4 Very Different Futures Are Imagined for Research Libraries

Research is moving online, and more and more users have moved away from thinking of the research library as the gateway to it. In the brave new digital world, librarians have to figure out new ways to engage with communities whose interest they used to be able to take for granted.

It’s difficult to determine how to revamp what you do and position your institution for long-term survival if you have no idea what kind of future you’ll have to operate in. So the Association of Research Libraries prepared four scenarios that describe what the research environment might look like in 2030. Previewed at the group’s annual meeting last week in Washington, D.C., those scenarios are being made public today.

The four story lines do not try to lay out what libraries themselves will need to do to be relevant 20 years from now. Instead they seek to describe the broader research environment in which libraries’ “future users” might be operating. Libraries are encouraged to imagine how they might fit into that environment, said Karla Strieb, the association’s assistant executive director for transforming research libraries. The scenarios come with a long user’s guide and are meant to be used in a variety of ways, said Ms. Strieb. Those include organizing workshops and strategic-planning sessions along with more free-form exercises— “stretching your thinking and looking at the future differently,” she said, and “understanding the dynamics that are playing out around us.”

The elements that make up the scenarios came out of a two-day workshop involving 30 representatives from the library association’s North American membership. Most were library directors, along with a couple of what she calls “provocateurs” who specialize in technology and culture. A strategic-consulting specialist helped guide the process.

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