In January 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education published a response I’d written to Brian Sullivan’s article, Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050. In my response I described my vision of the academic library in 2050. Reading it 3 ½ years later it still rings true, with a few additions:
The open access movement to make scholarly work freely available to all–regardless of their affiliation and ability to pay–will revolutionize scholarship and creative collaboration. As publishers know, however, peer-reviewed content does not come cheap. So the library acquisitions budgets now used to purchase content will be used in the future to pay for content management systems, publishing and dissemination of new peer-reviewed work, and format migration (periodically converting content from old to new electronic formats, and developing systems for accessing content in older formats). The democratization of scholarship, research and creative work through open access will create exciting new opportunities for sharing ideas and advancing knowledge in every discipline.
Libraries of all kinds are collaborating to preserve and provide access to books, journals and other content. Initiatives such as the Five Colleges’ EAST project are developing formal structures to preserve the entire scholarly record in its original form (that is, print and other physical formats) as well as in digital form. Library systems now used for interlibrary loan will be adapted to make these shared collections discoverable and accessible to all. In this way libraries will continue to serve their essential function of preserving and making accessible the scholarly record for current and future scholars and students.
And this points to something important: Libraries will continue to do what they’ve always done, albeit in a very different way than in the past. Our mission remains to retain, preserve and make accessible scholarly, popular and creative works to anyone interested in them, for the benefit of future as well as current users. The library’s commitment is not limited, as might be the case with a for-profit company, to content that is currently popular or profitable. Our commitment instead is to the preservation and accessibility of the entire scholarly and creative record. No one can know what content will be used and valued by scholars in the future; libraries ensure that unfashionable content remains discoverable over time.
Librarians are leaders in this work. Faculty and information technology staff have enormous expertise in their fields, and students know the kind of spaces, equipment and applications they prefer when they are studying. Librarians bring all this expertise together and add their own–developing good working relationships with faculty, students and IT, eliciting their ideas and suggestions, and then selecting, creating and adapting library resources, services and spaces to meet those needs. Because librarians are not based in a single academic discipline, they are able to fairly balance the content needs of faculty and students in all disciplines. And librarians do not value one content format (print or electronic) over another, basing decisions solely on what is most useful and usable in each instance. Finally, librarians determine how to meet these needs—fairly and with minimal bias—given the inevitable constraints of money, time and space. The knowledge of not just how to provide access but what to do to best meet the changing needs of our users, and the formal commitment to do this to the best of our ability, are what distinguishes librarianship as a profession and not merely an area of expertise.
We live in exciting times technologically. The undoubted power and promise of technology can lead some to see it as a cure-all, the penicillin that will solve academia’s problems of unequal access and rising costs. But just as penicillin did not make the medical profession obsolete—it does not cure everything, and doctors are still necessary to determine when and how to administer it—information technology will not solve all the problems of providing content in the digital age. Libraries and librarians will continue to select, make accessible and preserve books, articles, data, video, audio and an increasing variety of content, for the enjoyment and study of our users.