What Do Electronic Resources Mean for the Future of University Libraries?

On our Digital Campus podcast, Tom Scheinfeldt, Mills Kelly, and I have been talking a lot about the growing disconnect between students and faculty who are increasingly using software and services, such as web email and Google Docs, that are not the university’s “officially supported” (and often quite expensive to buy, maintain, and support) software and services. In Roger C. Schonfeld and Kevin M. Guthrie, “The Changing Information Services Needs of Faculty” (EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 4 (July/August 2007): 8–9), the authors note another possible disconnect on campus:

In the future, faculty expect to be less dependent on the library and increasingly dependent on electronic materials. By contrast, librarians generally think their role will remain unchanged and their responsibilities will only grow in the future. Indeed, over four-fifths of librarians believe that the role of the library as the starting point or gateway for locating scholarly information will be very or extremely important in five years, a decided mismatch with faculty views.

Perceptions of a decline in dependence are probably unavoidable as services are increasingly being provided remotely, and in some ways, these shifting faculty attitudes can be viewed as a sign of the library’s success. The mismatch in views on the gateway function is somewhat more troubling: if librarians view this function as critical but faculty in certain disciplines see it as declining in importance, how can libraries, individually or collectively, strategically realign the services that support the gateway function?

Good question.

3 replies on “What Do Electronic Resources Mean for the Future of University Libraries?”

I suppose some of this depends on what “gateway” means. As advisors on information architecture, search, bibliographic resources, digital repositories, and the like, librarians will be more important than ever before. As the one-and-only-portal for proprietary databases, overpriced journals, LoC subject-heading arcana, and the like, they risk being walking contradictions, Mr. and Ms. Atoz’s in an increasingly open-content world, or at least a world mediated more by global online services and less by “gatekeepers” at particular institutions.

I’ll be reading this article with interest. Thanks for the link. And welcome to Word Press!

As handy as things like Google X, Y, and Z are, as rad as Yahoo Pipes, and as wonderful as feed readers and open databases are, there is one thing that is always in demand, especially now that we risk becoming bogged down in too much information.


Librarians can offer us time. Until web standards become a reality, and until individuals are willing to dig in with actual, honest to god programming, finding the time to aggregate, parse, sift, and store information is the largest headache we face. Sure, I might have the time to find information. But I do not always have the time to read through it all, even in the situations where I have the know-how to write a scraper to do part of the task for me. What I wouldn’t give for someone who I could just send a ton of URLS to, a few important search terms to look for, and then just say, “automate it.”

I think librarians need to start looking a lot harder at expanding their services from finding information (which people more and more seem to be able to do themselves) to helping people make sense of the information they do find. They need to help with automation and parsing…something which I think might keep them busy for a long time.

It is worth considering what “library” means. According to the OED, a library is both a place and a collection. If one is using this definition, then there is a contradiction in the first sentence quoted above.

As for the future of libraries, the history of libraries suggests that technological changes will broaden the resources and spaces (as well as services) that constitute, in particular instances, a “library.” For example, the primary way that library users have accessed library collections has changed over time—from the librarian to the printed catalog, from the printed catalog to the card catalog, from the card catalog to the online catalog—and it is changing now, from the online catalog to a collection of online discovery tools.

Libraries can offer and save time for researchers, by facilitating better discovery and use of information resources. Libraries can also, in another sense, offer and save time for culture, by endeavoring to ensure the persistence of past and current resources for the future.

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