6 trends on the horizon for academic libraries

NMC’s Horizon Report details trends, challenges, and technologies that are impacting—and will impact—academic and research libraries.

horizon-libraries-trendsMachine learning, rethinking the library space, and managing knowledge obsolescence are just some of the changes heading toward academic and research libraries in the next five years. But what are the challenges libraries face now? And can specific technologies available today transform the library for tomorrow?

According to the New Media Consortium’s (NMC) 2015 Library Edition of their Horizon Report (an effort established in 2002 by the NMC that identifies and describes important developments in technology likely to have a large impact over the coming five years in education around the globe), there are 18 topics critical for academic and research library consideration as selected by the 2015 NMC Horizon Project Library Expert Panel—a panel composed of 53 education and technology experts from 15 countries on 5 continents.

Following a review of literature, the expert panel took into consideration four research questions to help list interesting technologies, challenges, and trends: 1) What trends do you expect to accelerate emerging technology uptake in academic and research libraries worldwide within the next five years? 2) What do you see as the significant challenges impeding emerging technology uptake that academic and research libraries worldwide will face over the next five years? 3) Which of the important developments in technology catalogues in the NMC Horizon Project Listing will be most important to academic and research libraries worldwide within the next five years? 4) What important developments in technology are missing from the list?

The 18 topics selected by the panel are related to the learning and research applications of technology, and all areas are “very likely to impact technology planning and decision-making over the next five years,” notes the report.

Six key trends, six significant challenges, and six important developments in technology are placed directly in the context of their likely impact on the core missions of academic and research libraries, and detailed in non-technical presentations. “Each has been tied to essential questions of relevance, policy, leadership, and practice,” explains the report.

(Next page: 6 trends, 6 challenges, and 6 developments)

The report’s first two sections focus on an analysis of trends driving technology decision-making and planning, and the challenges likely to impede the adoption of new technologies, respectively.


Short-term impact:

Increasing value of the user experience: For libraries, which serve up countless e-publications, user experience (effective website and database design; identifying patterns in users’ online behaviors to tailor search results at the individual level; and direct feedback) is a relatively new area. In the post-Information Age, there has been so much focus on data management that only recently have library professionals shifted their attention to designing a high-quality experience with the aim of helping researchers and students navigate massive amounts of data, while also attracting new patrons.

Prioritization of mobile content and delivery: Mobile technology has transformed library patrons’ expectations of when and where they should be able to access content and services, and the academic and research library community is starting to adjust their delivery to fit a variety of hand-held platforms, says the report. Libraries are spearheading the development of mobile-friendly websites, apps, catalogs, and e-books, as well as discovery tools that meet patrons where they are through SMS alerts and social media. Some libraries are furthering this trend by loaning devices such as tablets and e-readers to patrons, just as they would physical texts.

Mid-term impact:

Evolving nature of the scholarly record: Scholarly communications now reside in networked environments and can be accessed through an expansive array of publishing platforms. Scholarly records can be published as soon as peer review has taken place, allowing communication to happen more frequently and publicly, and scholarly work can include research datasets, interactive programs, complex visualizations, and other non-final outputs, as well as web-based exchanges such as blogging. As different types and methods of scholarly communication are becoming more prevalent on the web, librarians will be expected to stay up-to-date on the legitimacy of these innovative approaches and their impact in the greater research community.

Increasing focus on research data management: Enhanced formats and workflows within the realm of electronic publishing have enabled experiments, tests, and simulation data to be represented by audio, video, and other media and visualizations. “The emergence of these formats has led to libraries rethinking their processes for managing data and linking them between various publications,” explains the report. “As a result, connections between research publications are becoming more concrete; today’s researchers can discern how findings from one study have impacted another, revealing a better picture of how an idea has evolved over time, while exploring it from different angles. Advancements in digital data management are ultimately leading to more accurate subject search results and citations, and enabling libraries to more effectively curate and display relevant resources for patrons.”

Long-term impact:

Increasing accessibility of research content: Open access is gaining traction on a global scale, and scholars in some regions of the world, such as Latin America, have been operating under this philosophy for decades. There are an increasing number of major funding entities such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework,11 the National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health that have implemented guidelines requiring researchers to include more comprehensive dissemination plans for their data along with their outputs, expanding access to encompass all scientific outputs, explains the report.

Rethinking library spaces: According to the 2015 Student Engagement Insights survey, 77 percent of college students said they visit the library to study on their own, while only 51 percent indicated they go to use the online databases. The report describes that as a result, institutional leaders are starting to reflect on how the design of library spaces can better facilitate the face-to-face interactions that most commonly take place there. A number of libraries are expanding to make room for active learning classrooms, media production studios, makerspaces, and other areas conducive to hands-on work. These changes reflect a trend that is being driven by a deeper pedagogical shift in higher education to foster learning experiences that lead to the development of real-world skills and concrete applications for students.



Embedding academic and research libraries into the curriculum: “Historically, these types of programs have been implemented in ‘one-off’ segments, which are experienced apart from a student’s normal studies and often delivered in a one-size-fits-all method,” describes the report. “However, an increasing number of academic libraries are supporting a more integrated approach that delivers continuous skill development and assessment over time to both students and faculty.” Librarians are tasked with broadening their role in the co-design of curriculum and improving their instruction techniques to work alongside faculty toward the common goal of training students to be savvy digital researchers.

Improving digital literacy: Lack of consensus on what comprises digital literacy is impeding many libraries from formulating adequate policies and programs that address the development of this competence for professional staff. Supporting digital literacy will require programs that both address digital fluency training in librarians, along with the faculty and students they support on campus.


Competition from alternative avenues of discovery: Performing a simple web search on a topic conjures countless pages of relevant articles, reports, and media, and today’s users have grown accustomed to the ease of single-search tools, many of which are adapting to mobile responsive platforms. Advancements in the semantic web are also refining research results and enabling data to be shared across applications. Emerging Internet technologies are fostering changes in patron behavior, challenging libraries to either adapt to the new expectations defined by current discovery practices or risk becoming obsolete over time.

Rethinking the roles and skills of librarians: According to NMC, the ALA reports that academic libraries are hiring professionals with experience in emerging 21st century skills, such as data mining and web development. Many libraries are in the midst of rearranging their organizations, resulting in the creation of new departments, positions, and responsibilities for library professionals. There is a clear hiring trend that emphasizes finding more functional specialists that have a strong digital or technology background. The challenge is in building capacity for these new specialized roles and providing sufficient training along the way.


Embracing the need for radical change: “Once patron needs have been identified, libraries are tasked with revising or building new infrastructure to support more effective research practices, yet the change in focus on integrating innovations seems to be at odds with traditional modes of thought that govern academic and research libraries,” states the report. “Library leadership will require radically different thinking to provide adequate and sustainable support for new initiatives and business models. In order to be effective, this type of thinking will need to extend across the entire organization from the top down — from deans and directors to librarians, support staff, and new hires.”

Managing knowledge obsolescence: New developments in technology can be overwhelming for library staff to keep up with the ever-changing landscape. An explosion of user-created content is also giving rise to ideas and opinions on a multitude of topics, but following the hundreds of available authorities means sifting through a mountain of information more frequently than most library staff can manage. There is a need for effective tools and filters for finding, interpreting, organizing, and retrieving the data that is the most relevant and insightful. Additionally, societal changes and financial pressures are transforming the work of academic and research librarians, requiring greater agility and a constant pursuit of absorbing new technologies and skills.

Each of the trends and challenges listed includes an explicit discussion of the trend or challenge’s implications for policy, leadership, and practice in academic and research libraries, along with examples and relevant readings within the report. For the full report, click here.

(Next page: 6 developments in technology)

The third section, in which six important developments in technology are described, is ultimately framed by the noted trends and challenges. “The adoption or abandonment of these technologies by libraries will be very much determined by the responses taken across the world to these drivers of and obstacles to innovation and change,” says the report.

Developments in technology

Near term (one year or less)

Makerspaces: Many academic and research libraries have renovated or repurposed space to accommodate makerspaces, areas where students and faculty can access tools, materials, and the expertise to make things outside of their curricular objectives. The driving force behind makerspaces is rooted in the Maker movement, a following comprised of artists, tech enthusiasts, engineers, builders, tinkerers, and anyone else with a passion for making things. The addition of makerspaces is solidifying the library’s position as a hub where students and faculty can access, create, or engage in hands-on projects across departmental lines.

Online learning: Academic and research libraries are poised to play a major role in defining and helping facilitate future incarnations of online learning by guiding campus faculty. Libraries’ own digital offerings can be enhanced as more research is conducted about the impact of virtual instructional design and delivery platforms.

Mid-term (2-3 years)

Information visualization: “Information visualization is the graphical representation of technical, often complex data, designed to be understood quickly and easily,” notes the report. “Popularly called ‘infographics,’ this type of media is highly valuable in the age of ubiquitous knowledge, and the people who create it are equally desired by organizations seeking to share messages that make an impact. This format is particularly compelling for academic and research libraries, as it enables researchers and scientists to present complex findings in ways that are easier to comprehend than raw datasets.” For researchers and students, the study of information visualization covers a number of valuable skills relating to data analysis, design thinking, and contextual, inquiry-based exploration— in addition to the technical capacities required to carry out ideas using creative software.

Semantic web and linked data: “The semantic web infers the meaning, or semantics, of information on the Internet using metadata to make connections and display related information that would otherwise be elusive or altogether invisible,” describes the report. In the 1960s, the Library of Congress developed and released the first protocol for linked metadata, the machine-readable cataloging format, or MARC, as it is commonly known. “Advances in these standards and search engine analytics are connecting library catalog systems on the Internet, and using linked data to help users uncover and delve into content that is, for all practical purposes, hidden in the Deep Web. Semantic searching most frequently applies to scientific inquiries, allowing researchers to gather an abundance of relevant, credible information without using a dozen search tools, each with their own precise filters.” Furthermore, advancements in semantic web are generating new ways of data contextualization, resulting in deeper personalization and more comprehensive views of bodies of research.

Far-term (4-5 years)

Location intelligence: Location intelligence refers to the mapping of the geographic relationships associated with data, explains the report. Resources including GIS are used to provide information about how people are interacting with various apps and services based on their location. A growing facet of location intelligence in libraries is location-based services (LBS) which provide content that is customized according to the user’s location. New location intelligence technologies are extending that capability into buildings and interior spaces with remarkable accuracy. The report notes that a recent “compelling development for location-based services is the advent of indoor geolocation, which is providing library patrons with very specific information tailored to their exact location within a library, allowing fine-tuned information or services to be accessed from their exact location in 3D space, so that even different floors of a building can be identified.”

Machine Learning: According to NMC, machine learning refers to computers that are able to act and react without being explicitly programmed to do so. Practical speech recognition, semantic applications, and even self-driving cars all leverage machine learning via data systems that not only intake, retrieve, and interpret data, but also learn from it. “To do this, the machine must make a generalization, using algorithms to respond to new inputs after being ‘trained’ on a different learning data set—much like a human learns from experiences and uses that knowledge to respond appropriately in a different encounter,” describes the report. Recent incarnations of machine learning in the education space include a university-developed telescope that can automatically detect significant changes pointing to supernova occurrences.

For much deeper analyses of notes trends, challenges, and technologies, as well as suggested reading lists, concrete examples, and supporting research, read the full report, “NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Library Edition.