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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

ARL Scenarios Project FAQ

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What is different about scenario planning? Is it like trend analysis, environmental scanning, engaging visionaries, or identifying preferred futures?

The nature of reality dictates that we only have data on the past and present. So we tend to compensate by transferring our experiences with the past into the future. And yet our own experience teaches us that even in ordinary times the past is regularly a poor predictor of the future. In extraordinary times and over longer time frames, planning based on expecting past trends or present equilibria to persist is guaranteed to fail.

Trend analysis and environmental scanning can be very helpful in understanding the present and may help in making short-term decisions, but other kinds of tools can be more useful in addressing the profound uncertainties we confront when we try to look out even a few years into the future.

Another handicap in looking ahead is that we are usually strongly influenced by our own preferences, or sometimes by our worst fears, with the accompanying appeal of betting on a particular future.

Scenario planning has become increasingly popular because it presents a radically different strategy. It requires a conscious decision to consider multiple possible futures—a small number of scenarios carefully developed to highlight contrasting, high-impact alternatives. Instead of basing the image of the future on the past or focusing on discovering “the future,” scenarios deliberately focus on identifying the environmental drivers that are most uncertain and will matter the most to stakeholders.

Why is ARL initiating this project?

These are challenging times for anyone to be thinking about the future. Research libraries and their partners need fresh strategies for enhancing their ability to succeed in highly uncertain times. Other not-for-profit sectors, industry, and government have been using scenario planning for decades now because the technique has demonstrated strengths in dealing with uncertainty.

Because scenario thinking generally looks out over longer timeframes and focuses on a set of possible futures in which stakeholders will be operating, it offers ARL members and their partners a new way to organize thinking and conversation about strategies for dealing with the transformative changes that confront libraries but defy accurate prediction. Individual libraries will be able to use the scenarios to enhance their local thinking and planning and break out of expectations grounded too deeply in past experiences or betting on a single view of the future.

ARL also sees an opportunity to offer its members not just a set of scenarios, but a user's guide for using them to think about the future for their own institutions. The user's guide is the main output of the project and is designed for use by individual libraries and their institutions.

Who are the scenarios and user's guide for?

The primary audience for the scenario set is the ARL membership, but many other libraries are likely to find the scenarios and user's guide of value in preparing for an uncertain future. Although the scenarios describe a small number of futures, they do not focus on describing libraries themselves. This increases the flexibility and power of the scenarios as tools for individual organizations to tailor to their own planning activities and unique situations. The four scenarios describe a set of futures in which research libraries might need to succeed rather than a set of libraries they might become. The resources accompanying the scenarios in the user's guide help individual libraries sketch out their future within the scenario worlds.

How might libraries use the scenario set and user's guide for their local planning?

There are a great many ways libraries might use scenarios and the user's guide released with the scenario set suggests some places to start. Just as one example of a common use for scenarios, imagine identifying a solution to a problem facing your library and "test-driving" it in each of the scenarios to look for unanticipated consequences or to identify contingencies. Another common result of scenario work is that, as time goes by, people who have considered alternative futures are often quicker to recognize that key shifts in environmental conditions have occurred than folks who are expecting a trend line to hold. This happened in the oil industry during the oil shocks of the '70s. After decades of predictable oil supply increases, it took most of the industry a surprisingly long time to respond, while Royal Dutch Shell, which had considered this scenario, was able to react much more quickly.

What is the value of a scenarios conversation?

Scenario approaches are valuable because they embrace the implications of uncertainty and they increase the flexibility of our thinking and planning. They help sort out what is really known about the future and what cannot be predicted with confidence. Critically, a good scenario set surfaces the uncertainties that will really make a difference and provides a structure for considering implications and opportunities. Scenarios also help balance conversations between risks and new possibilities. The future is never completely better or entirely worse than the present. What might initially seem like a disaster tale often holds seeds of opportunity that can be recognized and cultivated by the prepared mind.

How were the scenarios created?

ARL worked with a consultant, Susan Stickley of Stratus Inc., to develop a set of four scenarios. During the spring of 2010, ARL organized several processes for gathering perspectives from ARL members, as well as key stakeholders and thought leaders outside the community. These processes identified the strategic focus of the scenarios and the key facets of the scenario set. The four scenarios all address the question, How do we transform our organization(s) to create differential value for future users (individuals, institutions, and beyond), given the external dynamics redefining the research environment over the next 20 years? During a two-day workshop, representative leaders from member institutions created the scenario set. During the writing process, numerous individuals reviewed and enhanced the scenario narratives.

When will the scenario set and user's guide become available?

The ARL 2030 Scenarios were released on October 19, 2010. They are published as part of a user's guide that includes the scenario set and a range of resources to help research libraries integrate the scenarios into their local planning activities.

What do the scenarios look like?

Each scenario is a compact but rich narrative of a possible future roughly 20 years from now. Each includes a one-page overview that introduces a story that is a few pages long. Each of the four narratives provides a sense of the state of important environmental factors or driving forces that will be affecting research libraries, along with a plausible path for how that world arose from our present one. The scenarios do not describe a library, but rather the world in which research libraries will exist. In addition, the scenario set includes an endstate table that provides a tabular overview of the varying dynamics of a small group of critical uncertainties in each scenario.

How will ARL help libraries make the most of the scenario resources that will come out of the project?

The ARL scenario project does not end simply with the release of the set of scenarios. ARL will continue to develop tools in addition to the user's guide to help member libraries use scenarios at their institutions. ARL will also foster community conversations about strategic implications of different futures for research libraries. A presentation on the project and introducing the user's guide were made to all attendees of the October Membership Meeting. A concurrent session on using the user's guide was also offered as part of the Fall Forum, Achieving Strategic Change in Research Libraries.

For information on additional resources as they are released, send an email to

In addition, a webcast on using the ARL 2030 Scenarios is scheduled for November 4, 2010. Information on registration is available on the ARL website.

How could I get started in working with scenarios?

For most people, scenario thinking is a new way of thinking about the future, one that is unfamiliar and may at first seem uncomfortable. Educate yourself about the scenario approach and how it differs from other ways of planning for and thinking about the future. You might ask yourself what you consider to be likely drivers in the library environment, particularly ones that are both highly uncertain and high-impact. Some resources for this are available on the main project page.

ARL offers a freely accessible archive of the webcast "Envisioning the Future of Research Libraries: ARL’s Scenario Development Project."

As you become more familiar with the concept of working with a set of future scenarios, think about who you would like to engage in scenario conversations.

As the scenarios are released, look for opportunities to participate in conversations about strategic implications of different possible futures.

Are there other library scenario projects?

Internationally, there is growing interest in harnessing scenario approaches to thinking about the future. A scenarios project is currently under way in the UK focused on libraries in higher education and a project in Australia recently produced scenarios for public libraries. See "Towards the Academic Library of the Future” (UK) and the Australian Bookends Scenarios Project. ACRL has released "Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025" (June 2010), which uses a quite different definition of scenarios, but shares the aim of considering alternative drivers of future change.