Scenario planning: the futures of Oxford’s libraries

Earlier this year, I took part in a scenario planning exercise which brought together a group of librarians from a number of Oxford libraries to consider the challenges that the future would bring and how we could best prepare for them.

Brainstorming factors affecting libraries in the future

We began by considering factors that could have an impact on our libraries in the future, and we came up with nearly 150 ideas.  Of this list, these were rated as being the most important and the most uncertain:

Factors affecting Oxford's libraries

“The right – the most robust – responses to these issues will have to take into account a wide variety of uncertainties – dynamics over which Oxford’s libraries have no control.”

Lawrence Wilkinson (facilitator)

These were further distilled to elicit that the two uncertainties that were the most important and the most uncertain – the dimensions in which the alternative futures are most different; and these were:

  • academia and the demand it serves – whose extremes are traditional and integrated vs reorganised, emergent communities
  • technology and content – whose extremes are closed, restricted and commercialised vs open and free

These two fundamental uncertainties are juxtaposed to create four divergent futures (or scenarios) for Oxford’s libraries.

Four alternative futures

The four divergent futures

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life.
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life

Examples of early players in each scenario

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – arXiv.org, MIT
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – Google, Khan Academy
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – Kaplan, The Learning Academy
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – Apple, CourseSmart

We then explored each possible future in more detail, and exploring what we would do if we knew this future were the most likely.

From theoretical actions to strategic steps

As the real future is likely to be a combination of the four scenarios, with a balance between them that changes over time, we considered the overall implications for our future.  We divided our (very long) lists of actions into strategic steps that would (a) work in all scenarios; and (b) be helpful in one future and neutral in another, and (c) be helpful in one future but harmful in another.  These actions covered every aspect of the libraries, including collection/service strategy, funding models, and physical plant (buildings).

The last stage of the process involved only colleagues from the Bodleian Libraries, who met one more time to consider how all of these ideas could contribute to the Bodleian Libraries’ new strategic plan, and translate them into action points for specific teams or departments.

My two cents’

As a college librarian, I was not involved in this last stage, but I was still thinking about how the libraries individually could respond to the challenges and opportunities that had been identified during the course of this work.  The main theme I kept returning to was the idea of a collaborative library strategy.  This is more difficult than it might first seem, because there are about 100 different academic libraries at the University of Oxford (the Bodleian Libraries group, college libraries, departmental/faculty libraries), and these groups are fully independent of each other (as are most of the individual libraries within each group).  Here they are on a map.

As a biologist, I like to think of the libraries as forming an ecosystem with a variety of niches and habitats.  However, without an over-arching plan, we may be competing for the same “market” (e.g. level of study; subject; resource type) and risk overlapping in some areas and missing others.  I’m wondering if it would be possible to define the niche of each library to help its staff and users to know what to expect from it, and to ensure that as a university, we’re providing as broad a range of resources and services as possible.

This could help avoid conflicting priorities about types of study space, by making different spaces available in different places, but accessible to all users.  Some libraries would focus on having lending collections to support taught courses, and others would specialise in research or special collections (thus focusing budgets in particular areas).  This already exists to some extent, but it’s not centrally agreed or managed.

I’ve done this at St Hugh’s College Library by introducing a collection management policy that states that we will:

Purchase/accept/retain primarily what can be identified as:

  1. Useful to an undergraduate/reference library, within the range of subjects taught;
  2. Interesting in terms of College History, Women’s Education and other research areas specifically connected with St Hugh’s;
  3. Contributing significantly to areas where the Library already has major strengths;
  4. Exceptionally rare or valuable.

and that

Duplication should be avoided, unless deemed desirable for study purposes.

This helps to inform my decisions about how to use the budget.  For example, most students’ book suggestions submitted via our online form are for books on reading lists, which matches this policy exactly = green light for purchasing.  However, if a DPhil candidate wants an unusual item for their research, I would direct them to their faculty/departmental library.  As well as focusing my book budget to support taught courses, it also avoids accumulating research materials in a college library which is a private library, rather than at a faculty/departmental library which usually has more generous access arrangements for non-college (not just non-University) members.

Because all of these libraries are independent, there can be no mandate from anyone to any of these libraries to force them to adopt such a strategy, but it may be that some of them opt to do it voluntarily.  Perhaps many of these libraries already have similar policies, but perhaps they are not formalised or publicly available.

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Reflections on ‘the other place’

Earlier this week, Oxford hosted a conference of college librarians from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  The theme of the day was ‘co-operation, collaboration and competition’: we had speakers on this topic in the morning, followed by a choice of library/archive visits in the afternoon and time for networking.

The college libraries combine providing information for students and academics like a higher education library; within a physical environment which is part museum, part den; and an atmosphere which is generally more permissive and accommodating than the faculty libraries.  I think our college libraries are quite unique in this way, and it is a great help for us to get together to share ideas in a context that recognises our peculiar situations.

At this event, I spoke about my experiences of working at the Bodleian Libraries compared with working in a college library, and where the main areas of co-operation, collaboration and competition are:

The Bodleian Libraries group is a large organisation (some 750 employees, full-time-equivalent) and I enjoyed the big community aspect of working there.  By contrast, working in a college can be quite lonely, and I’m glad that I came to my current role with experience of working in Oxford libraries, so I have professional contacts close by.

On the negative side, because the Bodleian Libraries group is so large and has so many layers of management, the process for making decisions can be cumbersome and slow.  Also, there have recently been many staff changes at a high level in the organisation, which can bring problems such as a lack of continuity and stability if not handled very carefully.

In the college environment, I enjoy the budget freedom that I have from being the head of my department.  There is top-level support for personal and professional development, which I find very encouraging.  When a decision is made, for example at Library Committee, the decision will generally be backed up and not challenged further after it has been made, which is a great spur to getting things done.  Although colleges and their libraries vary considerably in many respects, we can benchmark against each other.  Bodleian Libraries do not really have any comparable organisations (not even Cambridge, as their libraries as less integrated than at Oxford), but it should not be assumed that this means they are automatically the best at everything.

The working environment in a college is much nicer, especially as college staff have a free lunch every day, and tea and coffee are provided in the mornings and afternoons.  We also have all-staff social occasions at least once a year.

However, colleges are very hierarchical places to work, and I find that social differences such as separate common rooms and lunch arrangements for staff of different status reinforce the divisions between us and can act as an obstacle to everyone working together effectively.  It can also take a long time to become accepted in an organisation that is by nature conservative and resistant to change.

Another interesting point is that as a college librarian, you have to be multi-skilled because you need to cover a great range of skills in a very small team.  I think it would be interesting to develop more skills-sharing between colleges, and if anyone wants me to come and show them how to navigate SFX/OUeJournals or MetaLib/OxLIP+ more effectively, I would be glad to!

I have now had three different jobs at the University of Oxford, and I have sometimes been surprised at how low the expectations can be.   Broadly speaking, the expectations seem to be that keeping a service running is sufficient; not improving or developing it.

Before I moved to Oxford, I expected that the libraries here would be leading the way in user education, resource discovery and the use of space in libraries, but I often worry that we are in fact falling behind other UK higher education libraries.

Finally, here are some examples of co-operation, collaboration and competition between the Bodleian Libraries and the colleges:

Cooperation

  • Graduate trainee scheme: trainees from colleges and Bodleian Libraries participate in the scheme together, and there is a mutual benefit to learning about each others’ roles and experiences
  • Most Bodleian staff development and training events are open to college library staff at no cost
  • During the current decant of closed-stack Bodleian items from Oxford to Swindon, the college libraries have helped readers by allowing them to access texts in college libraries when the Bodleian copy is in transit and inaccessible

Collaboration

  • In the summer of 2011, the OLIS library management system is being switched from GEAC Advance to Aleph.  The steering group for this project has Bodleian and college library representation
  • Circulation Forum and Cataloguers’ Forum involve staff from a range of libraries
  • There is a wide variety of skills in our combined staff pool e.g. cataloguing, conservation, management, social media – and we could make even more use of this

Competition

  • E-resources cancellation fees: the fees incurred when college libraries cancel subscriptions to print periodicals are not paid by the colleges but by Bodleian Libraries.  Colleges have made very small contributions to this cost in the past, and discussions are now under way to increase this amount in order that colleges provide a fairer proportion of the total cost
  • Non-Bodleian libraries which use OLIS pay an annual subscription which stayed the same for many years, and an agreement has now been reached to bring this charge up-to-date with current costs and include a proviso for future review
  • The Bodleian has very strict cataloguing standards for adding records to OLIS.  This is because much of their material is in closed stacks, so readers need detailed records in order to judge if the item is what they require, as they cannot browse the shelves; and as a legal deposit library, OLIS catalogue records are regularly exported to other databases so the standard needs to be high as other institutions will be copying these records.  However, this standard is rather over-the-top for a college library such as mine, where students can access the vast majority of our books on open shelves, and are usually looking for items from a reading list, so a simple author and title search will normally suffice.  I would be keen to develop a system whereby I could create simpler catalogue records for items unique to my library, and have a filter applied so that these records are excluded from the exporting pool.

Note: ‘the other place’ is a term used by people at Oxford or Cambridge to describe those at the other; and perhaps from now on, to be used in the same way by people at Bodleian Libraries or colleges!

Visit from another college librarian

I will begin by telling you a little story about what it means to be a collegiate university.

A major difference between the University of Oxford (and Cambridge and Durham) and other UK universities it that it has a collegiate structure.

The University of Oxford has 38 independent, self-governing colleges and 6 permanent private halls (here’s a list).

Students and staff therefore belong to both their faculty and college communities.  Colleges and permanent private halls have their own libraries, which are usually only for the use of members of that College or Hall.

Each College or Hall has its own governing structures, ethos and Fellows, and they are also financially independent.

So the College Libraries* at the University of Oxford have (paradoxically) everything and nothing in common.  They are financially and ideologically independent of each other, and can modify every aspect of their services and collections to suit their particular college.  For example, some colleges are only for postgraduates and some have subject specialisms.

However, for all these differences, the college libraries and their Librarians have common ground in that they occupy a unique niche within the University, and are quite different from the faculty and departmental libraries of the University.

And so it is that college librarians find it very useful to meet up and discuss different aspects of their work, and share experiences of tackling a variety of issues in their work.

Today, I had a visit from another college librarian who was interested to know about the library lobby redesign project I am undertaking this summer.

The new design will include:

  • Security gates for RFID security and stock management system
  • Self-issue and return kiosk for RFID
  • Combined printing, photocopying and scanning machine
  • New tables and comfortable seating
  • New carpet
  • New coat of paint

I am looking forward to the pleasant entrance to the library that this refurbishment will provide, as well as the new equipment and facilities available to readers: self-return, photocopying , scanning and colour reprographics are all new features.

This work will begin next week, so I am spending this week making sure that we are ready for the move of the library office for the duration of the work, and ensuring that library users know about alternative arrangements for access during this period.

*From here on, I will use the term “College Libraries” to refer to the libraries of both colleges and permanent private halls, to avoid repetition.  Apologies to Blackfriars, Campion Hall, Regent’s Park College**, St Benet’s Hall, St Stephen’s House and Wycliffe Hall.

** I know, I put Regent’s Park College in the list of Permanent Private Halls.  But it is in fact a Hall, and not a College.  See?