Library management here at UW-Madison sent around an article which they are using as a guidepost for future library programs. The article is entitled A Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century by David Lewis.

This is probably the best article I have seen on where libraries need to go (probably because I already believe several of the points). Lewis defines a five-part strategy to keep libraries an important, vibrant part of the campus community. Here’s a brief look at each.

Complete Migration from Print to Electronic

This is one that seems the most ‘academic specific’. It is true that most (if not all) users want information primarily in electronic format, but this is mostly a reflection of the research process. Nonetheless, this has been on the move for awhile and I agree that it is time to make the final push to convert everything we legally can.

Retire Legacy Print Collections

This ties in with the next point. It is important for libraries to use space effectively and perhaps miles of stacks are not the best way. He recommends moving to outside storage so that they can still be accessed, but not as quickly.

I agree this is a good idea, but I think a corollary should be that we develop a new style of “browsing”. Patrons do enjoy scanning the shelves. Many specifically request the “area” for a subject. It is possible to create an online “shelf” that has a visual spacial impact. It is important not to disregard this need and benefit of libraries.

Still, the point is well made. Since most material takes up space, why not keep it more efficiently and compactly off-site.

Redevelop the Library as the Primary Informal Learning Space

This one seems uncontroversial, but *phew* be careful of patrons who enjoy a traditional library. An underlying assumption that he doesn’t quite mention is that the expectations are new. We do not need to create the space as more informal (coffee, cell phones) because it will be good for the library. We need to create informal space because that is now what people expect. This isn’t a strategy as much as a declaration of reality.

Now the counter argument is that some people value the quietness. And this is certainly true, but libraries need to engage the whole campus community, not just the subset that do not want to sit in the union. So keeping different areas with different levels of noise is important, but not as much as engaging everyone.

Embed Library Tools into Teaching, Learning, and Research Enterprises

This idea is both vague and exciting. Lewis admits himself “It is unclear what the best approach to instruction will be, but I suspect a new mix of tutorials, learning tools, and in-person classroom involvement will need to be developed.”

Really, this is where libraries can become very creative. Personally, I’m a big fan of seeing library virtual space as real estate. David Lee King phrased it well when he asked what can you do at the library’s website .

The best move would be to completely audit all services and determine an electronic counterpart. Then, ask ‘what can we do that we’ve never done before.’ There’s a lot possible, but we need to look beyond retrofitting different tech on the library and instead seek to find what we can do that is unique.

Migrate Focus from Purchasing Materials to Curating Content

Probably the most controversial (and therefore quite interesting). This is a chance for real specialization and focus. I thought he would mostly talk about holding data and collected raw information (which he mentions) instead, he focuses on how special and local collections are the gaining importance. This is a good point, one that I had not considered. Since there is are many libraries with many duplicate copies of certain works, special collections are a way to help strengthen a library. Ironically, this point pushes out the middle road of librarianship (collecting and organizing traditional scholarly communications) and emphasizes both the more archival roles as well as the technology roles.

I think the idea of collecting and organizing data sets is a huge opportunity. This is something with great value that, in all likelihood, is lost right after it was acquired. The difficulty, of course, is the huge, huge, amount of data that is generated and the potential for corruption. However, with the plummeting cost of storage who knows if this worry will seem quaint someday.

It’s about legitimacy

The beauty behind Lewis’s article is that he emphasizes over and over that these strategies are not fun parlor games or the eccentric ideas of librarian-futurists, but are essential to remaining relevant to the library community. Many in the sciences have mentioned that they do not even know where the library is. Well, if that’s the case, we have important work to do to ensure that they will remain strong supporters of the library system.