The future of librarianship

Digital-first strategies are driving a change in how librarians can support research.

  • Dalmeet Singh Chawla

Credit: elenabs/Getty Images

The future of librarianship

Digital-first strategies are driving a change in how librarians can support research.

30 November 2021

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

elenabs/Getty Images

Libraries need to become more user-friendly and to meet the demand of their patrons for digital services, according to a new survey report.

The report argues that the pandemic has brought opportunities for more rapid adaptation to the fact that more than 75% of researchers begin their search for information outside the resources offered by their institutional library.

More than 4,000 librarians and library users mainly based in North America and Europe responded to the survey. Of these, 88% said they would want an application that provides access to librarian and library services, resources and expertise on their computers, available to them whenever they need it throughout their workflow.

Matthew Hayes, managing director of Lean Library and author of the report, says a more user-centric approach in the delivery of library services will be needed in the future.

Lean Library, which was acquired by SAGE Publishing in 2018, provides commercial services to libraries. One of its products is a browser extension that alerts users when they land on material that is freely available in their library.

Although Hayes emphasizes that physical spaces remain important, the report argues for a digital-first strategy for libraries. “What is definitely very clear is that the libraries need to have a very compelling digital presence,” he says.

With limited budgets, librarians will need to think strategically about how they buy content, what they buy and how they can make it available for users, according to the report. Libraries’ investment in digital tools is smaller than users’ demand for them, it says.

One example is the technology to capture lectures online. Students who are economically disadvantaged are likely to have difficulty in accessing and using such tools, suggesting a role for librarians in training and assistance.

Taking risks

“Where librarians want to take risks and be innovative, it’s very clear that they’ll have the support from their patrons to do so,” says Hayes. “It’s clear as well that there is still very much a real appetite from patrons to have librarians supporting them. They don’t want to be just left to their own devices.”

Jason Griffey, director of strategic initiatives at the United States National Information Standards Organization in Sewanee, Tennessee, who has written extensively about libraries and technology, says one shortcoming of the new survey is that researchers who don’t use their libraries aren’t represented.

Griffey says that making some content digital-only will have ramifications. For instance, switching to online-only may result in a loss of a library’s right to archive or share content that previously, once purchased by the library, was shareable in physical form, he says. “As far as I’m aware, [those rights] don’t extend to digital objects.”

Another concern for Griffey is that many libraries pay regularly for ongoing access to digital content, which may add up to a greater cost in the long run than the one-off price for physical items. “The fact that libraries don’t have the same rights digitally as they do physically means that those budgets are not sustainable long term,” he says.

Changing roles

One additional task that librarians could take on is to promote research papers published by researchers at their institution, Hayes says, noting that many researchers who responded to the survey felt that it wasn’t their job to publicize their own work.

“Librarians could potentially shift from managing access to collections that they curate into managing the outputs of their patrons,” he says. This proposition makes particular sense for papers that are freely available for the general public online via open access, Hayes adds.

Griffey agrees that the role of librarians is changing. The librarian of the next 10 years is going to have to be much more versed in data and evaluating its validity, he says.

For example, they will need to be adept in explaining “how is it that we believe this particular set of information, and label another set of information [as] misinformation or disinformation”, says Griffey.

Jessica Gardner, director of library services at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, whose library uses the Lean Library browser plug-in, says it’s been clear for years that library users begin their initial searches elsewhere. But “tools that allow us to address that in ways that make the lives of our library users easier” have not always been available, she notes.

For Gardner, physical spaces in libraries will continue to be important. “The physical and the digital both matter,” she says. “We are not at a point where it is all one thing or the other.”