The Future of the Library is Now

By Lynne O’Brien

Imagine this—

Students competing to design selected library spaces. Library departments combined to form units that reflect user needs rather than library tradition. Catalog search tools that send researchers to the information they want with just one click. Library kiosks that direct students to open study spaces. Details about collections delivered to users’ cell phones as they walk through the library. Digitized content streamed to researchers anywhere in the world. Users creating tags of comments and descriptive information that are linked to library records and materials. Librarians embedded in Duke programs abroad.

These are just a few of the ideas generated during the Libraries’ recent Strategic Planning Idea Day when staff from all Libraries’ departments met to think creatively and offer as many suggestions as possible for implementing the priorities in the Libraries’ new strategic plan, Sharpening Our Vision. The Libraries’ strategic planning was part of campus-wide planning initiated to insure that the University will be able to maintain its forward progress in an era of diminished financial resources.

President Brodhead and Provost Lange set the stage for targeted strategic planning at Duke when they met in early April 2009 with deans and other high-level administrators to discuss the need for careful thought about how the University could advance its strategic ambitions in the face of financial challenges and constraints. Brodhead and Lange directed the deans to identify their most critical priorities and propose how to reach them while continuing to encourage innovation. The Libraries engaged in a similar process to determine how to shape services and collections in the new financial environment and how to continue the positive momentum in the Libraries’ evolution.

University Librarian Deborah Jakubs announced the Libraries’ Targeted Strategic Planning Task Group within weeks of the meeting the president and provost had with the deans. This eight-member task group represented not particular departments but broad perspectives—user services, collections, instruction, technology, materials processing—on libraries and their changing roles. Jakubs charged the group and the Libraries’ staff to craft a focused set of bold and innovative priorities that would determine the Libraries’ direction for the next two to three years.

The planning group began their work by first examining University priorities and trends in higher education and then investigating the practices of businesses and other organizations that provide information and serve as keepers of society’s cultural heritage. Then, they designed activities that would encourage broad participation in the planning process and generate ideas from the Libraries’ staff.

Throughout the summer and fall, staff heard provocative guest speakers talk about the future of libraries and received briefings from colleagues on topics ranging from trends in university and library assessment to e-research, e-science, and the implications for libraries. In departmental meetings staff participated in lively discussions about how the Duke Libraries might provide resources and services to meet the evolving needs of researchers and students.

The plan that emerged—Sharpening Our Vision—identifies five strategic directions for the Libraries over the next three years: meeting the changing needs of researchers and learners, providing digital materials and services, forming new research and teaching partnerships, supporting University initiatives, and developing library spaces.

Improving the user experience

Sharpening Our Vision renews the Libraries’ commitment to understanding library users’ research and library experiences and shaping collections, spaces, and services based on that understanding. Consider, for example, the trend among faculty and students to work on-the-go—not just when they are in their offices or dorms or at the library. The proliferation of smartphones suggests that very soon most of our constituents will have small, highly functional computers in their pockets that they will use regularly for seeking, manipulating, and sharing information. At the same time, the increasing number of interdisciplinary and international research teams will accelerate demand for library resources and services that can be delivered anytime and anywhere and can be shared with colleagues on the other side of the globe as easily as they are now shared on campus or across a regional consortium.

In addition to expecting access to resources and services when and where they want them, library users also expect almost instantaneous delivery. Every librarian has a story of a student’s preferring the resources that are easiest to find over those that may be more substantive but are more difficult to track down, or of a researcher who orders a book from Amazon rather than waiting for delivery of the title through the Libraries’ interlibrary loan service. Sharpening Our Vision states unequivocally that the Libraries must offer speedy and simple searching, access to extensive information about our holdings, and quick delivery of materials directly to the user.

Creating library acquisition, cataloging, and information delivery systems that match the sophistication of commercial online tools is another challenge to improving the user experience. Library users, conditioned by the ease of shopping online, sending text messages, or posting on Facebook, have come to expect systems that know who they are, what their preferences are, who their associates are, and what their prior behavior in the system has been. Commercial online tools remember their users, introduce them to other people and groups with common interests, offer suggestions, make it easy to perform repeated tasks, and lead users to additional resources. Online versions of The New York Times and The Washington Post now offer visualization tools that allow readers to access data mentioned in articles and display it in ways that are meaningful to them. In the future the most successful libraries will be those that offer researchers data and tools on a par with the products and services available to them from other sources.

Sharpening Our Vision emphasizes assessment of all aspects of the Libraries’ operations as the path to greater insight into user needs and preferences. Over the next several years, more of the staff will be gathering and analyzing information in order to develop services that are truly user-centered. The Libraries have already begun to take action. A current experimental program, designed to address users’ research needs quickly, enables library users themselves to identify and directly purchase e-books for the Libraries’ collection. The Libraries have also implemented the bX™ Recommender service which points researchers to additional articles with the now-familiar phrase, “People who read this article also read….” This service employs usage patterns in the networked scholarly community to generate recommendations while still protecting users’ privacy.

It’s a digital world

A second strategic direction for the Libraries is providing scholarly resources in formats that best match user preferences. Increasingly, that format is digital. Amazon’s announcement that on Christmas Day, for the first time ever, customers purchased more Kindle book titles from them than physical books, is but one example of the public’s growing acceptance of e-readers and e-books.

In an experiment with new book formats and reader devices, the Libraries recently purchased twelve Kindle DX Wireless eReaders for the use of students, faculty, and University staff. The Kindles are loaded with more than eighty frequently requested book titles; all additional titles purchased for the Kindles will be those users recommend.

Another innovative project focusing on digital materials and services is an application which gives iPhone or iPod Touch users access to the content of twenty of the Libraries’ digital collections. The application was developed at Duke in a collaboration between the Libraries and the University’s Office of Information Technology.

The Libraries’ Center for Instructional Technology is responding to this strategic direction by teaching faculty and students how to use digital tools such as blogs, wikis, and Google Earth in their teaching and research. CIT’s work with Professor Laurent Dubois in his “World Cup, World Politics” class resulted in a class blog that fostered discussion between his students and readers around the world, including a graduate student in England, a Kenyan soccer enthusiast, and a leading soccer scholar from Michigan State University.

Yet, scholarship today extends beyond digital text—it includes a diverse array of formats such as data sets, images, audio, and video. Digital tools also support writing, collaboration, citation management, data analysis, and other scholarly activities. The Libraries are developing methods for managing a collection that has a growing proportion of digital materials in an expanding number of formats. For example, the Libraries are exploring models of licensing streaming video collections to allow students to watch assigned films from locations convenient to them. Meanwhile, the Libraries’ Trident Project Team is creating software tools for creating and managing metadata for the rapidly expanding collection of materials digitized from Duke’s unique library and archival materials. The development of digital collections and tools for managing those collections benefits both Duke researchers and the larger research community.

Partnering with teachers and researchers in new ways

The third strategic direction in Sharpening Our Vision challenges the Libraries to achieve an optimal level of support for research and teaching by developing new models for working with users and collaborating with groups outside Duke. One successful example of a new model is the Libraries’ 2009 partnership with Apple, Inc. to digitize historic television commercials from the Special Collections Library’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. The collection of about 10,000 vintage commercials, plus expert interviews, is now available to researchers worldwide via iTunes U as AdViews.

The Libraries’ are part of a most ambitious and promising partnership with the Kuali Open Library Environment (Kuali OLE) project. In this venture, seventeen libraries are creating new, open source technology systems which can be modified by libraries and connected to other University business systems. For example, the creation of new courses in the course management system could automatically trigger notifications to subject librarians, prompting them to contact instructors and students regarding resources and services. The library system could route information about relevant new acquisitions directly to instructors of courses, formatted for easy addition to the course website. As instructors added reading assignments to their course websites, bibliographic information could be collected to inform library purchasing decisions. By opening pathways between the Libraries’ technology systems and other campus systems, Kuali OLE will create opportunities for embedding the Libraries directly in the key processes of scholarship generation, knowledge management, and teaching and learning.

The Duke University Libraries, working with more than 200 libraries, educational institutions, professional organizations and businesses, led the design phase that laid the groundwork for the Kuali OLE project. Both the planning phase and current work of Kuali OLE have been supported through generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Libraries also are partnering with scholars to support their research and publishing activities, especially their explorations of alternatives to traditional publishing that enable them to share their research results in more direct and immediate ways. Kevin Smith, Duke’s scholarly communication officer, and Paolo Mangiafico, director of digital information strategy at Duke, have been working with others in the Libraries to engage faculty and administrators in a discussion of a proposed open access policy that would support open publishing models and broad access to research results. Other projects in the planning stage include the Libraries’ publication of online journals edited by Duke faculty and students and an expanded institutional repository for storing and sharing scholarly papers written by Duke authors.

Supporting university initiatives

Duke’s last strategic plan paved the way for new University initiatives related to interdisciplinary research and teaching, development of international programs and campuses, creation and use of knowledge in the service of society, and the promotion of excellence in research and teaching. The Libraries’ new plan includes a fourth strategic direction intended to align the Libraries’ services, collections and staffing with these University priorities. For example, subject librarians have worked closely with individual academic departments and their faculty for decades. When the University began establishing interdisciplinary institutes, the Libraries assigned subject liaisons to the institutes as well. The liaisons have an excellent vantage point from which to gauge how services and collections may need to change as the University changes. Instruction librarians and Center for Instructional Technology consultants are also supporting University priorities by working with students and faculty participating in DukeEngage, Focus, the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership Schools, and other programs.

Enhancing library spaces

The Bostock Library, opened in 2005, and the transformed Perkins Library, reopened in 2008, are beautiful and functional buildings which are heavily used by all members of the University community. The Libraries’ fifth strategic direction points to continued development of library spaces that are in line with the evolving teaching and learning needs of the University.

Key to that space development is the complete renovation of the 1928 and 1948 portions of the Perkins Library to provide enhanced spaces for instruction, research, and exhibition and preservation of Special Collections’ materials. The enormous popularity of group study spaces, technology-equipped meeting rooms, and the Link’s flexible classrooms has prompted the Libraries to develop special work places for honors students and for courses with ongoing need for ready access to the Libraries’ resources. The Libraries are also working with faculty and students to imagine how humanities labs, multimedia development labs, and other specialized spaces in the library could support research and teaching.

Taking the next steps

Sharpening Our Vision sets out a course of action that is both people-centered and technology-sophisticated and continues the Duke Libraries’ position as a leader among academic research libraries. Just as the Libraries’ entire staff was involved in the planning process, so everyone will play a role in implementing the new plan. The feedback after the Strategic Planning Idea Day suggests that the Libraries’ staff is ready to move forward. “The group seemed very optimistic about the future, which made me very happy to see considering these hard economic times,” wrote one staff member. Another commented, “I feel very positive about the caliber of our staff at all levels and view the next few years as a period of opportunity and innovation in the library.”

Sharpening Our Vision provides clear priorities and lays the foundation for change in the Libraries that will parallel change in other parts of the University over the next three years. During that time, the Libraries will become an even more essential partner in research, teaching, and scholarly communication. The Libraries will ensure that scholars have access to world-class resources within and beyond their collections, in all formats, and at the time and point of need. The Libraries’ physical spaces may look different, but they will continue to encourage reflection, intellectual exploration, and academic interaction. As the University community assesses progress toward its strategic goals, it will note that the Libraries have played a major role in promoting excellence in teaching and scholarship, internationalization, interdisciplinarity, and knowledge in the service of society.

Read More

Information on the growing use of mobile devices and other trends

Examples of publications offering visualization tools and direct access to data


More on Duke’s key initiatives in each of these areas:

Lynne O’Brien is Director, Academic Technology and Instructional Services, for the Duke University Libraries.