‘Navigating the digital shift: practices and possibilities’ was the theme of DCDC19 which took place on 12-14 November 2019 at the Birmingham Conference and Events Centre (BCEC), Birmingham. Part of the goal of the conference was not only to explore the huge impact of the digital shift on libraries, archives, and museums, but also to encourage delegates to consider what the future may look like for these cultural organisations, their collections and audiences.  

A workshop on Digital scholarship and the modern research library, organised and led by the RLUK SCLN, DSN and CSN networks, aimed to generate discussion on how to link collections and the expertise of staff within libraries, with new digital technologies and the emerging research interests and teaching methods, offering the right environment to ask challenging questions and look for creative answers. 

Caroline Taylor, University Librarian at the University of Leicester and RLUK Board Champion for Special Collections, delivered a provocation on the future of the research library at the workshop, and we share the text of her thought-provoking speech below:


What will the research library or archive look like in 2025? What is it collecting? What is it doing?

This was the question posed in the RLUK workshop ‘Digital scholarship and the modern research library’ at DCDC19 on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Birmingham.

2025 is not that long away so a Luddite might say: ‘They’ll be pretty much the same; great places full of great stuff, with an online presence extending beyond the physical boundaries of the service and a range of digital objects and collections of variable quality and usefulness.’ I think we should challenge this fundamentally. Our research libraries and archives may well be the same in some respects but we should expect them to look and feel very different. The question is how much will have changed by 2025 and for whom will it have changed? For our users? For our staff? For learners? For researchers?

We know from the recent RLUK Digital Scholarship report that our current digital collections largely comprise digital surrogates rather than born digital objects. They are often related to specific projects or related to specific funding sources and so may present to users as piecemeal, serendipitous collections. We need to imagine another world: how will researchers and historians in the future research the events of this decade in 50 years’ time? In 20, 30 or 50 years’ time how will they reconstruct the events around the EU referendum or the US elections when so much of those respective campaigns and the “history” that has flowed from them has been conducted on algorithm driven social media? What will these future researchers expect from our collections? What are the implications for born digital collection building; how can content be sourced and made available? What are the means for acquiring, processing, reviewing and analysing these collections? How much more will we know about these questions or have resolved by 2025?

In her DCDC19 keynote speech, Tonya Nelson challenged us to think whether the role of the library and archive should shift fundamentally from being the place where we strive to provide access as widely as possible to as much as content as possible, to being the place where we provide expansive opportunities for data activists, to the place where we provide opportunities to process, to work and to engage with data, to make meaning and to find otherwise unknown meaning. This, I think, absolutely speaks to the concept of collections as data; collections which in future we will build and perhaps co-create with our communities, package for them and then make available to them and to others as data. What will this mean for how collections are built, for how they are documented and for how we acknowledge the communities who create the content? And most significantly, how in this world, will we ensure inclusivity and diversity in our collection building? We all serve many audiences. What will this mean for them, for how we will support them to discover, use and exploit our collections? What tools will they need whether they are learners, school children, students, teachers, international or amateur researchers, or to coin Tonya’s term, data activists?

So if the place that is the library or the archive does remain similar in some respects by 2025, under the surface I hope we will have engaged deeply with these issues – and doubtless others –  and that as a result we will have a clear sense of direction and purpose and indeed have made progress. But can we do it alone? How do we engage with this kind of future? Can we thrive in a digital environment without collaboration and without an entirely different order of collaboration? You know, I’m only posing the question because I think the answer is no.

Let’s consider skills. We heard, again from Tonya Nelson, how Arts Council England is moving from a focus on generalist digital skills development to a focus on specialised technical skills to support digital development in arts organisations; a recognition, I think that individual organisations unless they are very substantial cannot support or sustain the highly specialised technical skills or the specialist staff that may be needed in this new world either now or in the future. But the need will not go away and the demand seems constant, so how can we share scarce resources within institutions, between institutions, across sectors and across organisations? In Leicester, we are managing the East Midlands Hub of the BL Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. We have a sound engineer in the project team funded for the duration of the project and we will need this kind of expertise after the project has concluded if we are to continue building and preserving our digital sound heritage collections – and others may also have a similar need for similar purposes. How then can we retain and share this expertise and provide access to it to others? How do we build up new skills and exchange them, up-skill or mentor others?

What about infrastructure? Libraries in the public and academic sector have made some progress in sharing infrastructure, library management platforms being the most obvious example. Are there other areas for collaboration in the digital infrastructure space – preservation solutions, for example?

Finally, how can these challenges be approached strategically, how can we be proactive in defining priorities, allocating resources and building skills for the future? How do we get from here to there? How do we advocate and influence decision makers? Reflecting on a point made earlier in the conference, what language do we use when we are talking about digital possibilities and does our choice of language matter? How do we explain or position the fit with wider organisational priorities and strategies; we all work for organisations driven by broader objectives than our own; how does our ambition support those wider ambitions? Put bluntly – why does it matter and which bit matters most?

What is our sense of urgency? There are lots of opportunities here, we need to seize them, engage with them and with each other and not wait to be overwhelmed. We need to make effective and thoughtful choices between now and 2025 and we need to start thinking and talking now.