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Digital Future of Academic Libraries Focus of PPE Institute

John Palfrey, professor and vice dean of library and information resources at the Harvard Law School, may have summed it up best:

"This is a time of extraordinary crisis in libraries with a lot of places doing two libraries," he said, meaning that many libraries are still in the process of merging the traditional library filled with books and physical collections with digital resources, in some cases duplicating offerings in both places. "But," he said, "it's no secret that analog is giving way to digital. Google and Amazon -- they're eating the lunch of libraries. It's time to get in front of the mob and call it a parade."

Palfrey's audience, more than 100 college and university librarians, curators, and directors with managerial duties, were in Cambridge for Programs in Professional Education's annual summer Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians. On this day, Palfrey was describing the major reorganization that the Harvard Law Library undertook two years ago in part because of internal problems, but also, as Palfrey described it, "to prepare for an era of digital plus." Like many academic libraries all over the world, Harvard's law library was "good at getting people their books when they came through our door," he said, "but not as good when they came through our virtual door."

This struggle between the way libraries have traditionally functioned in a paper and in-person world versus today's digital on-demand context was just one of many themes explored during the week-long session designed to provide leadership education to the people directly dealing with the challenges facing the library world.

One key issue, said participant Jared Howland, the electronic resources librarian at Brigham Young University, is figuring out what "library" means today.

"The very definition of a library, especially an academic library, is being challenged," he said. "Over the last couple of decades, librarians have begun to realize that just-in-case collecting practices are unsustainable. There is too much information being produced and the rate is only increasing as we move to more digital content." He suspects that patron-driven acquisitions and other similar models will be the wave of the future.

With this in mind, John Collins, director of the Gutman Library at the Ed School, says they are struggling with the notion of "library as place."

"What does it mean, in a physical sense, to be a library?" he asked. "Beyond collections, libraries are learning centers with group study spaces, galleries, cafes, and classrooms. Our library certainly is a 'social' and collaborative place to work and a place to receive in-person research support." There are still books, of course -- Collins said, "I can't see a day where most of the books will be gone, but I can envision a day when the lesser-used materials will be stored somewhere else." Journals are all mostly online now.

At Pennsylvania State, about 95 percent of the entire health services library is digital, said director Cynthia Robinson, a seminar participant. Her library has been repurposed as a social space rather than, as she said, "a book warehouse." Their challenge is figuring out how to respond to requests with the lightning speed that digital users are now accustomed.

"They expect things faster and from wherever they're located," she said. For this reason, some of her staff, including some with deep institutional knowledge after working at the library for 25 to 40 years, opted for retirement, which allowed her to rethink staff positions and needed skills. For Palfrey, rethinking staff needs meant completely dismantling the Harvard Law Library organizational chart, asking a team of staff to create a new organizational model and work design -- with an eye on digital -- and then asking every staff member to indicate in which new unit they wanted to work, as the first step to job reassignment.

As with any major change, there is often substantial pushback, something many participants spoke about in detail during the week. Stevo Roksandic, a library director at Kent State University, said his staff sometimes questioned his judgment during their transition and accused him, with his MBA degree, of "not thinking like a librarian." Palfrey noted that, during these times of change, directors often "stand for something the [others] don't want."

But, Howland said, major change is inevitable for academic libraries.

"In some sense, it does not matter if libraries embrace digital or not. That is the way the market is headed," he said. "If libraries want to continue providing access to the best information, they will be forced to embrace digital. Fighting the market is an exercise in futility, so why try? If digital is not embraced, libraries will very quickly become obsolete."