One future for research libraries

Chinese Academy of SciencesOn 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.

Xiaolin Zhang and Bryan

Xiaolin Zhang is on the left. I’m on the right, representing hair.

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.

(CAS photo from Nature)

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5 Responses to One future for research libraries

  1. I really appreciate you writing up this summary – it was very thought-provoking from your tweets – and so the long form is appreciated.

    I would caution, however, that we not interpret Xiaolin Zhang’s talk through our understanding of what research libraries have been in North America. The history of research libraries, and librarianship and library science education, in China is significantly different than in North America.

    I have only a beginner’s grasp on the history of academic libraries in China but over the past decade I’ve interacted with at least 300+ librarians from China (indeed just met this week with the services head at the science library at an engineering university who is here on research leave), as well as providing intensive on-site training for academic librarians in Hong Kong, and so I am confident in saying context and history matters. The “smiling at the desk” – well, let’s not be too hard on those past library workers who had been assigned to do specifically that to act solely as clerks and protectors of the books. Likewise, canceling all of the Chinese language print materials is less radical than it might seem if one is aware of the English-dominance in science and the reward structures in China that privilege publishing in English.

    I’m not saying Zhang’s talk isn’t describing a transformative approach. It is and I think it is worth considering carefully. But, before thinking of it as a future for research libraries generally, we should definitely understand the history from which it is juxtaposed and the systems in which it operates. I do think that what is described might be especially descriptive of the future of science librarianship generally (and indeed might already be descriptive of much of what already is down in science librarianship in North America) but much of it does not map well to the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences – at least not yet!

    Again – thank you for the full write-up!

    P.S. You might find it interesting to note that I am in the midst of scheduling an “introduction to the library” session for post-docs and visiting scholars here at U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which we will offer in English – and Mandarin – in a single session. Since, you know, we are also known as The University of China at Illinois (!

    • Great thoughts, Lisa. I appreciate your taking the time to write at length.

      Excellent point about the Two Cultures divide. And about the Chinese-language materials.

      Do you have any Chinese librarian contacts we could draw on for more thinking?

  2. Pingback: via @bryanalexander "an analytical platform should be at the center of research libraries."

  3. I definitely know librarians I will talk with about this but I also know they are highly unlikely to comment here. That’s another difference I have noticed. I don’t check with my supervisor for approval to engage in professional discussion and to review what my thoughts will be if I share them..

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