The Future of Academic Libraries: A Conversation with John Palfrey and David Lewis
A large overflow crowd gathered to hear a conversation with John Palfrey, formerly Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and now Head, Phillips Academy; and David Lewis, Dean of the University Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, discussing the future of academic libraries. Palfrey is co-author of Biblio Tech (Basic Books, 2015), and Lewis is author of Reimagining the Academic Library (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Loretta Parham, CEO and Director, Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library moderated the discussion. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Why did you write your most recent book and how have readers reacted to it?
John: It is from a series of conversations I had with people who wanted to know what it is like to work in a library. I wrote the book to dispel the notion that with Google we can shut libraries down.
David: My editor asked me to write the book and I was too flattered to say no. It is important to understand what libraries need to be as information becomes digital. We have not yet come to grips with all that means: Moore’s Law does not go away, and the cost of the second and succeeding copies of the material is zero.
Many libraries are deep into the planning of resources to respond to consumer demands for data, so there is a need to focus on the “adaptive expertise”. How would you interpret that?
David: The skill sets that many librarians had are no longer relevant, and that is traumatic in many situations. We need very different skill sets now and must invest in our staffs in many ways that libraries are reluctant to do. We have a huge opportunity cost that we fritter away.
John: I think “adapting expertise” is exactly right and is a wonderful phrase. We need to figure out how to retrain ourselves and invest in that retraining. It is happening, and we need to support it more. It will involve more AI, which will put more pressure on us.
We are an aging population. What do you say about the future when the demographics are going to shift so dramatically?
David: The Boomers are holding on and retiring later. Today, 45% of US library directors are over 65 and 14% are over 70! They are all very talented people, but there is a leadership roadblock. When they retire, it will be a challenge to find people seasoned enough to lead an academic library. We are seeing a conflict between the Boomers who are in charge and the Millennials that we will need in five to eight years from now. We must work hard for leadership training and let the newer people run some things, which is a hard thing for many people to do.
John: In related fields, mentoring is often done more deliberately than in the library profession. It is also important for people to network in a broad world rather than in silos.
How can our LIS schools respond? Can they meet this change?
David: People have been complaining about library schools for a long time. When we do hires we have shallow pools of candidates, but we are still able to find talented people. As you bring new people into your organization you need to work to make them successful.
You are not a librarian, but in your book you accuse librarians of not being risk takers. Can you explain that?
John: The book is grounded in a deep admiration for librarians, but there is also some tough love in it. There can be a tendency to fret instead of getting going with political engagement, and getting management to do a better job of supporting librarians. All of us need to support our institutions more.
David: We tend to focus on process more than we should. Many of the things we can now do don’t carry a lot of risk. We would be better off doing many more small experiments and pushing practice more.
Time compression is changing our users’ lives. A person’s needs are now a moving target. That may give us the appearance of not being as quick to respond as we may think.
David: One of the things we don’t realize is the extent of the technology change that we are now involved in. Many costs have declined a lot, but the curve on Moore’s Law is approaching going straight up. We are not prepared to come to grips with that.
John: The one constant is that the rate of change is extraordinarily fast. Within the library community, there are many people for whom technology is not a part of their life. That means people must give up other things they do now. Think about major IT developments; they were done by for-profit organizations, not libraries. The question is where do librarians want to be in the development of technologies.
Another comment in your book is that we need to accept lower levels of service. What do you mean by that?
John: We must accept that librarians cannot do everything. We must be engaged in projects to let them be involved in a meaningful way.
David: Digital content is fragile but it is easy to create multiple copies of it. It is important for all of us to work hard digitizing the content we have that is unique and special.
In the digital world, one of the challenges we have is that we do not have a clear standard. Until we reach the “ultimate small storage item”, what do we do?
David: If we wait for a standard, we will wait for a long time. So you move forward with what you have now and do the best you can. If you wait around, the opportunities will be gone. If you make some mistakes, all it will mean is that you may have to rescan some things.
John: I agree strongly with that. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is working to preserve large amounts of the material that we have. Collaborating with each other is an important concept.
Some faculty members want nothing to change. Have you been involved with those types of people?
David: We must get involved where universities want us to be and position ourselves to be able to do what we know what will be required of us in the near future. We don’t report to the faculty!
Enrollment in library schools has been declining since the last recession. It is very difficult to get students to take courses on academic library management. So we are forced to teach what students want, not what they need. I never had that much choice about what to take. For any student is seeking to gain knowledge, it is important to change the curriculum so the important courses are in the students’ path, not on the side as an option. What do you feel about this?
David: Start with things like library assessment and management. You need to converse with staff about where you are going. Look at the demographics of your organization. Promote from within and hire at the bottom to get the necessary new skills. Many things people want to do will not be relevant five years from now.
Many of the things you need are not coming from an MLS degree.
John: Talk to the staff about what they do. Many people may be focused on providing physical books to faculty. Users say that at least half of their usage is through the website, and they don’t go into the library. Find a way to stay slightly ahead of the changes.
Do you think there are traditional library values that we need to let go of, or do we keep the traditional ones and find new ways to meet them?
David: We have kept stuff for the long haul and have helped people use information. How we provide information will be very different in the future. The fundamental values change very slowly. Privacy is tricky; some of the ways we think about it will have to change, but some things will change slowly.
John: I was focusing on privacy and whenever I would lobby for privacy rules, librarians were always there first. I hope you keep doing exactly what you have been doing.
When resources have been decreased, what are collaboration trends?
David: It becomes increasingly important, particularly for smaller institutions because there will be a requirement for specialization. It is also important in network infrastructure which has a cost. We need to support institutions that develop software, etc. Collaboration will be the only way for us to get the things we need. Small libraries have wonderful resources to contribute but they need additional know-how. As we get a new set of leaders, they need to develop a collaborative mindset to advance our work.
David, you talk about a “united way” of infrastructure.
David: A trusted institution could receive funds and distribute them to institutions that need them. It is hard to find institutions prepared to contribute as money as needed. I hope the senior library leadership will think about how we could do that.
John: I worry about the extent to which libraries don’t have an R&D budget. That was the idea around the DPLA. DSpace is another good example. The library world needs to figure out a way to collaborate and share resources, and it is increasingly urgent to do so.
What is the scale of collaboration that we can reach?
David: It is significantly larger than it is today. We need to look at what we are contributing now and double or triple it. If it wound up being 2 or 3% of our budgets today, that would be a surprise.
John: I would say it should be multiplied 10 times rather than doubling or tripling it!
What is your wildest idea for advancing the library’s role in education and keeping up with our competitors?
David: Publish a Meta-score for every article (see https://meta.com), which would help kill the journal impact factor.
John: I would urge for wildness in a process sense. Look at what the Wikimania conference has done—it would be interesting to see what a large group of librarians could do. There is a moment when libraries can take a chance in a field.
What would you write about next if you were writing a book tomorrow?
John: I am excited when I hear about new things that are happening that I didn’t mention in my book.
David: The issue of investment in staff at all levels.
We all face having the provost, president, and donors ask why we need a library. What is the takeaway statement in terms of the future?
David: Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University has just announced a $100 million library project. He said, “The library has never been more important”.
John: The library is the intellectual beating heart of our enterprise and if we don’t take care of it we are making a dreadful mistake.
 For a review of Lewis’s book, see Information Today, Volume 34, Issue 3, page 18.
 See https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/24/arizona-state-u-library-reorganization-plan-moves-ahead
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.