Not a building, but a community: The evolving role of the library, according to the 51st LIBER Annual Conference

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LIBER | Research Consulting Ltd.

Between 6 and 8 July 2022, the city of Odense, Denmark, hosted the 51st annual LIBER Conference – the first in person iteration in two years, and my first as an attendee. Over the course of three packed days, hundreds of delegates from research institutions, publishers, infrastructure providers and more gathered to discuss the role of ‘Libraries in the Research and Innovation Landscape’.

After a series of pre-conference workshops, LIBER 2022 officially opened on Tuesday afternoon, with a powerful keynote presentation from Oksana Brui, Scientific and Technical Library of ‘Kyiv Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute’ and President of the Ukrainian Library Association. During her talk, Oksana reiterated that throughout the unrest and destruction in her country, libraries, both public and institutional, have remained as symbols of hope to the Ukrainian people. This is because, as she put it, “libraries are not buildings, they are communities”.

For me, the theme of the library as a community ran strongly over the course of the conference. So, in this post, I’ll share three ways that libraries worldwide are working to support evolving researcher needs.

Strengthening skills to support the transition to digital scholarship

After arriving at the University of Southern Denmark’s impressive campus, I joined the pre-conference workshop ‘Digital Scholarship Now!’, where LIBER’s Digital Scholarship and Digital Cultural Heritage Collections Working Group (DS&DCHC) showcased the ways in which libraries are responding to the ongoing transition to digital scholarship. Throughout the series of lightning talks in this session, the importance of the skills and competencies of librarians quickly became a focal point.

For example, Lotte Wilms (Head of the Research Support team at Tilburg University Library and IT Services) discussed the Digital Competence Center (DCC) initiative in the Netherlands. Here, the Dutch research funder NWO has awarded funding to support DCCs to act as hubs for research data management (RDM) and research software engineering, while also providing support across the research lifecycle and subject-specific expertise. Lotte shared three essential roles needed within the DCCs: generic data stewards, strategic data stewards, and research software engineers.

Hearing more about the role of DCCs in the Netherlands reminded me of a key finding emerging from the Knowledge Exchange activity, ‘Publishing Reproducible Research Outputs’, which Birgit Schmidt (Head of Knowledge Commons at Göttingen State and University Library) and I later presented at the conference (Figure 1).

In this work, we found that the management, curation and sharing of research data and methods are necessary conditions to enable reproducible publication practices. To push the reproducibility agenda forward, we highlighted that some dedicated institutional roles such as data stewards are likely to be required to keep up with the demand for support. It will be interesting to see the role that DCCs play in this context, and more broadly, over the coming years.

Five things you need to know to support reproducible research
Figure 1. Five things you need to know to support reproducible research, including a good grasp on RDM practices! (Birgit Schmidt and Lucia Loffreda).

Developing new methods of dealing with demand for digital and open research

A running theme of this year’s conference was that the demand for expert support on open research, including RDM and open access publication is growing among researchers. However, it was consistently noted that institutional libraries are under increasing pressures to manage this effectively via existing resources (Figure 2). Regardless, the ever-innovative library community highlighted a range of ways they have coped with growing researcher needs at their institutions.

Local data support challenges
Figure 2. Local data support challenges. (Deborah Wiltshire).

For example, the DataSquad model, presented by Deborah Wiltshire (Head of the Secure Data Center at the GESIS Institute for the Social Sciences) stuck out for me. Deborah explained how researchers at Carleton University in the United States have helped to ease the pressures on institutional librarians, by providing high-quality data support services across the institution. Here, DataSquad members get involved in real research projects while also gaining invaluable data management skills and experience under a shared philosophy: “there’s no better way to train somebody in RDM than by getting them to do it”!

In an equally hands-on way, Christine Okret-Manville (Library Director, Université Paris Dauphine-PSL) showed us how the Library team is engaging researchers through the Open Science Bingo – an interactive game that seeks to educate and inspire researchers while also raising awareness of open research practices. The Bingo aims to bust common misconceptions about open research, by guiding researchers through a printed grid, uncovering ‘myths’ as they go, and discussing them to reveal the open research ‘truths’. The game is reportedly encouraging the development of the open science culture more broadly across the Library and helping to ensure that staff remain up to date on latest developments.

Presenting libraries as engaged and trusted hubs of user communities

Finally, in the context of the European Open Science Cloud, Karel Luyben discussed the transition to open science, or as he called it “science as it will be”. At the heart of this, community engagement and support and training are seen as core principles (Figure 3). Here, Karel suggested increasing the involvement of libraries in FAIR data developments and data stewardship skills and developments as key next steps to supporting the research community.

Thinking ahead, a core part of LIBER’s strategy for 2023-27 will be presenting libraries as engaged and trusted hubs of user communities. In this context, LIBER will encourage and support libraries to realise their positions as change agents and facilitators, taking up key tasks in training, engagement and research – which is very much aligned with Karel’s vision. In addition, based on what I heard from various presenters and in broader conversations over coffee (and traditional Danish open sandwiches – smørrebrød), it seems as though formalising this ambition in the LIBER strategy is seen as a welcome move.

Enabling the transition to open science
Figure 3. Enabling the transition to open science. (Karel Luyben).

Final thoughts

Overall, I felt that the 51st annual LIBER Conference was an inspiring event. I left the city of Odense feeling grateful to have met so many people working towards shared goals, each in their own unique and innovative ways.

What struck me most was the willingness of participants to learn from one another about their experiences. It was also clear that while institutions might be far from each other geographically, in many cases, they are facing challenges that are incredibly similar.

Over the coming years, I’m looking forward to seeing the range of initiatives presented at LIBER evolve, and new ones emerge, as the library community continues to respond to changing researcher needs, and the revolution brought about by digital scholarship.

Although we can’t tell what the future looks like, one thing that we know for sure is that the library is not just a building: it is a diverse, innovative and inspiring community.

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