Working on borrowed time?

Librarians fear redundancy as open access alters role of academic collections. Matthew Reisz writes

September 13, 2012

A report offers a sobering analysis of the implications for academic libraries - and academic librarians - of the "shift to more open-access scholarly content".

Released last week, Moving towards an Open Access Future: The Role of Academic Libraries summarises a round-table discussion between 14 librarians and other industry experts from Europe, North America and the Middle East that took place earlier this year and was organised by the publisher SAGE in association with the British Library.

"The more content that is available as open access [OA]," argues the report, the less need there will be for "institutional collections". "The concept of the individual library is going to go away," suggests one contributor. "We are going to have to work together."

Librarians themselves face an equally challenging future, with traditional skills such as collection development becoming far less relevant and "users" not always interested in what they might be able to offer in future. While one participant says librarians "still want to provide quality-controlled, relevant information for our community", others are unsure "whether or not users want librarians telling them which are 'good' OA resources and which are 'bad'".

"We have to admit that the best discovery systems aren't library ones," adds someone else. "Working towards OA puts us out of one of our main jobs, but the purpose of the library isn't to secure the job of the librarians."

Another potential role for librarians is to help researchers understand "the difference between vanity publishing and gold [author-funded] OA", although such guidance is not always welcome, and there are still major problems of terminology, the summary suggests.

"If the people who are engaged with OA all the time can't agree on what it means," notes one contributor to the debate, "then how are we going to communicate it to researchers?"

A further threat comes from IT staff who believe they are better able to manage digital repositories than librarians, although the report acknowledges that current "university management felt that libraries are best placed for the task".

There is also little comfort for those in the humanities keen to produce traditional monographs.

Although several librarians regret "the need to reduce book-buying due to budget constraints", they show few signs of wanting to reverse the process and favour spending any unexpected extra injection of cash on "digitizing and analyzing metadata for the unique special collections that many libraries hold".

Facing up to the complex demands of "a changing education and information environment", the report suggests, requires "the ability to be creative and even radical".

But several participants in the round-table event doubt whether this would come easy to librarians, a group who, they claim, often "chose their profession because they wanted a quiet life and because they liked being with books rather than people".

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