Book Review: Envisioning Future Academic Library Services

Envisioning Future Academic Library Services: Initiatives, ideas and challenges.
Review info: 

Envisioning Future Academic Library Services: Initiatives, ideas and challenges. Edited by Sue McKnight, Facet Publishing, 2010, paperback ISBN 978-1-85604-691-6, 247 pages.

John Azzolini reviews a timely collection of essays that highlights the values of institutional leadership and resourcefulness in academic librarianship's engagements with Web 2.0.

Since networked information technology has initiated a breathtaking transformation of knowledge practices, librarians have had a generous supply of thought leaders whose lifetime experience has permitted them to issue credible translations of the 'writing on the wall'. Recently, however, there seems to be many more analysts (and soothsayers) and much more anxious observation and published interpretation of such writing. And the message comes in a red ink, in bold, and with distinct portent, when not downright ominous. Perhaps the exponential nature of change has propelled us into a state of perpetual diagnosis and alarmist hand-wringing. Perhaps. But as Envisioning Future Academic Library Services: Initiatives, Ideas and Challenges demonstrates, these transformations also generate perceptive big-picture commentary that underscores the field's priorities and advocates salutary actions for its practitioners. Yet as its authors make clear, all is not spiralling out of control. Something can be done, and done with telling effect. The trends are in plain sight. We just have be open to the guidance of reasonable counsel. One such prescription dominating the foreground is the re-invention of the means of librarianship's calling (its tasks and workflow) without losing sight of the ends (its commitment to service and access). Of course, the hitch comes in actually applying - or even knowing - the everyday details necessary to realise this much-vaunted balance.

Contents of the Book

Envisioning Future Academic Library Services is an example of this reasonable counsel, offering its overviews and admonitions in twelve concise chapters (in about 250 pages). A very brief foreword by Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, nicely captures the tone of the selections to follow with four words: 'Whither the academic library?' That is, swept up in the grand narrative of breakneck change in technology and expectations, what is to become of the library? She broaches the issues that flow from this theme: the meaning and implications of Web 2.0, the call for powerful new leadership and innovation among librarians, a questioning of current economic models, and the recognition that the prodigious changes we are experiencing transcend academic librarianship and encompass the nature of the university and of learning.

An Introduction - 'We Create the Future!' - by editor Sue McKnight carries on this master theme of change as she gives a synopsis of each author's contribution. Taking inspiration from Billings[1], she frames her summaries in terms of 'wild cards,' characterised as game-changing events or trends that are largely uncontrollable or unpredictable. Her suggested cards are the assumptions and needs of the 'Google Generation' (sometimes called 'digital natives'), the proliferation of Web 2.0 technologies, the emergence of new scholarly publishing frameworks, and the occupational and structural pressures from the recent global financial crisis. McKnight's opening essay reflects the book's optimistic and forward-thinking disposition, which 'provides a window on what is possible so that we can plan a transformative agenda and manage change effectively' (p. xxii).

In Chapter 1, 'Waiting for the Barbarians: Seeking Solutions or Awaiting Answers?', Derek Law focuses on the distinct mind-set and assumptions of the millennial generation and how this quite large (and growing) demographic is driving many of the elemental changes faced by libraries. Many librarians can concur with the knowing descriptions of some of the cognitive attributes of these digital natives. The author talks of these users' demands for instant results and gratification and for 24/7 access from any place, especially from their mobile devices, as well as their preference for convenience over quality. Several of his perceptive observations stand out but one in particular offers rich food for thought: 'Libraries have never been better managed but we are increasingly servants, not partners in the academic process' (p. 8).

Penny Carnaby continues the spotlight on generational differences in cognitive and practical stances toward knowledge and how this will continue to challenge the library profession's adaptability on technological, cultural, and political fronts. The suggestively titled Chapter 2, 'The Delete Generation: How Citizen-Created Content is Transforming Libraries,' does an excellent job of directing the reader's attention to the potential value of information generated through non-traditional means such as social networking sites, blogs, and personal Web sites. Carnaby illustrates the issues with three very short case studies from her native New Zealand. The questions she raises regarding the authoritativeness and preservation aspects of citizen-created content are important to consider.

Chapter 3, Andrew McDonald's 'Libraries as Places: Challenges for the Future,' addresses the academic library as a 'place' as this term is understood in its spatial, metaphorical, and resource-related connotations. Despite what some people might see as a paradox in a world of mass digitisation, the physical embodiment of the library - its books, learning spaces, and gathering areas - is alive and well and evolving to meet the demands of its many types of users. As the author states: 'Rather than libraries becoming replaced by ICT, the technology has moved into libraries' (p. 48). He presents the reader with ten 'qualities of good library space,' culled from his ample professional experience. These attributes are deemed essential if a library is to fulfil its institutional mission as a place of learning and creativity.

A deeper exploration of Web 2.0 is found in Chapter 4, James Neal and Damon Jaggars' 'Web 2.0: Redefining and Extending the Service Commitment of the Academic Library.' They stress the 'human' motivations driving the large-scale adoption of social networking and content-sharing sites and mobile devices, such as participation, personalisation, and openness to knowledge sharing. One crucial transformation has been that of scholarly workflow and production, which are now continuous and distributed ('24/7 anywhere connectivity'). The authors advocate a more thorough integration - a 'mainstreaming' - of Web 2.0 information methods into the library model in order to uphold its level of service.

In Chapter 5, 'Second Life and Libraries: Boom or Bust?', P. Charles Livermore suggests the potential for disruptive innovation, or at least major change, in teaching and knowledge dissemination via multi-user-virtual environments (MUVEs). For the uninformed (such as myself), this chapter is a good introduction to the Second Life virtual world as a library-based tool for instruction delivery and collaboration. Livermore does a good job of describing his professional and personal experience of this environment, touching upon its drawbacks as well as its advantages.

The emergence of wide-scale digitisation has had substantial impacts on scholarly publishing. The ramifications for current and possible business models in academic humanities and social science publishing are probed in Chapter 6, Frances Pinter's 'Some New Business Ideas in the HSS Publishing Space: What May Librarians Expect?' The author, a publishing veteran, briefly delves into thorny industry issues such as copyright, licensing, open access, and financing. She reports on the development of an innovative e-book product at her imprint, Bloomsbury Academic, which illustrates the contemporary access and pricing dilemmas facing publishers and libraries.

Despite varying interpretations, Web 2.0 is a term frequently cited without explication. Paul Coyne draws attention to what is perhaps an inevitable coinage - Library 2.0. In Chapter 7, 'Loosely Joined: The Discovery and Consumption of Scholarly Content in the Digital Era,' he offers additional perspectives on the broader themes central to this book, in particular, the influence of digital natives and mobile technologies on library services. Library 2.0., a concept also eliciting multiple definitions, is properly perceived by Coyne as 'a cultural shift, rather than a technological advance' (p. 116). He makes two notable points, that the thrust of the mobilisation trend is in its deep reconfiguration of users' relationships, 'with time, space and other people' (p. 111), and that the initiatives meant for the satisfaction of Web 2.0 users will have the effect of improving service and content delivery for all users, regardless of generational niche or student status.

Helen Hayes and Philip Kent make a solid case for a disciplined engagement with knowledge management programmes in university learning and alliance-building. Chapter 8, 'Knowledge Management, Universities and Libraries,' convincingly argues for an explicit turn to systematic knowledge-capturing methods for enhancing collaborative relationships within academia and between higher learning and external communities such as local cultural institutions. Hayes and Kent emphasise the powerful potential of knowledge transfer, specifically. They lend detail and weight to their position by offering several examples of dedicated knowledge-enriching projects from their current workplace, the University of Melbourne.

One area that does not receive the attention it deserves is 'Libraries and the Management of Research Data,' the title and topic of Chapter 9 by Martin Lewis. He defines 'research data management' as 'the storage, curation and preservation of, and provision of continuing access to, digital research data' (p. 145). Enormous quantities of scientific, technical, and economic data sets are being generated by research projects at universities, alone and in conjunction with governmental bodies. Lewis begins with the question of just how responsible academic librarians can (or should) be in administering these data, considering the wide scale and multiple stakeholders involved in the data's lifecycle. He makes a persuasive case that librarians should be closely involved in the process, underscoring the professional benefits as well as the positive outcomes for academic research in general. Especially constructive are the author's practical recommendations on how librarians can take active steps toward being recognised as key stakeholders in the data management mission.

After nine pertinent selections, Chapter 10, 'The Leadership of the Future,' seems quite anomalous. The contributor, Liz Wright, diagnoses the weaknesses of current leaders generally and offers breathless predictions about leadership trends. For the development of more effective leaders, she advocates use of the 'Star Cluster Model of Leadership Capabilities for the 21st Century,' a model created by her consulting firm, The Leadership Cafe. Except for a single platitudinous sentence made in passing, this chapter makes no mention at all of libraries. Revealingly, the author's biography at the book's front contains no professional affiliations with libraries, and even this chapter's bibliography does not contain any library-related sources. Indeed, as it contains many over-generalisations about future leadership and workplaces, Wright's language often has the feel of marketing material. There is definite value for librarians from contemplating outside perspectives, but including a chapter that never raises the subject of libraries comes across as an editorial misstep. Leadership issues are integral to librarianship's handling of change; however, they have to be addressed in the context of libraries. Otherwise, their discussion is so broad as to be immaterial.

In Chapter 11, 'Adding Value to Learning and Teaching,' Sue McKnight focuses on the core mission of academic librarians: the support of students and faculty in pursuit of educational goals and scholarly production. The task is for librarians to sustain and even enhance their relevance to those they serve in the university. Practitioners frequently beseech each other with hollow pleas to re-formulate fundamental values but McKnight gives substance to this entreaty by pointing to real-life examples of innovative practices as well as making her own interesting suggestions. Among these are 'academic services hubs,' where librarians would join other campus professionals to offer students a more seamless and integrated learning and developmental space, and Yale University's Personal Librarian programme, where each entering freshman is assigned his or her own librarian until they declare a major, whereupon they are connected to their own Subject Specialist.

Michael Robinson's 'In Search of the Road Ahead: The Future of Academic Libraries in China' (Chapter 12) takes a balanced look at the various social, political, and economic developments of the past two decades that have contributed to the current state of China's university libraries. He notes amazing progress in the field, discussing the role of the Internet's growth, government investment and modernisation programmes in Higher Education, the expansion of library buildings and collections, and the establishment of union catalogues. To his credit, Robinson does not reflexively turn to the stock narrative on China - heavy on images of unmitigated economic progress and reminders to Western readers that a new global contender has arrived (so watch out). He discusses the accomplishments as well as the more sobering reality behind the eye-catching statistics, such as the significant developmental differences between China's geographical regions, the tenacious presence of government-imposed Internet censorship, and a focus on library size to the detriment of collection quality. This is an excellent snapshot of trends in Chinese academic librarianship with a fine bibliography for going into greater depth.

Conclusion

Envisioning Future Academic Services casts a discerning eye on the university library's evolving relationships with the numerous manifestations of Web-driven information content and services. Its field of inquiry is shape-shifting and restless, but it achieves its objective with straightforward writing, coherent arguments, and a credible distillation of ideas from personal experience. The book's intended audience is the academic library community but any type of librarian would admit its relevance. Students are not the only digital natives out there. Private service organisations, local and national policy bodies, and business corporations also have their career-commencing natives. These individuals will soon constitute the bulk of knowledge workers, so the librarians serving them would gain much insight from this book. I am a private law firm librarian who works with young attorneys on a daily basis and found its perspectives to be applicable to my professional situation.

I noticed one theme in this work that deserves comment. That is, several of the contributors endorse methods found commonly, perhaps more hospitably, in the realm of business strategising. In librarianship's front line engagement with disruptive change, these practitioners have betrayed a propensity toward market positioning, continual process improvement, and customer management techniques (or at least their functional equivalents). Derek Law, for example, states: 'Determining what the market wants and then providing it will be a key component of building relevant and appropriate services' (p. 11). Those who enjoin us to undergo a holistic re-purposing seem adamant in their call for its implementation via economic means. As Neal and Jaggars put it:

The 2.0 academic library builds new strategies for marketing products and services ... This means ... extending the market and developing new markets, and diversifying the product line. (p. 67)

Is the library world's embrace of economic tools to manoeuvre through its struggles merely an indicator of the market model's cross-disciplinary serviceability? Or is it testament to the model's paradigmatic grip on problem-solving efforts in all knowledge domains? In other words, are we all compelled to adopt the walk and talk of the adaptive business enterprise manager? I am not implying a value judgment by bringing up this issue. It is just one of the thoughts evoked by this very stimulating book. It is my individual reading of the writing on the wall.

References

  1. Billings, H. 'The Wild-Card Academic Library in 2013.' College & Research Libraries 64(2), March 2003, 105-109.

Author Details

John Azzolini

Reference Librarian
Clifford Chance US LLP
New York

Email: john.azzolini@cliffordchance.com

John Azzolini has been working in private law firm libraries in New York City for over ten years. He began in technical services and cataloguing but later realised that the challenges of reference were too tempting to pass up. John is always interested in discovering new legal research content and methods as well as in the continuing possibilities of digital libraries.

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Date published: 
Monday, 4 July 2011
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