The University Library – Part 2

                    A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library                                                                                                                    Shelby Foote

I have always appreciated Foote’s description of the university library. It has a romantic tone to it. Unfortunately, Laura Saunders of the Simmons College School of Library and Information Science cautions us that the role of the library is under some pressure. Saunders suggests, “rapid developments in technology, as well as changes in areas such as scholarly communication, data management, and higher education pedagogy are affecting user expectations.”

As I highlighted in The University Library – Part 1, libraries have been an essential part of the university experience for over 1000 years. Today, our libraries continue to have many supporters (I am one of them). However, their challenges continue to mount. As an example, Dr. Anil Kumar, Head Librarian at the highly reputable Indian Institute of Management (IIM) suggests university libraries “are facing multiple challenges, including budget constraints, restricted funds and reduction of grants, not to mention the increasing cost of books and periodicals.”

St. Francs Xavier University’s Angus L. Macdonald Library

The challenges facing university libraries also extend to department libraries. As an example, Tim Wales, former Head Librarian at the London Business School suggests his department library had been under increasing level of pressure “trying to support print and electronic resource provision while trying to stay on top of new developments in social media and technologies.”

Challenges and the Way Forward

Clearly there are challenges facing our libraries. As a university president, I wanted to understand these challenges and to better grasp what the future might hold. To gather these insights, I decide to sit down with several librarians over a period of several months to hear what they had to say. In one case, a librarian located in the United Kingdom, with more than four decades of experience, told me that it was the librarians themselves who had to own the responsibility to address change and likely to do it more quickly.  This experienced librarian (and author/researcher) suggested that their profession had to pave a new path in order better “confront the same fiscal and technological realities facing most university departments.”

Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera

Also in the UK, Chris Flegg, recently retired as a librarian in Oxford University’s famous Bodleian Library. She also believes change must be driven from within; by professional colleagues who had the experience and insight to lead the change. She reminded me that institutions had to move more quickly into areas such as “…data management, digital humanities, and mobile or device neutral environments.”

Closer to home, I was able to learn more about the future of libraries from Mr. Lawrence (Lou) Duggan*.  When asked about the future of the library, Lou told me, “I believe the library of the future will continue to be a place of study, to gather and learn in a home, set aside for the serious scholar.” As the University Librarian at StFX University, Lou reminded me, “as the amount of information in our world continues to grow faster than humans can process, it will become more and more important for academic libraries to act as a filter for students and researchers to ensure scholarly integrity in the future.”

Beyond the experts I spoke with, there are many others who are well positioned to predict the future of the university library. The American Library Association (ALA) hasCAPAL identified specific trends relevant to libraries and librarians. Experts at the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), and the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) provide excellent insights on this topic.

Closer to St. Francis Xavier University, the Atlantic Provinces Library Association, provides very good insights to the complexity of this profession. It also happens to be the same organization that our own Suzanne van den Hoogen serves as Past President.

With a variety of input and advice, I decided to frame the areas I needed to think about with respect to the libraries at StFX University. This process led me to identify four broad areas (Figure 1) that are now guiding my thinking with respect to university libraries.

                   Figure 1.  The University Library in 2018Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 6.07.47 PM

  1. Academic and Institutional Alignment – The university library in 2018 must ensure it continues to align to, and support, the academic mission of the university. This focused alignment includes measurable ways in which the library supports students and faculty to discover, retrieve and use data and forms of information.  They must do this in ways that will enhance teaching, learning and scholarship. Libraries must also be viewed as the institutional leader in matters related to copyright laws, intellectual property and user privacy / confidentiality issues.
  2. Comprehensive and Multi-Format Collections – The university library in 2018 must continue to provide access to a broad range of collections that are of high quality, complexity and diversity. At a time of scarce resources, the university library is also challenged to find ways to provide these collections in multiple formats including a full range of electronic resources.
  3. Ubiquitous Learning Space – The university library in 2018 serves as an intellectual learning commons. It does this by providing a physical and virtual place for students and faculty to congregate, develop new knowledge and provide a space to stimulate ­­creativity. However, in 2018, it is important for those leading libraries to to ensure these outcomes occur equally on campus and in virtual communities. Murat Yalman and Tamer Kutluca of Turkey’s Dicle University remind us library leaders must bring “electronic librarianship into consideration while restructuring their services they provide via their libraries.”
  4. Libraries are People Not Places – The university library in 2018 must clarify its purpose. Although we think of the university library as a building, sets of computers and various collections, Smith and Pickett (2011) suggest we must think deeper. They tell us that a library’s primary focus is “…the people who need and want these things… [if our focus shifts from service] to tools, systems, and structures, the graveyard to obsolescence will beckon.” This was a departing theme shared by Chris Flegg prior to leaving Oxford last Fall. At that time, Ms. Flegg stated, ‘People often misunderstand the broader purpose of a library’ [because] Library staff do not just provide an information service, they provide a managed space in which people want to work.’

Conducting research about university libraries introduced me to information I certainly was not expecting. Beyond impacting student learning, it is also important to realize our libraries play an important role in supporting other important functions within a university. According to Cain and Reynolds (2006), it is the library that can actually impact a student’s decision to attend a university! Further, once students arrive on campus, there is evidence that libraries can help students persist through to graduation. Specifically, Lance reports that the success of students attending schools with strong libraries increases with a rate of 10-20%!

Concluding Thoughts

Libraries have served us for over millennia. There is no doubt that the role and function of the university library is changing. Yet, in fairness, the function of the library has always been changing. The new challenge we face going forward, is to better understand how our libraries will not only survive but will thrive within the context of increased financial pressures, technology innovation and what appears to be rapidly changing user preferences.

I am not certain of all the answers required of our libraries. However, I am confident that the universities and the librarians who do find answers to these continued challenges will likely be the same ones that ensure their institution retains that important and romantic appeal of a university as… a group of buildings gathered around their library.

*Note:  Lawrence (Lou) Duggan served the faculty and students as University Librarian before his recent tragic passing. He was a tremendous man – always the optimist.  We miss him.


Cain, D. and Reynolds, G.L. (2006). The impact of facilities on recruitment and retention of students. Facilities Manager, May-June, 54-60.

Scott, C. A. (1971) Schools and school libraries over two centuries. 1. The School Librarian, 19, p. 21.

Smith, S. and Picket, C. (2011). Avoiding the path to obsolescence. American Libraries, 42 (9-10), 40-3.


About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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