I took part in group work during the Rethinking libraries session at the JISC conference earlier this week which engaged in a small piece of scenario planning. The scenario was that, sometime in the future, the world would look rather different. There had been continued population and economic growth but there had been a shift of economic power towards the BRIC countries. Higher education was now increasingly globalised with a number of institutions having a truly global presence. In the UK there was still a broad range of institutions with twenty research led institutions, a growing no of private providers, partnerships between the private providers and other HEIs, and emphasis on vocational study in HEIs. Libraries still existed in this new world in the sense that there were librarians but they didn’t directly employ many people – they commissioned services from a range of specialists who may be working for a number of other institutions.
That was the future. The group took the role of the Librarian in the current time in a teaching led institution with a strong local base in professional subjects (law, accountancy, etc) where the main Library building was decaying and would need to be demolished in the near future. The task facing the group was to identify a strategy to sell to the V-C that would place the Library to the fore and make it a distinguishing factor for the institution, bearing in mind the possibilities that might exist in the future world.
The group quickly identified that there were two different challenges – deciding how to (or even whether) to replace the decaying building and how the strategy would contribute to the institution’s future role. The focus, not unnaturally, was on the immediate challenge. It was recognised that there would be a need to assess students’ needs but also that the loss of the building presented an opportunity to consider whether things could be done differently.
How radical would the group be? It was questioned whether there was a need to replace the building at all. The consensus was that there was that need, largely as students currently look to the Library as a focal point for their studies. However the new building should be flexible so that it could be put to different uses as required. So a flexible space was required but what should go in it? Was there a need for any books? Could all the resources be made available electronically instead? Could you go one step further and, as a real distinguishing step, issue all students with iPads holding the text books required for their study? What would the space look like in those circumstances?
There was no consensus on whether a move to solely offering online resources could be made immediately – there was a feeling that the current cohort of students still had some attachment to real books but recognition that this may change in the future. What was agreed was that there would still be a need for information professionals to ensure that the students had a high level of digital literacy.
A move to increased virtual provision could be a selling point (the iPad idea definitely would be), so could the creation of a flagship learning resource. But as many institutions now have such buildings, it is not perhaps a strong enough case on its own to persuade the Vice-Chancellor to invest. The group put forward a number of strategies ranging from making the new building a focal point for the local community to fostering links with a globally focused company on a range of activities with the aim of promoting wider international engagement and corporate sponsorship of the building.
These solutions, however, barely touched on the possibilities available in the future scenario. Whilst the scenario might appear far fetched or too remote to be considered in any immediate planning, there were perhaps some traits that could have been considered. There continues to be much talk of shared services and of collaboration between universities and private providers. Perhaps one option that might appeal to the Vice-Chancellor would be to use this opportunity to reshape the library as an exemplar in the subject areas the university specialises in, with the aim of becoming a net provider of services to other institutions. Having a library regarded as a centre of excellence which exports its expertise would be a selling point for the institution and would have the attraction of an additional income stream for the institution. A risky strategy perhaps but in these challenging times, it is more appropriate to take a risk to try and get ahead of the pack?