The Next Ten Years

/ 15 February 2011

My mind has been buried in minutia these past few weeks, working off the details of a few client projects that involve a wonderful descent into the details of CSS and HTML. I must admit it has been fun, but one item did break through my concentration, a posting from the ARL looking for candidates for a new program for “Transforming Research Libraries.”

The past few decades have been an amazing ride, and I’ve been lucky to spot a few trends as they emerged. I remember implementing a cataloging resource site on the 1993 internet in both Gopher and Web protocols, realizing the web was much easier to work with, and sensing it would “win” the net. I remember encoding and listening to my first MP3’s in 1998 and realizing that CD’s were history when Apple brought out iTunes and made “rip, mix, and burn” a simple proposition. But until recently I have not agreed that libraries faced an existential threat. Today, I am beginning to think we will see big changes in the next decade.

I always had the sense that librarians were unafraid of technology. Maybe that comes from working at the MIT Libraries! Still, from scrolls to codex, from chains to card catalogs, from circulation cards to computers, librarians have always been ready to adopt the next appropriate technology. This facility with adapting the best that new technology offers to the job we do kept me confident of the library’s place. The challenge we now face, though, is that the very material we are here to share is evaporating into the ether. Once “books” are no longer, what is our work? And how long do books and journals still have with us?

This is a much longer story than I have time to type tonight, but let me just say that I since I’ve started using the iPad over the past year, I’ve concluded that we don’t have as long as I thought. Reading is really fun on these devices, and I think adoption will skyrocket as the tools get better. On top of that, reading is different on these devices, more interactive, more collaborative. These are things that paper can’t duplicate and they will spell the death of paper, at least in academe. And worst of all for libraries, this medium changes the economic dynamic that makes lending feasible. What happens when the cost of the item becomes less than the cost of circulating it?

So if libraries are to have a role in the future academy, it has to be a new role. In the 1990’s I began talking about “libraries turning inside out.” By that I meant that libraries, which had collected the worlds resources so that a community could make efficient use of them, were now in a position to collect the output of the community so that the world could find it. This is why we created DSpace at MIT. And this is the conclusion of Eli Neiburger’s wonderful “Libraries are Screwed” talk (see the end of part 2).

Libraries turning inside out still feels right to me. This is the heart of the task that will face the ARL’s new Transforming Research Libraries program. This is the heart of the issue facing every academic library large or small. This may even, as Neiburger points out, be the issue facing all libraries. Our job is to apply our skills, those things we have inside us, to serve the constituencies who fund us, those on the outside. If we don’t find a way to do that in the next ten years, then I fear it may be too late.


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