UIUC Science Libraries in 2029

Final January 30, 2004
A Visionary Report by the
Life Sciences Division
and the Physical Sciences and Engineering Division


Science librarians at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign met on January 14, 2004 to discuss our vision of how the UIUC science libraries would look and operate in 2029, twenty-five years from now. Many possible scenarios were discussed, and while no one agreed-upon vision emerged, some common ground was found. This report presents our discussion and outlines our “best guess” of the future of science libraries on this campus.

Predicted Growth in the Sciences

The beginning of the 21 st century is a time of tremendous growth among science disciplines at UIUC. New buildings, new faculty positions, and even new departments have been created to capitalize on a global emphasis to advance technology for the greater good of mankind. “Smaller, faster, better” can define the momentum driving the competitive nature of science that demands the newest book, the latest journal, and access to the most comprehensive databases. These demands will only grow in the future, leading librarians to focus on access, access, and access. It is estimated that an additional 1500 UIUC science-related IP addresses will be created on this campus during the next very few years. It is almost unfathomable to determine how many will exist (or not be needed due to wireless access?) in 2029.

The Library as Place

Science librarians agree that the library of the future is the “library as place.” That is, libraries will be places within academic departments to study, collaborate, or review a recent journal. Students will drop in between classes to meet in groups, use electronic resources, and to receive instruction. Great value will be placed on the proximity of the library to researchers and the knowledge and expertise of library staff. Personal contact with library personnel will remain one of our most important services as we guide patrons through the maze of access to information. This emphasis on service, education and “a clean, well-lighted space” is due to the changing nature of the collections, which are more likely to be access-driven rather than print-driven.

It is expected that the next 25 years will find fewer science departmental libraries on the UIUC campus. This will most likely be due to the consolidation and merging of libraries as space becomes an even more critical issue. Combining library units would also reflect the greater interdisciplinary nature of scientific work and perhaps would allow for more serendipitous encounters.

Technological Change

Twenty-five years is ample time for technology to fulfill many of the promises currently being made. By 2029, electronic books will have matured into texts that are downloaded from library online catalogs to personal electronic paperbacks, with text electronically generated on demand. While print materials will continue to be collected, many monographs will be downloaded from the online catalog. Serials will, through Open Access initiatives, be accessible electronically, reducing the need for binding, storage, and most notably, photocopiers. Circulation of materials will be very small, as will serial receipts in print, resulting in evolving job responsibilities for circulation and serials staff.

Overall, fewer library staff will be needed in the future (present staff being happily retired to sunny climes) due in part to electronic access to materials, but also to other evolving technology.  It will be the norm to self-circulate materials, but in addition we will be able to identify the physical location of our materials at any time with RFID (radio frequency ID). Should an item be “lost or missing,” its location will be identified immediately.  When needed, each book will send a “return me to the library” message to the borrower. Downloaded materials (residing on borrower’s e-paperback book as electronic text) will be programmed to disappear when the borrowing period has expired.

“Google” inspired catalogs and searching technology will be employed by libraries to facilitate access to materials. Our online catalog will seamlessly search books and serials in full text and return displays that show the cover of the book, preface material, table of contents and other evaluative text and graphics. Should the patron choose to view the entire work, the item (if in print) can be sent through the ever-wonderful campus mail delivery system, or (if online) delivered to the desktop or downloaded to the patron’s e-book.

With technology’s help and fewer print serials and books being received (we guess that fewer than a handful of journals in any field will be sent in print by 2029), fewer unit staff will be needed.  The duplication that now takes place in checking-in, binding and storing journals in each unit will no longer be required.  Staff in smaller departmental libraries could be reduced to one or two, with the focus of the responsibilities turning to user education.  Libraries, especially smaller libraries within departments, will revert to the concepts that originally created departmental libraries: places to meet, discuss and read the literature, and receive guidance and help with library resources.  Since much of the collections will be online, guiding users to needed sources will be primary.  Collection-related tasks currently taking up staff time, such as serial check-in, circulation, shelving and collection maintenance, will be a much smaller part of a library’s routine and will probably be centralized among groups of libraries to economize staff time and space.

Increased Competition for Library funds: External and Internal Scenarios

There is a distinct possibility that a commercial enterprise could provide access to the wealth of electronic information more efficiently and cost-effectively than the current library model.  A subscription service, formed by a close alliance of major publishers or an independent third party, could provide access to all the electronic resources presently offered by the library.  This could happen within a discipline, (medicine, for example) or more broadly throughout the sciences.  This more efficient model might charge on a pay-per-use basis, or contract for unlimited access.  Either way, the likelihood of more cost-effective competition looms large for electronic library and information services.

There may also be internal competition for library funds.  One scholarly communication model has universities taking responsibility for the electronic publication of their researcher’s works.  For example, if the UI were to electronically “publish” and own copyright of all the intellectual work of its faculty, and in turn, reciprocally share this information with other academic institutions worldwide, a new scholarly communication model would be born.  If the owners/producers of this intellectual content were to share it among themselves, the need for commercial publishers would greatly decrease as would the need for libraries to subscribe to their publications.  The cost savings in the library could be used to fund the electronic publication and resource sharing efforts of the universities.  However, this may also provide new opportunities for the library to be of service to the university by taking responsibility for the publishing and providing access to the information.

Scholarly Communication in 2029

A number of scholarly communications issues will be addressed in the next 25 years, greatly facilitating problems we now face.  Open access, institutional repositories, and digital copyright will have matured and evolved.  Commercial publishers will adapt as publication models react to technology (open access, e books, digital delivery, digital archiving) and public opinion (fair pricing, copyright retention for authors).  It is critical to continue to lead and participate in the discussions about scholarly communications since no changes will take place (and our future will be different) if we do not.

A particular worry of science librarians is the continual attrition of collection funds through high inflation.  At an average of 12% inflation per year, how long will it take to completely erase current funding levels?

What Can We Do Right Now?

In order to be well positioned to take full advantage of the future waiting us in 2029, we need to begin to take steps in the right direction.  Everything we do now affects what we can do 25 years from now.

  • Invest in electronic backfile collections.
  • Discuss widely and create a policy to address duplication between print and electronic journal subscriptions. This duplication is costly in many ways.
  • Support and participate in the Oak Street/Stacks project. This mega-shift of materials is an important step in preparing us for 2029. By using space effectively through the use of the Oak Street facility, we can begin to move our collections not needed on site (either due to being electronically available or needed only occasionally), making room for better use of space in libraries for people, collaboration, and education. In addition, Oak Street offers the opportunity for better bibliographic access for materials and their excellent preservation and conservation.
  • Continue to work closely with UIC to partner collections; resolve the status of the UIC Health Sciences Library, allowing UIUC users access to that collection and mainstreaming it (virtually) with UIUC.
  • Focus on staff education, resulting in a well-trained and flexible workforce who understand the library’s goals for the future and are poised to help achieve those goals.