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Startup culture and the future of academic libraries: An interview with Brian Mathews

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

“Startups are organizations dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty” (p.4)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Mathews, the Associate Dean for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech’s University Libraries.  Mathews is one of the most creative administrators in higher education today. He is the author of the popular Ubiquitous Librarian blog, part of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Blog Network, and the 2009 book “Marketing Today’s Academic Library: A Bold New Approach to Communicating with Students”.  Recently, Brian gained international attention for his work “Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism” intended to inspire transformative thinking in higher education using insight into startup culture and innovation methodologies.

Our conversation focused on the need for academic libraries and higher education leaders to “think like a startup”, Brian’s efforts to create and sustain an innovative culture at Virginia Tech, several user-experience research projects, potential roles for librarians in massive open online courses, and the future of scholarly publishing.

“Our jobs are shifting from doing what we’ve always done very well, to always being on the lookout for new opportunities to advance teaching, learning, service, and research” (p. 2).

Mathews’ white paper “Think Like a Startup” makes a compelling case that within 20 years many of the modern academic libraries’ services will be housed and run by other units across campus.  Therefore, Mathews argues academic libraries need to forge new partnerships across campus, discover new ways to create value for their users, and experiment with radical new approaches to solving their most pressing needs.

Click the table above for a larger version.


Mathews, B. (2012). Think Like A Startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.

“Sunset 14” From the album “As Days Get Shorter” by Sharp CC BY-NC 2.5


The future of academic libraries: An interview with Steven J Bell

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Steven J. Bell, the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, and current Vice President and President Elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Steven received his Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Steven’s most recent book, coauthored with John Shank, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques lays out a new vision for designing the future of academic libraries enabling librarians to become indispensable partners in the college teaching endeavor by integrating themselves into the instructional process.

“What can we do as academic librarians to better prepare ourselves for what is certainly an uncertain future? We just have to think more entrepreneurially and look for these opportunities.”

I first met Steven a few years ago when I contacted him after reading his excellent Inside Higher Ed article on design thinking and higher education leadership.  Steven is a thoughtful leader who constantly experiments with new ways to improve Temple’s Libraries and the profession of academic librarianship.  Our conversation focused on the future and emerging roles of academic libraries, specifically: Blended Librarians, collections, user experience, Massive Open Online Courses, the ARL 2030 Scenarios Report, and change leadership.  Below I’ve summarized some of the projects and articles Steven mentioned during our interview.

Unbundling of Higher Education

Steven thinks new learning initiatives like MITx and Udacity’s massive open online courses are an opportunity for academic libraries to serve non-traditional, potentially unaffiliated students, who he refers to as higher education’s new majority learners. In a recent article from his From the Bell Tower Library Journal column he suggested two possible scenarios for academic libraries within this emerging unbundled higher education landscape.

Scenario 1: “It seems likely that the providers of unbundled degrees, whether primarily OER like MITx or profit-driven like StraighterLine, would have little need for physical libraries. For one thing, no library means significant cost saving which helps keep tuition low or non-existent. These organizations have no research agendas nor do they seek grants, so there would be no faculty needing huge book and journal collections. Just as the case is now with some online higher education providers, library services, if available, are marginal. They can always purchase access to a set of resources that would adequately qualify for whatever passes as accreditation. They might even go to the trouble to pay a librarian to look after all of it for them.”

Scenario 2: “Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.”

Some in the press have suggested these initiatives will topple the ivory tower, knock down campus walls, crumble higher education’s monopoly, and start an Arab Spring of free online learning.

Steven has a more nuanced prediction:

Am I painting a scenario in which traditional higher education and their academic libraries have no future? If it reads that way that’s certainly not the intent. I believe many traditional colleges and universities will continue to thrive and provide the type of experience that many students still want, although the number of families who can afford the tuition is likely to decline. Just anticipate fewer traditional institutions,  and fewer academic libraries supporting them.

Rising costs are a major factor forcing change in academic libraries.  Steven is working to address these issues directly through a new textbook project at Temple University.

Alt-Textbook Project

College students are spending on average $1,100 a year on books and supplies. Temple’s new Alt-Textbook Project is trying to change that. The initiative provides faculty members with a $1,000 grant to create new original digital learning materials with the goal of creating free, timely, high-quality resources for students. Steven recently spoke to Temple’s student radio WHIP about the project. Steven discusses the Alt-Textbook project as part of a larger Alt-Higher Education movement.

Blended Librarians

Steven, with his colleague John D. Shank, developed the concept of the Blended Librarian, a new form of academic librarianship that integrates instructional design and technology skills into the traditional librarian skill set. The goal is to better serve faculty and students through deeper engagement in teaching and learning.

Idea Book

The “Capture an Idea” project encouraged Temple University Library staff to record their ideas to improve the library’s user experience.  Photo Credit: Steven J. Bell 

User Experience

Steven’s recent work has focused on improving the user experience at the Temple University Libraries through researching the needs of students, and by gathering ideas from Library staff. Using the Study of Great Retail Shopping Experiences in North America Steven surveyed students on their expectations to “gain insight into what would comprise a “WOW” experience for student members of the academic library’s user community, and better understand in what ways and which areas academic librarians are succeeding or failing to provide the WOW experience”. In 2011, Steven presented his findings at ACRL’s national conference in this recorded presentation, “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Libraries Measure Up?”.

Steven also launched a staff initiative called Capture an Idea and gave every staff member a notebook to carry with them suggesting they record community member’s user behavior, things that are broken, complaints and compliments, and general ideas about the library. The notebook’s cover read “Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements”. After several months of collecting ideas the staff discussed them at a retreat and implemented a few their suggestions including a Fix-It Team to address broken things quickly.

Academic Library Roles

In a previous post I discussed ARL’s 2030 Scenarios Project and ACRL’s “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025″ report. Drawing on those projects, and my conversation with Steven Bell, I created this chart to summarize my current thoughts on the historical, emerging, and future roles of academic libraries across several topics. I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments section below. View a larger version of the image.

The Roles of Academic Libraries

For more information on Steven’s work please see his From the Bell Tower column, Designing Better Libraries blog, and Learning Times Blended Librarian Community.  You can also find him on Twitter.

The emerging and future roles of academic libraries

Libraries are actively reinventing themselves for the digital age.  Confronted with corrosive budgets, skyrocketing costs, and challenged by a fear of obsolesce resulting from the accelerating rate of technological change; libraries are struggling for their survival.  For the academic library — the “heart” of the modern research university — survival requires demonstrating their value in new ways, embedding themselves deeper into the university’s core functions of teaching, learning, and research.  Although daunting, these challenges are nothing new for academic li-braries.

Within a generation, the signs of change are highly visible.  Gone are the card catalogues, monastic study corrals, and physical books replaced by media labs, new expertise in strategic areas (teaching and learning, information literacy, copyright, data visualization, and media production), and professionally designed collaborative workspaces.  The resonance of these changes has extended beyond the bookends of the library.  Just this week the Atlantic Monthly blog crowned the 2011 South by Southwest Festival “The Year of the Librarian”.

Photo: library cards Creative Commons BY NC SA 2.0 dorywithserifs

Despite radical attempts to meet the changing needs of every generation of scholars critics have argued that the library — in its current form — may have outlived its purpose.  For some change at the library hasn’t come quickly enough.  A recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education codifies this position, accusing practitioners of being complicit — spending the last few decades rearranging the books in the Titanic library.  Sullivan, (2011) contends:

“… it is entirely possible that the life of the academic library could have been spared if the last generation of librarians had spent more time plotting a realistic path to the future and less time chasing outdated trends while mindlessly spouting mantras like “There will always be books and libraries” and “People will always need librarians to show them how to use information.” We’ll never know now what kind of treatments might have worked. Librarians planted the seeds of their own destruction and are responsible for their own downfall”.

I disagree.  There is ample evidence that library leaders have in earnest set their sights on the future — most notably, two of the largest American academic library professional organizations (The Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries), recently produced future oriented reports to catalyze support for the value of academic libraries, and to provide vision for the future.  In my mind, these reports capture the excitement of an institution in transition, and provide insights into the future of higher education as a whole.

Futures Research
The first report, from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a nonprofit professional organization which represents 126 of the largest college and university research libraries in the United States and Canada, created the ARL 2030 Scenarios project to address their strategic focus:

“How do we transform our organization(s) to create differential value for future users (individuals, institutions, and beyond), given the external dynamics redefining the research environment over the next 20 years?

ARL members were invited to participate in individual interviews, focus groups, and a survey.  Key stakeholders from within and outside the academic library community codified the results into four distinct scenarios.  The results were intentionally distributed inside of a user’s guide to ensure that the scenarios were packaged with an accompanying template for utilizing the scenarios at academic libraries as part of their strategic planning process.

Scenario 1: Research Entrepreneurs
In this future “individual researchers are the stars of the story”.  Academic institutions and disciplinary silos are no longer relevant for entrepreneurial researchers who chase short-to-long term contract work from private and public sources.

Scenario 2: Reuse and Recycle
Scenario 2 outlines a world defined by an “ongoing scarcity of economic resources” which forces the reuse and recycling of research activities, with virtually no public support for research.  Academic institutions persist, but have little to offer scholars.

Scenario 3: Disciplines in Charge
Utilizing advances in information technology “computational approaches to data analysis dominates the research enterprise”, fostering massive research projects aligned around “data-stores”.  Two classes of researchers emerge: those who “control the disciplinary organization and their research infrastructure” and everyone else who “scramble to pick up the piecework”.

Scenario 4: Global Followers
As funding forces dry up in the West academic power shifts to the Middle East and Asia.  Scholars continue to do their research but with new cultural influences from Middle Eastern and Asian funding agencies.

ARL Scenario Space
Figure 1: ARL Scenario Space, Creative Commons BY NC ND

The real strength of ARL’s scenarios is the user guide toolkitScenario planning — and futures research in general — is often criticized for being too empyreal.  ARL addresses this criticism head-on featuring six chapters dedicated to implementing of the scenarios within an academic library.  Also, as part of an ongoing process towards validating and refining each scenario articles, studies, and reports are being collected and coded as they pertain to each of the 4 possible futures.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), another leader in the academic library world, also recently completed a future oriented study presenting 26 possible scenarios for 2025.  ACRL is the largest division of the American Library Association (ALA) with over 12,000 members worldwide.

Research for this study began with an intensive two-month review of quantitative and qualitative literature related to how academic libraries demonstrate their value.  ACRL staff then combined the results into 26 possible scenarios.  ACRL members were surveyed on the probability of each scenario occurring, the impact of each scenario, the speed at which the scenario might unfold, and whether the scenario reflects a threat or opportunity to academic libraries.  The survey results were then visually displayed on a problem space with a number corresponding to each scenario, with green numbers representing opportunities for academic libraries, and red signaling threats (Figure 2).

ACRL Scenario Space
Figure 2: ACRL Scenario Space, Creative Commons NC SA

The survey results concluded nine of the scenarios were highly probable and impactful including: “breaking the textbook monopoly”, “bridging the scholar/practitioners divide”, “everyone is a ‘non-traditional’ student”, “I see what you see” [advancements in IT make collaboration with users easier], “increasing threats of cyberwar, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism”, “meet the new freshman” [librarians help non-traditional student cross the digital divide], “right here with me” [advances in mobile technology for research and publication], “scholarship stultifies”, and “this class brought to you by…” [increased corporate sponsorships of courses and research].

The combined 30 scenarios presented by ARL and ACRL describe the potentially hostile, but promising world for academic libraries in the next 20 years.  The three most common themes throughout all of the scenarios: the impact of technology, the changing informational and infrastructural needs of their users, and the challenges to creating novel funding sources to combat acute budget shortfalls present real opportunities for leadership on the part of library administrators.

Although some have criticized these first attempts at futures research as a waste of time, I argue these reports have been successful because they have forced the debate about the future of the academic library to the forefront of the profession.  Certainly futures research cannot predict the future, however these scenarios provide academic libraries a chance to both strategize for what is most likely to happen, while advocating from an informed position for their most desirable future.

Association Research Libraries. (2010). The ARL 2030 Scenarios: A User?s Guide for Research Libraries. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Connelly, P. (2011). SXSW 2011: The Year of the Librarian. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from

Staley, D. J., & Malenfant, K. J. (2010). Futures Thinking For Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025. Retrieved from

Sullivan, B. T. (2011). Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from