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Speaking at the Educause Annual Conference last month, Chris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said something that seemed to resonate with her audience.
“I don’t think we need to save libraries, but I do think we might need libraries to save us,” Bourg said.
Bourg was presenting a report on “The Future of Libraries,” the outcome of a year’s worth of conversations between faculty members, staffers and students at MIT. While its findings and recommendations are still preliminary, the report presents a vision of the library as an “open global platform” that gives people (regardless of whether they are affiliated with MIT) access to information that can help them solve global challenges such as increasing access to clean water or discovering new clean energy sources.
In a follow-up interview last week, Bourg described the report as a “moon shot” for libraries. At more than 26,000 words, the wide-ranging report covers digitization, open access, redesign of physical spaces and more, but it ultimately recommends libraries focus on four “pillars”: community and relationships, discovery and use, stewardship and sustainability, and research and development.
“What the report and the work of the task force say is that libraries aren’t just about buildings, and they’re not just about books,” Bourg said. “Providing access to credible information and the tools to assess, use, understand and exploit it is what libraries, librarians and archivists have always done. It’s more important than ever now.”
MIT, with its focus on science, technology, engineering and math, is in a different position to grapple with those issues compared to universities with traditional strengths (and extensive library collections) in the humanities and social sciences, other library directors and researchers said.
But MIT is not the only institute of its kind to take a long look at the role its libraries should play. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, has launched a Library Renewal Project that includes moving about 95 percent of its physical books to a cold storage facility it shares with Emory University. The space gained by cutting down on stacks will help the library in its transformation into a service organization, administrators there said.
More broadly, the MIT report reflects attitudes among academics highlighted in a national faculty survey conducted this year by Ithaka S+R, a research and consulting nonprofit. The survey found faculty members look to their libraries to offer more and more services, from acquiring new scholarly materials and preserving content to training students and serving as a starting point for research.
MIT isn’t committing to gutting its libraries of print books or other drastic changes just yet. The institute is still collecting feedback on the preliminary report, and the library staff will next decide which areas to prioritize.
They have plenty of opportunities to choose from among those discussed in the report. They could choose to boost the library’s role as a steward of knowledge first, tackling the task force’s recommendations that it serve as a repository for research and develop new models of preserving digital content. While many researchers rely on commercial services such as Figshare and Mendeley, “Academia in general is best served when the libraries are the trusted long-term repository for the scholarly record,” Bourg explained a blog post.
Alternatively, it could take a closer look at how it disseminates knowledge, for example by examining how MIT shares research with the world or by creating platforms that let users share and discover new information. Those efforts would go beyond digitizing, Bourg wrote, to ensure that new digital content isn’t simply being stored in its own silo.
Following the presidential election and the rise of racist incidents and protests across the country, libraries also need to consider how they can serve as “town squares” to promote diversity and social justice, Bourg said.
“College and university libraries need to step up to the plate here,” Bourg said. “They stand for intellectual freedom and the free exchange of ideas.”
Bourg said the task force effectively punted on two topics: library redesign and open access. The report only recommends that new groups be formed to look more specifically at those issues. While the task force on libraries was deliberating, MIT this summer announced a stand-alone committee to examine the future of its OpenCourseWare initiative. That committee is expected to issue its own recommendations before the new year, according to Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning.
Elliott Shore, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said in an email that the report lays the foundation for future collaboration between researchers, librarians and others involved in scholarly communication.
“This is a vision for MIT libraries that makes very clear the need to collaborate at scale,” Shore wrote. “It demonstrates that MIT knows it can’t go it alone and doesn’t want to — what it wants to do is to fulfill the goal of the university to create new knowledge as a public good.”
Bourg said MIT does not assume it can accomplish everything it sets out to do in the preliminary report alone, and that it needs help from other scholars, universities and publishers to bring its vision to life.
“We tried to write the report as an invitation,” Bourg said. “If this is your vision for the future, too, come join us, help us build it.”