Publication Date

April 1, 1993



Information technology—the set of computer and telecommunications technologies that support the storage, retrieval, and use of information—has captured the imagination of our most advanced thinkers and inspired a vision of networked information as the library of the future. This is a flawed vision, however, for it is not technology that will define the library of the future; rather, it is how and for what purposes students and scholars will use information—the ways of learning and knowing—that will shape the structures that support research and library resources.

I. Challenges to the Traditional Library

The convergence of three tidal trends is undermining traditional notions about research libraries and has prompted the search for new models to support the scholarly resources needed for research. These trends are: new economic conditions that are affecting higher education and research libraries, changing patterns of research and inquiry that are increasingly incongruent with existing library programs and services, and the dramatic development of information technologies that are changing the methods of research and learning. We need to understand how these trends are affecting scholars and their implications for library resources.

The New Economic Reality and Library Resources

A new economic reality is shaping the way we think about higher education and library resources. Operating costs for colleges and universities have risen 23 percent more than inflation over the last decade and tuition has risen twice as fast over the same period. State support for higher education is now at a thirty-year low and federal support has also declined. Moreover, total library costs are rising faster than income, a trend that is not likely to change in the immediate future.

The cost of research materials is also soaring. Journal prices have risen by 400 percent in the past 20 years and the cost of acquisitions is increasing by 20 to 30 percent a year. In addition, the quantity of publications is also expanding. An estimated 850,000 volumes are published annually and the rate is increasing by 2.5 percent a year. In fact, research libraries are acquiring a smaller portion of publications and other research materials and are paying more for what they acquire. At the same time, most libraries have insufficient space for new acquisitions. The Harvard University Library acquires nearly 200,000 volumes each year and, at that rate, we can expect it to double from its current 12 million volumes to 25 million in 20 to 25 years. And because the central library can no longer house this growth, the library now has to pay to store books that cannot be shelved on site, thereby adding to the library's operating budget.

Even new information technologies, thought by some to provide a model for the library of the future, may also be seen as adding to the library's economic woes. It has been estimated that, nationally, libraries now spend nearly 30 percent of their budget on technology. Although this figure seems high, there can be no doubt that expenditures are substantial and rising, provoking fear among traditional scholars that the money spent on technology is being diverted from books and traditional research collections. Moreover, although converting the card catalog to machine-readable form and including electronic indexes and bibliographical databases to the automated catalog is making research more efficient, experience indicates that this also results in increased use of the collection. And as circulation rises, so does the cost of servicing and preserving collections. New technologies also raise reader expectations for increased library services, such as assistance and instruction in using information technologies, document delivery, greater capabilities for online searching, and additional electronic products, all of which drive total library costs even higher.

These changing economic conditions constitute a new reality that tends to limit the thinking of librarians to developing strategies for reducing costs and limiting acquisitions in order to maintain the library in its traditional form. But clearly, the economic conditions now buffeting higher education will diminish the ability of universities, as well as research libraries, to operate as they have in the past. In the end, adherence to the traditional conception of the research library will lead to continuing decline and diminished resources for research.

Changing Patterns of Research: Implications for Libraries

An important and not well understood phenomenon is the way changes in research have both altered the use of libraries and made them increasingly incongruent with research needs. Academic research has undergone significant change during the past three or four decades, resulting in greater emphasis on scholarship of application and intellectual utility. In the humanities and social sciences, there has been a shift away from interpreting canonical texts and scholarship for the sake of erudition, toward examining the context or frame of reference within which a text, idea, or activity may be understood. There is also greater emphasis on novelty and generalizable theories and, very often, they are focused on the present or recent past.

One consequence of these changes in the methods and direction of research has been an increase in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, leading to a proliferation of new courses and areas of intellectual interest that are more likely to reflect changes in society and culture than earlier academic disciplines. Greater emphasis is now given to expressions of everyday life—social and cultural history, studies of women and families, popular culture, and public perceptions and beliefs about a variety of issues. Moreover, the sources for documenting these activities are more varied; a much greater proportion of today's information and artistic expression is in the form of imagery, and these changes in research sources, in turn, affect the methods and direction of research. As a result, scholars are now more inclined to seek a range of nonprint materials that are only partially represented in an individual library's collection: images, including photographs and motion picture films; popular literature; ephemera; spatial data; personal papers and archives; and virtually anything that might reflect the attitudes, activities, and culture of a society.

There are important implications for libraries resulting from the changes in research and the proliferation of nonprint sources for documenting new forms of inquiry and research. First, there is the obvious pressure on libraries to acquire and make accessible new research sources at a time when library budgets are constrained. Second, the sheer quantity of research sources places a premium on increasing the efficiency of research by automating the card catalog and other bibliographic tools, which, as I have already indicated, also drives up library costs. Finally, research libraries are organized to serve traditional scholarship and are less effective in supporting the newer patterns of research and instruction. Cataloging and the classification of books reflect traditional academic disciplines and are increasingly at odds with the interdisciplinary research and instruction. For some librarians, automation and networked information suggest a path to the future; for others, these developments portend a future in which scholars may dispense with the library altogether.

The most significant implication of the changing nature of inquiry and research is that it allows scholars to define collegial relationships according to their research interests rather than location or instructional affiliation. The particular inquiry, rather than the academic discipline, is now the primary engine of research. One's research colleagues are as likely to reside halfway across the country or the world, as down the hall in one's own department. To think of research as part of a "system" of research that is national and international in scope forces us to change the way we think about the sources that support research. The stresses and strains of these diverse pressures are challenging traditional views about the mission and operation of research libraries and are prompting some librarians and scholars to consider new models for providing library resources.

New Technologies: Impact on the Methods of Research and Instruction

There can be little doubt that new technologies are having and will continue to have an enormous impact on libraries, although precisely what that impact will be is less certain than many prognosticators would have us believe. The key issue is how information technologies affect and perhaps change scholarly communication and the methods of doing research. There are five areas or themes that promise to be particularly important for teaching and research: identification of sources, scholarly communication, interpretation and analysis of information, dissemination of research findings, and curriculum development and instruction.

Perhaps the most noticeable change in research methods or, at least, the scholar's use of libraries, is electronic access to library catalogs and databases. There are over two hundred major library catalogs now available on the Internet, and many libraries, including Harvard, are making databases such as Academic Index and Public Affairs Information Service available through their catalogs. No longer will a scholar have to come to the library to use the catalog or a variety of guides and access tools. Moreover, the explosion of commercial services offering electronic access to periodical literature and even electronic delivery of full texts may affect both scholarly communication and the use of journals. At this point, one can only speculate about the impact of these changes in identifying and using periodical literature, but it would appear that the article, rather than the journal, will become the unit of retrieval and use for scholars in the future.

The most dramatic technological changes have occurred in communications, and these changes could have a profound impact on scholarship. E-mail and voice-mail are already transforming the ways in which we all work, but the ultimate direction and value of list servers and electronic conferences is still a novelty for many scholars. Electronic communication does offer enormous potential for collaborative research, but in the humanities, at least, where scholarship is individualistic and highly competitive, it is not yet clear that scholars will choose to take advantage of its potential benefit for research.

The proliferation of electronic databases and the ability to convert research sources to digital form could play a significant role in academic research. The Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, and the Dante Project are only a few of the better known projects that provide original data and textual information in electronic form. There are also many projects to convert archives—for example, the personal papers of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce—to electronic form, and the reuse of these databases may become increasingly important for research. Moreover, the use of imagery and visualization to clarify relationships between seemingly unrelated activities and events has considerable potential for both the humanities and the social sciences. On the other hand, the use of artificial intelligence for research purposes, which promises to become more important in the social sciences for modeling decisionmaking, has thus far had a limited impact on most scholars in the humanities.

Perhaps the most talked about development, especially among librarians and publishers, is electronic publishing. There are several journals that are frequently mentioned as harbingers of the future, such as Psycoloquy, ArtCom, and Post Modern Culture. But the first authentic attempt to publish a refereed academic journal is the new Current Clinical Trials. The fact that this is a medical journal is not insignificant. Whether humanists and social scientists, for whom immediacy of publication is less important, will be able or even want to publish electronically is very much an open question. Electronic publishing really depends more on the academic tenure review and promotion process than it does on the economics of publishing or the desire of academic associations to exercise greater control over scholarly communication.

It is quite possible that the most significant impact of technology, at least in the short run, may be on academic instruction. Hypermedia applications may replace textbooks as a basic tool for instruction. The nonlinear format of hypertext incorporating images and sound provides an opportunity to create powerful instructional programs that permit a student to control the sequence, speed, depth, and focus of a topic, within the limits set by an author. In effect, the use of technology in instruction offers the possibility of tailoring instruction to the aptitudes and learning behavior of the individual and the student's own need to know, and offers a powerful incentive for future development.

Visionaries believe that the electronic network will become the library of the future. It is not, of course, unreasonable to assume that information technologies, like previous "information" technologies, such as mechanical printing, will change the ways of knowing, that is, the ways in which we perceive, evaluate, and analyze problems. But precisely how learning and the methods of research change as a result of information technologies will only become clear in hindsight, perhaps decades or even a hundred years from now. The wild card in this equation is the scholar. We simply can't predict with any certainty how scholars will use technology or how technology will affect the methods of research and scholarly communication. There can be little doubt that information technologies will influence the future support for library resources, but predicting the future direction and impact of information technologies is highly problematic; predicting how they will be used by scholars is impossible.

II. The Future of Library Resources

What does the changing intellectual and economic environment and the development of new technologies mean for the future of library resources? Three themes or new directions are likely to influence libraries and effect their support of research and instruction in the future.

First, the changing nature of inquiry and the growth in the quantity and variety of research sources is, as I have indicated, creating a national system of research. The challenge for librarians and other informational professions will be to develop local resources as part of a national system of sources for research. One outcome of changing patterns of research and limited library resources may be the revival of an old idea—resource sharing and collaborative collection building. There is a growing realization among librarians that no library can possibly acquire all of the needed print materials, let alone the variety and range of nonprint materials required for interdisciplinary research. Developing national catalogs and preservation programs is one part of this perception; sharing resources and entering into collaborative collection building is the logical next step. If in the past it was faculty pressure that compelled libraries to emphasize local collections instead of resource sharing, research demand for access to an expanding pool of research sources may now prompt libraries to share resources and develop collaborative programs in the future.

The response of research libraries to changes in the intellectual and economic environment is also reflected in library operations. Traditional libraries are warehouses that housed all of the resources one might conceivably want for research. No library ever attained this ideal, but it was the premise upon which research libraries were constructed, and all library programs and operations flowed from this premise. The traditional library is essentially a supply-based model in which the allocation of resources is determined primarily by acquisitions. Collections are stored on site with the expectation that users will come to the library to use them. Library services are passive, that is, circulation, reference, and other library services respond to on-site use. Even preservation decisions, which are of course based on the condition of materials and generally determined by circulation, are seldom influenced by the purposes for which research materials will be used. In the traditional library, the librarian's role is determined by the acquisition, storage, cataloging, and servicing of artifacts. The traditional research library is a passive system in which total costs are rising as the benefit to scholars declines; it is a system for supporting research that may no longer be sustainable in its current form.

The library of the future might best be characterized as a service center, that is, a library that does not hold its entire collection on site and, in fact, develops its collection as part of a national system of research sources. Again, using an economic metaphor, the research library of the future is most likely to be demand-based, in which use, rather than the ownership of collections, is a determining element in library operations. The frequency and the purpose of use is already a primary consideration in determining whether books are located in Widener or in remote storage. Moreover, both the type of use—for example, reference—and where books are shelved are major factors in deciding about the level of cataloging and the type of preservation required for books. Increasingly, information about the location of research materials—catalogs, guides, indexes, bibliographies, and even texts—are available through computer terminals. A researcher is no longer required to come to the library to consult the catalog. Before long, researchers will not have to visit the library to use some periodical literature and perhaps other research sources as well. The role of librarians in this new environment will not be determined exclusively by the need to manage a collection of artifacts; rather, the task will be to manage a system of research sources, only a portion of which are held locally.

Finally, another implication of the changing economic and intellectual environment will be to alter the role of librarians and other information professionals who are responsible for supporting research. The task will shift from a custodial function to one focused on instruction and the use of information, that is, a manager of a system of research sources that includes all forms and sources of research located near or far. As managers of a system of research sources, librarians will need to pay greater attention to developing and maintaining national standards for new information technologies so that the information supported by electronic systems is useful for a variety of scholarly purposes. Traditionally, librarians have created catalogs, indexes, guides, bibliographies, and various tools to provide access to research sources. In an electronic environment, however, creating and disseminating information are less distinct processes than they are in the world of print, and librarians may need to be more active partners in developing databases and instructional programs, and in supporting the process of scholarly communication.

The growing importance of technology in libraries and research will encourage administrators to seek individuals experienced in technology. Certainly, in this changing environment recruiting librarians who are technically competent to help scholars make effective use of information technologies will be important. But in making the transition from the traditional library, in which acquisitions determine the allocation of resources for programs and services, to libraries in which the uses of the varied sources of research is instrumental, the most important ingredient for success may be in attracting and developing individuals who are conversant with the process and discipline of research itself and the variety of sources needed to nourish it.

— is associate librarian of Harvard College for Public Services. He received a Ph.D. in American intellectual history from the University of Maryland and has written extensively about library and archival issues. This article is reprinted with permission from the Information of Technology Quarterly Fall 1992).


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