What we’ve learned from a watershed year

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Jamie Hutchins

The events of 2020 have created a turning point for everyone in our industry, writes Jamie Hutchins

Between the rapid transition to distance learning and the social justice movements that spread throughout the world, much of what we thought we knew has changed.

As many schools and universities start the term with various degrees of uncertainty, we’re all asking what the future will be, and what permanent changes will result. How do we need to redefine ourselves to move forward? 

There are many questions about the changes that are underway, and those that are inevitably coming. Below I provide my perspective, both professionally from my time at ProQuest and many years in the publishing industry – and also as a parent whose children are adjusting to this new reality. I’d like to hear your thoughts on these issues as well.

Here are a few key observations – some may be obvious and others surprising. 

• Access to electronic resources is more essential than ever… The industry has been trending this way for years, but never before have we witnessed such a dramatic shift. Within weeks of universities closing their doors, ProQuest saw an increase in demand for our online scholarly content – especially streaming video, e-books, and even formats that surprised us, like digital music scores. This likely won’t change anytime soon. A new IIE report observes that 87 per cent of universities in the US are offering a hybrid learning model for the current term, that trend is echoed in the UK and around the world. 

• Access alone isn’t enough. Access to large amounts of information will not solve users’ collective problems. In fact, as many of our customers have indicated, it only serves to create more. It’s like having a ‘big bag of stuff’ – the frustration of holding a huge bag of items when the item you need immediately is at the bottom of the bag. Especially when users are accessing information remotely, that information needs to be curated, easy to access, and organised in ways everyone can use. 

• We clearly see the need for new skills to be developed and supported in order to improve information literacy and critical thinking – and to support advanced analytical skills needed by today’s graduates entering the workforce. This is true of content published under any business model. 

• Budgets are shifting. Our industry is no stranger to this challenge, but today, we’re in new territory. Universities are shifting or cutting costs due to lost revenues, and even with an increase in demand, libraries need to make sure they’re using their budget money with the utmost efficiency.

• The curriculum must be diversified. Human rights and social justice studies are increasingly of importance at all levels of education. Campaigns like Diversify Your Narrative seek to ‘encourage a productive dialogue on race and identity among our student bodies through the inclusion of racially diverse, anti-racist texts’. But, despite widespread support, faculty face challenges with integrating materials at a wide range of grades, in adjusting syllabi, and ensuring students are adequately prepared to understand diversity issues with a critical and progressive mindset. This comes against a backdrop where resources for teaching and learning about these important issues remain limited.   

Thoughts on moving forward 

‘Here’s the recipe for transforming a library overnight: look at just about every procedure you’ve known for years and adjust, or suspend, or discard, or reinvent all of them,’ wrote my colleague Bob Nardini in an Against the Grain editorial he penned in April.  

And that goes for more than just libraries. Our role as an aggregator puts us in a position of responsibility to help bring the industry together to address these problems. While we can’t solve all of them, here are a few ways we believe we can begin to facilitate a solution.

Meet users where they are: the open web is as an increasing entry point for most individuals, and this is something we must embrace, not fight. This means embracing open-access content and making it discoverable along with subscription content, so users make fewer stops on their journey.

Build products that are truly ‘fit for purpose’: products that help users find what they need at the bottom of their bag, or maybe something they didn’t know they were looking for. In some cases, that means organising content differently into research, teaching and learning workflows. In others, it means building databases designed to meet the needs of students and faculty in specific disciplines. In all cases, it means listening to our users, learning how they really use content, and working with them to meet their needs. 

Facilitate conversations: libraries are increasingly influencing pedagogy, not just resource selection. We need to build tools that help libraries remain central to their university’s curriculum strategy and help them engage with faculty. We also have the luxury of speaking with a diverse slate of experts – such as those on our advisory boards – so we can intentionally curate content that encourages diverse thought and supports the study of social justice and human rights.

Create solutions that are both valuable and affordable. Solving these problems in a market where there’s a shift in investment priorities will require creative solutions that will force us to pull together. It’s up to us to work with libraries and ensure that they’re getting the most out of every dollar they spend on resources.

We’re in uncharted territory. These are my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours, whether you’re a librarian, publisher, faculty member, user or technologist. 

• Jamie Hutchins is director of open access innovation at ProQuest