Towards Rubicon: A Story About Libraries That Turn And Face The Strange

Text of my talk at Asamblea REBIUN 2016 in Palma, Mallorca, Nov. 9th 2016 (slides in the end of post)

The combination of libraries and Spain has been real good to me in 2016. Back in March I had the pleasure of attending the OCLC EMEA Regional conference in Madrid and do a little talk on how to tell The Library Story with LEGO and now I’m here, in Palma de Mallorca with you guys. I feel very blessed to get an hour of talk with 110 university library leaders.

I was asked if I would do a talk on current struggles and challenges for academic libraries but I find that a theme in lack of some important elements and aspect in the discussion of the future of libraries. Where does challenges come from? Where does opportunities come from? They are mainly driven by changes in our surroundings and changes, if we like them or not, are here to stay. Not much in this world are static and in order to develop and grow I strongly believe that libraries needs to embrace the change and face the strange. Not ignore it or fight it. So my talk will be about that.

Changes are very real: Trump just got elected the most powerful man in the world  a few hours ago and today it is 27 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall – stuff that are changing the world. With this talk I will not give you the key to the future of libraries but hopefully it will give you some reflections and fuel for thoughts on how to navigate your libraries and institutions forward, asking the right questions as you go along.

I like to start off with a little story. It’s a story about Caesar, a river and the importance of making choices.

The calendar says the 10th of January in the year 49 BC. We are in the Italian city, Ravenna, and the General and Governor of Gaul, Julius Caesar, has a problem. The Senate in Rome has given him an ultimatum: Either he’ll give up his province and his army or he will be declared an enemy of the State. Like any man or woman of power, Caesar is not very pleased about this. Though he seems not to care: he eats dinner with friends and goes to the circus. But at nighttime he leads a single legion into the dark towards the River of Rubicon. Rubicon is the boarder river between his North Italian province and the State of Rome. Caesar reaches Rubicon in the early morning and looks out on the water. Now it get’s interesting. He has to make a choice: If he don’t passes the river but returns to his province of Gaul, trying to maintain status quo, he will over time be marginalized in the Roman Empire and be defeated by the powers that is gathering around him. If he crosses the river there is no turning back. It would be to declare war against Rome. He will put himself in great danger but, and this is very important, will remain the initiative on his own hands.

As many of you may know, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and he succeeded with his mission and his empire lasted for many years on.

What’s the point of telling this story? Well, Caesar looked at his surroundings and the conditions for his empire and life was changing. Pretty dramatic I would say. And Caesar made a choice of action. He faced the strange knowing he might fail but certain that he 100% would fail if he did not acted. If he had chosen status quo and stayed in his province he would have lost. When the conditions for libraries are changing we should always ask ourselves if it’s time to cross Rubicon. Libraries that remains status quo in a changing world jeopardize the value of libraries. Leading a library of status quo through tides of changes is a bad trip and will in the end result in a library out of sync with it’s community and the needs it serve.

Not much in this world is static and the conditions for higher education, research and libraries are certainly not. And just to make it clear, changes is not a bad thing, it’s a condition, like love – it can be fantastic and it can be hurtful but you can’t escape it. My hope with this talk is that you in the future, whenever you face changes, got the fantastic David Bowie song Changes in your head and feel ready to turn and face the strange with your libraries.


I love questions. I think they are an excellent tool for challenging status quo and in order to face the strange we need to ask the right questions. Here is my bid on which questions that could be good to ask when we look at libraries that needs to turn and face the strange:

  • What’s the purpose of higher education?

We don’t make academic libraries for their own sake. We make them to support research and higher education. So in order to frame development and changes in libraries we need to look at higher education. I will return to the purpose of research and higher education.

  • What changes effects higher education?

Plenty to go around. I will return to that too.

  • Which challenges and opportunities do those changes bring to higher education?

Good stuff and not so good stuff is, as you know, often a consequence of changes.

  •  To which challenges and opportunities in higher education is The Library the answer?

And enter The Library. It’s in the changing landscape of research and higher education we find the key to the libraries of the future – the libraries that continuously bring value to our institutions, communities and society.

And to the basic question: Why are libraries here? I like successful libraries but that is not the end goal. The end goal is to make higher education succeed. To make learning, research, education, students and researchers succeed. If you accomplish that then you got a really great library.

Let’s go further into that. Why should we make higher education succeed? Why do we even use money and time on research and higher education? Because research, education, learning and enlightenment is the answers to a better world. The world we see on this fine day in Palma is not a great world. We are struggling with poverty, refugee crisis, hunger and an extreme high degree of inequality when it comes to both gender and race issues. I don’t find that we are doing that cool on this planet.

Research and higher education can help fix this. Let me give you an example: In Pennsylvania there are to cities only around 30 miles from each other, Monessen and Pittsburgh. Both cities experienced glory times in the industrial area due to huge markets of steal and coal. Suddenly, in the beginning of the 80’s, globalization and the rise of the knowledge society changed that: Companies could get steal and coal for a cheaper prize abroad and new materials for fuel and building stuff saw daylight. Pittsburgh alone lost 55.000 jobs in steal and coal from 1980 to 1984 – over half of the workforce.

The two cities reacted very differently to this change: Monessen tried to remain status quo sticking to the steal and coal industry and Pittsburgh turned to partnerships between higher education and entrepreneurship and cooperate companies. The partnership between the two universities of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh and Cornell University, and entrepreneurship turned out very fruitful and quickly generated new products, companies and jobs. Pittsburgh blossomed into the city we know today where higher education, urban culture, start-ups, creativity and cooperate companies swim along like fish’s in the water. Monessen has slowly turned into a ghost town with closed industry, unemployment and empty houses.

Technology and globalization happened to Monessen and Pittsburg. It also happened to higher education. Let’s look at some of the game changers in research and higher education that has taken place over the last decades.

First of all information has to some degree been liberated from time and place. Here I’m talking about the digital migration of scientific books and journals. A scholar can easily go to Burkina Faso or Birmingham and still access all the relevant online journals he or she needs. This is obvious a very good thing but information also comes with huge limitation. Yep, I’m talking about paywall’s, about single use deals on ebooks, about the fact that tax money pay for research, research is published in commercial journals and is then bought back with tax money through libraries.

Another change is the way scholars collect and work with information. Today it’s possible with some pretty simple tools and methods to harvest terabits of data, could be all the tweets from the election last night, clean them up, analyze them and visualize the results.

Education and learning has escaped the classroom years ago. Both on a formal level but to a high degree also on an informal level. All universities and institutions of higher education nowadays have learning management systems for learning, sharing of resources and so on but students also make Facebook groups for sharing notes, discussions on courses, peer-to-peer help on Zotero etc. To some extent learning has always taken place outside the classroom but like information in general the technological development has made time and place insignificant. “Didn’t went to the lecture? Here is a podcast or I can share my notes with you through Evernote.

Many of the changes I just mentioned have to do with technology and technology does not only change stuff we work with, it also changes our behaviors’ and our culture. And obvious it’s not only changing students and researchers of today but also those of tomorrow. My son is born in 2010. When he was 2 years old he was pretty confident with navigating on an iPad. So confident that, when he was watching television and he wanted to switch the channel, he went to the screen and swiped it (and got pretty upset when the channel didn’t change). At the age of 2, technology has already changed the way he behaved towards a medium I at the age of 33 took for granted. Imagine when he starts at university.


So I’ve talked a bit about how our world is not in such a pretty great shape and some current game changers in higher education. Is The Library the answer to any of this? Yes it is and I believe the overall answer too many of those changes is “Open”. Open access, open data, open science, open spaces and open systems.

I find open access beautiful and I truly believe that open access to digital scientific content will make a better world. Open access to information, data, thoughts, knowledge and insights is a driver for enlightenment, learning and education and that is a crucial platform from which we could all start to go towards a better world. That’s my basic believe in open access but reality is something else. It’s a fuzzy and complex battlefield with strong commercial powers involved and I don’t know how the setup is in Spain but in Denmark we don’t see many universities in front of the bus of the open access fan club. I see librarians in front of that bus.

If we just take a leap from the open access discussion and look at library collection management I like OCLC’s Lorcan Dempsey’s excellent “Inside Out Library” idea. For many years libraries has been focusing on collecting information from the world to provide it to students and researches at their universities. That is and “Outside In Library” approach which by the way of course is still valid and important. A few years back Dempsey introduced the “Inside Out Library” which is focusing on gathering and organizing the output of our own institutions and to be a great repository of the knowledge created there. The knowledge that in many cases are building blocks for a better world.

As you all know the only information going around in higher education and research these days is not only to be found in books and online journals. Data is a thing and there where times a year or two ago where the endless discussion on “Big Data” made me kind off sick to my stomach. Anyway, this stuff is very real in two areas: Talking data and higher education I like to distinguish between data literacy and data management where data literacy is the skills and competencies to harvest, clean, analyze and visualize data in order to get wiser on the world and data management is a crucial part of the research flow when it comes to storage of data during projects, and how to share and deposit the final data at the end of a project. I think libraries plays a big part in both: Data literacy is an obvious extension to the great work libraries do in support of information literacy and librarians are born badass data management consultants due to the meta data skills and position as supporter of research.

The most important asset of any library goes home at night – the library staff” Tim Healy ones said. I agree so now let’s take a look at the librarian. First of all I like to challenge the believe I meet in many places that librarianship is neutral. We promote open access and open science. That’s not neutral, that’s active. We advocate and teach information and data literacy skills that we think a crucial to make students and scholars succeed in higher education. That’s not neutral, that’s active. We build collections, services, infrastructure and communities. That’s not neutral, that’s active. I think it’s important that we take on a role as active partners in creating an open environment in academia for literature, data, education, research and spaces for open and unjudgemental dialog.


To take on the role of an active partner in higher education moving towards more open environment we need a diverse set of skills and mindsets. The library really is nothing without people and diversity is king when it comes to making a great library: we need people with different background when it comes to education, age, race and gender to create a dynamic workforce that together contributes to an academic library that can meet the needs of a community in change. And we need bold leadership who are not in the game because they want to save libraries but because the want to make research and higher education succeed.

The physical space of the library has changed over the years as you know. We don’t build libraries for books anymore, we build libraries for people. And I think it’s fair to say, that our library spaces plays a crucial role in creating and openness in academia. First of all, the whole idea of the library is to be an open platform for everybody – every student, scholar, researcher despite subjects, courses, seniority, gender and race. The Library is common ground for interdisciplinarity and sharing of ideas and point of views across campus but also between academia and entrepreneurship. The Library is an unique platform for this and the librarians are in an obvious position to facilitate it.

Also the library space is a place that lacks evaluation and authority when it comes to student’s performance. We don’t give them grades and the library staff is not considered an authority the same way the teacher is but more of a support and partner in making them succeed. Our job is to make students succeed. We do that in many ways, both the traditional ways like access to relevant literature, information seeking and reference management courses, study and learning spaces but also in more untraditional ways like de-stressing dog therapy or as we do in Copenhagen, Library Candle Light Dinners to support the integration of international students.

An open space for studies and learning and with a staff that is focused not on grades but on students succeed is an important answer to both quality in studies and quality in life.

So I have been talking about some of the problems of the world and some of the changes in higher education and how libraries in general can be an answer to some of this. Now I like to be more specific and talk about a case where the library has turned and faced the strange. At The University of Copenhagen we have felt a raising interest in working with data within studies and research. Students has been looking for skills and support to work with data to use in their studies and researchers has been looking for a platform or an organization where they could work together on data heavy project but also where they could bring students together with tools and methods for working with digital methods. Our responds to this has been Digital Social Science Lab (DSSL) that we opened in February 2016 at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences. DSSL is an open platform for education and events on digital methods, it’s hardware and software for harvesting, cleaning, analyzing and visualizing data and it’s a dynamic and aesthetically inspiring learning environment but most of all it’s a community for shared interest in using data to get to explore the world. I see “Open” in many of the element of DSSL: We curate Open Data Sources, we facilitate open events and workshops on data handling and data analyzes, we operate in an open space where we invite not only scholars from social sciences but from across the whole university and also from other universities and institutions of higher education, relevant government institutions working with data and innovation and entrepreneurship hubs. With it’s functionality and flexibility the physical setup offers an open alternative to the classic learning situation with rows of students that faces a teacher. We offer an open and flexible platform that quickly can be rearranged into different settings.

The success of DSSL has been remarkable: We have crossed 35 events on data and digital methods in the first half year, students are arranging study groups on STATA in the lab, we have been nominated for Study Enivirontment of the Year 2016 at University of Copenhagen and the network and outreach to students, researcher and institutions are evolving rapidly.

On an overall note regarding the library of the future I like to point you to the newly released Future of Libraries Task Force Preliminary Report from MIT Libraries. It brings some excellent reflections and recommendations for the direction of the future academic library. Head for your favorite chair and read it.

Finally I like to talk a little about how we as institutions can work with a sound culture that makes our libraries and the people working there ready to face the strange.

Why is this important? Well as managers and leaders we point out directions through strategies. That’s great, I love strategies, but Culture eats Strategy for breakfast. If you don’t have the right culture to embrace and follow the strategy you have just outlined a dirction but is not going anywhere. It’s important we think about the culture in our libraries when we make our strategies. If they don’t go well hand in hand you will not cross Rubicon. You would probably drown halfway over.


If you want to die, isolate. If you want to live, collaborate. It’s extremely unhealthy for human beings and institutions to isolate from the surrounding world. Almost any group of people who had tried to carry out this strategy has suffered from extinction. Europe is closing their boarders, I have to show my passport to get into Sweden and those are steps in a very wrong direction. In libraries we have a healthy tradition for collaboration and I think to some point we can talk about global librarianship and shared values. We should continue this collaboration, learn from each other and make sure libraries worldwide share the same values. On this matter I like to point you to International Librarians Network which is a really awesome peer-to-peer network for librarians staff across the globe. A great way to connect and learn from other librarians in the global community. Go home and introduce it to your staff. The time used on this will come back tenfold in more insightful, inspired and open minded library staff.

Let me move on to the power of storytelling. I strongly believe that the ability to tell a good story is more powerful than the ability to serve cold facts. Cold facts served in the wrapping of a great story and the world is at your feet. In a forever changing landscape libraries should be extremely sharp on telling the story about why libraries matter. What we do and how it creates value. And that is not only a management job; everybody from the library director to the clerk that shelves books should be able to tell the story about the importance of libraries. And believe in it too. Everybody is an ambassador. I like to tell you a story about a man, we could call him Jim, who worked in the cleaning unit at NASA. One day he is cleaning the floor, a group of visitors comes by and a woman asks Jim, “What is your role here?”. Jim replies, “I help sending mankind to space”. That is the right attitude. Everybody working in libraries contributes to the greater goals and everybody should be aware of this, believe in it and be able to tell the story. To get to this you need a culture in your library that recognizes this but a very tangible starting point is the Value of Academic Libraries Statement from ACRL. It’s a short and precise overview of the areas in which academic libraries provide critical direct and indirect value to institutions in higher education. A good and concrete fact sheet for institutions to work on but again, if the culture doesn’t back this it doesn’t really matter. Library staff and stakeholders really need to believe in the values of libraries in order to tell the stories with impact (or to tell the stories at all).

I like to move on from speaking of value to measuring value. In Denmark we do reports with a lot of numbers from academic libraries every year. It is numbers like circulation of books, downloads of online articles and foot traffic in library buildings. Does these numbers say anything about the value of libraries? Sure they say something about the use of libraries but we don’t know if the student learned anything from reading that library book. Actually we don’t know if they read it at all. In order to measure the value of libraries, and yes, we need to measure and prove that from time to time, and in order to continually develop better libraries from what we know, we need to look at different indicators of library use, value and impact than the traditional ones. I like to present you with two approaches; a quantitative one and a qualitative one. The quantitative approach explores the huge of amounts of data on library use available today crossed with other relevant data. A great example is from a recent study at Roskilde University Library where they have tried to measure the impact of Book A Librarian sessions. They crossed students that had attended a Book a Librarian session with their grades and then compared them with students who hasn’t. Luckily it shoved a quiet significant difference in favor of higher grades to the students who had a Book a Librarian session before writing there paper, but that is not the point. The point is that with this case you are actually looking at a library service that we just have a feeling is creating value in higher education and moves on asking how can we actually measure this and then find valid indicators to work with. I love it and we need more of this.

The qualitative approach is an ethnographic approach. It’s about seeing the library in the bigger picture and not only focusing on library use but acknowledge that there is a lot outside our library field of vision. To uncover this we should continuously talk, listen, observe and record students and researchers behavior. Also those who do not use the library. With an approach like this we got a chance to uncover the blind spots in higher education activities where libraries could make a difference. For more on this I like to point you to the excellent work of Andy Priestner and his crew on the FutureLib project at the University of Cambridge.

To wrap up I think it’s important to make clear, that libraries are not an information or knowledge business, it’s a people business. And great libraries are not defined by collections or buildings – they are defined by the people working there. Those people are the key to turn and face the strange.

See you on the other side of Rubicon, vaya con dios

Slides from the talk



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