Libraries turning around?

9 min readNov 18, 2016
Still from Information Landscapes (MIT YouTube)

MIT ’s leadership has initiated an institution-wide working group on the Future of Libraries and the preliminary report has been published. Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries is a fascinating document that raises many questions as it points the university and its library in some surprising directions. In its 28 pages it re-orients the university library which is to be projected as a service to the world of digital science and scholarship, with a global focus on all the concentric communities in which the university is located. The report is probably similar to plans and directions of travel which are being charted in most other first rank universities, where the reputation or research ranking of a university and its departments is a matter of the highest importance.

The report is also far-reaching and is couched as a kind of manifesto or ‘mission statement’ for the role of the whole university in the creation of a knowledge economy, so in re-orienting the library it is also reorienting the focus of its mother institution. The provisional report is radically different from the ‘mission statement’ or prospectus that might have been produced by a provost or a campus working party thirty or forty years ago. Back in the 1980’s, universities could still be characterised as ivory towers, the badge might even have been worn with pride, and the university library was still seen as primarily a service organ for the university campus, an essentially internal resource; and in those years, the process of knowledge transfer from universities was couched more in terms of accreditation, start-ups and spin-offs, industrial collaboration, training, research and publication: yes. But here we have a vision of the university through its library developing services and platforms which are designed to serve communities that reach far outside the confines of a campus.

Viewed in this context, the report may be even more telling as a sign of the changing way in which provosts, deans, foundations and sponsors are viewing universities, than it is of the changing and more central role of the university library. Traditionally, librarians were not seen as innovators and academic entrepreneurs, but they are now so seen and prized for their leadership role. The university library has not, in most cases, thrust itself into this position of leadership; but it is becoming a focus and a springboard none the less.

This re-orientation not only switches the direction of gaze both of the library and the mother institution: outwards. Away from an internal and campus-centric focus; it also gives a kind of precedence to the library in the way that the university can be an agent of change and a member of the networked communities it serves. First the library is seen as needing to be proactive and taking a series of initiatives, the report repeatedly emphasises that the accent on future services will be the provision of ‘platforms’ and the accelerated development of digital assets. Specifically to provide “comprehensive digital access to content in our collections and/or content needed by MIT’s global community by expanding our capacity to acquire and make available born-digital content, and by embarking on an ambitious project to digitize much of our analog collections.” (p 10)

Second, the global audience, outside the normal confines and constituency of the FTE-defined, and full-time-equivalent delimited university, is a key objective. The report recognises that the role and the orientation of a digital library has radically changed. It is no longer an internal knowledge warehouse or store for the university, its staff and students, but can now, potentially become, the primary means for university out-reach and productivity.

However this document was produced by a committee (or working group) and there are vestiges of a more delimited and inward focussed attention. For example, I was surprised (and disappointed), since it seems to be running counter to much else in the report, to see this suggestion “We will likely need to restructure agreements that give us access to digital resources by negotiating with content providers who are willing to consider access models based, for example, on simultaneous usage (seats) rather than total possible users (population) “ Surely in a world of networked services there are other and simpler ways of negotiating this kind or hurdle?

The renowned MIT Press is mentioned in several places in the report, but its role is seen as somewhat separate from that of the library, and in terms of knowledge transfer and projection, the role is subsidiary. It is the MIT libraries that are intended to become “an open global platform” which should “develop and facilitate the creation of content platforms and tools that encourage the open dissemination of MIT research and that facilitate new methods of discovering and using information”. This is a radically new and ambitious view of the role of the university library. The library is not simply re-oriented to having a global remit and a potentially global audience, this emphasis on platforms and the projection and open-ness of research and knowledge production reflects a new understanding and a new ambition for the way that universities are to work. The accent on open-platforms reflects a new ambition for the way that scientific and intellectual research, should be produced and deployed through digital universities. The report sees knowledge production as inherently ‘performative’ and the ‘openness’ that it advocates, relies as much as anything on the ‘fixability/reusability’ of ‘open source’, and the as yet unforeseen and unrealised potential of open data and methods, as on any concern for accessibility and budgets.

When the library operates as an open global platform, scholars can easily elect to share any part of their research process — selectively with colleagues and collaborators, or widely with the world. The open platform we envision would allow sharing of the full range of objects and outputs associated with the process of research (e.g., formal publications, data, methodologies and protocols, software that encapsulates methods and analysis, and even results of “failed” experiments). Such sharing would benefit global scholarship, accelerate discovery and accumulation of new knowledge, (p 6)

The key point is that open-for-experiment digital platforms and their associated data can be straightforwardly adapted, re-used, transformed and enriched, in ways that cannot be done with more traditional accumulations of processed and encyclopaedic knowledge: books, periodicals and their like.

This emphasis on open data and the value of open-ness or adaptability of research results gives us a global context for the work of the university. It explains why the university now expresses itself through international networks and international standards. Once the university library is pointed outwards, as a resource for all the communities with which the university collaborates and subsists; the remit requires that the university library services are interoperable and engaged with external systems. This makes them both harder to plan on a long-term basis and, it is to be hoped, easier to implement. Easier to implement because this is a future in which digital developments (software and cloud-based services) will be rented, emulated and borrowed — perhaps only in exceptional cases invented chez-nous. Harder to plan, because the resources and networks that need to be co-ordinated are not subject to local control or local budgets.

Muriel Cooper of MIT Press and MIT Media Lab

The report mentions and ‘waymarks’: content, data, metadata, images, audio, visualization, course material and lab notebooks, machine-learning, text-mining, methodologies, protocols and (this being MIT) hacks and information landscapes (a tribute to Muriel Cooper — the report gives us a link which is a rewarding detour). Many, but not all of these categories are familiar to the publisher and might be thought to be the proper domain of the MIT Press, where Muriel Cooper did much of her best design work, but here and now the steering role and the mission is being assigned to the university library services. It is the library services that will be interoperating in a digital ecology, where most other knowledge-based solutions, scientific and library services are also aspiring to ‘platform’ status. So any specifically MIT initiatives will need to figure out and fit into a global ecology where all other knowledge systems are rapidly evolving and adapting. The MIT libraries may have a much more obviously global and open role than many of their peers, since MIT is by any measure one of the world’s leading research universities, but if their platforms are to be effective and valuable they will need to serve the interests of all (or at least most) other institutions which share the same research goals and similar intellectual values. The point is in a way obvious, but by emphasising it we note and predict that an MIT that effectively develops and projects knowledge platforms will have learned how to address and accommodate itself to global requirements. It will be in as many ways as much a follower as it is a leader.

The report somewhat warily notes the role that may be played in this developing digital platform ecology by the recent moves of some of the largest commercial publishers:

Third-party repositories are not always an adequate solution. Increasingly, third-party systems and services are being consolidated in the hands of a few large commercial actors. For example, Elsevier, already the largest journal publisher in the world, recently acquired Mendeley, SSRN, and Hivebench. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a large global provider of research, educational, and professional content and products recently purchased Atypon, one of two leading providers of journal publishing software/platforms used by a large number of academic publishers. In 2015, EBSCO purchased YBP, and ProQuest acquired Ex Libris. Increased market control by a few large companies has introduced concerns about the openness, flexibility, and sustainability of external archiving solutions.(p 15)

These recent acquisitions by the largest commercial publishers may be a cause of concern — Open Access advocates worrying that they are escaping the “Big Deals” to fall into the grip of unavoidable service ratchets — but they point up the fact that commercial digital solutions can often achieve rapid ‘horizontal’ success and if universities and their commercial arms concentrate too much on projecting local strengths, ‘vertical’ production expertise, concentrating on content driven by faculty output and reputation, they risk ignoring investments in scholarly infrastructure so there will be commercial undertakings sweeping up the service slack. This passage is also intriguing in that it suggests that the major commercial publishers and library service organisations are seeing the direction of scientific and university research in a similar light. Wiley, EBSCO, Elsevier and so on are also re-directing their efforts to capture platforms which deliver horizontal infrastructure services, and which are not predicated on the possibly outmoded picture of library resources as pools of licensed data held in FTE-delimited silos.

And yet, an exclusive concentration on open content and open platforms will run the academy into trouble if it means that creative and generative solutions and platforms are not sought for content that may never be fully open, content for which some control and management will be maintained. The reasons for retaining some control in the deployment of data and content are not limited to purely commercial and rent-seeking interests. At least as important for many disciplines will be considerations of privacy, medical confidentiality, individual rights and so on. Digital disciplines that study and model social behaviours (preventive medicine, autonomous driving, digital reading patterns and financial transactions) will all have reasons for very carefully monitoring and limiting the intellectual and scientific work that can be pursued with data that ought to be anonymised, private, confidential or otherwise restricted. An issue that particularly interests me is the way that digital library systems, developed as platforms, will continue to be able to use and effectively deploy content and preserve cultural product which will come from commercial actors who seek return from licensing (film, music, games, broadcast, consumer publishing and art). It seems highly unlikely that all content will be accessible or even needful of preservation without the input and agreement of the creative actors. If this is so, comprehensive library services and scaleable research platforms need to understand and accommodate the ways in which such a ‘mixed intellectual economy’, of services some of which are open and others in some respects closed, can work well through digital systems. We will all be much richer for getting this right.