Reflections on the Future of the Research Library

Since September, the Duke University Libraries have been engaging in a set of conversations we are calling a seminar on the future of the research library.  Our University Librarian initiated this discussion with the deliberate intent that, in spite of the large size of our staff, we engage in the core activity of a seminar – a gathering of individuals who come together for intensive study and the active exchange of ideas.  Such a process has intrinsic value, of course, in the continuing professional development and mutual understanding it fosters in the Libraries’ staff.  It also is timed to help us be best prepared to welcome a new Provost in 2014, since Duke’s Provost over the past fifteen years – the only Provost many of us have known at Duke – will be retiring from that role.

Last week our seminar hosted a talk by Professor Ian Baucom, a Professor in Duke’s English department and Director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.  His talk, and the discussion that followed it, really helped me focus my thoughts about the future role of academic libraries, academic librarians and scholarly communications.  So I want to use this space, in hopes that readers will indulge this end of the year philosophizing, to share some of those thoughts.  These reflections grow out of Ian’s discuss of several constellations of issues that are important to universities today and how those “hot” issues might impact the place of libraries in a research university.

Given his role as the Director of an intentionally interdisciplinary center, it is not surprising that that was the first constellation of issues Ian discussed.  He pointed out the evolution of the idea of interdisciplinarity over the past few decades, from conversations between disciplines, especially between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, to a more deeply transformative methodological commitment, which has been partly driven by advances in technology and the opportunities they have created.  In this environment, Ian talked about the special tools and skills that librarians could bring to teams pursuing interdisciplinary research.  Those tools could be technological; they could reflect expertise in the management of data; or they could involve helping to describe the product of a research project, make it findable and usable, and preserve it.  The changing role for librarians that this invitation suggests is toward serving as consultants and collaborators in the production of research results.

Ian challenged the Libraries to think about whether our fundamental commitment is to information or to knowledge.  This immediately struck me, as I think it was intended to, as a false dichotomy.  Libraries are not mere storage facilities for information, nor are they, by themselves, producers of knowledge.  Rather, they serve as the bridge that helps students and researchers use information to produce knowledge.  That role, if we will embrace it, implies a much more active and engaged role in the process of knowledge than has traditionally been accorded to (or embraced by) librarians.

Some of the most exciting ideas for me that Ian discussed were around the notion of civic engagement, which is, of course, another important topic on our campuses these days, especially when the Governors of several states (including our own) have challenged the value of higher education.  Ian pointed out that library is often one of the most public-facing parts of a university, and suggested three ways in which this outward-looking aspect of the research library could help the university enhance its civic role.  The first — he called it the centrifugal aspect of this role — was to help the university find a public language for the expert knowledge that it produces.   As an example of this, I thought of the recent effort here at the Duke Libraries to get copies of articles that will be the subject of press releases or other news stories into our repository so that the public announcements can link to an accessible version of each article.  This is one way we help “translate” that expert knowledge for a wider public.

The second role for libraries in assisting the civic engagement of their parent universities that Ian cited, the centripetal aspect, was to pull the issues that are important to the communities around a university into the campus.  This we can do in a variety of ways: everything from exhibits in our spaces to seminars and events that we sponsor.  The role here is what Ian called “instigator,” being the focal point on campus where civic issues become part of the academic discourse, having an impact on and being impacted by that expert knowledge that is our fundamental goal and creation.

Finally, the third aspect of civic engagement for academic libraries returns us to the idea of collaboration.  In many instances, it is the library that is the point of first contact, or the most logical partner, for collaboration with civic organizations, NGOs, local advocacy groups and public institutions.

Three roles for librarians that move well beyond traditional thinking emerged for me from Ian Baucom’s talk — the librarian as consultant has long been on my mind, and the librarian as collaborator is a natural outgrowth of that.  But librarians as translators and as instigators were new to me, and helped to flesh out a vision of what the research library might aspire to in the age of global, digital scholarly communications.  In my second post on this event I will turn to issues of globalization and, especially, publishing.