An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship:
Essays on Library Goodness in the 21st Century
The role of the academic librarian is to create content-rich learning environments (“libraries”) that stimulate scholarship, cultivate knowledge and inspire creativity.
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 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), Library Director of a new Art Institute campus, “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 academic content aggregators and database vendors in the world). I have been a Systems and Digital Services Librarian for a Graduate Theological Seminary, the largest in the country, with five campuses. I am a Certified Information Professional (CIP) through AIIM. In addition to all that, I have many hours of post-graduate work in English, Philosophy, History and Art History along with Computer Science, Business and MIS.
Having worked for the last 18 months as a Project Manager / Corporate Librarian for a telecommunications billing software and boutique engineering company two hours commute from home, on an automation project that was rapidly coming to an end (and seeing no new projects on the horizon because the Houston office was being converted into a Network Operations / Call Center), I was eager for the chance at a stable position where I could put my technical, academic and library skills to use. I had taken the job not for higher pay, but for the carrot of SharePoint development and Project Management, which I thought would be invaluable to my next company. The office was in a once thriving mall which I remembered from childhood, its shuttered storefronts converted into opaque call centers with employees slipping in and out through anonymous utility doors.
The day of the library interview arrived. 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 interview questions asked of me in the interview, none of which had to do with anything even remotely technical (“technical services” in libraries entails management of cataloging records, the library automation system, reporting, the proxy server, discovery tools, electronic resources and website).
Hmm. Ask me about my experiences with library systems or digital libraries or discovery tools, metadata or web services, and I might have something to say. Ask me the 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. I was having a hard time relating a philosophy to the job description. What were possible correct responses? I feared I had simply missed something, having worked outside of libraries for a number of years.
The Public Services Librarian who had asked the question poked me angrily, “What, are we librarians just circling the drain?”
As far as I was concerned, I would be there to fill a specific role involving access, systems, the website, servers and records. I was offering my skills to solve problems. I didn’t see how my personal librarian philosophy, whatever that might be, even related to the position.
ince that time, I have discovered that the question is not such an unusual one in the library world. Academic librarians of all types, both in public and technical services, are being asked to provide a philosophy of library practice in job interviews or as part of their performance review process. These days, 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.
Whenever one is asked to justify one’s value in some sort of formalized statement, it is never a good thing. It means that your value to the organization is not obvious. Whenever this happens, no philosophy or explanation is likely to change anyone’s mind:
Nonetheless, this trend of self-justification in academic librarianship has become so pervasive, that librarians are even posting them on their personal websites.
In case you missed it, and wish to read no further, my philosophy is succinctly stated in one sentence at the beginning of this dissertation, completed during the Covid crisis of 2020.
ow that I work in an academic library again, and have for several years, I find myself thinking 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 college and academic libraries are getting rid of print altogether 3 4 5 6 7 while erecting new libraries, 21st century architectural wonders consisting of collaborative and innovative work spaces, video conference rooms, meeting rooms, and high-tech classrooms–resembling more a modern open office at a tech start-up company than a library.
Across the country, colleges and universities are spending millions to create modern spaces, variously called “new libraries” or “learning centers,” or “library learning centers,” for students to study, socialize, drink coffee and learn in a more collaborative, interactive and personalized fashion. In a library setting, collaborative learning, where students work together as a team to solve problems, or come together to share their knowledge with each other–emulating some idealized vision of the project-driven, team-oriented business world8–-is fostered at the expense of both collections and collection-orientated designs when it comes to the allocation of space and funding for these new facilities.
New libraries are popping up everywhere. Should librarians be cheering?
Within these new libraries, such as this one from the feature photo from the Jan/Feb. 2020 issue of American Libraries, “Show Us Your Beautiful Library,”9 one might imagine (from studying the picture) that it would be difficult for librarians to emphasize books, reading and publications in any format–print or digital.
Despite being designed to be a 21st century learning environment, it might be harder to encourage the sort of learning that libraries have traditionally inspired through a collection of physical books and print resources. Even utilizing the most up-to-date technologies, it still may be difficult for academic librarians to put new, interesting and significant titles in front of users, or to convey their scholarly or social value.
Despite their bright colors and modern designs, it might also seem less inspiring to many students, even as a place to study, when compared to a library with books or visible publications.10 11
The traditional academic library or “library service model” may no longer be viable, but it did accomplish important things that the new library isn’t able to do very well. Frankly, some of these things are what many people liked about the library, what made the library “good.” For example, it showcased new publications and helped scholars keep up with new trends in their field. It celebrated individuality, creativity, community and curiosity. It also represented an investment in scholarship by others, that is, by publishers, librarians, scholars and the university.
With the traditional collection-centric model, students and faculty could see their interests, unique identities and professional aspirations mirrored in a collection, which often sparked interest in reading and incentivized independent learning. Visible, well-maintained and cared-for collections, with knowledgeable librarians who were also readers (who knew about books, the collection, and the discipline), created a unique sense of place that was idealistically dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, even the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, rather than to complete an assignment or do assigned work.
That content-rich learning environment also encouraged browsing and intellectual inquiry better than the architectural experiments of today, where knowledge is rooted, not in collections, but in a big nobodaddy of collaboration.
There is no evidence that a building alone, no matter how architecturally innovative, will result in educational achievement or the acquisition of knowledge in its vacant spaces. There is no evidence that it will encourage publishing or lead to special insights, help researchers make connections, compel or inspire anyone to learn. A philosophy of librarianship in education cannot be founded upon the provision of work space, furniture and light, magic learning staircases, potential communication between users, or by librarians idly standing by the event someone might need to ask a question. It cannot be founded in the passive acquisition-and-making available of resources for others to discover and utilize. It cannot be founded simply in instruction either, for reasons I will explain below. In order to remain viable into the 21st century, the library must actively create a context for learning, research and publication, and it is the quality of that user experience–that level of service–which endows librarians with value and purpose.
Compared to the old library, new libraries appear to be ambiguous, solipsistic entities, seemingly about their own spaces, or else about the intellectual exchanges imagined to be going on inside of them–especially on large-stepped collaborative learning staircases, which have become popular with architectural designers for the last several years for offices,12 schools and libraries.
An architect explaining his vision for the collaborative staircase at Houston’s Glassell School. Bleacher seating for hanging out, socializing and collaboration are being installed in many public buildings, museums, schools and libraries, with the expectation that they will encourage the exchange of information and ideas.
In many new libraries and library renovation projects, light-infused learning staircases are the focal point of the space, which affords unprecedented verticality, while collections and resources have become largely invisible or are nonexistent, or are no longer emphasized by the design, except as a vestige or design accent (“academic wallpaper”).
When it comes to assessment in these new facilities, what counts as evidence of our contribution to student success is not resource usage, but the utilization of the facility13 for any conceivable purpose. All that remains of collections and collection development activity may be packages of digitized content which the library licenses each year through vendors.
Despite being designed, not to encourage reading or resource use, but to facilitate group study and collaboration, it might be difficult to engage users or to facilitate meaningful interaction or intellectual exchanges among them, as today in the physical library there are few points of shared reference, fewer surfaces of contact to stimulate conversation or interaction among users.
The new academic library, such as it is currently conceived by architects and library design consultants is not “about” showcasing new works, facilitating reading, inspiring learning, sustaining communities of readers, or encouraging intellectual inquiry. It is not about library core values, our philosophies, promoting “independent learning,” “life-long learning” or “success as defined by the student or scholar” or encouraging scholarly research and publishing.
It is not about resource use, or discovery. It isn’t about new ideas. It isn’t even about fostering creativity.
It is not inspired by any philosophy of librarianship.
The new college and research library may be about little more than providing students with study spaces to get their coursework done, with research assistance available from librarians or tutors should they happen to need it. It is largely a symbol, a triumph of form, an architectural fantasy like the rendering of a cathedral Rizzoli called his “beautiful mother.”
It may be a beautiful building or “space,” but it isn’t a beautiful library.
e can easily speculate about architects’ and administrators’ motivations for building spacious new libraries that are not libraries in the 21st century. More puzzling to me is why my fellow librarians and our library professional associations are unreflectively celebrating bookless buildings and advocating having their own libraries be converted into barren work spaces.
Contrary to the stereotype in library lit,”14 15 the ones resisting the most are not the old, nostalgic and techno-phobic librarians who are stuck in their ways. Mid-career librarians will undoubtedly feel confused by the rapid degradation of the academic and college research library into lounge spaces, private and group study rooms, and sometimes Escher-like staircases which promise some kind of modern learning experience that we are somehow charged with facilitating.
Not so long ago, academic librarians fought against a perception by administrators that the library was nothing more than a study hall, a place to get coursework done. Now, librarians may feel very much between a rock (“book warehouse”) and a hard place (“work space”), even blindsided by the cringe-worthy messaging emanating from our own institutions and municipalities that the elimination of the stacks or placing them out of sight constitutes a form of progress or innovation within the library space.
To me, progress for a 21st century library would be replacing the stacks with something better, specifically something which would help us market our content better, to help us become a modern library, and not just a modern space.
A similar trend to turn the public library into office / business / work space is occurring in public libraries everywhere. This is one architect’s vision 16 for one of the oldest libraries in the country, the Free Library of Philadelphia:
The Free Library of Philadelphia appears to be free of books now. This might have been a meaningful project for the architect, and undoubtedly lucrative for the storage solution provider, but why would anyone bother to enter the building or spend time this place? Why convert a historical building to mid-century modern design anyway? What makes it successful, or not, as a library? Like a Masonic Lodge, one wonders if there is more going on in there than meets the eye. . .
In my own suburban community, League City, TX, library planners insist, based on the studies they have conducted, that what people really want and expect from their library are not books or resources, but private study rooms and public work spaces.17 Why is it the residents of League City have so much work to do? The foregone conclusion that citizens need more work space is used as justification for the construction of much bigger, empty facilities at taxpayer expense, and with little more (and often less) for the collections inside of them or offered online.
The unimaginative vision for new libraries, both public and academic, being advanced by new library planners, architects and self-appointed design consultants everywhere, is seemingly the same: innovative spaces for people to get their work done. At the end of the day, the new library is envisioned as a public office space.
Where before the collection allowed people to feel grounded in the space and gave them a reason for being there (even if all they wanted was a computer or place to sit), now there is no visible connection between the library and the scholar, or the library and its community, except for the views out if its spacious glass windows.
No doubt, many new academic libraries may offer a certain kind of aesthetic appeal as a “building,” or as an architectural space, but from what I have seen in library publications, many do not offer to users the intellectual stimulation, the academic intimacy, the inducements to browse, or the aesthetic experience of a good college or academic library.
We all know impoverished learning environments do not promote learning.
Our library professional magazines devote special issues to these spare, supposedly innovative facilities, proclaiming them to be innovative, beautiful and modern, but I don’t see what is to be gained, for instance, by “converting historical Carnegie libraries into modern vacant structures.“18 Isn’t it time to assess our business requirements and determine if vacant spaces, libraries denuded of content, are really meeting the needs of scholars and the objectives of the university?
Granted, every library is different and we all might not see things the same way. But the 21st century academic library, however it is conceptualized, should not be comprised of empty spaces, illuminated stairwells, and seating arrangements for occasional meetings.
Nor should it be envisioned as assemblages of primitive learning environments, “caves, a campfires, and watering holes,”19 from a time people were illiterate (called the “Dark Ages”) and therefore had to get information from other people instead of books and authoritative sources. It shouldn’t be envisioned as a chat room or public lounge where the users are on display (“Users are seated in the middle, because they are the focus, not books. . . “), with rooms off to the side available to rent by the hour so people can start their own business.
Academic libraries should foster engagement and awareness of the most significant cultural and scholarly resources today. If it cannot actively showcase new resources in print and online, it isn’t a library. It is that communal experience, that feeling of connection to others engaging with content which we have always supported. The methods may be different, but the objective is the same.
The new 21st century library should make an effort to harness new technology to do what the traditional library did, only better. It should be a content-rich learning environment, a Times Square, a marketplace for ideas.
The library should be a vibrant and stimulating attraction, full of distractions and temptation to read and explore, one that strives to actively and imaginatively engage users in significant and interesting resources from the moment they walk in the door or land on our websites. It should speak to users like an oracle, fostering serendipity, meaning creation, knowledge and insight. It should stimulate the mind and the senses. It should awaken creativity and curiosity.
At minimum, it should convey the value of scholarship and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just to pass a test or complete a task.
The modern library done right in the Netherlands, called LocHal. New books are attractively displayed in an inmate space which encourages browsing, but there are still plenty of options for socializing, gathering and public programming. The collaborative staircase does not replace the collection, but balances it; the regular steps are proportioned wider than the bleacher stairs, creating a more inviting appearance than large block steps which create an obstacle. Books are visible on the ground floor where librarians can provide assistance and readers advisory, putting books in readers’ hands.
For the last 15 years, there has been a vigorous re-imagining of libraries as conference centers, social study spaces and tutoring centers, with a determined shift away from collection-oriented interiors and assessment plans toward what is conceived by architects, college presidents and some library futurists to supposedly more socially-oriented, service-oriented and consumer-driven designs.20 New libraries, supposedly developed around new service models and priorities, are popping up everywhere, consistently showcased in library literature as beautiful and innovative. But are they really?
Are they new libraries, or the emperor’s new clothes? How successful are they as libraries and by what measure do we evaluate their success?
We might take a step back from philosophies and ask what defines libraries as a libraries–as good and beautiful libraries–and are they better than the traditional library for supporting higher education and learning? How do new college and university libraries actively support publishing, research and scholarship? How do they support student success, not just as defined by the university administration in terms of its own business objectives, but success as defined by the student and the scholar? What is the their business and marketing plan?
As libraries are increasingly shorn of print, paper, publications, collections and all outward signs of intellectual life, there has been a concomitant ratcheting up of pressure for librarians to gather evidence to demonstrate their continued relevance to the university, and specifically to “student success,” however that might be defined (there is no consensus).
One challenge we face is that the college and academic library was never fundamentally “about” instructional support for classroom learning. Certainly, we always provided instruction and research assistance for assignment completion, but that was not the main purpose of the library. The Athens of the classroom had little to do with the Jerusalem of the library. And to prove it, we never bought textbooks.
The academic library was always about support for the acquisition (and creation) of disciplinary and professional knowledge. We serve the academic disciplines and the purpose of furthering intellectual inquiry. It is about the individual’s own definition of success, helping him or her achieve his creative, intellectual and career potential, in addition to classroom instruction. This is what traditionally defined a library as a library by library professional standards, as opposed to a learning resource center, or a resource-less “learning center.”
Also, as library professionals and educators, an important part of our job function is to stimulate demand for our own resources, not to passively make them available to those who might wish to access them, another key distinction between a library and a learning center. Some mechanism for actively stimulating demand for our resources–marketing resources and content–has to be a key part of the design of the modern library, a part of the architecture.
Influenced by a common perception today that everything students want or need can be found online, many within the library field are ready to proclaim that we are no longer “about” publications, reading, titles or collections in any format, but about teaching information literacy classes so students can sort out fake news or help students with class assignments. This certainly sounds practical and very meaningful, a way to directly add value and justify ourselves in some way that aligns with university assessment plans.
Librarians can certainly support classroom instruction by also showing students and faculty how to perform research, identify credible and authoritative sources, and cite sources for papers, but it is not clear to university administrators or the faculty that it is the responsibility of librarians to do so, regardless of what we might have to say. If I were a Provost or Dean, I would assume that anyone qualified to teach college-level courses should also be able to show students how to perform research in their respective disciplines and to perform whatever work is needed to complete course assignments. More importantly, this handmaiden role for librarians does not justify a robust collection or healthy acquisitions budget.
The solution to making ourselves relevant is not to build bookless libraries or eliminate collections, but rather to more effectively leverage new technology and designs whose purpose is to promote engagement with our content, both in print and online, in order to create and sustain the next generation of readers, writers, scholars and leaders.
Libraries need marketing plans, and these plans should formulate strategies to promote awareness of titles, not just of content aggregators’ branded products. (I don’t care about EBSCO, Gale or ProQuest. I care about the key titles and publications which frame out a discipline.) We also need to build content-rich and dynamic learning environments, not impoverished and sterile work spaces which resemble airports, hospital lobbies or modern offices.
We should amplify what made a good library good for scholars, and explore truly innovative ways to market physical and virtual content to both physical and virtual users. That should be the primary objective of the new library space, a greater integration of the physical and virtual resources to support community engagement with our content. As a profession, we must renew our commitment to content. We need marketing plans and a clear sense of what the user experience of a modern library should be, and what our business requirements are, rather than depending on architects and design firms to provide the answers for us.
It is the communal browsing experience, the shared cultural referents, we want to encourage and preserve. That is what makes the library a library, or at least, what makes it a good one.
hen new libraries are discussed, whether public or academic, there is one universal theme: elimination of stack space to make room for collaborative study spaces.
Booklessness, or the appearance of it (books may be stowed away in low traffic areas or moved off site), is spun as a peculiar benefit of the 21st century library, in itself, according to the rhetoric, signifying progress and innovation. There has been very limited discussion about the value of the collection to our academic mission, but a shift from collection-centric assessment models to outcomes-based models has also tended to negate the value of collections both to our services and educational missions.
On a conceptual level, I think it important to ask:
- What does the new library have to offer to faculty and students who are interested in familiarizing themselves and succeeding within their academic disciplines?
- How do new libraries effectively promote innovation or awareness of new or significant publications in the disciplines or encourage use of these resources?
- How do they encourage learning?
- How do they browsing for new ideas to encourage inquiry and research?
- How does a bookless library reflect upon the university?
With this shift away from publications and collection use, there has also been a new emphasis on librarian initiated-interaction (e.g., poking students who come within eye-shot to see if they need help, greeting people as they walk through the doors; more aggressively selling ourselves and our “services”; and assiduously documenting these efforts and casual encounters as “evidence” of our value). There is also a questionable trend to count in our assessment frameworks the utilization of our spaces by students for any conceivable purpose,21 whether for study, reading, creating, conversing, snacking, meditating, socializing or sleeping.
New libraries are being built without consideration for the most important function of the academic library within a university: raising awareness of new and significant publications (in all formats, print and digital) within the disciplines, and encouraging user engagement with them. For example, we buy ebooks, but have no mechanism for effectively promoting them in the modern or traditional library space. The same sort of criticism would be leveled at an art museum which places no emphasis on art. Expecting people especially uneducated people, will learn about them on their own and pull them out of your databases is not an effective library service model.
The facility has to be designed, illuminated, scaled and equipped for display for the objects in them to appear meaningful to the user (especially undergraduates), and part of an objects meaning is that it stands in relationship to other objects on display. At minimum, the focus should be on what’s inside, not on the parking lot or pedestrian views outside the building, which are distractions and don’t matter to us or our mission.
The function of the museum space is to lend value and cultivate appreciation for cultural objects.
It does so though the use of space, light, spacing, context and display. Libraries have the same or similar aesthetic purpose as museums, to cultivate awareness and appreciation for intellectual and cultural artifacts.
In order to do so, it needs just a bit of darkness and mystery, a feeling of transcendence of time and place, not glass walls where dust motes float in the air and the mundane world is ever present.
hile these new facilities are still typically called “libraries,” and librarians may work there for the time being, it not clear to librarians that new libraries are serving in that capacity well, or at all; or what professional library assessment standards, if any, ought to be applied to them.22
Around the world, a similar trend to convert libraries into predominantly social spaces is occurring, most notably in public libraries, which are being transformed into stunning community centers “with books thrown in,” as one BBC reporter cheerfully describes.23 We have yet to know how these library spaces are faring, their impact on their communities, their impact on librarians, if the renovation has succeeded in attracting new users while maintaining the old, and their impact on learning. So many articles and press releases bear curious statements like, “With the new building, we decided to put people first,” referencing that seating has replaced the stacks. What did they think they were they doing before? Putting books first?
In addition to creating buildings for gathering together, campus and community leaders alike are eager to build new libraries not full of books, but full of technology.24 Just as books were once thought indispensable to the scholarly enterprise, technology is now presumed to be a similar sort of intrinsic good. In the public discourse surrounding new libraries, “technology” is often used euphemistically, as code for “not books,” rather than something specific that everyone wants (it is hard to get people to agree on what technology is needed beyond wi-fi, larger screens for communal viewing and a place to recharge). Nonetheless, engaging with technology and others in the library space is thought to have educational benefit in higher education, and appear to occupy a status that books once held.
Having vs. Doing? In terms of our professional practice, librarians cannot provide good library services without a means of offering visible, meaningful collections that stimulate, support and inspire research. Having quality collections, rather than random aggregations of scholarly content, are fundamental to a good user experience of a library. They do not need to be physical, but they need to be visible, and perceived by others to be an actual collection, and not an accumulation of things.
There is an error in thinking that now that we librarians should be wholly unconcerned about “having,” that we librarians can simply shift gears and be about doing (teaching information literacy or “helping” others with whatever), that doing is all that counts now. In academic libraries, or any type of library, it shouldn’t be an either/or (having vs. doing), for the two are intricately linked, and it really shouldn’t be about “counting” anyway, but about ensuring the quality of the user experience including those users who never ask for assistance because they are happily finding what they need.
I would venture that to surveyed library users, our having resources is what matters most to them, and if they had to chose between access to a librarian or access to resources, they would pick the latter. Most people come to a library to browse new titles, to learn what is new, and if they cannot, they do not return to the physical space because it has nothing for them.
The often repeated sentiment in library literature now, that “We all know that today, having doesn’t matter, it’s doing that counts. . .”, even stated by a President of the American Library Association,25 presents a false dichotomy, one that too often underscores a troubling reality of assessment, that the impact of our collections on learning cannot be meaningfully factored into the outcomes-based assessment models used in higher ed today.
Having a collection, one that is current, topical, interesting, selective and browseable, is an important service which libraries and librarians provide to their communities. Maintaining quality collections is a core function of libraries, along with stimulating demand for resources, which it cannot do well without collection accessibility (open stacks for browsing), high resource visibility, a marketing plan and staff who read.
That colleges and universities are building “new libraries” without investing in library resources should not be a cause for celebration by ALA and ACRL, and should not be treated as a kind of progress.
So please, my fellow librarians, stop saying “having” doesn’t matter in the 21st century–it matters to our users and should matter a great deal to us.
New Library (Nieuwe Bibliotheek) in the Netherlands, which based its design on patrons surveys, is a departure from pragmatic American new library “work space” models. Dutch models promote learning, leisure, hanging out and socializing, not bring your office work there. Dutch audiences prefer an intimate bookstore merchandising model where books are displayed with jackets on face-out. There is a stylish cafe which looks like a place you’d go on a date.
ith the advent of “new libraries,” the once lively debate over formats (print vs. digital) has been overshadowed by more fundamental questions about the need for libraries, or librarians, to maintain robust collections in any format,26 27 and moreover, how this need might be persuasively demonstrated to those who fund us.
While the leadership of our two preeminent library professional associations, ACRL and ALA, have long embraced booklessness–as a profession we’ve supposedly been about information since the late 1980s, and twenty years later, the library science degree at top-tied library schools morphed into “Master’s in Information Science” (no library in its name)–the sudden disappearance of open stacks over the last few years, and rapid conversion of many college and university libraries into bookless study / learning centers, collaboration centers, tutoring centers, media centers, and maker-spaces, etc., is making it harder for library directors to justify their acquisitions budgets and professional staffing levels.
Within library literature, those who defend books now risk being castigated as technophobic, unwilling to adapt to change, nostalgic or “sclerotic.”14 15
While scholars and intellectuals are still writing and reading books, guests routinely appear on talk shows and in the media to discuss their books–there is apparently still significant interest in books and authors–and publications are still the basis for tenure at a university, it seems that within the library profession reading itself has become something of a liability. In a publication devoted to books, Publisher’s Weekly, in an article written by a librarian30 there is an implication that librarians who like to read are not tech-savvy or not sufficiently customer service-oriented.
Why would someone who reads not be technically inclined?
Common advice for candidates for library jobs is if asked why you decided to become a librarian, never mention that you love books and reading. You can be about instruction/teaching, information literacy or helping people, but not about reading or liking books. Should librarians know nothing more than how to pull articles out of databases?
As a profession, should we be about “information literacy” but not actual literacy?
I believe that reading, learning, publishing and ideas should be celebrated in the college and academic library space. We shouldn’t be hiding books out of sight, acting as if they are a source of embarrassment, treating them as decorative wallpaper, assuming the stacks are getting in the way of students’ ability to learn, or as if they are no longer relevant to our academic missions because now we are all about technology, work spaces and collaboration.
The impact of library acquisition patterns on use. Even as millions are spent on online resources per institution, investment in print now comprises less than 5.8% of academic library acquisitions budgets, according to a recent study by Ithaka S+R.31 The Ithaka study uses acquisitions data harvested from library automation systems over a period of three years, 2014-7. The percent of ebooks purchased individually (title-by-title selection) was less than 1% of the budget. The decline in both print and title-by-title selection practices are not really news, but what this large-scale study, generously funded by the Mellon Foundation with the support of OCLC WMS and ProQuest Ex Libris, reveals is the sheer difficulty of gathering data to study library acquisition patterns in the first place, let alone assessing the impact these trends are having on user behavior.
In the annual academic library survey conducted by ACRL (ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey), print books are lumped in with all other one-time purchases, which may include individually selected ebooks, videos, and anything else not part of a subscription package. The ACRL survey attempts to capture detailed statistics on academic library services for all sizes of library, and it has captured this same information over the course of years to allow for identification of trends over time. However, it does not ask about percent of budget spent on print, percent devoted to books in all formats, percent obtained through DDA/PDA programs, etc., or provide detailed information about acquisition patterns to allow for an investigation into how changes in acquisition patterns have impacted library usage, student behavior, perceptions of the library, learning outcomes, or the library profession as such (something ACRL’s membership would certainly care about). Through ACRL’s metrics, one cannot make any correlation, say, between declining print purchases and reduced foot traffic in the library.
I am not attached to any particular format, but rather to the objective of maintaining stimulating, current, and visible collections which support browsing for ideas, current scholarship, creativity and independent learning. I would like some way to integrate ebooks with print books in the stacks, and raise awareness of ebooks in the physical space.
Regardless of their format, collections, titles, reading and publications must remain central to our academic mission and messaging, and to the user experience of the library.
By becoming an even bigger computer lab or study hall with more meeting and study rooms, by our focusing on connecting people with each other rather than encouraging people to engage with books, ideas and current scholarship–we may not actually be creating environments conducive to learning, despite what architects have to say about the matter. (Many libraries had ample seating and study rooms before converting the library into a monument dedicated to learning.)
I believe that booklessness, and the premise of the “new librarianship” that we are just about collaboration or technology or our services or our work spaces, but not about collections, are hurting students and faculty in ways that have not been fully realized. It is also taking away from scholarship as a focus of the library and the librarian-facilitated conversations new libraries are supposed to be encouraging at this time.
The Value of Collections in the Digital Age. To date, no large-scale study has been conducted which seeks to determine the relative value of maintaining physical collections in a predominantly digital environment, although this conclusion has been alluded to in a few recent studies.32
Another related question, one completely independent of formats, is the continued value of title-by-title selection–that is, traditional collection development activity–in a predominantly online environment.
When a greater percentage of titles are selected individually by selectors and faculty, do users benefit? How does the institution benefit? Aside from offering better, more focused collections of titles thought to be significant or relevant, when librarians (and faculty) are more actively involved with title selection, are they then not better equipped to encourage use?
Is there a difference in usage or the user experience of the library where there is more collection development activity, as opposed to the library’s functioning as a passive gateway to subscribed content?33
There are significant costs for college and university libraries to fully divest themselves of print, if it is committed to quality. On a title-by-title basis, pbooks are still more cost effective for smaller libraries (see below, The real cost of ebooks ), and most books published today are not available in ebook format to be licensed by a library–at least, not for a few months or years after their print debuts. Those books available to be purchased by a library in ebook format represent a very small percent of book publications. Therefore, without print titles, our collections cannot remain current. We also have a difficult time promoting or raising awareness of ebooks in the library space.
Our often misunderstood job as academic librarians and educators is not to satisfy demand for resources, but to stimulate it!
Libraries play a significant role not just in meeting “needs” or answering questions, but in creating them in the first place, stimulating demand for their own resources.
We market our collections and they market us. Collections stimulate interest. Our collections should inspire wonder, curiosity, investigation, reaction and research. We cannot accomplish this without high collection visibility and a visible commitment to maintaining quality content.
Whether public or academic, our patrons don’t necessarily know what they want when they come into the library or come to our websites. Rather than looking for something in particular, they come to the library to browse, looking for something to like, something interesting, something that jumps out at them, something meaningful to them, to see what is new, or explore their chosen career.
This is the aesthetic experience that a good library provides. Our websites should cultivate the same aesthetic, putting our content out in front to invite exploration of the invisible world of intellectual endeavor, scholarly pursuit and creativity.
A good library collection is like a living thing, the substrate of intellectual life at the university, a colorful coral reef that the whole academic community feeds upon to nurture ideas, learning, knowledge creation and intellectual development. New books are the blooms. Primarily through its collections, the library serves as a visually and intellectually stimulating place for scholars and aspiring scholars to visit to gather ideas and explore. Good collections take years to develop. Kill off the reef and the fish are going elsewhere! Choose wisely for your library and your university.
he centripetal pull of new academic libraries away from content and collection activity to “collaboration” and student support seems to beg the question: Can college libraries simply subscribe to online databases and be done with it?
No need for librarians to be title selectors, as vendors (and patron-driven acquisitions programs) will manage ebooks for us. No need for catalogers either, for with Web-based discovery services replacing the catalog, the titles added to ebook platforms are made discoverable in our systems. The thought now seems to be that without collection management and upkeep consuming so much of our space and energy, the academic library and its librarians can be liberated, transformed into something better and more useful to students. Library professionals keep being “freed up to do more important things,” but the more important things (what employers will pay more for) have not yet materialized.
The focus of the new academic library/learning center is no longer on quality collections, engaging content, or ideas, or fostering communities of readers, but on seating arrangements to support individualized learning and study styles, innovative and inspiring architectural spaces, and offering various support services in partnership with other entities on campus.34 Space is allocated to group work with large screens (for collective viewing), video conferencing 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,35 36 books are not visible to patrons when they walk through the doors or in most places in the library.
Unlike traditional college or university libraries, in these new 21st century libraries / learning centers there may be no inducements for students to read–in any format, in print or online.
There is no emphasis on interesting content, new books to encourage casual reading or awareness of the world of ideas and scholarship. There is nothing to stimulate meaning creation or intellectual engagement. There may be no perceptible collection development activity of any kind. If research activity is going on, it is not perceptible (there is no visual user activity) to others–and it could be, through real-time data visualization of where scholars are going and what they are doing, which would be kind of exciting to people, I think.
It is merely a comfortable, communal place for students to hang out and get assignments done, and a website, with librarians and others available to provide research assistance and instruction.
If there are print books, they are treated as vestigial, placed out of view (away from high traffic areas), moved off to quiet study rooms, scattered around conversation areas to create atmosphere, or placed into low shelving units to not block sight lines to other people or disrupt the view of the outside world. Books may not hit one’s gaze as in traditional libraries, where the books located at eye level circulated more frequently. Placed out of site or closer to the floor, the books are far less likely to circulate.
The design concept for many new libraries is to achieve a feeling of transparency and openness, and to promote collaboration, rather than academic intimacy (think: curling with a good book). Indeed, within the grand scale, open context and vastness of these new facilities, if there are publications, they may seem small and unimportant, niceties to complement the space, not thought an essential part of the user experience.
Is there any effective way for librarians to demonstrate that quality collections make a 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 our “doing” more, the provision of more information literacy classes, and helping people to make connections with each other?
Down(sized) and Out(sourced) in the Digital Age:
From Academic Research 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 cavernous facilities, often with high ceilings and monumental wooden staircases, glass walls and natural light, but nothing for the collections housed inside of them or anything more for resources offered online. The rational, or assumption, seems to be that an inspirational building with computers is what drives learning in the 21st century.
For example, 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.”37 This statement, along with recent trends to create bookless libraries, raises some interesting questions:
- How can a building 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.”38
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.
Without a comparable commitment to the provision of quality content and effective online strategies for promoting awareness of content, a building is just an empty gesture.
The aesthetics of openness and transparency, and talk of collaboration of those who happen to walk through the door, is really 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.
he emphases of the new academic library are impressive architectural space and awe-inspiring technology, providing spaces for study, for interaction with technology, for the creation of digital media, for social learning and above all, collaboration. In 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.
In a presentation given at my library, an architect from a prominent design firm explained to librarians the new academic library concept. According to him, the library is essentially 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). I later discovered this came from and oft quoted book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments by David Thornburg.
There is certainly a lot of rhetoric surrounding the motivations behind new library construction, but the most common and recurring theme is the idea of collaboration, primal “learning environments” in some way suggestive, or inspired by, of campfires, caves and the watering holes.
Architects and new library advocates place emphasis on collaboration deriving from group study rooms, communal seating areas and chance encounters of students and faculty 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 the library’s resources.
Enabling conversation, facilitating social introductions, and promoting discussion are all folded into idea of academic librarians as collaboration facilitators, but how we are to do this if scholars are not coming into our spaces? (Even if they did, what would compel them to drop wisdom on latte-drinking millennials lounging on a staircase?)
Indeed, facilitating collaboration is regarded by as a pre-eminent 21st century role for librarians by those in leadership of ACRL (Association for College and Research Libraries). In the conclusion of their report on the value of academic libraries in the 21st century, Brown and Malenfant emphasize our role as “campus connectors,” 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.39
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 outcomes framework they advocate.
The impact of collaboration, or rather collaborative learning, which theoretically occurs in these newly renovated spaces, is frankly no more measurable or significant than the impact of collections, and from an assessment standpoint, cannot be differentiated from other forms of socializing. The impact of both, or each, is as immeasurable as the other.
Even if hi-tech collaborative learning or knowledge-sharing could be meaningfully captured and differentiated from mere socializing, the library still cannot lay claim to it any more than it can, or could, the learning or research which occurred from utilization of the print collection.
After all, the library receives no credit when someone publishes an article drawing upon our resources, so how is collaboration a more measurable outcome?
If collection usage (usage stats, circulation stats) 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 collaboration cannot be a preferable substitute.
Truly, I love the emphasis on community creation and socializing in these new spaces. Having more people in the library, even if all they want is a cup of coffee, a comfy couch, wi-fi and a study place is not a bad thing. But whatever happened to our profession’s commitment to scholarship, research and publishing? What about the value of ideas? And is collaboration even a worthwhile scholarly objective? If it can indeed be linked to new knowledge creation, as people say, how do we capture that? In some ideal world, how might librarians facilitate collaboration which results in new knowledge?
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 library “haves” and “have nots.” This not was because of the popularity of ebooks among users, but due to the skyrocketing cost of serials and electronic resources cannibalizing the print book budget.
I cannot say for sure what is happening at newly renovated academic libraries across the country--I wish ACRL would tell us that in their annual member survey questions–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, from emphasis on collections, new publications or content–including digital resources–toward remaking 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 center. 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, couches and available study spaces, rather than focusing on their collections and scholarly content.
Ten years ago, academic libraries would never have thought to devote prime real estate on their websites to promoting their comfortable chairs, study spaces, workstations or assortment of tables. To do so would have seemed unscholarly and unprofessional. Representing the library as a study hall or computing lab was considered the wrong message to send to university administrators and faculty to maintain their respect.
What now? Space, computers, support services and furnishings appear to be the most important features of Harvard’s main undergraduate library:
Research Help at Harvard’s famous Lamont Library is available only between the hours of noon and 5pm, while media help can be had from 9am until 10pm.
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.
Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, a 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”):
Individual Study Rooms
Group Study Rooms
Chalk Board/White Board
Eli Express Delivery Location
One would think that one of the oldest libraries in the country with over 4 million books would have more interesting 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, project-based learning, and providing real world work experience in the classroom. I do not mean to discount the 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 the library is a logical place for this. But the library should aspire to be more.
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, and digital production studios. No one has called my library or come in asking for this technology. They have come in asking for books.
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 the consistent focus in librarianship on dialogue, collaboration and consensus-–oral modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission–over content, text-based and more individualized forms of learning, hearken back to a time before printing, books and libraries.
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.
Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful architecture. I like coffee. I like computers and technology–I am (or was) a developer and systems librarian back in the day, when it was harder. 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. Now, it requires video conferencing technology with hand-gesture recognition and brain-storming apps.40 Indeed, 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, even the bulletin boards (on college campuses, called “free speech areas”), in order to promote more modern, technically advanced and controlled forms of expression. We are prioritizing some forms of expression over others.
From a traditional librarian standpoint, much of this may make no sense. No one has come into my library asking for these things in recent years, but they have asked books–especially “book” books. No one has called about 3D printers or laser cutters either.
Let’s talk about collaboration. Realistically, 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, computers and staircases?
The bigger issue for libraries is that, while there are deep pockets for gadgetry which will be obsolete in a year or two, print resources are deemed to be unsustainable, cumbersome, alien and inconvenient. Only the more dedicated student is willing to be burdened carrying books around, having to read them or having to return them. Over time, books start to look bad (gather dust, fade and decay), not to mention requiring staff to catalog them, shelve them, circulate them and eventually weed them. In our society, fewer people are reading books, and reading is not looked upon as the sign of social status or upward mobility it once was; in fact, the opposite may be the case now: reading is a signal to others that one’s time is not in demand by anyone.
Despite its undeniable educational benefits, reading books is no longer viewed as productive activity tied to academic achievement or having any redeeming social value.
There is an undeniable negative stigma surrounding books and reading, and today reading is often contrasted with productively working, interacting with others, or engaging in real-world problem-solving tasks. Even in a university, there is often limited capacity for people to make a connection between reading and success in life.
Practical, project-based, collaborative and hands-on, career-relevant learning are now seen as superior ways to prepare students for the workforce of tomorrow, while “book-learning,” reading, or traditional lecture format are rejected as outmoded pedagogical methods. The English major is now regarded as the most useless of all degrees in part because it remains mired in literary retrospection and the practice of close reading, unable to move the ossified canon forward to make itself relevant to today, while “Communications” offers the cache of the present, writing and creating for an age in which nobody reads, but skims and bounces.
Public libraries are also be vulnerable to a similar stigma with regard to reading. Sociologists have suggested that in today’s economy, busyness and overwork are status symbols, not time for leisure, enjoying cultural activities or reading books41 which may account for why the general public, when surveyed, express interest in turning their public libraries into work spaces even when they do not necessarily have any real work to do.
My feeling is that libraries should strive to create a social context, a real learning environment, within which intellectual inquiry, reading and creativity are nurtured. That is our job as librarians, and that should be the function of our building, to protect the fragility of scholarship and intellectual inquiry even if it is unpopular to do so. I believe people are still interested in books as a cultural phenomenon and and as a shared cultural object, but the library must create that social context. We must create that sense of place as well as demand for our own resources. Our job, to a large extent, is the merchandising and marketing of intellectual capital, not passive question-answering.
In its defense, print still has some things going for it over ebooks, superior readability and visibility chief among its virtues, provided that you have a campus library students come into. Print needs not be invoked by a user (pulled out of a database) to be seen, so print resources tend to market themselves better for campus libraries. Another is cost, or ROI: when we buy pbooks, we are not planning to hold them in perpetuity, so we don’t need to license them that way.
Despite being disparaged as “book warehouses,” both by architects and ebook salesmen, good libraries do not actually warehouse books but eliminate titles which are perceived to no longer be of interest to the community it serves. Print books can be more cost-effective for smaller campus libraries because the pricing does not include multi-user licensing or hosting in perpetuity on a third party platform no one knows will be around in ten years.
Most importantly, though, is that “reading matter” placed front and center signifies to others that reading matters.
The presence of reading material in the library space signifies its worth and value, even though online is the way of the future. Ideally, one could browse the book in the library, but be able to download it to take it with you.
This might be a way for campus libraries to facilitate real-world discoverability.
Discovery & Its Discontents: The User Experience of the Modern Library Catalog
With a good physical collection, what users obtained was insight into the most significant titles in a discipline, a vantage point which is not readily afforded by plumbing aggregators’ databases, probing various ebook packages, or scrolling through the results of our cobbled discovery tools. Despite all of the emphasis on updating the library’s physical space into something modern and spacious, there has been comparably little attention given to the library’s online presence, the virtual library space, where at least 95% of our content resides.
Index-based web-scale discovery tools, or “discovery tools” for short, are a kind of application known only to librarians. Companies employ “enterprise search” or “federated search,” but libraries employ discovery tools as the front end to their catalog. They are the library’s answer to Google. They are intended to provide a single search interface for all of the library’s subscribed and owned content, which reside on various third party (publisher or content aggregator) platforms. Increasingly discovery tools, or a discovery layer, is bundled with the library’s automation system. If a library is using Voyager or Alma by Ex Libris, Primo is the discovery tool which represents the single search box, the interface which is the online library.
Unfortunately, library discovery tools do a poor job of visually representing the totality of the library’s collections to users, a function that they might be expected to perform at this time, as the library’s owned and subscribed content are not visible any other way. Through them, we also lack a programmatic way to showcase new content which might be of interest to our users.
In library literature, librarians are sometimes blamed for why our discovery tools are not more popular with patrons.42 Research has shown that we don’t like them, and seasoned researchers prefer to go to subject-specific databases or use Google Scholar.
A “catalog” is comprehensive by definition, but “discovery” makes such no promises. It is noncommittal.
Casual users may not notice, but we librarians often know what is not showing up that should when someone performs a search. Casual users may see the glass half-full, we see it as half-empty. For various reasons, much of an academic library’s premium content may be either omitted or buried deep into the search results of our discovery tools, even with a librarian working to optimize it.43
Lack of discoverability is our main issue with discovery tools, and it should be, but there are others.
They too often promote the trivial over the significant. For example, entries from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, which has something like 75,000 entries, should not be the number one search result that comes up for every search topic. It is not authoritative within the disciplines, but yet it cannot be turned off without turning off other titles in the ebook package in which it is included.
While they are called “index-based” tools, there is no dynamic indexing of the documents which are searched. What is indexed is a metadata record supplied by the vendor, not the document itself. Researchers are not aware that they are merely searching a publisher record, not crawling the documents and an index of the documents. This is one reason why the search experience going directly to the subject databases is often more productive than going through a discovery interface. When you search a vendor’s content, you are often able to perform a full-text search of the documents that are there, not a metadata record.
While it searches an index containing hundreds of thousands of items, the user is often able only to retrieve only 25 results at a time, which is tedious to scholars who want to browse rather than more narrowly refining their search to eliminate results. When users click a link to go to the resource, many times if just doesn’t work out. The publisher’s platform, with its new security features, doesn’t support deep linking to content through generic links, or doesn’t like all of the traffic coming into it though one IP address.
Discovery tools and catalogs have not evolved much in the last 10-12 years, even though their purpose in the library has changed from a convenient “first dive in” aimed at freshmen or inexperienced researchers, to functioning as a search/research tool, and finally, with the disappearance of the physical collection, serving as a primary means through which users engage with the library’s online collection. Despite some cosmetic enhancements, the tool is pretty much the same as it ever was.
From 2007-9, there was a period of innovation for library user interfaces. Some librarians may remember AquaBrowser, EBSCO’s various visual search tools, the award-winning Grokker by Groxis, WebFeat, and a host of federated search tools to help users visualize and visually navigate content in the library’s catalog and databases.
Grokker (2007-2009) was the best in its class, for its unique visual navigation interface, combined with a dynamic labeling and clustering engine (based on Lingo), could help the researcher quickly assess how many results, and related results, were there in the data set. It provided a top down view of the data which you could click on and zoom to the documents. Grokker was brilliant. When I worked for them, I believed this, or some other sort of visual navigation interface, was the future of the library catalog.
I’m hoping the next-gen library catalog will offer an improved experience of the online library, with tools to assist scholars form connections and arrive at new knowledge, and interfaces which the public finds both captivating and unique.
To Be or Not to Be: The Content-Rich Library in the Age of Amazon.
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 our standards for the user experience for an online academic research library? Given the consolidation of automation systems in our industry, can we even have standards? Given our current infrastructure, how might these standards be implemented?
With our existing catalogs, discovery tools, and web presence (containment inside of a CMS), it is not possible to replicate the browsing experience of a brick-and-mortar library online. Yet continuing to use the same interfaces developed when the library’s collection was primarily print is not advantageous either. If the website is the library, more thought needs to be given to user interfaces to support a robust user experience and the delivery of content to our respective constituents.
Bookshelf browsing, virtual newsstands (like Browzine) and other visual navigation applications to facilitate an enjoyable, intuitive browsing experience are overdue as enhancements to the OPACS 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 customers, presenting things they might like, and we also must be able to represent online an actual library collection as such, rather than simply presenting ways to conveniently parse though indexed metadata of third-party aggregated content so someone can find it, should they want to. That former does not lend meaning and value to our content or to our profession. It isn’t a good business model.
The user experience of a good collection–both in print or online–promotes creativity and independent learning, precisely the same sort of open-ended and unstructured creative exploration people are trying to facilitate though maker-spaces and more collaborative modes of instruction. We need to afford users a better user experience of the library online so that it can be more closely tied to education especially in terms of disciplinary knowledge.
Many challenges are now before us. Within the field of higher education, much emphasis has been placed on “hands on, real world learning,” as opposed to book learning.
Project-based learning, collaborative learning, active learning and other alternatives to traditional text-based learning are advanced by universities as providing better preparation for the jobs of tomorrow. Frankly, whenever “research” is discussed at a university, the thought bubble above the administrators’ heads is of grants and lab research with rats and microscopes, not library research.
There is an effort to reform the entire curriculum to involve real world, project-based learning. There is a downside to this approach no one discusses, that it is extremely inefficient.
With reading or text-based learning, students don’t spend time reinventing the wheel, rediscovering in labs the knowledge that is already known. The laws of gravity have already been discovered, we don’t need to spend the whole semester tinkering with model rockets to rediscover it for ourselves. We don’t need to actually repeat the experiment, for it has been done enough times. Let’s read about it and move up the tree of knowledge. And there is more to life, and human experience, than the empirical world we can see and touch. Some say humans are tool-users and problem solvers. I say humans are fundamentally creative and philosophical, abstract thinkers, experiencing the world primarily though abstractions (which is why art, music and theory are enjoyable to most people). Data is concrete, but knowledge is a form of meaningful abstraction based upon what educated people regard as truth.
As a society, seem to be returning to a kind of bizarre primitivism and literalism associated with oral cultures, assuming that people actually can’t really learn it or believe it unless they see it and experience it for themselves (with their senses), or engage with it as part of a group. In ancient Greece, there was a bias towards hearing. If they saw it, it could not be trusted. Hearing meant believing.
For various reasons, people may be losing the will and also the ability to read.44 This phenomenon has been dubbed “secondary orality,” a return to orality by post-literate societies.
Investment in maker-spaces, media rooms and active learning labs in the new academic library space, in addition to the creation of 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 is 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? Where are the impact studies by libraries who have fully transitioned to the new concept? Is it progress or regression? Is it enlightenment or a new Dark Ages?
Does it produce literate people or promote ignorance?
First, from what I have been able to ascertain so far based on anecdotal evidence, is that no one in my discipline 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 built45, or how to differentiate collaborative learning from other less important forms of social interaction in order to arrive at measurable outcomes for our assessment plans. These are, however, not infrequently the theoretical foundations upon which new libraries are built.
And, most importantly 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 space, or with us, but with the scholarly resources and authorities vital to their discipline and to important books reflecting the world around them.
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 and software applications 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 library46 47–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.
ooklessness—or 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 promising new 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 novel trends always 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 insecure older generation fearing to appear obsolete, and most of all, by architectural design firms who are eager for commissions to design unique and expensive buildings called libraries.
Architectural rendering of a new modern library (can’t find the source, most unlibrarian-like of me!). This is a typical design, where books and resources are not visible in the entrance way or on the first floor. It is harder to promote content or cultivate readers in this sort of modern library space.
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 (empty) spaces, their wheeled furniture, instructional and reference services (reduced to part-time or outsourced, and the reference desk may be a “welcome” desk).
I think it is great that libraries are striving to become more social places. Libraries were never really the stultifying study halls or book warehouses 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, and that was a long time ago! Many traditional libraries were built with cafes in them or nearby. There is nothing “21st century” about the combination of coffee, books, and people, or comfortable seating.
What is new, especially in library literature, is the perception that physical books are impeding student success, 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 reading books, so they are not likely to start when they go off to college.
Younger university administrators also are less likely to be champions of the library, believing that books are not needed for students to be successful in their degree plans. In their minds, the success of online degree programs have largely proved the irrelevance of the physical library and print collections to the mission of the university.
With the way student- or academic success is defined, according to the business objectives of the university, it is difficult for library directors to get a toe hold. Many within a university administration do not understand or appreciate the extent to which a well-stocked, well-maintained library is a key marketing tool for the university, and that books contribute to the operation of the university as such. The library is the ultimate resource for demonstrating student-centeredness and care, precisely because many of the books in the library are there to support have the students’ own definition of success, not because they must be used to be successful in degree programs. A good library collection is perhaps the ultimate representation of genuine student-centeredness.
Nevertheless, for the first time in academic library history, books represents a burden that we librarians need to be liberated from. Books represent 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 not 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, the book is viewed as an outdated product 48 that many library directors and administrators are eager to distance themselves from for a variety of reasons–some valid and some not.
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. 49
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 50 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. 51
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,52 it has become a factoid,53, 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 academic ebooks are significantly cheaper than print books. This is a common misconception. It is 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 academic 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 use.
Take a look at this taken randomly selected title 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.” 54
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, we often must buy it that way. 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 benefit as much from economies of scale (We are thrilled if even one person checks the book out).
Ebooks usually do not represent a significant cost savings over print unless the library is buying a package of oddball 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. What goes into a content aggregator’s ebook package is based not on careful vetting by librarians (title selection), but blanket publisher agreements. The success of the aggregator depends on negotiations with traditional print publishers to digitize, aggregate and monetize their back-stock, called “backlist” titles. These aggregations are not “collections” in a librarian’s sense of the word. They are merely chum-buckets of aggregated content no longer able to monetized in print by the publisher. Not there is nothing good in them, but they do not represent the discipline.
However, only those already familiar with a discipline, educated people, may appreciate the difference in quality between a package of academic ebook titles and an actual library collection. If the priority is providing relevant ebooks so students can complete a writing assignment, aggregates of ebooks are fine. If the priority is doing research in a discipline, they miss the mark.
Most academic libraries already buy large ebook packages, but deliberately excluded from these subscription packages are front list titles, newer titles and titles in demand, which the vendor hopes to sell to the library individually at a higher price. Better titles get added to the online platform only at a premium cost to the library.
More concerning to me is that there is a psycho-social aspect of ebooks which discourages users from actually reading them. Since no personal investment 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 anyway–why should our students place value on them? To them, ebooks appear to be items called up and used when needed to write a paper or complete an assignment, and then quickly forgotten about. Who reads them? There is no sense of permanence or influence, or that these titles mean anything to anyone. They are not intended to be “read” read, or remembered, or valued, they are not real, just something to be mined for quotes and citations.
No one honestly 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 in an authoritative, up-to-date library collection. Print books are still seen as more “legit” in the eyes of our users, and they are: it’s in print and it’s in the library, so others 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 applications like this coming to libraries in the near future.
Tangible Outcomes from Intangible Goods: Assessing the Value of the Library
Philosophies of librarianship are part of a larger trend of libraries requiring librarians to re-invent and market themselves to demonstrate their value to their parent institutions.
Until a few years ago, no one ever questioned the importance of the academic library (and therefore librarians) to higher education. Now, even librarians are questioning how we should be adding value, and there seems to be little consensus or clarity on the issue.
Historically, the administration questioned whether their library was good, and perhaps how we librarians knew it was good, not whether a library was needed. No 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 many 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 often begin with Google Scholar (mine is set to link into my 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 as a last resort.
One reason is that our websites are not intuitive and our catalogs are not interesting (for students and scholars) to browse. 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.55
The library profession has become dependent on vendors even for much of our professional development, our content, our systems and our web services. There has been so much industry consolidation, we don’t have much choice. 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 and ProQuest doesn’t allow EBSCO to automatically harvest catalog data to support EBSCO’s Discovery tool, EDS.
We permit, even promote, branding (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Gale-Cengage, etc.) instead of white labeling. We take it for granted that patrons will be driven away from the library’s website off to various 3rd party commercial platforms for search. 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 try to muster excitement for content labeled with strange acronyms (StatRef! GVRL, JSTOR, SFX. . . ) and our users readily suffer from platform fatigue.
Compounding the problem is the necessity to create responsive (scaled to mobile devices) websites, which has made it even more difficult to place content where users can see it when they land on our sites. It is more difficult to design websites to promote content–individual titles–events and services, because mobile friendly designs require downsizing, streamlining and prioritizing.
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.
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 interesting, intuitive and innovative user interfaces.
Libraries are in the process of becoming that which they hope to avoid, devolving into passive repositories, through ineffective marketing and poor designs which communicate the message that our own 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 in Librarianship56
One of the most influential trends over the last 20 years in academic librarianship has been to devise new ways 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.”57
One person aptly referred to this phenomenon as the “outcomes assessment movement.” 58
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 59 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.60
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.61 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.
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,62 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.63 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”64 or an increasing corporate orientation in the university.65 66 67 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.”68 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. Sounds awful but I’m sure it happens.
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 disciplines, 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 and low usage. 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 learn course content rather than helping better prepared students obtain professional and disciplinary knowledge of a subject area or creating more informed, better educated, and more interesting graduates.
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.69 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 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.70
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.71
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.72
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 “teach Information Literacy”, “support the curriculum” or to “improve institutional outcomes,” or any of the other objectives found in librarian philosophies and in newly renovated mission statements.73 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, or with a brighter future for ourselves which we identified with. 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.”
The aesthetic is the icing on the cake, the value-add which cannot be measured, the subjective experience of self-actualization and self-determination fostered by a great library collection. It is the thought that “this book was put here for me to find” by someone who knows or cares.
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 experiential. This poses quite a philosophical dilemma for libraries. Aesthetic judgments, judgments about quality cannot be completely rationalized or measured. As the philosopher 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.
he 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.74
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. . . “75
For many academic libraries, and particularly those in Southern states,76 “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:
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 objective perspective. 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.77
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.”78
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.79 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–and we like it that way.
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, to learn on their own. 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.
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 advised80, 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.81 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.82
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.” We support a more individualized definition of student success than course or degree completion.
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 assistance from a librarian always was a very small reason people went to a library, public or academic.
- 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 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 this 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. Even back in the day before Google, which I am old enough to remember, few who used the library ever needed to consult with librarians.
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. What do I mean, exactly?
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). Ugh, to people are being compelled to tally these stats to derive value from library badness is an absolute sin in my book. And this is my book. This is why we cannot be “about” staffing a desk, but rather about maintaining a good library.
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, but only if we are able to present selective, quality collections as such (not as a bunch of results which come up whenever someone puts their toes into the water and kicks up the mud).
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 impact––in 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 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 cannot continue to grow their collections, and therefore must focus on expanding services to justify their value.
Many of these articles use an epigram 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 “assessed.“
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, perhaps 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 a 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.
Library Assessment Plans as a Rube Goldberg Machine
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 forthcoming).
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 only tangible outcomes.
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 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. If there is no discernible collection (but simply an aggregation of content) and it does not inspire people. It does not inspire research. It is human nature to care about what others care about, which is why curation adds value and intellectual interest to a library.
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 get to 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, in which case they are already frustrated.
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 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 reference services. That is a legitimizing myth of our profession. Even before the Internet, a time which I remember, people used the library without asking for assistance. They come for resources relevant to their interests and their assignments, and to keep up with what’s new in their field of study. We are about empowering users, not cultivating dependency.
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 immerse 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:
and less like this, emphasizing the librarian and library services:
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!”83 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 or innovative, except that over the years the name has changed from “Bibliographic Instruction” to “Information Literacy” to “Library Learning” 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. 84University 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.
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 objective 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.
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 shared 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. There is no concept of the library anticipating use and stimulating demand for its own resources.
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:
while others will offer a web page with links to databases and be done with it.
Bookless libraries: progress or decline?
o one seems to have given much thought either to the visceral appeal, 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, spiritual or psychological benefit to its users. Yet, researchers tell us that users often assign great personal meaning to their happenstance discoveries in the stacks, which they sometimes value more highly than what is retrieved systematically or via technology.
Modern, minimalist libraries without physical books are in fashion, 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.
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?
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.
y philosophy of librarianship began in 1987, about the time when library science graduate programs across the country were either closing down (most famous was the closure of the library program at Columbia University, which at the time of its decision proclaimed the MLS to be merely a vocational degree lacking in theoretical foundation to be at an institution like Columbia University), 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 more 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, digitization and data visualization. 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 entirely useless to the business enterprise.
Most employers do not know that many MLIS degrees today require data and database management, web development, data visualization and other technical skills. Part of the problem is a great inconsistency between one program and another.
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 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 (RBMS), along with antiquarian prints, Reformation history, Christian Humanism, medieval scholasticism, 18th century philosophy, 19th century Romanticism, English literature, art and art history, illustrated books, history of printing, descriptive bibliography and cataloging.
In the late 1980’s and early 90’s I’d studied a few years of Latin and Ancient Greek, was in graduate school, and was a part-time book scout for a used and out-of-print book dealer. I had been following the book and print market for a very long time and was eagerly attending antiquarian book shows in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. Of course, I collected books. 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. I gravitated to Church history, medieval scholasticism and metaphysical philosophy. I discovered Thomas Aquinas and NeoThomists. My academic interests were conservative. I did not want to set out to “blur the distinction between the sacred and the profane.” I did not want to do “her” story. I did not care about gender. I wanted truth and objectivity, not storytelling. Not wanting to learn how to “subvert patriarchy” or “divine women’s voices from the language of male denigration and misogyny,” 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.
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 keenly interested in re-defining library work in terms of information access and delivery. “Information” had cache. Whatever the type of library, we were taught that the output of library services, whether public, academic or corporate, was information. Most librarians accept this as a truism, for it is a chief plank of MLIS program, a bridge that connects librarianship with something theoretical, valuable, relevant and modern.
Yet, it was troubling that the fundamental logic, or philosophy, of library services at that time seemed to hang on a self-validating, circular 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.
If people come to the library, they have must an information need. It was up to the librarian to translate the often ill-defined and 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, anti-intellectual and inaccurate 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.
But only if the library is a good one.
Good libraries are not, fundamentally, 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. They subjective experience of exploring a 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.
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 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 (and website as a Destination)
My philosophy of librarianship is to maintain a special place, a “library,” where people are delighted and inspired by what they find there.
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 academic library represents an ideal. It is the ivory tower in the ivory tower, the sanctum sanctorum. (It should not be allowed to be destroyed by the uninitiated, or there will be consequences.)
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 works so much more than anything conjured up out of a database in response to a user’s query. It signifies that someone cares (the root of curation).
They thought or think 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 an item of lasting value. 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” of books, a place unlike an office space or any other, can have, particularly on at risk and disadvantaged students. The traditional 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 continue to care for them, 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 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, but from the university.
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, or good customer service, 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). No amount of good service can compensate for a bad collection, or let’s say you reach a point of diminishing returns.
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?
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 and excessively passive “information services” model of librarianship–where what we have to offer is “access on demand” to various “information resources”–or about some sort of customer service / collaboration facilitator–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.
Libraries are about creating and maintaining unique content-rich learning environments, both in person and online, where people can expect to experience “library goodness.”