"What sort of university will we be, and with what sort of library?"

Symposium: The Library of the Future; the Future of the Library

Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin

08 October 2015


Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.

This is a crucial event for the university: today we launch the new Library Strategy, and we commence this year's programme of events around the theme, 'The Library of the Future, the Future of the Library'.

With this new Strategy and programme of events, we invite the whole College community, and interested members of the public, to reflect on the importance of our library and its future direction.

Trinity is asking the essential question: "What sort of university will we be, and with what sort of library?" It's a question which intimately involves all our staff and students. We welcome this opportunity to discuss, and perhaps contribute to, the Library’s future direction. 

We're particularly delighted that John Bowman is here to chair the discussion. He was our first choice as chair - for the authority he brings to all panel discussions and for his particular authority as an archivist and historian. This evening's themes are relevant to his own work; we're most grateful to have his expertise.

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In the College's overall Strategic Plan, which we launched almost exactly a year ago, the Library is referenced multiply. It is mentioned early, in the section on 'Values'. I quote:

"The College is located in the heart of Ireland’s vibrant capital city, on a beautiful campus where classical and contemporary buildings are grouped around the Old Library, home to the Book of Kells, and symbol of the college’s unshakeable commitment to learning."

That's an important positioning: Trinity is placed at the heart of Dublin city, and the Library is placed at the heart of Trinity, both physically and symbolically.

The Library is further referenced in the Strategic Plan in the sections on: alumni engagement, the student environment, research environments, and the Visitor experience. The Library goes across the Strategic Plan's nine goals, and this, again, signals its core centrality to the whole university.

Building on the Strategic Plan, the Library, under the leadership of our new Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton, has looked at the essential issues, and in this ambitious strategy has laid out priorities and goals for the next five years.

The Library strategy is perfectly aligned with the university's strategic priorities. It's important to emphasize this because the library and the university must operate as one.

I don't just mean that great libraries are fundamental to successful universities – that goes without saying. I mean that you cannot demarcate between a university and its library.

"What sort of university will we be, and with what sort of library?"

That's an 'Escher' question. We can flip it: "What sort of library will we be, and with what sort of university?" One defines the other.

Seamus Heaney, in his poem 'Lovers on Aran' catches the reciprocity which I'm trying to get at:

'Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves' collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.'

Sea and land and full identity. This will maybe replace my previous favourite description of a library, by the American historian, Shelby Foote, who said: "A university is but a collection of buildings around a library". That's wonderful, but it doesn't quite catch the give and take, the mutuality, between library and university.

To be a student or an academic is to engage with the library. I've studied, I believe, in every library in the university, including Luce Hall when it was a science library. My memories of Trinity are bound up with its libraries, and my relationship with them is an evolving one. As a fresher – in the days before mobile phones – you would go to the library to find people; as a postgraduate you might go to a different corner to escape people. As a junior lecturer you would go to design your curriculum – to see what texts were available, and which ones you needed to order, and how many copies. In this way, university staff have always helped stock and position the library. Reciprocity in action.

The way I engage with the library has changed according to my role in the university, and also of course – and more significantly - according to global changes in the dissemination of knowledge and in library user behaviours. It is these changes, so rapid and continuing, which have occasioned the need for this Strategy.

The pace of change is such that we may struggle today with the definition of a library. The dictionary definition of a library is: "a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music, for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution."

Of course this is, by now, inadequate, since it doesn’t reference digital databases. But I have greater issues with this definition – it fails to capture what I think of as essential to the library: dissemination and communality.  

Let's picture two scenes: the first is a storehouse of boxed books, say remainder copies. The second is a room with no books but people sitting quietly over their consoles. Which of these scenes depicts a possible library? Only the second.

It has become possible to envisage a bookless library, something which would have seemed an absurdity until this century.

When we first confronted the threat – as we saw it – to books from online, we imagined in our gloomier moments that libraries would be deserted, would become relics of 'The Age of Paper'. That hasn't happened, and doesn't look like happening. Because it turns out that libraries are far more flexible in definition than we realised.

The essence of a library isn't just the collection of knowledge in the form of books, recordings, and now digital databases. The essence is the discrimination of knowledge. This is true of all libraries to some extent – public libraries have to take decisions about what to put on their shelves – but it's particularly true of university libraries.

In a world that gains in knowledge all the time, accelerated by online, the job of discrimination becomes ever more important. If anything, university libraries in the 21st century are more essential than they have ever been. How else are we to evaluate and order the unceasing stream of knowledge?

And the other vital characteristic of a library is that – for all the emphasis on quiet - it's a group, communal space. Again, we are only realising the extent of this. We envisaged staff and students accessing knowledge at home on their laptops. This does happen but – whether it’s because humans are innately social or because we need the bibliothecal atmosphere to spur us to study – our libraries are as frequented as ever.

So, to return to the definition of a library – how about: 'a space where knowledge is disseminated and discriminated, and where we go to learn with others.' Is this definition flexible enough to encompass the rapid bibliothecal pace of change?

I suspect it may not be… This Library Strategy sets out, clearly, the priorities for the next five years. These include:

  • supporting users in navigating the rich, complex world of digital content;
  • leveraging technology to enhance services on-site and online;
  • developing appropriate storage of physical collections;
  • enabling different, changing styles of teaching and research, and catalysing collaborations; and
  • understanding and preparing for the social shift in the use of library spaces, learning spaces, and communal spaces.

It's clear, just from listing these priorities, that I will have to widen my previous definition to encompass teaching and research collaborations, roles which the Library is increasingly taking on.

And then, of course, when it comes to Trinity Library, we need a more specific definition again because Trinity library has very particular concerns. The Strategy details them:

  • we have unique collections which are a treasure house for future research. How do we curate and protect these collections and make them widely available to scholars? Last year there were over 2 million visitors to the virtual library from round the world, and this figure is growing all the time.
  • The Old Library is the centre of the Trinity visitor experience. How do we enhance this experience and develop innovative exhibitions to showcase our collections and research?
  • as a legal deposit library, we need to be thinking digitally, enabling e-legal deposit;
  • And the Library, as the heart of the university, is also at the heart of fund-raising initiatives, without which Trinity cannot continue to grow in excellence.

Taking all this into account, what might be a possible definition for Trinity library? Perhaps "the spaces within the university where knowledge is collected, disseminated and discriminated; where we go to learn, teach and collaborate with others, and where memory is curated in the form of archives and collections – the place which serves as a flagship for the College's activities and as an interface with wider society."  

Something like that… if we can keep the definition flexible enough to encompass what will undoubtedly be major on-going changes, year on year.

I congratulate the Library for the concision and precision of this Strategy, for its flexibility, ambition, and proactivity. The Strategy ends with a suite of inter-related policies and programmes which it plans to implement. The whole strategy gives reassurance that the Library is in very good hands.

In her introduction, Helen Shenton writes of Trinity's 'tradition of innovation', and she gives as examples, the creation of the barrel-vaulted roof of the Long Room, the design of the once-controversial Berkeley Library, and our leading role among Irish universities in automating the catalogue and integrating Conservation.

It's good to recall this 'tradition of innovation' and to remind ourselves that Trinity library has met previous challenges with calm expertise. I do believe that the challenges and opportunities currently confronting the Library are of a greater order than anything since perhaps the invention of the printing press – which is why, for the first time in the College's history, we have a specific strategy for the Library approved by the College Board.

I'm confident that the Library can draw on past strengths and current expertise to navigate the challenges for itself, and for the university, and indeed for other Irish universities.

As a legal deposit library, with particularly valuable collections, in Ireland's leading university, Trinity's library holds a unique position, nationally. One of our college-wide goals in the university's Strategic Plan is "to demonstrate institutional leadership". With this Strategy and this year-long programme of events, the Library is doing just that.

I thank Helen Shenton and her team for the leadership they have shown and the ambition they have set.

Over the past three years the College has launched successively, and always in the Michelmas term: Global Relations Strategy, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Strategy, the Strategic Plan, and now the Library Strategy. With these October launches, we gear up for the coming academic year and announce our ambition. This is the Year of the Library. We look forward to learning and contributing.

Thank you.

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