May 11, 2018

Academic Libraries Look Toward the Future | ALA Annual 2015

library crystal ball

Photo by Isobel T

As proof positive that, even with their superior powers of observation and vision, librarians can’t predict the future, the planners for the American Library Association 2015 annual conference definitely underestimated how many people would be attending the program Look into the Crystal Ball: Future Directions for Higher Education and Academic Libraries, sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries University Libraries Section (ACRL ULS). Every seat was filled, as well as all available floor space, with attendees eager to hear the panel’s thoughts on what the future may hold for academic libraries.

The panelists—Chris Bourg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology director of libraries; Janice Jaguszewski, director and associate university librarian of health sciences at University of Minnesota (U of M) libraries; Deanna Marcum, managing director at Ithaka S+R; and Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education and sociology at Stanford University—represented a variety of institutions. And while they all agreed that academic libraries were in a time of flux and needed to keep their eyes on the horizon, each had a different take as to how.


Stevens felt that academic libraries are at the frontier of “a massive expansion of opportunity,” adding, “and I am not talking about MOOCs!” Rather, he envisioned multiplatform vehicles for teaching and research, transforming higher education in the way that digital media has already changed more commercial aspects of life such as shopping and dating. Which is not to say that academia is not commercial, either. “I don’t know why higher education costs as much as it does,” Stevens said. “In fact, no one has a good estimate of how much a four-year college degree should cost under ideal conditions…. Suffice it to say that we’re at a point where more and more of the cost is being underwritten by students.”

Alongside the continually rising cost, Stevens noted, is an ever-growing demand for education as a lifelong option: “We’re going to be needing to fit higher education into adult lives rather than fit adult lives into higher education.” Libraries can play a key role in meeting learners where they are, and as we enter a world with ever-more access, people will need portals they can trust; curation will be key to translating the ubiquity of information into educational quality.


Marcum began with a disclaimer: “I am not a higher education expert. I am not a futurist. I am a librarian who cares deeply about what happens to higher education.” She cited two recent Ithaka studies, one examining technology-enhanced education at ten public flagship universities and the second looking at online learning at the 20 small liberal arts colleges that make up the Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction. The overriding concerns among all institutions, said Marcum, were low completion rates; the pedagogical techniques needed to educate an increasingly diverse student population; the consistency of transfer credits; and varying levels of preparedness among students.

Both types of institutions found that increased online instruction has both benefits and drawbacks. It enables public universities to increase access without having to physically build out—an important concern in times of decreasing levels of state support. The private colleges also need to stay vital even as class sizes shrink; “Sweet Briar was a wakeup call,” Marcum noted. But this changing infrastructure also brings clashes between administrators, who are looking for ways to increase numbers without additional infrastructure, and faculty, who feel that new teaching methods take time away from the research they’re also expected to do. Libraries are well-positioned to help on both sides, Marcum feels, providing help with technology, information on open educational resources, course material evaluation, and general support.


Jaguszewski, who spent most of her career in the sciences, felt that the question academic libraries need to ask themselves is: What do users need that the library is in a position to provide? “We’re really business analysts,” she said, looking for opportunities and solutions—many of which may turn out to deviate from traditional linear academic paths. She pointed to several U of M initiatives, including its Grand Challenges, which encourage cross-disciplinary student investigations toward solutions for what she terms “wicked problems” such as poverty, climate change, and hunger; and Zooniverse, a group of citizen science websites, and their humanities correlate Zoomanities, which encourages crowdsourced document transcription; and the Data Repository at U of M (DRUM), which forms part of a suite of data management and curation services.

“We’re rethinking what a…degree looks like,” said Jaguszewski. “Is there a standard sequence of courses that you have to take? Does it have to take four years? This is where higher ed is starting to go.” Much of what spurs U of M’s innovation is the demand for what she terms radical collaboration—leveraging expertise from everywhere. “So much student success happens outside the classroom,” she noted, adding that Making is about more than a Maker space, but rather moving beyond products to the intellectual property and copyright issues around them. Technology is a tool, Jaguszewski said, and needs to be driven by educational priorities, rather than driving them.


“There are no crystal balls,” declared Bourg, invoking both the celebratory and tragic events of past weeks: “The future is notoriously unpredictable; certainly not linear.” She is less interested, she said, in how libraries can respond to change, and more interested in how they can create change. While curation is valuable and librarians can help students make sense of large amounts of information, Bourg said, it would be valuable to develop discovery environments that would put curation and filtering tools in the hands of users—not only to build portals they can trust, but portals they can control. University presses, as well, have both the opportunity and obligation to provide wide access to scholarship.

Libraries also need to take on issues of data literacy, Bourg proposed; she would like to see them join with faculty in teaching critical thinking skills and fostering consciousness. “I think librarians’ single most important contribution to the future,” she said, “will be to equip our communities with the history, the context, and the data to understand and solve the big problems of our times—persistent racial and ethnic injustice, climate change, global poverty, and staggering and growing degrees of income and wealth inequality, to name a few.” Bourg called, specifically, for activist, proactive librarians who will leverage their expertise and values that go beyond supporting and advising faculty, and “who will be the change we want to see in the library world, in higher education, and in our communities.”

Cross-discipline collaboration, instructional scaffolding, support of and access to open resources, innovation outside the library walls: the future may not be easily predicted, but there are many strategies for academic libraries—and librarians—to take to help shape it. When at the session’s end an audience member asked about how to engage in an activist role without losing his job, Bourg suggested, “pick your battles, form coalitions…. If you believe in progressive librarianship and thinks librarians should position themselves in that way, but are worried about administrators supporting that—do what you can to become an administrator.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Stephanie Chavez says:

    Wow, this article is a breath of fresh air. I attended the conference but didn’t get to this program (and probably would have been deterred by the crowds anyway), good thing LJ covered it. Sometimes it can be difficult for librarians to take a hard (and positive) look towards the future but I am not surprised that the program’s panel and numerous attendees look to adapting, expanding and shaping academic libraries and beyond. Using technology and data as a tool to shape education and change it from the static, centuries old model, are really exciting.

    What the scholars said about looking for opportunities and solutions, creating change rather than just responding to change, and doing what you can to become an administrator are why I became a librarian and wouldn’t leave the field for any price.

  2. Thank you for the write up. For those interested, I posted full text of my remarks here –

    • Su Erickson says:

      I’m glad I was able to hear your presentation at ALA. Thank you for sharing the text of your presentation, as I was moved by your words and left with a good feeling that there’s librarians out in the world who want to create change and not just react to what’s going on around us.