the same amounts of money as large research universities.

So what does this mean for DRS?  As students and academic libraries begin to shift away from collection-based attraction, online environments become much more important.  If the interactions that students and faculty are having with resources are increasingly online, then it is up to people like us to make sure that finding and using resources online is just as intuitive as taking something off of a shelf.  It is important for everyone involved in academic libraries to understand the foundational changes that are going on in our industry.  Here at IU, these changes are becoming more apparent with the creation of the Scholars’ Commons, which is currently undergoing construction.

Simplifying Technology: A View from DRS

tech-easy

On February 25, Tim Wu, in the New Yorker, published an article titled, “The Problem with Easy Technology.”  As I read the article, I struggled with its implications for the work we do here at Discovery and Research Services, especially with the ongoing migration of the IU libraries website.  Ease of use is our constant goal: to make the website so intuitive that users can easily locate information, navigate between useful pages, and quickly find what they are looking for.  Wu, however, brings up some very important questions about technology and the consequences of over-simplification.

Wu describes this danger in terms of what he calls “biological atrophy.”  That is, as humans strive to make technology easier and easier to use, we will lose critical skills that we have developed over thousands of years.  The development of these “convenience technologies” was supposed to make life easier and give us more time to focus on things like “thought, reflection, and leisure.”  There are many examples of these technologies that can only be seen as good – such as medical technology, photography, or even ski lifts (Wu’s example, not mine).

Wayyyy easier than walking!
Wayyyy easier than walking!

But it is also interesting to think about these challenges in terms of web design and content strategy.  Today, in the “Age of Google,” we consistently see that students, and even sometimes advanced researchers, struggle with any kind of database or webpage that requires them to do more than simply enter a search term.  Because of this expectation of finding information without much of an effort, students struggle more and more with the academic research process when it requires more than a basic search bar.  This also raises challenges for our web content strategy here in DRS.  We of course do not want to make the website difficult to use – quite the opposite, actually.  But I often wonder if student expectations for the site are impossible to keep up with.  It isn’t so much that we lack the talent or ingenuity of major internet companies; it is more about the fact that the nature of our resources and services do not always fit into this strict “Google-y” template.

As we continue with this migration, and with future projects, it will be interesting to see how user expectations continue to evolve.  Think of how much they have changed just in the past ten years!  But I guess that is one reason that we have our jobs: to ensure that our services keep up with user expectations.  I just wonder if, at some point, those expectations become too difficult to possibly keep up with.  As we continue to migrate and re-design the IU libraries website, it will be interesting to keep these challenges in mind.

If you are interested, you can read Wu’s article here.