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Reinventing libraries for research in the digital age

With scholars making less use of traditional collections, the future lies in offering services such as data curation and visualisation, say Tom Hickerson and Leonora Crema.

Since the advent of the web, the connection between a university’s researchers and its library has grown steadily weaker. Libraries have reinvented themselves as spaces for student learning and collaboration, but in many ways they have become less central to scholarship. With decreasing use of print collections and more information available at their desktops, faculty no longer found themselves visiting the library.

For university librarians, this has meant some sobering conversations. “But we don’t do research like that anymore,” said an associate dean of research at the University of Calgary, Canada, when asked how well traditional library services were meeting the needs of scholars.

This disconnect is not solely down to the web. The traditional disciplinary silos used to organise library collections and staff are becoming less relevant to the subjects under study—think of climate change—and to the societal challenges that researchers are increasingly asked to address.

Today’s researchers also need a very different skillset to those of 20 years ago. Digital technologies and techniques are emerging at a pace; more quickly, in many cases, than universities can equip their faculty to use them. Any smartphone can run powerful geographic information system (GIS) software, but are scholars equally adept at applying geospatial tools in their research?

Functions, not subjects

In response to these challenges, the University of Calgary is leading a multiyear, C$1-million (£571,000) study funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The project is exploring the changing relationship between research libraries and scholars and asking what services today’s increasingly multidisciplinary researchers need.

We began, in 2015, by asking the researchers themselves. Fifty scholars from 15 disciplines attended workshops to discuss their needs. We then put the findings from these conversations to the test, funding 12 projects through sub-grants totalling C$400,000, with faculty and library staff working together.

Projects were chosen based on their research quality, multidisciplinarity, alignment with university research priorities and partnership with the library. Senior research administrators played a vital role in reviewing proposals. A library project manager coordinated delivery of services to the various projects.

Our study found that scholars expressed few needs for traditional library services in their research. Only one project mentioned acquiring a new licensed resource. The demand is for new capacities—in areas such as data curation, metadata, visualisation and analytics, virtual reality, copyright and dissemination, web programming, expertise and training, and collaborative spaces.

These services are not specific to any discipline. Data curation tools are usable across many fields. Digitisation converts vast tracts of content, enabling new forms of analysis and combinations of materials. High-resolution visualisation is used for discovery (finding new scribal notations in a medieval manuscript), teaching (surgery simulations), and modelling of data (overlaying health, demographic and geographic information).

Together, these suggest a new role in research for libraries and their staff; one that crosses the full research lifecycle rather than simply capturing and organising the journals and books that make up its end products.

Some disciplines, such as genomics, already have strong digital infrastructure. Where library facilities will be most useful is for researchers in disciplines such as the humanities, who are embracing digital scholarship but often lack the resources to build this infrastructure. In this way, libraries are again serving as access equalisers on their campuses, cultivators of the common ground.

So are these capacities becoming mainstays of today’s research libraries? Are libraries becoming a pillar of digital research infrastructure? Yes and no.

The digital scholarship centres appearing in many libraries are hubs for these services and aggregations of expertise. In response to what we learned about researchers’ needs, the University of Calgary built a space called Lab NEXT, opened in late 2017, where scholars can use digital tools in a lab-like setting.

The library staff one meets here are less likely to be subject specialists than experts in data curation, geospatial systems, virtual reality or web programming. Lab NEXT offers workshops on these topics, but most skills are gained on the job, delivered at the point of need to researchers.

The structure and design of these spaces are also significant. The walls of Lab NEXT are modular and transparent, intended to place these new forms of research and the capacities that support them on display. Fittings and furnishings are flexible, adapting to the task of the moment, like research itself. These are permeable spaces that invite cross-disciplinary collaboration.

And yet not all is rosy. Even in libraries that have begun this shift, there is much more to do. Digital scholarship centres are often standalone programmes rather than reflections of fundamental change. Most have not yet established the partnerships, either within the library or across the campus, needed to realise their full potential.

Changed priorities

Building these services and placing them at the heart of what libraries do requires fundamental organisational and financial change. Yet most libraries’ budgeting, with acquisitions as the largest single component, remains focused on buying licenced resources.

The tendency to rank libraries on the size of their collections or acquisitions-per-student perpetuates this. But now that content lives everywhere and is updated in real time, the capacities to analyse, synthesise, validate and disseminate are becoming as important as static collections. Sources can no longer be viewed independently from the tools needed to analyse them.

Without further change, libraries risk falling further behind in this area of vital importance to universities. So what will be needed? What are the immediate areas for action, for libraries and their campuses?

Libraries must invest in robust technological infrastructure and expertise to help faculty and students use cutting-edge tools to create knowledge. This should include aligning library services with compatible services university-wide. Some areas, such as data curation, will require national and international collaborations, along with the selective deployment of commercial services.

Working in libraries’ favour is that many of the tools and staff capabilities already exist and await rechannelling to researchers’ workflows. For example, staff who used to manage print map collections are now supporting data modelling and analysis using GIS.

These are not just localised efforts. Libraries also build research infrastructure at a regional and national scale. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries’ Portage network, for example, is working to create a national culture and infrastructure for research data management. A recent grant to the University of British Columbia Library from CANARIE, Canada’s high-speed research and education network, sees library staff collaborating with partner institutions to create a Federated Geospatial Data Discovery system for the country.

Building these functional capacities will require redirecting energies from the discipline-based organisation that prevails in many libraries. Internal operations must be reshaped to enable existing units to work across the organisation as a whole. For example, metadata and digitisation support should no longer focus only on managing library collections, but become a service to researchers.

Just as libraries have reinvented their learning spaces, today’s imperative is to re-envision library spaces as part of the research infrastructure on their campuses. Their capacity to bring people together will prove especially valuable to scholars seeking colleagues using similar tools and techniques.

Here libraries benefit from a tradition of openness in their design and services. While some academic departments will have the resources to support their researchers’ needs internally, for others the library will be the more accessible, scalable solution.

A renewed bond

At many universities, the relationship between the library and research administration is not as close as it should be. Libraries may already be involved in assisting and monitoring research impact and open-access compliance, but there are many more avenues for cooperation.

Scholars involved in the Calgary study have experienced this firsthand. One participant in the research projects, cultural anthropologist Suzanne Goopy, told us that using library services rather than other means cut the cost of her project from C$100,000 to C$30,000. These kind of savings make a huge difference to the scope of a project, and even whether it is financially viable at all.

Research administrators who are alive to the evolving capacities of their libraries can broker such partnerships. Those overseeing grant preparation will be particularly well placed to promote them to faculty. At the institutional level, the library should be an explicit part of long-term research strategy. 

Those working in research libraries understand that research has changed, and so must they. In spring 2018, the Association of Research Libraries, the principal such body in the United States and Canada, changed its membership criteria to reflect these evolving roles. These include “engagement and partnership with campus and other research organisations to collectively support the full research lifecycle and its impact”.

The libraries that recognise this will change how they engage with research. By so doing, they will remain relevant as providers of resources, infrastructure and expertise. And through this, the relationship between library and scholar will be renewed. “Recently colleagues have been asking me where I am, and I tell them I’ve been working at the library,” says Goopy. “I used to come to the library for the books and journals. These days, I come for the people.”

Tom Hickerson is former vice-provost and university librarian at the University of Calgary, Canada. He is speaking at the Research Libraries UK conference at the Wellcome Collection, London, between 20 and 22 March. Leonora Crema is scholarly communications librarian at the University of British Columbia.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight