If nothing else, the pandemic taught everyone the importance of the ability to manage change and pivot quickly. Now, three years after higher education institutions had to manage newly remote or hybrid operations, what will the next big change catalyst be, and how can we prepare for it?

The what and how are at the heart of a new question we introduced in the latest cycle of the 2022 Ithaka S+R Library Survey. Nestled among questions about value proposition and strategic prioritization, we asked library deans and directors to indicate their level of agreement with the statement that their “library has a clear vision for futureproofing that takes into account technological and socio-political trends.”

Sixteen percent of respondents indicated a high level of agreement with this statement (ratings 8-10). Sixty-four percent neither strongly agreed or disagreed (ratings of 4-7), and 20 percent strongly disagreed (ratings of 1-3). Figures 1 and 2 below show that there aren’t any particularly stark differences across Carnegie class, or sector.

Figure 1. My library has a clear vision for futureproofing that takes into account technological and socio-political trends.

 As with every survey, sometimes the reactions to a question generate more conversation than its simple quantitative results. If our question was designed to get at the how and what, the overall ambivalence of respondents, as well as reaction to the question once the survey was in the field, begs a different question—why. Should academic libraries and their leaders be expected to develop long-term strategies that account for uncertain futures, or is that too much to ask?

On one hand, one could easily make the argument that it is the institution’s problem to worry about futureproofing, not any one department’s. After all, shifting trends towards digital resources, remote and hybrid learning and services, enrollment cliffs, institutional consolidations, and climate change, are issues that impact all of higher education, with no single institution—let alone department—able to provide a solution. Yet there are other areas, such as the explosion of interest in making AI generative, for example, that are uniquely suited for libraries to take initiative in developing innovative strategies and services. How are libraries positioning themselves to answer that demand?

On the other hand, futureproofing is less about knowing what you are futureproofing against, and more about the process—staying flexible, being able to recognize trends, upskilling personnel, and being able to manage change and pivot. After all, 48 percent of respondents in our survey indicated that the ability to manage change is one of the top three key skills that are most valuable in their current positions. Furthermore, in this cycle of the Library Survey we found that convincing other senior administrators of the value proposition of the library is a challenge for nearly half of respondents, that confidence in institutional DEIA initiatives is waning, and the deans and directors struggle with making information literacy fit for purpose in the age of misinformation and disinformation. Given this context, is asking about futureproofing indicative of a broader pain point that speaks to libraries’ strategies, priorities, and capacity?

Perhaps the issue of futureproofing—of safeguarding that the library does not become obsolete and adapts with technological and cultural change—comes down to library leaders articulating their organizations’ strategic plan and value proposition in a way that defines the core priorities and functions of a library. This in turn can serve as a north star for libraries as they navigate into those uncertain futures and as they negotiate with themselves and their parent-institution what is or is not in their wheelhouse. Libraries should partner with their parent-institutions, strategically maneuvering through uncertain futures, effectively identifying their strengths and limitations, and aligning their objectives within the institutional framework.