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Why This Plan Now

Last Updated on November 2, 2020, 4:32 pm ET

photo of Mary Lee Kennedy
Mary Lee Kennedy,
ARL Executive Director

Our societies are experiencing seismic shifts in public health, higher education, the economy, and our systems of social justice. Our physical and virtual routines are upended and uncertain as the entire world shares a pandemic that will redefine our ways of life. What once seemed to be long-shot advancements in open science now seem possible, and yet remain challenged by fluctuating confidence in any sense of economic certainty, let alone the nature of higher education. And the too long and constantly present inequities are undeniably now our responsibility to address. In this very complex context, research libraries stand out as valued and trusted institutions. These seismic shifts and our responses to date provide the opportunity for research libraries to be even more vocal about their role in scholarship, and beyond.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) 2021–2022 Action Plan focuses on accelerating our long-term priorities in alignment with our values, represented by a selective set of initiatives intended to inform, shape, and influence research and learning under current and dynamic conditions. The plan reflects an assessment of the existing and emerging research-information challenges and opportunities for scholars and scholarship, committing the Association to further understanding and advancing systemic change at the intersection of public policy, and institutional policy and practices. The plan builds on our past with an eye on the future in the context of this historical moment.

Advancing Systemic Change Is the Focus of the 2021–2022 Plan

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, research libraries and archives have reacted to and boldly led out of often chaotic conditions. As the seismic shifts become more pronounced, and the context better comprehended, the systemic opportunities and challenges for research libraries are clarifying. Our conversations this year highlight the opportunity to accelerate shifts already underway, call for decisions and action on known strategic gaps, and to divest policies and practices that no longer serve the research and learning mission. In the interrelated set of Action Plan priorities and objectives, the acceleration of three systemic changes stands out. As we explore them and continue to understand the implications of the broader shifts, we recognize the possibility of other system disruptions, and that these systemic changes will occur at a different pace depending on the organization. The systemic changes reflected in our priorities are:

Dramatic Changes in the Digital and Physical Nature of Research Libraries and Archives

Research libraries and archives have strategically invested in digital and physical services. With COVID-19 and the resulting dependence on and success in delivering digital-first services, significant gaps in public policy and legal digital information became acute. At the same time research libraries and archives buildings closed and then partially opened, with largely remote-working organizations and remaining uncertainty regarding the future use of physical spaces. This context highlights systemic and local decisions research libraries, their institutions, and public policy makers will necessarily choose to make based on the perceived future value of digital and physical services.

During the seismic shifts of 2020, research libraries and archives are trusted and respected for providing exceptional digital-first services. Senior administrators and scholars value the swiftness with which research libraries and archives shifted to digital-only services—particularly in relationship to online learning and digital information access. The pandemic highlighted the tangible benefits of strategic investments in digital infrastructure (people, process, technology) over the past 30 years. Scholars, laypeople, and society-at-large benefited from increased open access to scientific information—particularly open COVID-19-related data, preprints, and some publishers’ content. At the same time, public policy, legal, and funding gaps resulted in serious information-use consequences for digital-only research and learning, such as digital lending of copyrighted materials, internet access, access to digitized analog research materials, and the need for coordinated curation of research data repositories.

With ongoing limited physical access to buildings, physical-space discussions with senior administrators are focused on the best physical-distancing configuration of available space. Open questions remain regarding the future uses of spaces in the context of the current digital-first (often digital-only) research and learning context. This includes considering the future uses of state-of-the-art storage and delivery systems, collaboration spaces, and shared research centers for data science, digital humanities, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

ARL’s Action Plan focuses on accelerating digital information access given the current and expected ongoing reliance on it, recognizing that physical services are in flux. Our intention is to close the policy and practice gaps highlighted by the current conditions that require digital-first use: digital rights, digital resource sharing, and digital materials for persons with disabilities. We will continue to work in partnership with the Library Copyright Alliance, the University Intellectual Property Officers, the International Alliance of Research Library Associations (IARLA), cOAlition S, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. Given our strength in public policy, we intend to track, inform, and respond to changes in related issues such as privacy, broadband access, freedom of expression, and access to government information. As one partner in a complex research and learning ecosystem, ARL will work with higher education stakeholders, scholarly societies and other partners such as SPARC, IARLA, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and cOAlition S to advocate for open scholarship, particularly research data, and to facilitate access to for-profit sector data for research.

As research library and archives leaders assess, refine, and reconfigure digital and physical services for scholars and the public, they are engaged in structural changes with potentially serious implications for individuals and for organizational health. The dramatic shifts and remaining uncertainty are challenging. The Action Plan commits to leadership programs to assist leaders individually and together as peers to navigate and set the direction that makes the most sense in their specific context. Through this work ARL will reflect and communicate what it learns with others.

Heightened Commitment to Countering Racism and Advancing Structural Equity

Heading into the seismic shifts of 2020, many research libraries and archives had already made commitments to diversifying and decolonizing collections and metadata about collections, to recruiting more diverse staff, and to being even more inclusive of communities beyond academia, such as community archivists and citizen scientists. On a national scale, ARL members in Canada were deeply engaged in initiatives in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action to redress the harmful legacy of residential schools and to advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. In 2020, the United States reverberated with the brutal killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Against the backdrop of a health and financial crisis disproportionately affecting the Black community and other communities of color, these incidents further reminded us that racism manifests in systems, policies, norms, practices, and behaviors that range from disadvantage to the loss of life and liberty within racialized and marginalized communities.

For the past 20 years ARL has been dedicated to recruiting a diverse workforce, building a community of colleagues in partnership with others. Even so, in 2017 the Ithaka S+R study on diversity in ARL libraries highlighted the stark lack of diversity. Some changes have occurred, yet we still have a revolving door of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) staff members. With the heightened outrage this year around continued injustices to BIPOC communities, and the work underway in Canada, we are reminded of our role as knowledge stewards of the voice of all peoples, and of our responsibility to lead inclusive organizations that not only recruit, but also retain and advance, BIPOC members and address structural inequities.

Working with partners, ARL will identify and make recommendations to policy makers, publishers, and scholarly societies with a goal of advancing racial equity in scholarship. ARL will provide expertise, shared learning opportunities, and resources for leaders as they seek to increase their understanding of racism and their competency in racial equity leadership. ARL is integrating anti-racism and structural equity in all our leadership and organizational development programs. Over time, we will expand our relationship with the Leadership and Career Development Program and Kaleidoscope Program participants to provide a long-term commitment to their success. Our intentional focus on structural equity and inclusion is baked into the new Leadership Fellows program for a diverse and inclusive cohort of senior leaders seeking more responsibility. As an Association we will continue to review our own policies and practices to ensure we are leading by example. We are committed to uplifting and advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion with public policy makers and other key influencers.

Dramatic Changes in Research Information Infrastructure Sustainability Models

Even before COVID-19, ARL and the broader scholarly community were engaged in discussions about the long-term financial sustainability of open infrastructure. In the simplest of terms sustainability was challenged by fragmented governance of research information, a need for shared practices to facilitate access and discovery, and systemic disparities in economic affordability. Before COVID-19, research libraries had already adopted strategies to address unsustainable cost increases in research information and were exploring new models. With the tangible benefits of open access during the pandemic and historical financial constraints throughout the research enterprise, ARL’s Action Plan focuses on accelerating sustainable research-information infrastructure that is consistent with our values.

Both top-down and community-owned (or bottom-up) models prevail. In the past couple of years, MIT’s Mind the Gap study from 2019 documented the landscape and informed research library and partner discussions, and the paradigm-shifting report and recommendations of the US National Academies on Open Science by Design set in motion further studies as well as convenings on research management policies and practices among universities in Canada and the United States. In other areas of the world, national and international approaches were underway: in Canada (Canadian Research Knowledge Network), the UK (UK Research and Innovation), and Europe (Horizon 2020). Community-based initiatives such as PubPub, Dataverse, Dryad, and TOME were launched. In 2019 ARL convened scholarly societies to identify solutions to an unsustainable ecosystem for scholarly dissemination, followed by discussions in 2020 with the Association of University Presses and the Knowledge Futures Group on university publishing.

Working with international and national partners ARL will explore bottom-up sustainable economic models such as Invest in Open Infrastructure, SCOSS, and Dryad for research information infrastructure. We are committed to advancing the adoption of top-down open science policies and practices in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, IARLA, and cOAlition S. We will actively engage in informing and shaping international and federal policies and standards that increase access to research data (FAIR, CODATA, RDA, the World Data System, and NIST). This focus is both timely and urgent given even greater international collaboration on open science clouds led by the CODATA Decadal Programme, funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, including the European Open Science Cloud and increased collaboration by the aforementioned research data standards organizations.  Note that Canada and the United States approach their participation very differently. Research libraries are poised to inform, shape, and influence public policies and standards, and their institutional adoption, by identifying mutually beneficial practices. ARL will accelerate its commitment to partnership goals on research data management with the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

The role and perceived role of research libraries in information stewardship is transforming. ARL’s collaboration on emerging technologies with CNI and EDUCAUSE identified opportunities and challenges to our identity. As a member of the US Board on Research Data and Information, through our engagement with the International Science Council, and through our collaboration with the Association of University Presses, scholarly societies, and higher education stakeholders and funders, we will inform, shape, and influence our transformation. Specific commitments include developing a collective-action framework for university publishing, and assessing the future sustainability of the TOME pilot. Given the clear benefits of open access during this pandemic, there is an urgency to establishing value-based options for sustainable, open, scholarly communications, including how to best partner with private and for-profit organizations, and there is an urgency to demonstrating the value gained by partnering with research libraries and archives.


In all we do, our focus is on convening and informing leaders throughout our community during a time of significant disruption and shaping research and learning for the future. This Action Plan is committed to advancing systemic changes through intentional actions reflecting member priorities.

Today’s research libraries provide expertise in copyright and authors’ rights; deep knowledge of open access policies, practices, and resources; expertise and services in data science and data curation, digital humanities, information science, and the science of science; and a vast knowledge of information of all kinds pertinent to any number of scholarly subjects, along with digital and human connections to discover and use the world’s sources of information in support of research and learning objectives. Now, more than ever, with the focus on advancing these systemic changes at this pivotal moment, this collection of research library and archive leaders will work together to collectively represent and preserve the world’s knowledge, now and for generations to come.

Mary Lee Kennedy is executive director of the Association of Research Libraries.