The future of academic libraries - a view from the top

The future of academic libraries - a view from the top

I have had many privileges throughout my career and attendance at the last three SCONUL conferences is one of them. SCONUL is the Society of College, National and University Libraries, which represents all university libraries in the UK and Ireland, irrespective of mission group, as well as national libraries and many of the UK’s colleges of higher education. This year's conference offered some fascinating insights - as well as some incredible views of Brighton at the start of the day.

Discussions seemed dynamic, informed and focused on a user-centred view of the learning experience. Unsurprisingly, many of the speakers included a focus on digital even though the title of the conference - ‘Transformational change and the library: new challenges and opportunities for innovation’ - didn’t mention digital explicitly.

The keynote by Paul Feldman, c.e.o of Jisc (a not-for-profit that provides digital solutions for UK education and research) presented a re-imagined vision og higher education, which considered how digital technologies and infrastructure will be central to  the transformations and opportunities ahead. In particular, a discussion around the role of the Internet of Things (IoT) gained some traction on Twitter after being tweeted by SCONUL c.e.o., Ann Rossiter. Search the #SCONUL2018 hashtag to see other tweets from the event - but also to follow some of the most informed library directors in the country.

Key future growth areas in the sector identified throughout the day included distance learning, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the power of reading analytics - my particular passion. I led a session for about 30 attendees on the relatively new ‘reading data’ that Kortext is working with many UK and international university partners to publish. I have been repeatedly provoking universities to encourage the use of reading analytics, given research from the University of Wollongong, AUS (Cox and Jantti, 2012) and the Open University, UK (Gambles, 2014) that demonstrates strong correlations (not causation, but a clear relationship) between reading and academic performance. Hence growing demand for reading analytics by institutions to better support student success.

Simon Walker led an interesting presentation on the prevalence and capabilities of technology, but also the importance of using opportunities and insights to change what is not working in our current academic practices and pedagogies. He cited a project I co-led 10 years ago with Prof Tansy Jessop and Prof Graham Gibbs (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment), which continues to purport that clear goals and standards are a big issue  i.e. students are not clear on what is expected in their assessments. But it is becoming clearer than ever that with assessment mapping software, programming teams could align assessments and feedback to natural development points, so that all feedback provided by academics is better engaged with. I was speaking with some library directors later about that project and they echoed that insights from students about how the resources are actually used - which are most valued and which cause struggles - is especially useful.

The power of technology to ensure efficiency of space and resources within libraries and library budgets was also presented indirectly through many sessions. Many discussed how technological architecture could and should be improved to give easier, more intuitive and on- demand access to learning content anywhere, anytime. The on-demand expectations of students was discussed within the breaks, and institutions seem to be making some clever and significant shifts to ensure the digital learning experience is as optimised as possible. In some cases it seemed that this was being invested in, in preparation for a growth in online learning capability - at others simply to enhance the learning experiences of students currently at the university.

Given the variety of presentations at the the event it was clear that some were improving their library engagements and the learning experiences now. However, all seemed focussed on the future in order to be prepared for an accelerating technological capability and associated pedagogic shifts. Central to that future is the question of how to access the best quality, peer-reviewed information, both valued by academics and librarians alike, that can then be engaged with, written on, presented and learnt about by our students. SCONUL Access seems to be a cooperative innovation towards that future.

Ultimately, the work of Ann Rossiter and the team at SCONUL, year on year, creates a programme of sessions that provokes reflections and innovations in one of the most esteemed and informed audiences in the HE sector. Across the sessions I attended and the conversations I had the privilege to enjoy, there is clear passion, openness, rigourous criticality and evidence-based innovations happening across the sector. For academic libraries, the future isn't a scary unknown - it's a very real opportunity they're preparing for, now.