Powering the world's knowledge

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Lynne Brindley, chief executive of The British Library, looks at what the future holds for libraries and information professionals

In his book, Britain in 2010: The New Business Landscape¹, Richard Scase makes a remark which, I think, captures one of the key characteristics of today's networked knowledge society: 'Knowledge is still power, as it always has been, but now increasingly in the hands of the many and not just the few.' Scase outlines a number of themes and trends which, he predicts, will characterise the social landscape 10 years hence:

  • The Internet will become the focus for information, education, entertainment and communication. E-mail increasingly becomes the means of maintaining existing personal contact and developing new contacts.
  • The economy will become more entrepreneurial, with small firms growing in importance. The information age will encourage business start-ups, as the Internet makes it easier to identify market opportunities, to advertise, promote new products and services, and to reach a global audience.
  • As we move towards 'virtual' corporations, managing external relations with global-based supply chains will depend heavily on information management through digital networks. Many in-house corporate activities will be outsourced.
  • With the numbers of university students rising, and the increasing capabilities of information technologies, there will be a reduced need for students to be taught face-to-face. Lecture notes and course packs will be delivered over intranets, and virtual learning will be supplemented by short residential courses.
  • Life-long learning will become more important, enabling individuals to meet changing job and skill needs. We may see new partnerships arise to deliver life-long learning - such as educators working with business to meet the needs of the global marketplace, or more co-sponsorship between industry and education funding councils. Individuals will need to develop a portfolio of competencies and the University of Industry will act as a co-ordination network and online consultancy.

How much information?
These themes highlight some of the ways in which we will be using and accessing information, but how much information is actually out there? The number of UK websites is currently some 2.96 million and, worldwide, the number is growing by 100 per cent a year². Researchers at Berkeley, California, estimate that the World Wide Web contains about 170 terabytes of information on its surface, which is equivalent to 17 times the size of the Library of Congress print collections. The total size of the Internet - including the deep web, messaging and original e-mails - is more than 500 thousand terabytes. Berkeley researchers estimate that, every year, the world produces the equivalent of 800 megabytes of unique information for each person - the equivalent of 30ft of books³. It is also the case that much valuable content, such as human genome maps, is now born digital and can only be used, modelled, analysed and managed in digital form.

Implications for libraries
With the increasing availability of, and reliance upon, digital resources, library users require new kinds of services and support. In his presentation to the Ticer International Summer School, held at Tilburg in The Netherlands in August 2003, Rick Luce, Research Library Director at Los Alamos National Laboratory, outlined some of the emerging user needs and the ways in which libraries can respond to meet them&sup4;.

He pointed out that users need help coping with the complex amount of information now available to them. Library and information professionals can support users by offering them personalised services, suggesting things of interest to the user based on patterns of usage. He also noted that research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary (particularly in science), and so libraries need to begin to aggregate content and related resources, such as databases, together. Content must also be put together in an integrated system for access and retrieval. It is not just disciplinary boundaries, but geographical ones that are falling, and here, too, researchers require support for collaborative working, such as digital delivery of resources to desktops, and digital tools to allow people to come together in a virtual environment to exchange information. With the amount of information doubling every five to seven years, libraries can help users to navigate and locate relevant information through alerting services and personalised user interfaces. Personalisation could extend to identifying or providing access to information resources located beyond the home library. This latter conclusion is based on research carried out as part of the Research Support Libraries Group Report&sup5;, which showed that UK researchers recognised a need for access to resources beyond 'home libraries'. No one place can provide total coverage to support its users' needs; consequently, libraries need to be able to cross-refer to other sources. Luce's final observation was that as research becomes more data intensive, libraries need to be able to provide access, not just to articles and reports, but also to raw data sets, allowing users to experiment with that data.

While the above observations were made in relation to science research, these are common trends with wider applicability. Knowledge workers in a business context also require ways of communicating remotely, of sharing and managing information among different departments and disciplines. They also need help in navigating the sources of information that are available to them, perhaps through e-mail alerting services or other similar methods. All of these issues confront information professionals, in whatever sector they work.

In addition to new needs posed by users, information providers such as libraries find themselves working within an increasingly complex and fragmented environment as new players enter the market. Taking the STM sector as an example, 10 years ago the model was a fairly straightforward one - with libraries playing a key role as distributors of content to end-users. Today there are many other players performing this role - from content aggregators and e-communities, through to open archives - so the library is no longer centrally placed in the distribution chain.

Key challenges facing libraries
In today's rapidly changing environment there are a number of key challenges for libraries and information professionals.

How do they stay relevant to our users?

  • What are users' needs and expectation in today's information market?
  • How do librarians and information professionals get continual feedback on this?
  • How do they feed this into their planning for services and strategies?

How do librarians and information professionals best manage and deliver digital resources?

  • What systems and policies can ensure that libraries can support the long-term collection and preservation of digital materials?
  • How do libraries ensure material remains accessible long-term?
  • What mix of staff experience is required in a hybrid library?

What types of organisational skills and leadership are required?

  • What skills do information professionals need to adapt to the changing environment and provide innovative, relevant solutions to users now and in the future?

Remaining relevant to users
All libraries and information professionals face the challenge of keeping pace with the changing requirements of their users, in order to provide them with relevant, value-adding services. At the British Library, we have introduced a market-facing approach to ensure that we align our services with the needs of our five key audience groups: researcher; business; library and information sector; learner; general public. We have also restructured internally to support our market-led strategy, and appointed a head of marketing for each audience group.

But we can only really understand what our users want by communicating directly with them, so market research is a critical activity for us. We have recently conducted research among readers and visitors to the library, to better understand how satisfied they are with existing services and resources, and what improvements they would like to see. We have also kicked off some focus groups among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and entrepreneurs in the scientific and creative industries, to gain a better understanding of their requirements. We also carry out regular satisfaction surveys among our document supply customers, which have resulted in, for example, the launch of secure electronic delivery. In partnership with Adobe and Relais International, we have developed a service to enable the secure electronic delivery of documents to users' desktops. The service provides our customers with access to more than 100 million items and is fully copyright compliant, using Adobe Reader 6, which is freely downloadable. Documents can be at researchers' desktops within two hours. The introduction of innovative products and services like this, which fulfil specific user needs, are critical if libraries are to remain relevant to their customers.

Managing digital resources
The management of digital resources presents a wide range of challenges:

  • Acquiring the right materials;
  • Preserving and archiving digital materials;
  • Making materials accessible, now and in the future;
  • Developing infrastructure to support the digital library; and
  • Creating rich digital resources that are accessible now and in future.

The challenge for the national library, more than for any other kind of library, is to guarantee the integrity of the national published archive. At the British Library, we are doing an enormous amount towards that end in the digital world, not least of which has been our work with publishers and other UK legal deposit libraries to secure the extension of legal deposit legislation to cover e-publications. This is a truly historic piece of legislation, which puts the UK among the first countries to be collecting their electronic published output by law. It will ensure the long-term preservation of our digital heritage. We also work closely with individual publishers to agree licences for electronic publications and, for service reasons, we license parallel e-formats of high-demand publications already held in print. We are working closely with international partners, including the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and colleagues from Scandinavia and Canada, to agree distributed global approaches to web archiving, and also with UK partners, such as JISC, the National Archive, and the Wellcome Trust to refine our UK web-site collecting policy.

Whilst the extension of legal deposit legislation is a huge step forward, this alone is not enough to ensure the long-term preservation of our national digital heritage. We have to ensure that we are developing an infrastructure that can store and preserve these materials and make them accessible in decades and centuries to come. The British Library is planning to build a digital store that will take any form of electronic material, and be highly scalable. It is worth stressing that many issues relating to digital preservation remain in need of substantial research. We recognise that we are breaking new ground here, so there are no off-the-shelf solutions. As well as developing and building new digital stores, we need to integrate our new solution with legacy library systems. We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge or the complexity of the project. The BL Digital Object Management programme is currently in definition phase and will be implemented gradually, and through collaboration. We are also active participants in a consortium looking at best practice in long-term preservation and we work with other national libraries, such as the Library of Congress and the Dutch National Library, to share learnings.

Finally, there is the question of digitisation. For the British Library, digitisation provides an important way to open up our unique heritage collections, and make more widely accessible items of national and international appeal.

Digitisation is opening up the British Library's collection

However, it is clear from our experiences to date that digitisation is only one small piece of the puzzle. The challenge for us - and for any library engaged in digitisation projects - is not just about deciding what to digitise and then getting on with the creation of digital images. It is more broadly about creating a complete digital resource that offers a rich experience for users. This means not only developing systems to manage and deliver digital content, but also providing added value to the basic content through, for example, interpretation, added information, links to related materials, and so on. It also means making the user- experience more interactive and developing communities of interest around the digital content.

Many digitisation projects attract external funding for the initial cost of creating digital images, and for the early stages of the project, so a final important challenge is the development of sustainable business models that can ensure the long-term financial viability of a library's digital projects.

Skills and leadership With so much change taking place in the information industry, a critical challenge is ensuring that individuals and organisations develop the skills they need to thrive in this fast-moving environment.

At the British Library, we are using a combination of recruitment and training to ensure the necessary skills mix. We have created new roles to make sure that our internal focus is aligned with our key user and partner groups. Recently-created posts include head of publisher relations, and heads of marketing for our key audience groups. We are also recruiting in areas where we need particular specialisms, such as our Digital Object Management programme.

Science and Business Reading Rooms at the British Library at St Pancras

We are also committed to investing in training for our staff and are currently piloting a training module for managers, which focuses on leadership skills. A programme for senior management is also in development. Finally, as part of a new performance management system, we are developing a set of core competencies which will help us to embed the values and behaviours we want for the library into everything that we do.

Workplace development I believe organisations must demonstrate their commitment to staff development, if they are to be successful. This means not only providing practical support in terms of budget and staff time, but also making learning and development an integral part of the organisation's culture. Frameworks for assessing individual and organisational needs and aspirations are essential for effective development.

Our approach at the BL is reinforced by a recent resource report, compiled by the think-tank, Demos&sup6;. The report found that the predominant barrier to training and development within the library, archive and museum sector was cultural - a lack of organisational belief in the value of training. The report found that many organisations have no frameworks for assessing training needs and desired competencies, and also concluded that such frameworks were needed to demonstrate a genuine commitment to staff development, and to ensure the embedding of desired practice. Other suggested methods for improving culture cited in the report include:

  • Tying grant aid to achievement of standards;
  • Making funding conditional on all staff having training reviews; and
  • Providing resources to encourage structured approaches to development (e.g. investors in people).

Will library and information professionals still be needed?
If technological advances continue to ensure that knowledge is freely available to, and accessible by, the many and not just the few, will there still be a need for librarians and information professionals in the future?

I believe information professionals will be more important than ever. Many of the traditional roles performed by librarians and information professionals are still important in the e-world, and the selection, acquisition, and identification of authoritative content becomes more vital, due to the variable quality of internet sites and the overwhelming amount of information on the web. Many librarians are creating indexes of trusted sites - a good example is the Internet Public Library. Nor should we forget that users cannot get everything they need on the Internet. A recent national survey in the United States, commissioned by the Digital Library Federation (DLF) and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), found that, while the Internet enables academics to conduct more of their research remotely, they are still dependent on the library to help structure the resources available&sup7;.

However, librarians also have to become agents of change, knowledge managers, and entrepreneurial thinkers in order to survive. Libraries will need to provide intellectual, physical, and long-term access to a complex mix of data, information, and knowledge. Librarians and information professionals will need to develop the skills to manage and provide navigation across this rich mixture. The library of the future needs heterogeneous, hybrid, workforce skills, encompassing library science, IT, computer science, psychology, sociology, cognitive science, and human factors. Data curation for perpetual access is at the core of the new requirements - a distraction for researchers, perhaps, but core for future libraries.

Powering the world's knowledge
Libraries still have a critical role to play in supporting research. The traditional roles of library and information professionals are still valid, but they must be re-interpreted in our changing environment. Understanding the needs of users is critical, and we must all develop new skills and competencies if we are to continue to meet those needs as they evolve. I believe the future for information professionals is assured if we continue to provide relevant, innovative and value-added services.



1: Richard Scase: Published by Capstone; 1st edition, 12 September, 2000. ISBN: 184112100
2: The Impact of the extension of legal deposit to non-print publications: Assessment of cost and other quantifiable impacts. Prepared for the Joint Committee on Voluntary Deposit by Electronic Publishing Services, 1 October 2002.
3: www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/execsum.htm
4: Rick Luce, 'Creating Digital Libraries to Support Research', Ticer International Summer School 2003
5: For further information visit www.rslg.ac.uk
6: Towards a Strategy for Workforce Development - a research and discussion paper prepared for Resource', March 2003. For a copy of the report visit www.resource.gov.uk/action/leadership/00lead.asp
7: Who Uses What? Report on a National Survey of Information Users in Colleges and Universities, D-Lib Magazine, Volume 9 Number 10, October 2003 http://www.dlib.org/dlib/october03/george/10george.html