Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Libraries of the Future

Michelle Pauli reports on the National e-textbook Debate and Libraries of the Future panel sessions held by JISC in Birmingham over 14-15 April 2008.

As part of its new Libraries of the Future programme [1], JISC held three events during its annual conference in Birmingham to explore some of the questions facing libraries today: in an information world in which Google apparently offers us everything, what place is there for the traditional, and even the digital, library? In a library environment which is increasingly moving to the delivery of online rather than print resources, what of the academic library’s traditional place at the heart of campus life? What about the impact of repositories and open access on the delivery of library resources? And the need to digitise and make more widely accessible key scholarly resources? And what of the calls for libraries to play a central role in the promotion of ‘information literacy’?

National E-textbook Debate

The JISC National E-textbook Debate, held the evening before the start of the conference proper, provided an opportunity to quiz a panel of experts and debate the future role of the library in the provision of electronic textbooks. On the panel were: Tom Davy, CEO of Cengage; Dominic Knight, MD of Palgrave; Sue McKnight, Director of Libraries and Knowledge Resources at Nottingham Trent University; Mandy Phillips, Information Resources Manager at Edge Hill University. The event was chaired by JISC’s executive secretary, Malcolm Read.

Responding to questions from the floor, the panel revealed what was perhaps a surprising amount of consensus on key issues relating to the e-textbook debate. Three ‘e’ themes emerged from the discussion:


The question of what kinds of business models of e-textbooks are emerging, and the balance of expenditure between students and institutions on these kinds of resources, was raised immediately in the discussion. Dominic Knight described it as a ‘core issue’ and the response from the floor suggested that many shared his interest in this aspect of the debate. An early question came from Rob Heath of Emerald Group Publishing, who asked how the industry was going to overcome the problem of the e-model transferring the cost of print from publishing groups to cash-strapped students. While Knight argued that UK students actually spend little on their books in comparison with the amount they spend on entertainment, Sue McKnight suggested that it may be seen as an institutional cost, and Tom Davy agreed that universities will find that one of the best ways to attract students will be to provide a core set of value-added e-learning resources:

if vice-chancellors find that by improving the e-learning environment, retention rates increase and their university attracts more students who stay the course then they will be encouraged to invest’.

It then becomes a question of equity, added Sue McKnight. The panel agreed that, whatever the economics, the transition from print to e-books would be very gradual and that the two would co-exist for a long time with e-copies supporting print copies and e-sales possibly even driving up print sales budgets.

Environment: e-textbooks/e-learning/e-stuff

Tom Davy summed up the difference between ‘e-textbook and ‘e-learning’ as ‘e-learning is an all-encompassing term while an e-textbook is a subset of that (a structured body of knowledge which fits a particular course)’. It was a definition which gained general approval although Mandy Phillips pointed to the difficulty of separating out the different elements of e-learning and Sue McKnight added that academics are often not clear in their own minds about what is a textbook as opposed to background reading, and what works best for each student in terms of pedagogy and e-learning. She also noted that there is a difference between an e-textbook and ‘e-stuff’ (ie a list of digital reading resources from a reading list): libraries can put together excellent collections of e-stuff but the key with e-textbooks is the interactivity that can be gained with customised learning pathways. Tom Davy supported the notion that academics need to engage more with the idea that students need some help and direction:

I’ve been going to conferences like this since the 80s and I feel we are approaching a tipping point where the technology is there, the will is there, the students are there – they are tech natives – and we need the faculty to embrace the digital world and yet they are rather slow to do it.

According to Dominic Knight, the US is probably a year or two ahead of the UK in terms of e-textbook activity. He described the environment for e-textbooks as ‘difficult’, especially in relation to standards and in comparison to the more established market for journals and monographs. The discussion naturally moved from there to the question of open access (OA) publishing for textbooks and while Sue McKnight came out as a strong supporter of making all scholarly material OA, and Dominic Knight expressed concerns abut the financial sustainability of the OA model, Tom Davy suggested a hybrid model:

There’s a place for faculty-created content and I think publishers in the future will integrate that material with their own and structure it well and provide tools for students to use it.’

Ease v breadth and depth

The discussion took an unexpected turn when Alex Reid of the University of Western Australia moved it away from the benefits of e-textbooks – functionality and accessibility – and asked if such bespoke learning materials might not, in fact, make students lazy by enabling them to do the minimum they need to pass their courses. Mandy Philips warned that the wider experience of the library and browsing around your subject area needed to be safeguarded in the age of the e-textbook, but Sue McKnight pointed to research done at a university in Australia which showed that if you made it easy for students to access the materials they needed to read and study to pass their exams then they did also read far more widely around their subject. ‘Students are more clever than we give them credit for,’ she added. ‘It is for us to create learning environments that challenge and stimulate them – e-books are just a tiny part of the learning environment’. The panel agreed that it was the role of teachers to inspire students to tackle the breadth and depth of their subjects, and that if the core learning path is not well-laid then students are not inspired to do the rest. The consensus was that e-textbooks that smoothe the way along that core learning path are not necessarily a bad thing. As Tom Davy pointed out it, ‘a textbook is supposed to help them pass…if it doesn’t then it’s not a very good textbook!’

The debate ended with ideas from the panel on the next steps for JISC. Further research, engagement with a wide range of voices from the community and economic business modelling were all suggested, along with a forthright conclusion from Sue McKnight: ‘I would encourage JISC to move from the notion of ‘e’ being electronic to ‘e’ being enhanced: the technology is just a tool – get over it!”

From eLib to the Library of the Future

The libraries debate continued into the main day of the JISC conference with two further sessions on the long-term changes that will lead to the library of the future. The first of these, From eLib to the Library of the Future, featured a series of quick-fire presentations looking backwards and forwards at the academic library.

Andy Jordan, one of the directors of Duke & Jordan Ltd and co-author of an impact study of eLib [2], kicked off proceedings with a look back at the eLib Programme [3] and its impact nationally and internationally. He highlighted the rapid change in libraries over the past 14 years by noting that, in 1992, student clusters were virtually unknown and some senior librarians refused to have anything at all to do with IT. ELib’s greatest impact was around cultural change and its success is shown in the way in which it:

It is a substantial legacy, said Jordan, of which JISC should be proud.

Jean Sykes, Librarian and Director of IT Services at the LSE, brought the debate back to the present with a rapid roundup of the new drivers for change in the library sector and the key issues facing libraries today. She identified three key drivers for change: the environment, students and research. The former is characterised by a volatile landscape of rapid change, with the ubiquitous use of the Web, the impact of Google, new publishing models and the blurring of social, personal and work activities. Students drive change as the first digital native generation, in their role as paying customers, and in their expectation that the library will be integrated with their virtual learning environment. Research needs, meanwhile, have evolved and now encompass access to deep Web, underlying data and the reuse of data.

The issues all these drivers raise for JISC and the libraries are wide-ranging, from better data on usage and impact, to the use of identity management to connect users to relevant content seamlessly to librarians needing to make the running on digital preservation.

Ian Dolphin, director of JISC’s Information Environment Programme [4], cast an eye to the future with a presentation that also focused on the need for more information about the preferences of the individuals and institutions using library services.

When we talk about service-oriented architecture we tend to pitch it in a way that emphasises that it will save money and effort. Rather, I think the move towards it will enable the kind of flexible systems that are closer to user need and users will be able to compose systems that are closer to their needs.’

However, the speaker to cause the biggest buzz in the room was Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President and Chief Strategist of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), with his dynamic analysis of the challenges facing libraries today as they move into the future. He argued that libraries haven’t yet really understood what it means to operate in a networked environment and highlighted two key distinctions between the environments in which libraries operated in the past, then, and now.

Then: resources were scarce and attention abundant - if you wanted information you had to go to a library

Now: resources are abundant and attention scarce – people have lots of things to do and library sits in the middle of a range of repositories of documents. The ways people can find things out are multiple and may be no less good than library resources. People value convenience and do not have strong incentives to use library resources.

Then: users built workflow around libraries

Now: libraries must build services around user workflow

He argued that libraries need to think more about the competitive environment and how to disclose resources to where people are: people do not start their search on a library Web site, they will start it somewhere else (Google, Facebook RSS feeds) – if discovery happens elsewhere you have to think about how you are represented elsewhere. The diffusion of Web 2.0 has been matched by a massive concentration of activity on just a few sites, such as Google and Amazon; and in terms of proportion of traffic, those sites are central. Controversially, he suggested that libraries’ focus on their Web sites creates expense from the management side and confusion from the user side.

This point was immediately picked up in the question-and-answer session by Sheila Corrall, from the University of Sheffield, who suggested that Lorcan Dempsey’s picture presents a tension between the need of the user for seamless access and less focus on the Web site and the need for libraries to pay some attention to their branding and profile in order to have a case for funding.

Libraries need to think about a compelling local story and that’s about how you support learning and research in various ways and align activities around that which touches people and reminds them who they are, countered Lorcan. Spend more time on that and less time on infrastructure, he argued. Clearly people need to have a Web site and ideally it would give easy access to resources, but in terms of the relative importance in a user’s behaviour it needs to be accompanied by attention to the other places where they do things.

Ian Dolphin added that for most students it’s all ‘stuff on the Web’ and that branding is really not very important to them, while Jean Sykes closed the session with a strong defence of libraries in their physical incarnation:

Many libraries are increasing their opening hours, many to 24-hour opening, and there more users are coming in so I take a more relaxed view…maybe the branding isn’t such an enormous issue after all as they do want to physically sit somewhere – they have to sit somewhere even to use wifi, they’re not going to wander about in the rain! They need a space in which to do a whole load of things and they like sitting among a whole load of books even if they are not actually using them at that point.’

Challenges for the Digital Librarian

In the third of the Libraries of the Future sessions, Peter Brophy and David Kay considered the key strategies librarians can implement to achieve long-term success in becoming a recognised presence within the workflow of their user communities.

Peter Brophy, Director of the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, and David Kay, Director of Sero Consulting, have recently published the JISC/SCONUL Library Management Systems Study [5] and this formed the backdrop of their presentation. The study is an evaluation and horizontal scan of the current library management systems and related systems landscape for UK Higher Education, and involved the participation of 100 libraries. It includes a library survey, vendor perspectives, reference group feedback and a short, practical guide for librarians.

Based on that research, Peter Brophy identified five assets held by libraries:

and these, he said, need to be leveraged to tackle the five challenges facing the digital librarian:

  1. Aggregation: Find out what content provided by others that users are interested in and slip in the library content among that.
  2. Encouraging/enabling user-generated content: encourage users to provide their own commentary on library data and get a dialogue going within that scenario.
  3. Embedding in other people’s services: for example the way in which the University of Huddersfield has enabled a search on Amazon to show when books searched for are available in the library.
  4. Collaborative description.
  5. Supporting social learning: understanding the importance of academic conversation and being part of their conversation.

Five recommendations followed:

  1. Invest in vendor systems with caution not complacency.
  2. Review library management systems (LMS) contracts seeking increased value, looking at ways to improve services by implementing features around the core LMS.
  3. Focus on breaking down barriers to resources, involving single sign-on, unifying workflows and liberating metadata for re-use.
  4. Develop Service-oriented Architecture-based interoperability across institutional systems as the foundation for future services.
  5. Look at consortia and partnership arrangements to increase critical mass.

The discussion which followed focused on this final recommendation of improved shared services and collaboration. Sheila Corrall of the University of Sheffield argued that a lack of good exemplars stands in the way of movement in that direction while James Clay of Gloucestershire College suggested that one of the problems with sharing things is that at a certain level it doesn’t work because you have to share everything and then you start to think, ‘Why have separate colleges at all? Why not just have one college to cover the whole country?’

Peter Burnhill, Director of Edina, noted that Digimap is a classic example of a shared service but it was a new thing which created a supply and a service and a demand based on something new. Lorcan Dempsey suggested that there are historical factors in the UK which mean that it does not have the consortia culture of northern Europe and the US, and library management systems may be an area which is particularly difficult to change. Other arenas may be more ripe for a new approach.


These three stimulating events marked a positive launch for JISC’s Libraries of the Future Programme. They placed it firmly within the context of previous work (the Electronic Libraries Programme, eLib), examined the emerging issues that face libraries today, and considered the challenges which will confront the library of the future.

There were unexpected areas of consensus - Malcolm Read revealed that JISC was unable to find a librarian prepared to argue against e-textbooks in the first panel debate – but also robust discussions about how to build library services around user workflow in the new digital environment in which academic libraries operate. A key tension which emerged is between the desire to make the user experience ‘seamless’ and to ‘slip in’ library content among other ‘stuff on the Web’ and the need for libraries to maintain some kind of profile to bolster their case for funding. It will be interesting to see if future debate helps to resolve this tension.


Live blogs and full audio recordings of all the sessions mentioned in this report can be accessed at the Libraries of the Future blog: http://librariesofthefuture.jiscinvolve.org/

  1. The Libraries of the Future Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk/librariesofthefuture
  2. Duke and Jordan Ltd, Impact Study of the JISC eLib (Electronic libraries) programme, October 2006
  3. Archived eLib Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elib
  4. JISC Information Environment programme Web site http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/themes/information_environment
  5. Sero Consulting Ltd, Library Management Systems Horizon Scan, March 2008

Author Details

Michelle Pauli
Writer and editor

Email: info@michellepauli.co.uk
Web site: http://www.michellepauli.co.uk

Michelle Pauli is a writer with over 10 years’ experience as a journalist, author, editor and researcher. She is currently editor of the Guardian’s award-winning literary Web site, guardian.co.uk/books, writes a weekly column on blogs for the paper’s Saturday Review and works in a freelance capacity for JISC as online editor for its Digitisation programme and the Strategic Content Alliance


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