As research libraries enter the digital age we are tempted to wish that we were not encumbered by much of the weight of the past. Processes, procedures, standards, and organizational structures that have supported the needs of the traditional library are becoming obsolete and obstructive as we build the library of the future.
I propose a different perspective: that we look beyond the structures of the past to the goals these structures were built to enable.
We have a long and successful history of connecting people to information by building collections and making them accessible to our users. We have built collections with the goal of self-sufficiency and comprehensiveness to best serve our users and to ensure our institutions’ competitive edge. We created discovery tools for operability within a structured information environment. We built library spaces conducive to structured information seeking. And we staffed our libraries with information specialists according to the needs of a library-dependent, information-seeking environment. Procedures and organizational structures were built to enable this environment.
Technology and the World Wide Web have changed the information-seeking behavior of our users and continue to challenge traditional user/library dynamics. In an environment of ever-growing information abundance, the ambition for collection self-sufficiency and comprehensiveness is changing to the expectation of seamless and ubiquitous access to information. New discovery tools are expected to support interoperability within a mixed, unstructured information environment. Library physical spaces must support interactive study and teaching in addition to traditional modes, and the physical library presence must be complemented by a virtual library presence accessible on the Web. Library information specialists reach out to users to meet them on their terms and in their space. New and different processes, procedures, standards, and organizational structures will have to be built to enable this new environment.
Many of these changes are already underway. With our peers, the University of Chicago is developing an open source library system, Kuali OLE, to move away from homogenous collections and paper-based workflows to format-agnostic acquisitions and resource sharing in an environment that incorporates a diverse range of information sources. By participating in the Google Book Project, we enhance discovery of our rich resources, create opportunities for collaborative collections programs, and open up potential for new types of scholarship by depositing digitized copies of our books and journals with those of other important research collections in the joint repository HathiTrust.
We complement mass digitization with local digital programs and invest in flexible physical and online exhibition spaces to open our rich special collections to users here and around the world. We develop tools that can shape workflows that are efficient and effective in a technology-rich environment, and rethink the role of the library catalog from discovery tool in a contained information environment to a tool for discovery and access in the context of the Web. And we make these changes with an eye to flexibility and openness to further change.
The University of Chicago builds the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library as the library of the future, with technology-enhanced, preservation-safe, easily accessible physical collections; with electronic resources and digital collections backed by preservationsafe digital repositories; with technology-equipped and aesthetically pleasing spaces for research, study, and teaching; and with new configurations of services that help our users to take full advantage of all that we offer to serve their needs.
Our new systems, new structures, and new environments are being built to enable us to continue to excel in our traditional mission of connecting people with information. The tension between legacy and change contributes to the creative energy that fuels this mission.