ARL strategic thinking and design process in the Robarts Library Blackburn Room. Constructed in honor of Robert Blackburn, chief librarian from 1954 through 1981, the room opened in the fall of 2012 as a state-of-the-art meeting and presentation room. It provided a setting for a lively conversation among the nearly 30 participants about the potential futures for research libraries.On a brisk November day, the University of Toronto hosted a regional meeting for the
Elliott Shore and research fellow Elizabeth Waraksa facilitated the event. After providing an overview of the purpose and steps for the strategic thinking and design process, Elliott and Elizabeth invited participants to break into triads and tell each other stories about two types of experiences relating to libraries—“sharks in the water” and “cool cats.” While a few of the stories were clearly one or the other, it became apparent in the discussions that scary or cool is more dependent on perspective and how a situation is handled rather than an absolute characterization.
A large part of the strategic thinking and design process is focused on building the research library of the future and two of the participants’ stories were particularly relevant. The first story was from a participant whose daughter is active in the vast community of the Homestuck webcomic. While attending a fanfest with his daughter, he discovered she was immediately recognizable by the identity she has created for herself in that world. It’s fascinating to think about the potential learning styles and information needs for this group of young people as they make their way into our current and future research institutions. What kind of expectations will they bring?
A second story came from a public library participant who spoke about how one might think of the library as a home. What is the kitchen? Where is the living room? What’s in the basement (the game room perhaps)? How should research libraries redesign their facilities to support the many needs of their constituents and how do libraries determine what kinds of facilities will be needed in the future? It is not new that there are conflicting needs among library clientele (a graduate student spoke about the challenge of finding a quiet place to sit during finals week), but the pace of technological change will require research libraries to develop strategies to repurpose their spaces in a more agile way.
Another story important for ARL and its recent accessibility initiative comes from the provincial legislation in Ontario for accessibility. One university is now requiring all graduating students to take a course on accessibility. What would be the impact on the library if all students have to take that course? Could the library be a place for setting the standards for discourse regarding how individuals treat each other socially, encouraging respect for people who are different from oneself?
Some of the themes subsequently drawn from the small group discussions included preparation for new competencies and skills, innovation, leverage and collaboration, partnering with others, community engagement, and library space as a means for socialization. By themselves, the words sound familiar—it will be the application and articulation that stretch the imagination for the future role of the research library.
The afternoon discussion then focused on the question, “What is the role of the research library for the ecology of knowledge in 2033?” Slightly larger groups stood at large sheets of butcher paper to draft vision statements that reflected their perspective and the morning’s conversation. Multiple colors, circled text, drawn arrows, questions, and exclamation marks created a visual smorgasbord of ideas. The statements were rich and varied, and provoked discussion as they were unpacked through conversation with the full group. The characteristics included such initial phrases as:
- Open communities across disciplines and distances
- Inter-connected organism providing access to information “on a rail” (a gaming term that refers to guiding a player along a path, in this case the librarian is a game master or navigator)
- Leading critical, innovative, institution-wide content creation
- Leveraging to build and deliver interactive and predictive systems of knowledge
- Building systems of trust and interdependence
The day ended with an examination of how the research library community pushes itself to build the kind of future that was reflected in the vision statements. The strategic thinking and design process includes building systems of action through which the role of the research library will be built. Some of the elements are familiar—establishing mechanisms to ensure that: the people who work in libraries develop the necessary skills, facility planning processes are established, legacy collections are managed, technology is upgraded, etc. Other elements are less tangible and become more of a challenge—building trust, breaking boundaries across established jurisdictional lines, establishing nodes of expertise so single institutions do not have to do everything, determining a means for handling data in the place of its creation, and developing those communities in which the students and researchers of the future can be both guided by the rails of discovery and provided with an open environment in which to share their results.
The many ideas resulting from the Toronto regional design meeting are being incorporated into future regional and design studio meetings and, as the iterative process continues, the most resonant ideas will be reflected in the vision and the systems of action to be articulated at the end of this process.