Three challenges: Engaging, rightscaling and innovating

A framework of engagement, innovation and rightscaling is used to talk about some of the ways in which the library is changing. This is based on a model developed by John Hagel and John Seely Brown.
Lorcan 9 min read
Three challenges: Engaging, rightscaling and innovating
The harbour in Hobart, Australia, location of the Theta conference. 
I was in Australia recently, primarily to attend the conference intriguingly entitled ‘The edge of the world‘. The presentation I gave is embedded below. This was the latest Theta conference, the Australian parallel to Educause. More recently, I was pleased to attend parts of the CIC Center for Library Initiatives conference, hosted by The Ohio State University, here in Columbus. Finally, Kurt de Belder recently gave a presentation at OCLC in our Distinguished Speaker Series, in which he spoke about the transformation of the academic library.
In Hobart, after some introductory material, I spoke about three challenges for libraries: a shift to engagement, rightscaling infrastructure, and innovation, notably institutional innovation. I only attended some of the sessions at the CIC meeting but I was struck by the correspondences between what I heard there and the challenges I identified. It also seemed to me that much of what Kurt spoke about aligned well with these challenges.
This blog entry briefly talks about each challenge and illustrates them with examples from the CIC conference and Kurt’s presentation.


Engagement, infrastructure and innovation are related of course. As engagement becomes more important, libraries are reducing local infrastructure where it does not make a distinctive local impact (print collections and systems, for example). Greater engagement means that there may be a need for new services which requires innovation. Over time innovations may become established and generate infrastructure requirements, which may be provided in different ways.

Libraries always did these three things, but I think the nature of the current challenge is different. Libraries are looking at more and different ways of engaging with their users as patterns of research, learning and personal information use change in a network environment, and are actively looking to re-allocate resources to support his shift. At the same time, the emergence of the network makes it possible to chose to source infrastructure in different ways and at different levels, introducing new choices and partner opportunities.

1. The shift to engagement

By engagement, I mean that libraries are working to create distinctive value in the research, learning and teaching workflows of their users in ways which go beyond the provision of collections.

In this context, Kurt de Belder speaks about the library as an active partner in knowledge. Scott Walter spoke recently about the service turn, a direction in which libraries aim for distinction in the services they offer, as the distinctive value of collections is less strong, and content is less scarce

And I was struck by this formulation by the University of Minnesota Libraries:

In alignment with the University’s strategic positioning, the University Libraries have re-conceived goals, shifting from a collection-centric focus to one that is engagement-based. // PDF

Think of these trends:

  • Users used to build their workflows around libraries. Now the library needs to build services around user workflows, especially as those workflows form around broader network services. So, for example we see libraries expose their knowledge bases to Google Scholar; introduce support for Mendeley and Zotero alongside Endnote or Refworks; reach out to provide curricular or grants support; and other ways in which they more directly support changing workflows. Kurt de Belder spoke about their support for researchers through VREs (virtual research environments), systems to support group working and research workflow (in their case, based on the Sharepoint toolkit developed by Microsoft Research).
  • Libraries used to acquire and organize ‘published’ materials. Now they are engaged with the full range of creation, management and disclosure of learning and scholarly resources. For example, we are seeing library provide copyright, publishing, or bibliometric advice; engage with the emerging scholarly publishing practices of their faculty; explore research data management strategies; actively promote institutional research and learning outputs through the institutional repository; … This means that promoting institutional materials on the network becomes more important.
  • Library spaces used to be configured around the management and use of print collections; now they are configured around engagement with researchers and learners, around experiences, expertise, and specialist facilities. For example, libraries provide better spaces for social interaction around learning or communication tasks; they promote access to specialist data, GIS, or other expertise; and they mount exhibitions which highlight relevant aspects of special collections and archives.

These are all examples of how libraries are reallocating resource and effort to engage more strongly with the learning and research lives of their users, focused on improving the learning experience, making research more productive and research outputs more visible.

One signal of this shift is the debate around the library subject or liaison role. Kurt de Belder describes a shift in Leiden University from collection specialists to outreach which is ‘service and expertise based’. Liaison librarians will partner around ‘data curation, copyright, text and data-mining, e-publishing and dissemination, GIS, datasets’.

Clearly, given its topic, the CIC conference focused on new forms of engagement with the faculty around curation and dissemination of research outputs, around new forms of scholarly publishing, and around publishing support and advisory services.

Four things occurred to me as I listened, specific to this particular discussion about publishing support, but which might be generalised to other emerging forms of engagement with research and learning.

  1. These are areas where libraries are exploring a range of services, which means that each library’s approach will be different. And each library’s activity will be differently situated in relationship to other campus services. This was very clear in the final panel session where participants spoke about how services were organized. There is no consistent organizational pattern, for example, for the relationship between copyright and other advisory services, library publishing services, university press, research data management, and institutional repository. In this context, I was also interested to recently see how Penn State had aligned special collections and scholarly publishing services in one division.
  2. It is sometimes difficult to discern between edge cases and emerging services: are alternative forms of monograph peer review and publication going to emerge as important categories for example, or will they remain experimental?
  3. There is a balance between doing extensive custom work for one faculty member or department and the ability to scale services effectively across a campus community.
  4. Emergent areas live beside established practices. This may lead to a more plural environment, or over time to disruption or absorption. Think of the various scenarios that might play out with open access publishing and alt-metrics for example. There were CIC panels in each of these areas, with participation by representatives from Elsevier and Thompson Reuters.

For me, this discussion underlined the innovation challenge I discuss below. Exploration and experiment has to turn into something repeatable and scalable if it is to become part of the library portfolio. And much of the required innovation is around the institutions through which we organize to get work done – think of the changing relationship of University Press and Library, for example.

2. Rightscaling

Libraries were predominantly ‘institution-scale’ – they provided services at the level of the institution for their local users. However, their users now look to the network for information services (e.g. Google Scholar, Wikipedia, …). And libraries now look to the network to collaborate or to source services (e.g. HathiTrust, cloud-based discovery or management systems, shared systems infrastructure, …). At the same time, we are seeing a growing interest in shared management of the collective print collection, as regional and other consortia emerge to rebalance print management across groups of libraries.

In this environment the need for local infrastructure declines (e.g. extensive print collections, redundantly deployed local systems which provide necessary but not distinctive services). The scale advantage of different ways of doing things manifests itself in both impact and efficiency. Think of HathiTrust. It has more impact, because it acts as a gravitational hub on the nework. And it is more efficient to consolidate this activity rather than spread it redundantly across many libraries.

Print collections provide an interesting example of emerging infrastructure consolidation. In seven years time, say, a large part of the existing print collection in libraries will have moved into shared management, with a reduced local footprint. The opportunity costs of locally managing large print collections which release progressively less value into research and learning are becoming too pressing for this not to happen. There is a low engagement return on this infrastructure investment.

At the CIC meeting, scale came up in several contexts. John Wilkin spoke about how the consolidation of publishing activities in one unit and the sharing of infrastructure across them allowed the separate activities to benefit from scale, and achieve a level of activity that would have been impossible if they had remained separate, scattered across the University of Michigan. Charles Watkinson mentioned that it was usual to outsource technical infrastructure at Purdue. And in his closing remarks, Mark Sandler mentioned previous discussions about a single university press for the CIC. He suggested that it might be more reasonable to explore a model in which backoffice infrastructure was shared, but where engagement with research, author relations, press identity, remained individual to each campus. In the vocabulary used here, he was speculating that infrastructure might scale to the level of a regional consortium, while engagement might remain at institution-scale.

On a national scale, Kurt de Belder spoke about the Dutch bibliographic infastructure, currently provided in partnership with OCLC. He reported discussion about whether there continued to be a need for national-sscale services in the current network envioronment, and whether in fact they should go to more global provision at the network level.

Of course, although rightscaling is an important infrastructure issue, it is not limited to infrastructure. Kurt also spoke about the lack of scale as a broader library issue. He argued that each individual library could not specialize in the range of expertise required to deliver current services. He spoke, for example, about research data management services in the context of the full range of disciplines on a campus. In this context, he spoke for national and international collaboration around networks of provision to get local jobs done.

These examples show how rightscaling has become a central question for libraries. Do I build something myself? Do I do it collaboratively? Do I outsource it to a third party? Again, look at discovery systems or library management systems in this context, or look at the trend to managing down print collections alongside emerging shared print initiatives. Think of the models in use for preservation (LOCKSS, Portico). Think of newer services like analytics or recommendations where an institutional perspective may not scale and collaborative or third party approaches will be necessary. Think of how important it is to make sure that your resolver is correctly configured in Scholar or PubMed. Questions increasingly arise around cloud provision, around collaboration, or around outsourcing to third parties.

As libraries want to emphasize impact and engagement, and de-emphasize activities which do not create distinctive local value, rightscaling becomes a key question.

3. Institutional innovation

As behaviors and structures shift, innovation becomes central.

I think of two big trends here. The first is a shift – well underway – from thinking about the library as a fixed set of services (bureaucratic) to thinking about it as an organization which reconfigures to map changes in its user environment and expectations (enterprise). The second shift is around institutional innovation and the learning that flows from it.

I wrote about the first of these shifts a while ago.

Historically, libraries enjoyed stability and a shared understanding of goals. This in turn favored a focus on managing and improving the means towards those goals – building the collection, providing reference service, creating efficiencies in technical processing, and so on. This was the focus of professional practice and education. Much of this work is inherently bureaucratic. However, in an environment of change while overall mission and values may remain the same, new and shifting goals become the norm. Think of greater integration in the learning and research process through greater curriculum support, data curation, scholarly publishing, or support for grant writing or expertise profiles. Think of network based reading services, or jobseeking and homework support. As goals shift in a changing environment, so does the need to think about how to marshall the means to meet them. This may need reorganization, new staff skills, changing priorities, reallocation of staff and resources, and so on. It requires a shift from bureaucracy to enterprise, an adaptive organization that reviews and reshapes what it does in light of changing requirements. // The Enterprising Librarian

Coping with change requires an enterprising orientation, one which recognizes that resources and effort must be continually adapted to meet the needs of the library user.

Institutional innovation is the second trend I note here, one which is inevitable as internal and external partnerships rebalance effort. Libraries have to develop new and routine ways of collaborating to achieve their goals, which involves evolution of organizational, cultural and communication approaches. At the same time they have to negotiate internal boundaries and forge new structures within institutions. In each case, they are developing new ‘relationship architectures’ (to use a phrase of Hagel and Seely Brown’s).

Think for example of the institutional innovation required to move to shared systems and collections in the Orbis Cascade Alliance or 2CUL for example.

Or think of the innovative approach which makes new relationships within institutions (with Learning and Teaching Support, with the Office of Research, the University Press, emerging e-research infrastructure, IT, etc, for example, or with various educational or social services in a public setting). Evolving such relationships requires an enterprising approach and ensures continual learning, as staff interact with colleagues elsewhere to evolve new structures and services.

We are used to thinking of innovation in relation to startups. Here is a definition from Steve Blank: “a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”. This is useful as it reminds us that to be successful. In library terms, innovation has to result in repeatable and scalable services which can be supported over time. And this brings us back to the type of engagement that is valuable and the infrastructure that is required to support it.

Much of the discussion around the examples I have used is an exploration of how to make identified new services repeatable and scalable, and of how to evolve the skills and organizational settings to support them.

Rightscaling, engagement, learning: reconfiguring the library for a network environment from Lorcan Dempsey


The framework used here is influenced by the categories used in Unbundling the corporation, Harvard Business Review, 77, 2. January 1, 1999.

Institutional change and learning is discussed by John Hagel and John Seely Brown in Institutional innovation: creating smarter organizations to scale learning, (January 01, 1999).

Picture: I took the feature image in Hobart, Tasmania.

Note: Cosmetically amended on 1 April 2021 to add feature image and headings, and to improve spacing. Introduction shortened 11 November 2022.

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