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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Weeding vs curation of digital information

In conversation with an academic last week, I learned that solicitors’ informal notes on cases are disappearing from contemporary archives of these materials because of the shift from writing these notes using pen and paper to storing this information electronically.  In this digital age, we are all more aware of the implications of keeping data about other people, and how this could be revealed to them in future.  The consequences of recording unofficial information about a person can be considerable, so those of us involved in recruitment (as well as lawyers), are often careful to make a record only of the final, official decisions on a matter.

Drafts and edits are lost if only the final version of a document is kept.  Does this matter?  In many cases, probably not; but I expect it will make the work of future biographers and memoir-writers more difficult as this informal layer of revision and annotation is removed from the record we leave behind of our work.

The cost of e-storage is now so low, it’s tempting to keep all work-related files in case they come in handy.  However, without a catalogue, controlled vocabulary, and organisation or structure, what use could they be to anyone in the future?  Deciding what to delete is just as important as choosing what to keep.

Michael McIntyre’s “Man Drawer” sketch shows the same problem in a domestic context 😉

Developing libraries beyond web 2.0

Nick Stopforth (Newcastle Libraries) gave a fast-paced tour of technology developments on the horizon and their applications and implications for libraries.  He encouraged us to think of the opportunities and the gaps associated/filled/opened up by each.

Nick works in the public library sector, and feels that academic libraries are ahead in terms of technological change and he gains a lot of useful ideas from following them – as an academic librarian, this felt good to hear!

Hype cycle – bear this in mind when considering adopting a new technology.

Hype cycle

It can be difficult to tell where you are on the curve – he suggested that Twitter was at the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ but I think who you are and how you use a technology has a strong influence here.  For example, for me and many other librarians who use Twitter, I feel that I have reached a point in my relationship with Twitter where it really helps me do my job and network with other professionals, and I would place our use closer to the ‘plateau of productivity’.

RFID

  • Nick recommended Mick Fortune’s RFID blog
  • Similar standardisation problems as ebooks – different tools not interoperable between different systems (though ISO 28560-2 standard should help?)
  • Future: wearable RFID devices?

Context-aware computing

  • Gadgets will become more like personal companions
  • Example: TV remote control can collect data about how it is used by different people and offer recommendations for TV shows

Location-based data

  • Great advances in GPS technology
  • Proximity marketing using facial recognition uses expressions to decide which advert to display
  • Facial recognition used stealthily by Facebook (as reported in the Daily Telegraph)

Social media

  • Increasing business use has made social media more corporate
  • Google+ is the new competitor

Open source data

Augmented reality

  • Lets you know about nearby services, or combine with RFID to locate the position of a book
  • E-commerce
  • Apps for tourists

QR codes

  • Increasing use in business and advertising
  • Signposting – useful in libraries!
  • Green (paperless) ticketing
  • Dutch coinage with QR code

Issues

  • Privacy and security
  • Openness and transparency
  • Linked data – where does it go?
  • Costs and savings
  • Marketing and promotion

Other trends

  • Web traffic to mobile devices increasing
  • Rise of cloud computing
  • Ebooks and digital publishing

Knowledge management

Here is a summary of a recent Mind Tools article about knowledge management that I found interesting.

What is knowledge?

Data is a specific fact or figure, without any context; information is data that’s organized; knowledge builds on the information to give us context (remember this from library school?).

There are two different types of knowledge, explicit and tacit:

Explicit knowledge includes things that you can easily pass on to someone else by teaching it or writing it into a record. This kind of knowledge can be captured in a staff handbook or workflow.
Tacit knowledge is less concrete. It may relate to the best way to approach a certain person for their help or co-operation, or how to unjam the photocopier. This type of knowledge is usually acquired by experience.

Why is knowledge management important?

Sharing information within a team or department means that when a person is away on holiday or off sick, or moves to a new job, their knowledge persists in the organisation.
As well as time and cost savings, an environment which fosters the sharing of ideas can help increase innovation, build trust and improve relationships.

Implementing knowledge management

There are two different ways of managing knowledge: using technology-based systems, or using softer systems.
Examples of technology-based systems include a co-authored staff handbook or wiki. It is easy to access this information, but it takes effort to keep it up-to-date. Good for capturing explicit knowledge.
Examples of softer systems are shadowing or mentoring. Better for sharing tacit knowledge.
A successful knowledge management strategy should try to use both approaches.

Tips for implementing knowledge management systems

  • Identify tacit knowledge, then brainstorm ways of sharing it
  • Start with a small team to avoid information overload
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable about sharing their hard-won knowledge, so make knowledge exchange part of the organisational culture and find ways to reward people for sharing it freely
  • Make the processes of capture or sharing easy. Easier participation makes for increased involvement and success