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Technology and the academic library: key themes for success

December 7, 2020

By Jeremy Atkinson

A look at how successful academic libraries thrive in a technology-rich environment

Over the last few decades, academic libraries have shown great ingenuity in adopting and implementing a range of technologies to meet user needs, to support university goals and objectives, and increase effectiveness and efficiency. In 2021, we will continue to see extensive use of self-service technologies, online repositories, mobile devices and social media. Academic libraries have moved from being collections-based to service-based focusing on research data management, bibliometrics, open access presses, virtual reference services and digital literacy.

Libraries have moved focus from physical to online collections, providing access to an increasing range of electronic resources. And they face opportunities and challenges in areas such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things and wearable technologies. In addition, higher education is likely to feel far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, not just financially, but also in terms of student recruitment, ways of working and studying, the provision of support, and the increasing importance of technological solutions.

In a recent edited work, Technology, Change and the Academic Libraryopens in new tab/window, I gathered a range of case studies showcasing the implementation of different technologies in academic libraries, with particular emphasis on change management. I then conducted a detailed analysis of these case studies and identified approximately 100 key themes and lessons learned in implementing technology and change projects.

A few examples are noted below, and the comprehensive list is available in the edited work. One clear lesson is not to let the technology dictate change, it should be viewed as the enabling agent, not the change driver. Participants in effective technology projects were careful to fully understand the purpose of the development and the needs of the users.

Project benefits for libraries and staff

  • A technology and change project can raise the visibility, profile, status and reputation of the library within the university and beyond.

  • A project can provide an opportunity to lift library staff’s gaze from day-to-day work and engage with a vision of developing services. In collaborative projects, staff are exposed to a wider pool of ideas, knowledge, expertise and ambitions from other departments or institutions.

  • Library staff who are involved in a successful project can gain confidence, change their mindset and develop new approaches to work and staff development.

  • The skills and expertise developed in a technology project can be applied in other projects and with other clients.

Common constraints

  • It is challenging to decide which technologies to adopt, including cost implications, in a rapidly changing landscape.

  • If the library does not participate in particular initiatives, there is a danger it may be sidelined in technological developments.

  • Libraries often underestimate the time commitment of consulting with stakeholders, and planning, building and testing new technology

  • There is a danger of overcomplicating the design of a service or system during times of rapid technological change. It may have a short shelf life and require significant work to review and restructure.

Key issues

  • A link to a high-level program or project in the university can help with ownership and prioritization.

  • Innovative leadership is important. This includes the ability to remove barriers, generate short-term wins, produce a sense of urgency and acceleration, and gain strong commitment from stakeholders.

  • A project needs transparent governance arrangements and effective project management.

  • Projects that address the “people side” of change management are more likely to meet their objectives.

  • There should be effective processes to ensure quality, to review and incorporate ideas from similar projects elsewhere, and to transition from a project to providing service.

  • Success often depends on gaining strong support from others in the university, especially senior university staff.

  • An evidence-based approach involving consultation with a range of stakeholders can ensure that a project focuses on user needs and priorities.

  • Engage with appropriate library staff early in the project to address issues they may have.

  • The deep-seated culture in many academic libraries can tend to preserve the status quo and make it difficult to implement new innovations that require flexibility and creativity.

  • Create an environment that encourages risk, innovation and experimentation.

  • Technology developments provide opportunities for academic librarians to move into new roles, including in teaching and research support.

  • Technology and change projects require collaboration with academic and support staff across the university. Collaborative approaches bring together a wider range of expertise, knowledge and different ways of thinking.

  • Technology and change projects can help to make academic libraries more user- and service-based rather than collection-based. The library service portfolio can be extended beyond traditional user groups.

  • Projects can impact the nature and extent of library staff workloads and can help to streamline workflows, automate processes, and rationalize and speed up services.

  • The presence of skilled and expert staff is important. There may be constraints to overcome in terms of staff skills, knowledge, confidence, competency, capability and capacity.

  • Required behaviors and attitudes include openness, being outward-facing, trust, pooling of skills and attributes, creativity, flexibility, enthusiasm and determination.

  • The project should be in line with changing user behaviors and expectations, including changing information-searching behavior.

  • Analyze and aim to meet the needs of all stakeholder groups.

  • New or revised systems should integrate with relevant existing library and university systems as part of a broader institutional infrastructure.

  • Marketing and promotion strategies will be required.

  • Interim evaluation is important. A new or revised system need not be complete before asking for stakeholder feedback.

  • At the end of the project, methods such as analytics, metrics, focus groups and surveys should be used to obtain feedback and assess uptake and impact of the new service or system.

What successful projects do right

The case studies underline the need for academic library technology and change projects to consider ”softer” issues and emphasize users and their needs with effective advocacy, consultation, engagement and collaboration. The projects should have good project management and governance arrangements, fully examine cultural change issues and the impact on library staff and users, think about the skills and attributes required, and consider ethics and values, marketing and evaluation.


Atkinson, J. (2020). Reflections on technology, change and academic libraries. In J. Atkinson (Ed.), Technology, change and the academic library: Case studies, trends and reflections (pp. 185-193). Oxford: Chandos Publishing



Jeremy Atkinson

Library and Information Services Consultant, UK