Digital technologies, renewed attention to the purposes of higher education, and changing models for scholarship and learning challenge our historic understandings of research libraries and their collections. Common assumptions and goals are giving way to diverse local agendas, many of which also reflect increasingly limited budgets. Cooperative ventures are taking new forms as well, with straitened resources again the rule. Our adaptation to this uncertain environment requires research libraries to reconsider the elements that are now necessary for success.
Research libraries come in many sizes, offer a variety of services, and support institutions with diverse programs and styles. (1) Despite their differences, these libraries until recently regarded collections as their primary focus. This shared sense of purpose, however, is now in question. The staggering growth and variety of information resources challenge our collective mandate to track, organize, and preserve the full records of scholarship and human expression. Ongoing shifts in the practice of research have made even the largest collections inadequate to many needs. Digital technologies are transforming the nature of information and with it the research questions we ask, the ways we seek answers, and how we communicate results. Academic libraries 'also support instruction, a high-stakes activity that today requires new types of understanding and engagement. All library operations are constrained by tightening budgets, marketplace economics, and restrictions on intellectual property. Individual research libraries are grappling with this unwieldy mix in disparate ways and often in isolation. The consequences may weaken them all.
This essay reviews the overlapping transformations in technology, information and its availability, scholarship, and instruction that define the research library environment. The information marketplace injects another dimension of complexity. While institutional responses make sense at the local level, they together comprise a cacophony of divergent programs and goals. Active acknowledgement of a few broad considerations may revitalize a sense of common purpose and a capacity for collective success.
A Community in Flux: Digital Fault Lines and the Emergent Research Library
Predigital research libraries seem 'almost absurdly simple today. Their main role was to acquire the largest possible array of locally relevant books and journals and then interpret them to users on-site. Libraries, like universities, were bounded and physical. Postsecondary instruction and research were tightly framed by each field's knowledge base and methodologies. The academic enterprise, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, centered on canonical sources and core texts; nonprint resources supported more specialized domains. Libraries' hardcopy holdings, plus complementary university collections of paintings and plant specimens, cultural artifacts and animal bones, minerals and musical instruments, and so on, reflected the full records of human creativity and natural diversity. Scholarship depended on direct access to these materials.
Research libraries achieved status in this environment by acquiring more than their peers or by building niche collections of particular depth. The measures of performance were clear and rankings made intuitive sense. Collections cooperation was largely bruited to esoteric fields or to circumstances of unusual geographic proximity. The library community somewhat fuzzily aspired to collect comprehensive holdings of relevant materials. While the dimensions of "relevance" expanded over time, libraries' collectionscentered conceptual universe was largely static.
Several interlocking shifts have brought complexity and uncertainty to this once-placid scenario. Electronic technologies have made information abundant rather than scarce and ubiquitous rather than bounded by its physical containers. Research and scholarly communication have evolved accordingly. The mantra of accountability has moved universities to focus on pedagogical performance. Libraries likewise perceive new opportunities as they also revisit old practices that no longer make sense. The following sections address these three dimensions of change. The focus then shifts to the economic considerations that are affecting collections and services now that profit-seeking pervades large swaths of the information and entertainment landscapes.
Research and Scholarly Communication in the Digital Environment
Digital technologies, in reshaping the information landscape, also have altered the relationship between recorded knowledge and the activities of research and teaching. The Internet, broadly considered, deploys technology in ways that encourage open participation and easy expression. These potentially liberating features, however, mesh poorly with some of the scholarly community's more buttoned-down needs.
Most scholarship, even today, builds from discipline-specific processes that promote documented, reproducible results. Research findings are validated through the judgment of peers and then made broadly available to fuel further inquiry. Kuhn perceives a larger pattern of punctuated equilibria in which periods of model-driven "normal science" are interrupted as anomalous findings provoke disruptive paradigm shifts. (2) New theories and explanatory syntheses then allow the cycle to begin again. Rigorous debate is part and parcel of this dialectic through which self-defined peer communities establish and enforce common evaluation criteria and research agendas.
Several characteristics of the Internet are at odds with so orderly a model for scientific discovery and scholarly communication. Low barriers to participation invite broad inclusiveness and flamboyant individualism. Anonymity is simple: the authenticity of identities, the reliability of sources, authorial accountability, and the credibility of particular assertions therefore are all up for grabs. The Internet is also vast, making the mechanisms by which specific materials can be found a matter of critical importance. Today's approaches to discovery rely on either purposeful prior combinations of separate resources or standardized protocols that assemble dispersed information virtually. Search algorithms, which are often opaque, figure large in determining what we can know and how we can know it. And then the Internet is a fiat and epistemologically uncertain terrain. Most search results decontextualize individual listings, obscuring the relationships between them. A snippet from a book, an article abstract, a newspaper account, an archival excerpt, a blog posting--all carry the same valence, conveying a sensation of relentless parity.
The open web--the Internet, the cloud therefore is in some crucial aspects flawed as a tool for scholarly communication, even as it speeds exchanges and widens participation. While different disciplines value timeliness, rhetorical polish, and reporting protocols in their own particular ways, all insist on documented and reproducible findings, and all expect full recognition of authors and sources. Specific communities of practice are thus exploring approaches that take advantage both of new possibilities (for instance, freewheeling discussion lists or blogs) and more tightly managed venues for structured debate.
Of course the Internet is much more than a vehicle for scholarly exchange. Its extravagant openness and its utility for communication also make it ever more important as a direct source of information, opinion, creative expression, and data. Vast sweeps of digital primary sources are now available on a scale hitherto beyond imagination. Analog resources, the stuff of traditional library collections, remain crucial as well. In most fields, scholarship requires both types of content.
Educational Accountability and User-Centric Instruction
The Internet's role in scholarly communication is still taking shape--by and large one field at a time. Its utility for teaching …