MIT task force releases preliminary “Future of Libraries” report

New library proposals meant to enhance “meaningful access to knowledge.”

An MIT task force is releasing a preliminary report featuring a set of proposals aimed at steering MIT’s library system toward becoming an “open global platform” enabling the “discovery, use, and stewardship of information and knowledge” for future generations.

The report, based on a year of work since the formation of the task force, contains general recommendations intended to develop “a global library for a global university,” while strengthening the library system’s relationship with the local academic community and public sphere.

“For the MIT Libraries, the better world we seek is one in which there is abundant, equitable, meaningful access to knowledge and to the products of the full life cycle of research,” the report states. “Enduring global access to knowledge requires sustainable models for ensuring that past and present knowledge are available long into the future.”

The task force is continuing to consult widely with the broader MIT community to refine its proposals. The preliminary report is intended to continue that dialogue, and to elicit additional input on the vision and recommendations it contains.

“The task force spent significant time imagining the kind of library we need at an institution that aims to improve the world,” said Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries, who served as the task force chair. “This is an opportunity to go big, to invent the future of the information landscape, and to envision how we can leverage the unique strengths, expertise, and values of MIT to lead the way.”

Bruce Tidor, professor of biological engineering and computer science, served as co-chair.

In October 2015, MIT Provost Martin A. Schmidt announced the creation of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries. The task force comprises 30 members of the MIT community, including faculty and researchers from all five MIT schools, as well as graduate students and undergraduates, and staff from the MIT Libraries, the Office of Digital Learning, and the Information Systems and Technology group.

Four pillars

The MIT task force arranged ideas about the MIT Libraries into four “pillars,” which structure the preliminary report. They are “Community and Relationships,” involving the library’s interactions with local and global users; “Discovery and Use,” regarding the provision of information; “Stewardship and Sustainability,” involving the management and protection of MIT’s scholarly resources; and “Research and Development,” addressing the analysis of library practices and needs. The preliminary report contains 10 general recommendations in these areas.

For the “Community and Relationships” pillar, the report notes that MIT library users may have varying relationships to the system in the future, and suggests a flexible approach simultaneously serving students, faculty, staff, alumni, cooperating scholars, participants in MITx classes, the local Cambridge and Boston community, and the global scholarly community.

The task force also recommends further study of changes to on-campus library spaces, allowing for quiet study as well as new modes of instruction and collaboration. It suggests that in an evolving information landscape, libraries must teach students how to not only access and evaluate information, but also responsibly generate new knowledge and create systems and tools that others will use to discover, share, and analyze information.

In the area of “Discovery and Use,” the report suggests that the library system enhance its ability to disseminate MIT research to the world; provide “comprehensive digital access to content in our collections”; form partnerships to “generate open, interoperable content platforms” for sharing and preserving knowledge; and review the Institute’s Faculty Open Access Policy.  

Regarding “Stewardship and Sustainability,” the task force envisions the MIT Libraries as the leading repository of the Institute’s history and as a leader in the effort to find solutions for the “preservation of digital research,” which the report describes as a “major unsolved problem.”

Finally, in the area of “Research and Development,” the report proposes the establishment of an initiative for research in information science and scholarly communication, to support both research and development on the grand challenges in the field.

The preliminary report engages with many nuances of library practices, such as finding the right balance between analog and digital resources, which it calls a “high priority,” noting that “the materiality of certain physical resources continues to matter for many kinds of research and learning.” The report also recommends further discussion of privacy issues with library stakeholders.

Community feedback desired

The task force is encouraging the MIT community to read the preliminary report and provide input on the subject.

Indeed, the report concludes, in acknowledging the importance of feedback from their users, the libraries will ultimately evolve thanks to “the creative ways in which scholars and global users exploit our resources, tools, services, spaces, and expertise to accelerate science and knowledge in service of solving the world’s greatest challenges.”

The Task Force on the Future of Libraries will issue a final report based on feedback from the community.

Originally published October 24, 2016 by Peter Dizikes for MIT News.