Inside Track | Knowledge for all: A new vision for the future of libraries

University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, Masud Khokhar, reflects on the importance of our libraries in supporting the University strategy and the creation of knowledge societies.

Inside Track by Masud Khokhar. February 2022

What do you think of when you come across the word library? A place for books? A place where students go to study? An entity that provides access to electronic resources for your study and research? Maybe special collections, maybe study skills, maybe public art?

The reality is that our libraries are all the above and a lot more, constantly evolving to meet the needs of our changing world. However, we are now seeing a significant need to transform our libraries. We have aimed to capture this transformational shift in our bold new Libraries Vision for 2030, Knowledge for all.

Our libraries provide the underpinning infrastructures for exploration, collaboration, participation and innovation, through our world-leading collections, spaces, exhibitions and staff. These infrastructures act as the foundations on which we build value-driven services for our users. Like any other infrastructure, there are parts which work really well, parts that require constant maintenance, and parts that require reimagination. Let me elaborate.

Libraries as social infrastructures

Eric Klinenberg, in his book ‘Palaces for the People’, highlights that the future of democratic societies resides not simply with having shared values but also in having access to shared spaces.

We know that at the University’s libraries, our users feel included. In our recent survey, 82% of users agreed the library feels welcoming and inclusive to them, while 73% agreed it positively impacts their wellbeing.

However, we also noticed only 52% of our users agreed the libraries have a positive impact on their social experience at Leeds. An interesting aspect of this statistic is the demographic breakdown. The highest satisfaction for our role in social experience comes from Asian or mixed Asian users (67%), followed by Black or mixed Black users (63%). This clearly demonstrates our libraries have a great opportunity to become inclusive knowledge and social hubs.

But you might be wondering: why should the libraries have this role? Our libraries are well used and well loved. We’re the fourth busiest in the Russell Group (based on 2019/20 data), with the same number of visits every year as the Tower of London!

We welcome students from all schools, at all levels of study. No other space at Leeds compares in terms of use or impact on the student experience. We saw this clearly during the pandemic – students genuinely appreciated the sense of community, social interaction, safety and wellbeing they felt in the libraries.

Social infrastructures aren’t just about providing space but also about enriching experiences. Our staff form an essential part of this social infrastructure, supporting students, colleagues and the public. Through our collections, galleries, exhibitions and public art, our cultural offer captures the imagination of our communities and brings them closer to the University’s civic mission.

Libraries as knowledge infrastructures

When people ask me to define our purpose in one sentence, I often say “to provide access to, develop and preserve knowledge without any barriers”.

We believe knowledge grows when shared and that it’s our responsibility to preserve it for future generations. It also pleases me that our mission aligns so closely with the University of Leeds motto, Et augebitur scientia (And knowledge will be increased).

We support our students to develop their academic and digital literacies, to become global citizens and reach their full potential. Our students recognise this support in their success, with 85% of them agreeing the libraries help them to succeed on their course.

The libraries are an active partner in research and education initiatives across the University. We’re at the forefront of policy discussions and implementation of open research and education, and we provide support to manage this complex landscape – this includes open access, open data, open knowledge and open educational resources.

We’re also researchers in our own right. Our curators, archivists, learning developers and other colleagues, with their rich expertise and our extensive collections, help shape new forms of research and scholarship.

Last, but not least, libraries play a fundamental role in preserving and curating knowledge, negating the impact of false information and alternative facts. Knowledge stewardship is an area we need to work on systematically. We’re keen to help reduce digital poverty and inequity, improve institutional records management, support emerging skills development, and create a vibrant culture that cherishes equality, diversity and inclusion.

Libraries as innovation infrastructures

We believe that connecting knowledge with ideas and people sparks innovation. The interdisciplinary nature of our collections and our users, combined with our services and spaces, encourages creativity to flourish.

We responded to the pandemic with significant innovation in our service offer. User-focussed services, such as Click & Collect and Click & Send, and research-focussed services, such as virtual reading rooms, provided access to resources. Our galleries and exhibitions team created a flourishing digital programme at record speed.

For future innovations, we’re embracing user experience (UX) approaches so that we always put users at the heart of our service design. This builds on the success of our recent Customer Service Excellence (CSE) accreditation, where we received 10 ‘Compliance Plus’ awards for going above and beyond to deliver user-focussed services.

However, it’s fair to say our environments don’t always reflect the diversity of ideas, aptitude for innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that our users exhibit. Without a forward-thinking approach, we will remain far behind others who are encouraging innovation through maker spaces, hackathons and digital creativity spaces. Innovation spaces are an area of increasing interest for us. We want the libraries to act as positive disruptors for the benefit of our users and our society.

The shift to online learning, research and engagement demands a bold approach towards digital. Our current digital offer is disparate and doesn’t deliver an intuitive user experience. We must transform our digital skills and literacies offer, our approach to collection digitisation and our digital library, digital humanities and digital preservation infrastructures.

Our vision is to be a digital leader, using technology to enhance our students’ experience, create fulfilling digital communities, and ensure that the library contributes fully to the life of students, regardless of where they’re physically based.

Looking to the future

The pandemic has created a moment of punctuated equilibrium for us. Like any infrastructure, we need to keep reviewing and updating ourselves, but now is also the time to disrupt parts of our offer.

It’s time for us to review and modernise our operating model, with a strong focus on digital futures, open research and education, sustainable environments and enriched experiences. We can only do this if we develop a culture of innovation, invest in our staff and partner with others. We’ve developed a bold and ambitious vision – Knowledge for all – to achieve this.

I look forward to working with colleagues across the University to make this vision a reality and position us as one of the greatest libraries in the world. Please get in touch via email or my Twitter account if you’d like to discuss our vision or contribute towards its future success. 

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