On May 12 the head of the National Science Library at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xiaolin Zhang, gave a major speech to the THETA conference in Australia. In the talk director Zhang laid out a vision for the future of the academic library, and it’s one that both challenged and excited many of us, both within and beyond the library world.
In this post I’ll begin by summarizing my notes of the talk, enhanced by Twitter discussions. Then I’ll add some of my reflections.
The gist: Xiaolin Zhang envisions transitioning the academic library from a collection-holding and access institution to becoming a research and development knowledge service provider.
Director Zhang began by surveying the digital landscape, emphasizing the ride of ebooks, digital journals, and machine reading. The CAS decided to embrace the digital-first approach, and canceled all print subscriptions for Chinese-language journals. Anything they don’t own they obtain through consortial relationships (I think that’s inter-library loan).
This approach works well for a growing proportion of the CAS constituency, which Xiaolin referred to as “Generation Open” or “Generation Digital”.** This group benefits from – indeed, expects – a transition from print to open access. For them, and for our presenter, “only ejournals are real journals. Only smartbooks are real books… Print-based communication is a mistake, based on historical practicality.” It’s not just consumers, but also funders who prefer open access.
Research is changing as a result of these developments. Machines are increasingly the first readers of content. Machines also enter the production side of research; Xiaolin told us to “expect computer-assisted knowledge production.”* That means research support must change, as the enterprise now has new needs: services that identify structures, trends, gaps, and abnormalities across scholarship. In turn this leads to a new normal of research: interdisciplinarity, translational, collaborative, strategic.
Then director Zhang took things further, based on recent work with Thompson-Reuters in analyzing scholars and identifying their most significant papers. This work also included mapping R+D developments and funding opportunities. As a result CAS published analyses of scientific competition in different fields, maps of science structures, which led them to explore technology transfer analysis. Here is where Xiaolin saw a first glimpse of the new research library.
How do today’s libraries fit into this emerging world? With decreasing aptitude, it seems. Chinese faculty now see the library’s main role as that of a buyer and archive maintainer. Yet libraries have outsourced collections, either deliberately or by the rise of the web. Libraries now hold on to a diminishing part of scholarly knowledge. Moreover, irector Zhang observed that his library’s foot traffic has been declining – and he helped make it happen, bu making an aggressive shift to the digital world. Which led him to ask a dangerous question: are libraries losing the right to be research libraries?
Xiaolin Zhang answered his own question. Libraries can hold on to that right, if they evolve. To begin with, the library needs to embed itself more deeply in the research and development process. Researchers need to do environmental scanning, trends and path analysis, data management and analysis, content distribution, identifying emerging topics, mapping trends, technology scanning, competition analysis, R+D exploration + discovery, and more. Xiaolin urged us to repurpose libraries to directly support these needs. Put another way, an analytical platform should be at the center of research libraries.
We can think of the new research library as supporting R+D think tanks, which means an expanded public role. Such libraries will play a role in contributing to private and governmental decision-making and policy work. To do so successfully means upgrading and building new knowledge-driven services. First, libraries need to build out their data analysis capacity. Second, they should create customized information environments for researchers.
Director Zhang outlined some ways he’s implementing this future vision in his own library today. The National Science Library publicly advocates for open access policies, infrastructure, and financial support. NSL is growing its digital repositories. It also helps local libraries analyze research topics, collaboration opportunities, and talent profiles. NSL now plays a role in national digital preservation, assists with strategic decision-making for STEM researchers and enterprises, and is now developing knowledge mapping and research profiling services.
Xiaolin next addressed librarians as professionals in the context of this new model. He recommended that librarians need new, specific social skills in order to work with researchers (as opposed to the general public, I think). These new librarians would not “sit smiling at a desk all day”. Ouch. Bad news for the profession: this new library needs domain experts more than people w/library skills. That’s because it’s easier and faster to train domain experts in library science, then to equip librarians will serious disciplinary knowledge. In fact, the NSL isn’t hiring librarians, but STEM researchers and analysts. Overall, the new library needs teams with domain knowledge, research experience, analytical training, and customized responsibilities.
More librarian skills: in grad school students should do a field review twice per year. This should involve working with software to learn how machines read.
That’s when Xiaolin ended the talk and took questions. The audience was somewhat stunned, but managed to fling good queries, with hints about privacy and the Chinese government. Xiaolin answered coolly, referencing Edward Snowden and the NSA hiring librarians.
That’s what my notes and Twitter record provide. I hope I didn’t miss too much.
What should we make of this bold vision?
First, I was impressed by the scope of Xiaolin’s model. Many current discussions of the future of libraries either describe incremental, tentative change or massive die-offs. I and others in the audience appreciated the detail and boldness of vision.
Second, I cannot speak knowledgeably about the Chinese library world. I don’t know, for example, what proportion of that nation’s libraries focus largely on research, or how many could reasonably undertake such a transformation. I’m somewhat conversant with current Chinese politics, so I can guess that libraries shifting to support STEM business development fits well with the national strategy of continued economic growth.
Third, applying this to the United States… I’m not sure how many libraries could reboot themselves to Xiaolin’s model. Many public libraries still see themselves providing access and user support for non-heavy-STEM purposes. Research university libraries, especially those in engineering schools and research-I’s, would be logical candidates. Many academic libraries outside of research universities might not, since their service roles are analogous to the publics: providing access to users for many purposes beyond strategic research, teaching students information literacy, etc.
People who are actually librarians, rather than a mere fanboy like myself, what do you think?
*I made the same observation during my THETA keynote two days earlier. The meme rises.
**That term might be the same as our digital natives, net.generation, etc. It felt a little more expansive, since Xiaolin didn’t mention youth. I inferred it included an older slice of the demographic, “digital immigrants”, those faculty and staff steeped in the digital world as adults.