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Association of Research Libraries (ARL®)

  Transforming Research Libraries Contact:
Judy Ruttenberg
Planning and Visioning

Envisioning Research Library Futures: A Scenario Thinking Project

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As research library leaders confront turbulent times, they sorely need new tools to facilitate thinking about the future of the institution and to foster dialogue within the community. ARL’s new project seeks to envision library futures and will engage the Association's member community in looking decades out at the situations that will confront research libraries. At the heart of this work will be the creation of a set of future scenarios and a toolkit to facilitate research library leaders' use of the scenarios in their library planning and decision making activities.

ARL’s scenarios will consist of high-level descriptions of a small number of potential future states. These scenarios will capture broad environmental drivers affecting research libraries. Each scenario will tell a different plausible story that starts at the current state and takes the reader out into highly divergent future situations of research libraries, rather than detailing what research libraries might look like organizationally. Such a set of future scenarios will highlight and deepen understanding of the social, technological, economic, political/regulatory, and environmental driving forces impacting research libraries in the future.

The collective wisdom of the research library community will be one of the main sources of information the project will leverage in generating the scenarios. In addition, the perspectives of outside experts and key stakeholders will be engaged systematically. The ARL member community will also contribute to reviewing the scenario set and identifying significant implications for the community, as well as assisting in the creation of the toolkit for member libraries to use at their institutions.

A wide variety of not-for-profit and government entities have employed the scenario planning process, which is also widely used by the commercial sector. The scenario approach offers opportunities to move beyond environmental scanning, extrapolations of past trends, or individual forecasting. It is focused on articulating not one, but a small set of contrasting future states. This is a particularly effective way of challenging ingrained assumptions, by highlighting a small set of drivers and exploring their implications and interactions to uncover previously unconsidered outcomes.


Data gathering occurred in spring 2010 to help reinforce scenario generation. During the summer, four scenarios will be drafted and tool kit development will follow, with an anticipated release of the scenarios to ARL members at the end of September 2010. Public release of the scenarios and toolkit will occur in 2010 after the October ARL Membership Meeting.

Other Library-Focused Scenarios Projects