Looking to the future of academic libraries

Looking to the future of academic libraries

Queen’s University Library has released a new strategic plan that lays out a vision for how it can change alongside its users in the digital age.

September 26, 2023


Photograph of Mark Asberg, Queen's University Vice-Provost and University Librarian
Mark Asberg, Vice-Provost and University Librarian. (Supplied Photo)

Queen’s University Library offers the campus community numerous indispensable resources, including welcoming spaces, inspiring collections and archives, and a network of library experts. All of these are integral to the pursuits of students, faculty, and staff at the university.

In today’s digital era, the ways in which the library provides its services and resources is continuously changing. To help guide the Queen’s community through this ever-shifting landscape, the library recently released a new strategic plan, which will be in effect through 2025. The plan captures the multifaceted role of the library at Queen’s, and focuses on six themes that align with the overarching Queen’s Strategy: advancing research; innovation in learning; teaching and research synergies; global perspective; a welcoming library; and living organizational values.

This is the first strategic plan stewarded by Vice-Provost and University Librarian Mark Asberg, who began at Queen’s in 2021 after serving as Chief Executive Officer of Calgary Public Library. The Queen’s Gazette recently sat down with him to learn more about the new plan, how it impacts Queen’s, and how academic libraries are looking to the future (and the past) in our increasingly digital age.

Digital technologies have been changing how libraries operate and serve their users for some time now, and COVID-19 only accelerated the pace of change. How has the role of university libraries evolved in the last several years?

In libraries, just like life, change is the only constant. Libraries have a rich history and have been extraordinarily resilient in cultures, communities, and institutions around the world. The main reason for that longstanding success is that libraries are so effective at managing change and evolving to meet the needs of the communities they support. Along with this openness to change, or perhaps undergirding it, there’s an enduring clarity and continuity in the mission and activities of libraries. Libraries always connect people with information, technology, and diverse forms of knowledge. But also, and most importantly, with each other. They are human-centred places where people feel welcome and inspired to be curious, to learn, and to grow.

New digital technologies have certainly changed the context in which libraries operate, but they are also being leveraged to expand and enhance the impact of the human-centred activities that define libraries. Many of our core services – reference assistance, research support, and teaching, for example – are being offered in new and often more accessible and inclusive ways than ever before on digital platforms.

Our users also now expect our physical spaces to be technologically rich, with easy access to scanning, printing, and presentation and collaboration tools, not to mention power outlets for ubiquitous mobile devices. And our virtual spaces have never been more important. There are over 5 million page views per year on the library website and the website provides access to millions of titles and hundreds of content-rich databases; making sure the website is meeting the needs of our users is a big task.

Broader digital transformations in our environment also mean that we now put a great deal of effort into the digitization of physical resources, especially print materials, and the stewardship of born-digital materials, which includes everything from audio and video recordings to research data sets. Ensuring all these rich materials are organized, preserved, discoverable, and accessible in their diverse forms is among the highest priority work of library experts.

The library’s new strategic plan is responding to these changes, but it’s also trying to prepare for what comes next. Where do you think university libraries are going in the future, and how is that reflected in the new plan?

There are several areas we are devoting our attention to in the years to come. One is the creation of new online learning tools and making sure open educational resources are more discoverable and accessible than ever before.

That idea of open access applies equally well to the world of scholarly publishing and research dissemination; the expansion of open access publishing options and the rise of article processing charges in academic journals are just part of the changing environment in which scholars are working. The library has an important role to play in helping researchers navigate this dynamic and complex landscape so they can make the most informed decisions possible. At the same time, the library is a purchaser and licenser of vast amounts of academic publishing. So, we are well-placed to positively influence the transformation of scholarly publishing to reflect the values of higher education and help make sure publicly funded scholarship is as open, accessible, and sustainable as possible.

Our strategic plan also commits us to making sure our collections are respectful and inclusive. We are continuously developing our collections to support emerging areas of scholarship and subject areas that have been underrepresented. While we are auditing our existing collections to fill in gaps, we are also working hard to embed inclusive practices in all stages of the acquisitions process so that we can avoid replicating historical exclusions or creating new ones.

While we are always looking to the future, an important way we’re looking forward is by looking to the past. More than ever, we protect and document knowledge so that it’s available for critical analysis and to bring hidden or underrepresented stories and knowledge to the forefront of teaching, learning, and research. The library and archives are stewards of highly valuable, unique collections. We’re also the official archive not only for Queen’s but for the City of Kingston, the County of Frontenac, and Kingston General Hospital. We’ve recently opened a state-of-the-art conservation lab, and we feel a great responsibility to be world class stewards of collections entrusted to us. We are also working to bring these collections to life through experiential learning and exhibition and to leverage technology to make them more discoverable and accessible for the benefit of generations of researchers to come.

The library is an integral resource for the Queen’s community, as it facilitates many aspects of teaching and research. How does the library’s new strategic plan fit in with the broader direction of the university?

The Queen’s Strategy provides a very clear and compelling direction for the future of the university, and we decided to build on that in our own planning process. Simply put, the six themes of the university’s strategy are the six themes of the library’s strategy. We are committed to demonstrating the valuable contributions we can and should make to the broader goals of the university. For example, one of the goals in the Queen’s Strategy is to embed the university more fully into the community. The libraries at Queen’s are open and accessible spaces in the heart of Kingston, so we’re very well positioned to play a role in this respect. At the same time, we’re also advancing the strategic goal of strengthening Queen’s presence globally by making our collections more digitally accessible and discoverable. The strength of our activities building, organizing, and stewarding collections and supporting researchers in critical engagement with those collections, can help position us as leaders on the global stage.

What are some changes in the works that the Queen’s community can expect to see at the library soon?

There are two main changes I’ll highlight. One is that there’s an ongoing two-year renovation on the main floor of Stauffer Library, now known as the Daniel R. Woolf Gallery. In general, there’s a huge opportunity for us to rethink library spaces and realize new potentials for them. Since the main floor of Stauffer is one of the most popular spaces on campus, welcoming over a million visitors a year, our current project reflects the changing needs and expectations of our community. So, we’re making the space more inclusive, accessible, and suited to diverse purposes. For instance, all bathrooms will be gender neutral, circulation pathways will be improved, and new zoning and seating will better support different kinds of simultaneous pursuits like teaching, quiet study, and active collaboration. We’ll be reconfiguring our information services desk to reflect new service models and the reality that many services are now delivered virtually as well as in person. The Adaptive Technology Centre will also be expanded, to create more capacity to deliver its crucial services. In general, the entire floor will be more welcoming and inspiring than ever. You can already see a glimpse of the future in that we’ve added new and attractive feature collections at the front entrance and removed the large bank of old computer desks that was just past the entryway. Changes like these make the space more open and inviting and allow us to animate the space with inspiring activities like exhibitions and community engagements.

We’re also renovating our most important virtual asset: the library website. We’ve undertaken a twelve-month process to reimagine and relaunch library.queensu.ca. Right now, we’re engaging intensely with our users to better understand their journeys and pathways in our web spaces, not to mention their preferences and any needs not currently met. Design and development of the new website in response to these engagements are next. Our goal is to make the site more navigable, content-rich, and engaging than ever before, and we’re aiming to launch in early 2024. Stay tuned for our exciting website renovation, and further opportunities to contribute to the future of your library in both digital and physical spaces.

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