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Report Checks out Library Trends

Research and academic libraries are moving quickly in many directions in response to expectations of patrons who are growing accustomed to the consumer technology experience and digitization of content. Among the trends that are redefining institutional libraries: a push for mobile content delivery, more focus on managing research data and rethinking the use of library spaces. These and other trends were highlighted in a new, freely available report published by the NMC, a community of experts in educational technology.

"NMC Horizon Report > 2015 Library Edition" examines what's going on in university and college libraries around the world. This project was jointly developed with the University of Applied Sciences HTW Chur in Switzerland, the German National Library of Science and Technology in Hannover and ETH-Bibliothek in Zürich, using input from a 53 education and technology experts from 15 countries.

The report identifies six trends, six challenges and six technology developments that are all shaping libraries now and over the next five-plus years.

Two trends having an immediate impact on library practices and policies are prioritization of mobile content and delivery and a greater emphasis on the user experience. Libraries are pushing to develop mobile-friendly Web sites and apps to "meet patrons where they are." Likewise, as they serve up more content to users digitally, they've come to appreciate the need for a high-quality user experience with the aim, according to the report, of "helping researchers and students navigate massive amounts of data, while also attracting new patrons."

Trends that will continue to play out over the mid-term (having influence for the next three to five years) are the evolving nature of the scholarly record and an increased focus on research data management. The shift from printed records to digital and from text-based materials to research datasets and computer models is driving the research community to question the traditional practice of publishing output as articles in scholarly journals. Increasingly, the report stated, "these functions are being accomplished through digital means," such as open peer review platforms. What hasn't changed as quickly is how researchers gain and retain tenure. So libraries are working with scholars to help them understand how to "gather necessary analytics and present them in accessible ways." Libraries are also "well poised" to become managers and curators of the data being generated through research, helping researchers select the right medium for storing and publishing the data behind their findings and making that content highly searchable.

Over the long-term (five-plus years), the report asserted, libraries will continue playing a major role in improving the accessibility of research content and redefining learning spaces. As the cost of investments in research databases has grown, libraries are more frequently promoting the concept of open access publishing, whether it takes the completely free form or is subsidized for publication by the university or researcher.

Challenges that libraries face over that same period come in the "solvable," "difficult" and "wicked" categories. Better embedding of libraries into the curriculum and working to improve digital literacy are solvable problems; embracing the need for "radical change" and managing knowledge obsolescence are wicked problems. In the middle are the simply difficult challenges: competition from alternative avenues of discovery (think Wikipedia and Google) and rethinking the roles and skills of librarians, who need to become ever more savvy about data mining, blended learning and other highly technical areas.

Serving as a backdrop to these shifts in the landscape of campus libraries are developments in technology. For example, both maker spaces and online learning are influencing libraries in the near-term. As libraries gain physical space through the digitization of their collections, they're often turning it into active learning rooms that allow faculty to try new forms of instructional practices and students to engage in collaboration and problem-solving. Similarly, they're introducing maker spaces and fabrication labs where the campus community can make things. As more students take some portion or all of their classes online, libraries are also adapting to learner needs by creating new courses about information literacy and seeking to provide simpler access to their digital assets.

Information visualization — the graphical representation of data — and linkages among data are also technologies having an impact on library practices. First, the library community is making "great strides" with semantic Web technologies to help patrons make research connections and find related information that's buried deep online. Second, the move away from "text-heavy presentations towards image-centric strategies" is changing the nature of communication. Library people are becoming proficient in the use of tools that help people view data for easy digestion and quick recognition of connections and patterns; they're also imparting the value of those tools to others, such as researchers, to help them "create the best possible visualizations and infographics."

In the long-term, location intelligence and machine learning are two technologies that will leave a lasting imprint on library operations. Location-based services will eventually be able to alert students to pop into the library when a book they've requested has arrived or when an exhibit might be of interest based on previous library interactions. Location data will also be able to inform library administrators about the use of their spaces, the report explained, helping them make better decisions about "future building use and staffing decisions." Machine learning, in which computers can act and react based on new input that isn't programmed, is expected to play a role in libraries in making research easier to organize and relevant content easier and faster to discover.

Calling the outcomes of the research "very compelling," Rudolf Mumenthaler, professor of library science at HTW Chur and co-principal investigator, said that the trends identified in the report "indicate that libraries are doing a better job of making their content more accessible and adapting library spaces to meet the needs of the contemporary, connected academic community."

Co-principal Investigator Andreas Kirstein, head of media and IT services at ETH-Bibliothek, added that asking the question about whether we "still need libraries," is the "wrong question." "The release of this report brings us many examples of the lively adoption of new technologies in libraries around the globe. These forward-looking approaches are the answer to the better question: What kind of libraries do we need in the future?"

The report is available online under a Creative Commons license on NMC's site.

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