It wasn’t long after the shutting of our physical library buildings that everybody’s thoughts turned to the future and what rapidly became the new cliché – ‘the new normal’. The realisation quickly came that while we could go back to a pre-Covid normality we didn’t need to. This was the opportunity to start thinking about what practices and activities we could do without or improve. To take an obvious example, as so many of us have proved that we can work remotely it is hard to imagine a full-scale return to the full-office working of February and before.

The questions for research libraries now are – what are the practices that we want to retain ‘as was’ as we slowly return to our physical buildings? What do we want to jettison? And what to improve? In a recent edition of the RSA Journal Matthew Taylor, RSA’s Chief Executive, wrote about the ways in which crises can lead to permanent change.  He identified three key areas where the right conditions can engender a positive change.  There are:

  • Latent potential: is there an underlying desire and capacity for things to be different?
  • Precipitating factors: aspects of the crisis that reinforce the case for change, but also practices and attitudes that prefigure a changed world.
  • Alliances and solutions: the political will and the polices, innovation and institutions brought to bear to turn potential into reality.

When thinking about the research library in a post-pandemic environment it is perhaps worth considering these factors.

Latent Potential

Research libraries, in HE and beyond, have undergone a number of radical changes over the past twenty years or so as the ubiquity of the internet has altered our ability to deliver information to the desk (or lap) top. In parallel, in the UK the expansion of higher education and increased student numbers have placed great strain on physical estates and led to a shift in the relative proportion of space for people and print.

But there is clearly a desire to move further and faster, a desire for things to be different. For electronic content, we buy journal articles in PDFs that are facsimiles of print articles and rarely take full advantage of online technology. And the price we pay is often dependent on the print spend in the late 90s. As the pandemic has proved, we have few good, scalable e-textbook models. Or e-book models in general. Copyright does not always serve scholarship well. For journal articles, books, and special collections there is a wide spectrum of metadata quality – from the superb to the barely adequate. Some of our systems (library management, repositories, etc) are creaking and they don’t always play well with each other. There are also huge amounts of materials within special collections that we would like to digitise.

So, although great changes have already taken place there is a desire to see further change.

Precipitating Factors

The shutting of physical libraries has had a greater effect on some practices than on others.  The provision of journal articles to institution-affiliated researchers and students will have continued uninterrupted.  But the provision of textbooks has profoundly changed.  We are in a current situation where a library may have 50 print copies of a textbook sitting in a closed, inaccessible building, but when they ask for electronic rights the publisher quotes in excess of £700 for one title, with DRM limiting access to three concurrent users.  We knew before that the textbook market was dysfunctional, but the crisis proves it.

Or take legal deposit.  Legal deposit relies on being able to consult a copy of a text in a specific building (one of the six legal deposit libraries).  If they are all shut then you have no access to legal deposit material. But we are in the 21st Century. We have the internet. Surely we can at least access material deposited electronically? No, because after publisher lobbying you can only access electronic legal deposit if you are physically sitting in legal deposit library. And they are closed. Since mid-March the whole of the UK’s legal deposit system has gone dark. We knew before that this was dysfunctional, but the crisis proves it.

These, and other, examples fulfil Taylor’s criterion of ‘aspects of the crisis that reinforce the case for change’.

Alliances and solutions

The library community is one that prides itself on being open and collaborative. And so, as we move into the new normal, I hope that these instincts will come to the fore. But we should acknowledge that there are significant overheads to collaboration and cooperation. There may be long term benefits, but there are short term costs both directly and in staff time.  As budgets are squeezed in the short to medium term how can we ensure that collaboration continues?

Beyond the library community, there are a number of areas where alliances could be strengthened.  UK funders have placed a lot of emphasis on open research and the Covid crisis will be a promoter of that agenda – as researchers look to read preprints and papers beyond paywalls, as sequences and trials data are shared, as questions around epidemiology and the economics of reopening continue, the arguments for open research become stronger. The research library community is well placed to work with funders to support open research.

Other partnership can be strengthened on campus. The current crisis has shown the importance of the library as public space – especially for students – but also for arts and humanities scholars who are missing access to special collections. This is why the library was one of the last places on campus to close and in many cases will be one of the first to reopen. The crisis has reminded some senior colleagues of the roles and importance of the library in terms of supporting students and researchers. How can we build on this to ensure that we remain front and central in the minds of decision makers as the memory of the pandemic fades?

We have the opportunity to refashion significant parts of the research library. RLUK has as part of our strategy a strand looking at the Digital Shift and last month we launched our Digital Shift Manifesto.  This was a pre-Covid part of our strategy, but it has taken increased relevance as our libraries have moved into a (temporally) online-only phase. We can see where the Digital Shift has been successful, where it has stalled, and where it will always work in partnership with the physical.  Matthew Taylor’s three key areas may give us a useful framework to think more about the changes we want to see in the new normal.