No, research libraries are not dying. But there is a focus shift occurring. I’ve been in the IT department at the UCSD library for almost ten years now. I’ve seen the slow-pivot outlined below taking shape over the last few years.
Now, though one could make a case for any of the five forces from the HBR article, I’m going to focus on the ‘Threat of Substitute Products or Services.’ Naturally, more and more of the Library collections budget is being used for digital collections. These can range from premium, high profile journals (Science, NEJM, etc…) to access to subject specific databases, to access to rare materials. One can extrapolate the trend and then start to wonder why an Institution would need a Library as a middle man, if they’re merely managing Purchase Orders for offsite data warehouses.
What about Library owned collections? For instance, we have a huge Dr. Seuss collection (It is the Geisel Library, after all.) Why not take advantage of the economies of scale available from AWS, Azure, etc… Put it all in the cloud!
What’s Preservation got to do with any of this?
Preservation of Library materials has, until very recently, been a very physical specialty. Think book worms, wine stains, glue rotting, and mold. But now that we have an ever increasing percentage of digital items in our collection, how do we preserve data integrity *absolutely.* No bit rot, perfectly verifiable copies in multiple physical locations, on multiple types of storage media. Enter Chronopolis (https://libraries.ucsd.edu/chronopolis/
And hey, this is a research institution. Can we partner with research labs to manage their research data for them? On the same preservation grade network we use for Chronopolis? How about an Integrated Digital Infrastructure http://idi.ucsd.edu/about/index.html
So, to recap. The Library as a repository and authority on reference works was threatened with lower cost services with higher availability. In response, the Library pivoted their storage and infrastructure strategy to turn this threat into an advantage. Instead of competing on cost directly, the Library, chose to offer a more valuable product to the Library and campus researcher communities. Cost is higher, but data integrity is better than any of the cloud providers, and metadata management by actual, no kidding, MLS trained metadata specialists add significant value as well.