17 March 2020

A manifesto for the digital shift in research libraries

Digital technologies heavily impact society, higher education and the workplace. As information service providers, research libraries are particularly affected by these changes. This manifesto outlines what actions the community of Research Libraries in the UK (RLUK) proposes to undertake to be ready for the next decade of the Digital Shift, building on work already underway across the sector. It is an open invitation to other organisations and communities, whether from the library sector or not, to work with us. Research libraries are strongly positioned to lead and influence the effective exploitation of digital technologies within their institutions, and we are keen to unlock the potential which the Digital Shift offers.

Twenty years ago, print journals and card catalogues were still featured in research libraries. Today, scholarly journals are (largely) electronic, with discovery and access often bypassing library catalogues. Open science and digital research are actively supported in many libraries. Twenty years from now, subscription-funded access may be the exception and library catalogues could well have ceased to exist as distinct entities as research will be built on new workflows and platforms. To prepare for these developments, research libraries need a programme of change for the coming decade.

In 2030, UK research libraries will be an integral part of the local and global knowledge environment. We will offer environmentally sustainable, inclusive services that enable a diverse set of users to identify and use trusted knowledge resources from all over the world. Our open research and digital scholarship services will enable seamless and persistent sharing and reuse of research outputs. Library staff will be increasingly recognised experts in (digital) research methods and valued partners in the research process, even leading in some fields. Print collections will be as easy to discover as our digital ones, and we will provide digital and physical spaces that meet researchers’ needs. Libraries will have mastered the use of artificial intelligence technologies, integrated into technology platforms that are open and transparent, built on sustainable and ethical principles.

In order to fully benefit from the Digital Shift, we need:

  • Clear vision and strategic direction for a decade-long digital transformation

  • Reliable foresight and horizon scanning capability to inform the above

  • Skills in digital innovation, ranging from software development to service design, business analysis, digital research, data science and artificial intelligence

  • Organisational structures, processes and cultures that enable us to embrace and respond to change

  • Sustainable investment in digital against a constrained financial environment

  • Updated, flexible and technologically advanced spaces that meet changing user requirements

  • Have defined our role in discovery and access in an open research context

  • A way to innovate in services despite an often ailing core technical infrastructure

  • A way to move to an environmentally sustainable library infrastructure

  • Have innovation and continual service improvement embedded as a way of working

  • Capacity and capability to meaningfully steer, or at least engage, with artificial intelligence, as these technologies will transform how we work

  • A way to work transparently (to our users) despite a marketplace concentration in digital services and the risks of increasing reliance on closed systems

  • To be trusted within our institutions to work outside our professional boundaries and to collaborate with academics and professional service providers to deliver technology enabled transformational change for the business

What do we need to achieve?

This Manifesto suggests to address the challenges we can identify today while in parallel aim to increase our ability to adapt to future change. If we develop adaptable organisations that have a mindset of digital curiosity and experimentation we should be well prepared for the coming decade. The Manifesto will inform and shape the implementation of RLUK’s strategy for the coming years, and hopefully be of use to other stakeholders too.

Skills and Leadership

A future of skills report estimates that 6 million people in the UK are currently employed in occupations that will likely disappear or undergo radical change by 2030. In this context we will need to ensure that our workforce is flexible and resilient to respond to the changes.

  • Leadership that empowers staff, including giving them the confidence to take risks
  • An operating model that fully supports digital (which will have an impact on governance, funding models and leadership skills not only digital delivery skills)
  • Ability to wind down services that are no longer adding enough value to our users
  • Transition from largely transactional to more creative work
  • Flexible working practice that puts staff in control of their time and environment
  • Recruitment and training that find and retain an adaptable, diverse workforce
  • Capacity in data science, digital services, AI technologies, foresight and licensing
  • Ability to cover a range of roles confidently (provider, partner and leader in research)
  • Capabilities around digital ethics in an age of misinformation

Scholarship and Collections

The research library collection will continue to evolve. The digital shift will present new opportunities for collaborative approaches to the acquisition, management, and discovery of collections, whilst requiring that they be visible, open, inclusive, and re-usable. Special collections will remain a focus, in particular with regard to opening them up further.

  • Networked collections which stimulate innovative research
  • Collaborative management of both physical and digital collections
  • Collective approach to digitisation and related issues (i.e. role of original vs surrogate)
  • Collections that are truly open and inclusive, in terms of accessibility, licensing, interfaces, re-usability and also in terms of their history and properties
  • Special collections that are either digitised or visible in a digital research environment
  • Capability for computational analysis of disparate collections
  • Supporting reuse of data by researchers, with libraries as expert research partners


Research libraries will continue to witness a change in how their spaces are used and designed. The changing behaviours and expectations of library users, the diversification of library audiences, and the shifting role of the library on campus will continue to have a profound effect on how the physical library looks, feels, and functions.

  • Have flexible and adaptable spaces that enable experimentation and allow us to more easily adjust to changing user needs and a wider range of activities
  • Explore how spaces are currently used for print collections could be repurposed, while retaining and expanding facilities for special collections
  • Create an inclusive environment that supports the wellbeing of larger numbers of people from more diverse backgrounds
  • Spaces which enable seamless interaction between digital and physical
  • Spaces which in an ethical way collect real time data on their use to enable responsive service provision

Stakeholders and Advocacy

In order to navigate and shape future agendas, research libraries need to continue to work with stakeholders across a wide range of communities within the higher education, information, and commercial sectors. As the environment evolves, we will also constantly need to develop new relationships.

  • Develop more active collaborations with industry, researchers, and the wider the education sector
  • Influence the development of policy and technology through active stakeholder engagement
  • Undertake user research and engagement to influence service design
  • Develop open standards for information resources and define a set of open criteria for licensing and procurement of systems
  • Advocate the value of libraries and the role of librarians in a digital knowledge environment, and enable staff to develop their advocacy and influencing skills
  • Champion a collaborative approach to copyright and data protection inc. risk management and advocacy on legislation
  • Engage with ethical and policy debates around information

How will we achieve these things?

In order to achieve these things, the RLUK community and its networks will….

How was the manifesto created?

This Manifesto was created by a dedicated working group of colleagues representing RLUK’s member networks. The working group was created in August 2019 and met regularly to develop the blue print of the manifesto. The working group devised and led a series of interactive workshops and discussions with members of the RLUK community, including at the RLUK 2019 members’ meeting (November 2019, University of Nottingham).  Members of the original working group responsible for creating the manifesto and guiding its early implementation were:

  • Lorraine Beard, Associate Director, Research and Digital Horizons, University of Manchester (DSN member)
  • Gavin Beattie, Associate Director, Research and Impact, Kings College London (CSN and DSN member)
  • Michelle Blake, Head of Relationship Management, University of York (ADN co-convenor, DSN member)
  • Simon Dixon, Head of Archives and Special Collections, University of Leicester (SCLN member)
  • Masud Khokhar, Director of Libraries and Archives, University of York (RLUK board champion)
  • William Nixon, Assistant Director, Digital Strategy, University of Glasgow (DSN member)
  • Torsten Reimer, Head of Research Services, The British Library (DSN member and working group chair)
  • Gabriel Sewell, Assistant Director of Library Services, St Andrews University (SCLN member)
  • Sarah Thompson Head of Collections, University of York (CSN and DSN member)

The original working group was chaired and led by Torsten Reimer, Head of Research Services, the British Library. Following a series of changes, a list of the current members of the working group is available here. The working group is now chaired by William Nixon, Associate Director, Digital Strategy, the University of Glasgow.

How are we doing?

Members of the working group undertook a reassessment of the manifesto and its ambitions in light of the Covid-19 pandemic in November 2021. Published within a special issue of the New Review of Academic Librarianship, ‘Covid-19 and the future of the digital shift amongst research libraries: An RLUK perspective in context’ explores the collective experience of RLUK members, and the wider academic library community, regarding the digital shift around their skills, spaces, collections, and stakeholder relations.

The article is accompanied by a series of case studies exploring the experience of academic libraries during the pandemic. These case studies and the chapter are available here.