Earlier this week I attended a workshop for the Academic Libraries of the Future project, held at Cardiff University. The aim of the project is to examine potential future scenarios within society and how this could impact on academic libraries.

View out through the deciduous forest from Cresent Rock West Virginia along the Appalachian Trail.

My workshop was examining ‘The Wild West’ scenario; an era of instability and regional divides, largely market driven but relatively open. We began the day by trying to visualise this scenario and what it could be like if this was the case in 2050. We thought about how this might affect currency, language, global resources, communication, and education. As you can see from the overview, in this scenario UK Higher Education consists of 20 academic and research intensive universities, 2-3 major vocational institutions in regional clusters (merging FE with HE), and around 25 new entrants from the private sector, mainly operating for profit. Funding of learning comes from employers and students (no state funding), with research funded by industry, state and regional partners.

The first activity looked at what an academic library might be like in the scenario. Possible models included a geographic shared service (similar to Worcester’s academic, public and history centre currently being built), all HE being supported by one national library service, or libraries working as trading bodies becoming specialists in certain areas which other libraries may choose to buy in. Key themes which came from these discussions included the concept of regional hubs to support teaching and research (maybe even a Starbucks University!), the possibility of research intensive universities publishing and selling their research to increase income, and collaborative opportunities for educational institutions and businesses for both learning and research.

The second activity required us to think about certain people within the scenario and what their relationship with the academic library would be. We looked at learners (researchers, undergraduates, adult learners), library workers (junior librarians, specialist librarians, library managers), and university staff (lecturers, academic authors, university managers). This was an interesting exercise, my group looked at adult learners (for whom we felt a lot of their current needs would still exist in this scenario), library managers (for whom we felt would need more business skills such as negotiation, networking and marketing), and academic authors (for whom we felt would need support with the publication process and measuring the impact of their work).

The final activity was to produce a timeline from 2010 to 2050 with key milestones, assuming that we would reach the Wild West scenario in 2050. We had to come up with some headlines (we were encouraged to make them radical) and place them on the timescale where we thought they might happen. Suggestions included Google competing with Amazon for online sales of physical books, shortly followed by the last ever physical textbook being printed. Each of the groups predicted news of library buildings closing (though not the service), and key publishers going bust. Most of the headlines were things we predicted in the next 20 years or so, it was more difficult to predict what might happen in 2030-2050.

It was a really interesting workshop, and I enjoyed the different approach of scenario building. It was very difficult to picture things in 40 years though, especially when you think how much library services and society in general has changed in the last 40 years! Keep an eye on the project website for more information or details of the different scenarios.

There was also a lot of crossover between the discussions at this event and those of CILIPs Defining our Professional Future project, which I’m looking forward to seeing the report from.

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