Outside in: The role of the university library in open science

University libraries are understandably focussed on serving the information needs of their academic community.

They have developed strategies, policies, procedures and sets of systems which strongly support this mission, and in recent years (decades even) they have undertaken what Lorcan Dempsey (Vice-President and Chief Strategist of the Online Computer Library Center) calls “the service turn” – thinking of themselves as service providers rather than “collection holders”.

At the Bodleian this has influenced a wide range of initiatives, and a whole series of user-centred approaches: for example surveying readers, building the user experience into service design, patron-driven acquisition, and building consultative mechanisms into decision-making.

From service providers to stewards

University library services have adopted a major focus on supporting the collection, management, and availability of research materials that are generated by their own academic community: from student theses and dissertations to research publications and research data. In many institutions this list is being extended to include are other forms of output: posters, e-learning materials, and even software.

This list of activities has been focussed around compliance with the requirements of research funding of various kinds, but – more broadly – it fits under the umbrella description of “open science”: as described on Wikipedia, “the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, amateur or professional”.

While there is a focus around compliance for open research, the value libraries deliver to the public pound, through access to research and new collaborations, should not be underestimated in terms of both universities’ and society’s progress.

The “open science turn” (to mimic Dempsey) allows the intellectual work of the academy to be made available to a broader public: I’d call this “inside-out” stewardship. The inside workings of the academy are made available outside of its usual community, and this has included in recent times the community of policy makers, for whom open science has become akin to economic possibilities.

At this year’s Jisc and CNI conference, I will be advocating for the role of university research libraries as “outside-in” stewards. If we’re to continue to truly support open science, and act as a bridge between the inquiring society and the inquiring minds of academia, then we need to stay true to our roots.

The “outside in” approach is a changing one. The web archiving community, in which a number of university research libraries are preserving largely non-academic sites – takes a look at some unusual materials targeted by the Bodleian as part of our Legal Deposit shared activity to get a sense of the wider appeal university archives can offer.

Libraries are discovering that the impact agenda also provides a new way of looking at special collections of materials, and younger academics are embracing the opportunities that they provide to engage with new audiences, and to allow their own research interests to be shared and invigorated in new ways.

Foundations for our open future

In previous centuries, university research libraries developed a set of collection building approaches that not only served the immediate needs of their communities (purchasing publications from “inside” the academic community internationally – from academic publishers) but layered this with broader collecting, often generated by philanthropic engagements with collectors.

This approach allowed a distributed network of collections from massively diverse fields such as Chinese opera, or fairgrounds, to be acquired, managed, preserved and made available for their academic community to use. And this kind of collecting has ebbed and flowed in importance as funding and library strategies have changed through time.

I think this particular role, that university research libraries play on behalf of the academic community – and on behalf of society more broadly – deserves greater emphasis and celebration, both in university communities and in society at large.

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