23 May 2016

The Library of the Future, the Future of the Library

Guest post by Marie O’ NeillHead of Library Services & Information Services,  DBS Library
The Library of the Future, the Future of the Library symposium was held in Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery on the 19th May. After the recent A&SL Conference on Smashing Librarian Stereotypes, a symposium exploring future possibilities for libraries and librarians felt timely. Now that we as a profession know what we don’t want to be, how do we reimagine and describe anew the modern day library and librarian?
The symposium was one of a series of lectures that has been hosted by TCD Library on topics such as TCD’s Library Strategy, the future of monographs in a world of open access, memory in a digital age and more. The full line up of lectures can be seen here.
During the symposium, there was much talk about the ‘outward facing’ library. The hosting of a series of free talks on librarianship by TCD’s Librarian and Archivist Helen Shenton fully embodies this concept. Moreover lecture series on librarianship such as this raise the bar for Irish librarianship. We should as a profession and discipline have academic lecture series to explore and critique pertinent issues in the way that other disciplines do. 
Throughout the symposium Helen Shenton displayed an endearing professional generosity. She appears to thrive on knowledge sharing. It was clear that the line-up of presenters had been informed by contacts that she had acquired during her extensive library career. The presenters comprised library world heavy weights such as the Chief Director of the British Library, the University Librarian of Stanford University, the, Librarian of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford and Jeffrey Schnapps, Founder/Faculty Director of MetaLab at Harvard University. One symposium tweet referred to the line-up as follows:
When I and another delegate thanked Helen at the end of the symposium for a really exciting event, she cheerfully asked us if we felt ‘fired up’ and was genuinely delighted when we said that we were. 
It was also apparent that the genesis of the library lecture series lay not only in a desire to showcase activities at TCD Library but also in a desire to contribute to the wider professional library dialogue here in Ireland.  The symposium certainly achieved this. The coffee and lunch break conversation as well as the tweets that the event generated were vibrant and lively.  At one point, the event trended number one in Ireland on Twitter, higher than the Twitter coverage of the EgyptAir flight 804 air crash which had occurred that day.
It is not possible to do justice to the detailed content of each presentation. Do consult the slides when you have the opportunity. There were however powerful takeaways from each presentation. 
Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library was compelling on the potential of big data to empower researchers to get more from digital collections. He also highlighted that libraries have power in numbers, evocatively describing the universities and libraries that exist around the St Pancreas area of London as a ‘knowledge quarter.’ 
Mike Keller, the University Librarian of Stanford University described new forms of peer reviewed online scholarship. He also advocated that librarians embrace the ‘digital mashup,’ describing how disparate digital maps could be overlapped to generate ‘new hypotheses. ’Keller also demonstrated a new conceptual search engine called Yewno charmingly using the 1916 Easter Rising as an example. 
His most powerful takeaway however was his focus on talented staff as being integral to the library of the future. When he mentioned that he had obtained half a million dollars in salary bonuses for library staff at Stanford University there were audible gasps in the audience. Many Irish library staff haven’t seen a whiff of an annual salary increment for many years let alone a bonus nor have we ever conceived of looking for bonuses even in the good times which begs the question why not? What better way to smash librarian stereotypes than to be a profession that receives bonuses in the way that other professions do.  
Richard Ovenden, Librarian, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford spoke about the high density off-site storage facility in Swindon. Off-site storage of print collections to make way for more value added library spaces and services was a recurrent theme throughout the symposium. 
Ovenden also spoke about the highly successful remodelling of the drab Weston Library building (it was once described as a ‘dinner jacket made out of Harris Tweed’) designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s. The building was so non-descript that members of the public often mistook it for a public swimming pool. He was also insightful about the need for imaginative and modern marketing. The Bodleian libraries now advertise library events and resources on train station ticket turnstiles as thousands of commuters pass through them daily.  Genius! Ovenden like Keating highlighted the importance of library exhibitions describing them as powerful shop windows to collections. They also drive engagement.
There were yet more gasps from the audience as Ovenden revealed that the remodelling of the Weston Library was funded through eighty million pounds worth of philanthropy. New chairs in the Library were funded by alumni of the college for 500 pounds a pop for which the name of the donor would be printed on the back. Ovenden unashamedly joked that apart from the toilets there was very little space or furniture in the Weston Library that didn’t display visible evidence of philanthropy. Bodleian libraries also have coffee shops and other businesses that generate five million pounds in revenue.
Jeffrey Schnapps, Founder/Faculty director of MetaLab at Harvard in his thrilling talk appeared to develop a new nomenclature for librarianship comprising terms such as the, ‘library laboratory’, ‘programmable stacks, ‘books with memories’, ‘the awesome box’ and much more.  His talk generated stunning sound bites:
‘The reference desk as we know it is dead.’
‘Special Collections should be at the centre and not at the periphery.’
Schnapps was one of the most richly descriptive presenters that I have ever seen with a powerful, evocative turn of phrase. He has authored a book called the Library Beyond the Book which I will be rushing out to buy next week. Schnapps’ vision for the library of the future was that it would be a space devoted to knowledge creation and as well as preservation. All speakers described the future of the library as being a hybrid of the analogue and the digital.
During the symposium coffee and lunch breaks much conversation and debate ensured. Some delegates griped that it was okay for these particular librarians as they had budgets in the millions and sometimes billions. A few women and one man asked where were the female librarians in the line-up? Another delegate countered this by saying that they thought that there was a female head of library services in Harvard University and that she was also Irish. One public library delegate felt that the presentation on the British Library could have referred to what the British Library do to engage with poor local communities and with children. Other delegates found the talks to be uplifting in the context of recent public library closures in the UK. One thing that all the delegates were in agreement with was that they were awe struck by the quality of the event, of the speakers and of the library developments they described. Superlatives flowed like, ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’ ‘mind blowing’, ‘inspirational’ and more. I was also impressed with the way library staff at TCD worked together during the event and the welcoming and inviting manner with which they greeted delegates. Shenton also thanked them at the end of the symposium. 
What was clear from all of the presenters’ talks is that the future library is already here. Additionally it has been fuelled by new library funding models as well as new technologies. Librarians don’t always like to talk money. At times we can be shy about courting industry and philanthropy but all of these speakers spoke about relationships with the corporate sector and philanthropy with ease and confidence. Ovenden has also been at the forefront of the partnership between Oxford University Press and Google for example which has resulted in the digitisation of thousands of the Library’s unique collections.  
It was rapidly becoming clear that the librarian of the future needs to think outside the box in terms of the financial management of the library. We as librarians could learn so much from the presenters in this regard. In fact during the symposium, I started to have a flight of fancy where I envisaged a jointly written book by all of the speakers entitled New Funding Models for Libraries. The book would contain chapters on corporate partnerships, a chapter on philanthropy, a chapter on how to get a bigger piece of the financial pie in your institution (Keller was unequivocal that as Stanford expands academic programmes they must expand the library budget), a chapter on the librarian as entrepreneur (how to incorporate book shops, coffee shops and other businesses into your library etc.), a chapter on consortia etc.  Equally new funding models for libraries would make a great PHD thesis topic. 
Another symposium tweet reflected on some of the negative talk by delegates re: the large budgets that speakers had to play around with in their respective institutions. 

The author of this tweet is absolutely right. Yes we can think outside the box re how we fund the library of the future, but there is still an awful lot that you can do on a small budget particularly in the era of open source software and creative commons materials and more. 
I would have liked to have learned more not just about the library of the future but also the librarian of the future and the skillset that this librarian would require and then I realised that throughout the symposium I was actually looking at the librarian of the future. All four speakers were erudite, visionary, energetic, confident, eloquent, humorous and inventive, not a single librarian stereotype in sight. They were scholars, publishers, leaders, managers, public speakers, collaborators, event and PR managers, project managers, and IT, design and marketing savvy.  One computer science lecturer from TCD in the audience (it was great to see non library professionals in attendance) asked Mike Keller a question after his presentation prefacing it with one word ‘wow’. 
Did the Library of the Future, Future Libraries symposium have the wow factor? Hell yea. Were we all fired up after it? Absolutely, in spades. I couldn’t wait to get back to my library desk. The Careers Development Group of the Library Association of Ireland also hosted an incredible Library Camp on Saturday of the same week. It’s been a fantastic week for the Irish library profession.
My key takeaways from the Library of the Future symposium is that the library of the future must collaborate more not only with other libraries but also with industry and alumni. In fact it is essential. Impact statistics like the ones that Ovenden displayed are also critical.  One symposium tweet correctly asserted:

But most importantly I came away with a sense that with the right mindset, the right skillset and the right technological tools, the library of the future will be more important and dynamic than ever. In fact it doesn’t matter whether your library is big or small, what matters for the library of the future is that we as librarians think big and that we let nothing hold us back in this regard. 


  1. Marie, this is a magnificent review of an excellent symposium. I love the way that you embed the talks and their speakers thoughts into your review. You go beyond rehashing what they say and synthesise the thoughts and create something new. Well done. And I look forward to your future reviews for Libfocus :)

  2. Anonymous23 May, 2016

    Thanks Martin for your kind comments. It was a fantastic event.