On Monday 18 May, RLUK launched a manifesto for the digital shift in research libraries during a webinar attended by over 450 delegates. The manifesto is the product of a year’s work by members of RLUK’s digital shift working group and provides a vision for the research library of the future, an overview of how this vision might be shaped by the digital shift, and the tangible steps that the research library community might take to enable its realisation.

The digital shift

Research Libraries have long been adapting to the digital environment, introducing new ways of working, accessing and using collections, and engaging with wide and diverse audiences. The transition from analogue to digital has been a familiar and highly visible process in research library collections, services, and audience interactions. Card indexes have become online catalogues, physical books and journals have been joined by e-print, and some library spaces have now become digital scholarship labs. The ‘digital shift’ has been used by RLUK as an umbrella term to encompass all of these activities and changes.

The webinar provided delegates with an overview of the origins, contents, and ambitions of RLUK’s manifesto. It heard from members of RLUK’s digital shift working group, Masud Khokhar (Director of Libraries and Archives at the University of York) and Torsten Reimer (Head of Research Services at the British Library) who provided the strategic backdrop to this work, before talking specifically about the contents of the manifesto itself. Divided between four focus areas (skills and leadership; scholarship and collections; spaces; and stakeholders and advocacy), the manifesto identifies a number of key principles around which the research library of the future can be built. It also provides a list of tangible activities within its delivery plan to enable the realisation of these principles over a ten-year period.

RLUK’s work around the digital shift does not sit in isolation from that occurring elsewhere amongst the research, cultural, and information communities. Over the past six months, as the manifesto has been taking shape, RLUK has engaged closely with its strategic partners and stakeholders, both within the UK and around the world. Each has brought it own perspective and insight, and these conversations have confirmed the relevance of the manifesto’s contents beyond the research library community.

The recognition that RLUK’s work around the digital shift needs to exist within a wider context was evidenced during the webinar in a presentation by James Hetherington (Director of Research Infrastructure at UK Research and Innovation). James placed RLUK’s manifesto within the wider landscape of the UK’s digital research infrastructure and highlighted many of the complex issues that, as institutions supporting and enabling research and scholarship, we all need to consider.

Covid-19 and ‘the digital shift in action’

The webinar also acknowledged that the manifesto cannot sit in isolation from our ongoing experiences of the Covid-19 crisis. The first half of 2020 has witnessed an unprecedented transformation in the operations of research libraries around the world. As the threat from Covid-19 increased, services were rapidly realigned as library buildings were physically closed. As a result of closure, this period saw the transition of operations, additional collections, and audience engagement online at an unprecedented speed. The webinar explored the experiences of delegates regarding the Covid-19 crisis and how this has embodied, shaped, and catalysed the digital shift. This was achieved through a Q&A and a live mentimeter survey facilitated by members of the digital shift working group, Sarah Thompson (University of York), Lorraine Beard (University of Manchester), and Michelle Blake (University of York).

Completed by over 330 delegates, the survey revealed that 61% of respondents felt that the Covid-19 crisis has been a ‘catalyst for change’ within their organisations and had encouraged or embedded pre-existing ways of working and at a faster space. In addition to these, 15% of respondents suggested Covid-19 had represented a ‘revolution’ within their organisations and had completely changed how they worked and thought about their services and processes. RLUK will shortly publish a report exploring the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and how this has represented the ‘digital shift in action’ for its members through which these issues will be explored in greater detail.

Whereas Covid-19 has significantly altered the current priorities and ways of working for research libraries, it has also exposed several areas where future change is needed. The crisis has ‘held a mirror’ to research and scholarly processes, infrastructures, and established norms. Some of these have held firm and have been validated as robust and appropriate, whereas others have been challenged and questioned. The survey highlighted that colleagues saw a need for greater agility in structures and ways of working, that the discoverability of digitised and born-digital content was often a challenge, and the copyright and licensing frameworks under which research libraries operate have been found wanting. Sourcing freely-available e-resources and the support of digital skills and capabilities in libraries were also seen as priorities. These are all areas around which RLUK will continue to work in support of its members during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

The manifesto was the product of the pre-Covid-19 world and although the medium- and long-term ramifications of the pandemic are still emerging, these experiences were seen to confirm and validate the contents of the manifesto. Delegates completing the survey confirmed that RLUK should continue to support knowledge exchange between its members and the wider research and information communities, whilst also actively supporting members around the licensing and procurement of digital content. The crisis continues to reveal the importance of digital skills, literacy, and leadership amongst research libraries. The high level of interest shown by members of the community around the manifesto, and the validation of its contents during the webinar, both underline the importance of its ambitions and the necessity of collaborative action around its contents.

A call for collaboration

In the final stages of the webinar, William Nixon (University of Glasgow) issued a call to action and an invitation to delegates to join RLUK as it works to realise the vision of the manifesto. RLUK’s manifesto for the digital shift places a premium on partnership. We want to work with likeminded stakeholders, across sectors, and from around the world, to explore and enable the digital shift within research libraries.

To start these discussions, we have released a short Google form for potential partners and collaborators to express their interest in working with us, and our members, to deliver on the ambitions of the manifesto.

Presentation slides:

Masud Khokhar, Director of Libraries and Archives, University of York and RLUK Board Member

Torsten Reimer, Head of Research Services, The British Library, and chair of the RLUK digital shift working group

James Hetherington, Director of Digital Research Infrastructure, UKRI