7 Mar 2013

Academic library services in the digital age

The Education Advisory Board produced a persuasive piece of research back in 2011, ‘Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Information Services’. The sorts of trends highlighted in the report do not represent a bolt out of the blue. They simply provide an empirically grounded overview of what we already know intuitively. And I very much like the way this was put together. It’s easy on the eye and communicates the core message very powerfully, which is (1) being aware of how patrons’ behaviours, needs and expectations are shaped by digital technologies, (2) how library services will (by default) adapt and (3) how traditional roles and competencies of staff are shifting. The research provokes and challenges people to be mindful of what’s happening in the digital world.

Firstly, the report looks at the transformational changes happening right now. Apart from unsustainable operational costs, patrons’ expectations and information behaviours are dismantling traditional academic library operations.

Libraries are morphing into providers and managers of scholarly materials, rather than remaining static hoarders and owners. Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of publishers’ and libraries’ arguments in their dialogue over how access should be optimally provided (open access vs. costly subscription models). Google Books is busy with realising its commercial mission to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful whilst operations such as the HATHI TRUST are trying to compete. It’s established that distribution models are drifting towards the cloud and that media (music, video, books) are converging.

From an information behaviour point of view, students and faculty typically start their search for information on the Web (see p.17 in the report) and circulation and reference requests are down right across the board (see p.18 in the report).

The research also suggests that the role of library services will become even more specialised and multi-faceted in the realms of Web Services, Research Support and Instructional Support (i.e. the teaching librarian). At the same time, academic libraries are starting to embrace the idea of offering quality collaborative, social learning spaces to their patrons.

Another interesting facet looks at how the dynamics of collections building and management is making steady headway from the current just-in-case model towards just-in-time services (see for example the Orbis Cascade Alliance and related interview), whereby the preferred scenario is to provide a significantly bigger amount of resource choice to patrons at the time of individual need (see p.25 in the report).

Notable is also the fact that this research not only looked at unavoidable digital library trends, but also at the considerable challenges that come with them, including vendor defined access restrictions to e-book services and copyright barriers, as well as resistance-to-change from powerful interest groups (such as faculty and also students) that are plainly unhappy with rapid switching from analogue to digital.

Challenging times ahead...


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