university libraries

5 roles university libraries will play in the future

University libraries are changing—but one important role remains the same, experts say

Universities are seeking ways to innovate and keep up with the changing expectations of students and faculty, and university libraries are no different.

Academic libraries are good at adapting as they try to meet students and faculty who learn differently and who have varying expectations for what their university library is.

As physical space, available funding, and student needs change, university libraries will have to adapt to meet different needs and campus roles.

Despite these future changes, the purpose of university libraries remains steady: Academic libraries provide equitable access to information for students to use in their daily lives, whether their purpose is for academic success, to solve problems, or to create new knowledge.

1. They’re still in the business of information access

While the way libraries do things may change, they are still in the service of information discovery, says Cheryl Middleton, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, which is a division of the American Library Association. Middleton is associate university librarian for research and scholarly communication at Oregon State University. 

“We’re not the gatekeepers of information in the way we used to be,” she says. “Now there’s an online environment in which our users flourish. One of our roles is to make sure our learners are successful in that environment.”

2. Guarding against fake news and strengthening critical evaluation skills

“Given the proliferation of fake news, it’s important people have those information literacy skills to think critically about the information they’re using,” Middleton says. “That’s still an important role university libraries will continue to play.”

3. Imagining new uses for limited space and funding

“At Oregon State University, we’ve been building and accommodating, but there’s a need for space on campus. If you’re thinking about a partnership, what partnerships make sense for the library, and what services will you offer to students and faculty? What services make sense in libraries, in terms of our educational missions?” Middleton says.

“As we look across higher education, the financial situation is increasingly dire and challenging, and libraries are competing on campus for resources,” says Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor/coordinator for information literacy services and instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hinchliffe shared her views on the future of university libraries during a January Future Trends Forum. “We’re in an economy of scale and are providing value for our institutions, but so is the rec center, so is the research lab, and so is the media production facility.”

4. Space also becomes an issue as technology resources grow

“So many of our resources are electronic and are available 24/7—you don’t have to come into the library,” Middleton says. “Many libraries see a lot of students coming in, but they aren’t necessarily checking out print books or studying. It’s like the living room of the campus. They study, they watch videos, they sleep. It’s a seamless blend of work and living.”

Forward-thinking university libraries also are balancing the idea of the library as a place and space for students with the needs of the academic community and resource availability.

The key is figuring out what students want from their university libraries.

“There are all kinds of reasons for accessing the information in a library, from enriching your personal life to completing assignments for academic success,” she adds. “So what do our users want in these spaces? There’s lots of work where universities are connecting with student bodies and faculty as they try to design spaces for learning, nontraditional learning, and technologies and resources that serve the entire student body.”

“The library as a place is hugely important to undergraduate students, and remains so,” says Hinchliffe. “Surveys and user studies show it’s important. One thing to figure out is: A place for what? That, I think, we see changing. We definitely see a change from solitary study space to collaborative study space.”

Hinchliffe says many libraries are trending toward removing solitary furniture like study carrols and have brought in soft seating and tables with laptop and mobile computing support.

5. Artificial intelligence (AI) will have a role in libraries

“Our collections are rich sources of content that can drive machine learning and drive AI,” Hinchliffe says. “They have to learn off something. Librarians are increasingly challenged to think about how we create our collections such that they’re not just discoverable by the human researcher, but how are they going to be accessible and discoverable for the robot researcher?”

AI may also play a role in basic automation, such as answering simple inquiries.

“I anticipate seeing a lot of this come sooner, rather than later,” Hinchliffe says.

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Laura Ascione

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