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John Palfrey from Harvard University Law School provided the closing plenary session at this year’s SSP Annual Meeting. He noted that from his perch at an educational institution, and from his research of changing pedagogical preferences, there are some major trends everyone involved in academia must react to:

  1. The changes in learning modes and preferences — What we consider “multitasking” is now considered normal mode by students. That is, reading a phone while talking or listening is normal, not unusual. In fact, students don’t react to the term “multitasking” as something they do. Also, students now have grown up in a screen-centric and networked culture, so there are new expectations. But print is still desirable for books because of the famous triad — the bed, the bath, and the beach. There are problems emerging with the abundance of available information. The time and effort that must be expended to deal with the flood of information continues to be a worry and a challenge. The worries over misinformation, cheating, hidden influences, and superficiality haunt these users and their parents. Credibility remains a key concern of providers and users.
  2. Innovative teaching — These pressures and opportunities are causing a lot of thinking about how connected learning might look and work. Education is becoming more project-based, integrated between the physical world and the real world, and blending creativity and consumption. Making students creators of information and focusing them on projects is becoming an important and useful tool in the age of information overload — in which information overload moves from being a bug and becomes a feature.
  3. Changing patterns of research and publishing — As part of the new Harvard Library Board, Palfrey is in the midst of trying to make the 72 Harvard libraries more efficient and effective. How do they make more of what they have? How does their core mission get accomplished in the modern world? He talked about the DASH system at Harvard, an opt-out digital repository in which authors are presumed to deposit an unencumbered copy of their materials, whether Harvard has to pay open access fees or not. They are part of a “big tent” effort to get as much scholarship available for their students and faculty, and open access is viewed as an important path to this goal. The Harvard librarians view themselves as “keepers and archivers and republishers.” Palfrey worries about libraries and publishers ceding space to Google and other technology companies, insofar as Google Scholar is now the de facto starting point for graduate students.
  4. Changing roles for libraries and librarians — With funding presumed to be flat, and an increasing demand for international and interdisciplinary information, there are real pressures on libraries. Users feel libraries aren’t doing enough to connect them to the materials available, especially the digital objects. For libraries designed to be physical spaces for physical objects, rethinking the architecture (in the broadest sense) of the library will be crucial. How much is virtual? How much is physical? To check themselves, the Harvard librarians are asking “WWYD?” (What Would Yale Do?). Competition and collaboration will both drive innovation. Abundance means cooperation makes sense, but local concerns will drive local innovation. Harvard has had to create a collection development policy for the first time, and it’s still in draft — basically, the presumption that they could buy everything proved untenable, even if it was never quite true. Palfrey also worried about the loss of serendipity that comes with lower library utilization.

Ultimately, it struck me that these questions and worries are things students, parents, and faculty are answering themselves without librarians. Serendipity? Twitter and Facebook. Discovery? Google Scholar, Google, and Wikipedia. Access? So many answers, including paying for it. Guides to quality content? Reference linking, search engines, and a few well-placed librarians whose efforts are amplified by technology companies.

Palfrey is correct that roles and purposes are changing. And while Palfrey’s concerns are valid and legitimate, they seem to be occurring far too late in the game. And that may be the factor that ultimately defines the future of libraries and librarians.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "John Palfrey: Thoughts About the Future of Libraries and Learning"

Love your post. It is rather a crucial for libraries or information hubs to keep up with the ongoing trend of advancement in our world. Otherwise, they would then be left behind and be overshadowed by the so called technologically capable. It’s a good start to include more advanced technologies for researching so people can still have that keenness to be involve.

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