Educause 2016: Libraries and future of higher education

Text of the talk I gave at Educause 2016

Like all good talks, I’m going to start out by telling you what I’m not going to talk about.

As fewer people “go to the library” there has been a growing genre of literature I’ll call the “how to save libraries” genre.

Trends like declining circulation of print books and, in some cases, declining foot traffic in physical library buildings, has led to all kinds of strategies for “saving libraries”.

For academic libraries, that has usually been about turning libraries into information commons, always with coffee shops inside; and/or pumping up the role of librarians in teaching study skills, info-seeking skills and otherwise tying the work of the library folks into student success.

These are all good things, and make for good talks and articles, but my talk today will not be part of that genre. This will not be a “save the libraries” talk.

(this talk by David Lankes, where he references a great talk by Char Booth ,is a much more nuanced take on this than my soundbite intro here)

Let me go ahead and give away the punch line now: I don’t think we need to save libraries, but I do think we might need libraries to save us.

And maybe that’s the kind of hubris you might expect from a library director at a place like MIT; but so be it.

I believe it strongly and am willing to take some time here to try to convince you of it as well.

To convince you that libraries can save us, I figure I need to talk a bit about what libraries (really what librarians, archivists, and all those folks who work in and for libraries and archives) do in addition to building, maintaining, and circulating big collections of physical books and managing physical spaces.  I also need to talk about why what we do is so crucial in higher education a right now, and frankly in the nation and in a global context. To do that, I’ll share with you some of the ideas in a recently released MIT report on the future of libraries.

But before all that, I should probably be clear about what I think we need saving from.

This is the gloomy part of the talk, and I’m not really saying anything you don’t all know, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

At a global level, the challenges we face include ridiculous levels of inequality, poverty and hunger; refugee crises triggered by violence and environmental disasters; climate change; energy and water shortages; civil unrest and violence across the globe; an increase in human trafficking; and more.

At the national level, we are of course affected by the same global horrors, including a growing inequality gap, increasingly divisive and inflammatory political rhetoric, and a frighteningly polarized population.  And the most recent headlines tell us that 51% of likely voters fear election day violence, and in many counties across the countries schools are cancelling classes on election day because of the same fear. I mean, that’s not really how democracy is supposed to work.

But I don’t want to talk about anything as touchy and controversial as politics; so instead I’m going to talk about race.

(there was some uncomfortable laughter from the audience at this point)

Some of you likely know these data, but let me highlight some of the staggering racial differences in the US experience.

wealth-inequality-by-race-ethnicityOne troubling trend is the growing wealth inequality by race and ethnicity in the US – the current gap between blacks and whites has reached its highest point since 1989, and the current white-to-Hispanic wealth ratio has reached a level not seen since 2001. What data from the Pew Research Center show is that whites currently enjoy a level of wealth 13 times that of blacks, and 10 times that of hispanics.

There is a persistent income gap as well. We all know about the gender pay gap — that women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — but the race and ethnic income gap is even larger: 2014 census data show that black men earned 70 cents for every dollar earned by white men, black women, 63 cents. Hispanic men earned 60 cents on the dollar, and hispanic women earn 54 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

There are persistent racial and ethnic differences in educational attainment, health outcomes, home ownership, you name it. And residential and occupation segregation persists as well.

Look around the room and you’ll see evidence of occupational segregation – higher education, information technology, and librarianship are all overwhelmingly white occupational fields.

But racial differences in this country are not just demographic differences.

When polled about a variety of social issues, blacks and whites have very different opinions. Perhaps not surprisingly, for example, black americans are about half as likely as white americans to have positive views of whether the police treat members of all racial and ethnic groups equally, and whether police generally use the right amount of force.

On a huge range of topics, black people, other people of color, and white people all see the world differently.

By now, some of you may be wondering if you walked into the wrong talk – what do racial differences and racial inequality have to do with libraries and the future of higher education?

Bear with me just a bit longer as I call your attention to last fall, when students on many of our campuses came together to demand that America’s colleges and universities own up to the systemic racism that exists in higher education and in our nation, and to insist that we take steps to reduce discrimination and promote social justice.

I am talking not only about the high visibility student protests at places like the University of Missouri, and at Yale University; but also about the actions of students and community members at hundreds of colleges across the nation; including MIT.

Students have called our attention to ubiquitous and blatant incidents of racial harassment, they have demanded that we hire more faculty from underrepresented groups, and they have called for faculty and staff to be educated on unconscious bias.

And, like the Stanford law school students who hung this banner in January of 2015, they have insisted that we simply affirm that Black Lives Matter.


Given the very real racial, political, social, and economic inequity, tension, and divides in this country and on our campuses I think how those of us who work in higher education respond will determine what kind of future we have.

Bridging our divides to find common ground and common solutions requires both individual education and awareness; and dialogue — and libraries are really good at facilitating those things.

Libraries are and must be key partners in the academy and in our communities for making progress on global, national, and local challenges.

And one of those challenges is that we haven’t yet figured out yet how to provide quality education to the billions more people who need and want it, people who are going to be stuck with solving the wicked problems and challenges we leave them with.

Two necessary conditions for making progress on the kinds of challenges we face are sound research and a well-educated populace.

This is where libraries come in.

Libraries and librarians can and do play a crucial role in creating a more open, connected, and equitable future for higher education (and for our communities) through our support and facilitation of open access to scholarship and through our role in providing inclusive spaces that facilitate community building and formal and informal learning.

Let me talk first about openness.

And I want to talk about more than open access when I talk about openness, but let’s start with Open Access.

And here I borrow liberally from Harvard’s Peter Suber, who literally wrote the book on Open Access (published by the MIT Press). A book I recommend to anyone who wants to a quick but thorough introduction to the basics of Open Access. The e-version is available for free, the print version for under $20.

First, what is Open Access? It is work that has been made available to a global audience, digitally, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

According to ROARMAP, the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies, there are nearly 800 registered Open Access policies across the globe; mostly adopted by research organizations & universities; but also adopted by funding agencies and by sub-units of major research organizations – such as departments or schools within a university.  And the number of policies has grown significantly in the last decade.

If you believe, like I do, that equal access to information and knowledge is a social justice issue; that higher education is a social good; and that education and research are essential to finding solutions to the problems I mentioned earlier; then ensuring everyone has open and equitable access to research and scholarship is really important.

This is one of the key themes in the preliminary report on the future of libraries just released by MIT on Monday:

For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research.

And lo and behold, it is libraries and librarians who are implementing Open Access policies in our research organizations and who are doing the heavy lifting to make journal articles (and some other forms of scholarship, like data and in some cases books and textbooks) openly available in meaningful, organized ways through institutional repositories and through educating authors on their rights and options.

Right now we are doing that in a hybrid environment, where much of the content that libraries provide to our communities is still not openly available. We provide content to “authorized users” only, based on the contracts we sign with publishers – many of whom are for-profit entities who dabble in open access publishing, but who at the end of the day are still driven by a profit motive — not an educational or social good motive.

Having research locked away behind corporate paywalls and/or behind our institutional authentication systems means that access to information is not only not free; but is fragmented and cumbersome.

The current landscape of scholarly literature consists of multiple silos of information, accessed through library websites, journal sites, aggregators sites, Google and Google Scholar, social media sites, you name it.

Not only is this hard to navigate as a whole and at each site; but the distributed nature of current access makes it nearly impossible to use the ideas and topics and data in a scholars’ research output to make connections for that scholar to the full range of other research and other scholars that might be relevant, interesting, and important to them. And the need for those kinds of connections and insights was something MIT faculty and researchers brought up often in our conversations with them about their hopes for the future of libraries.

In response to this fractured environment, one way many libraries, MIT included, are re-thinking the way we provide collections to our communities is by applying the “inside-out” framework offered by Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC.

The inside-out library concept describes  a pivot from an old model of libraries where we went out into the world and collected all the stuff (books and articles and such) that was written and published elsewhere, put it on our shelves and loaned it out 1 at a time to our students and faculty; to a new model where we focus on being a trusted repository and disseminator of the research outputs of our own scholars.

In the inside-out model, libraries take responsibility for gathering up and organizing the research and teaching outputs of our own scholars, and making it available to the world.

In the report on the Future of Libraries out of MIT, we use this image of the iconic great dome  at MIT to symbolize that mission.


From the preliminary report of the MIT Task Force on the Future of Libraries

(note that the dome is opened in the image, but not in real life)

The overarching theme of the Task Force’s vision is that the MIT Libraries must become a global library for a global university. We conceive of the library as an open platform serving the needs of our communities.

Through this open global platform, we will disseminate MIT research to the world.

We want to do this not just because of a philosophical sense that it is the right thing to do, but also because open access facilitates the verification, replication, reinterpretation and application of research.

Open access accelerates the development of new materials, new technologies, new theories, new policies, new understandings of our world and new solutions to our grand problems — including the kinds of seemingly intractable social problems I described at the beginning of this talk.

Right now, a remarkable 44% of recent journal articles written by MIT faculty members are freely available online through our institutional repository.

As we make progress on the recommendations in our Future of Libraries report, we expect to increase not just that percentage, but also the kinds of research outputs available and the kinds of MIT authors whose work we disseminate.

Now imagine if all, or even most, or every some decent number of research universities and organizations, committed to doing the same thing, at scale. And imagine if the content platforms we built for storing and disseminating our universities’ research outputs, were all compatible and interoperable and built on a common set of standards and metadata practices.

That is the information future we imagine at MIT and it is an information future that contributes to social justice –directly through open, free, and equitable access to information for individuals; and indirectly (but no less powerfully) because open access is good for science.

The report also highlights the need to create content platforms that are for use not just by people reading articles one at a time, but also by machines and algorithms.

We envision the library as a networked set of global platforms replete with content, data, metadata, images, audio files, laboratory notebooks, course materials, and more. We imagine a repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms. This transformation will accelerate the accumulation and validation of knowledge, and will enable the creation of new knowledge and of solutions to the world’s great challenges.

That is a really important part of our vision — that the data, collections, and metadata that the libraries have would be open for others not just to read, but also to build tools on top of; and to aim machine-learning algorithms and APIs at.

At MIT, there is a long history of student hacks – ostensibly harmless, but clever pranks carried out with some degree of secrecy, bravado, creativity, and engineering know-how. The most famous MIT hacks have involved putting things on top of the great dome I showed earlier.

And by things, I mean things like whole firetrucks.


Photo credit: Eric Nygren

So we used the dome in our illustration because we hope our platform inspires clever, creative, and productive “hacks,” in the form of innovative uses, tools, and programs that extend and amplify our work. For libraries and library collections to have maximum impact, we have to open them up to a full range of possible uses and users.

We have to build open, flexible environments because there are uses for our information and findings to be discovered via our data that we can’t yet imagine.

This is a vision of libraries that is more than books and buildings, and that takes us beyond libraries as high-tech study spaces or gateways to paywalled journal literature.

And yet, it is a vision of modern libraries that is firmly rooted in the traditional and historic role of libraries as providers of information and as institutions that contribute to democracy and the social good.

The theme of radically more open access to information and knowledge is central to the MIT report on the future of libraries.

Another key theme in the report is the importance of libraries as  a space—virtual and physical—where communities of students, scholars, local citizens, and global learners can gather to interact with one another and with scholarly objects and tools.

At MIT, our library spaces are used for everything from a classical music hackathon to dog therapy stress relief during exam week.

Libraries are special places on campus and the Libraries and their staff occupy an essential role in the intellectual and social life of our college and university communities, perhaps especially for students.

The Libraries are a place of research and learning, and library staff are subject-matter and methodological experts who are committed to supporting student success.

One important characteristic of library staff that distinguishes them from faculty is the lack of any authoritative or evaluative role over students. This makes the Libraries places where students might be especially free and comfortable asking questions, seeking help, experimenting with nascent ideas and thoughts, and making mistakes.

Combine that with the fact that Libraries are places where intellectual freedom and privacy are deeply valued and fiercely protected, and it is quite possible that libraries will be the places our students and other community members might feel the most comfortable talking about difficult topics. Perhaps we could start to bridge some of the racial and other divides on our own campuses in and through the libraries; through formal and informal learning and dialogue in our spaces and through exposing students to an inclusive range of credible sources of information and knowledge and research.

To wrap things up I’ll just repeat that at MIT, the idea of the library as an open global platform is central to our vision for the future of libraries. So too is the assertion that library buildings provide unique and necessary spaces for students and other community members. The future of libraries is both digital and physical; and it is open, connected, and inclusive.

I don’t know if that is the kind of talk you expected about libraries; but in case it wasn’t I’ll end with the most stereotypically librarian slide I could come up with, complete with a cat and a card catalog (courtesy of Jackie Dooley).


2 Responses to “Educause 2016: Libraries and future of higher education”

  1. 1 liliansky November 7, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Great post. Libraries are a separate culture, symbolizing the “intellectual freedom”, as correctly noted author of the post. On the other hand, only the biggest, well-known universities can boast of the most beautiful and equipped libraries, while the small colleges have mediocre bookcorners. Lack of cultural corners, and a lack of resources, both paper and electronic, makes irresponsible students relate to their education. Why U should go to the library, if U dont want to? A few days ago there was an article in Huffingtonpost describing how such a problems are reducing the value of education in the eyes of the student.


  1. 1 Career as a Question | LIBRARY_3000 Trackback on November 3, 2016 at 6:18 pm

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