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Richard Akerman On The Obsolesence of the Research Library

.: Richard Akerman, of Science Library Pad, is stirring things with his recent entry, "Is the research library obsolete":

Assumptions:
  • scientific communication takes place through articles, whether pre-prints or post-prints, journal published or conference presented
  • most articles of scientific value will be subjected to peer review of some form
  • publisher websites provide acceptable access to articles, linked together online
  • articles are also brief enough to be conveniently downloaded (and then typically printed)
Types of library:
  • public library - provides access for general public to books (and secondarily to other published materials as well as transient formats like CDs, video cassettes, DVDs)
  • academic library - provides access for university community to books and academic journals
  • research library - provides access for researchers to books and academic journals
I assert that they public library still has some role to play as a community centre, and also because books are not (yet) convenient in electronic format.

Academic libraries have a role to play because undergrads don't know anything. Every year there are undergrads who need guidance, and the academic library is there to help them. Also, it is a good place to escape roommates, or find new potential bedmates.

Research libraries on the other hand, don't play any of these roles. There is no public to serve. There is no community meeting place role. There are no confused or desperate undergrads to help. So shouldn't a research library just

  1. digitize and index all of its current (out of copyright) paper holdings, and then send the paper into storage in some climate-controlled cave somewhere
  2. provide good licensed access to the necessary publisher websites for its researchers
  3. close down
Does anyone disagree that the traditional role of a research library, that of providing local convenient access to scientific publications, is erased by the presence of publisher websites on the Internet? That being the case, what value is left for research libraries to add? Researchers don't need (or want) the guidance or handholding that undergrads require. Is there anything left for the research library other than inventing new roles for itself? I can only see three roles that make sense:
  1. institutional repository for pre-prints and post-prints of the research organization's publications
  2. data repository for the research conducted at the organization
  3. providing advanced (data/publication/information/discovery/etc.) tools that integrate into the researcher's workflow
The first two roles are very much aligned with library and archiving roles, but may still require a bit of a revolution in how the organization sees itself. To put it more concisely, either your research library becomes part of the E-Science Cyberinfrastructure, or it gets paved over.

How is your research library dealing with this challenge? Have I missed something?

This is a though-provoking post, and the entry on Richard's site has received quite a few passionate comments so far. In one of the comments, he notes, "Yes, I am basically defining research library as a type of special library that serves mainly or exclusively a natural sciences researcher community." This definition is rather narrow to me. Perhaps in this context there is merit to considering Richard's points, but for the sake of argument, why limit the definition to natural sciences? Where does that leave engineering, pure science (physics, chemistry, mathematics), or agricultural research libraries? But Richard states that his argument centres around a very specific kind of library: "Again, I'm making a very specific argument about a very specialized type of library. I'm talking about a research library that supports primarily researchers in the natural sciences. I'm not talking about research library in the same sense that the British Library is a research library. I do agree that researchers in many, many topic areas may use books. I disagree that e.g. particle physicists, chemists, and geneticists are going to be using books (rare or otherwise) heavily as they either plan their research, conduct experiments, or keep up with their field. "

The library in which I work, the Science and Technology Library at the University of Alberta, is an academic library supporting teaching and research in Agricuture, Forestry and Home Economics, Science, and Engineering. If I restrict my observations only to the use of our collections by researchers (not undergrads) in the natural sciences (which I consider to be earth and atmospheric science, zoology, botany, entomology, microbiology, genetics), but also include physics, chemistry and mathematical sciences (which I consider to be the pure sciences, so to speak), I would have to disagree that the research library is obsolete.

While it is clear that most researchers in science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine require access to the most current e-journals and databases, on our campus we have always had researchers in some of these areas, including the natural sciences, who require access to print material, often hundreds of years old. Much of this older material contains hand-coloured images of organisms of interest to these researchers. Yes, this material could be digitized and housed in a climate-controlled environment, but for the nonce, typically researchers want to see the original print, if it's available.

Additionally, and this has been stated in some of the responses to Richard's post, we all have countless brilliant users, but it would require a complete suspension of disbelief to assume these users would be suddenly 100% self-sufficient without guidance and direction from librarians to find whatever it is they were seeking - this is what we do, especially at this level of study.

Of interest to me, of course, is that I am in my first week of working as the Research Services Librarian at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, which has no library of its own within the confines of the Institute itself, nor will it have one when it moves into its new, seven-storey building in May, 2006. NINT researchers have access to the resources of CISTI (where Richard is employed as technology architect and information security officer) as well as the University of Alberta Libraries' online resources - literally the best of both worlds. Is NINT an example of a research library that has "closed down before it ever opened"? I'd have to say no. I've been working half-time at NINT for the better of two days, and while waiting to get set up and running with an office, laptop, etc., have already been helping NINT staff with some basic research problems, all of which I have been able to deal via online resources. However, NINT has been on our campus for five years, during which I have spent time consulting with some of the researchers on their projects, sometimes ordering material in hard copy as required. Rather than choose to set up its own library, NINT decided early on that access to the U of Alberta's collections, in tandem with CISTI's online resources, would be sufficient. What I can confirm is that even with access to perhaps the richest collection of online resources anywhere - the combination of those offered by CISTI and the U of A Libraries - NINT researchers do make use of our print collections when required.

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