Rethinking the Library: Innovation in a time of limited resources

Below are the main outcomes from the ‘Rethinking the Library’ session at the JISC conference 2011.

Following the session on ‘rethinking the library’ at the JISC conference 2011, I thought I would try to capture and share some of the outcomes and discussions that resulted from the session.

Although the aim was somewhat grand, in attempting to ‘rethink’ the library we have an opportunity to re-conceive the value libraries provide to the research and teaching communities they support, and to re-model the ways in which they deliver that value more efficiently and effectively.  Such opportunities are often accompanied by uncertainties, with a paucity of information and support for those attempting to plan for and envision that future.  This session tried to give those involved a chance to explore some strategies and tools for undertaking this analysis.

It is also worth noting that the format of the session was a little different as well:

  • A speaker is at each table, and will present (or rather pitch) from there for 6 minutes.
  • The ‘pitch’ will include details of an activity or discussion that will occur for the rest of the session.
  • At the end of the presentations delegates can choose which table they want to go to based on the ‘pitch’.
  • Each group will pick two or three key points to communicate back to the group in the final few minutes of the session.

The three facilitators for each of the activities focussed on the following themes:  Innovative approaches to planning, exploring shared services and the opportunities of scale and how we can enhance library service provision by taking advantage of new asset appraisal technologies.

Tools and Tactics to Support the Appraisal of Digital Assets

Neil Grindley. Preservation Programme Manager, JISC

Rethinking Libraries: selection appraisal (Presentation)

Neil began by asserting that behind the seemingly orderly and neat world of digital provision assets still need to be managed and kept under control, whether they physically sit on shelves or virtually reside on electronic media.

After acknowledging the richness and variety of available models and frameworks that summarise the information management lifecycle, Neil showed one example: the ‘Greening Information Management Assessment Framework’.

This is a 3 phase approach that incorporates baselining, selection and assessment activities in relation to the implementation of seven suggested techniques for managing information.

The discussion from the group exploring this theme began by addressing the question of whether or not these type of asset management frameworks were really used within institutions and libraries?

The general consensus was that they were not… not because they weren’t important but because the participants felt that the focus was still on the management and ‘weeding’ of the physical resources, not the electronic ones.

For physical collections the benefits of managing the collection were clear: space and storage.  For e-resources these benefits were harder to articulate: is it to remove clutter from search results? Are there costs associated with storing and backing up all this data?

Maybe more importantly, the management of your digital assets helps libraries define their collections policy – allowing strategic and policy based decisions on the resources an institution is acquiring.

Furthermore, it was noted that e-resources present libraries with a very distinct form of problem in that they are inherently in a state of flux: journals moving in and out of bundles, libraries never certain of what’s been subscribed to.

There is, it was suggested, a loss of control within the e-environment.

Exploring the asset management framework helped highlight how these types of tool might help collection curation move from what was termed a ‘dark art’ (i.e. without a conscious method, coherence or wider applicability) to something more ‘mechanical’ (reproducable, implementable and fundamentally usable).  This, it was felt, is the role JISC plays in this area, helping institutions and libraries confront and deal with these issues.

Finally, it was decided that e-resource management is an aspect of institutional policy: what kind of instituion does the library belong to, and what impact does this have on its resource management?

Shared Approaches to Services and Infrastructure

Anne Bell. Director of Library services, Warwick University

Anne gave a brief introduction to her activity by outlining the benefits and opportunities that present themselves when libraries look to share services and exploit the opportunities of scale.

Anne outlined some of the work that JISC and SCONUL have undertaken around the area of shared services, including the most recent collaboration looking at user requirements for a shared electronic resource management system (ERM).

Anne also highlighted the successful bid to HEFCE by JISC for funding to develop a shared electronic resource management system for the UK library sector.

The activity for this session was for her group to contribute their ideas to a shared services matrix to explore as a group some of the opportunities that might be available at a shared (or local) level.

After some very lively discussions the group managed to fill the matrix with ideas that highlighted opportunities libraries have to rethink their services and provision.  Some of the most interesting examples that were discussed include:

  • Shared student study spaces – this is an interesting solution to the issues of space, and the rethinking of the library’s physical space. It’s interesting to note the movement of this idea from the ‘local’ axis of the matrix to the shared axis as the idea was discussed.
  • Cataloguing – this theme seems to have been discussed a great deal, and there are clearly opportunities here.  It would be interesting to know what form the discussions took, were they about the data (i.e. metadata), about the cataloguing front end (i.e. a shared OPAC) or more generally about how a shared and sector-wide approach to issues such as metadata quality could help resolve some of the issues.

A number of barriers were identified that might need to be addressed when we try and exploit the opportunities of developing shared services, these included:

  • Whether the sector had the capacity and skills to develop these services, or whether commercial vendors were a way to leverage the sectors capacity, with the skills and business models of the commercial sector.
  • How do these shared systems take into account the content that exists outside the library ecosystem e.g., open resources.
  • Issues of control and trust – who is the service provider for these systems and services, do the libraries have trust in them?

It was interesting to note some of the relationships between ideas on the matrix.  For example, there was a feeling that there were definite opportunities locally for customised interfaces on the library OPAC.  However, this could be complimented by shared software, developed to allow recommender services etc., that the whole community could exploit thereby eliminating the need for unnecessary duplication:  Something that has been explored in the JISC Library Management Systems programme.

Planning for an Innovative Future

Michael Jubb.  Director, Research Information Network (RIN)

Michael’s session was based around the scenario planning tools that have been developed through collaboration between JISC, Research libraries UK, RIN, British Library and SCONUL.

These Libraries of the Future scenarios allow libraries to forget the immediate concerns of the services they deliver and the economic and academic contexts in which they are located, in order to improve decision-making and plan effectively for the future.

The discussion and outcomes of this session have been captured and blogged by one of the participants here.

This is a great record of the session, and clearly identifies the benefits of this type of approach to planning and the main themes that emerged from this discussion.

The post concludes with the following idea that helps demonstrate how thought-provoking the session proved:

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?


To find out more about each of the sessions, and to discover some of the resources and tools that are available, please visit the conference page for the event.

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