Digital technologies, renewed attention to the purposes of higher education, and changing models for scholarship and learning challenge our historic understandings of research libraries and their collections. Common assumptions and goals are giving way to diverse local agendas, many of which also reflect increasingly limited budgets. Cooperative ventures are taking new forms as well, with straitened resources again the rule. Our adaptation to this uncertain environment requires research libraries to reconsider the elements that are now necessary for success.
Research libraries come in many sizes, offer a variety of services, and support institutions with diverse programs and styles. (1) Despite their differences, these libraries until recently regarded collections as their primary focus. This shared sense of purpose, however, is now in question. The staggering growth and variety of information resources challenge our collective mandate to track, organize, and preserve the full records of scholarship and human expression. Ongoing shifts in the practice of research have made even the largest collections inadequate to many needs. Digital technologies are transforming the nature of information and with it the research questions we ask, the ways we seek answers, and how we communicate results. Academic libraries 'also support instruction, a high-stakes activity that today requires new types of understanding and engagement. All library operations are constrained by tightening budgets, marketplace economics, and restrictions on intellectual property. Individual research libraries are grappling with this unwieldy mix in disparate ways and often in isolation. The consequences may weaken them all.
This essay reviews the overlapping transformations in technology, information and its availability, scholarship, and instruction that define the research library environment. The information marketplace injects another dimension of complexity. While institutional responses make sense at the local level, they together comprise a cacophony of divergent programs and goals. Active acknowledgement of a few broad considerations may revitalize a sense of common purpose and a capacity for collective success.
A Community in Flux: Digital Fault Lines and the Emergent Research Library
Predigital research libraries seem 'almost absurdly simple today. Their main role was to acquire the largest possible array of locally relevant books and journals and then interpret them to users on-site. Libraries, like universities, were bounded and physical. Postsecondary instruction and research were tightly framed by each field's knowledge base and methodologies. The academic enterprise, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, centered on canonical sources and core texts; nonprint resources supported more specialized domains. Libraries' hardcopy holdings, plus complementary university collections of paintings and plant specimens, cultural artifacts and animal bones, minerals and musical instruments, and so on, reflected the full records of human creativity and natural diversity. Scholarship depended on direct access to these materials.
Research libraries achieved status in this environment by acquiring more than their peers or by building niche collections of particular depth. The measures of performance were clear and rankings made intuitive sense. Collections cooperation was largely bruited to esoteric fields or to circumstances of unusual geographic proximity. The library community somewhat fuzzily aspired to collect comprehensive holdings of relevant materials. While the dimensions of "relevance" expanded over time, libraries' collectionscentered conceptual universe was largely static.
Several interlocking shifts have brought complexity and uncertainty to this once-placid scenario. Electronic technologies have made information abundant rather than scarce and ubiquitous …