Date of this Version
White paper supported by the Association of Research Libraries, the Coalition for Networked Information, and Educause, October 1, 2021.
Edited by Mary Lee Kennedy and Clifford Lynch.
In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible to tell if we were at the crest of a wave of new transmissions, or a trough of a much larger wave, still yet to peak. As of this writing, as colleges and universities prepare for mostly in-person fall 2021 semesters, case counts in the United States are increasing again after a decline that coincided with easier access to the COVID vaccine. Plans for a return to campus made with confidence this spring may be in doubt, as we climb the curve of what is already the second largest wave, fueled by the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant, 18 months into the pandemic.
This report is the last in a series of reports on the role of research libraries in shaping critical technologies for use in research, learning, and libraries. Sarah Lippincott’s extensive overview, Mapping the Current Landscape of Research Library Engagement with Emerging Technologies in Research and Learning, provides background and context for the range of digital technologies we consider in this project. The project launched with a series of interviews in fall 2019, some of which informed Lippincott’s report, and the rest of which were reported in Emerging Technologies for Research and Learning: Interviews with Experts. That report supported a series of forecasting workshops with members of EDUCAUSE and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) in spring 2020, as we braced ourselves in the first wave of the pandemic. Insights generated from these workshops were shared in Future Themes and Forecasts for Research Libraries and Emerging Technologies, as participants described what they saw as drivers of technological adoption in the near term of one to three years.
In these reports, we described not just the technologies that attracted the attention of our expert participants, but factors in technology adoption, drawing on insights from historians and sociologists of technology. We also detected high expectations for the development of novel emerging technologies, and concomitant technological practices, with transformative potential for research, learning, and research libraries. In this follow-up, we returned to 11 of the participants in the interviews conducted for the project, to find out how their perspectives have changed in the year and a half since we had spoken to them, given the disruption to research and learning caused by the pandemic. (See the appendix for a list of the 11 participants.) In these new conversations, we see that optimism is retained for the same transformative technologies, but that the intense activity of these pandemic months has been largely related to adoption and refinement of existing technologies rather than innovating truly novel technological solutions to our research and learning challenges.
Remembering Shoshana Zuboff’s insights that “the interplay of intrinsic qualities and human choices [about technologies] is further shaped by social, political, and economic interests that inscribe the situation with their own intended and unintended opportunities and limitations,” we draw the following conclusions from these interviews:
• The pandemic tested prior commitments to networked and digital collections and services and validated those past decisions.
• The technologies that were identified in previous reports are still on the docket, but with adjusted priorities in response to conditions on the ground.
• Many small and large technologies to continue life at a distance were explored, which also generated insights into adoption under pandemic conditions that we can draw on in the future.
• As research libraries work to regain some semblance of normalcy during continued uncertainty (and after), there is a risk of retreating on important gains in the adoption of technologies and practices that benefit research and learning.
What follows is organized in three parts: first, reflections by our interview subjects on how their libraries and universities have fared in the pandemic so far, and to what factors they attribute their successes. Six socio-technological thematic areas emerged from the conversations about changed expectations for the futures of technologies—these form the second section of this report. Finally, we share some factors for technological adoption that were gleaned from these conversations.