Sunday, 3 June 2018
Essay: Challenges facing the academic library sector in the next five years
If there is one thing that is constant in the academic library sector it is change; and if there is one factor that has been the greatest agent, or enabler of change, it is the continuous advancement of information and communication technologies (ICT) (ALIA, 2013). As well as offering opportunity an environment of constant change also presents challenges. For example, change presents new opportunities in pedagogy and the creation of new services to meet the evolving needs of the community; and offers challenges to information professionals in reskilling or keeping up with professional development; and the organisation which must be agile to remain relevant and of value to its stakeholders (ALIA, 2013; McRae, 2017).
The advancement of ICT has underpinned the most significant changes in the library sector in modern times and will continue to do so well into the 21st century and beyond (Gunapala, 2017, p. 40). This essay will compare and contrast the greatest challenges for the academic library sector in the next five years. This will be achieved by looking at some of the issues in a number of key areas: evolving information technologies, changing professional contexts, evolving organisational and societal contexts, and relevant legal, ethical and policy frameworks. Finally, a discussion will be provided to examine the role that LIS research may be able to play in meeting these challenges.
The Internet can be defined as a networking technology that connects millions of devices globally enabling fast and convenient transfer of information; it carries information resources and services such as hypertext documents and the World Wide Web (Gunapala, 2017, p. 4; Beal, 2017). The Internet and World Wide Web are not synonymous – they are two separate but related things. In this regard, the World Wide Web is simply, ‘a way of accessing information over the medium that is the Internet…[i]t is an information-sharing model that is built on top of the Internet’ (Beal, 2017).
The rapid advancement of information and communication technologies (ICT) such as the Internet and the World Wide Web is a major factor driving change in academic libraries (Baker, 2014; Campbell, 2006, p. 18). As an evolving information technology, the Internet has had a profound effect on areas such as higher education pedagogy, student learning behaviour, and scholarly communication and publishing (Gordon, 2014; Kling and Callahan, 2003). In some cases, it is argued that due to this technological change, the academic library has lost its role as the “heart of the university” as it is no longer the “gateway to knowledge” (Gunapala, 2017, p. 37). According to Johnson et al (2015, p. 26),
[b]efore the rise of the Internet, libraries were widely perceived as the ultimate gateways to knowledge. They served as central locations to discover new information, compile research, and consult with librarians to find the most helpful resources.
Due to competition from alternative sources of information discovery, such as the Internet, the perception of academic libraries as portals for information, and of librarians as gatekeepers of knowledge, is declining as the library is no longer seen as the first place that users go to find information (Anyangwe, 2012; Brabazon, 2014, p. 191). In other words, academic libraries are becoming disintermediated, especially those libraries that have defined their value in terms of the collections they hold rather than the relevance of their services (Sandler, 2006, p. 241).
According to Brabazon (2014, p. 192), disintermediation ‘is a characteristic of peer-to-peer networks, where links are removed from the traditional supply and distribution chain.’ For librarians, this phenomenon is apparent in changes around collection development, the acquisition of large publisher packages, such as the ‘big deal’, the open-access movement, and Google Scholar – all of these changes are due to ‘the removal of the intermediary from the process…creating a direct link between, variously, the producers or suppliers of academic texts and their consumers – or readers’ (Ball, 2012, p. 2).
The shift from “just in case” to “just in time” collection development is an example of where the librarian is removed from the process of selection and acquisition. Historically, it was the practice of academic libraries to build their collections around content that their users might need to use – in other words, material was acquired “just in case” (Gunapala, 2017, p. 221). Whilst this model served libraries well by assuring users access to an exhaustive collection of diverse material, it engendered a false sense of value where the library was evaluated in terms of the amount of material it collected, and ultimately, failed due to ‘unsustainable increases to costs and reduced acquisitions budgets, but more importantly a variety of factors including technological advances’ (Arougheti, 2014). In reaction to this failure, and due to static or declining budgets, reduced shelving space, along with advances in online publishing and other ICT technologies, libraries have had to streamline their collection development policies by adopting a use-driven or “just in case” model (Arougheti, 2014).
The advent of use-driven acquisition (UDA) models, such as demand-driven acquisition (DDA), also known as patron-driven acquisition (PDA), and evidence-based acquisition (EBA) have brought about significant changes in collection development practices for academic libraries particularly in the acquisition of eBooks (Levine-Clark, 2011, p. xiii). In a UDA model, the choice of selection is put in the hands of the user by providing access to a large pool of online content that can be discovered and accessed through the library. The library only acquires the content that is used, which when compared to usage of content acquired “just in time”, provides a better return on investment for the library (Sharp & Thompson, 2010).
The disintermediation of librarians from the practice of selection presents challenges and opportunities around professional knowledge and the role of academic librarianship. Driven by changes in ICT and the research environment, the role of the academic librarian has gone through significant change (Toohey, 2016). No longer focusing on collection development, academic librarianship has had to evolve (and will need to continue doing so) to align with the strategic needs of the institution by supporting areas such as research and scholarly communication (Sewell & Kingsley, 2016).
An ongoing challenge for libraries is the increasing power and monopoly of publishers in scholarly publishing, which has had a detrimental effect on libraries by restricting choice and increasing prices (Tillack, 2013). For example, with the ‘big deal’, publishers provide libraries with ‘an aggregation, package, or bundle of online journals, often the entire collection of a commercial publisher, licensed to libraries for a fixed period of years, via a contract negotiated at a standard price’ (Cleary, 2009, p. 364). The problem with these ‘big deals’ is that libraries are usually locked into these arrangements on multi-year deals, which increase in price year on year above the rate of inflation, and above any increases in budget, and the library is restricted from cancelling, or unbundling individual titles (Tillack, 2014, p. 211). Whilst the model is able to deliver a large amount of content for users, in tying up a large proportion of the budget, ‘big deals’ restrict collection development due to eroding the library’s ability to purchase new resources and formats (Tillack, 2014, p. 215).
Academic libraries and the scholarly community have responded to the monopolistic practices of publishers in two ways: cancellation of ‘big deals’ and open access publishing. In the first instance, what some years ago would have seemed impossible, academic institutions around the world are holding publishers to account and taking the bold move to cancel their large publisher packages tied up in ‘big deals’ (Anderson, 2017). As well as cancelling for the reasons cited above (price, restrictive collection development, etc), libraries are taking publishers to task over their open access policies.
The ongoing development of ICT, and attitudes in society towards openness, have created high expectations for improvements in scholarly communication and scholarly publishing. From the 1990s, it was envisaged that electronic publishing of scholarly content would make resources accessible to users anytime, anywhere, and due to the economies of scale and production efficiencies, at a cheaper cost in a wide variety of formats. In particular, there was great expectation that scholarly publishing would be ‘more open and democratic and the papers available to a wider audience’ (Kennan, Cecez-Kecmanovic & Underwood, 2010, p. 5).
This sociotechnical change has provided opportunity for libraries to challenge the hegemony of publishers through the Open Access (OA) movement. In the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002), the Internet was cited as a new technology with the potential to provide unrestricted access that is free of cost to peer-reviewed journal literature. It noted,
[r]emoving access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge (Budapest Open Access Initiative, 2002).
Researchers can publish their work open access by either publishing their peer-reviewed work in a journal that provides open access (the gold model), or by depositing into an institutional repository (the green model), which is free to access and most likely governed by a mandate (AOASG, 2018). The ongoing challenge for libraries will be to monitor the various OA models, which seem to keep changing in the favour of publishers (for example, hybrid or Gold), as well as assess the real economic benefits in terms of whether OA is having a positive impact on subscription prices for libraries.
With advances to ICT also come challenges around legal, ethical and policy frameworks. In a presentation aptly titled, “How to keep your Vice-Chancellor out of jail”, which was presented at the 2017 THETA Conference, the author sounds a warning to academic institutions on the risks of data breaches and the consequences of such events (CAUDIT, 2018). Whilst an important issue at the time, due to the recent legal changes in the European Union (EU) in the regulation of data protection and privacy through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the issue of digital privacy is now more than ever a critical challenge for all academic libraries, which will continue into the future.
In a briefing on the impact of GDPR, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) noted that, ‘it is very important for libraries and archives to…comply with the new regulation, which puts a positive obligation on organisations to responsibly protect and use information that identifies a living person’ (IFLA, 2018, p. 1). In terms of rights to library patrons, they will have the right to know what personal information is held by the library, and its purpose, and be able to request data to be removed or deleted from library systems (IFLA, 2018. p. 2).
Whilst GDPR only affects EU citizens, it is a new model for regulation of data privacy, which may become a template for other nations to follow. The urgency to address privacy both on a national and global scale will force libraries to address moral issues around the use of personal information. For example, in the United States, in the case of learning analytics, which is a form of education data mining, it is argued that the practice of data mining runs counter to ethical principles in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics (Jones & Salo, 2018, p. 305).
The LIS research community can play an important role in meeting current and future challenges facing the academic library sector. According to Abbas et al (2016, p. 96), ‘the role of research is to help us understand complex phenomena and to inform practice and LIS education.’ Research can be a positive force in promoting the profession ‘by enriching professional knowledge, demonstrating the reputation and value of the profession, and having an increasing impact on society’ (Nguyen & Hider, 2018, p. 5).
However, to achieve this, information professionals working in academic libraries will need to close the gap between theory and practice; be supported by their employers to encourage engagement with the research community; and ultimately, develop a research culture that will be necessary for success (Nguyen & Hider, 2018). Professional associations such as the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) and similar organisations can play a role in cultivating the necessary research culture. For example, Library and Information Science Research Australia (LISRA) is a research project funded by the Australian Research Council, which aims to encourage and enable research culture and practice within Australia’s library and information profession (LISRA, 2018). With involvement from ALIA, and other key project partners, LISRA is a step in the right direction and will be a key enabler in meeting the challenges of the future.
This essay has provided a discussion on the challenges facing the academic library sector in the next five years. Due to the continuous evolution of ICT technologies, academic libraries are challenged to adapt and evolve in a highly complex and shifting environment. To understand the challenges of the future it has been necessary to examine a range of contexts including technological, social, professional and policy frameworks, both past and present. Due to the ubiquitous nature of online information, the library may become further disintermediated from its users, which will force academic libraries to evaluate their services, and ultimately, the value they bring to their stakeholders. Finally, the profession will need to close the gap between theory and practice, and with the support of professional organisations, cultivate a research culture that will be necessary if the sector is to meet the challenges of the next five years.
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