Libraries and learning resources services have embraced digital practice over three decades. Lis Parcell reflects on their pioneering approach and considers how libraries will continue to reinvent themselves
When did academic libraries first embrace digital technology? The answer might be earlier than you think.
Experiments first took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when librarians looked to harness ‘library automation’ to free staff from repetitive tasks and enable resource-sharing. The 1980s saw the expansion of library networks and microcomputers, while CD-ROMs put new searching power in the hands of researchers.
For UK universities, the pivotal point was 1995 with the launch of eLib: the Electronic Libraries programme. This extensive programme had a major impact on the culture of libraries and their take-up of technology, and we can trace eLib’s pioneering, collaborative ethos right through to present-day innovations, such as a project Jisc is currently collaborating on to transform Jisc's library support services.
Colleges with a vision
By 2000, further education libraries - often termed learning resource centres or LRCs - embraced digital innovation.
It was a key moment for me, too: after seven years’ immersion in digital library innovation at Swansea University, I took a role in Wales with one of 13 FE regional support centres. These were set up across the UK to help colleges – newly connected to the Janet Network – to maximise the internet for learning and teaching. College librarians were eager to seize opportunities for digital innovation and I developed enormous respect for their adaptability.
I admired their dedication to improving the lives of students, often juggling teaching and learning technology roles alongside more traditional learning resources management.
A culture of innovation
I believe it is largely thanks to libraries’ culture of cooperation and innovation that they have defied predictions of their imminent demise, becoming centres of digital practice. They provide digital content and the systems to discover, access and share it. They facilitate information literacy and digital skills. And they use technology creatively to engage their communities.
Today, digital library practice is shaping new learning spaces, enriching student experience and making research possible. So why is the library’s role in digital capability so often underestimated?
It could be to do with the outdated images of libraries in the popular imagination. I suspect it could also be because libraries often introduced digital improvements in a seamless way, minimising disruption for students and staff. It’s an approach that puts people first, rather than placing technology at the forefront.
Navigating AI, big data and ‘fake news’
As we approach the fourth industrial revolution, the role of library staff in digital practice and leadership won’t stand still. As well as navigating changes in digital content and scholarly communications, libraries will position themselves in relation to trends in artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and big data - Education 4.0. In a world of ‘fake news’, librarians’ expertise in information and digital literacy is crucial.
There are ongoing challenges to improve user experience too, making digital resources more accessible and engaging. We also need to ensure organisations understand the vital role libraries can play in learning, teaching and research.
Fit for the future
As a subject specialist, I support members through a mix of advice, consultancy and staff development. I do this as part of a small team focused on digital practice in learning and teaching, working with other subject specialists in areas such as strategy and infrastructure.
I’m excited to be working with libraries and learning resources services as they continue to evolve, seeing our members working creatively - with and without technology - to get fit for the future. And because every member and every library is different, I know I’ll never stop learning.
Lis Parcell is a Jisc subject specialist - digital practice (library and learning resources services). She is delivering a keynote at the Working Smarter in a Time of Change conference at Teeside University, 3-4 June. Look out for her at this year’s Connect More events too, 4 June - 4 July.