An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship

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An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship

The role of the academic librarian is to create content-rich environments (“libraries”) that stimulate scholarship, cultivate knowledge and inspire creativity.

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Prologue. Many years ago I went for a job interview for a technical services/systems librarian position at a community college library 10 minutes from my home in a distant suburb on the far southeast side of Houston.

I thought I had a good chance at it. I have an ALA-accredited Master’s degree in Library and Information Science (commonly abbreviated MLS or MLIS) from a top-ranked school and years of professional experience in libraries. I know basic programming (C++, Perl, SQL, JavaScript, CSS and HTML) and a flavor of Unix upon which many library systems run. I’m always learning new things web-related, such as XHTML, SharePoint and WordPress.

I have more than a few years of experience as a Technical Services Librarian, Digital Services Librarian, Head Cataloger and Automation Librarian for a large school district, Collection Development Manager and technical consultant for a commercial digital library (the first large-scale online undergraduate library, modeled after Harvard’s Lamont Library), Director of an Art Institute library, “Data Standards Manager” for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and “Client Relationship Manager” for a popular and powerful federated search / discovery application whose technology was used by EBSCO and Gale (among the largest publication content aggregators and database vendors in the world). I am a Certified Information Professional (CIP) through AIIM.

Having worked for the last 18 months as a Project Manager / Corporate Librarian for a software company two hours commute from home on an automation project that was coming to an end, I was eager for the chance at a position close to home with stability, and especially one where I could put my library and IT skills to use.

To my surprise, especially since I was interviewing for a technical position, I was asked to share with the search committee my “Philosophy of Librarianship”–one of only a few questions, none of which had to do with anything even remotely technical

Hmm. Ask me about my experiences with library systems or digital libraries or discovery tools, cataloging or web services, and I might have something to say. Ask me the difference between HTML and XHTML, or to define “responsive web design” or explain what a proxy server does.

But my “Philosophy of Librarianship”?

I had nothing, and whatever I thought to say in that moment I feared would come across as disingenuous. After all, I could not name a single author whose philosophy of librarianship I had even heard about.  . . I feared I had missed something, having been out of libraries for several years. What were the possible responses? I responded honestly, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a philosophy of librarianship.”

As far as I was concerned, I would be there to support the library’s goals and objectives, assess needs, implement technical solutions, and solve problems. 

Why did I need to have a philosophy

Since that time, I’ve learned that academic librarians of all types, both in public and technical services, are being asked to provide a philosophy of library practice or rather, a personalized mission statement, in job interviews or as part of their performance review process. They may even need to provide one to keep their jobs.

By Googling “philosophy of librarianship,” as I did when I got home that afternoon, you can pull up this page from the USC Library,1 for example, which states that one’s philosophy of librarianship can give one an advantage over others in terms of hiring and promotion:

At academic research institutions (such as ours at USC) librarians are being held accountable, more than ever before, to provide solid evidence of the quality of their work, and of their impact on the mission of both their institution and their library.

Though, in many cases, our annual reviews are summative and evaluative, at time of promotion and continuing appointment (or tenure) the expectation . . . is that we present for their review our reflective (formative) assessment of our work . . . as well as our understanding of the value and purpose of our essential role as academic librarians in a research university.

Such an assessment can be first formulated in our Statement of Philosophy of Academic Librarianship. This is a relatively new concept in the field of librarianship and it has, as its precedent, the Teaching Philosophy Statement which is a “personal mission statement” for those committed to teaching. That Statement demonstrates one’s reflective thinking about teaching. It helps communicate one’s goals as a teacher, and one’s commitment to students’ learning outcomes based on their corresponding actions and activities, in and out of the classroom (See Seldin et al., 2010).

A Statement of Philosophy of Academic Librarianship presents a capsule summary of your understanding of the value and purpose of your role as an academic librarian in a research university. . . It gains an advantage over others for promotion or for a new position.

In the corporate world, whenever one is asked to justify one’s value in some sort of formalized statement, it is never a good thing. That much I know. It means that your value is not obvious, and even worse, is in question by decision makers. Whenever this happens in the corporate world, no philosophy or explanation is likely to change anyone’s mind:

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This trend of self-justification in academic librarianship has become so pervasive, however, that librarians are even posting them on their personal websites. The concept comes from teaching, not library science, and the desired response has to do with teaching and a commitment to student success.

Now that I work in an academic library again–and have for six years–I find myself thinking more about philosophies of librarianship at this uncertain time when many both outside and within the library profession are proclaiming libraries, librarians or print books (“pbooks”) to be obsolete.2

Some academic libraries are getting rid of print altogether 3 4 5 6 while at the same time erecting new 21st century libraries, bookless architectural wonders consisting of collaborative work spaces, meeting rooms, and high-tech classrooms–resembling more a modern open office at a tech start-up company than a traditional library. If there are physical books, they are often hidden from view in reading rooms or stored off site. It might even seem that the building’s design, furnishings, work space and concessions are more the attraction than the resources they provide. One might question whether these are libraries at all, except for the fact that, at least for now, librarians work there.

Colleges and universities across the country are spending millions to create impressive, highly innovative spaces for students to study, socialize, drink coffee and learn in a more collaborative, interactive fashion. Collaborative learning, where students work together as a team to solve problems, or come together to share knowledge with each other–emulating some idealized vision of the project-driven business world7often seems, from a traditionalist point-of-view, to be fostered at the expense of more individualized and self-directed styles of learning, especially when it comes to the allocation of space in these new facilities.

The focal point of the new academic library is no longer its scholarly content or publications, but on seating arrangements, innovative and inspiring architectural spaces, and offering various support services in partnership with other entities on campus.8 Space is allocated to group work with large screens (for collective viewing) and the latest technology for brainstorming and motion capture (capturing the body language and hand gestures of participants). In other instances, there are only chairs and tables with outlets, for all library resources are available online.

At some large universities libraries, like at the University of Chicago’s Mansueto library,

or North Carolina State University’s Hunt library,

or Temple University’s Charles Library (below is an architectural rendering; the building opens in 2019),

and countless others under construction or renovation at this time,9 10 books are not visible to patrons when they walk through the doors, or in most places in the library.

Unlike traditional college libraries, in these new libraries there are often no inducements or motivations for students to read. There is no emphasis on interesting content or publicationsIf there are print books, they may be out of view (away from high traffic areas), moved off into quiet reading/study rooms, or scattered around conversation areas, placed in low shelving units to not block sight lines to other people, or disrupt the view of the outside world. Often by design, books do not hit one’s gaze as in traditional libraries, in order to achieve an aesthetic of transparency and openness, and promote collaboration, rather than, say, striving to stimulate intellectual curiosity, motivating self-directed learning (the precursor to “life-long learning”), inspiring research or discovery (library-centric objectives). Within the grand scale, open context and vastness of the facility, if there are publications, they may seem about as significant as magazines in a doctor’s waiting room, niceties to complement the space, not thought of as an essential part of the user experience of the facility. Because increasingly, they aren’t.

What is there to experience in the new academic library, as they are called in library literature, aside from others who may happen to be there, computers, and work spaces? How is scholarship at a university impacted when scholars (or aspiring scholars) no longer see their interests, or their disciplines or trends reflected in collections? Can print collections be effectively–or even more effectively–replaced with online collections (I know many are doing a hand wave, “Yes, of course, and PDA is the way to go!”)? The next question is, can online collections be replaced merely with online resources–various subscription packages of vendor-aggregated scholarly content–without consequence? Is there a difference in the quality of education at school which provides students with a well-stocked library of new, hand-selected titles–and a librarian who is very familiar with titles, and can personally recommend them, in part, because she knows the collection and authors well having helped to develop and maintain it–from one that passively and effortlessly provides an array of subscription journal and ebook databases, with a librarian who directs students to appropriate databases for assignment completion? What is the difference in user experience and learning outcomes, and are library collections in any form worth the cost of maintaining them? 

The focus in librarianship from our content to our “spaces,” from being curators to facilitators, from “book or text-based learning” to participatory learning, from significance to relevance (meeting an immediate need to complete an assignment or task), makes me wonder if collections–let alone print collections–still matter in the 21st century.11 For smaller universities, does the provision of quality collections, regardless of format format, still matter, and to whom? 

Is there any effective way for librarians to demonstrate that quality collections make a significant difference to the university’s business objectives of attracting, retaining and educating students–to student success–or are collections now deemed to be inconsequential and capable of being summarily replaced–as our library professional library associations seem to assuring us–by “doing” more, the provision of information literacy classes and helping people inside the library collaborate? 

From Libraries to Learning Centers. There is a peculiar rhetoric surrounding new academic library architecture which seeks to justify an enormous outlay for the creation of these often cavernous facilities, with high ceilings and grand entrances, glass and light, but nothing for the collections housed inside of them, nor anything more for resources offered online (a before/after survey of new libraries is underway). The rational or belief seems to be that an inspirational building full of technology is sufficient to motivate learning in the 21st century.

According to the Vice Provost and Director of NCSU Libraries, when planning the new Hunt Library,Our goal was to make a difference in the education and research of students, and something that made them want to become lifelong learners, so we decided on an iconic building.” 12 This statement, along with recent trends to create bookless libraries, raises some interesting questions:

  • How can a building alone inspire life-long learning?
  • How can a building stimulate creativity, learning and intellectual curiosity?
  • How can a building without visible publications encourage publication?
  • How can a building without visible books encourage reading, especially among college students?
  • How are “new university libraries” designed by architectural firms to primarily facilitate interaction with other people (collaboration), rather than to encourage engagement with library resources (collections), impacting library collection development strategies, acquisitions budgets, staffing levels and usage of resources?
  • These newly designed spaces, continuously showcased at library conferences and in library magazines, may be innovative from an architectural standpoint, but are they innovative or functional as libraries?
  • How well do they support our academic missions?  

When planning the $170 million Charles Library at Temple University, a fantastic building which would serve as a collaboration space, “a place where intersections between all of the students and faculty and other folks who chance to be on this campus can occur.” 13

No doubt, aesthetics is a very important part of the user experience of an academic library. Not only does it makes the library more enjoyable to users, and encourages them to stay, but it also symbolizes the value placed on scholarship and learning by the institution. But without a comparable commitment to quality content, and without strategies and technology to encourage awareness of new and significant publications, a building seems empty gesture.

Behind the aesthetics of openness and transparency, and talk of collaboration of those who happen to walk through the door, is the aesthetics of nothing, and in many ways represents the very opposite of what a good library should be: a content-rich learning environment, where people are inspired to pursue meaning and knowledge creation in their own terms, whether part of a class assignment or passionate interest. Good libraries are just a bit gratuitous, providing more than what is needed or adequate. They exceed expectations. I believe it is this gratuitous element which makes a library a library, or a good one, as opposed to a learning/tutoring center. 

he emphasis of the new academic library is impressive architectural space and awe-inspiring technology, specifically the creation innovative spaces for study, for interaction with technology, for the creation of digital media, for social learning and above all, collaboration14In new libraries, collaboration is ostensibly the focus, while the stacks are drastically reduced or eliminated, pushed to the margins, and placed into less public, less visible and less accessible locations. Large collaborative spaces for inclusive and participatory learning with tables, chairs and walls on casters are replacing the stacks. 

In a presentation given at my library, one architect explained the new academic library concept (to us librarians, of course) in highly romanticized terms as being comprised of three learning environments: the “campfire” (where the older generation, the faculty, pass knowledge down to the younger generation through stories), the “watering hole” (where people from different disciplines come together to socialize and share knowledge, or figure out what to do with the knowledge they got from the campfire the night before), and the “cave” (study rooms). At the time I thought he had made this up, and was very impressed with his use of metaphor. (I later discovered this came from an oft quoted book From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments by David Thornburg.) I didn’t stop to think that these models of knowledge creation and transmission are drawn from pre-literate societies.

Why should 21st century libraries be built around the concept of story-telling and orality, rather than literacy? Why not build a library around the concept of a library?

There is certainly a lot of rhetoric surrounding new library construction, but the most common and recurring theme is the idea or ideal of collaboration. Architects and new library advocates place emphasis on collaboration by faculty and students deriving from chance encounters with each other in a common space on campus, a space everyone likes to visit because of its beautiful architecture and amenities (tables, computers, couches, whiteboards, study rooms and large screens)–not necessarily, or even essentially, because of its great library resources. 

Of course, random acts of collaboration as well as occasional knowledge-sharing happened in the traditional library, too. It probably happened with even greater frequency when faculty and students came into the library to do research, or to see what new books had come in, or to browse. These are chance events, with random outcomes, impossible to predict, encourage or assess.

Facilitating collaboration, or connecting people on campus with each other, is seem as a new 21st century role for librarians. In the conclusion of their report on the value of academic libraries in the 21st century, Brown and Malenfant emphasize our new preeminent roles as “campus connectors” to facilitate collaboration, and specifically within the outcomes assessment movement:

The higher education assessment movement provides a unique opportunity for library leadership. Academic librarians can serve as connectors and integrators, promoting a unified approach to assessment. As a neutral and well-regarded place on campus, the academic library can help break down traditional institutional silos and foster increased communication across the institutional community. Librarians can bring together people from a wide variety of constituencies for focused conversations and spark communities of action that advance institutional mission.15

Helping faculty make connections with each other and promoting “academic intimacy16 between students and faculty does not constitute a very compelling reason for the university administration to keep librarians employed after these new facilities are built. It is also important to note that neither of these ACRL authors, who conduct seminars teaching librarians how to assess and promote themselves to their parent institutions as part of the “ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Initiative”, are actually employed by an academic library. 

Despite the authors’ insistence on libraries adopting an outcomes assessment framework, they themselves fail to explain how our new role as “connectors and integrators” can be meaningfully assessed according to the very framework they are advocating. They also never mention that traditionally, or even currently, our role as professionals is not to connect patrons in the library space with each other (the face-to-face communication of scholars), but rather to connect scholars with relevant, current and significant scholarly resources, that is, to promote scholarly communication to support publishing activity and research. 

New libraries, and new library roles, are being conceived around the ideal of collaboration, when collaboration, or even facility use, is not in itself a measurable outcome . .  . but neither is life-long learning or scholarship or knowledge. I wouldn’t think to mention outcomes, or place emphasis on a business objective model, if not for the fact the traditional library focus on collections has been criticized because it offers no measurable outcomes (“use” doesn’t count as a measurable outcome, it is merely what is known as an “output”) that can be meaningfully aligned to the institution’s business objectives and institutional assessment plans. 

But what do we librarians have to show for collaboration other than use of the facility? The impact of collaboration, or rather collaborative learning, which ideally occurs in these newly renovated spaces, is no more measurable than the impact of collections, and from an assessment standpoint, cannot be differentiated from other forms of socializing. Even if it could be captured in some exclusive and meaningful way, which it cannot, the library cannot lay claim to it, nor to the “new knowledge” resulting from it, any more than it can the faculty research or publications which are based on use of our collections.

If collection use is now trivialized as having no clear or demonstrable connection with student success (that is “success” as defined by our parent institutions, not by the users themselves), and provision of quality content is thought to have no meaningful impact on student learning or the university’s business objectives–student enrollment, retention, persistence, graduation rates–surely facility use cannot be a suitable replacement. We are in precisely the same situation, in terms of outcomes. And it really has nothing to do with librarians, our expertise, our interventions, or our resources, we have merely provided the venue where learning takes place, whether or not once inside “collaboration” was done.

One reason collaborative learning is emphasized as a pedagogical technique is because it is a form of active learning, and this is often contrasted with both traditional learning approaches, lecture format and “text-based learning,” deemed to be passive and less engaging to students. However, in higher education, collaborative learning techniques have not actually been demonstrated to be more effective than traditional instructional formats.17 It is largely assumed to be better, especially for those who are less academically prepared for college. 

Of course, doing research and writing papers is a form of active learning. Exploring a good library collection is also an outstanding form of active learning, as it raises awareness of significant titles in the field and disciplinary trends. Browsing encourages learning for the sake of learning, not merely for a graded assignment, values we academic librarians have always sought to emphasize, even if it cannot be assessed in terms of demonstrable outcomes. We contribute to the educational process by ensuring our students and faculty are up to date with the best and the latest resources in their discipline or at least are made aware of new titles in their area of interest.

Here, too, we fall short of being able to demonstrate our value according to an outcomes assessment model.

Truly, I love the emphasis on community creation and socializing in these new spaces, getting more people though the gates (do we still need gates if everything is online?). Having more people in the library, even if all they want is a cup of coffee, a couch and wi-fi connection is a first step. But whatever happened to our profession’s commitment to scholarship, research and publishing? Is collaboration even a worthwhile scholarly objective? If it can indeed be linked to new knowledge creation, as people say, how do we capture the impact? How do librarians facilitate meaningful collaboration and relationships from a scholarly point of view? How are scholarly and traditional library/learning objectives also supported by, and reflected in, the design of the new academic library?  

t was hypothesized twenty years ago, when people first began speculating about the 21st century library, that in the future, only top-tier schools would continue to afford their students with access to print collections, and that there would be a widening gap between “haves” and “have nots,” mainly due to the high cost of serials and electronic resources.

I cannot say for sure what is happening at newly renovated academic libraries across the country, but it does appear from library literature and websites that there has been a significant shift, even in the largest and most well-funded libraries, away from emphasis on publications or content–including digital content–to marketing the library as a kind of study hall offering customized learning environments (noisy, quiet, public, private, semi-private, low tables, high tables, sitting up or reclining, bright light or dim), and coffee bars, with various student support services tacked on. Libraries have become the new student centers, a safe, supportive and comfortable place to be while completing assignments.

Libraries even at our most elite and competitive institutions are making their collaborative and creative work spaces top-level menu items on their websites, touting their furniture on wheels, tables, comfy couches and available study spaces on their home pages. Now, it seems to me that many of these things we librarians had before–I believe many of us had group study spaces, tables and couches before–but never even thought to promote until recently. Ten years ago, an academic library would never have put on their landing page the fact that they have comfortable chairs or an assortment of tables. To do so would have seemed unscholarly.

Space, computers, services and furnishings appear to be the most important features of Harvard’s main undergraduate library:

Some older librarians may recall that from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the Harvard Lamont Library generated core bibliographies of what undergraduate libraries ought to have in their collections, called Books for College Libraries. Now they are featuring movable furniture, whiteboards and armchairs. Also noteworthy, research help by a librarian is available to Harvard undergraduates only between the hours of 12 and 5pm. 

Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, a beautiful Gothic Revival building with 16 floors of stacks and 4 million volumes, lets students know on its home page that it offers the following amenities (under what’s available):

What’s Available:

Outdoor Space
Printer
Public Computers
Natural Light
Individual Tables
Large Tables
Scanner
Individual Study Rooms
Group Study Rooms
Chalk Board/White Board
Absolute Quiet
Eli Express Delivery Location
Electrical Outlets
Couches
Conversation Allowed

One would think that one of the oldest libraries in the country with over 4 million books would have more interesting and unique things to highlight than its natural light, tables and “scanner.” 

 

The focus on collaborative or group study spaces in libraries parallel broader educational trends which emphasize a greater degree of peer interaction and the benefit of group work in courses. In addition, there are numerous studies which show that students who study and interact with peers in college are happier, have a more positive outlook, and earn higher grades. It is only natural that students would want to study together and of course the library is a logical place for this. I suppose every academic library I frequented throughout my life (there have been quite a few) always made ample accommodation for students camping out there. Lack of seating was never an issue at libraries where I attended school. 

Aside from being a place for collaboration and group study, the new university library is also typically envisioned as a learning laboratory where people from different disciplines gather together to tinker in maker-spaces and solve real world problems using 3D printers, laser cutters, digital production software and whiteboards. This emphasis is supposed to emulate the project-oriented business world and R&D lab; but some of this may be sheer practicality, of course, as the library can centrally house expensive technology that many disciplines might need to use, for example, one GIS lab, rather than create one for Urban Planning, Environmental Studies and for Public Affairs. The centrality of the library makes it ideal for housing costly technology needed by several departments. I’m not sure who all needs a laser cutter or 3D printer at my institution, for no one has ever come in asking for one.

While collaborative and more traditional text-based and individualized approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive modes of knowledge acquisition and learning, and can certainly co-exist in a library setting along with beautiful architecture, it nonetheless strikes me that excessive focus on dialogue, collaboration and consensus-oral modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission–over content, traditional text-based and more individualized forms of learning, hearken back to a time before printing, books and libraries. All there were were caves, campfires and watering holes, because they didn’t have books or writing. And among all of the services offered to students in the new academic to help them be more successful, arguably the most important important one–support for independent learning and scholarship–is being eroded.

If you thought libraries were unexciting places to be before, taking the books away and replacing them with more computers, more tables and chairs, seating on wheels, glass-walled study rooms, engineered surfaces and whiteboards, are surely not likely to make them more interesting places to be. We live in interesting times. At this time, the jury is still out on the impact the “new academic library” is having on students as well as the library profession. But I cannot help but feel there is a missed opportunity to promote a different sort of user experience within these new facilities. Students will have a lifetime of impersonal office space, cubicles, and whiteboards ahead of them, but possibly only one college library experience, one time in their lives to be immersed in a world of ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful architecture. I love coffee. I like computers and technology. I love a good debate, and collaboration with others, especially others who know more than me. Who doesn’t like comfortable chairs? I just don’t believe that innovative architecture, cafes, computer labs, collaboration or comfortable seating can form a solid foundation for academic librarianship at a university, whose mission is to create well-rounded, educated people. 

I believe our primary obligation as academic librarians is to provide our communities with stimulating, active learning environments, both in print and online, that are content-rich, authoritative, and inspiring, and which encourage students to go beyond classroom instruction to become self-sufficient independent learners, professionals and scholars. 

alk is cheap? Well, not anymore. When people speak about the design of innovative spaces in libraries that foster collaborative learning, spaces where people from different disciplines come together to share knowledge, it all sounds very promising. But in an almost Orwellian fashion, we must get rid of books and paper, often the bulletin boards too (my boss told me they are now called “free speech areas” and we had a good laugh), in order to encourage more modern forms of learning and social engagement involving video touch screens and social media, specialized furniture, and maker spaces, much of it seeming to be more technology-for-technology’s sake. . . kinetic hand-gesture and brainstorming apps,18 and the like.

From a traditional librarian standpoint, much of this may make no sense at all. No one has come into my library asking for these things in recent years, but they have asked for books–especially “book” books.

Let’s talk about collaboration. How are we to get people to collaborate? And once they do, how does this fulfill our educational mission as academic librarians? At the end of the day, are we not left with little more than tables, chairs and computers? And within the new “learning commons” is a librarian marooned at a tiny transparent stand-up desk (affording maximum accessibility to a librarian–why do they need access to one’s body? What’s wrong with an opaque desk, and one of substance? I’m not a Fox News anchor, I’m a librarian!), amid people who are socializing, watching videos, sipping lattes from the library’s cafe, chatting on their cell phones, earbuds or laptops buzzing, some sleeping / snoring on our comfortable couches.19 Are we to be listening in on semi-private conversations, waiting for an opportunity to jump in the minute someone seems to have an information need? What is our new professional role model in these hybrid social/study environments? What does it look like? What are best practices?

It is a confusing time to be a librarian. Where reading, books, scholarship, browsing, and creating community through them, were once celebrated among my people (the Latin word for book is at the root of librarians)–a passion for books, reading and publishing certainly had a lot to do with why I became a librarian at the end of the 1980s–print books are now just as likely to be vilified among my librarian colleagues–but not among faculty–as impediments to student success, regarded as vestiges of an outmoded, 20th century passive educational model. Print is too costly to maintain, not sustainable, knowledge changes at a faster pace these days, and is a format that is cumbersome and inconvenient to our users, they start to look bad over time (gather dust, fade, decay) , not to mention requiring staff to catalog them, shelve them, circulate them and maintain them. 

However, the print book format still has some things going for it, “visibility” being just one of them: they do not need to be invoked by a user to be visible. Second they are, surprisingly, often more cost-effective for smaller libraries, as library vendors charge more for the ebook than for print. It is also a bit easier at this point to browse them physically than than online.

In truth what users get from exploring a well-maintained library collection is a much better perspective of significant titles in a discipline, a vantage point which is not afforded by plumbing aggregators’ databases, probing various ebook packages, or scrolling through the results of our cobbled discovery tools, whose relevance-ranking scheme is unfortunately too often influenced by many factors other than the relevance of items.

Discovery tools do a poor job of visually representing the totality of the library’s collections (our available resources) to users. In general, library catalogs (including discovery tools) have not evolved much in the last 10 years since they first entered the market. Library system vendors have concentrated their development efforts on back of house tools and features to facilitate resource sharing among consortial libraries, but they have done little to significantly improve the search experience at a time when there has been fantastic innovation with commercial online catalogs. Why can’t we be more like Amazon and Barnes and Noble? Why can’t we offer users a superior browsing experience?

For a profession that prides itself on being user-centered and tech-savvy, our user interfaces and search tools are embarrassingly antiquated by modern standards, especially as the expectations of our users are increasingly influenced by their experiences with commercial sites. Our sites are not media rich, and they do not sufficiently promote engagement with exciting or interesting content which would make them more interesting destinations for users to explore or browse. 

Administrators often speak about the library’s going online or being online.

What does it really mean for a university library to “be online”? What are the standards for the user experience (UX) for a quality online academic research library? (Why hasn’t the ACRL been more active publishing guidelines in this area?) 

With our existing catalogs, discovery tools, and web presence, it is not possible to replicate the browsing experience of a brick-and-mortar library online. Bookshelf browsing (TLC Library Solutions offers a version of it on their smaller systems), virtual newsstands (like Browzine) and other visual navigation applications to facilitate an enjoyable, intuitive browsing experience are overdue as a part of enhancements to the front-end of larger web-scale academic library management systems, as is personalization, the ability to present users with new content that is of interest to them when they come to the library’s site. We need what e-commerce already has to “woo” its customers, and we also need to be able to represent online an actual library collection, rather than simply ways to conveniently parse though the metadata of third-party aggregated content. 

I believe that the user experience of a good collection–in print or online–promotes creativity and independent learning, precisely the same sort of open-ended and unstructured creative exploration new library advocates are trying to facilitate though their maker-spaces and collaborative modes of instruction–only in some ways it does it better because students don’t spend time reinventing the wheel, rediscovering knowledge that has already been discovered (often what they are assigned to do in labs), or speculating about stuff that has already been settled by expert opinion. Students can read about it, instead of spending the entire semester futility rediscovering the laws of gravity–or designing their own centrifuges to understand how they work (I heard about this on NPR and thought “what a waste of a whole semester . . .” ); students can quickly move on to master some other form of knowledge, thus becoming better educated in a shorter period of time. Efficiency, so one can learn more, faster, is the chief advantage of traditional lecture and text-based modes of learning afforded by libraries. 

Investment in maker-spaces and active learning labs in the new academic library, in addition to collaboration spaces fostered by open floor plans, vaulted ceilings and light-filled atria, glass walls and technology (larger screens for shared viewing, special software apps, 3-D printers) are expensive, as it the expertise of architectural firms claiming to have special insight into getting people to collaborate and learn. 

But after the facility is built and the dust has settled, what then? 

In truth, no one seems to know for certain how to get people to collaborate, mentor and share knowledge once the old spaces are renovated or new facilities are built20, or how to differentiate collaborative learning from other less important forms of social interaction. 

And, most importantly, at least to me, it is not engagement with technology or with other people that academic librarians or academicians wish to foster, but engagement with scholarly and culturally significant books and articles–engagement with publications and the ideas found in them. We librarians and faculty want students to make connections, not so much with other people in the library, but with the scholarly resources and authorities vital to their discipline. 

Of course, if more people are coming in, for whatever reason, even just to sit on our comfy couches, they are more likely to talk to a librarian who can then clue them in to all that which great content which is not visible to the eye, or necessarily even findable through our discovery tools.

Nonetheless, I would love to see showcased in library literature and conferences new library architecture designed specifically around the concept of promoting discovery and engagement with library resources, with our content, both in print and online formats, rather with other people and computers, and open concept seating arrangements with nothing to offer to the intellect, nothing to “nurture the soul,” nothing to inspire research, nothing to raise awareness of new publications, nothing to encourage leisure reading or instill life-long learning, and nothing to inspire scholarship. 

Without the capacity to present our users with a rich selection of materials that are of interest and relevant to them when they walk through our doors–without the ability to create content-rich learning environments–the physical library becomes an intellectually barren wasteland with furniture for studying or texting and hanging out, but nothing of substance to encourage intellectual curiosity, learning outside the classroom, or participation in a broader cultural conversation of educated people. 

Despite protests by library users and faculty when initiatives to eliminate print are implemented or proposed, and even after similar projects are deemed failures and the books are brought back–for example with the Cushing Academy’s celebrated bookless library21 22–this trend of getting rid of print, placing books out of sight, into underground storage lockers, into compact shelving, into low traffic areas, or incorporating them as meaningless abstractions into a comprehensive design scheme continues to trend upward in libraries.

ooklessnessor rather, lack of commitment to collections–as well as changes in how libraries are evaluated through their institutional assessment plans, has blurred the distinction between a library and an LRC.  Because college library booklessness has become acceptable, fashionable–equated with progress–LRCs and other forms of bookless learning (innovation labs, maker spaces, news rooms, learning commons, information commons, media centers and “active learning labs”) are becoming more common in libraries on college campuses, replacing a large portion of the library or cutting significantly into its budget.

I would say replacing a large portion of the traditional library, but despite the enthusiastic participation of library directors in creating these new hybrid spaces, I’m not sure others in the college and university administration regard media labs, maker-spaces, and smart classrooms as belonging to the library.

Librarians who resist these trends risk criticism on many fronts: by administrators looking for ways to save money, by those wishing to be regarded by others as forward-thinking, by an older generation fearing to appear obsolete, and most of all, by architectural firms who are eager for commissions to design unique and expensive buildings.

Library Journal, American Libraries and other library publications routinely showcase the new academic library architecture without ever mentioning the impact these vacuous facilities are having on acquisitions budgets, professional staffing and usage of resources. After new libraries are erected or renovated, and the ribbons are cut, the library appears to be reduced to promoting its work and maker spaces, their wheeled furniture, instructional and reference services (reduced to part-time or outsourced), and cafe. 

I think it is great that libraries are striving to become more social places. To me they always were, but maybe that is just my experience working in them most of my life. Libraries were never the stultifying study halls some new library advocates make them out to be. Students have always been able to study and socialize in libraries, and relaxed food and drink policies have been the norm for years–since I was in library school. Many traditional libraries were built with cafes in them or nearby. 

There is nothing 21st century or radically new about the combination of coffee, books, and people, or comfortable seating. 

What is new in our literature is the notion that the books themselves are impeding learning or progress, impeding student success, impeding the advancement of the library profession, requiring too much staff, standing in the way of the library’s becoming popular with students and/or risking turning the library into a “book warehouse.” It is a dark current that runs throughout academic library literature today, along with reminders that this generation of students never grew up with “book” books, so they are not likely to start when they go off to college. 

For the first time in academic library history, print represents a burden that we librarians need to be liberated from. Print is an albatross around our necks and our students’ necks. The rationale is, “Get rid of print,” and we librarians will be freed up to do more important things–like helping students (as if we’ve always done both, thank you very much). Get rid of the books, and people will want to come to the library once again. Get rid of books, and our students will be forced to embrace new technologies and be better prepared to enter the workforce. 

Even though new titles are rarely available to libraries in digital format for many months after their print debut, print is viewed as an outdated product 23 that many library directors and administrators are eager to distance themselves from for a variety of reasons, some of which are more political and economic than philosophical. 

Dividing lines are drawn over the role and importance of print books and the need to maintain collections, with professional staff often reluctant to say what they really think about plans to go completely digital. Those who resist risk being typecast as resistant to change, obsolete or technophobic. An example of this can be found in Lura Sanborn’s (2013) article “Bookless library?”:

Are there going to be growing pains and resistance? Sure. In fact, absolutely. A body at rest wants to stay at rest. There will be those embedded in print that wish to stay in print. Internally, there will be those who throw their hands up in the air and declare it is all too much, too complicated, and too difficult to simply keep up. What was shiny and astounding three years ago looks ridiculously musty at this point. Keeping up with and making the best decisions possible regarding digital text is hard, and there will be those who refuse to embrace the new. This is predictable behavior. Fifteen years ago, working as a student assistant at a busy university reference desk, I, and everybody on staff, knew “that professor” who never got over the movement from the card catalog to the OPAC. He would always call the reference desk when in need of a book, refusing-on some principle important in his mind-to learn to use the OPAC.

Evolution takes time. We can stick with what we have, or we can move to make it better. Case in point: iOS 7 is much more sophisticated and pleasing than the initial OS X. Should Apple not have evolved in order to keep a population afraid of the learning curve within their comfort zone? To compare, so too have advancements been made to many of the digital text interfaces available to libraries. And much like with Apple, the interface, quantity, and search capabilities just keep getting better.

Despite the strong movement forward, some still find the concept of a digital library uncomfortable. When the director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Medical Library announced last year that the library was going online only and closing its physical doors, the Johns Hopkins constituency shrieked and formed a committee (Nichols 2013). However, the transition has since moved along and from the outside looks both inevitable and wonderfully enviable (Michael 2013). Instruction librarians are in a discrete space, while the emphasis of the collection is on digital holdings. This model speaks to the essential, core functions of an academic library: collection and instruction. 24

Librarians may feel pressured to reiterate exaggerated claims about “the cost to warehouse a book on the shelf” each year–about $4.20–taken from a very impressive analysis done by economist Paul N. Courant, who was on the board of several large scale book digitization ventures 25 when published that study (2010), and concluded:

Finally, we note that the argument in favor of moving toward digital versions of books and sharing both electronic and print collections is further enhanced when we recognize that university libraries tend to be located on prime real estate, and that there are uses of central campus stack space—for classrooms, study, offices, and enhanced library services, among others—that would be far more valuable than using that space to store materials most of which are used rarely, provided that access to the materials in aggregate could still be provided reliably. 26

His figure of $4.20 per annum per book has been repeated so often at library conferences and in power point slides, even in Newsweek,27 it has become a factoid,28, a perfect example of what happens when articles are mined for information and not read critically for bias. He was selling digitization services, after all.

The real cost of ebooks for academic libraries. It is often assumed by college administrators and non-librarians, mainly based on their own experiences with Amazon and Kindle, that ebooks are significantly cheaper than print books. This is a common misconception. It seems absolutely intuitive that they would be. While they typically are for consumers, they are not for academic libraries, unless they are titles that are no longer in demand (called “backlist” titles). 

Vendors charge institutions more for an ebook, even for single use. The cost of purchasing a recent (published in the last 3 years) academic title through a typical library vendor like EBSCO is 1/3 to 2/3 higher than the cost of the same book in print for single simultaneous simultaneous use.

Take a look at this title, taken randomly from EBSCO’s Collection Manager tool. Natural Gas Processing: Technology and Engineering is $146 for the print book paying full list price (librarians usually get a 20% discount for print books through their book jobber). The same ebook is priced at $177.60, $222.00 (for 3 simultaneous users) and $266 for unlimited use.


The markup on new academic ebooks varies, but the cost for a front list title is always more than the list price for the print version, even for nontechnical titles. This observation is confirmed by the e-book price index in the librarian’s bible of statistical data and book prices, Bowker’s Library and Book Trade Almanac. It states (2016) that:

In the academic market, it has always been assumed that e-books are more expensive than their print counterparts. Users might be surprised to find that the cheaper versions of e-books, available to consumers through such channels as Amazon and the Apple Store, are not available to libraries at similar prices, if at all. . . .

The high price for e-books is not that surprising as most pricing models for academic ebooks generally add a high percentage to the list price for the purchase of e-books. Multi-user licenses are an even larger percentage. In most situations, even-single user academic e-book titles are more expensive than their print counterparts.” 29

One explanation for the higher costs for institutions is that the vendor is providing hosting in perpetuity for the ebook–even if we do not want access to the book in perpetuity. When libraries buy books, unless they are extremely large research libraries (and even then), they never buy with the idea in mind of having a book forever. Suddenly the cost of maintaining a book on the shelves doesn’t seem so bad.

Another factor is scalability, that many users could potentially access the book at the same time. This a great benefit for large academic institutions, but smaller and medium-sized libraries cannot as easily take advantage of economies of scale. We spend hundreds of dollars for an (unlimited access) title that a larger library would pay the same for, because individual ebook pricing does not correspond to the size of the library. It may make sense for a larger library to pay more money for the ebook, but not for a smaller library.

Despite what lay people may think, ebooks do not represent a significant cost savings over print unless the library is buying into a grab bag of academic titles, UK imprints, dated titles, or things that the publisher can’t move in print any longer, in which case the book is valued at less than list price for print anyway.

What goes into a content aggregator’s ebook package is based on publisher agreements, not quality. In fact, to avoid misunderstanding and criticism that these ebook packages offered a quality collection which could replace an actual library, vendors took the word “library” out of their names. The success of the aggregator depended on negotiations with traditional print publishers to digitize, aggregate and monetize large amounts of their older content in bulk, their backstock. These were not libraries in a librarian’s sense, and they didn’t use librarians to select titles. They are merely chum-buckets of aggregated content no longer able to monetized in print format. Without compromising quality, they cannot serve as the library’s online library without additional investment to add better and newer titles to them. 

However, only educated people, or those doing research in a discipline, might appreciate a qualitative difference between a package of academic ebook titles and an actual library collection online. If the priority is providing online ebooks so students can complete a writing assignment, aggregates of ebooks are fine. If the priority is research, they are not fine. 

Most academic libraries already buy large ebook packages, but missing from these subscription packages are newer titles and titles in demand, which the vendor hopes to sell to the library individually at a higher price. These hand-selected titles get added to the online platform at a premium cost to the library.

More than cost or quality, there is a psychological aspect of ebooks which is troubling for those concerned about encouraging literacy. Since no personal investment by library staff or faculty appears to have been made in selecting the titles, and no great expense appears to have been made by the university to acquire them–since everyone outside the library believes ebooks to be dirt cheap commodities anyway–why should our students place value on them? To them, ebooks appear to be items called up when needed to write a paper or complete an assignment, and then quickly forgotten about. They are not intended to be “read” read, or remembered, they are not real, just something to be mined for quotes and citations.

No one expects others to have read or heard of an ebook they come across in an academic ebook collection–but the same is not the case with print books. Print books are more “legit” in the eyes of our users: it’s in print and it’s in the library, so someone must have thought the book to be worthwhile.

Students, like administrators, also think of print books as being more costly and believe ebooks to be cheap. It would never occur to a student that the ebook they click and scroll through, just as they do free internet resources and free books on Google Books, may have actually cost the library $250 or more, sometimes even hundreds or thousands of dollars (in the case of reference books). 

I can envision a library where print books are beautifully displayed, face out, covers glossed in mylar, in placed visible locations so people can see and browse through them, but with a “download the ebook” sticker on them. Maybe even a code they can scan with their phone to download the book instantly. I hope and expect to see apps like this coming to libraries in the near future. I can also envision library websites that make it fun and appealing for students to read and be exposed to new ideas, not just be conditioned to use the library for databases to call up books and articles for a five page essay assignment, or to reserve a study room.

Tangible Outcomes from Intangible Goods. Requiring philosophies of librarianship are part of a larger trend of libraries having to more aggressively market themselves and demonstrate their value to their parent institutions, because it is now far from obvious to many university administrators why libraries and librarians are still needed, or how they add value to the university.

Until a few years ago, no one ever questioned the importance of the academic library to higher education. People in administration in higher education questioned whether their library was good, and perhaps how we knew it was good, not whether a library was neededNo one was requiring personal philosophies of librarianship or annual self-justifications to keep one’s job, either (they don’t where I work, but at some university libraries they do each year). 

The decline in the perceived relevance of college and academic libraries, and with this, librarians, can be accounted for in innumerable ways. The most obvious cause is an increased reliance by administrators and scholars alike on information resources found on the Internet. These days, neither the physical library nor the library’s website is the first place people come to begin their research. I myself usually begin with Google Scholar (mine is set to link into the library, but still. . .), and I think most of my colleagues do, too. Often the library is utilized to gain access to the full-text of an article found online through Google Scholar.

Rather than checking our catalogs and online resources first, researchers find books they might like on Amazon and Google Books, or they locate book and article citations elsewhere, and then check to see if the library has them. People come to the library and the library’s website not as a starting point for research, but more as a last resort.

Why? There are many reasons, but it comes down to the fact that our websites are not intuitive and our catalogs are not fun to browse. We may place blame on Google, but some of this we have done to ourselves by neglecting our online presence, or assuming that students need to become “mini-librarians” to do research. 

As I see it, a modern library is a content provider like Amazon and Netflix, but, for various reasons, our catalogs and user interfaces have not evolved into the kind of intuitive, content-rich environments that might allow us to compete for our users’ attention with commercial entities whose websites people actually enjoy visiting and browsing.30 

The library profession has become dependent on vendors for much of our professional development, our content, our systems and our web services. We must deal with products and tools which do not integrate well with each other by design, because our vendors are in competition with each other.

EBSCO won’t provide metadata to ProQuest’s Primo Central so Primo can “search everything”, and ProQuest doesn’t allow EBSCO to automatically harvest catalog data to support EBSCO’s Discovery tool, EDS. My university has both, and I have looked into the abyss–I know what is not being found, and what can and cannot be done about it. We have trouble with all-or-nothing connectors or APIs, which result in some entry from an obscure reference source, the Hutchinson Atlas and Weather Guide, coming up to the top of the results list for common searches and anything literary. The HAWG doesn’t strike me an authoritative source for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Hamlet, but there it is, always ranked 2-5 in the research results. Can’t turn off the source in Primo without turning off the whole Credo Reference database.

We must accept applications which would probably not be acceptable in a commercial environment. For example, we permit, even promote, branding (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Gale-Cengage, etc.) rather than white labeling, and take it for granted that patrons will be driven away from the library’s website off to various 3rd party platforms for research. We inadvertently end up with multiple (vendor-created) pseudo-home pages, as vendors–Credo Reference, SpringShare LibGuides, ProQuest and EBSCO–encourage the library to customize a landing page with their search own box on it. We are often forced to speak in bland, acronyms and terms (StatRef! GVRL. JSTOR. SFX.) and our users suffer from platform fatigue.

Compounding the problem is the imperative to create responsive (scaled to mobile devices) websites, which has made it even more difficult to communicate with users, to place content where users are guaranteed to see it when they land on a site. It is more difficult to design websites to promote content and services which cannot be represented graphically, with icons and images.

In the commercial world, content-heavy sites utilize specific strategies and technologies for marketing online content–for “wooing” their customers–and the 21st century library should be no exception. The library needs platforms which support greater degrees of personalization, presenting content that users might like when to they come to our websites, and support an enjoyable browsing experience.

Especially now, when Amazon and Google have raised the bar for shopping and search, our professional energies often feel misplaced teaching students how to navigate the library’s antiquated catalogs and unintuitive websites as part of Information Literacy programs. We often emphasize techniques like using “Boolean search operators” and truncation as part of the IL curriculum–techniques already made largely obsolete by modern text search engines (which perform relevance ranking and word stemming automatically) and Web scale discovery systems–rather than concentrating our efforts on developing more intuitive and innovative user interfaces.

Our patrons are inclined to think no one needs to sit through a class to learn to search any other website, so what’s our problem in the library? It might even appear that we are the ones who are not information literate.

There are things that can be done to make our websites and our facilities more appealing, engaging and relevant to users, some which I will discuss below, but all involve promoting user engagement with interesting and relevant content. 

Libraries are in the process of becoming that which they hope to avoid, devolving into mere repositories, through practices and policies which pretend that collections do not matter, despite what our users say and surveys show. I firmly believe that, even in this age of Google, our content is what matters most to our users, and this should be emphasized in the design of our facilities, our websites, and our assessment models.

Legitimization, Quality (Outcomes) Assessment, and the New “Grand Narrative.”31

One of the most influential trends over the last 20 years in academic librarianship has been efforts to assess library quality and effectiveness, and not just in-and-of-itself (i.e., “Is the library good?“), but within the context of the goals, objectives, and business management methods (“Quality Assessment”) employed by their parent institutions to evaluate institutional effectiveness, sometimes referred to as the “Institutional Effectiveness Plan” or “Quality Assessment Plan.”32

One person aptly referred to this phenomenon as the “outcomes assessment movement.” 33

This approach has also become a relatively new (since 2011) best practice, or standard, for academic librarians, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL Standards in Libraries in Higher Education), the professional association for college and academic librarians. By the standard committee’s own admission, the 2011 standard 34 represents a shift in the way libraries are to think about assessment, in terms of methodology (must be “outcomes-based”) and emphasis (prioritizing the achievement of institutional and departmental instructional objectives, instead of those internal to the library):

These Standards differ from previous versions by articulating expectations for library contributions to institutional effectiveness. These Standards differ structurally by providing a comprehensive framework using an outcomes-based approach, with evidence collected in ways most appropriate for each institution.35

The bottom line is that ACRL’s new Standard is not a standard at all, but an imperative that we must align ourselves with our institutions and apply their assessment model to the library. 

According to ACRL, we are to adopt the goals, objectives and outcomes of our respective institutions, including other departments and even student affairs as our own to facilitate greater partnerships across institutional boundaries, and establish our relevance accordingly.36 And we are to demonstrate our effectiveness by measurable and verifiable (evidence) assessment outcomes tied to the goals of the institution.

Let’s consider regional institutional accreditation guidelines as a library standard, since ACRL SLHE asks us to use these when formulating library outcomes. If these guidelines mention anything about libraries, they are meant to be baseline or minimum standards, not something libraries can use to achieve academic excellence, or even “goodness.” For example, SACS doesn’t say all that much about libraries except we are to offer qualified staff, library instruction and access to “adequate” and “sufficient” resources and collections:

CR 2.9 The institution, through ownership or formal arrangements or agreements, provides and supports student and faculty access and user privileges to adequate library collections and services and to other learning/information resources consistent with the degrees offered. Collections, resources, and services are sufficient to support all its educational, research, and public service programs. (Learning resources and services)

“Sufficiency” and “adequacy” are not what professionals in any field strive to achieve. So why should we? 

Would you go to a professional who boasts of providing adequate services? Institutional accreditation standards are not library standards for achieving excellence, goodness or quality.

Also, because accreditation standards are intended to be minimum standards, if the word “library” is dropped and replaced by “learning and information resources,” as has already happened in several places in SACS,37 it is surely with the understanding that small colleges with limited enrollments, or online colleges, or vocational schools, can still obtain institutional accreditation for their programs even if they lack full-fledged libraries.

The wording of regional accreditation guidelines is not intended to be a checkered flag for universities to divest themselves of their libraries, or to downgrade them into less costly Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), which require neither a library collection nor professional librarians to operate or maintain.38 Nor is it intended to encourage the provision of merely adequate resources by the library–whatever might be construed as the defensible minimum needed to pass an accreditation review–even though, again, such brinksmanship might be lauded by an administration in terms of cost reduction, maximizing return on investment, and the achievement of institutional objectives. In most cases, academic libraries cannot simply “adopt institutional objectives as their own” without significantly compromising quality.

Without any qualitative standards for collections for academic libraries emanating from ALA/ACRL, how can library administrators make a compelling case to their administration that their libraries are not being adequately funded, specifically, that they are not able to provide adequate resources to function as a library should?

If libraries are not encouraged to have their own goals and objectives for excellence, their own standards for goodness or quality, how can they prevent existing library budgets from being cannibalized for institutional objectives that have little or nothing to do with the academic mission of the library?

any faculty members have decried the rise of “managerialism”39 or an increasing corporate orientation in the university.40 41 42 The best definition of managerialism I have come across is “an exaggerated belief by professional managers in the value of the management concepts and methods they use, regardless of the unique values, culture and methodology of the organizations they manage”; the notion, for example, “that the same principles, values and methodology can be applied to managing a university, a hospital, a TV station, a car factory, a chain of coffee shops or an army.”43 Some have argued that corporate culture threatens to undermine or erode the humanistic and intellectual ideals of the university.

There is tension between the business orientation and academic one at any university, although people in higher education have come to recognize that both perspectives are needed for the institution to thrive. The latter values deep thinking, scholarship, and knowledge as virtues in themselves–knowledge for knowledge’s sake–even if doesn’t lead to a specific outcome, aside from a more educated human being.

This is a sometimes referred to as a humanistic model because it supports the pursuit of knowledge to allow a person to reach his or her full potential, but not necessarily because it leads to a specific, predefined student learning outcome.

It does not ask, “Why do you want to know that?” “How is that related to your degree plan?”

At a university, academic librarians support student success, not just as defined by the university, but also as defined by the student, helping him achieve his educational goals and research objectives regardless of whether or not it is needed for a particular class assignment. We support the student’s acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge, and therefore offer significant titles on a regular and timely basis, even if we cannot tell if this is helping students complete their degree pans. We also serve the faculty, whose research and publishing activity usually does not directly serve the business interests of university either. 

We also have an obligation to maintain a quality library in anticipation of use, in a perpetual state of readiness, rather than acquiring only that which is guaranteed to be used for a class, which is another way our acquisition strategies might not conform to a strict business model.

Publishing in peer-reviewed journals typically has little impact on enrollment, retention and graduation rates, the most pressing concerns for the college or university administration. (Research adds prestige to the university, but it has virtually no impact on undergraduate enrollment.) The more humanistic and academic goals of the college and academic research library (scholarship, life-long learning, etc.) and the more pragmatic goals of the institution might not line up very well. 

The library will always be a cost center, never able to justify itself financially though a measurable impact on GPAs and retention rates. 

In fact, operating within a strictly institutional or business framework, where the library’s goals have become one with that of their administration, the most successful and effective library manager could conceivably be one who spends as little as possible on library resources, but still manages to skate through an accreditation review.

This isn’t good for students or faculty, or for libraries or librarians–who will surely have difficulty “partnering with faculty” (one of the stated goals of the new ACRL standard) if the materials that they and their students expect to find in the library are never there, if users are routinely compelled to use other libraries to access significant or core titles in their discipline, or forced to buy the books they want or need to support their research interests out of pocket.

Over time, if collections are not maintained and allowed to wither, demand for the library’s services will drop off, and suspicions by decision makers that the library or books or librarians are no longer needed will be confirmed by low circulation statistics. The library will be eliminated or be converted into some kind of lab/tutoring center/LRC housing instructional materials, and whose activities can be more directly linked to helping at risk students rather than helping better prepared students obtain professional knowledge of a subject.

This will happen not because of changing times, or because of Google, but because the library will have been diminished by not buying anything new, by not being able to promote its resources effectively, and by deploying assessment tools that measure the wrong outputs or outcomes for an academic research or college library.

The new ACRL standard was intended to promote greater collaboration and to advance our roles as partners educating students and contributing to their success.44 However, real collaboration is a two way street: partnering is more than just our teaching information literacy courses or co-piloting courses taught by others.

Librarians have traditionally been recognized as partners in the educational process through the quality content and resources we provide. Yet, we lack a standard set of outcomes through which to evaluate the impact of collections (both print and online, leisure and scholarly) on student learning. This does not mean that collections are not a worthwhile, but that the assessment tools and standards available to us cannot assess our impact. 

More than ever, libraries need prescriptive standards of quality to to keep us from becoming redundant, competing with, or being absorbed by, other departments and entities on campus who are also focused on “student success,” our budgets and spaces re-appropriated for initiatives that have little or nothing to do with the library. From this perspective, rewriting our mission statements in order to adopt the goals and objectives of other departments and even “student affairs,” as ACRL recommends (as a way of promoting “greater collaboration”), seems like very poor advice.

Measuring the tangible impact of an intangible good. The business strategy of aligning ourselves with institutional goals and objectives, specifically institutional quality assessment plans, is particularly problematic for academic research libraries for the reason that the impact of their collections on users cannot be assessed through any objective measure that can be tied back to “student success,” as defined by the university’s quality assessment/enhancement plans.45

Years before the publication of the new ACRL standard, a similar approach was discussed in an often cited article by Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996):

Few libraries exist in a vacuum, accountable only to themselves. There is this always a larger context for assessing library quality, that is what and how well does the library contribute to the overall goals of the parent consistencies? The major objective for academic libraries, especially in an environment of increasing academic pressure, structural change, and technological innovation, must be to align themselves with the structures of higher education and the criteria by which these institutions are judged.46

Pritchard goes on to say, however, that despite higher education managers adopting the business methods of quality management, and the “micro-evaluation of libraries have given countless opportunities for detailed studies . . .”

. . . still lacking are agreed upon and objective ways to measure and incorporate library value into such processes as academic accreditation, educational assessment, and ratings of graduate programs.47

Today, academic librarians are still struggling to find ways to demonstrate their library’s relevance to their respective institutions, which usually translates into contriving ways to demonstrate our value within the context of institutional Quality Assessment plans.

By making institutional outcomes our exclusive focus, it is easy for academic librarians to forget who we are, and why most of us got our degrees in Library Science–which I doubt was to “support the curriculum,” “teach Information Literacy,” to “improve institutional outcomes,” or any of the other objectives found in librarian philosophies and in newly renovated mission statements.48 Not that these are not worthwhile objectives, but they are too narrow and they miss the point of why our users like and value the library.

Many of us academic librarians had hoped to enrich the lives of others, quite likely as ours have been enriched, through the experience of a great library, a library we ourselves enjoyed going to because, well, it was interesting, and made us feel connected to a larger community of scholars who were passionate about the same things we were. It provided a kind of personal transcendence. Great libraries are great because they have great collections which afford users with a great experience of self-directed learning to help them reach their potential in life.

This experience is what I call “the aesthetic.”

Of course, “greatness” is subjective and not measurable (there are surveys, of course, and usage stats), an aesthetic judgment, which are to be avoided when it comes to all types of quality assessment planning. The aesthetic is experientialThis poses quite a philosophical dilemma for libraries.  Aesthetic judgments, judgments about quality cannot be completely rationalized or measured. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant maintained, they are beyond reason. This doesn’t mean aesthetic judgments are irrational, but that rational modes of analysis can carry us only so far. In addition, libraries are compelled to maintain collections in a state of readiness, in anticipation of use; the sum of the whole–a collection–is greater than its parts, another challenge for evaluation.

Just because objective assessment of the impact of collections on our users cannot be assessed, does not mean that it should be ignored or is no longer a worthwhile goal for libraries to pursue. 

intialthe managerial art of objectifying what is inherently subjective and experiential, through inputs, outputs, outcomes, performance indicators, benchmarks, feedback, usage stats, metrics, documentary evidence and analyses, and then folding this meaningfully and compellingly to institutional goals and objectives, and last, into our own budgetary justifications in ways college and university administrators will ultimately appreciate, is the challenge now laid at our collective feet.

Libraries have always attempted to measure themselves and their services to evaluate their effectiveness, impact on users, or “goodness.” This is nothing new. Some have even criticized the discipline for its seemingly unbridled enthusiasm for measurement, for being “confounded from the outset” by false “certainties of empiricism” stemming from the fact it regards itself as a science, and takes as its domain information.49

For many reasons both theoretical and practical–whether stemming from professional orientation, need for greater accountability, or job insecurity–librarians already do tend to place great emphasis on empirical data, inputs (budgets, size of collections) and outputs (circulation, reference questions answered, usage stats), ratios (percent of budget spent to support certain programs, numbers of books per student per major) and performance measures which, regrettably, cannot ever be meaningfully tied to user outcomes, and which therefore “do not assist managers in providing a true picture of libraries to the lives of our users. . . “50

For many academic libraries, and particularly those in Southern states,51 “Quality Assessment” has presented new and interesting measurement challenges, tantamount to devising Rube Goldberg Machine that will, at the end of the day, reveal and heighten our impact on the much larger machinery of institutional outcomes assessment.

There is certainly a lot that could be written about Quality Assessment planning with regard to libraries, such as, how do we assess our assessment plans to know that they are good? Has the practice of assessing the academic library’s value through the rubric of institutional effectiveness been good for academic libraries and those who use them? Has this practice resulted in improved library services? How has it changed us, for better or for worse?

Rube Goldberg was a master of imagining complicated mechanical processes to perform the most mundane tasks, which could otherwise be performed with just a slight bit of human effort and common sense, for example, here a self-opening umbrella:

self-opening-umbrella_new-1600x583

Cartoon by Rube Goldberg, famous for devising complex mechanical solutions to perform mundane tasks you wouldn’t want or need a machine to do in the first place.

I do not mean to suggest that there is an easy and obvious solution to the problem of assessment or accountability in libraries–or that one should not rely upon all available tools and reports to make informed decisions–or that objectivity is not worth striving for.

That’s a given for any library manager. We compare ourselves, statistically-speaking, to our peers, and then try to figure out what they are doing better than us so we might improve. Strategic planning is an excellent tool for bench-marking growth. Setting and pursuing goals is vital to continuous improvement–who would not agree with that?

However, as the title of my philosophy statement suggests, I believe good libraries are about a very special kind of aesthetic user experience whose impact or value or information content cannot be measured in ways that would ever rationally justify them (libraries are intangible goods after all) from a business perspective like QA. There is no cost/benefit analysis that will justify the expense of an academic research library. (It reminds me what was said by Trump before cutting the school lunch program, “We tried it but didn’t see results. . . “) Therefore, I am especially mistrustful of reliance upon overly rationalized processes and externally imposed business measures like QA when it comes to library management, but most especially when they threaten to change the priorities of the academic library to value only that which can be counted, measured or valued by “the plan.”

If the library’s budget must be tied only to measurable, institutional outcomes of “student success” (graduation rate, retention, enrollment, persistence, employment rate, transfer rate, and other business objectives of the institution) or “student learning success” (how well they students do on an information literacy test), this will change the priorities of the academic library into something that is not recognizable as an academic library.

The sort of accountability required by institutional quality assessment plans inevitably entails both measurement and outcomes, but the library profession has never been able to successfully arrive at meaningful measures linked to outcomes.52

And it isn’t for a lack of effort or focus on the problem, which are further exacerbated by a failure to recognize or accept that academic libraries are about the subjective experience of users–which I call “the aesthetic”–including browsing, familiarizing oneself with a discipline, reading for enjoyment (i.e., because users find it interesting/significant/relevant), seeing what is new, reacting to the works and ideas of others, and, perhaps most cherished by users, “serendipitous discovery.”53

We librarians deal for the most part in the realm of private experience, in intangible goods, but we are expected to deliver, or provide an accounting of, our tangible value so university administrators can see a return on investment.54 If we do have measurable user or student outcomes, they are often contrived for the sake of satisfying our QA plan, and usually involve those charged with teaching Information Literacy courses–because here learning might be demonstrated through testing or better grades. By what mechanism is the library evaluated, in terms of its impact, other than this limited intervention? We cannot lay any claim to research and publications by the faculty, even though we support them.

The quality assessment standards imposed on academic research libraries today are often missing the finer points of the academic research library, and really the purpose of higher education, which is to encourage learning and research that is not necessarily part of “the curriculum”–at least not yet.

Our users have no predefined learning outcomes.

We want them to feel as if they are standing on the shores of a vast ocean of knowledge and human experience, and that they are free to go intellectually in any direction they choose. However, one unintended consequence of the imposition of QA on libraries at some institutions has been a reallocation of the library budget away from library resources, the collection–whose impact on students or outcomes cannot be effectively assessed or measured–toward instructional services, such as information literacy programs, tutoring, writing labs, and basic computer skills classes, and a variety of student support services which lend themselves to outcomes assessment more easily, especially in the short-term. 

Within the context of the institutional QA, libraries don’t get much credit for having resources, or even use of resources–only demonstrating tangible results (higher GPAs)–and these “results” must occur within the time constraints of the plan.

girlbeforeamirror

Library assessment though the institutional QA Plan will make the library’s budget look fat, as its resources can’t be meaningfully tied to specific measurable learning outcomes.

Another issue fundamental to our identity as academic librarians is a commitment to students and faculty, specifically to the individual’s pursuit of knowledge. By adopting as our highest aspirations institutional goals as defined by external IE/QA plans (plans shaped exclusively by goals and objectives for institutional accreditation, rather than library standards), as ACRL has now advised55, we are moving away from a holistic model of librarianship, in which the user defines his success, towards one that is narrow, passive, unambitious and not actually user-centered, but institutional: we merely “support the curriculum” with “adequate resources” rather than (more idealistically) helping our students obtain disciplinary knowledge, our faculty keep up with trends in their field.

While this latter role is perhaps more pertinent to academic libraries supporting graduate research, there are corollaries at the community or junior college level, where librarians support, or have traditionally supported, the co-curricular and extra-curricular, self-directed interests of our students: leisure reading, current events, bestsellers, graphic novels, biographies, life skills and “how to’s” for young adults transitioning into adulthood and into a professional workforce.

These may not be directly, meaningfully or demonstrably tied to the curriculum, but they make the library good for, and interesting to, students, and habituates them to independent learning. It also exposes them to other points of view and ways of thinking, and enhances their educational experience, and has an impact on their lives, even if we cannot prove with any certainty that it does.

One would assume that promoting self-directed and independent learning at all levels–from leisure reading for college students to original research for publication for upper division and graduate students–would be fundamental to the core values of lifelong learning and academic achievement, principles we are supposed to be instilling in students.56 But even the seemingly straightforward concept of lifelong learning has been co-opted by what Elmborg alludes to as a “neoliberalist” agenda, as opposed to the more idealistic values traditionally upheld by the library profession:

Life-long Learning is enshrined in the consciousness of librarians through the ALA’s Core Values. However, bundled in this phrase are two concepts that exist in great and probably irresolvable tension: there is the ‘hothouse flower’ of idealistic values, the vision of the ‘people’s university,’ critical consciousness, and critical practice; and there is the ‘weed’ of progressive administration, narrow and unambitious in terms of its impact on individuals but able to construct an inescapable domain of discourse that places all value within the context of economic development and the assessment of data-driven outcomes.

From the administrative point of view, lifelong learning is most easily translated into a task-driven, programmatic initiative that can be easily assessed and measured for short-term success. From the pedagogical point of view, lifelong learning is translated through great effort into the problem-posing, one-on-one exploration whose outcomes are fuzzy and may not be measurable for years to come. It might be naïve to suggest that libraries should defy the spirit of the age, denounce neoliberalism, and make a pure stand for social justice and democratic pedagogy. However, it seems equally unwise to embrace a neoliberal worldview that is openly hostile to almost everything that libraries profess to represent in their core values.57

While I cannot speak to the “neoliberal” vs. “social justice” perspectives Elmborg raises–I see the dichotomy more as a top-down business/managerial/quality management perspective vs. more scholarly / humanistic / user-centered approach–it does seem pretty clear no matter how you express it, librarians as well as our professional associations like ACRL are embracing certain philosophies, strategies or best practices that may be detrimental to the success or survival of libraries in the long term.

Beyond the Curriculum? Academic librarians are, presumably, scholars committed to scholarship and the principle of academic freedom. We help students pursue knowledge and achieve their chosen educational and learning objectives–whether it leads to a degree or not.

    • We support scholarship and disciplinary knowledge as ends in themselves, as their own rewards, not because they lead, necessarily or measurably, to a degree, or to “student success” within a certain prescribed time period (e.g., within the boundaries of a Quality Enhancement Plan).
    • We librarians are glad that you used or accessed the item, but we don’t investigate in any formal way the extent to which you benefited from it, the extent to which it changed you, how it improved you, how it helped you write a better paper, or even if you found the item useful.
    • Along the same lines, if you request an article from us to get from another library, we don’t ask you to prove that you need it for a degree program or to complete an assignment before we request it.
    • We do not discourage you from visiting other libraries in order to hold you captive to just what we have if we know that there is a collection nearby which might better serve your research interests. We do not withhold that knowledge, or keep you ignorant just to increase our own stats. We are not a “business.” We don’t view other libraries as our competitors;
    • We do not say, “Why do you want to know that? That has nothing to do with your major.” Or, “You’ll have to get permission from your professor before we process your ILL request.”

Now, my own theory of library usage–which has to be at the heart of any philosophy of librarianship–is that people who value and use academic libraries, our constituents, do so because they benefit from immediate access to relevant, significant or interesting content, especially within the context of a meaningful and carefully considered collection.

To our constituents, academic libraries are not primarily “about” the services provided by librarians, or information, at least not in an obvious way. They are about collections. They are about books, regardless of format. They are about publications. They are about media. They are about content

When people look forward to going to library they are not imagining helpful librarians.

No, they are thinking about interesting books and collections which they hope and expect to find there; things they like and find meaningful to them. Library services are always secondary to collections, to the extent that services exist to support and promote use of resources and publications. Collections do not exist to support librarians’ services. Getting information or assistance from a librarian is a very, very small reason people come to a library, public or academic. 

Therefore,

    • I am not ready to declare collections to be dead or obsolete just because “the library can’t buy everything,” because large portions of it may exist in a different format, or because resources can’t be linked to assessment outcomes.
    • I am not ready to use library services as the sole indicator of quality for an academic library, or even the primary mode by which we academic librarians demonstrate our impact on students–even if evidence of direct student engagement may be the easiest way to justify ourselves.

The academic library is not primarily about inputs and outputs, users “getting answers to specific questions” or “satisfying specific information needs”–the latter are good things, of course, but despite the empirical information model which has often permeated our professional thinking about library operations–is not a correct model for any type of library, public or academic.

To scholars and regular library users, libraries are about the preservation of knowledge, sharing knowledge, facilitating the discovery of knowledge, and providing support for the creation of new knowledge through the quality of its collections.

The academic library is fundamentally a collection of research that inspires research.

To the extent that it does this well, it is successful as an academic research library.

Why Academic Library Collections Still Matter in the Age of Google.

I am asked this question not infrequently in graduate research methods classes. I know this can be my cue to promote myself and my services, and say, “Librarians are your greatest resource, and that is why libraries still matter!” But I do not believe that to be true. I am helpful, but I am not their greatest library resource. If I were, the library would be spending over a million dollars on me and not on EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, Elsevier and Sage databases. 

Anyway, the entire library shouldn’t revolve around “me” or my services (some days it seems like it does but I know it doesn’t). I want people to benefit from and enjoy the library itself. Thankfully, many people use the library regularly without ever needing to consult with a librarian, because if they did, that would be frustrating both to them and to me.

According to my aesthetic philosophy of librarianship, I should not benefit from the ignorance, frustrations, or disappointments of users in order to boost my own performance scorecard, desk stats, relevance or value. 

Website not intuitive? Students just need to take an information literacy class from me to learn how to use it. People can’t find any books on “globalization,” “big data,” “noSQL” or C#? Students can get what they want through me, through ILL (After all, it’s what we do that counts, not what we have. . . ) Can’t access an article from home? Call me at the Reference desk, I can download it and send it to you. . . (we’ll get around to updating the proxy server eventually).

Of course, these are examples of poor customer service–and no, they are not my library.

But in an environment where everyone is encouraged to assiduously document their own services, gathering evidence to make themselves appear more accountable, well, we just might not be as customer-service-oriented as we might appear on paper.

When I speak to students, I am merely the messenger. I try to represent good published authorities and the peer-reviewed word. I represent resources which impart disciplinary knowledge. That is what the academic library as a whole ideally does better than Google and Google Scholar–provided that the library’s collections, access services and systems are maintained.

In a university library, students, aspiring scholars, and newcomers to a field of study benefit from familiarizing themselves with what books, journals, publications and publishers others regard as influential, significant or authoritative in a field of study, as opposed to say, what rises to the top of a Google query, a content aggregator’s database, or even our library’s discovery tool.

I really don’t care if we can retrieve 10,000 titles on “Health Administration” from our databases if we don’t have–or are incapable of making students aware of–the most significant, authoritative and relevant sources in their field of study.

Awareness of authorities and trends in a discipline defines a person as a professional. Libraries have a vital role to play in this aspect of a student’s professional education.

Through a well maintained collection, catalog and web presence, students and scholars benefit by seeing what is new and interesting in their field of study, because doing so inspires their own creativity, research, teaching, and the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge. The kind of disciplinary knowledge obtained through a good academic library collection is a very important part of an aspiring professional or scholar’s education; it should never be limited just to what is taught in classes, or prescribed by a curriculum.

The curriculum is the minimum requirement, not the upper limit, of what students can or should strive to learn when they attend an institution of higher education.

The library is a vital part of the education of our students. Apart from providing the student with disciplinary knowledge, including that which may fall outside of scope the courses taught at that particular college or university, the library allows students the opportunity to apply their newly obtained curricular knowledge in ways that are personally meaningful to them.

However, librarians are increasingly asked by QA plans to define themselves, their roles and their collections narrowly, in terms of measurable targets of student impactin terms of what they do (services), not in terms of what they have (collections)–even though what many of us do, or believe we should be doing–in addition to helping students of course–is creating and sustaining an exceptionally good college and academic research library collection.

Most surprisingly, we are even prompted by our own professional standards to redefine ourselves in terms of “institutional, departmental and student affairs outcomes. . . . student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success” (ACRL, SLHE, 2011, 1.1-1.6)–the university’s business objectives, as opposed to something more idealistic and perhaps less demonstrable within the plan’s reporting period: support for independent learning, knowledge, scholarship and the intellectual life of the university campus.

So then, after rewriting our library mission statements to express alignment with institutional objectives, as ACRL SLHE suggests we do, it is still not clear how we are to develop the recommended metrics and performance indicators to demonstrate contributions to “student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success,” without fundamentally altering the library to become something which is not an academic library, but something more along the lines of a tutoring center.

You can’t embrace the mission, goals and objectives of departments outside the library and just assume this will be good for the library or its constituents, or the university as a whole.

Many libraries have established (or been turned into) “student success centers” and ramped up their instructional programs in an effort to be able to demonstrate their relevance and value to their parent institutions through mentoring students and increased direct engagement with them. These are worthwhile, but it would have been preferable to me had ACRL also succeeded in making the “library” part of the library less expendable through its various publications and roadshows teaching librarians how to make a case for themselves.

I mentioned earlier a trend in the literature of library assessment of marginalizing the role and value of collections, or proclaiming them to be irrelevant to the success or quality of the library. Although we try to carve out new roles, in most instances, computer labs, tutoring, student affairs and Blackboard (online learning) are handled by other entities on campus. The only thing that makes the library unique, relevant and effective to our users are our collections, our scholarly content, and the provision of support services related to these. At a university, we cannot teach Information Literacy without collections that support research. The two are inseparable. 

A number of articles in library literature discussing service-oriented assessment techniques for measuring quality also justify the services-only approach by arguing that libraries can’t continue to grow their collections, and therefore must focus on expanding services to justify their value.

Many of these articles quote, or use an epigram, a line from Danuta A. Nitecki (“Changing the Concept and Measure of Service Quality in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3, 1996), “The measure of quality based solely on collections has become obsolete.” Danuta sets up a straw man to exaggerate service-orientation, for if you go back and read the article no librarian ever equated library quality with “size of holdings”–we all know better than to do that.

But the very idea that services can be completely disassociated from the collection and evaluated as autonomous business units presents us with a false dichotomy (collections v. services). For one thing, there is interconnection between “library collections” and “library services” which cannot be glossed over.

    • Obviously, if your collection is inadequate, your users must resort to interlibrary loan for items which probably ought to be in your circulating collection. ILL service may be heavily used, responsive and popular with your patrons, but you are still providing users with poor service if they must resort to borrowing materials that should be in the library in the first place.
    • In information literacy classes, we teach students how to evaluate resources, with currency being a factor. A dated or poorly maintained collection reflects poorly on our own instructional objectives and professional competence. Most significantly, however, students will have less opportunity to exercise their research skills if they are not using the library because its collections are not relevant or appealing to them.
    • Reference services are needed to support research. If your faculty and students are doing their research at other libraries because the collection does not support research, or their particular research, then you are not going to have much demand for Reference Services, either.

Historically, library services have always existed to augment and promote use of library collections, not vice versa.

Another motive for minimizing collections in favor of services within library quality assessment plans is the difficulty evaluating the impact of collections on students (in terms of measurable results which contribute to their “success”), whereas with library instruction, a some kind of test is possible to show that students 1. have attended, and 2. learned something. There is evidence of student impact. The emphasis now is to move away from passive support through resources to direct engagement with students to be able to better document how the library is directly contributing to student success.

However, student success is more often than not a euphemism describing the extent to which a student is progressing in his degree plan, not a measure of a student’s learning, extra- or co-curricular goals and activities, or his academic or professional growth outside of graded classwork. It is not a holistic view of the student, his success, or his education.

In reality, the library profession–and historically, our professional commitment to “access”–has always supported a more holistic view of students and their education than the college or university administration: Libraries and librarians help students achieve their educational, intellectual and personal goals. We help them achieve success on their terms. If they want to read a book, we try to get it for them. We do not judge and refuse service if we think it is not part of a class assignment. And this is a good thing for a university.

We can’t pretend to know what the future holds in terms of career opportunities for our students. Nurturing the passions and interests of our students may ultimately be what leads to their success in life–not necessarily their practical Nursing, Health Administration or Respiratory Therapy degrees. Perhaps they will prepare themselves in a career or a field of study not yet established. I recall a time when there were no degrees in Computer Science, and all programmers were self-taught through whatever books and resources were available.

We talk about promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. There is no better place to cultivate that spirit than the library, where there is real freedom to pursue individualized learning, knowledge and ideas.

The research library should not set as its highest objective “support for the curriculum”–the minimum needed for students to complete assignments–but should express as overarching commitment to disciplinary knowledge and academic achievement.

Now, many believe that the application of similar sorts of “quality assessment/quality management” techniques to K-12 education, with performance indicators, outcomes, standards, testing, tracking and recording for the sake of reporting back into a system, has not resulted in improved educational outcomes in the classroom, because the curriculum and methods of instruction have been changed in order to meet the needs of the assessment tools.

Assessing the impact of the library through some kind of matrix or rubric, where the only thing of value is what can be measured (what many university assessment plans require), is an impossible task for a library, but external pressures for greater accountability will ultimately transform it to become a remedial support or learning center, rather than a place people enjoy visiting, where they see themselves and their interests affirmed, nurtured and supported though a library’s investment in books.

We say that “Libraries transform lives,” but proving that is another story. Libraries offer intangible goods, very much like knowledge, and education–well, before education was redefined as a collection of discrete and measurable tasks tied to standardized test learning objectives so it could be properly “assessed.

the-library-of-babel1

Yes we have usage stats, but one never really knows the full impact of the library, its programs and its collections on users, especially on students. This is obviously a big and troubling problem for a library when it comes to evidence-based assessment methods.

    • Some students may choose to attend schools with a larger or nicer library, but we will never know whether the size or quality of the library factored into student recruitment. Did they choose that school because it offered a better library?
    • Some people may be motivated to change majors or go on to graduate school, some may develop a passion few people outside the ivory tower think about–like medieval semiotics, or “Is there really a Catholic literature of the South?” But we will never know the role of the library in terms of nurturing this passion, contributing (or not) to student success or “retention.”
    • One day, in a school library, a biography of Hamilton crosses a student’s path; years later, a Broadway musical is born. All the library may have to show in its assessment plan was that on that day a book circulated.

We can’t assess the impact of a library without assessing the impact of the collection on users, a task on par with measuring the subtle gravitational waves from the Big Bang or something out of Chaos theory. Collecting data demonstrating the impact of the library’s collection on students, especially according to “measurable targets,” is difficult, or even impossible.

In fact, academic libraries have never been able to arrive at standardized measures and metrics to determine if a library is “good”. We simply benchmark ourselves against peer libraries, comparing their usage stats to ours, and try to figure out their secret sauce.

We must now demonstrate through evidence that we contribute to the business goals of the university through its “Rube Goldberg Machine” of Quality Assessment planning. When we hit upon just the right metrics and measures, it will be bound to attract enormous crowds at ALA conferences curious to see how it all works.

rgm

Let’s resist the temptation to teach to the test, to so eagerly re-establish the roles and priorities of the academic library and its librarians based only on what is achievable through evidence, performance indicators and outputs, and what can and cannot be measured within the context of what is, essentially, a business model–whose relevance to education, teaching, research and scholarship has never been proven and has already been placed into question by many (citations coming).

Let’s not adopt as our goals and objectives those of other departments and other entities within the university to create redundancy, in an effort to more closely “align ourselves with them,” as ACRL SLHE advises, without at least considering the impact this may have on the our own customers and constituents, considering whether we are meeting the needs of the scholarly community we serve.

And let’s not be fearful of mission statements that are bold and visionary, making reference to things that cannot be quantified, such as “knowledge” and “creativity.”

Let us begin with the premise that libraries are intangible goods, offering intangible benefits to our community of users, rather than starting out with a management principle that if it can’t be measured, counted or assessed, then it is not a worth pursuing or has little value.

Consider that many goals in life are worth striving for, even if we can never know if they are achieved: objectivity, knowledge, wisdom, insight, truth and beauty, just to name a few.

Without consideration for the aesthetic and subjective element, libraries become boring, prosaic and perfunctory, a collection of what will be sure to be utilized in the course of a semester (or whatever time period is determined by “the plan”)–a collection of Norton anthologies, textbooks, courseware, test prep study guides, and a standard set of online databases required for accreditation.

The pleasure of coming upon something new and unexpected but deeply meaningful to the user, the subjective human element to collections which defy a vendor’s institutional profile, or just sharing with a fellow reader, are what makes a good library good to present and future scholars.

Good library collections are (just a bit) gratuitous. The problem with managing the academic library strictly according to the numbers–similar to the problem of “teaching to the test” in education–is that the library will fail to be a good library if ALL it does is pursue and measure tangible goals.

We can and should gather stats on usage and solicit input from our users, and yes, we should compare ourselves to peers to try to continuously improve, but we (and the professional organizations who represent us) should recognize and proclaim the fact that the library’s impact on students and scholars cannot be ever accurately measured, reduced to data points or KPIs, or translated to a dollar value that would ever justify our cost. It is an intangible, but because it is intangible does not make it inconsequential.

A university library that is well-managed, stimulating and up-to-date facilitates learning and helps students grow independently, as self-directed scholars. It inspires research, which brings prestige to the university. It is what makes the university a university. It also attracts students, especially graduate students. But try as we might, libraries cannot be concretely or tangibly mapped to higher enrollments, student achievement, increased retention, improved graduation rates, the focus of most university strategic or quality assessment plans. 

The Library as a Place for Inspiration and Exploratory Discovery:
An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship Explained

The most frequent, positive, and meaningful experience of academic libraries is through the user’s experience of a content-rich environment (i.e., a “library”) where independent learning, discovery, exploration, knowledge creation, sense-making and insight are likely to occur.

Although some librarians prefer to rationalize, intellectualize and objectify their own practice or contribution in terms of “information services”–responding to reference questions or providing instruction–scholars and regular library users most often think about the library in terms of ideas, scholarly discourse, disciplinary knowledge and personal discovery.

What people experience and value about academic libraries are primarily their own responses to a collection of works which they perceive to be relevant and interesting to them. Academic libraries are, in essence, collections of research that inspire research.

As much as some librarians may rationalize user behavior in terms of information-seeking and problem-solving–as if researchers are trying to be efficient, like mice running through a maze to get a piece of cheese–I believe that good libraries, those that people want to use, are inherently “aesthetic” in Kantian sense: if they are good libraries, they are places of insight, revelation, transcendence (time/place/culture) and self-discovery. If they are good libraries, people want to use them and are really in no hurry to reach the exit. It is the librarian’s duty to facilitate this experience called “scholarly research” or discovery, which is often deliberately inefficient and enjoyable to the person doing it–unless they must consult with a librarian to gain access to something they want.

How John Leinhard (Engines of our Ingenuity, Episode No. 1089) describes the value of art museums applies just as well to how people experience a good library: They allow us to enter into a “liminal state” of mind where we are opened up to new ideas and possibilities:

We all live in need of ideas. We all have problems to solve. At some point, most of us realize that, when our problems need creative solutions, they cannot be attacked with purely methodical tools. Method takes us down familiar roads. Creativity means seeing the shrubbery-shrouded side roads that we ignore by habit.

The hardest thing in the world is to leave the highway and float above the land. Music, theater, sculpture — they all cut us loose from the road of method and common sense.

The so-called creative leap isn’t a leap in the dark — without antecedents or stimulus. Rather, it happens when we find a liminal state, on the very edge of awareness, where ideas arrive without order or hierarchy. In that mental world, cowpaths are as important as freeways. And one way to find that creative state is to give ourselves over to art.

Inside the museum, we lay aside our shopping lists of needs to be met. Art serves us when we leave our supermarket lives to wander the woods, eating the unexpected nuts, berries, and wild fruit.

The information model made popular twenty-five years ago, when library studies morphed into information science, was a very convenient but limited model of what a library is and should be. According to that model, people come to the library to satisfy information needs–or get assistance fulfilling requirements for assignments–rather than seeking a kind of self-directed experience “wandering through the woods and tasting the unexpected berries.”

When taken literally, this pragmatic philosophy of librarianship–which defines patron motivation to satisfying some immediate need, and the role of the librarian to satisfying that need–has had repercussions in how libraries are managed, designed and funded today, such as treating libraries as service desks or remedial tutoring centers; and a singular focus on doing while discounting the importance of having, e.g., the right titles, an exceptional collection, displayed in ways that are appealing to users.

No amount of “doing” on the part of librarians can compensate for not having, because “having” is a core function of the library.

Patrons don’t come to the library primarily for our services. They come for resources relevant to their interests and their assignments, and to keep up with what’s new in their field of study.

I believe it should be our mission as academic librarians to create that special place where people feel stimulated, inspired, supported, and encouraged to go beyond the curriculum to become whoever and whatever they want to be in life. Libraries help people realize their potential.

Even a small library with a small budget should strive to be a window to the world, that is, immersing students in a world of ideas.

One of the best academic library mission statements for a college library I have come across is this:

“Dedicated to enriching the life of the community through the expansion of knowledge and creativity.” (Woodbury University Library, Burbank, CA)

It is a beautiful mission statement for a beautiful library (scroll way down to see a picture, or click the link above to go to their library website).

This one is really good too:

“. . . advancing scholarship and teaching through the collection, creation, application, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.” (Harvard Library Mission & Strategic Objectives)

Today, if one conducted a national survey of ACRL mission statements, many would mention Information, Information Literacy and Information Services, “empowering students in the Information Age,” but few would mention collections or knowledge, more durable goods than the commodity of information.

Building Content-Rich Environments. People enrolled in academic programs today would rather browse for books on Amazon and Google Books than in the library catalog. They would rather search for articles and information on Google (and Google Scholar) than in the library’s electronic databases.

The time has come for libraries to start offering a better, more interesting content-rich online experience.

For starters, what if the library’s home page looked more like this, emphasizing our content:

Barnes&Noble

and less like this, emphasizing the librarian and library services:

uhlibraryhome

Make sites more about the content that our users might want or find appealing, less about us librarians and our services.

Ideally, the library’s mission statement, and the goals and objectives stemming from it, should embrace strategies for actively acquiring and promoting resources, and for using technology to put materials before our users’ eyes, because that is an important part of what a library does–not providing access to materials if and when they are requested. We have an obligation to our users to maintain a library in anticipation of use, and to provide them with a quality collection.

At the college level, the library should expose students to core titles and authorities in their chosen field, to disciplinary knowledge, to key publications, not merely to information in the abstract.

By providing access to everything “on demand” but acquiring nothing, we are abnegating our roles as librarians and as educators, and creating a bland environment that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor conducive to learning. Offering a quality collection is one of the most important ways librarians add value to their user communities. 

Putting “the Library” back into Librarianship. Librarians may not be able to compete with Google or Amazon, but I believe there are things we can do to make our libraries a lot more appealing to our constituents:

  • Encourage browsing. Put books where users will see them. I believe that good libraries actively promote awareness of the significant titles in a discipline and knowledge of recent trends. This is a core function of libraries, not optional. You can’t sit back and subscribe to ebook Central and be done with it. Browsing the shelves and the online catalog of a good college library helps students learn about a particular discipline in ways that retrieving a random assortment of books documents in response to a query can’t.
  • Make the library stimulating to the senses and the intellect. Good libraries have never been merely a repository for books, any more than a museum is a repository of artifacts. Just as with museums, aesthetics is vital to our success–especially now that there are so many other places for users to find and access information. By aesthetics, I am not referring merely to the attractiveness of the walls or the furniture, but to the subjective user experience of the library as a whole, including how interesting, useful and significant the library collections are or appear to be when patrons walk through the doors or land on the library’s home page. By all means though, if your users like music, play music. Serve coffee. Make it smell good. Make the library a destination.
  • Stop treating all questions as “information requests.” If stats are up at the Reference desk merely because signs were taken down and never replaced, or because people can’t locate what they are looking for on the shelves (stacks and collection is not maintained), or don’t know where to go to search the catalog or how to search it when they get there, or because the printer is broken, well, it all may look very good on paper (we’re responding to all these questions!) but the reality may be something very different. 
  • Stop using “Information Literacy” classes to compensate for poor user interfaces and antiquated systems. Rather than concentrating effort and energy on Information Literacy to teach students how to navigate our antiquated and unintuitive systems, we should be conducting usability studies of our website and library and working towards making them more user-friendly to begin with. No one needs a class to know how to search Amazon or Google. Why should the library’s website be any different?
  • READ. Turn your users on to new things they might like. Librarians should never stop reading, never stop growing. You are the voice of the collection: familiarize yourself with it! Read, recommend, reach out. Learn what your faculty might be interested in, keep them apprised of new publications in their discipline.
  • Invest in New User Interfaces. Libraries must start paying as much attention to the architecture of their websites as they do to the architecture of their buildings. 21st century libraries don’t have 20th century websites, static pages of text and hyperlinks. Our websites are often an ad hoc assemblage of various competing vendor-branded resources, platforms, interfaces, tools (e.g., SFX, “classic” catalog, LibGuides, “Literati by Credo Reference,” EBSCO Host, STATRef! and JSTOR ) and proprietary applications that don’t work well together, causing needless confusion among our users.
  • Focus on Content. Create libraries physical and virtual that are content rich environments, fun for patrons to explore.

Putting the Library back into Librarianship means offering intuitive, content-rich websites and facilities (“libraries”) that people actually enjoy coming to, to see what’s new in their areas of interest, or to learn more about a field of study or discipline.

Information Literacy and Instruction. A large study of California college library mission statements in 2006 “Thinking Boldly!58 concluded that many library mission statements have replaced “building strong collections” with “teaching information literacy.”

Reference and other types of Public Service librarians have always taught students, and always performed instruction, formally in classes and informally at the desk. This is nothing new, except that over the years the name has changed from “Bibliographic Instruction” to “Information Literacy,” and these days we sometimes teach people about the use and evaluation of Internet sources. However, never before has teaching received such intensive focus by our professional associations and literature.

Many Philosophies of Librarianship today place exclusive emphasis on teaching, specifically teaching Information Literacy.

This is a pretty typical PoL:

I acknowledge that libraries as an institution have a broader purpose, but in every library, librarians exist to teach people how to access and use information. Our role as educators and teachers is what makes us unique. In short, I see the heart and soul of libraries in information literacy.– Kim, “Our Philosophies of Librarianship,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. Oct. 17, 2012. 59

University libraries who can afford it are hiring “Information Literacy Librarians” and “First-year Experience Instruction Librarians” to teach Freshmen the basics of how to find, evaluate and use information. Reference Librarians are being redefined as Instruction Librarians. The library journals oriented to directed at Reference Librarians are full of articles on Information Literacy and little else.

The emphasis on Information Literacy in the library profession can be attributed to many things: more good information available on the Internet, sense that books are going away, the decline of Reference services, and even a shift in emphasis in running libraries and universities as businesses, or according to a business model, where the only thing that matters is what can be demonstrated to have had an impact on student achievement (student success as defined by the institution).

This sounds really good in principle, but we have no means of demonstrating the value and impact of our collections within this framework, because usage stats and circulation have never been able to be correlated with outcomes in any meaningful way. A business objective model is synonymous with undermining the value of the collection and everything in the library whose impact on student success cannot be meaningfully measured through this assessment model. It actually demonstrates the irrelevance of the library as whole. Why even have a library? 

Librarians must be able to demonstrate their relevance to the university or college in light of assessment plans and a common perception that everything–at least, everything that their students might need to complete assignments–is online. Library directors are under pressure to demonstrate the library’s impact on students in terms of measurable results, which places more emphasis on instructional services.

What is most interesting to me is how now so many older librarians (since I am an older librarian, I can speak freely), some of whom by their own admission have yet to download an ebook or read a book online, express utter disdain toward the traditional library and print, arguing that it costs x amount of money to “warehouse” each title/year “just in case” someone needs it–preferring an “on-demand” or “just in time” library service model, where access to the book is provided as needed–but then the book goes away, rather than hanging around collecting dust. There seems to be no concept of the value of a good collection, and the presentation of a collection to users, which had been fundamental to the principles of collection development. A quality collection is the visible manifestation of a discipline, or the significant works in a field of study, 

Once treated with a kind of reverence as works, books have now become dusty, unclean and obsolete, old school, at least regarded as a whole lot of trouble to keep on the shelves and not worth the expense. They say that online and on demand is what the library should be in the 21st century. Books are a thing of the past, with only 0-13% of the academic library budget now going to them. With library collections rapidly shrinking into a generic and predictable selection of vendor packaged content (which don’t require staff to manage), it is easy to believe that teaching (or rather “instruction”) and empty spaces for collaboration is all we have left.

One can easily anticipate a time in the near future when only the largest schools will afford their students with the rich intellectual experience of what we used to call “a library”:

LehighULeHigh_LindermanLib_UniversityPhoto

while others will offer a web page with links to databases and be done with it.

Bookless libraries: symbols of cultural decline or technological progress?

No one seems to have given much thought either to the visceral appeal or effectiveness or impact on student learning of a library without physical books, or more importantly, whether user experience of an online library provides comparable educational–or spiritual/psychological–benefit to its users. Yes, researchers tell us that users often assign great personal meaning to their happenstance discoveries in the stacks (spiritual or phenomenological value), which they sometimes value more highly than what is retrieved systematically or via technology.

Modern, minimalist libraries without physical books are in, and those libraries that have books are drastically reducing their numbers and placing them on the periphery, into storage, or completely out of site.

The University of Chicago’s Mansueto library, pictured below, stores books out of view (books are stored in an underground bunker, retrieved by robotic pages), a return to a time when the call number was actually used to call for the book.

mansueto

The new Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. Books are stored in an underground bunker, retrieved through an automated system.

This is not an isolated case. “How to re-purpose empty or underutilized space in your library” (since collections are shrinking and books will be gone) could be the subtitle of most professional conferences on the 21st century library. Now that print books are going away, research libraries are resembling waiting areas, such as airports or hotel lobbies, or modern open concept workplaces.

At the Mansueto Library, which serves as the primary research library at the University of Chicago for students in the sciences and the humanities, there are no works on display to celebrate scholarship, to stimulate interest when users walk through the door, to encourage independent learning, or help students and faculty keep up with trends in their field.

From this traditional librarian’s perspective, the Mansueto presents intellectually sterile environment, the antithesis of what a good library should be. Honestly, wouldn’t you rather be here, in a beautiful space with the weight of tradition at your back, without all that sunlight glare on your laptop, and still have access to the same online databases?

woodburyInterior

Woodbury University Library, in Burbank, CA.”Dedicated to enriching the life of the community through the expansion of knowledge and creativity.” What a wonderful mission statement.

Unfortunately, the highly acclaimed multi-million dollar glass facility (nicknamed “the blister”) named after billionaire donor Joe Mansueto (the founder of the Morningstar news agency), is what many in our own profession also believe a modern library should be: rational, efficient, impersonal and technological, glass and steel.

It also symbolizes a logical trajectory of the library profession from a focus on works and collections created and maintained by and for people–humanistic values–to “information in the abstract.” While ideas and works transcend time and place, information (like news) is inherently transient and continuously updated, it has no lasting value, so there is no need to preserve it for the future.

It is also the embodiment of a philosophy of librarianship encouraged by the library profession over the last 25 years which:

    • regards information services and libraries as interchangeable
    • defines services narrowly and in a reactionary way, in terms of merely meeting or responding to the information needs of students and faculty
    • stresses the function of librarians as existing apart from creating and maintaining exceptional academic and college libraries
    • fails to recognize that good libraries are conceptually much more about ideas than information

After encountering so many philosophies of librarianship and academic library mission statements which offer nothing more than “teaching information literacy” and/or “providing information and resources to support the curriculum,” I realize I do have a philosophy of librarianship which has to do with my commitment to creating and maintaining an exceptionally good academic library.

My philosophy of librarianship began in 1987, about the time when library science graduate programs across the country were either closing down (most famously the library program at Columbia University, which proclaimed the MLS to be a vocational degree lacking sufficient theoretical foundation to be at CU), or else reinventing themselves as schools of Information Science–taking the “L-word” out of their names and course descriptions, and adding basic programming, SQL and DOS to the curriculum.

Over the years, “iSchools”, the new library schools, would continue to add information theory and technical computing courses to the traditional library school curriculum, including object-oriented programming, data mining, data management, Information Retrieval, web development, “Ontologies and the Semantic Web,” digital asset management and health informatics, but no matter how technical, relevant or cutting edge the curriculum, employers continued to associate the Master’s in Library and Information Science with traditional reference work, filing, or something anachronistic and useless to the business enterprise. Most employers do not know that MLIS degrees require data and database management, web development, data visualization and other technical skills. 

After completing my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science in 1990, I returned to graduate school and took courses in the burgeoning and discipline of Information Science, and also MIS (Management Information Systems) in the School of Business. I returned again, this time to the community college, in the late 90’s and early 00’s to study computer programming, web development and database management, which were also what my cohorts in iSchools were learning. 

However, my interests when I first enrolled in Library School in 1987 were traditional and Humanistic: Rare Books and Manuscripts, along with antiquarian prints, Reformation history, Christian Humanism, medieval scholasticism, 18th century philosophy, 19th century Romanticism, English literature, art and art history, illustrated books, descriptive bibliography and cataloging.

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s I’d already studied a few years of Latin, a little Hebrew and two years of Ancient Greek, was a part-time book scout for a used and out of print book dealer, and had been attending book shows in Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco. Of course, I collected books, and still do. Any new city I visited, I looked forward to visiting the used and out-of-print bookstores. I subscribed to AB Bookman. In the 80’s, the art market was booming, and with it antiquarian books and prints. I loved the library, prints and printing, and most of all the intellectual history that went along with them.

I went on to study more Latin at the graduate level and eventually migrated over to Medieval and Reformation History, thinking I could put my Latin to use. Plus, I loved Aquinas, Church history and medieval scholasticism. Only the only Medievalist in the department–replacing a distinguished historian of science and religion who left when the university presented him with an early retirement package–insisted that I do “her” story. Not wanting to learn how to “subvert patriarchy” or “divine women’s voices from the language of male denigration and misogyny”–plus Medieval women did not write in Latin–I decided to pursue my library degree with the idea of becoming a Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections, or something where I could work with primary sources and perhaps, over time, defend the historical record that others seemed to be working so hard to subvert.

Librarianship for me and many other academic dropouts may have been a career of last resort, but it just seemed like a more intellectually honest profession and better aligned with my scholarly interests, and I was always in the rare book room anyway, where as far as I was concerned, much of the real scholarship in the Humanities was being done.

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In Library School at the end of the 80s, I took my “Introduction to Information Services” class where we were discussing the role of libraries in society and their importance for delivering quality information to people. Libraries schools were interested in redefining library work in terms of information access and delivery. Whatever the type of library, we were taught that the output of library services, whether public, academic or corporate, is Information. Most librarians accept this as a truism, for it is a chief plank of MLIS program, a bridge that connects librarianship with something more relevant and modern.

The fundamental logic, or philosophy, of library services at that time seemed to hang on a self-validating premise:

People go to the library to get information, to satisfy an information need–even if the need may not ever be fully or consciously realized by the library user.

It was up to the librarian to translate the often ill-defined and almost unconscious information needs of patrons into questions that could be answered quickly and efficiently using the library’s resources.

As a life-long user of libraries myself, I was never comfortable with this narrow, even anti-intellectual assessment of libraries or its users. Because here’s the thing:

    • If the library is a good one, people are motivated to come to it for many reasons, not simply to obtain information in response to a question or an information need.
    • If the library is a good one, people come to be stimulated (and to stimulate their own creativity), to explore possibilities, and to stay connected with scholarship, and even to have the opportunity to discover new things, very often inefficiently and serendipitously.
    • If the library is a good one, people will enjoy browsing and seeing what’s new in areas that interest them.
    • If the library is a good one, books and journals are placed before the user in a way that is immediate, aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally gratifying (they can take books with them).

But only if the library is a good one.

Good libraries are not about getting information the answers to pre-formed questions, but about stimulating new questions, raising new possibilities, and presenting new ideas to the user. Libraries should invite users to explore.

It is a fundamentally aesthetic experience which cannot be strictly rationalized (question/answer), quantified, or made totally efficient through Boolean operators; in all honesty, scholars do not highly value search efficiency: they value browsing and they value a carefully considered collection. Library assessment models are based on a very limited transactional service model which does not capture the way academics, educated people and life-long learners actually use libraries, that is, not merely to find answers to questions, but to stimulate their own knowledge, scholarly activity and creativity.

If the college or university library fails to deliver that kind of subjective experience to its users, it fails as a library–regardless of how many Info Lit classes are being taught, how much relevant information can be pulled out of databases in a response to some question, or how many transactions there are at the service desk. We talk about life-long learning, but a big part of that is the joy of self-directed learning and discovery which doesn’t involve direct patron interaction.

Unfortunately, what passes as “libraries” today may meet accreditation requirements, provide abundant access to information on virtually any topic, provide ample resources to complete assignments–but if this is ALL they do, they will fail to inspire a culture of learning across a college campus.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1526, by Albrecht Durer

A library is nothing without its collections. I mean a collection that exhibits selectivity, consistency and thoughtfulness. It isn’t enough that our subscription to a vendor’s product offers access to over 100 titles on a particular topic: I want to know that it contains the best titles, the right titles, rather than stuff that got digitized by a content aggregator because it was cheap, old or available.

When people walk into a library, they want to see books with titles that excite them, even if they can download a copy of that same book in electronic format through the library’s online resources. In a smaller and more specialized library, they expect the librarian to be knowledgeable about the collection, to know what titles are best–not just to know how to search a database to pull information out of it when needed.

The importance of the Library as Place. My philosophy of librarianship is to maintain place, “a library,” where people are delighted and inspired by what they find there. Yes, I said “place.” And “delighted.” And “inspired.” And “library.” 

I believe that outside of a corporate setting, the physicality of the library is still important, because done right, it is affirming to individuals, and especially to students who may be struggling to get through school, and to seasoned researchers who may feel that no one cares about their passionate concerns in life except for those few scholars working in their same area. The library represents an ideal. It is the ivory tower in the ivory tower.

It is sanctuary of intellectual and artistic endeavor, and it keeps people from becoming too distracted by the real world–which too often tells students that what they are doing (pursuing that expensive degree) is a waste of time and money, that they should be out there making money, pursuing short-term goals offering more immediate rewards. The physicality and permanence and material expense of books, perhaps becoming a luxury that libraries can no longer afford, signifies respect for the work so much more than anything conjured up out of a database in response to a user’s query. It signifies that someone thought enough of the work to publish it and care for it. Someone aside from the author invested in it. It is preserved in a durable format because it is deemed to be worth the expense. The physicality of the book inspires people to continue writing and publishing them, especially in the Humanities.

Good libraries improve retention and encourage academic success. At my institution, I am amazed and impressed that students burdened with multiple jobs and small children and financial hardship and limited support systems, along with limited job prospects and mounting debt, can stay positive and focused on their studies at all.

I do not think administrators fully grasp the ameliorating effect that this “glorified study hall” can have, particularly on at risk and disadvantaged students. The library reinforces the values which keep students in school.

Far from being an anachronism, the library symbolizes in a tangible way opportunity and possibility and a better life. It also helps them connect with someone associated with the university when everyone else on campus has gone home (It’s 3 am during finals week, but we’ve left the light on for you. . .).

Ideally, the library provides a supportive environment for people to be with others who in the same peculiar mode of life, where one toils without the expectation of monetary reward, which is completely against the grain of our societal norms.

The library not only allows people to connect with others in their field of study, past and present, but it affirms the value of scholarship: people wrote the books, people published them, people selected them and made them available, each step along the way conferring value on the work in the same way a frame and layers of matting confers value and importance to a work of art.

Well-furnished libraries, with collections that appear to be grown and maintained with care, confer value, respect and dignity upon the academic endeavor and the people who were and are part of that process.

Bad libraries, on the other hand, convey that academic studies are a waste of time and money.

Stacks full of dated materials, no books or new books, overly restrictive circulation policies, limited seating areas, negative signage, broken computers and equipment, an ineffective and poorly maintained website, run-down facilities, “dead zones” (lifeless or empty spaces where something once was, or is used for storage) and all other signs of benign neglect, serve to reinforce a student’s and faculty member’s sense of ambivalence, isolation and low self-worth as scholars.

While good libraries function as a hub or commons, reinforcing academic interests and pursuits and stimulating new research, mediocre libraries feel stagnant and lifeless, and drive students away–not just from the library.

Good Libraries offer meaningful collections. A second tenant of my philosophy of librarianship is that library services are not primarily about providing access to information, but rather about providing access to good collections built with deliberation and care (these collections can be physical or virtual or a logical combination of the two). If your book budget is very limited, this is even more reason why collection development should be strategic, to ensure the best use of the money you have.

Our users experience and judge the quality of the library by our collections, not by the discrete bits of information which can be pulled out of the chapter of an ebook or journal article on demand, or in response to a question. They judge it by whether the library has in its collections the key titles in their field of research, and if the library stays on top of scholarly trends in their field.

Above all else, libraries should be interesting places. Do patrons see titles of new books and on the covers of journals which stimulate curiosity and interest? Does the library provide services to make it easy for scholars to keep up with issues and ideas? Is the library a stimulating place for users to browse?

LibrariesFeed
My mission and purpose as a librarian is to do what I can to support the fragility of scholarly research in a time when the value of information, precisely because of its widespread abundance, has undergone a serious deflation—and with it, the value of libraries and librarians.

So long as librarians continue to espouse an impoverished “information services” model of librarianship–where what we offer is “access on demand” to various “information resources”–a library’s value to a school will continue to be put into question.

Soon libraries will be entirely virtualized and outsourced to our vendors, who will be quite willing to provide our students with unlimited access to information, 24/7 chat, and Information Literacy courses on demand.

  1. “Defining Excellence in Academic Librarianship at USC (DEAL at USC) / Your Philosophy of Librarianship.” University of Southern California Library. http://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=235091&p=1560270
  2. Kolowich, Steve. “Bookless Libraries? Technology leaders and librarians consider how the digital age changes the physical space and role of one of higher education’s oldest institutions.” Inside Higher Ed. Nov. 6, 2009. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/06/library.
  3. “Nation’s First Bookless Library on College Campus is Thriving at UTSA.” UTSA Today, http://www.utsa.edu/today/2013/03/aetlibrary.html. Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.
  4. Dwyer, Liz. “Are college libraries about to become bookless?” Web log post. The Daily Good. N.p., 13 July 2011. Web. <https://www.good.is/articles/are-college-libraries-about-to-become-bookless>.
  5. Riley, Sharon. “Academic: New Florida University Unveils Bookless Library.” Library Journal 139, no. 15 (Sep 15, 2014): 13-n/a, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/08/academic-libraries/new-florida-polytechnic-unveils-bookless-library/#_.
  6. Hack, Husna. “‘Bookless libraries’ – has it really come to this?” Christian Science Monitor. N.p., 17 July 2012. Web. <http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2012/0717/Bookless-libraries-has-it-really-come-to-this>.
  7. See for example, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/10/managing-libraries/collaboration-for-hard-times/#_
  8. Rebecca M. Sullivan (2010) Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608, p. 135 “. . . innovative partnerships” such as “writing and academic support centers, teaching and learning centers, disability coordinators, diversity centers, service learning initiatives, undergraduate advising programs, and digital centers.”
  9. Ellis, Lindsay. “Texas University Libraries Renovate to Keep Student Interest.” HoustonChronicle.com, Houston Chronicle, 13 Jan. 2018, www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Texas-university-libraries-renovate-to-keep-12462643.php
  10. Watanabe, Teresa. “Universities Redesign Libraries for the 21st Century: Fewer Books, More Space.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 19 Apr. 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-college-libraries-20170419-story.html.
  11. Both ACRL and ALA are perpetuating a pablum that, in the 21st century, librarians can simply replace “having” (resources, collections) with “doing” (teaching information literacy), that collections have no bearing on the business objectives of a university, and are inconsequential in terms of how librarians add value to their parent organizations. This essay, which is really a series of blog postings from 2017-present, was written largely to refute the idea that academic library collections no longer matter.
  12. The Hunt Library Story, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okr78MUrImI
  13. Temple University. “Temple’s New Library Is on the Rise.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Mar. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNYo3pE4LjU.
  14. See for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okr78MUrImI
  15. Association of College and Research Libraries. “Connect, Collaborate, and Communicate: A Report from the Value of Academic Libraries Summits.” Prepared by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012, p. 16. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/value/val_summit.pdf
  16. Association of College and Research Libraries. “Connect, Collaborate, and Communicate: A Report from the Value of Academic Libraries Summits.” Prepared by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012, p. 6. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/value/val_summit.pdf
  17. Gubera, Chip, and Mara S. Aruguete. “A Comparison of Collaborative and Traditional Instruction in Higher Education.” Social Psychology of Education, vol. 16, no. 4, Dec. 2013, pp. 651–659. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11218-013-9225-7.
  18. “Library Design Showcase 2012: Collaborative Learning.” American Libraries Magazine, 28 Feb. 2012, americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2012/02/28/library-design-showcase-2012-collaborative-learning.
  19. This is what became of the Reference area where I work when the Reference books left. Tables, chairs and couches went in around my desk. It became a noisy area for socializing, sleeping, conversing, video streaming and hanging out.
  20. See Rebecca M. Sullivan (2010) Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608
  21. Digital School Library Leaves Bookstacks Behind” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120097876
  22. http://www.maschoolibraries.org/newsletter/reintroducing-printed-books-to-the-cushing-academy-library
  23. “How Hunt Library Redefined the Library for the Digital Age,” https://www.slideshare.net/duvalunionconsulting/how-hunt-library-redefined-the-library-for-the-digital-age, slide 5
  24. EContent Quarterly, 1(2), 6-18. Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1490685978?accountid=7093
  25. “On the Cost of Keeping a Book,” http://www.leverpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/CourantandNielsen.pdf
  26. I quoted from the pdf, but it originally appeared here in print: Paul N. Courant and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen, “On the Cost of Keeping a Book”, The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship. CLIR Pub#147. June 2010, p. 102
  27. http://www.newsweek.com/even-university-libraries-arent-keeping-hard-copy-books-364853
  28. an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.
  29. Barr, Catherine, and Karen Adams. Bowker annual library and book trade almanac. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2016. 360. Print.
  30. Lately, vendors of Library Management Systems have been concentrating on improving back-end functionality, workflows and analytics more so than enhancing the front-end user search experience, which has been hampered by inconsistent metadata and API restrictions by publishers. Publishers have more financial incentive to work with Amazon than they do with library vendors.
  31. The term “Grand Narrative” was introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which he critiqued all forms of institutional and ideological forms of knowledge. Social scientists have used this concept to refer to an underlying ideological belief which provides societal legitimization to certain forms of knowledge over others.

    Historically, the value of libraries was tied into other, larger legitimizing values—democracy (the need for an informed citizenry), cultivating the habit of life-long learning; a European model of higher education where students are expected to function as independent scholars and investigators, taking greater responsibility for their own education (therefore needing access to a research library) as they moved up the ladder, rather than remaining passive consumers of instruction.

  32. According to Welsh and Metcalf, “The term ‘institutional effectiveness,’ promulgated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is interchangeable with a number of monikers for continuous improvement processes, such as ‘quality assurance’ and ‘quality enhancement.’ The specific initiatives included under these rubrics typically encompass activities such as student outcomes assessment, academic program review, strategic planning, performance scorecards, performance bench-marking, and quality measurement, each of which has numerous manifestations in academia. Despite variations in terminology, colleges and universities accredited by any one of the six regional accrediting agencies must demonstrate that they have designed and implemented acceptable processes of institutional effectiveness.” Welsh, John F., and Jeff Metcalf. “Faculty and Administrative Support for Institutional Effectiveness Activities: A Bridge across the Chasm?” The Journal of Higher Education 74.4 (2003): 445-68. Web.
  33. Lindauer, B. G. (1998, November). Defining and Measuring the Library’s Impact on Campuswide Outcomes. College & Research Libraries, 59(6), 546-570.
  34. The 2011 standard was revised in 2018, which was not available when this blog post was first written.
  35. ACRL SLHE, Introduction, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries
  36. ACRL SLHE, Section 1.1 says: The library defines and measures outcomes in the context of institutional mission. 1.2 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with institutional, departmental, and student affairs outcomes. 1.3 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with accreditation guidelines for the institution. 1.4 The library develops and maintains a body of evidence that demonstrates its impact in convincing ways. 1.5 The library articulates how it contributes to student learning, collects evidence, documents successes, shares results, and makes improvements. 1.6 The library contributes to student recruitment, retention, time to degree, and academic success. 1.7 The library communicates with the campus community to highlight its value in the educational mission and in institutional effectiveness.
  37. Hernon, Peter, and Robert E. Dugan. Outcomes Assessment in Your Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002, p. 11
  38. LRCs provide remedial tutoring, curriculum resources (textbooks, study guides, and sufficient resources for student research papers), instructional media, collaborative study spaces, and computers. Their purpose is to assist students with the completion of course assignments and the mastery of specific concepts and skills–the achievement of “student learning objectives” tied to the curriculum. They are often associated with remedial, vocational and technical training, or the first year experience. See for example, Notre Dame’s LRC: http://firstyear.nd.edu/fys-resources/the-learning-resource-center/. Compared to libraries, it is much easier for LRCs to demonstrate student “impact” with a lot less overhead. Although both libraries and LRCs provide resources to students, they have very different missions. Cost effectiveness and close alignment with institutional objectives are reasons why LRCs are encroaching upon, or altogether replacing, the academic research library at schools which serve large populations of academically unprepared students.
  39. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Managerialism
  40. Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2016. Print.
  41. Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2011. Print.
  42. Gerber, Larry G. The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University. Baltimore: John Hopkins U Press, 2014. Print.
  43. From https://notnumber.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/a-definition-of-managerialism/
  44. The ACRL standards committee was guided by the idea that if we adopted the roles and missions of the institution and other business units, it would serve to “advancing and sustaining their role as partners in educating students.”
  45. For three years, my university experimented with incorporating formal information literacy instruction into the freshman experience, including the administration of pre- and post SAILs tests; but the impact of these efforts could not be correlated to improved completion rates or higher GPAs. It was my observation that showing students how to use the library’s catalog and electronic databases–“library instruction”–was more impactful than the prescribed information literacy curriculum, which exposed students to the concept of Boolean searching, broadening and narrowing topics, using concept maps, avoiding plagiarism, and evaluating information sources found on the Internet. Demonstrating how to use the library to conduct research using our electronic databases was the primary thing students and faculty wanted.
  46. Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996), 573
  47. Pritchard, 573
  48. Libraries are advised to rewrite their mission statements to reflect and conform with the mission statements of their parent institutions, and set goals accordingly.
  49. Rowena Cullen, “Measure for measure: a post-modern critique of performance measurement in libraries and information services.” Proceedings of the IATUL Conferences. Paper 10. http://doc s.lib.purdue.edu/iatul/1998/papers/10
  50. Crawford, Gregory A. Developing a Measure of Library Goodness. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 11:3 (2016): 117, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/23875
  51. SACS, the accrediting agency for many southern colleges and schools, pioneered these techniques, and also developed more rigorous assessment and rule-based approaches than other institutional accrediting bodies. See Welsh and Metcalf.
  52. Dugan, Robert E., and Peter Hernon. “Outcomes Assessment: Not Synonymous with Inputs and Outputs.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 28.6 (2002): 376-380.
  53. Carr, Patrick L. “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery.” College & Research Libraries 76.6 (2015): 831-842.
  54. Larry, N. W. (2007). Unseen measures: The need to account for intangibles. The Bottom Line, 20(2), 77-84. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/08880450710773011
  55. ACRL, SLHE, Introduction, “Accreditation language, trends, and contexts also inform the Standards. Academic library directors surveyed by the standards task force in spring 2010 stressed the importance of relating library standards to accreditation criteria. Accreditation agency library reviewers were asked by the task force to identify characteristics of library strength and weakness within the context of institutional accreditation. The task force also reviewed guidelines from each regional accrediting agency and extracted concepts and specific language (i.e., outcomes-based language, and terminology such as “sufficient” and “effective”). Trends in the accreditation process affecting libraries include an emphasis on using assessment results for continuous improvement; full library integration into the academic endeavor; a move away from a separate library standard within the overall accreditation standard; a focus on outcomes and bench-marking; recognition of information literacy as the catalyst for the library’s educational role; the library’s support of all student learning outcomes, not just those overtly library-related; an alignment of library and institutional missions; and a need for multiple forms of assessment and documentation.”
  56. Elmborg, James. “Tending The Garden of Learning: Lifelong Learning as Core Library Value.” Library Trends 64.3 (2016): 533-555
  57. Elmborg 553-4
  58. Bangert, Stephanie Rogers. “Thinking Boldly! College and University Library Mission Statements as Roadsigns to the Future.” American Library Association, September 29, 2006. http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/nashville/bangert Document ID: 1497510b-f35b-3224-5d15-5453a6cea87d
  59. Blog post. Retrieved May 3, 2014. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/editorial-our-philosophies-of-librarianship/

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