ARL strategic thinking and design process. “The future of the research library is intertwined with the future of higher education and the preservation of cultural memory broadly. It therefore made sense to the ARL Board of Directors to design the future of our association with broad community participation,” said ARL Executive Director Elliott Shore. “We are grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for its generous support of these meetings.”Thirty-three people gathered in the University of Illinois at Chicago Student Center on October 22 to participate in a regional design meeting of the
ARL’s strategic design consultant, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, began the meeting by orchestrating an exercise of story telling that drew the participants to consider both the existential threats in their local ecology as well as examples of the library thriving and effecting change. Themes that emerged in the stories were then incorporated into a small group activity in which participants designed the role of the research library in 2033, expressed both diagrammatically and in a single sentence.
One participant told the story of how consortia with cooperative collection development partnerships built in an era of shared print copies of books have been wholly disrupted by licensed e-books that come wrapped in digital rights management protections that preclude sharing. This forces libraries to purchase multiple copies of electronic materials, previously shared in print, and effectively breaks the business model on which these consortia relied. Her companion story of thriving was what she described as a “cliff-hanger,” since we don’t yet know how it turns out. Developers in her consortium are building software that would allow members to lend and borrow electronic books as they have done in print. They are consulting experts in copyright and fair use as they build this tool, including the Library Copyright Alliance’s Jonathan Band.
Another participant also paired threat and thriving in the story of a history professor. With budgets constricted for librarians who used to travel oversees to collect research material, librarians now are partnering with faculty whose field research puts them in direct contact with primary source material. In this professor’s case, his research in district archives in Uganda led to local partnerships through which the participant’s organization was able to provide expertise and funding for preservation and digitization of materials whose physical manifestations remained in Uganda. Archivists refer to this arrangement as post-custodial, whereby “archivists will no longer physically acquire and maintain records, but that they will provide management oversight for records that will remain in the custody of the record creators.”
Both of these participants’ stories contained the themes, or building blocks, on which the afternoon design exercise drew—collaboration, partnership, digital infrastructure, scholarly communication, and the legal and political context in which these forces play out. “The role of the research library in the ecology of knowledge in 2033 is to provide leadership and facilitate collaboration in the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, and in teaching the use of knowledge in solving complex problems,” one design group wrote. Another wrote, “research libraries advocate for the research community by, among other things, brokering expertise.”
As Ann Pendleton-Jullian led the large group through a critique process of the six futures statements, there was a lot of discussion of the research libraries’ legacy and its competitive advantage, or distinguishing characteristics relative to newer species in the information ecosystem. She encouraged the groups to consider the entire ecology and its current disruptions, such as the demonization of higher education in general and tenured research faculty in particular in public discourse. The Chicago meeting coincided with the first day of Open Access Week, during which research libraries and ARL explicitly advocate. Advocacy for public access to research, dependent neither on the profitable sale of research products nor on the exchange of personal data collected and mined by commercial search engines, is among the research library’s most distinguishing characteristics. What political, social, cultural, technological, and legal systems of action will position ARL and its member libraries to partner with higher education on increasing public access to and engagement with research; to solve complex problems; and to protect the privacy and integrity of researchers and their subjects? I look forward to the continued iteration of ARL’s strategic thinking and design process, and to the association it will strengthen through its reexamination.