The Once and Future Library: when Once? and how Future?

At Sacred Heart University I have been leading the first phase of a strategic directions initiative to articulate the highest-level aspirations of the organization, and to mark ways that the Library can leverage its expertise and strengths to enhance the intellectual life of the University and advance its mission.

As part of listening, thinking, and planning together, we have read discussed some truly thought-provoking articles and reports. Two of these in particular are from MIT: Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms, and The Once and Future Library. These are very different documents: the first is a report of MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative. The second is a report from the MIT News Office, and summarizes remarks by several MIT senior librarians made at (or responding to) a panel discussion concerning the future of the library.

Despite their differences in format and subject matter, the two documents converge on several questions and concerns about the changing role of the library is the quickly-evolving ecosystem of higher education.

  • Preserving the cultural record —both the “wild frontier” of digital preservation and the massive challenge of “analogue” preservation— complements the online education report’s call for fostering thinking communities that identify and develop the change agents and role models for implementing reforms. Without access to the materials, scholarly traditions of higher education, or the “thinking communities” that the report advocates, will be unable to realize the good intentions of the reformers. The past cannot constrain the future, but without it neither reforms can be adequately grounded both in prosaic institutional realities and perennial threshold questions that undergird scholarly disciplines.
  • The future of the collections (at MIT and elsewhere) will be entwined with increasing disciplinary collaborations across fields of research in higher education. Until the past few years it was common inside libraries to think about the “collections” that supported distinct fields of study: British literature, community nursing, entrepreneurship, or cellular biology, to name only a few. As the library’s role of assembling scholarly materials diminishes, however (insofar as so much is available digitally, with or without pay walls), the library’s role of publishing and codifying scholarly materials has grown. This suggests the simple question: What is the library for?  While the report may have intended “fields of research in higher education” to be those it named, from neuropsychology to meta-analysis and assessment, the importance of disciplinary collaborations and interdisciplinary conversation embraces widely disparate fields, and the library has a central publishing and fostering role as a digital and analogue commons. The threshold concepts that critically examine the interests, biases, and assumptions present in the information ecosystem suggest a unified field of varying forces that more hold the scholarly disciplines together than tear them apart –the threshold concepts that are fact "what the library is for" (both as purpose and as advocacy).
  • The Once and Future Library begins by noting how ancient libraries (such as Alexandria) held a lecture hall, refectory, and porch where scholars could talk, collaborate, read, and eat. Now the modern library —such as even Sacred Heart University Library— has versions of these facilities inside, and is far from merely a “reading room” or “book warehouse.” The Policy Initiative recognizes the numerous contributions of fields such as motivation and rewards in learning, health and nutrition, and learning spaces, and “the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills needed for life and work.” (p. 18)  The library is both a literal and physical learning space.

These convergences (preservation, collaborations, and a holistic vision of learning) strongly imply a spectrum of abilities, practices, and habits of mind, that expands and deepens through engagement with the information ecosystem.  This is close to the definition of the Framework for Information Literacy published by the Association of College and Research Libraries in 2015.  Although higher education as an introduction to “life-long" learning has become a cliché, “life-long” still has great meaning to those on the receiving end of fundamental, continuing, and painful social change.  The disposition towards learning inherent in information literacy offers a pathway through the world as we are finding it.

The confluence of a kind of lazy, informal postmodernism and casual digital culture has led many to wonder whether the constitutive commitments to truth, goodness, and beauty that have characterized Western higher education for millennia have simply ceased to be relevant. Both documents from MIT suggest strongly otherwise —and coming from one of the fonts (MIT) of all things digital, constructivist, and cognitivist, this is surprising and reinvigorating at once.

The dynamic, digital scaffold proposed by the Policy Initiative could be able (or will be able to) extend the necessary mix of cognitive, social, and interpersonal skills that are thresholds to genuine engagement without limitations by the modes of pedagogy, either on-ground or online.

The Policy Initiative proposes a “learning engineer” at the center of that dynamic digital scaffold. At MIT “engineer” is a “good” word signifying “us, what we stand for,” while for those outside MIT "learning engineer" may connote “narrow, technical, and highly specialized” instead. I understand “learning engineer” to be local MIT-speak for “instructional designers,” and the “design thinking” at the heart of educational enterprise. The Policy Initiative’s strong recommendation that such individuals need far greater support and integration with subject-based academics is heartening.  Ironically, it also strongly suggests what instructional librarians have been trying to do for a long time with little fanfare, external comprehension, or support. “Design thinking” is now at the heart of librarianship, and can only strengthen on-ground, hybrid, and digital pedagogies.  In a sense a library is a perpetual "beta" of the Initiative's "dynamic digital scaffold."

At Sacred Heart University Library, our strategic directions initiative has already moved ahead with recalling and creating “the once and future library.” We are searching for an instructional design librarian, intentionally a hybrid kind of work, and we are engaging the university community in planning further library building, collections, and service renovations (re-newing, indeed!). What is most important about this initiative is not the resulting document, but the process itself of listening, thinking, and planning together.