Integrating the digital: the challenges and opportunities for academic libraries today

For National Library Week Jane Harvell, Head of Academic Services & Special Collections at the University of Sussex library, speaks here about the biggest challenges that librarians are facing currently, how librarians and publishers can work together to overcome these challenges to support researchers, and how the rise of the digital will transform the library of the future.

One of the biggest challenges currently facing librarians is that we are struggling to deliver online resources to support teaching, this is in both finding a model which works for us to afford to license this type of content and to be able to source online content that fits and supports the requirements and learning behaviour of our students. We can no longer expect students to purchase core textbooks and resources. The costs for these must be wrapped up in their fees, and for this to be workable we need access to affordable online versions of this type of material. With the introduction of the TEF in the UK and the growing importance of the student learning experience, access to appropriate resources to support teaching is a priority.

It has fallen naturally to libraries to support the research publication process, around both open access, compliance with mandates and research data management. It has been important that we show ourselves to be able to take this on but it has been at a cost – we have had to redefine our priorities around research support. It has also put a great deal of pressure on those librarians in this area to acquire new skills as well as develop a thick skin as they have very often found themselves working with what can be unpopular institutional mandates with their academic colleagues.

Finally, of course, the biggest challenge concerns budgets. This includes managing and forecasting subscription spend now linked to publication with OA elements and designing budgets to allow the purchase of sustainable licensed content for teaching. Above all the biggest challenge is the case we are now having to make to our institution for investment in new types of study space and expensive infrastructure that supports a move to the online delivery of resources/publications, such as new library management systems, research information systems and reading list systems. It’s hard to make our voice heard above the pressing, urgent and expensive requirements from colleagues across the campus as the academic experience is transformed by technology and efficiencies.

In order to address these challenges, SAGE and Sussex work together through a number of long-term initiatives to understand students and their changing behaviour  and what researchers (especially early career researchers) need Alongside this, staff from across the library work closely with SAGE staff on projects that encourage debate and share information about our priorities and issues. This trusted environment means that we are able to have constructive conversations around content and delivery. From the library side it helps us enormously to understand the roles within publishing and how they interact with their customers from marketing and sales and across to editorial.

But what does this mean for the library of the future? By 2027 there will almost certainly be a significant number of libraries (and some may not be called libraries at all) with no visible books on display. These libraries will offer a variety of learning spaces, as many do now, but I would expect the integration of technology into these spaces to be much more sophisticated. I think that many academic libraries will support a local community beyond the University and that for those who have Special Collections, this type of material will make itself known in some way within the building.

Librarians themselves may not be linked to the physical building at all other than possibly to influence the learning spaces as they reflect the evolving requirements that mirror new types of teaching. I would expect and hope to see librarians embedded even more within teaching and learning and in research. As there is a significant shift to the delivery of a high quality online learning experience (to complement more traditional methods), modules would need to be designed with the resources at their heart and not as an afterthought. This would require the skills of the librarian to either facilitate access to licensed online content or broker the design of bespoke digital content. I hope that publishers will be delivering the type of content which engages learners and which integrates and fits seamlessly into teaching.

For researchers, their access to our purchased and licensed content will be intuitive, personalised and again, seamless. Libraries and publishers will need to work hard to make this happen in the next ten years because unintuitive barriers will have to disappear as we have other pressing priorities such as stepping up to take on the onerous responsibility for the management of University research publications including supporting open access and research data management.

Jane Harvell is Head of Academic Services & Special Collections at the University of Sussex library, and is the current chair of the UKSG Education Committee. She is particularly interested in the opportunities offered by exploring alternative and innovative ways for libraries and publishers to work together and in developing the support UKSG can offer students and early career librarians.

Find out more about the SAGE Sussex partnership here.

Read more National Library Week posts from SAGE here.

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