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D-Lib Magazine
May 2003

Volume 9 Number 5

ISSN 1082-9873

Visions: The Academic Library in 2012


James W. Marcum
University Librarian
Fairleigh Dickinson University

Red Line



The future of the academic library is a topic of continuing concern for the profession, but usually the boundaries of projected visions are set firmly in the issues and debates of the day. What means might be found to break open those constraints and encourage visions projected further into the future?

In the fall of 2002, a unique partnership between the New Jersey ACRL (Association of Colleges and Research Libraries) and Fairleigh Dickinson University Libraries initiated a quest for fresh thinking about the future by organizing an essay contest with the topic "The Academic Library in 2012". The horizon was set at 2012 because it was felt to be far enough out that current issues would not automatically limit the thinking of those taking part in the contest. Prize money was offered as an incentive to motivate participation despite an abbreviated time frame, and the call went out through various lists popular with the profession. In a blind reviewing process, two separate and anonymous panels evaluated the essays and selected a range of choices as the most worthy entries.

The number of entries was not large, but the variety of approaches proved fascinating. Open to non-librarians, a quarter of the entries came from outside the profession.

Post-contest analysis of the entries revealed that most essays addressed one of three major themes: technological developments, library function, and librarians' roles. The prevailing conviction revealed in the essays was that technology serves as the driving force determining change in academic libraries. Reconsiderations of library function, however, ranked a close second in popularity, while essays dealing with librarians' roles and behavior came in third.

Visions of Technological Changes

Two of the most striking entries predict that academic libraries in 2012 will utilize multiple media extensively. Stuart Silverstone, a Los Angeles media guru (and non-librarian) envisions a visual infrastructure of video-displaying walls, situation room theaters, learning "cafeterias," and dispersed, theme-centered constructions utilizing multi-media "books" and other knowledge-based packages, exhibits, arcades and laboratories. His "Big Picture Overview" [1] anticipates virtual conferencing with access to extensive media storage, providing opportunities for students to explore issues and locales much like journalists learn their way in a new foreign assignment. Bill Kennedy, a university Webmaster, envisions similar uses of technology, but he describes the situation in terms of metaphors. No longer a room with a host, the library of 2012 will be experienced as a virtual reality with a "zoom atlas" to whisk the learner to other places, with time travel to jump back into history or forward into the future, and with enacted dialogue to allow "conversations" with people from other times and places. Not one metaphor, or a few, but a virtual "Metaphor Factory" [2] is the vision Kennedy offers. These two essays share visions of continuous media providing the means to escape existing constraints.

"Cybrarians in InfoSpace" [3] is the theme of the winning essay, submitted by a team of library school professors (Tom Surprenant and Claudia Perry of Queens College). In their view, learning is the theme of the day, with "cybrarians" heavily engaged with students both individually and in learning clusters. Surprenant and Perry envision librarians as technologists, working with tools that utilize artificial intelligence and multitasking to assist learners in creating individualized information portfolios. Communicating through Virtual Reality helmets and V-mail, and utilizing diagnostic tools to customize resources to individual profiles, cybrarians will provide effective support for problem solving and discovery groups.

"Wild Card Libraries" [4] is the vivid image offered by Harold Billings of the University of Texas, Austin. Digital harvesting of information, and knowledge, for purposes of extensive "content building" projects initiated by research libraries and facilitated by Internet 3 technologies will result in malleable, globally linked archives of knowledge and information. Steven Gromatzky, a systems librarian, anticipates that the profession must develop greater technical expertise, to a level comparable — at a minimum — to today's technical support personnel. Furthermore, he expects future librarians to exhibit research skills at an advanced, even Ph.D., level of expertise, and to have collaborative, team building competencies as well. His vision, "Researchers, Technologists, and Proactive Partners" [5] does not explain how such virtuosos would be trained and then recruited to libraries — but then that wasn't the assignment. Increased technical skills serve also as the theme of Brad Eden's essay [6]. Eden, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, bemoans the gap between investment in infrastructure and investment in the human expertise to make such infrastructure work. Reversing problems caused by the erosion of professional staff possessing high tech skills will demand either a reliance on outsourcing or a serious revitalization the library profession involving the development of new roles and improved status for librarian-technologists.

If technology did not characterize some of the other views, it played an influential role in several of the essays, particularly those anticipating changes in the basic functions of libraries.

Visions of Change in Library Functions

"From Place to Function " [7] is the theme offered by Alan Bailin (Baruch College, CUNY) and Ann Grafstein (Hofstra University). What marks the day will be the range of services offered (face-to-face and at a distance), to package electronic documents and resources generated primarily by libraries rather than by commercial publishers. Selective dissemination of information and alert systems linked to a student's course management account and supported by virtual reference will highlight library services in the future. The library will be ubiquitous, and its range of services will dramatically overpower the roles related to the traditional library as "place" with its books and printed materials.

A similar view, though described in different terms, is the "Working the Network" [8] theme offered by Kelsey Libner, a North Carolina State University Library Fellow. With collaboration as the key, librarians will work closely with other libraries, information technology and computer science departments, instructional designers, and information architecture specialists to service student needs. Customization and personalization are seen as key value-added contributions. Multiple collections, some designed for a specific course, utilizing video clips and various media, will simplify the complex morass of information for the learner. Access to preprints, software, listserv archives, websites and other currently overlooked resources will become commonplace and necessary.

"Telling Many Stories" [9] offers a distinctive vision of providing artifacts and sensations, of managing "living" documents to enhance learning and experience. Publication archives and "experience depositories" will result from enabling students to understand culturally distinctive "ways of knowing" and creating bio-personal and bio-social information and research portfolios, kept current with intelligent agents. (This account, from David Brier of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, could obviously be considered more technological than functional, but the "story-telling" thrust tilts the balance to categorizing the essay as one dealing with function.)

The growing struggle to protect privacy and intellectual freedom, as well as open access to information, is seen by two librarians from Rutgers University, Camden, as the political agenda that will dominate much of the attention of the profession in the years ahead. Viviana Bowman and John Gibson [10] expect that political debate, and the education of students to the importance of the issues, will become central functions for the profession by the end of the decade.

Visions of Librarians' Roles

This third theme stresses the personal role of the academic librarian, though the essays emphasized very different things. Beth Posner (City University of New York Graduate Center) asks if there is "A Librarian in the House?" [11]. Her conviction is not that librarians will disappear, but rather that they will be out and about, preserving the traditional mission of the library by proactively calling on colleagues and making face-to-face presentations to professors, departments and classes any time such opportunities can be created. Julie Still, another Rutgers University, Camden, librarian suggests that librarians will hold their place simply because they are "So Darned Charming" [12]. She insists that "self-service" information finding will not push the profession aside. Drawing on personal experience, she points out that while she could change her own oil, sew her own clothes, and cook every meal, she won't. People will continue to come to librarians because they lack the time and skills to efficiently do the job themselves.

Looking Forward by Looking Back

The author confesses to initiating this scheme to call forth these visions of the future in contemplation of a future strategy for the libraries at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he recently assumed responsibility. Inspired by the ideas proposed, what follows is an overview of the library of 2012 that combines and extrapolates these concepts and, for contrast and meaning, suggests comparisons with the library of today and ten years earlier as a device for reviewing the extent of the progress and changes during the past decade.


1992 LIBRARY (Yesterday)

2002 LIBRARY (Today)

Integrated Library System

Provided MARC, patron, and circulation records

Web-based: meta-data; resource links; cross data-base searching

Information available

The print collection; Inter-Library Loan for anything else; CD Abstracts & Indexes

Print collection plus online data- bases; Document Delivery; extensive E-resources

Access to information

Walk-in to OPAC, PC's, stacks

Remote, wireless

Study space

Quiet areas

Group study areas

Information Instruction

Bibliographic Instruction, by instructor request

Information Literacy; hands-on "learning"

Information printouts

Dot matrix printer

Laser printer


Bureaucratic; functional; hierarchical

Services oriented; Teams



Regional, consortial

Computer access

OPAC; Online access to DBs

Information Commons


"Parent" dependent

Participate in fundraising


Test and buy databases

Negotiate special DB's

The Library of 2012 (Tomorrow)

Integrated Library System: The system of 2012 will feature interfaces customized for the patron with visualized searching, multi-media resources, and "on call" knowledge management tools. The system will recognize the patron and quickly adapt and respond to the patron's new questions and needs.

Information available: Collections will undergo dramatic transformations. They will be largely patron-selected, featuring multi-media resources and databases, many provided collaboratively through extensive consortial arrangements with other libraries and information providers. Collection management tools will concentrate holdings where they are used, evolving with changes in curriculum and instructors. New "weed, harvest, and migrate" schemes will enable widespread title swapping to get unused titles off the shelf and into circulation elsewhere.

Access to information: Print-on-demand schemes will be developed utilizing the dissertation production experience of UMI but providing mechanisms by which the reader can return the fresh, undamaged manuscript for credit, and for binding and future use if appropriate. Out-of-print collections will be created for similar utilization.

Study space: Space for work and study will be adaptable, with easily reconfigured physical and virtual spaces. Multi-media "smart-boards" will facilitate "conferencing" with contemporary — and global — scholars, artists, and intellectuals as well as digitally created personas from history and fiction, including science fiction. Portable devices and media delivery systems will allow the library to reach out to classrooms and other locales.

Information instruction: Training and learning support, delivered both in person and through appliance-delivered (desktop, hand-held, and small-group) videoconferencing, will characterize learning commons and learning incubators, facilitating information literacy, media competency, and socio-technical fluency as the new core competencies. Personalized learning-support programs will utilize preferred modes of learning and, sensitively, as time and the situation allow, "stretch" the learning competencies of the patron. Science-technology-art ateliers will offer sophisticated visualization tools, training, and collaboration support for cross-disciplinary research and projects.

Information printouts: Patron-desired copies will be in color or, more frequently, in multi-media DVDs (or the technology that supercedes them). Articles, videos, audios, and on-demand printing of articles — and books — will be commonplace. Additionally, displays of new academic titles — in various formats — will be coordinated with publishers and booksellers to enhance information currency, to market small-run monographs, and to generate revenues.

Organizational aspects: The library staff will be engaged, networked, matrix-structured, and largely "transparent" unless the patron is standing inside the facility facing the individual. Research and Information Management Services (such as data mining) will displace "reference" as the front-line service for the patron.

Orientation: The library's perspective will be global; ubiquitous automatic translators will facilitate truly global information-accessing programs.

Computer access: Wireless and laser-enhanced access for collapsible laptops and personal appliances will be ubiquitous.

Financial: The viable library will have developed dependable revenue streams to facilitate ongoing innovation and advancement.

Consortia: Library consortia will be deeply involved in collaborating to create and publish academic journals and resources, particularly e-journals, e-books, and collections of visual resources in various media. Niche publishers of academic monographs and journals will be active partners in these endeavors.

Many of these projections will prove too cautious in their impact. Others will not materialize. But what can be stated with confidence is that the library of 2012 will be both very similar to, and yet very different from, the library of today.

Notes and References

[1] Stuart Silverstone, "Big-Picture-Overview Exhibit Displays: Books, Visuals, Virtual." Available: <>

[2] William R. Kennedy, "Metaphor Factory." Available: <>.

[3] Thomas T. Surprenant and Claudia A. Perry, "The Academic Cybrarian in 2012: A Futuristic Essay." Available: <>.

[4] Harold Billings, "The Wild Card Academic Library in 2013," College and Research Libraries 64:2 (March 2003): pp. 105-109.

[5] Steven E. Gromatzky, "Academic Librarians 2012: Researchers, Technologists and Proactive Partners." Available: <>.

[6] Brad Eden, "21st-Century Technical Services: The UNLV Libraries Experience." Available: <>.

[7] Alan Bailin and Ann Grafstein, "From Place to Function: Academic Libraries in 2012." Available: <>.

[8] Kelsey Libner, "Working the network: A future for the academic library." Available: <>.

[9] Dave Brier, "Telling Many Stories." Available: <>.

[10] The paper by Viviana Bowman and John Gibson was withdrawn; a version of the paper will be presented at Ethics of Electronic Information in the 21st Century (EEI21) Symposium in Memphis.

[11] Beth Posner, "Is there a Librarian in the House?" Available: <>.

[12] Julie Still, "Because we are so darned charming." Withdrawn for submission elsewhere.

Copyright © James W. Marcum

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DOI: 10.1045/may2003-marcum