A man and a woman sitting in a library.

How do library leaders see the future of their institutions?

Research Project Name

The Post-Book Librarian?

What We Did

We held a series of roundtables convening library leaders from institutions across the US and UK to discuss their plans and visions for the evolution of their libraries to meet the shifting needs of students and schools. We followed the roundtables with a survey to gather further input from participants, and received responses from 45 library leaders of both public and private institutions. The project then culminated in a series of focused work sessions with key participants, resulting in a panel discussion at the 2014 SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas.

The Context

Many of the questions facing today’s libraries—and librarians—revolve around a central premise: Will the rising use of electronic sources and online readership reduce the need to house and access physical books? And if so, does the physical to digital shift have space implications as libraries plan for the future? A key challenge as we tackle these questions—which speak to not only the space but the idea of the library—is that for many, the library has become a proxy for a larger set of questions facing higher education.

Should institutions ride the wave of digital education and the much-hyped but as-yet-unproved benefits therein? Or is a focus on developing new curricula and places that support in-person learning and peer-to-peer interaction more aligned with learning outcomes? Should academic institutions, and their libraries, embrace an ever-expanding suite of services and experiences, from cafés to maker-spaces and innovation labs? Or should they redouble attention on the direct support of student studying, investigation, and access to information? These questions are at the core of our investigation as we seek a more holistic perspective on the present—and future—of the academic library.

The Results

Roundtable participants stressed the wide variety of roles and services that libraries currently provide and must continue to provide in the future. They also noted the challenge of creating a single conception of the library, emphasizing cultural and programmatic differences between facilities, as well as variations in usage by space, floor, and time of year.

The continued shift toward digital and online resources was top-of-mind for participants. Many expressed excitement at the potential evolution of their libraries and roles in light of these shifts, but also concerns that students were not fully equipped to effectively find information online while maintaining rigor and quality of information. When asked directly about their roles, participants noted the changing skillset and possibly even educational background of tomorrow’s library leader.

Survey respondents echoed these findings, underscoring a perceived departure from the traditional conception of the library leader. When asked about the future role of the librarian, respondents noted connection and engagement as key components of their jobs. The factors they considered most important to the library of the future included digital resources and collaborative space, followed by quiet space; books and stacks on-site fell well toward the bottom of the list. When asked to describe the ideal experience in the future library, flexibility, inspiration, stimulation, and collaboration top the librarian’s list while quiet, focused space ranked low.

Not all responses suggested wholesale change, however. When asked how library space is likely to be used in the future, respondents noted the importance of flexibility and supporting diversity of uses, but still focused on access to information and academic pursuits. Experimentation and event or community space do not appear to be a priority. And when asked how they measure success, librarians ranked student engagement and learning outcomes at the top. Whatever the library of the future becomes, it must continue to be a space directly focused on student learning.

What This Means

Create a seamless user experience, online and off. As libraries embrace a wider programming and resource range, ease of navigation and use grows in importance. Librarians have a key role to play, much of which may happen behind the scenes to create a seamless user experience that students can navigate on their own. And as student engagement happens as much online as in-person, creating a unified experience across all platforms and spaces is a key concern for the future.

Make the library your academic center of gravity. Refocus attention on the purpose and power of the academic library: a place for academic reflection and intellectual pursuit, and a central piece of a university’s intellectual life. Create libraries that serve as students’ and faculties’ gateway to knowledge in all of its forms, and live up to its symbolic role at the heart of the college campus.

Consider librarians as facilitators of experience. In the new library ecosystem, librarians and library staff must help students navigate the emerging mix of library services and spaces to maximum effect. Developing new strategies to engage students when and where they seek services will be necessary to achieve success.

What’s Next?

Our research confirms the vital importance of libraries to student and faculty life, but the future of these storied institutions is still very much in a state of flux. Defining the right spaces and services is a question that must be tailored to each campus and student population, unified by a drive to connect students to knowledge and resources—and help improve their learning experience and outcomes.

The student voice must play a growing role in this conversation, particularly as librarians seek to measure their success based on engagement and academic achievement. And alongside a willingness to evolve the physical and digital presence of the library to better meet student needs, it is equally imperative to know and celebrate what aspects of the library are currently working and don’t need to change.

Learn More


Mark Thaler, Christine Barber, Theodora Batchvarova, Anjali Bhalodia, David Broz, Madeline Burke-Vigeland, Alan Colyer, Carol Flower, Rachel Ganin, Kimberly Hickson, Julissa Lopez-Hodoyan, Karen Kuklin, Tony LoBello, Justin Mardex, Sarah Mathieson, Mark McMinn, Melissa Mizell, Tom Mulhern, Maria Nesdale, Marcel Ortmans, Tim Pittman, Stacy Reed, Oren Schumaker, Manan Shah, Ashley Summers, Michaela Winter

Year Completed