The past two decades have been a time of tremendous social, economic, and institutional change for all sectors of higher education, including the r development of technology, colleges and universities have also addressed issues of social relevance, accountability, diversity, and globalization. Although academic institutions are notoriously slow to change, they have experienced considerable ferment, prompting shifts in priorities and constituencies and within disciplines.

Because research libraries support all sectors of academic life, they reflect a context where these issues converge. This presents them with a challenge of unusual scale and complexity. In response, libraries have embraced new technologies and adjusted to the program priorities of their parent institutions. As the so-called information revolution has taken shape, libraries have also demonstrated broader leadership in bringing their intellectual and service missions to bear on the issues raised.

However, libraries face significant challenges in responding to change while sustaining their traditional functions. With the explosion of information technology have come powerful competitive forces that raise fundamental questions about the role of libraries and librarians. Have the capabilities of the Internet and new information services-everything from Ask Jeeves to Amazon.com-given rise to credible competitors? Are libraries at risk of becoming irrelevant, or is the librarian’s expertise more critical than ever? Can the basic functions of libraries be maintained in a distributed information environment, or will totally new functions emerge?

The thesis explored in this paper is that the changes under way reflect an evolutionary path in which, as distributed and collaborative models emerge, libraries are taking on far more diffuse roles within the campus community and beyond. That is, libraries are becoming more deeply engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge and are becoming essential collaborators with the other stakeholders in these activities.

The roles emerging through this evolution are based in part on extrapolations of existing functions, yet they also represent fundamentally new roles for academic libraries. We see these changes reflected in the library’s shift from:

  • emphasizing the value of collections to emphasizing the value of expertise
  • supporting information description and access to taking responsibility for greater information analysis
  • serving as a support agency to serving as a collaborator
  • a facility-based enterprise to a campus-wide enterprise

This analysis of library roles covers the 10 to 15 years in which distributed computing, the Internet, and the World Wide Web took hold. The environment that nurtured and catalyzed library activities was influenced by myriad forces, both technical and nontechnical; however several overriding themes merit attention. These themes reflect a developmental path for the evolving roles of libraries in the digital age. This path can be described in three phases: the growth of distributed technologies, the development of open paradigms and models, and the emergence of the library as a diffuse agent.

The Evolution of Library Roles

Phase 1: The Growth of Distributed Technologies

In the 1990s, distributed computing and the Web democratized technology by bringing it to the desktop. As a result, many individuals and institutions now have the basic capabilities for publishing and creating “libraries.” This has prompted an explosion of information goods and services for both the general and scholarly markets. For libraries, it has created both potential competitors and potential partners.

Two areas of technology development have contributed significantly to shaping the opportunities for libraries: the emergence of content standards and the maturation of more intelligent systems. These developments have progressed as the distributed environment has taken shape and continue to enable new capabilities for libraries.

Emergence of standards. The evolution of standards for creating, structuring, and disseminating digital content has allowed libraries and other content-rich organizations to move away from the proprietary methods of information access and management that characterized the early days of electronic information. As libraries gained experience with new modes of delivering content and the new genre of digital collections, these standards were embraced and integrated into library operations. Distributed computing introduced a panoply of players in the information arena; consequently, the emergence of these standards was a critical step toward achieving a more unified information environment and interoperability among distributed collections and content providers. These standards have offered libraries new opportunities for handling content (e.g., to add functionality, deliver content differently for different audiences, or to sustain digital collections over time) and for enhancing the library’s classic roles in information access and preservation.

Maturation of tools and systems. Intelligent tools and systems allow invisible mediation between content and user. They facilitate forms of information inquiry and analysis that were heretofore impossible. These developments could lead to the perception that libraries have become irrelevant, since system capabilities can assume mediation functions previously provided by libraries, often with human involvement. However, libraries can harness these capabilities to build far more robust and useful information environments. The challenge is to make resources seamless without making the library’s role invisible.

In phase 1, we see libraries coming to terms with distributed tools and systems and beginning to incorporate these distributed resources into existing functions. Efforts to lay the groundwork needed to develop relationships among the new stakeholders are evident, as are subtle shifts in the traditional stewardship functions of libraries.

Phase 2: The Development of Open Paradigms
and Models

At the start of the twenty-first century, we see evidence of several movements based on “open” paradigms. For example, the Open Source movement-the concept of software development wherein the source code is shared and development is collaborative-reflects a fundamental shift away from proprietary software and systems. These open models are appearing in an interesting array of new applications and venues, such as the Open Knowledge Initiative to share learning technologies and the OpenLaw program as a collaborative approach to crafting legal arguments. This trend toward open models may presage more generalized acceptance of collaborative development and sharing of intellectual goods and services. Cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig (2000) suggests that the creation of a “commons,” wherein the free exchange of ideas and collaboration prevail, is fundamental to an open society. This belief stands in stark contrast to that of commercial and other interests, whose goal is to control the Internet and its content. One could argue that the notion of the commons also reflects a departure from models that embrace central control mechanisms-a model that has characterized library operations in the past.

Themes of openness and collaborative exchange have also emerged in the context of publishing, particularly with respect to the relationship between authors and commercial publishers. For example, the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) seeks to address concerns within the scholarly community about certain aspects of traditional journal publishing, especially the notion of a “gift economy,” wherein intellectual property is ceded to the for-profit sector and then repurchased for community use. These concerns have given birth to new conventions, such as e-print archives, for distributing content.

As information becomes more distributed and open models of exchange become more common, the library’s relationship with content creators, publishers, and consumers will change. There is in these open trends evidence of a shift from publication as product to publication as process. When content can be enhanced or supplemented over time by others, it becomes more dynamic and the “versions” become more cumulative. Some have forecast this shift as the ultimate challenge to current copyright law, which is based on objects fixed in time and space. Such a shift has significant impact on organizations whose current role is to manage publications in both traditional and new forms and to sustain the scholarly record for the future. As this shift continues, there are likely to be further changes in the library’s information management functions and in its role as an agent in scholarly communication.

In this second phase in the evolution of library roles, the library starts to engage in collaboration as a strategy to address its core mission of building collections, maintaining access, and providing service. Building on distributed structures, the library begins to involve other stakeholders in fulfilling its functions, and sustaining relationships among stakeholders becomes an essential activity. As responsibilities for content and services become more distributed, models of central control give way to new mechanisms for coordination and collaboration. Ultimately, the processes of scholarly communication become as critical as traditional publication products.

Phase 3: The Emergence of the Library as a Diffuse Agent

As the evolution proceeds, libraries increasingly adopt distributed models for information access and management, and more often use open and collaborative models for developing library content and services. With the incorporation of distributed technologies and more open models, the library has the potential to become more involved at all stages, and in all contexts, of knowledge creation, dissemination, and use. Rather than being defined by its collections or the services that support them, the library can become a diffuse agent within the scholarly community.

What do we mean by “diffuse” roles or “diffuse libraries”? In physics, “diffusion” refers to the spreading out of elements, an intermingling (though not a combining) of molecules. Applying this analogy to libraries, we see the library becoming more deeply engaged in the fundamental mission of the academic institution-i.e., the creation and dissemination of knowledge-in ways that represent the library’s contributions more broadly and that intertwine the library with the other stakeholders in these activities. The library becomes a collaborator within the academy, yet retains its distinct identity.