Discovery and Its Discontents:
Managing Library Collections in a Resource Discovery System

Libraries are more than the customer service departments for corporate database products. For democracy to thrive at global scale, libraries must be able to sustain their historic role in society—owning, preserving, and lending books.”1Brewster Kahle, Founder of the Internet Public Archive and advocate for the universal access to knowledge.

 

The modern academic library has no ability to represent collections as collections online, even if it is maintaining a collections approach in its acquisitions practices and workflows. There are no virtual stacks representing bodies of disciplinary and cultural knowledge. The shift from collections to resources in academic libraries in recent years signifies a departure from ACRL standards for academic libraries in higher education.

For me, and for many people, a good academic library is defined by the quality and experience of its collections, the carefully considered, vibrant presentation of what scholars and educated people in a field, an academic discipline, think significant, good and important to know. 

Indeed, engagement with a good library collection has always—at least until recently—been an important part of the education of university students, promoting intellectual life at a university, and a central part of the college library experience. Time spent in the library exploring and discovering interesting things often brings back fond memories for alumni, and a visit to the library is also often a first stop for prospective students touring campus or considering a return to graduate school. Libraries and librarians have always played an active—but often unrecognized—role in student recruitment and retention. When people walk into a large “library” with nothing to see or experience inside of it but the space itself, which is a growing trend in libraries in this digital age, the disappointment is palpable. An empty space does not spark intellectual curiosity or interest.

I think there are unrecognized opportunity costs for libraries who are adopting collectionlessness as a strategy and shifting over to a “resources only” approach.

This latter is sometimes referred to as a “learning center model.” Learning centers, which years ago we referred to as LRCs (Learning Resource Centers), were never thought appropriate, or sufficiently academically rigorous, for research institutions. LRCs were resource rooms full of things thought potentially useful for instructional support, remedial learning, test preparation, study aids or FYI. The contents of the LRC were often donated or acquired by some accidental means, such as from retiring faculty or textbook company. They lacked collection development policies and librarians serving as title selectors. They lacked organization. They lacked agency and intentionality. It is where tutoring took place and where helpful materials were stored.

Unfortunately, people sometimes called this storeroom a “library,” but librarians knew it wasn’t one by our own definition. Now what is a “library” is in this digital age may be rather blurry, with many newer facilities calling themselves “library learning centers,” suggesting something not quiet a library nor a learning center, but something in between. What the library part is in this arrangement may be debatable. It may be little more than special collections, because most of what comprises the resources of the library are formed into vendor packages these days, not into library collections. Even packages of academic ebook titles are not formed into an online library collection. Without BrowZine, eJournal titles cannot be browsed by discipline, either.

What I write about is not a defense of print, but a defense of collections, something more conceptually abstract but more profound, more academically rigorous, more meaningful, ambitious, pleasurable and important than the opportunity for people to “discover” relevant resources for themselves through a search engine. As I say many times, discovery is a wonderful tool which fills an important use. But collections should remain the overarching intellectual and organizational framework for an academic research library, driving both acquisitions and display. Search, or information retrieval, is for finding information. However, libraries are not just about information. They are also about knowledge, and collections organized according to the academic disciplines are the best we have to representing academic knowledge. Whether libraries still need collections (and what defined them) is perhaps among the most controversial of all in the academic library world at this time. Major universities have often eliminated collections, going with a “resources only” approach for a few years, but under new management seek to bring collections back. That was the case with the University of Houston, where “Collection Strategies” now informs acquisitions workflows.

Right or wrong, people often form judgements about the quality of instruction at the school by way of the library, at least, by the part of the library that is visible to them. Increasingly, what remains of the academic library that is visible, both in the space and online, is becoming less and less prominent, or nothing at all but a search box, as libraries have gone “fully digital,” with at least one publicly-funded university in Texas, Sam Houston State University, even putting their online catalog behind a firewall.

Even while we may claim to be all about “Open Educational Resources” and “collaboration,” there is a new mentality in my profession, and especially among State-supported (that is, “public”) university libraries. What the library acquires are merely “vendor entitlements” for use by only their own students while they are currently enrolled in school. While I do not have empirical data to back this up, I know that public access to academic library collections is in decline and collections themselves are in jeopardy, in part because people associate collections with print formats.

It is concerning to me that as a profession, we are no longer about the representation of cultural or disciplinary knowledge, its preservation or its communication, or facilitating broad access or independent learning, the sort of which we once believed essential to higher education. We are no longer about an intellectual, cultural, educational and aesthetic experience that is unique to libraries, but only about providing access to needed resources for completing an assigned task. (“Why would the public ever need to access an academic research library?” someone recently asked me, when I was going on as I often do about public access to academic libraries, as I sometimes do.) We are no longer about supporting a unique intellectual experience. 

Increasingly, what we offer are not collections of deliberately selected and arranged for anyone’s use, or for posterity, or even for next year, but seemingly a searchable aggregation of subscription content of whatever is in vendor inventories which the library has licensed that year.

There is an arbitrariness to discoverable content. Different search engines will return different results, and there is no sense that what appears in it is determined by much more than a business agreement with the vendor that academic year. And yet, if we have made content findable in discovery, we feel we have done our jobs. The rest is on the user, the researcher and scholar, to find out what he needs to pursue research an to keep his knowledge of his field, of his discipline, up to par. I believe academic librarians have an obligation to manage collections, not just license agreements. I believe we are about serving scholarship and advancing knowledge, not commercial business interests. I believe we add greatest value not by providing access to resources, but through a user experience in which the user has a unique window into the scholarly activity in his discipline.

The shift away from maintaining academically-rigorous collections reflecting knowledge and the disciplines to just managing vendor products which exist on remote platforms and whose contents are visible only in response to queries seems inevitable to me, but really not ideal from an educational or user interface standpoint. It appears that the academic library has transitioned from being about the organization, preservation and communication of knowledge to no longer being “about” knowledge or publications or learning at all, nor even facilitating an engaging educational or cultural experience through the library. We have become just a passive mechanism for providing convenient access to commercial content for those who are authorized and sufficiently motivated to access it. We aren’t creating a culture of learning by being just a search engine. 

The library has become a static webpage often not even under our control with a search application embedded into it and a static space with nothing to experience or raise awareness. This model for an academic library provides for a diminished user experience which may not even be a library experience at all even by our own library professional definitions and standards of what a library is and does. Instead of being about knowledge, we have become a black box fed by vendors. There is no effort to communicate with users or engage them in new titles, trends in publishing or ideas. We no longer even operate on the title level. We have relegated everything to our vendors and become as close as possible to being a commercial entity without actually being one all in the name of efficiency and, indeed, greater efficiencies of scale.

Yes, our patrons have convenient access to so much excellent scholarly content now. I can make 120,000 ebooks available in seconds just by activating a package. However, with the shift to digital, and with the vast majority of the resources we provide now belonging to commercial entities, libraries have been less able to create a context for learning, less able to share resources, less able to organize them or display them (why waste time cataloging that which we do not own?), less able to provide for transparency in what we acquire (no one knows what we are acquiring or not), less able to assess the quality of our own content, less able to market our resources effectively, less able to describe to provide broad access or preserve anything for the future, less able to do community outreach, and less able to control the user experience to ensure that we support intellectual inquiry and promote learning. We are also less competitive for grant funding now, because foundations give to initiatives which serve in the public interest and for the public benefit. We’ve become more siloed than ever, having to protect our vendors’ assets over and against the public’s right to access them, a right which is “on the books” but has not been challenged one way or another.

Many public college and university libraries no longer support life-long learning or alumni access, because, one, “How does that benefit the institution?” and second, we are not licensed for that. Twenty years ago, we all offered public access. Now, we have become commodified, a proxy for our vendors.

Discovery itself, the library experience conceived as a search engine on vendor supplied-content with a few hierarchical list-ranked results per page, while making the contents of the library findable, has also drastically reduced collection visibility (if there are even collections there) and resource visibility, even to those with institutional affiliation. No one can obtain a broad overview of what is there in the repository. No one knows if his searches are complete.

No one know what new things have been acquired or what new things are coming out.

There is no organization, no underlying information architecture to assist with visualization of concepts which comprise the discipline. Library collections are now gone from many academic research libraries, even online, replaced by “access to” an invisible inventory of potentially discoverable resources. And so I say there is dark side to discovery we should be discussing.

A little over twenty years ago, Questia attempted to offer the first subscription-based academic library online. It was the first academic library available to everyone for $19.95 / month. Their business practices of licensing the content of academic publishers and calling their service a “library,” which so many academic librarians at the time found objectionable, is no different from acquisitions practices of the modern library today. Questia also offered a single search box to search all of its records for both ebooks and journal content.

At the time, librarians everywhere rejected Questia’s business model as unethical and commercial, a McLibrary, and not a real library. I know this, because I worked for Questia. I was their first librarian before they made effort to hire them, and even then it was only to enhance the credibility of their service. They didn’t need librarians. Many of my colleagues wrote articles on why this model for a library was acting in bad faith, a conflict of interest.2 3 It stuck in my mind, because rather than seeing myself as someone who was democratizing the library, I became associated with something nobody liked or respected. Academic librarians argued that an academic library had to have actual collections and librarians serving as title selectors to be an academic library. Now, it doesn’t seem to bother people as much if the academic libraries at major research institutions offer only packaged subscription content. The model is the same as Questia, the only difference is who is doing the licensing and the fact that Questia provided access to everyone, which many academic libraries no longer do after going “fully digital.” 

By eliminating the capacity for users to browse titles in meaningfully organized arrangements which are preserved for future reference and use (collections), there is no display, no “broad view” of a field or discipline which the collection once provided, no representation of what experts and educated people think good and important to know, and no expectation that any of this content is anything but ephemeral.

We have gone from a cathedral to learning, a place and an experience to being just a “space.” We are encouraging devaluation and disuse of the library through such a diminished conception of what a library is and does in this digital age. We should expect more.

As I show at the end of this essay, content curation is difficult or impossible in a discovery system, at least the one that most of us are using. The metadata just isn’t there, and never going to be if our vendors can help it (library-centric metadata is difficult and costly for them to produce). Publishers use their own general metadata that is suited more for bookstores and popular subjects, not suitable for an academic environment. EBSCO Academic Ebooks, shown below, does not support browsing by academic disciplines. Notice the popular nature of the browse categories off to the left:

These ebooks cannot be meaningfully arranged in our systems either, because the metadata (LC Classification) is not there. We acquire thousands of academic titles from here, there and there, but have no consistent or reliable way for meaningfully presenting this content to users so they can get an overview of what we have online. The academic library appears to lack a product or storefront of its own.

There is a good reason school and public libraries have not thoroughly embraced this library service model, and why they use different library systems than academic libraries do, and why they continue to maintain bibliographic systems and standards, where we are encouraged by our system vendors that such perspectives and attitudes are not modern. 

Resource discovery, the whole of the academic library conceived as a search box, has resulted in many new and often unrecognized barriers to learning, both intellectual and real. Through discovery alone, the quality of offerings, extent of knowledge and library learning declines. Not being able to see the books and journal titles that are in the repository is a problem for an academic library, especially one serving large undergraduate populations. Not being able to be organized according to the disciplines is a problem for an academic library.

The organization of knowledge is a supposedly principle the academic library stands for. 

Not being able to present organized lists of new titles to my constituents is a problem. 

If I do not know what is coming in and out of my own system, chances are, no one else on campus does, either.

If we care about titles, especially new titles, we would want them to be visible. If we do not care about them, why are we licensing them? 

The library without visible collections, the library which consists entirely of vendor-provided commercial resources and vendor-supplied discovery records, while seeming to represent great efficiencies of scale to libraries, also seems to lack a sense of integrity and limits our purpose in the library to being customer service agents for their commercial database products, rather than our being about “our own” intellectual product of titles in collections, about knowledge.

By “our own,” I mean what scholars think significant and good in the academic disciplines.

Replacing collection management with resource management / discovery is not more modern, nor is it a higher level of service, but when taken to an extreme and not balanced by collections represents a commodification of the library by large vendors so that the locus of user engagement is with those large companies who package and sell content.

Compared to what came before, resource management is really a commercialized model which reduces the library experience to being a metasearch engine on vendor-supplied and vendor-branded content. There are no collections there, even if title-by-title selection or licensing in perpetuity is still going on; the titles we license cannot be arranged or assessed as a collection, as we were all taught in library school. If no one perceives a collection is there than chances are, there isn’t one. Moreover, even though libraries now pay many times above list for titles, what it acquires is totally invisible. We may spend millions each year, but there is no library experience, no transparency, no emphasis on knowledge, no arrangement, no evidence of care or investment in our own content by us, even if some of us should choose to do so. Invisibility and lack of organization creates barriers to access and to learning.

Erecting barriers to access to quality collections was always frowned upon for a library at a public research institution, or for any library which receives even a modicum of public funding (which all public university libraries do). In Texas, just as in many states, there is a State mandate (which librarians call “the State mandate”) for academic and medical libraries to share their physical and electronic resources with all of the the citizens of the State, not just those currently enrolled in their institutions.4 

I suppose this fact, that the public is entitled to access to scholarly resources at a State-supported university or library of clinical medical research is not common knowledge outside of libraries, and to be honest, the legislation in the Texas statutes (TGC, Sec. 441.223), which is what established the TexShare consortium, has no teeth, even though its intentions are clearly to expand access throughout the State of the resources in library collections, to provide equitable access especially to academic and medical resources, and promote life-long learning. All State-supported libraries had to make their physical and electronic collections available to the public. 

Academic libraries are not required to post notice online and on their doors, and there is no hotline to report violations. I cannot report a library, even a TexShare member library, to TexShare or the Texas State Library Commission for refusing to provide public access, placing their catalog behind a firewall, or refusing to share their resources with other libraries. School accreditation is not affected by library access policies.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board has nothing to say on the matter.

It is an unfunded mandate, except to fund TexShare, the statewide consortium which allows member libraries to acquire subsidized access to databases and in theory allows students enrolled in school or citizens with a public library card to check out the physical resources, the physical holdings, of any member library.

As libraries shift from maintaining academically-rigorous collections to licensing packages of resources belonging to vendors, public access to scholarly materials in academic libraries is declining, along with the broad perspective of the discipline that the academic library once supported through maintaining visible, authoritative, consistent, organized and professionally-managed collections which reflect disciplinary and cultural knowledge. 

Collections maintained in anticipation of use and need should be the organizing principle for the whole of the academic library, not just for some remaining print titles. It should be a design objective of library systems that every title we acquire for users, regardless of how we acquire them, be capable of arrangement by classification and made visible through our library interfaces.

Academic librarians continue to pay lip service to the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) standards for libraries and librarianship in higher education,5 what remains of our library professional standards (now “principles”) are being deliberately eroded by the aggregator-publisher industry, especially when they seek to replace our bibliographic standard with a watered-down metadata standard of their own.6 Forces outside of the library now determine our user interfaces, our access policies, and the user experience of a modern library to be about their products and services.

There is nothing being invested in improved library interfaces, and so we remain just a search box without a robust and engaging platform of our own, with access policies which hurt us, and metadata and interfaces which do not conform to our library professional standards for the organization and display of bibliographic information.

In higher education, the library has always served as a place for independent learning and creative ideation (i.e., students’ projecting a future professional self and identity), not just to “support classroom instruction” or serve as a space for study. The well-designed library provided an environment and structure conducive to learning which occurs outside of and independently from the classroom (sometimes called “learning beyond the classroom”). While so much can be found online on the Open Web, the library’s collection, organized and presented as a collection, offers much greater intellectual and scholarly value, raises awareness, stimulates inquiry, validates student interests, creates a unique kind of learning environment, and helps users reach beyond what they currently know.

We seem to be no longer capable of designing welcoming or effective learning environments nor developing engaging user interfaces to encourage literacy and learning.

I think the library should strive to be a content-rich learning environment as an important part of its design.

In this essay, I will address specific steps which I feel should be taken to support the development of better user interfaces and the physical environment of the library which do not necessarily entail a return to print formats. I will also outline business and technical requirements for academic libraries to be successful in this digital age.

Why Collections are a Technical and Business Requirement for the Academic Library.

Collection management is an intellectual, academically-rigorous framework for the the selection, classification, organization, description, evaluation and display (user interface) of bibliographic resources. It is not synonymous with managing print formats, even though print formats were historically organized and managed as collections. A collections approach is a framework for ensuring quality and integrity. Collection Management and Development are part of the core curriculum for an ALA-accredited master’s degree. 

Collectionlessness impacts the entire library, its organization, staffing needs, workflows, access models, opportunities for grant funding and outlook on the future of the library itself. A library which maintains a collections approach is collecting in part in anticipation of future use. Since search engines came about, there has been a huge misunderstanding as to what library collections are for, what they are, and if arrangement by classification is still needed or beneficial to scholars. Classification is needed for display, for organizing resources into knowledge, and not for filing books on a shelf. It is needed to put a work in its intellectual context where it is placed in relationship to a discipline and to other works, whether this is in print or online.

When most people conceive of collections, they think of the bookshelves of the library, which we in the field call “the stacks.” Traditionally, the purpose of the catalog and our metadata was to get the user to a location in the stacks, where he could retrieve his item and also browse related items. The collection itself was the basis for the intellectual and aesthetic experience of the library. Print collections added value in the following ways:

  • It stimulated new interests, exposing students and faculty to things they did not know about and would not have thought to look for. 
  • Served a symbolic function, conveying the worth of education, that scholarship is worth investing in, the same academic commitment we want students to possess to stay in school and pursue higher education. 
  • Helped to identify gaps in the collection and ensure that it was current.
  • Provided for transparency, so users could see that the library had and could predict what it would have in the future.
  • Kept faculty and students informed about trends in publishing in their field.

Just as art museums are not just about “access to art,” the library is not primarily about “access to” resources or intellectual objects, but about the experience which is supported by collections as a whole, the organization, preservation and perpetuation of knowledge.

The invisible library is an ineffective library. The invisible library does not encourage intellectual curiosity or learning. The invisible library contributes to uninteresting and unwelcoming spaces.

As long as the library profession embraces the idea that “access to” is sufficient, it will play a diminishing role in cultural and intellectual life both at the university and beyond.

When the Academic Library becomes “Ex Libris”: The Academic Library as a Vendor Concession.

What almost all academic libraries today have done is to put a kind of meta-search engine on subscription databases to replace the online public access catalog (OPAC), the stacks, and the need for librarians to manage their collections. They eliminated collections, both print books and the intellectual and ethical principles which might have been replicated online. 

Technical Services Librarians who remain in libraries often are assigned to “manage resources,” seamless access to vendor products. Access to vendor products is achieved by checking boxes on the back-end of the system (Alma / Primo by Ex Libris) and does not require much technical expertise to accomplish. There is some troubleshooting which arises from time to time, but resolution often opening a ticket with the vendor. Once integration profiles are set up, one can set it and forget it, for subscriptions to databases doesn’t change much from year to year at most institutions. Librarians themselves have been replaced not just by automation, but also a shift in responsibility for collection management and title selection to vendors, to content aggregators and large publishers, who package and license content for sale to academic libraries for profit. 

These companies offer access to scholarly content, but not to actual collections, despite the names they give to packages to encourage librarians to license them. ESBCO’s Literature collection has no literature in it. What we license this way is often oddball stuff we would never have acquired before, and most importantly to me, it cannot be represented as a collection, arranged according to our rules and standards for display. All we get out of the millions we spend is a search box.

In recent years, the academic library has been turned into a vendor concession, and just like the word “concession,” we have been forced to make them in order to honor license agreements. Eliminating collections (electronic collections, represented and managed as collections, so the content can be described and browsed effectively) is itself a major concession, perhaps impacting some disciplines more than others; but ultimately affecting everyone, and certainly impacting the future of libraries.

No one but that vendor, who charges increasingly more for access each year, will preserve content for the future, and what we acquire will remain invisible through our user interfaces except when someone comes along with an information need or assignment.

We have also made a concession in terms of metadata we receive from vendors, which limits our user interfaces to discovery (search and retrieval) as opposed to display. We have made concessions in terms of access and resource sharing. The profit of vendors is threatened by sharing so naturally, they seek to restrict it.

Many believe that this convenience is progress. On some level, it is, of course. But merely making random resources discoverable does not support learning or engagement with this content. We have solved the problem of access, but not the bigger one of stimulating inquiry and engagement with resources in the first place. The reality is, people are walking around with “libraries” on their phones today and they really do not care if they can access thousands of things, and certainly do not care much if there is better content available to them through their library. We must consider engagement, the user experience, as a function of our spaces, our systems and website. 

Despite the millions we spend renewing content each year, the library does not stimulate independent learning very much in this way. Scholars want and need to see new titles in their field of study, both what is coming out and what the library is acquiring, and we should be able to put titles into public view if we want to encourage engagement with them. Visibility is at the core of the word “respect” (literally, “see again”) is visibility, to put something into view where it can be considered again and again. That is what a collection does, or did. 

In this digital age, I believe we must do more to be good as a library than provide passive access to invisible subscription content, that is, provide access to indexed records which live in an invisible repository linked to items that live temporarily on third-party platforms, and which are accessible only to those with current institutional affiliation. 

Rather than trying to do more to encourage awareness and engagement with publications, and raise literacy levels (in higher education, “literacy” means not reading fluency, but knowledge of the authorities, sources and publications in a field and familiarity with ideas and trends), doing more to make the library a more intellectually stimulating and immersive experience, a kind of malaise has set in.

Librarianship is becoming further insulated also from complementary technologies, techniques and platforms—even museums and ecommerce sites—which could help us to be more effective at conveying ideas, scholarly content and knowledge. Rather than attending ALA Conferences, some of us perhaps should be going to SIGGRAPH (IEEE) conferences (conference for computer graphics and interactive digital technologies) and learning to make our spaces more interactive, immersive and dynamic, as many museums have done.

A walk through the library should be an educational experience, changing from week to week. That is what technology could and should do for the academic library. I think this should be another business requirement to add to the list. The library must strive to reflect scholarly communication in the disciplines, not be a stagnant space. It should be a window onto the world of scholarship, not literally “a window.” 

We should borrow from digital marketing to revamp our websites from what they have become, a static page with a search box as its centerpiece, to something much more layered, content-driven and personalized.

I think we should halt the construction of hollow glass buildings with nothing inside of them being built in the name of a new librarianship when they do not contribute much to the functioning of a library as a library. That should not be allowed to pass as a library for accreditation purposes, because this design does not encourage resource use or learning, or provide an educational experience. It would be better to be completely virtual than be given custodial responsibility for a space that is a library in name only.

They do not conform to library professional standards for what a library is and does in this digital age, for example, emphasizing ALA ACRL’s core principles for libraries in higher education. We should stop being on the receiving end of inflated architectural designs which are not aligned with ACRL standards for what an academic library is and does. 

The modern library needs to be more attuned to presenting ideas, concepts, technologies, current trends and scholarly literature on which these may be grounded. For example, through interaction projection technologies, it would be possible to present specialized digital collections and virtual periodicals racks in the departments.

Most of all, the academic library must renew its commitment to collections, if not in print, than through online platforms designed to support the representation of virtual collections.

Instead, librarians continue to eliminate collections, both the stacks of books and a “collections approach” to acquisition, subscribing only to gigantic packages and claim that this is “progress in our field.” No one, not even those who work in the library, is aware what titles we have or do not have. Is the library experience we wish to support just a search box, an A-Z list of databases, and some LibGuides

Such is the new librarianship, in which we are able to really do only one thing, which is to embrace our inevitable commodification by large vendors so that very soon, Clarivate ProQuest Ex Libris or EBSCO Folio can offer a one-stop library research solution to the university, which is one reason they want to eliminate our bibliographic standard.6 

Just as museums cannot, without violating professional ethics, take dealer inventory and represent it as an exhibit or a collection in a show, why should the library call aggregator content a “collection”?

It is through collections, arranged and organized as collections, that knowledge is formed, preserved and communicated to scholars as knowledge, as a consensus as to what is good and important to know. Collections are a catalyst for learning because they convey to people what they do not know and would not thing to search for. Especially at large universities, collections serve a more important function than people may realize. A commitment to collections, as opposed to a commitment to discoverable resources, usually means a commitment to other things as well.

For example, a commitment to collections often comes with a commitment to academics and disciplinary knowledge, a commitment to public access and sharing, a commitment to the unique culture of the school (if it has a reputation or institutional identity), a commitment to publication (because visible collections are form of respect for scholarship), and a commitment to life-long-learning, all of which are jeopardized by the library’s recent commodification.

Library collections are selective, intentional, deliberate, purposeful, and a form of scholarly communication about scholarly communication. As a form of scholarly communication, it must be public or visible to communicate. Obviously, they/we cannot communicate if our resources are not visible or arranged as a collection. A collection is created and maintained by librarians, not by corporations who profit from monetizing their content.

A good collection, a collection that organized, current, and cared for consistently over the years provides intellectual value and aesthetic appeal to educated audiences who can appreciate it for what it is. By the time students graduate, students should have received an education at the university such that they have an appreciation for the resources acquired by the library, the organizational structure of knowledge represented by collections, the core titles in their field, and the library as a community resource (not just as a place of study). These are typical organizational objectives of the library. Library designs are not helping us to achieve these educational objectives. They are merely helping vendors to monetize their content more effectively.

Collections are necessary to support a vibrant library experience and to support higher education. They are a source of inspiration and knowledge. At a university, collections should inform the curriculum, refreshing and reinforcing instruction, a dialectic so that instruction is always kept up to date.

A search box doesn’t do that.

Do Collectionless Libraries Lack Integrity?

If a library collection is not being managed or maintained in a consistent manner over time, it loses a sense of integrity. A collection gone to seed, a collection lacking integrity, becomes just resources, an accumulation of things people may or may not find useful but nothing anyone need know. If it seems random, unkempt, uncared for, things dated or out of scope, driven by external forces which have nothing to do with being a quality collection for the primary audience served, it loses a sense of integrity and purpose as a library.

From a collection standpoint, but not a resource management standpoint, “integrity” means we acquire titles not simply because we licensed this product or that service from an aggregator this year. “Integrity” means we do not fail to acquire any titles from Cambridge because we have licensed other titles from Oxford. It means we do not acquire because the content is cheap or free or convenient to do so, or because a person with a relationship to the library donated them. We do not decide to buy items from a local bookstore in order to support a local business if it means selecting titles which we would not have otherwise acquired. It means we do not fail to buy titles from one publisher just because because we have an agreement in place with their rival, or fail to acquire current titles because we have already invested all of our funds for the year into packaged products. 

Academic library budgets must be managed conservatively to avoid such gaps. It means scholars can count on us to have scholarly titles in anticipation of use and need. It means we provide scholarly access, if this is in keeping with the mission of the library, and not change the mission of the library or its policies to suit the needs of vendors. 

“Integrity” also means, students and faculty can with some reasonable assurance predict what is there and what will be there in the future, without big gaps and swings because funds were diverted elsewhere.

There is really a big difference between collection management and resource management as a professional practice. It isn’t just a matter of terminology. Collection management conforms to a higher ethical and academically-rigorous standard than “resource management.”

With collection management, for example, it is important to acquire consistently throughout the year and be aware of new titles coming out to promote them and make faculty aware of them. It is important to know what you have so you can let others know. It is a practice which operates on the title level, the bibliographic level, not the package level. 

Without a collections approach, without that ongoing commitment to them, the quality of our services declines.  

Instead of seeking to offer the best of the best, and presented in a way that is best for our audiences, we may settle for whatever is in an aggregator package, or a few aggregator packages, where titles are not organized, lack visibility, and may not be the best.

But no one knows that but educated people, who may be the only ones who know what is not showing up in discovery which really ought to be there.

The Visible Library:
Resource Visibility & Public Access increases Discoverability.

Collections are the product of librarians and scholars, an accurate representation of the scholarly activity in the disciplines within clearly defined scopes, consisting of what experts and educated people believe significant, worthwhile and important to know.

Collections are not just random resources, even random “relevant” resources.

They are the best resources within clearly defined scopes.

They are not what the librarian judges to be good, but what experts in the field judge to be good. Collections operate on a meta-level: they are deliberate arrangements of titles reflecting, or approximating, the organization of academic knowledge in the disciplines. Collections enhance scholarly value. They are worth more than the sum of their parts.

Collections are mapped to the disciplines and consist of meaningful arrangements of titles. They operate at the “title” level, the bibliographic level, not at the vendor package level. With collections, titles are visible as part of a collection, visibly organized and systematically arranged, rather than being merely retrievable content.

Collections are, or were up until recently, said to be our most important service. Visibly displayed in meaningful arrangements (and this is purely hypothetical is a digital environment, since such a thing does not exist yet), library collections signify academic achievement as a value and knowledge as a priority. 

Ideologically, collections belong to the library as our own intellectual product, where resources are strictly vendor products, “entitlements,” which have little to do with us or our intellectual efforts, our knowledge except of commercial products.

The collection as a whole tells a story and has narrative value, as do all good collections; resources do not tell a story. “Collections” support broadest possible access, even by people who know nothing about it, resource visibility, resource sharing, knowledge formation, public access and life-long learning. “

“Resources” on the other hand, are simply entitlements which support institutional access to information for the year in which the resource was licensed, and there is no commitment at all made by the library to preservation, resource sharing, public access, display or life-long learning.

There is no commitment to the organization or formation of knowledge, only immediate access to third-party content through a search engine, usually to satisfy assignment completion, complete a specific task, or some other immediate need. 

Today, whether one works with Alma Primo, OCLC WMS, or any other academic library system, e-resource discovery is the new paradigm for the academic library, replacing our former bibliographic systems, and this may be the sole basis for acquisitions and the user experience of the modern library outside of some research guides we might create. There is no integrated “shelf-list” function, for example, for all of the titles we acquire through license agreements to make this work the way it should or might.

I have 100,000 ebooks from EBSCO, 100,000 from ProQuest, 100,000 from Taylor & Francis, 50 from SAGE, 50 from McGraw Hill and about 1,300 more from other vendors. Why can’t I put them all into a virtual collection?

I have thousands of journal titles and videos and ebooks from 100 different vendors, and perhaps some books and videos as well.

But I cannot put them all together to form anything like a browsable collection online, or pull them together by discipline and specialty for reporting, and I really cannot identify collection gaps easily. I don’t know if “the collection” is good because there is no “collection” there to be systematically assessed, as we were trained to do in Collection Development 101. It blows!

So much for the organization of knowledge, which ACRL still seems to still think important for academic libraries, even if our system designers don’t. So much for stimulating intellectual inquiry, which is hard to do without visible collections. There is no bibliographic control at all in e-resource discovery systems or LSPs.

More than that, I cannot curate and present content to my faculty and students in their subject areas very well. The metadata isn’t there. It could be, it ought to be, but isn’t. It isn’t going to be, either, because during COVID, vendors conspired to replace our MARC bibliographic standard with their own NISO standard, which makes all that LC stuff in our bibliographic record optional. 

Through discovery alone, we have simply become one with our vendors. There is no distinction between what we offer and their inventories. Only, as we all know, and they know, search works better on their side than our side, because the metadata they give us is poor, the algorithms they use on their platforms are better, and theirs searches full-text, which ours do not do.

Everyone knows that searching is better on the vendor side. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t offer discovery, but that this should not be our everything. It is a limited conception for the whole of an academic library, and compared to some of the citation discovery engines we had in 2007, like Grokker, it isn’t even all that advanced. Grokker did dynamic clustering and labeling on the fly and could present a browsable overview of everything in real time: Primo, the indexed-based search on vendor-provided metadata, can’t do that. 

We need a systematic overview like we used to have in order to manage and present a collection of titles, even an electronic “collection.” Despite what they may call themselves, vendor packages are not electronic collections, they are just aggregations of digitized content vendors license to us. “Resources” in today’s parlance are merely vendor entitlements, commercial products. Academic library standards are not about managing vendor entitlements, but selecting titles and forming them into collections. 

And why should I need to spend time searching this and that topic to get an overview of what I have in a subject area for program accreditation (What are all the ebooks and ejournals you have to support this program?), rather than viewing a comprehensive report of all that I have by discipline, subdiscipline, class, and topic, down the LCC hierarchy from general to specific, down to the cutter number and finally the year of publication?

LCC is not a strictly alphanumeric number, and it sometimes has two decimal points which is tens to throw off Access and Excel (They can handle two letters, as some of our classes have. . . but two decimals breaks it). However, there are sorting routines out there for the Library of Congress Classification which can be used for comprehensive reports like this. There is no excuse for its absence from our modern library systems (The 050 field, the LCC number, would be an obvious choice, since e-resources do not have call numbers assigned to them; their bib record contains the LCC number for their print equivalent).

Don’t insult me with Oracle Business Intelligence and Analytics on the backend but a simple integrated shelf list to visualize what I have by subject is not possible!

We must have ways to make our content visible to say, “Here all that we acquired this week/month/year to support your program,” which is also dependent on LCC (really, a conspectus report based on LCC).

This is only possible with a collections approach.

What’s the Use of Collections?

Academic libraries are about the organization, perpetuation and creation of disciplinary and cultural knowledge in a global society. We have traditionally done this through collections, really through bibliography. However, because titles are placed into a context in which they are valued intellectually, collections also cultivate an appreciation for scholarship which discovery does not.

A discovery model presumes an item has no intrinsic value apart from its relevance to the user at that particular point in time. 

If they have an analog, it is to what was once referred to as a “learning resource center,” or LRC. Of course, academic librarians cannot possibly acquire title-by-title today and keep up with the volume of publishing activity that goes on today. But is it not expecting too much of our library service platforms for a library to be able to identify all of the titles it currently acquires and then form these into virtual visible collections, so we can fill the gaps and spin off title lists to be able to make our content more visible?

If people at the university are there to obtain knowledge, it seems not unreasonable to me that the university library provide some reliable and consistent mechanism for efficiently communicating to users what constitutes disciplinary and cultural knowledge in the first place, what is in their collections, presenting the best and current titles for that audience, arranged for maximum visibility, impact and appeal according to the priorities, topics and organization of the academic disciplines. These are, or form, bodies of knowledge. 

Collections are academically-rigorous bodies of knowledge, not an assemblage of commercial products. Ideally, this knowledge should belong to everyone. It is a cultural asset.

This is a fundamental premise of the academic library now jeopardized by commodification. 

Collections can assume any format, including “hybrid” or online. A collection is in large part as intellectual construct, a way of cataloging, a way of organizing, a way describing, a way of presenting and visualizing bibliographic content in relation to the academic disciplines. Placing an intellectual work into a broader intellectual and cultural context through bibliographic description and metadata was always our function, not just “access to” the thing itself. 

This ideal for arranging, conveying and learning the knowledge through scopes or classes goes back to ancient philosophy. It was referred to as topoi (topics) by the Greeks and loci (places) by Latin authors; we may call them topics or “scopes.” In my profession, visible collections, the ability to browse by topic, is considered an important access point which has disappeared from many libraries as they have gone online. Through their library, students and faculty should be entitled not just to access resources, but to access disciplinary knowledge itself, to come to what other educated people are discussing and engaging with, so they can become and remain educated people. Our systems should support this type of engagement and use. What do I mean?

Business requirement: People at a university should be made aware of new books and articles coming out in their areas of interest through the library.

Business requirement: People should be able to browse titles in topical arrangements mapped to their disciplines. 

Technical (Functional) requirement: The 050 is a required field and academic library systems must support sorting and arrangement by LCC.

Support for intellectual inquiry is our job, the mission of the library, not just to provide access to vendor products.

With visible collections, disciplinary and cultural knowledge is more likely to become known, seen, preserved and appreciated by current and future generations of students and scholars. Maintaining collections is an important part of our educational mission at any university, in any academic setting. Unfortunately, I see academic libraries as becoming one with large commercial content aggregators at this time, which does not bode well either for the future of academic librarianship or higher education. 

We must advocate for our spaces and our systems to be content-rich learning environments built around library standards and library-centric priorities like “resource use.” 

We must put the library back into librarianship, not acquire invisible and largely unknown content at many times list price year after year with no way to assemble these bags of content into a meaningful library experience.

To achieve this, we should consider what educational experiences we should be providing to users beyond what they can retrieve through a search box or on a publisher platforms which the library licenses.

Maintaining Library Collections are in the Interest of the Community. 

We must as a profession openly debate the ethics, limitations and impact of an acquisitions model done entirely through license agreements with vendors, whose content is made available in the library only in discovery or through links to the databases. We must have carefully considered business requirements of our own, with projects, goals and objectives flowing from it. We must ask:

  • Why spend millions of dollars on titles that are practically invisible inside of the library and on our own platforms? 
  • Why spend millions on titles that cannot be reassembled into an academic library collection? 

Collection management is not the same thing as, say, merely providing an efficient tool for providing access to third-party licensed content through a search app, or for retrieving some relevant resources in response to a query, should someone come along and have a need to know something. Collection management is not acquiring in an ad hoc manner, “just because” there are funds left over at the end of the year, or acquiring just when someone comes along and requests something, or purchasing stuff from a certain store to help the store stay afloat.

Collection management is an academically-rigorous, scholarly practice in libraries where librarians are charged with ethically and impartially selecting, managing, describing, organizing, arranging and presenting scholarly content for the benefit of scholars and a larger community.

Collection management often entails consulting bibliographic tools and review sources. Title selectors are also charged with knowing about the collection and the discipline, as well as the interests of the students and faculty to support them. They are charged with managing a budget conservatively, so that funds are always available to acquire when new books come out or when faculty request titles or resources to support either their classes or their own scholarly research interests.

“Resource management,” in the other hand, is a commercially-driven model in which our vendors, content aggregators and large publishers platforms, determine the academic library’s content, who is entitled to access it, and under what circumstances.

We pay an annual licensing fee to select and manage content for us and manage our (now their) metadata. Where we used to strive for vendor neutrality, now we acquire whole product lines (say Oxford) while excluding other potentially important sources of information (say Cambridge). Where collection management presupposes our goal is broad access to scholarly publications to further scholarship, knowledge and the public good, resource management reinforces the idea that the library’s mission is to provide access to commercial products to benefit only those with institutional affiliation, even though the library may in fact have an obligation to serve the public. 

Many libraries transitioned from collection management to resource management in the years leading up to and following COVID.

During that time, I left one library, once a comprehensive academic library which had become little more than an empty learning center, which was down to about three full-time librarians (a Director, Associate Director and me). When anyone left, so did their positions. IT took control of access services once SSO was implemented. I left there to work for another area library. Shortly before I started, however, that library went in the same direction as the library I had just left. 

After deciding it would go collectionless, the University of Houston Library System reorganized in 2023 as part of a new strategic plan and renamed its department responsible for technical services, metadata and acquisitions “Collections Strategies and Discovery Services,” putting collections back into the name and job functions of its librarians. It also put Web Projects Manager also under this department, another inventive and brilliant idea. We should be thinking of the online library as a platform and as a destination, not as a search portal on a static page controlled by another department.

The UH Library System also expresses commitment to life-long learning by allowing public access to its electronic resources, which is the correct approach. It describes itself online as a public research institution, which of course, it is. All libraries attached to State-supported institutions are “public” research libraries, to be open and fully accessible to the public, according to our State mandate.  The public academic library and libraries of clinal medical research which receive public funding exist for the public good and life-long learning. 

As academic and medical libraries are increasingly seen not to consist of collections of titles which support life-long learning and future scholarship, but of entitlement of packages licensed only for institutional access for students and faculty for that academic year, our former commitment to public access, to collections, and to resource sharing, has plummeted. 

As libraries have become vendor resources, corporate entities, they have also become more ambivalent about their obligations to serve the public or share resources with them. When I say the public, I mean everyone, including those no longer enrolled in school there. They can be alumni, professionals, researchers, people with doctorates, other students, visiting scholars, retired faculty. We at one time welcomed them, but now not so much. I believe this trend can be correlated with collectionlessness. As we feel we no longer own our experience, that it is no longer our creative product, we no longer feel entitled to share it. It isn’t ours to share. A collection was bibliography, knowledge, created by scholars for other scholars, and what belonged to humanity and not to a particular vendor. 

Like the differences in professional practice between resource management and collection management, these are deeply philosophical questions which strike at the very heart of the definition of professional librarianship today. 

For accreditation review, no one is asking:

  • How are you ensuring that you are offering students the best content?
  • How are you ensuring that students actually see what you are acquiring for them?
  • How do you collaborate with faculty on collection development? Describe your processes and workflows so faculty are involved.

Maybe they should be.

As we have moved further away from acquiring title-by-title as an ideal and actually managing library collections, the intellectual work which attracted many of us to the profession may no longer be part of the job. But my belief is that this lack of knowledge and lack of commitment to it is contributing to the library’s irrelevance and demise.

We should provide a unique experience that only the library can provide. Things have gotten weirder and weirder.

  • No one inside of the library may be expected to follow or keep up with the scholarly literature or publishing, a consequence of being only about the retrieval of resources on vendor platforms. 
  • Collections are now associated even by most of my colleagues with the print era or a kind of leisurely activity known as “browsing,” rather than functioning as an important form of scholarly information-gathering and learning in a college or university setting. 
  • There is often no association by decision-makers between the curriculum or quality of instruction at the school and the library’s collection.
  • For an academic library collection to be a “collection,” it must be arranged or organized as a collection to reflect the disciplines. Even if a university is maintaining collections in terms of acquisitions practices, collections are just “resources” without being able to be arranged so they can be experienced as a collection.
  • Arrangement is an important aspect of properly managing the user experience of intellectual and cultural objects in both libraries and museums. However, our e-resource discovery systems do not support arrangement of titles by classification.
  • Collaborative collection development, where we present new and forthcoming titles to all of the faculty and allow them to participate in the acquisitions process, is no longer standard practice, even though there are tools (like ALA Choice) to facilitate this. Through collaborative collection development, we kept faculty up to date on new titles in their field, not just new products
  • Even at the largest universities, there my be no acquisition of new resources in anticipation of use and need. This was always a hallmark of good libraries, that faculty could count on the library to have items in advance of need to keep them informed.
  • Even in the largest university libraries, there may be no thought of preserving items for the future. The lack of commitment to collections is a lack of commitment or ambivalence toward scholarship.
  • The IT Department may now be managing our authentication services and website for us, indirectly influencing access policies and leaving the online library able to communicate with users only in the most oblique ways. 
  • “Acquisitions” is also fully automated in many libraries, or as much as it can be, managed by vendors, outsourced. This arrangement helps publishers to better monetize their content, but leads to vendor bias and restricted access of content worthy of inclusion in a good library collection. 
  • Where we used to envision ourselves as positive “agents of change,” now no one even sees what we acquire. If they do, no one thinks it was placed their by anyone locally.
  • Where before we railed against being perceived as a study hall, many of us are talking about our “innovative workspaces,” a space which to be honest resembles any other building on campus with places to sit and study. Nothing of intellectual interest may meet the eye in these vacuous monuments to learning. 

As a profession, we have not fully realized, or really even begun to consider, the potential of newer web technologies to serve our own library-centric ends to create a more meaningful and immersive experience both in our spaces and online.

We must be committed to maintaining content-rich learning environments which are about disciplinary and cultural knowledge, not just passive “access to.” We must get beyond “discovery” and return to curated content online and in our physical spaces, even if these are presented virtually and with virtual fulfillment.

Our websites should be content-rich destinations, platforms, with calls for papers, publishing opportunities, and new books listings and faculty publications.

It should support browsing, curatorship and personalization. It should be continuously changing, along the first floor of the library. The back end of our systems should be integrated with collection management and collection development tools. It should notify us of superseded titles and new titles of interest to our community. It might recommend titles based on current usage. It should help us and our users to identify publishing trends to keep the university up to date.

The library should present opportunities for scholarly collaboration. It should also present users with academically-rigorous collections organized as collections for browsing.

We have also not considered much our power to negotiate library-friendly license agreements, or insisting upon library-centric metadata remain in the records of the ebooks we license, which could be used to create displays of new titles or titles on a certain topic.

I believe it is essential to comprehend the difference in the user experience between resource management/ discovery and collection management, and its implication or the future of libraries, the education of students, and the perpetuation of knowledge in society. We must hold tight to our ideal of collections.

Why Academic Libraries are fundamentally about Collections (even though they offer access to Resources).

This may be hard for some people to understand, but academic libraries are not fundamentally about “access to” books and resources. Academic libraries are not repositories, either.

Libraries are about access to authoritative collections of what other people, experts in the field and scholars, think good and important to know. Google cannot offer collections. ProQuest cannot offer collections. A commercial entity cannot, in good faith, offer collections. 

Library collections are academically-rigorous bodies of disciplinary and cultural knowledge made accessible to the scholarly community as a collection, a meaningful and intentional organization of knowledge consistently maintained over time. It is an intellectual construct of bibliographic content which is fundamental to academic librarianship and absolutely unique to us as an institution. It has often been thought to be the basis for the aesthetic and intellectual experience of a library.

Collections are a way of organizing and visualizing bibliographic information. Collections are, or were, an important part of or service to the academic community. In an academic library, the collection is maintained by scholars for scholars. A collections framework guarantees accountability, integrity and academic rigor.

A “resource management” model is not a scholarly model for the academic library. It is not an academic model. It is fundamentally a business model. 

It passes responsibility for title selection and inventory management to commercial vendors who profit from licensing content to libraries in bulk. But vendors do not license or maintain electronic collections. All they do is license and package aggregations of content. (They may call the bundles of content they license “electronic collections,” but there are no collection there.) To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t license content from vendors. That would be absurd. What I am saying is that we should be careful not abandon a collections framework and we need systems to do more than resource “discovery.”

Subscribed content cannot at this time be arranged or evaluated as a collection in e-resource discovery systems, which is a problem for those who are charged with the responsibility of managing electronic collections.

We cannot assemble all of the titles to which we subscribe from various sources into a coherent library collection.

This is a serious defect. We could, however, if the metadata which is supposed to be in the bibliographic record (LC Classification/class number, the 050 field) were there, but it isn’t there much these days. That field is regarded as optional because it would seem to serve no functional purpose in discovery systems. Someone at Ex Libris said, “No one is going to come along and search by classification, so why is this field needed?”

Collections arranged by LC Classification are the correct overarching framework and organizing principle for the whole of the academic library, just as a curriculum should be the foundation for instruction at the university. Emphasis on collections is not my idea, something I just came up with, but what is taught in library schools everywhere, even today, as an academically rigorous model. Serial titles and e-journals, along with other resources, are part of collections–journal titles all have call numbers–but in an academic library, “resources” cannot replace “collections” as a framework without negatively impacting the quality of library services. Such is my thought on the matter. 

Collection management is the difference between a professionally managed academic research library and a “learning resource center.” The experience of curated titles of the best bibliographic content, arranged according to the disciplines, is a uniquely and authentically academic library experience, a uniquely library product, where resource discovery is the experience of a search engine on an aggregation. A collection is what permits hierarchical browsing. Absent this field, there is no way to visually browse.

Without collections, what we offer is an invisible repository of searchable entitlements of dubious quality. It lacks “integrity.” There is no way to arrange all of the titles (I mean books, journals, ejournals, and ebooks) by classification, not even a report that can be generated on the backend; it isn’t just an Ex Libris issue, for OCLC’s WMS cannot do this either. A well-managed collection supports arrangement, browsing and intellectual inquiry, where discovery does not. Collections are objective and visible, ideally in the public or community eye, making a statement about what is relevant and important for educated people or those working in the discipline to know, arranged according to the priorities of the academic disciplines. 

There is a qualitative difference, aesthetically and intellectually, between offering remote access to random commercial scholarly resources through a search portal and providing access to visible, curated collections of titles maintained by experts in anticipation of use and need. 

We are not effective as a library being merely an invisible repository and a static website in predominantly empty spaces. 

We need digital library software which displays titles according our rules for categorization and arrangement, mapped to the topics and priorities of the disciplines. We must have software which fully supports the experience of curated collections online. 

I believe that librarianship as a practice is inseparable from bibliography, from the study of the published literature in a field of study or discipline, and knowledge, whether this is comprised of books or ebooks (scholarly monographs), documentaries, journals or ejournals (serial titles), peer-reviewed videos, systematic reviews, or anything else the discipline deems relevant.

It is about making this content visible, so that knowledge can become known.

It is our function as librarians to arrange and present it, and to know about publications and the discipline and to convey that to users. It is not sufficient merely to provide some tool or mechanism for passive access to random scholarly content, a “discovery tool,” but to actively encourage user engagement with what is thought best and important to know, to raise awareness, to turn people on to new things, to help scholars reach their potential, to support life-long learning, and to educate people through creating and maintaining content-rich learning environments.

Creating and maintaining content-rich learning environments should be goal of good library design.

The library should be an intellectual and cultural experience which invites exploration and independent learning. Our user interfaces and physical spaces, our organizational structures and workflows, should be designed to be a content-rich learning environment, a user experience which changes to reflect trends and publishing in real time. We should be about authoritative collections, the aesthetic and intellectual experience of our content arranged in context, not just providing passive access to subscribed resources.

Unfortunately, both titles and collections lack visibility in our digital and physical environments. By design, the library is now sunk from view.

Those who possess and MLIS degree know that libraries are defined as meaningful collections of titles which represent what is thought significant and good by those working in the disciplines, purposefully maintained, arranged and displayed for the scholarly community to experience. Ultimately, library collections—”libraries”—are an important form of scholarly communication about scholarly communication.

Not only is the collection gone, but now people are even wondering if our catalogs are obsolete,8 because most researchers prefer to go directly to the databases to perform research there, or else use Google Scholar. 

Many of the negative consequences of discovery which I write about below are not inevitable, a result of the digital revolution or the Internet, as people tend to think, nor even of discovery, but are really side effects of the the library’s over-reliance on e-resource discovery tools and vendor products to be the whole of the user experience of the academic research library. They are a result of the academic library’s commodification

I believe the academic library must move beyond discovery and return to creating content-rich learning environments which support: 

  • content curation
  • arrangement/browsing according to LCC
  • personalization
  • intellectual inquiry
  • independent learning
  • community engagement

I would go so far as to say that academic libraries which do not maintain academically-rigorous collections should not be able to pass accreditation review, because they are not functioning as academic libraries by ACRL standards. At least for now, libraries which have gone to a resources only approach are merely learning centers, and do not meet ALA ARCL guidelines for libraries in higher education.

It also seems to me that if taxpayer funding is being used to acquire resources, and to construct and fund new libraries at colleges and universities, there should be business requirements for what a library at a university is expected to be and to do beyond providing its own students with wi-fi, places to sit and access to some online resources. 

Altruistic objectives such as public access and life-long learning should be hard wired into our designs. Promoting resource use should be part of the design. We must have academic standards and educational and learning objectives of our own which conform to the best practices of what we are taught when we obtain an ALA-accredited master’s degree. Collection development is still a core component of that, as is resource sharing and life-long learning.

When acquisitions in the academic research library becomes just e-resource management and discovery of proprietary content, with no collection management or any commitment to collections, and with a minimal online presence controlled by a department outside of the library, it means not that the library is going “fully digital,” nor that the library is embracing the latest technology, but that the library is divesting itself of responsibility for maintaining academic library collections, that is, for knowing about titles, for keeping up with forthcoming titles, for promoting titles, for creating metadata which allows for broad access to titles and to display, and for collaborating with faculty and others on title selection to keep them up to date. The library is on autopilot. 

Academic library standards have traditionally governed acquisition (collection development) policies, description (cataloging), access (circulation policies) and display (arrangement and presentation) in academic library settings.

These standards also allow for resource sharing and system interoperability across libraries everywhere, so we could benchmark our holdings against peers and share resources with each other. Even today, despite so many academic libraries eliminating collections, ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education 9 still regards collections as a core principle for libraries in higher education:

Collections: Libraries provide access to collections sufficient in quality, depth, diversity, format, and currency to support the research and teaching missions of the institution.

This is not the same as access to discoverable resources, which is a separate principle:

Discovery: Libraries enable users to discover information in all formats through effective use of technology and organization of knowledge.

I think it is also interesting that ACRL even defines discovery though the lens of a collection, because with discovery tools, there is no “organization of knowledge.”

If the library collection is poor, imperceptible or nonexistent, it is likely that people will assume that the librarians who work there must not know much, regardless of their academic credentials or expertise. This hurts us and it research. If there is no perceptible collection, if what is on the shelves or online is completely random, disorganized, dated, or if no one is keeping up with scholarly publications in the field, why would anyone think of librarians as partners in the research process? Why would they think the librarians know anything at all?

You see, I believe the very future of libraries and librarianship rides on our capacity to maintain at least the illusion of authoritative collections in some very visible form, on content curatorship, titles represented in arrangements we call “collections,” even though most of my colleagues would now dismiss collections out of hand as being obsolete, relevant only to the print era. 

Collections can be in any format, but are what creates a sense of value and community around learning, education, scholarship and knowledge. Visible collections are what often stimulate intellectual inquiry in the first place. Making titles visible and putting them into their intellectual context, making them broadly accessible including for future scholars, should be an important part of what we do and what we offer in terms of the educational experience we provide to users. 

In truth, our acquisitions policies and practices, which used to be called “collection development” (not “resource management”—there are no academic library professional standards for resource management, just as there are no library standards for being a learning resource center) impacts everything we do as library professionals, and furthermore, it cannot be incisively separated from what we have traditionally called “public” services, including instruction and research services. The two are necessarily intertwined, if only because people will judge the librarians and the quality of the library by the quality of the collections they see, what is presented to them, what is selected and arranged by the library for their use, not necessarily what users might “discover for themselves” through a search box, especially one which is inferior to what can be obtained by going directly to the vendors’ own websites. 

Scholars know, or soon discover for themselves, that search always works better on the vendor-side (vendor-side searching can often leverage full-text and often a more specialized discipline-specific thesaurus), so this model of the library as being just a metasearch tool on subscribed databases (discovery) holds little value for researchers unless they have no idea where to look for scholarly content. In the health sciences, systematic reviews are always done on the vendor side, and scholars are trained to go to the source for doing comprehensive literature reviews. The library can only be valuable through as alternate experience of a library collection online, the experience of a digital library, emphasizing titles in relationship to the discipline, emphasizing knowledge, which is something our vendors cannot do because it requires library-centric metadata and vendor neutrality to achieve. 

Collections are our industry standard, what our profession teaches are what make us good, and what academic librarianship was always about. All of our standards in the field revolve around collection management, collection development and collection display, not providing users with access to some “relevant subscription resources.” That is not a measure of academic excellence.

We have no academic standard for providing relevant resources, only for authoritative collections of titles. Even if we acquire in big deals, which I think is inevitable, we still should not fundamentally be “about” vendor products, but about important publications and sources contained in the packages. Our entitlements must be capable of being displayed as a collection of titles, according to our industry standards. It isn’t that hard to accomplish with good metadata and better designed websites.

Our websites should be content-driven, authoritative and dynamic, not designed to be static entities. 

Academic library collections are, or were, the closest approximation to “knowledge” and “culture” which exist in some tangible form. I do not mean just “in the library” or “on a college campus,” but all around the world. 

Collections, especially when aggregated, represent a kind of collective memory.

However, the widespread elimination of collections in academic libraries everywhere in 2020 represents a kind of cultural and intellectual genocide of historic proportion, as academic libraries everywhere become hollowed-out “learning centers” whose ambiguous educational outcomes cannot be differentiated from that of merely a search engine and a vacuous student center. It is cultivating ignorance and intellectual decline in higher education. The curriculum has lost its bearings and is founded in nothing. Without a collection organized by discipline, there is no discipline, no there there, just various topics for searching up scholarly content. Instruction is not grounded in cultural and disciplinary knowledge.

At many academic libraries, there are no collections, not even digital ones, only searchable aggregations of electronic entitlements. A scholarly article presents only a single significant finding. It does not establish fact. A few articles still do not establish fact. The process through which scholarly articles, all of the discrete findings of research, are compiled and synthesized into fact often (but not always, because there are systematic reviews which are articles) involves publication quite often in a book. Books in collections often convey accepted or received opinion better than articles, the knowledge that is already known, where articles are trying to advance the field. Once books, ebooks, and collections of titles are no longer visible, we have a problem in education and the preservation of knowledge. It cannot all be articles trying to advance the field.

Many State-supported college and university libraries, such as they are, have become entirely commercially-driven and commodified. This approach is encouraged by the design of our discovery systems. The quality and presentation of this content, this searchable aggregation of aggregations alone, is not necessarily what is best for users. Without the framework of collections, the ability to assess the quality of our own content is limited. We do not even know what we have. Our ability to present this content to users in ways that are meaningful to them is also significantly limited.

Collectionlessness represents a decline in educational aspirations and attainment, in literacy, in libraries, in our commitment to “life-long learning,” in our ability to stimulate inquiry, and in even our belief in the capacity or even the goal of creating educated people. In these systems, titles are invisible and therefore unimportant to know. 

Yet the impact of adopting a commercially-driven model is hardly discussed in critical terms in academic library literature; perhaps everyone is too afraid of going against the grain, of limiting our own already limited employment opportunities. The trend is also often unrecognized or underreported, as libraries will often use “collections” and “resources” interchangeably to conceal their collectionless status when it suits them to do so. I think we should have healthy discussion and survey users (and non-users) about the sort of library they want to have.

If we feel that collections are important, we should try to persuade library system developers to fully support them.

We say “our collection is online,” even knowing full well that there is no collection there. If it is discussed, the conversation is limited to the advantages of efficiency, convenience and access to so much through a single search interface. There are no attempts to study the impact on actual or perceived quality of library services from the perspective of those working in the disciplines, its impact on learning, and how this passive model of acquiring and providing access to random digitized content has impacted learning in the disciplines we support.

How have our more recent acquisitions patterns and workflows, largely determined by content aggregators (including our own system vendor, who is the largest academic content aggregator), impacted learning on our campuses? 

I am not the only one who wants to know this, apparently, as ITHAKA, “a not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record,” conducted a study a few years ago to discern how library acquisitions patterns affected use.10 It is time we revisited this on a larger scale, perhaps through ACRL surveys.

In light of these recent changes in libraries to eliminate collections, many might think my conception of a library is old-fashioned. But from my perspective, I see it as quite futuristic and visionary

I think we can still be about the unique content-rich learning environment of a library which is meaningfully connected with the past, present and the future, and which connects people to each other. This does not mean we return to print, but on the contrary, we might seek to expand our platforms to utilize technology to better achieve our own library-centric purposes.

One example of this might be using interactive projection technology to create a more immersive experience of what is online; it might facilitate community engagement, creating new displays or titles and publications in the form of a new sort of gallery where people can communally browse a copy, watch a podcast or video about it, and download items (related books, articles or papers) to check them out (I call this “virtual fulfillment”).

We also can create virtual, browsable collections, even virtual racks of scholarly titles. If our system supported browsable collections, all that is needed is a smooth wall: current journals and titles in the disciplines can be interactively displayed in the department hallways, tap to browse. There may be a way to transform a room into a virtual stacks of the largest university library, or many libraries put together, because we all share the same metadata.

We should support content curation, even guest curation by experts.

We should support browsing in the library and online. We must be about marketing, not just vendor products but new and exciting titles. We should be about community, showcasing what faculty are researching, and promoting scholarly production by listing calls for papers and forthcoming titles on our websites.

Indeed, there are many things we can do to build intellectually stimulating environments in the library space and online to convey a sense of community value around titles, to support publishing and nourish a scholarly community (here, I mean students as well). The ideal for all libraries should be creating content-rich learning environments, not just providing passive “access to” through a search engine or empty rooms to rent by the hour. 

Becoming just a search portal, vendor commodity, with our catalog becoming an inventory system of commercial database products, certainly offers many wonderful conveniences and efficiencies of scale to librarians and their users, but it is not in our best interest to have no mechanism for putting it all together to see, and for users to see what we actually have and don’t have, presented as a coherent whole. We need collection visualization capability and better support for collection management and display in our systems.

We should at least be able to present academic titles to users as any good library should, so they are is visible, browsable and authoritative within their defined scopes.

Aggregations of Resources vs. Authoritative Collections:
What is the Difference? 

I believe it is not in our best interest, nor our students’ best interest, that we become just a meta-search engine, a vendor inventory system, an invisible repository of proprietary content, especially as we lack a store front of our own through which to promote user engagement with titles, or through which to offer the experience of curated collections, things considered good and important for educated people to know, or interesting things our users might want to know about.

Collection management, the hallmark of a professional librarian and the scholar, places emphasis on titles in collections, where resource management consists only entitlements, vendor products on vendor platforms, which can be retrieved by means of a central discovery index of metadata linked to documents hosted on commercial platforms. Discovery searches against this index of vendor-supplied metadata, not the contents of the articles and documents.

Different discovery engines will produce very  different results.

To do comprehensive research, we all know that researchers bypass our discovery interfaces to search the databases directly. Therefore, librarians are even speculating that the library catalog is obsolete.11 If we are acquiring in a fashion where we indiscriminately take all content that aggregators and publishers offer in bundled packages, we could still, even maintaining model, offer the experience of curated collections online, a meaningful illusion, provided that at least some of the content we buy in bulk is of sufficient quality, good metadata is there, and the system is designed to leverage the 050 field.

One of the most important technical requirements to being able to create browsable collections online is good metadata, and good metadata is being eliminated in discovery records for ebooks we receive from vendors because it would seem to serve no purpose in our systems. Library metadata, LCSH and LCC in the 050, are now being codified out of existence by vendors,6 who do not want to provide it because it is costly to produce (but not that costly; many retired catalogers would jump at the opportunity). The only purpose for the metadata they currently provide to libraries is to drive sales to libraries and researchers to their own websites for search. Making the user experience better on the library side is not their concern.

Academic library collections have traditionally been mapped to the disciplines by a classification scheme, Library of Congress Classification, LCC for short, developed and maintained by librarians who possess a high level of subject expertise. This topical arrangement of titles, which many in my profession think obsolete, is not needed just to shelve books, even though this is what many seem to think (“Why do ebooks need call numbers? They don’t live on a shelf!”). Where did y’all go to library school? Classification is needed for display and contextualization, for collection management. Display by classification is an important access point which was previously satisfied by going to the shelves. We all know that academic titles are only valid or authoritative only in a certain context, and the different disciplines are going to approach problems from different perspectives. What holds water in one field or specialty doesn’t necessarily in another. The broader context for a work often provides important interpretive value.

This organization or arrangement by classification is fundamental to the aesthetic and intellectual experience of the academic library, its intellectual appeal to scholars. A title’s location within this scheme is important for ensuring the visibility and contextualization of resources and for assessing a title’s relevance within a broader scholarly conversation. Context is important for interpretation and valuation. Like the arrangement of paint swatches in a store display, titles in library collections must be able to form intelligible displays of resources in an academic context for maximum intellectual and aesthetic appeal. We don’t want to be a repository, a bucket of content. The library is better than that.

Classification is unique to libraries, as opposed to commercial entities, aggregators and publishers, since publishers and booksellers use different metadata (ONIX) than we do, far less granular and nuanced. LCC reflects the structure, shared assumptions and priorities of researchers in the academic disciplines. It is not a perfect system, but this arrangement makes visible what would otherwise be imperceptible: how the discipline is organized into fields and specialties and topics, and the relevance of scholarly publications to the discipline. LCC branches off into related areas forming new branches of the ever evolving tree of knowledge. For example, Computer Science is an offshoot of Mathematics, and over the years this bough has grown new branches and buds of its own.

This tree-like conceptual scheme in which academic titles are pinned to a location relative to other items in a collection, until recently has been consistent across all academic libraries everywhere, and helped scholars to visualize their discipline and identify the gaps in their knowledge, and to a great extent, defines the discipline’s outer limits.

The organization of resources by classification also helps, or previously helped, librarians to identify gaps and superseded titles, so the collection can be managed in an ideal state in anticipation of use and need. It is fundamental to library professional practice, so much so that to me, a library cannot really be said to exist without a collection, even if it is online. A collection facilitates the flow of ideas, allowing new things to be seen against a backdrop of the old, and therefore aids in the transmission of knowledge. It preserves knowledge in society. It makes it visible to all as knowledge, what experts believe significant and good to know. It creates community based on common interests. It lets users easily discern the extent of our collections, and to quickly assess what we have and do not have to know if this library is useful to them, its strengths and weaknesses.

If it is good, the collection affords users with the ability to know what they do not know so they might grow and develop new interests, and is therefore invaluable to the education of the next generation of students and scholars. This framework increases the visibility of scholarly resources, therefore increases the value of scholarly resources, and maximizes the library’s value as partner in the scholarly process. If the collection is good, it represents coherent bodies of knowledge with well-defined scopes. At a university, the transmission of knowledge and ideas is a mission-critical need, which is why collections are important. People come to the university seeking knowledge, not information, and the library’s design should reflect this larger and more important purpose of the academic library.

Relevance-ranking, what a search engine provides, isn’t necessarily an ideal or efficient tool for learners and researchers to acquire broad knowledge of a field, practice or subject area. A search engine is also not an optimal tool for stimulating inquiry or creating user engagement. As a search engine alone, the academic library lacks visibility, organization, integrity, credibility, agency and sense of purpose. Through a search engine, we lack visible collections. A search engine does not signify care, stewardship or community. These are all attributes of a good library collection and, incidentally, of a good library experience.

E-resource discovery is a limited framework upon which to base the totality of the user experience of a university library. 

Kansas State University Hale Library website: The 55,000 square foot new academic library appears to be little more than just a search interface online and a study hall. This is the template for most all academic libraries today. Open concept, planked rubberized carpet, curved furniture, LED light strips–and no emphasis at all on publications, resource use or literacy–is typical for academic libraries designed ca 2020. How effective is this model for encouraging learning at an institution of higher education? How does it stimulate intellectual inquiry?

This critique of discovery interfaces and defense of collections is founded in a genuine love for scholarship, and has nothing to do with any sort of emotional attachment to print formats or technophobia or resistance to change, as is sometimes implied by those  who celebrate the elimination of collections as progress in librarianship,13 almost always by former Serials Librarians, or those without academic credentials beyond the MLIS; but rather a very rational, reasonable intellectual attachment to collections as the most appropriate basis for an academic library, just as it is for a curriculum of study at a university. 

It is also being circumspect about the very real dangers of allowing vendors such wide latitude to determine acquisitions patterns and access policies inside the academic library.

There is a huge difference, both professionally and intellectually, between the ideals and objectives of library “collection management,” being driven by scholarly interests, and those of “e-resource/discovery management,” which allows vendors to determine our acquisitions and access policies.

I think we must reflect on what is being lost in our rush to embrace collectionlessness, the tendency to confuse it with technological progress rather than commodification, and our concomitant devolution into ambiguous entities called “library learning centers.” This transition from academic library collection management to managing discoverable digital content interjects lack of academic rigor into academic librarianship which was never previously thought acceptable, and not so much “technological innovation” as is often stated.

The technology of discovery is quite old, in fact, having been around in libraries for the last fifteen years, where is sat side-by-side with the OPAC. At first it was thought suitable only as a first dive in to the scholarly literature for those who had no idea where to look. It was not considered to be a serious research tool. 

When academic librarians embraced it, when we put it front and center in the academic library making it the locus of the user experience, it was because our system vendor, ProQuest Ex Libris, dubbed it the “next gen” catalog, and because many libraries had already abandoned print collections. 

After years of lukewarm reception in academic libraries, discovery was heralded as our “next gen catalog” around 2012, when Ex Libris’ Alma was launched with Primo as its OPAC. It reminded me very much of how Windows came bundled with Internet Explorer after IE had been a stand alone search engine. Primo and other discovery tools had been available as rather inexpensive stand-alone applications for years. Many libraries offered more than one (my institution, Texas Southern University, offered both ProQuest’s Primo and EBSCO’s EDS, in part because EBSCO content was invisible in Primo, and the ProQuest Voyager catalog was not visible, or capable of being harvested, by EDS). Librarians wrote papers comparing the different discovery tools, as there were quite a few on the market at one time: Summon, ViewFind, Groxis, Encore, Primo and EDS. They were convenient metasearch engines which co-existed with the physical and online collection of things deliberately purchased by the library.

Rather than being something that was regarded as a convenience, discovery was suddenly seen as an indispensable solution to an urgent problem of how the library could appear to go fully digital. I say appear, because the research databases had already been availably online for many, many years; and discovery had been available; only tighter integration with our systems on the backend allowed vendors to seamlessly feed the invisible repository with their own content, KBART files for articles and MARC discovery records for books, so absolutely no cataloging or librarian intervention was required for this apparatus to work. The only problem is that it didn’t provide much additional scholarly value for those who knew where to look for articles. 

Tight integration through APIs also allowed for a boxes to be checked and all of the records of a package or on a vendor platform could become instantly available in discovery. Vendors now update, add and delete items to our catalog as they see fit without this impacting our license agreements at all. It is a job that runs on the back end, so many titles added, so many titles deleted, like shells rolling up and back along a shore. With this system, we license all that they have in inventory rather than cherry-picking or worrying about title selection. Libraries with deep pockets, whose objective was to be comprehensive, benefitted from “indexed based web-scale e-resource discovery systems,” also known as Library Service Platforms or LSPs. It meant that libraries could acquire in big deals, tens of thousands of items at a time, and catalog nothing, making all entitlements accessible through a singular search box.

We dusted our shoulders making this big bonanza of content available for anyone who wanted to come along and search for something. This was how we supported research (yes, we do do instruction as well), through an invisible repository and the black box of discovery. One librarian could easily manage even a very large university library through this automated process of acquisition, acquiring through license agreements and still have much time left in the day for other things. LSPs were adopted by large libraries at first, libraries with budgets in the tens of millions who were planning to acquire everything anyway. 

For very small college libraries, there were also advantages to discovery. For those colleges who had almost no acquisitions budget, and/or hadn’t acquired anything in years but some TexShare database packages, discovery could cleverly conceal that fact, and leverage aggregator content more effectively to make the “collection” seem current, even though much of it, under our former Collection Development guidelines, would never have been acquired. 

Whether the library was large or small, all of us in the academic library world moved in this direction and became a meta search engine.

Interestingly, public and school libraries did not embrace this model, because it wasn’t thought effective at encouraging user engagement and promoting literacy. At first, there was a movement in school libraries to become “media centers,” and around that time, many school librarians were let go. The media center could be just a centrally managed website with links to subscribed content, some grade appropriate databases and ebook packages, and a search box.

This model is no longer thought acceptable for the school library and does not meet State library standards anywhere. Why should higher education be any different?

I have also seen the consequences of becoming just databases and aggregator packages, the disconnect and disengagement it creates inside the library and divide from the rest of campus. No one knows what we have or if we are acquiring anything, and it doesn’t inspire learning in the same way as collections do, or did.

“Collection Management” has nothing to do with print formats, but with acquisition patterns, display, arrangement and emphasis on quality over quantity: it is about managing titles as intellectual and cultural objects, not just managing commercial packages. There are electronic collections and hybrid collections.

I believe, and the library profession teaches, that collections are a business requirement for the library to function effectively as a library, a cornerstone of the MLIS, and without them we are at a profound disadvantage. I think it would benefit the library to put some critical distance between us and vendors; even if for not reason of quality, discovery alone is not an effective educational strategy for libraries. I’m not suggesting that we not offer discovery, but at minimum, the library needs to be a both /and, not discoverable resources without a collections approach:

  • “Resource discovery” alone does not create a sufficiently stimulating learning environment to serve as the sole basis for any college or university library.
  • This model does not create additional scholarly or interpretive value.
  • A discovery tool cannot represent a curriculum or a discipline as could a collection mapped to the disciplines.
  • It cannot stimulate inquiry, the first stage of research.
  • It is not comprehensive or competitive: search will always work better on the vendor side, where full-text is indexed. Through discovery, our capacity for display and encouraging user engagement are compromised. 
  • We have always been taught that collections are the cornerstone of the library profession and even now, no one graduates with an ALA-accredited degree without a semester of “Collection Management.”

Collections, we have always been taught, are fundamental for good stewardship and budgetary control for all kinds of libraries.

Academic libraries are not immune from this standard “just because” they support research, or “just because” they are online, or because they primarily offer serial content. The overarching framework, the intellectual framework, the essence of the experience we provide, must be that of visible titles in collections, and not that of invisible resources or inventory residing in commercial platforms.

Collections are deliberate, current, curated, visible, intentional and authoritative, what is thought best for students and scholars (a community of educated people) by educated people, and presented as a whole, arranged according to the priorities of disciplines, where e-resource discovery consists mainly, if not entirely, of searchable, passively acquired and often second-tier aggregations of content scholarly whose selection is determined by license agreements to corporate database products so that the latter can be effectively monetized by vendors, and often with some small and diminishing percent of items added in individually by librarians; but it is not clear to anyone on the outside that anything at all has been added by a librarian, even if the content may have been considerably enhanced over what was there before. No one knows that, since no one knows what was there before. We can add thousands of titles to a vendor platform and no one will know we did that. Because collections are invisible in discovery, our work is invisible and what we acquire is largely invisible. 

While library standards treat digital content the same as print for cataloging purposes, the titles we routinely acquire in aggregate through our e-resource discovery systems and efficient workflows are not being arranged and displayed according to academic library standards for collections.

I’ve heard many explanations for why this is the case now, but there is really no good reason from a philosophical, intellectual or library standpoint to abandon collections and its incumbent metadata just because or if the library has chosen to abandon print formats. The two are actually unrelated phenomena; yes, print titles were always arranged as collections, but digital resources can be arranged this way as well. Library standards for bibliographic description treat an ebook like a book, and journal titles have LCC numbers. Ebooks and ejournals are “titles.” The rules are exactly the same, and LCC is an “access point.”

The underlying information architecture of the library are visible titles arranged by LCC, not a just a searchable catalog. It is the experience of the whole, the arrangement, the display, which is exciting and attractive. 

Collections consist of intellectual and cultural objects, of titles (really, created works bearing titles, so in the profession we call them “titles”), deliberately selected, preserved and displayed for a community, presented as a whole. Librarianship is “about” titles in collections as they reflect and form knowledge in the academic disciplines. Titles can be print, digital, or a mix of both; they can be text, they can be video, they can be art, they can be music, but titles in collections need library metadata and library systems which can leverage this metadata in order to be displayed as library collections. 

Renaming library departments and eliminating the workflows which formerly supported collections, as many academic libraries have done, has major implications for the future of academic libraries. “Collection” and “Collection Management” signify an academically rigorous approach to acquisitions, and a uniquely library professional practice, where “Resource Management / Discovery” signals an abandonment of professional responsibility for library content except through the most passive and indirect means possible.

“Libraries” which only manage “resources” are not actively managing collections of titles in any format and are not technically libraries, but “learning resource centers.” Resource Management / Discovery normalizes automated workflows for acquisitions where librarians with subject expertise are no longer responsible for selecting titles, for knowing about them, for keeping up with new publications, for knowing about the collection or for collaborating with faculty on new acquisitions (not just so they might tell us what to buy, but so that they remain informed and knowledgeable throughout their careers). Now, we acquire whole product lines geared for the academic market and represent that

The shift from collection management to resource management also signals that “titles” and metadata for them are no longer even our concern. We appear to make no intellectual investment in them. It is the very antithesis of what was recommended as best practice in the academic library in previous years, where we were expected to be scholars who knew about publishing and publications.

The system encourages a kind of “agnosticism,” Greek for not knowing, which has an uglier sounding Latinate synonym. It also creates systemic barriers to access in ways I will describe, and is already occurring throughout the campus and beyond. The shift from titles in collections to entitlements in vendor packages, being a vendor-driven commodity, changes the very culture at a university, limits access to the larger community, undermines the library’s former commitment to life-long learning, undermines intellectual inquiry and respect for learning. It diminishes the role of the library in the community. It fails to encourage literacy. The academic library should not allow itself to become just a proprietary search engine on proprietary content, a vendor proxy, which to a large extent, it already has. 

From what I have seen at academic library conferences, we are winding around “e-resource discovery” like a kite wrapping itself around a pole, limiting the conversation always to this singular vendor solution (a commercial search engine on aggregated commercial content) as the exclusive modality through which user engagement occurs, without considering other user interfaces and alternatives which could allow for greater user engagement. Everything in library technical services now pivots around discovery as if all we are and can ever hope to be in the future is a content aggregator and a search engine. 

It would appear that the whole of the academic library has been remade in the image of our system vendor, a content aggregator (ProQuest Ex Libris), perhaps so we can all become “ex libris” in a few years (yes, this is a pun, but like all good puns, there is truth in it). I’m not saying that OCLC WMS is any better than ProQuest Ex Libris—I have used WMS and Alma/Primo both, and they are similar—but I do trust OCLC, a nonprofit cooperative organization of member libraries, to move in a direction that is aligned with the ideals of academic librarianship and the public interest, less aligned with the business needs of large publishers and aggregators to maximize profit from the sale of their content to academic libraries. Of course, there can be a happy medium, a balance, between resource discovery and collections.

Deep down, I just want a better user interface, one which supports content curation and a collections approach, one which supports education and awareness and literacy, with some personalization along with it. I want to see my collections as a collection. At minimum, scholars should be able to visit a university library website to learn about new and significant titles have been published in their fields.

The whole intellectual framework which was once the backbone of the academic library, which served as the basis for community and integrity and knowledge, is now gone from many academic libraries. There is no striving for vendor neutrality, no evaluation of titles based on merit, hardly any collection development activity going on, and no collaboration with faculty on new acquisitions, which also makes it hard to promote our resources and our services.

The detrimental consequences of this acquisitions strategy are felt more in mid-sized and smaller libraries who cannot take advantage of economies of scale; they cannot license everything as large universities can, but must choose between this or that vendor package, allowing the vendor to supply content.

Increasingly, content comes in and out of our inventories based not on our needs or the needs of our community, on what is best or good for users, but on the business needs of our vendors to maximize their own profit. Premium content is often stripped out of aggregator packages, for example, so that publishers can try to get more money for them while they are in demand. Selecting this or that title to license, each with different access policies and terms of use, each with different lifecycles, creates management challenges because our systems are not designed for managing titles. 

In these packages of academic content, literary criticism is always abundant (except by more important scholars), but literature is always missing. Books on Freudianism, yes, but not books by Freud. There is no full-text of 1984, The Jungle, or anything else students might actually read or be assigned to read in English. If the library just subscribes to aggregator content, important titles simply aren’t there in the Humanities and Social Sciences. We license scholarly “content,” not good collections.

Very little of the scholarship latter half of the 20th century is represented in vendor packages. There is no visibility or organization to any of the content we acquire. It is all invisible, in an invisible repository.

It is almost as if we have acquired millions of dollars in assets sitting in a windowless warehouse, but no store front to display any of it. Intellectual works greatly benefit from contextualization in order to enhance appreciation and understanding, and this should be the objective of the new library and new library interfaces. By themselves, academic titles are fairly trivial; only in an academic context of being mapped to the disciplines is their significance fully understood.

What we are left with is random, often short-lived, vendor-supplied, vendor-managed, potentially discoverable content licensed in aggregate year after year, with packages often omitting what is current or in demand, with poor metadata no longer in our control (searches are performed against vendor supplied metadata, not full-text), with much of the content never seen by anyone, and incapable of being professionally evaluated by methods recommended by library best practices for good collection management.

And we do not really need to know anything anymore to manage electronic resources. Indeed, since we got rid of academics, one person, a technician, an admin, can easily manage the whole of the academic library, or what remains of it. It is a library which doesn’t need librarians except to handle an occasional access problem or generate an occasional LibGuide. That is a dirty little secret.

Once the discovery system is set up, one can pretty much forget about it, apart from paying the invoices each year. 

Much of what is acquired this way would never have otherwise been acquired by the academic library (this is often touted as a great benefit of the system), and certainly not many times over and year after year as we do, often licensing the same title in five or six or nine different packages from the same vendor, like some kind of elaborate shell game. One institution I worked for asked me to conceal the number of service links for each popular resource, so as not to confuse users; or lest people wonder why the library had thought to acquire an item so many times over on different platforms. But what might have once been a source of embarrassment or wasteful spending is now an acceptable duplication in digital environments, which no doubt helps the library operate at maximum efficiency and helps vendors to better monetize their content more effectively.

Wasteful spending is of far less concern to me than that the good stuff, the things the library should have, the things people earning academic degrees should know about, are incapable of being seen and experienced by users because of the limitations of our user interfaces. That isn’t good for education or our educational mission.

It is up to users, those who come to the university seeking an education, to come along and simply “discover” knowledge for themselves, which is often very difficult for uneducated people to do. They cannot as easily guess at what is in the repository. They do not know the terminology.

They do not know what to search for to become educated people.

I was heartened to learn that the University of Houston Library System last year (2022) decided to recommit to collections, renaming the department responsible for acquisitions not Resource Management, but Collections Strategy and Discovery Services. They put collections back into the name, which means a lot to me as an academic librarian. 

We all know that through e-resource discovery, our users soon discover that their search experience is superior on the vendor-side of our operations. And why shouldn’t it be? I’m in JSTOR at least once week. Over there, you can search full-text, where in discovery it is merely the shadow in Plato’s cave: an index-based search of often poor vendor-supplied metadata, whatever they have thought to give us for a discovery record. It is going to get worse, with the Library of Congress excluding ebooks from its CIP program. The quality of the metadata we receive from vendors is not even written into our license agreements with them. With the new arrangement, we must take whatever records they give us, and if it is unsatisfactory, our only recourse is to file tickets with our system vendor (this is what Ex Libris advised). Of course, we can always suppress that record in discovery and create a local record. But Ex Libris said that catalogers would no longer be needed (as they insisted to customers that OCLC would not be needed). They could be freed up to do more important things. Who is going to file tickets explaining that the metadata for this or that title or from this or that vendor doesn’t meet library standards for cataloging records?

And then, I think we can all appreciate that no one wants to read The New York Times in a Gale database, or the Harvard Business Review in EBSCO’s business database. While this is not a problem with discovery per se, but with aggregators; but it is with the mentality of “access to,” and with the loss of appeal which comes from ourselves being merely a content aggregator of content aggregators, rather than concerning ourselves first and foremost with the user experience of quality collections and how the library actually supports and might support intellectual inquiry in the first place.

And why should a search engine which is capable of determining that there are 3,300+ relevant items dole out just a few results out at a time? Learning to filter is not the answer, because maybe I don’t want to, or it takes domain knowledge I lack to be able to filter effectively; or I do not wish to introduce so many semantic variables into my query. It would help “to see” what is in the repository so I can fish it out, or know if I am fishing in the wrong hole or with the wrong bait. Regardless of the reasons why, the proof is in the pudding. Our users do not like their experience of discovery. They do directly to the databases to conduct research.

Why then have librarians made “this” search engine, this singular solution, the centerpiece of the modern academic library experience?

Why are we so eager merely to be customer support agents for vendor products?

And, most importantly, what can be done about it? I believe:

  • Users want to be shown good things, things they might like, things that are new. That should be a very important part of our service model and mission.
  • To be effective, we must make collections visible again, even if only virtually. We must have at least a store front or gallery. Users want and value a curated experience, especially in this digital age. Curation literally means “cared for.” Collections reflect the shared assumptions of a discipline as to what is good, significant and authoritative, placed into a logical arrangement where items can be seen, assessed and known by a larger public. 
  • We should reject the conception of an academic library as little more than a vendor-fed black box of subscription digital content.

These products or packages of aggregated content are not actual library collections, although vendors may call them “collections” in their marketing collateral and documentation. People with subject expertise can often discern there isn’t a library collection there. Why not insist on the design of the online academic library around library professional standards for acquisition and good metadata for collections, instead of abandoning content and letting ourselves go?

We are now vendor-fed repositories, a far cry from being agents of change.

The Limits of Discovery for Searching a Collection.

One of the biggest reasons for underutilization of search tools—any sort of search box on any website—is the fact that people do not know what they do not know in order to discover items of potential interest or value to them, especially very new things.

Good sites educate users, show them things, at least “What’s new.” Why shouldn’t we at least expect that of the library website? 

Not only do people not know what they do not know, but more importantly, people often do not care to know unless they see that others who know, care. Caring is the essence of “curation.” 

It’s true, people are more likely to engage with and care about what has been recommended by someone else. They are more likely to find interesting what others find interesting. We smile when others smile. A search box which allows users to retrieve relevant content does not convey “care” by anyone at their institution, even if we do care. The UI is impersonal; there appears to be no intellectual investment made by anyone in it. It is an automated feed into an invisible repository where stuff sits, invisibly, awaiting discovery by someone. This is a very different experience, in terms of ascribed value, from the experience of a curated library collection, which implies value and compels users to expect good things are there now and will be there in the future. 

Interestingly, e-commerce sites do not just offer search boxes to customers. They often offer “personalization.” Even Spotify offers playlists. Typically, e-commerce sites places items on the landing page to suggest topics and subjects or items the user might like. They seek to create a sense of value and to stimulate demand. Certain sites I routinely visit know my preferences, the things I might like. They show me, they stimulate my desire, they engage me. Sometimes I need to tell them what I like, other times they can predict it based on past behavior. Sometimes, they place call outs in the corner telling me how others are engaging with the site in real time. Many platforms try to create a sense of community. If ebooks had call numbers, a faculty member might be able to create his own private virtual “library” and share it with a class. 

The library could do these things too, evolving into more sophisticated marketing platform for digital content than just a search portal embedded in a CMS. 

More importantly, however, ecommerce sites also organize their merchandise into hierarchical categories so items can be visually browsedAnd that’s also one of the best things about a good library, a traditional library, as users know, if it is designed and managed correctly. If it is good, it impresses on users what they do not know so they can grow in their knowledge and awareness. The context in which an item appears and the organization of content provides additional interpretive value.

Our newer systems do not encourage browsing (a reliable framework for visual navigation). They do not stimulate intellectual inquiry or place emphasis on titles, which is just plain weird if you think about it. We are libraries, after all. Our standards are designed for browsing, for visual navigation, but our systems aren’t. 

How is it that academic libraries no longer even support browsing?  

Despite our having two very well-developed classification schemes (Library of Congress Classification and Dewey Decimal), the library user interface which we in the academic library field have almost all universally embraced is merely “a search box.”  

Some librarians, probably most, are perfectly fine with this arrangement that we have made with our vendors, mainly aggregators and publishing platforms, with quite a few believing collections to be obsolete in this digital age anyway.13 The consensus, at least among Serials Librarians, now seems to be that search, or “access to” vendor product (“resources”) via a discovery layer is all we need to provide. A vendor feed.

I would not call an e-resource discovery platform a “digital library,” no matter how much scholarly content can be found through them. It is a search engine fed by vendor entitlements and records of some historic print collections the library may still possess. Even if there is a “collection” in there, meaning, someone or people are charged with the responsibility of acquiring the best content in anticipation of use and need, and strategically acquiring content, this isn’t evident to anyone. What is in our repository cannot assemble itself as a collection for display purposes. There is no arrangement, no organization of knowledge. The very idea of a collection, a coherent whole, is undermined by the design of our discovery layer.

Increasingly, I must turn to sources outside of the academic library just to keep up with my own academic interests, because the library has become undependable and less useful to me as a faculty member in the Humanities. I cannot see what they have, new things I might not know about or think to search for, and I do not have much confidence that anyone in the library is keeping up with it since they only seem to subscribe to aggregator packages. This was not the case with academic libraries years ago.

Faculty and graduate students depend on the library to keep up and help them keep up, but this model of passive acquisition through big deals and passive discovery does little to encourage engagement and create educated people. 

Almost all academic libraries are limited to this diminished user experience of a search engine on vendor entitlements, when the academic library at a major university with a budget in the tens of millions could and should be so much more interesting and intentional. It pains me to see the extreme commodification of the academic library masquerading as some kind of technological progress or something innovative simply because it is efficient, but without any concern over whether it is actually good.

Some librarians might make the case that we lack effective digital library software for collection management and display, which, when last I checked, is still a chief function or business requirement of libraries to be libraries. This is something I think system vendors should take up.

Why be limited to being an “e-resource discovery tool,” rather than standing firm and saying what we all know, that the library is fundamentally about the experience of collections, broad access, and life-long learning, and not a handful of vendor products each of which presumes to dictate to the library to their terms of access and use? 

I believe it would be relatively easy to design such an interface using the 050 of the MARC bibliographic record, but library vendors and publishers are increasingly abandoning this field, treating it as “optional” metadata, and seeking to forge and codify their own metadata standard for ebooks.6 This library-centric metadata seems to them to serve no functional purpose in discovery systems, and so it is being phased out by them. 

Scholars are not going to discovery on a regular basis to assess what new titles are coming out, which is, by the way, how scholars typically used the traditional academic library when we supported collections. 

Academic library users were once afforded the opportunity to browse both scholarly monographs and journals.

They could do so because there was a structure in place for that, and this structure is also essential for efficient knowledge acquisition, assessment, and good budgetary control. Browsing was and still is a vital form of information gathering by many scholars, a legitimate form of research we once supported. Many in our field feel that we have no obligation to support it anymore since researchers “can find whatever they want online,” and if they can’t find it, they can just ask us to get it for them.

How do they find out about “it” in the first place? That is the library’s job, the librarian‘s job, not just to react, but to stimulate inquiry and create demand for resources, to create a context for learning, to keep the institution moving forward by showcasing what is new and significant to know in the disciplines.

Librarianship is curatorship, selectivity, presentation and structure (a needed structure, just as a curriculum is a structure needed for a course of study) which helps add value and meaning to intellectual works and cultural objects. It entails “descriptive bibliography.” It places resources into a larger intellectual context where works can be accessed and assessed by scholars.

The ability for intellectual works, particularly new and significant titles, to be seen and browsed has been regarded as an important feature of libraries, and should be a fundamental part of the online experience libraries provide. Students and newcomers often benefit from a more curated, tailored approach, our putting good and interesting things before them, which is why in the past, there were undergraduate and graduate libraries at large universities.

With discovery, there is no collection, no visible representation of a collection or evidence of care (even if the library is doing title-by-title acquisition), but yet, ironically, the user experience of quality collections are what libraries are often said to be about and associated with in the minds of users.

Even most accrediting bodies still request a collection development policy. We would seem to not be doing our jobs, neither meeting user expectations nor academic library standards, if all we offer is discovery and no collections. Libraries should be about knowledge, preserving and transmitting it, not just about remote access or item retrieval.

In 2023, the whole of the library has now sunk from view. For the opportunity to retrieve things from third-party platforms, we pay many millions each year, often paying many times over for the same content but with less ability to do much with it, at least in terms of lending, resource sharing and community access.

Where we used to lend our books and articles to other libraries and welcome outsiders (often other students from community colleges and surrounding high schools), now we are prohibited, or believe we are prohibited, from doing so with their digital equivalents, since now we license titles, but do not own them or their intellectual property rights, as we used to with print; and even if library leadership has not decided what access policies ought to be for the fully digital library, Single Sign On (managed not by us, but by IT Departments) and federated authentication protocols seem to have dictated our access policies for us, putting us on a path to be more restrictive than ever before in the history of the academic library–especially at State-supported institutions, whose libraries always had a mission to support all of the citizens of the State, regardless of an individuals enrollment status. Yes, public access is an entitlement when resources are licensed with taxpayer funds. Up until recently, academic libraries always served the public. Philosophically, libraries and librarianship are about broad access to promote scholarship, not access to obtain a certain degree.

Students from other schools and alumni are not feeling welcome anymore at State-supported college campus libraries. The public is not feeling welcome to access library resources. It is also impacting the quality of education of our students. Without visible bodies of knowledge, academic or disciplinary knowledge ceases to exist altogether. Literacy declines. Intellectual curiosity dies. Academic commitment languishes.

Library as empty space (whether for study or collaboration) and library as a proprietary search box / discovery are frameworks which place no value on literacy, on knowledge, or on knowing. 

Without visible coherent bodies of knowledge at the university, there are really no academic disciplines or degrees, because academic degrees signify one’s level of mastery over a body of academic knowledge, represented by the published literature in a discipline. A degree is not a measure of one’s ability to find and cite scholarly resources in scholarly databases, nor how many hours one has been enrolled in a graduate program. It is literally a measure of one’s degree of knowledge of the published literature and authorities thought to comprise an academic discipline. The library which has eliminated collections does not support higher education because it fails to convey bodies of knowledge. 

Library acquisitions is now a blur, thousands of titles at a time loaded into the backend of our systems. And like a blur, it is too fast for perception.

With our old workflows, it often happened that at least two librarians were aware of every item ordered, and those two librarians often let faculty know about the book or resource through distribution lists. Now, no one knows what we have, even thinks it necessary to know. As title-by-title acquisition and cataloging have become roles of the past, those working in libraries have become disconnected from new titles, academic knowledge, and trends in publishing. This disconnect spreads throughout the entire campus. Because of this disconnect, research interests of faculty fizzle out over time, the curriculum suffers, and the university stagnates. Students become less competitive. All people see of the library is a search box and links to databases, but nothing to inspire them to engage.

If the university wants the faculty to continuously evolve and publish, the library must be designed and structured around publications and ideas, not around vendor products or empty spaces.

We must be able to create content-rich learning environments.

Of utmost concern to me as an academic librarian is that our metadata and metadata standards are now being deliberately undermined and eroded by the publishing-aggregator industry, limiting display functionality in library systems and creating new barriers to access. As they see it, we are just the tail-end of their supply chain, rather than their only real customer. Who else is going to spend $100,000 for access to their content?

Vendors now want and expect our users to go to their platforms to conduct research, and in their minds, the only purpose for providing the library with metadata at all is to drive our users to their websites. Admittedly, many libraries and librarians are content with outsourcing everything to third-parties. It is so easy this way! You subscribe to the same handful of databases year after year. Since few are acquiring title-by-title now, few are bothering to keep up with new and forthcoming titles or what titles are in the collection. Some are no longer purchasing or subscribing to bibliographic and collection development tools to help them maintain a collection. It is easier to eliminate the idea of a collection and say, “We manage resources.” 

The public academic university library, libraries of clinical medical research, and community colleges should support broad access, continuous learning, and access to visible collections of professional and academic literature as its number one priority. 

Good Academic Libraries are Content-Rich Learning Environments.

Librarianship is an idealistic profession which values learning for learning’s sake, independent learning, support for intellectual inquiry, literacy, knowledge, human intellectual achievement, creativity, self-determination and life-long learning. Intellectual freedom is usually considered the pre-eminent core value of the library profession,16 although applying this to academic library practice may not be so straightforward.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) associates intellectual freedom with academic freedom,17 but the latter strikes me as having more to do with the nature of library content than the right to access it. Nonetheless, intellectual freedom of scholars would seem to presuppose scholarly access, and it is important that students and faculty be presented with the ability to exercise their own intellectual and academic freedom, the freedom to discover themselves and their own interests, to forge their own pathways to success in life (which might not have much to do with course content or their degrees because of the pace of change). We help them to do this by means of a highly visible, browsable, authoritative and current collection that is maintained in anticipation of use and need. Content curation, showcasing what is good within a collection of good things, is the essence of effective library practice. This arrangement does not just pertain to books or scholarly monographs, but to serials as well, which should be able to be easily browsed by classification in our systems so that scholars can not only see journal titles, but covers (table of contents), and keep up with their fields. With this method of arrangement, it is easy for people to see what we have and to identify trends in their field.

While libraries must be responsive and accountable to the communities they serve, librarianship is never purely reactionary, about providing access to this or that requested resource or obtaining just what is needed or guaranteed to be used for a class. We have a responsibility also to anticipate use in advance of need and to stimulate demand (stimulate intellectual inquiry). Libraries are about anticipating need, maintaining a collection in anticipation of use, supporting the faculty and exposing users to that which they do not yet know about so they can stay up to date and grow.

Today, many librarians are in the unenviable position of trying to come up with new ways to justify their value in environments that are no longer functioning as libraries, nor even designed to be libraries.

Worse, new dysfunctional libraries are being erected to replace the old obsolete library, with architects claiming to have inside knowledge about new libraries that the librarians themselves lack. Librarians may even be excluded from the building programming.18 While some inside of our profession suggest that those who struggle are simply “failing to evolve,” we have witnessed over the last ten years or more the massive reduction in the number of libraries and library positions, the elimination of faculty status for academic librarians, the de-professionalization and defunding of library technical roles, and most shockingly, the disconnect of the academic library from research initiatives around college campuses. 

Many of us, most, have been on the receiving end of new library redesign projects, buildings which seemed to have been fashioned from a cookie cutter template promoted by design build firms and without much or any input from librarians nor the scholarly community. It really isn’t for them. These buildings are often designed without any understanding of what a library actually does or what it has the potential to be other than a “space,” an auxiliary student center.

We surely need a richer conception of the user experience of a modern library than what we are able to achieve through our current vacuous designs, annual license renewals of vendor products, and empty discovery interfaces. We must be more than a pretty space.

The Library (h)as a Design Issue.

Academic libraries have a design issue, in that both our systems and our spaces are not being designed “to be” libraries anymore, that is, a facility which helps people reach their intellectual and creative potential through curated resources visibly arranged in a way that adds value and increases the likelihood that resources will be seen and used.

We are no longer creating content-rich learning environments which support literacy and life-long learning. We are not creating environments which showcase what is good and good to know. 

Wasn’t that always our design objective? To promote resource awareness and use?  The library should be an intellectual, cultural and aesthetic experience, a stimulating place which changes from week to week, with activity going on to promote intellectual engagement.

Imagine a business which possesses tremendous inventory in a warehouse, millions of dollars of assets, but no ability for its goods to be seen, displayed, made known or promoted. That warehouse is what the academic library has become.

Architects and everyone else say they want the library to be a “hub of learning.”

But clearly, that is not what is being built in the name of a new librarianship. And we should be able to say this without fear of reprisal or offending anyone. We need to know–isn’t it our business as library professionals to know–what works and what doesn’t in new library and user interface design, so we or our institutions do not approve designs that fail to reinforce the academic commitments and values of students and faculty?

Optimal user experience of an academic library must drive design. 

At this time, we lack business requirements, technology and prescriptive standards from ALA and ACRL so that libraries can be authentic places of learning, representing and nurturing “communities of learning.” Just as with anything, if you do not know what you are designing or developing for, what you want the user experience to be, it is impossible to create functional libraries or effective library user interfaces, since we do not even know, or cannot agree on, what effectiveness looks like.

What the academic library is or should be in the 21st century should most definitely inform design. We must begin at the beginning and state what a library is, or what librarianship is, and go from there:

Librarianship is about creating and maintaining a content-rich learning environment designed to stimulate inquiry and facilitate the communication and acquisition of disciplinary and cultural knowledge.

A library itself is a collection of titles which are organized relation to each other with respect to a community, academic discipline or knowledge. The purpose of good library design is to make this knowledge known through presentation and display, which is why I say our responsibility is to maintain an engaging and interactive content-rich learning environment in physical and virtual spaces, not just to provide access. 

It is only through a content-rich learning environment that we are able to add significant value as librarians.

We are about the learning environment itself, about creating and maintaining it–but like any other kind of curator, we support an intellectual and aesthetic experience known as a library mainly through indirect means, and not through direct user engagement. Museum curators also do not primarily add value through direct engagement with patrons, but communicate through indirect means, though selection, visual arrangement and metadata, the larger narrative in which an object is situated.

I think that is an important design concept in and of itself, that a library is or ought to be a curated space which emphasizes publications.

Academic libraries and websites are not being developed with this fundamental conception of content curatorship, which is the very essence of our profession. Curatorship does not mean gatekeeping. It means the ability to showcase and raise awareness of what is good and what other educated people value so that our students can become better educated people. 

What this environment looks like, what the business requirements are for our physical and online spaces, and especially as they might come together and intersect with each other to an even more meaningful and authentic hybrid experience, is a matter of conjecture, but I can say some certainly that it hasn’t yet been created by any build design firm in the US at this time. I study the Library Design Showcase in American Libraries, where new library buildings and renovation projects are depicted. Most of them are barren open concept spaces with an oversized sitting staircase in the middle. There is nothing inside them to see.

In next-gen academic libraries, sometimes called “new academic libraries,” the space, as an architectural space, speaks volumes, but not the content, which often appears to be an irrelevant part of the décor, if visible at all. Modern, streamlined designs wrapped in UV filtering polarized glass bring the outside in, with LED lights poised to instantly adjust their output to adjust for slight fluctuations in light. The building may be smart in terms of energy efficiency, but no emphasis is placed on sustaining human intellectual achievement, ideas or thought which might convey value. 

If books remain, they are lost in spaces not scaled to them or intended to be a focal point of the experience. They are used as decoration, wallpaper, just some random titles here and there to add atmosphere, but of no particular significance. The flipped library, where the walls are removed, “clutter” eliminated, and emphasis is placed either on people or space. 

Designs like this one, an open concept with a central sitting staircase, are typical: 

A “learning / sitting staircase” is the focal point of many modern library designs today. How / does this design encourage literacy or resource use? This is the Main library, University of Arizona (2022).

The space is attractive enough as a space; but are there no expectations of a university library other than to provide seating and adequate light? It seems to me from the academic libraries showcased in American Libraries19 and elsewhere, that there is a disconnect between the educational and intellectual goals and objectives of academic libraries and the goals of architects to build a public space, with space to sit being their main emphasis, rather than human communication, preservation of knowledge, literacy or resource use.

Academic libraries seem not to have any business requirements of their own except to be a space and provide access to subscription content, and until such time as libraries create them, empty buildings resembling airports or any other generic spaces will continue to be built in the name of new librarianship, and search engines on empty webpages will continue to define what a library is in the minds of many. 

Contemptus Mundi and the Library Space.

Many libraries today are designed around a spacious open floorplan of seating with glass window walls to brighten up the space and bring the outside in. In these modern spaces, the visitor’s gaze may see nothing but an endless expanse of tables, and perhaps one or two people sitting around looking at computer screens.

Ambient light illuminates nothing in particular. If there are print resources, they are on low shelves in the shadows to not interrupt the view out the window. 

There is furniture, space, windows, other people and often an uninteresting view of the outside world.

Each floor may be virtually identical to this monotonous expanse which the stacks once occupied. This is not exactly the vibrant hub of learning which was described by the architect when renovation began. A glass building with little inside of it, a space intended to be a space seemingly about its own progressive outlook, one which regards books and paper as “clutter,” and staircases as possessing power to impart learning and wisdom, might not have all that much to offer because the space, as a space, is tiresome and boring and even dehumanizing, especially to academics and intellectuals, for there is nothing of interest to meet the eye, nothing there to experience. 

Students are a captive audience and will tend to use whatever is made available to them, so “facilities use” is not necessarily a good measure of success, even though some have suggested that this is how libraries are to be evaluated these days.20 

I think libraries should be designed around a different model or aesthetic mood. I call this mood “contemptus mundi.” 

Contemptus mundi is a kind of spiritual philosophy emphasizing intellectual experience, contemplation, and a meaningful detachment from the world. It has a long tradition, going back to ancient times. When you are in the library space, as in a church, you should be entering in a different realm, a world of imagination, spirit and intellect. It is a world of ideas. Libraries should be intimate spaces filled with a warm, personal and subdued light, and they should be scaled to the book and to people. Current titles (wrapped in shiny Mylar, to make them seem more precious and pleasing to the eye) should be on display, face out, browsable, but with an option to download them to check them out (called “virtual fulfillment”) so the book stays put, and others can then come along and browse them. These can co-exist with softly-illuminated digital displays. Interactive projection technology can be used to display and promote ebooks and ejournals in the space, perhaps even creating a virtual life-sized periodicals rack to browse journal content. Designs should be intended to encourage engagement with texts without the distraction of the ordinary world intruding into the space. The space should emphasize the life of the mind and be a window to the word of publications, certainly not a window onto a parking lot.

There should also be videos and podcasts about books running on loops which change out from week to week to promote knowledge about books, authors, research and new titles. We should be actively promoting new academic titles and authors in the library, and technology might be harnessed to promote titles.

While it is not a library per se, a wonderful example of using modern design and materials to emphasize a mood of contemplation and encourage browsing is the new Dujiangyan Zhongshuge bookstore in China, often called one of China’s great libraries even though it is a store.21 In fact, the Zhongshuge chain of bookstores in China, all designed by Shanghai-based X+Living, are beautifully designed spaces, each one unique, to convey an intimate atmosphere which tends to be warm and personal, often using dark reflective floors and/or mirrored ceilings, cozy accent lighting and a neutral colors to place greater emphasis on titles and cultivate an atmosphere of quiet contemplation. Each store is a different experience, but all of them are designed to encourage interaction with books, reflection and lingering in the space:

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There is a sense that the outside world does not exist in these intimate spaces, or whatever is going on outside doesn’t matter. Reflective surfaces create a sense of timelessness or the eternal, the realm of ideas, an intellectual space for serene contemplation. They do not feel empty.

These bookstores are destinations and are treated as if they were libraries by the community. Some pay homage to churches and monasteries in their designs, others to flowing rivers, mountains and other natural forms. Much attention has been given to them in the interior design world, especially to their latest surrealistic Dujiangyan Zhongshuge, an architectural fantasy using mirrors which makes reference the arcades of cloisters and the night sky:

The Dujiangyan Zhongshuge bookstore in China is one of many innovative spaces created by this bookstore chain. All of the designs, by X-Living, encourage browsing in a space that suggests contemplation.

Zhongshuge bookstores are pretty much the opposite aesthetic from the unimaginative glass boxes and office buildings erected today in the same of a new librarianship. Zhongshuge designs tend to be scaled and illuminated to place emphasis on texts, on browsing and reflection. Many are designed to gently illuminate titles. Shown below is another Zhongshuge store with something that resembles a book grotto or cave. A mirrored ceiling, a signature of many Zhongshuge bookstore designs, helps to create the effect of being in a natural formation made by water, instill a feeling of interconnection, balance and reflection:

People often refer to these beautifully designed retail spaces as “libraries.” They are often considered attractions and community assets, where the academic library, at least in the US, is not. They should be, especially a public university or community college library. But they tend to not be designed for public access or use.

Why am speaking about physical spaces when the topic of my presentation is on discovery, the user interface of the library?

It is because the user experience of the physical and the online space should flow from a singular set of design priorities, concepts, values and objectives, sometimes known as “business requirements.” Modern academic libraries often do not even reflect the values of their constituents, the scholarly values and ideals of the academic community, and they do not reflect library professional values. These spaces may be attractive as spaces, but they are not attractive to intellectuals and scholars because there is nothing for them to experience.

The idea promoted by architects of a modern library is limited to something they already know how to create, a work/office space. The idea promoted by our system designer, a content aggregator, is something they know how to create, a search engine on third party content.  Neither of these are libraries.

It is time we came up with new designs which are more imaginative than being an office space and which reflect the world of ideas, not people and parking lots and the noise of the outside world.

Libraries should be content-rich learning environments about thoughts, ideas and culture, not empty spaces. They should change from week to week. Their websites should be content-rich as well if they are to encourage and nurture a culture of reading and learning, and of course, foster student choice and intellectual freedom.

There is no student-centered library without browsing, because browsing is learning

If academic libraries value intellectual freedom, this means valuing and supporting intellectual inquiry and student choice. It means they are most effective when they present students with options, not just a search box.

Living in the End Times:
From Libraries to Learning Centers.

Justifiable anxieties over the obsolescence of academic libraries began many years ago, when academic libraries started to see themselves as being little more than a search portal on commercial content, about “access to” commercial database products,  rather than being about titles in collections. “Collections” became associated with print format or the era of print, rather than an intellectual framework ensuring needed academic rigor for a library to function as a library, regardless of preferred formats. 

In library instruction classes, I teach students to use third-party products, mainly how to use these products to find and cite information in order to write papers for assignment completion. This is, of course, a practical skill while in college and then on into the real world provided that these resources remain accessible to them, or else what would be the point be of teaching them to “go into the scholarly databases” to find peer-reviewed sources?

The library “learning center” now cannot be counted upon to have anything in anticipation of use and need. It cannot be counted on to provide access after the student graduates, to support “life-long learning.” 

The sheer volume and invisibility of what we acquire leads to apathy and indifference tied to our new paradigm of collectionlessness. Nothing is seen in discovery until someone comes along and performs a search, so even if librarians are assiduously adding content to aggregator packages to ensure better titles are in them, no one knows this, and it seems rather futile to do so. If they don’t add them, it seems no one seems to notice either. 

Academics is in decline in the academic library and at the university. Over the years, academic librarians, many of whom have advanced degrees beyond the MLIS, have also lost considerable prestige, as well as any sense of their own purpose and agency. Many have been demoted from faculty to staff, positions have been downgraded from professional to para, and librarians themselves have become disconnected from the actual research initiatives of the university. We may not even be invited to “Research Week.” Part of this is that, in the minds of many administrators, “research” is thought only to be what takes place in a lab, not the activity that occurs in or through a research library before and after lab work. Many colleagues have lost faculty status at their institutions (Texas A&M is a good example) as their parent organization decided that librarians did not sufficiently contribute to the scholarly enterprise, or were no longer required for accreditation (which is true, actually; SACS requires “qualified staff” but does not define what that is). 

Other departments have moved into our spaces or taken control of them, called “the swap.”22 One architect defines multitenancy as a design “feature” of new libraries.23

Architectural engineering firms write tantalizing articles on “the future academic library” and the library of the future,24 25, trolling for new projects on the Internet. Despite our MLS, MLIS, and MSIS degrees, everyone, even those who never use the library, those with no academic credentials, seem to know what is best for an academic research library. Despite some recent protests by academic librarians,26 architects continue to replicate the same vacuous designs at every university: soaring glass buildings filled with staircases and walkways. They usually feature large open concept spaces, high ceilings, tall windows, oversized staircases, offices for whomever might need an office, computer labs, costly custom furniture on wheels, lots of glass (nothing of interest can be placed at eye level against those walls) and rooms able to be rented by the hour.

The new library tends to be evaluated as successful or not by its visual aspect more than anything else. The expectations of these new facilities are minimal, which cannot help but reflect poorly on those who work in them. The buildings do not reflect a strong sense of agency or purpose.

When I walk into such a library that is merely about its own design, or when all I see on the distinguished oak shelves of an academic research library are donated puzzles and board games–ack!  (cartoon “Cathy” Ack!), I think, would it hurt to have The New York Times and a few current scholarly journals or books on display? The new space may look like an adult day hab rather than a vibrant “hub of learning” at an institution of higher education.

As Gorman felt compelled to write in 1995, “The library of tomorrow must be one that retains not only the best of the past but a sense of the history of libraries and of human communication. Without those, the library will be purely reactive, a thing of the moment, sometimes useful and sometimes not, but never central to human society.”27 When he warned against the library becoming “reactive” and “losing its sense of the past,” it was many years before electronic resource management systems and discovery services were thought to have made library collections unnecessary.

The undeniable reality is that today, the librarian’s purpose in the academic library may be narrowly circumscribed to providing occasional help with commercial database products and managing a discovery tool, a federated search tool configured to search those products. When we eliminated print, many of us also eliminated a collections framework, and are no longer making a concerted effort to do title-by-title acquisitions or keep up with forthcoming titles, a workflow which is not contributing much to a culture of learning on our campuses. While library jobs are what they are (and they are very scarce), providing occasional assistance with commercial database products has little to do with librarianship or library professional standards.

Librarianship was traditionally about acquiring and showcasing the best resources for communities, and what what experts and educated people believed to be significant and good to know, so that other people might in turn become educated and knowledgeable. We aren’t doing that. Regardless of its content, discovery doesn’t offer that same service or value to scholars. Librarianship was about systematically and reliably acquiring and representing disciplinary knowledge and then communicating that knowledge to current and future generations of scholars. It is about knowledge, not just information retrieval.

The good library was reliable and predictable, enriching and engaging, up-to-date, concerned about the future. It demonstrated care and curatorship. The academic library was also about contextualization and organization to enhance scholarly value and allow for systematic assessment, comparison (with other collections) and appraisal (significance of a work in context). 

These were all important aspects of library work and needed because people do not know what they do not know (what they might be interested in) in order to “discover” items just by Googling. We must tell them, we show them things they might like and things they ought to know.

Librarianship is not about print format, nor any particular format for that matter, but about works, titles, arrangement and texts in collections where they derive greatest intellectual value. It was about describing and expressing human intellectual achievement, culture and common value leading to respect for the scholarly enterprise.

It is about using context to enhance meaning and understanding, and the relationships between texts. It is about communication and amplification, making knowledge better known. All of this, including the value of collections, is now lost in new library interfaces and designs. 

Librarianship as a Discursive Practice. 

The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, second edition (AACR2), provides guidelines for the formal description of books, music, and other created works. It is the cataloger’s bible, similarly sized and similarly full of rules. AACR2 guides a practice known as “descriptive cataloging.” Beyond AACR2, there are more granular standards and metadata standards for cataloging rare books and unique objects, which govern things like the transcription of Latin, but all are based on the principles of AACR2. As part of their library school programs, students must demonstrate competency with AACR2 and MARC records (the metadata format which corresponds to AACR2), along with specialized vocabularies, the rules of bibliographic description and classification schemes. 

The objectives of are descriptive cataloging are improved scholarly access to resources; greater scholarly understanding of the intellectual significance of a work (contextualization); preservation of knowledge; and greater capacity for record and resource sharing and system interoperability. How the latter works is that most libraries in the country and even around the world are members of a cooperative called OCLC. OCLC allows libraries and researchers to know what other libraries have, and through OCLC, we all can share resources through a common network. What we each have in our collections, our holdings, are searchable through a one global catalog of all libraries everywhere: a scholar in Houston can search OCLC WorldCat and through his own library, can request a book, or article or microfilm from another library several states away. It will be sent to him. Ideally, a doctor in a rural community, if he is not affiliated with a teaching hospital, can go to his public library and through this same network request copies of medical articles be sent to him. The system works in large part because we participate in the same networks and follow the same cataloging rules. It also works because we have all made a commitment to resource sharing.

The discursive practices we employ allow for the preservation, representation and visualization of knowledge, because our vocabularies and classification schemes are designed around this purpose. 

Unfortunately, our newer systems are not, and descriptive cataloging is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Through this, knowledge is being lost and libraries are even being encouraged by our system vendor to drop membership in OCLC, as they seek to create their own private, proprietary systems for metadata and resource sharing. We should be striving for greater openness and transparency, not privatization. I am committed to libraries participating in resource sharing even though vendors have been trying to restrict it for the last few years. 

The goal of libraries was resource visibility and enhancing scholarly value to increase resource awareness and use, which was thought to increase access to knowledge. However, remote access through a search box front-ending vendor inventory, access only available to those with current institutional affiliation, might not be the most effective or compelling user interface to achieve these ends. The e-resource discovery systems and platforms most academic libraries have embraced do not encourage resource visibility. Through discovery, resources remain invisible until a query is performed. There are no browsable stacks. Then, whatever content is seen is perceived as having value only as a “relevant resource,” and not as itself possessing value or relevance to other texts or to an academic discipline. On top of this, access may be limited to the student body rather than the larger scholarly community, which reinforces the perception that the purpose of a library is task or degree completion, to fulfill a requirement, and nothing more. 

Discovery does not encourage browsing by classification in a semantically independent and logical arrangement according to the discipline, an experience which is an important form of scholarly information gathering.

It does not represent coherent bodies of knowledge like collections.

Because the content and the metadata is from vendors, our systems are configured in such a way as to not enforce that good metadata come from them. The fields that were once required by our own normalization rules in the academic library are not applied to discovery records. New titles, whose records may even be lacking an author, pub date or subject headings are barely discoverable in discovery.

Vendors are now attempting to forge and codify their own metadata standards for ebooks which do not include library-centric metadata; libraries are regarded simply as just the tail-end of their supply chain6 and our system is seen as an “inventory system” rather than being a catalog of knowledge.

Discovery systems provide access to vast amounts of content, but they do not encourage intellectual inquiry or keeping up with the new, because despite their great convenience, no one sees what is coming into the system or going out of them.

Without that experience of collective seeing, and also without the item being experienced as part of a collection, value is eroded. Discovery does not encourage broad access or collective value, not only because resources are invisible and cannot be browsed as a collection organized by the discipline, but also because vendor licensing restrictions. Remote access can only be given to currently enrolled students, but inside of the library, our long-standing commitment to public access to scholarly resources are gradually being undermined as collections have gone away, replaced with vendor product. Discovery also does not provide a unique experience. Google Scholar can be configured to search all of the library’s electronic databases and then some. 

E-resource discovery systemsa search interface—do not effectively reflect the tastes, interests and values of the communities served by them, which is more or less important depending on the type of library it is. Most people who attend an HBCU, for example, or a Catholic institution, or a school of design, or veterinary school, would find value in the library’s letting the community know of new and important titles which might be relevant or of interest to them.

Marketing new titles and collection browse should be basic functions, not optional, for library management system software. The modern library fashioned just as a search engine, especially a search engine on generic database content, does not do that. It goes the other way. It trivializes content. It requires users to come along and search for something for something for it to be seen, and there is no guarantee that anything of local interest will even have been added to “the collection”since increasingly, there is no collection being maintained by librariansthus eroding quality, credibility, responsiveness and sense of purpose.

These are many reasons discovery is antithetical to librarianship and library goals and objectives. Discovery fails to provide an objective framework for engagement with scholarly materials organized and displayed according to a disciplinary framework, our academic library framework, our best practices, for selecting, organizing, arranging and displaying bibliographic information in academic libraries.

What is online is not an online collection. No one perceives it to be that, either. It fails to support browsing, a legitimate but underappreciated form of information-seeking behavior which is highly valued by students and scholars.29 

Discovery is a search box consisting of searchable vendor entitlements, vendor inventories, vendor-loaded content, plus whatever is left of our collections whose records are harvested by our system vendor so it is just another resource among many.

Discovery can be entirely fed by vendors, and it is designed precisely for this purpose. The same content is available on the vendors’ own websites, making the library website redundant to scholars who have institutional credentials and know where to search online (they can be authenticated on the vendor-side with federated authentication like Open Athens).

Vendors believe that the purpose of the MARC record is to drive our users to their platforms, not to support a good search experience on the library-side. We have only contributed to our own irrelevance and marginalization in ways Gorman anticipated years ago by our allowing vendors to determine our content, our metadata, our interfaces, the limits of our display (which is dependent on the metadata they provide), as well as defining our access and lending policies to serve their business interests and not necessarily our interests or that of our institutions. In the meantime, we often pay many times above list price for this invisible content going into an invisible repository, an experience, or lack thereof, which has come to define the modern academic library. 

We must strive to be a content-rich learning environment in our physical spaces and online, an aesthetic and intellectual experience, which I write about below, so that the library and its website become a destination for scholars.

Librarianship Before Discovery Services.

In years past, the library profession attracted to it educated people and scholars, often people with academic credentials beyond the MLIS (throughout the 80s and 90s, a second master’s in an academic subject area was required for entry-level employment in a university library) who were committed to scholarship and to libraries.

I consider myself fortunate to have been a small part of librarianship and publishing at its peak at the end of the 1980s and early 90s, particularly the exciting world of rare books and special collections (RBMS), which today has expanded to “GLAMS”: Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Special Collections. Back then, rare books, manuscripts and antiquarian prints was a world unto itself, a small world where people knew each other, or of each other. My hard earned knowledge of Latin and Greek, knowledge of the book and print trade, interest in European and British history, passion for art and works on paper, love of illustration and antiquarian prints, well, it was a natural that at the end of the 80s and early 90s, I would be drawn to RBMS as a specialization, seconded by library Technical Services, my fallback plan. My dream jobs were working for the Morgan Library in NYC or Graham Arader in Philadelphia. The Huntington, the Newberry, the Rosenbach would be good, too. Such were my thoughts back in 1989.

When I graduated, there was a terrible recession, one of many to come in libraries. I was offered a job with a publishing company. I was all packed up and ready to move to St. Paul the day when a call came from the Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research in Riverside. They wanted to offer me a position which I had interviewed for many months prior. But I had already given my word to the publishing company, and they were counting on me. Plus, I had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in St. Paul, so I was stuck. In terms of my career, it was probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life, but the owner of this publishing company was very charismatic and larger than life,  former president of the NAACP and vice president of the ACLU of Minnesota, an imposing character (reminded me of Orson Wells) who sponsored Aquarian Age festivals and pursued paranormal experiences, including buying a haunted house because it was haunted. He collected occult books, which is how I came to know him, through a dealer friend of mine. He wanted me to translate some of his old occult books out of Latin and work as an editor for his company. I remember this person from CBSR (Laura Walker) saying to me, “Why didn’t you call us and tell us you had another offer? We would have told you that you had the job!” Who would ever think to do that? I wondered. Why didn’t you let me know sooner?

I later worked as a print museum curator for four years where I got to feed my creativity and passion for historic prints, art and historic illustration. Printing is everything from vintage ads to illustrated children’s books to Hogarth engravings.  I have great memories from that time, including meeting Peter Max and his agent at an art opening at the Galleria and arranging for him to come to my museum to contemplate doing a show there. (A large litho stone on an antique press awaited him, but he wasn’t in the mood). I did countless shows and raised funds for most of them.

My favorite show was one I did after an fun afternoon of research flipping through historic newspapers at the HRC in Austin; the oldest personals ads, men and women both advertising for companions and spouses, photocopied and blown up from British and American newspapers spanning from 1660 to 1860. It was all mine, these fascinating ads I had come across. I sprayed the enlarged copies mounted on foam board with a mix of tea and alcohol to make them appear aged. There were ads for frontier brides and some by lonely widows and widowers, mostly in London. We timed it for Valentine’s, and had a single’s night in conjunction with The Houston Press, where attendees were encouraged to write their own personal’s ad. It was a smash hit, and at almost no cost, just my round trip to Austin. It had been my idea from working with historic newspapers in Special Collections where I had seen those ads many times perusing old London papers.

The museum was a fun job for me, but then I was twenty-eight, and needed to think about my future. But as I was trying to grow my career and income in Houston, a modern industrial and uncultured city which I never wanted to return to. Employment was always a struggle for me in Houston, but not so much elsewhere, due to the industrial nature of the city. I gradually migrated from Latin and Greek to Perl, C++, VB, JavaScript, HTML and SQL, languages needed to manage large library systems too, which is what I did for most of my career in libraries, even before I started at the museum. Before the museum, I managed a Tandem parallel processor and the library automation software which ran on it. Later, library systems were mostly written in Perl, they ran on Unix, Oracle was the database, Access was the front-end, SQL was needed to run queries, VB was needed for reporting, “vi” was needed to edit text files, and websites were in HTML with JavaScript. C++ was actually not needed for anything, but I studied it anyway, two semesters worth, right before Java pretty much made C++ obsolete. 

I designed and managed websites too, from scratch, before it was so quick and easy to do so using CMS tools like Wix and WordPress, as so-called “developers” do today. Naturally, I was interested for a while in computational linguistics and natural language processing, and Perl was the language of choice for these, for libraries and for e-commerce. Perl even had its own form of poetry, little poems which ran, and even a journal of Perl poetry. In Houston, Rice University Fondren Library was my happy place where I was free to chase unicorns.

Academic librarians, who then were faculty, supported research and contributed to knowledge curation and creation in different ways, including descriptive bibliography, publishing, writing reviews, and collection development. Some also developed new tools in Perl to enhance or extend the functionality of existing library systems, which back then were almost all open platform (meaning, they could be customized if one knew how to code). Today, interestingly to me, open source systems have been embraced by public libraries but are not used much in academic settings these days. Perl is still used by some of these systems.

Back then, librarians were expected to possess knowledge of the publication activity in a field and of the collection they managed. If they had any sort of “philosophy of librarianship” at all it was to make the library as accurate a reflection of scholarly activity in the disciplines as possible, in order to preserve, represent and communicate knowledge to scholars, at least communicate what was new in their respective fields or what other scholars were talking about. 

The role of the librarian was also to enhance scholarly access and scholarly value of resources through description, display, research and contextualization, all of which ultimately furthered scholarly understanding and scholarly communication, which was also thought to contribute to the prestige of the university.

Librarians might perform original cataloging, collection development, develop new applications and/or teach, and assist research, but what they did professionally, their own self-conception, was ultimately grounded in descriptive bibliography, in an academic library collection, and respect for academics. Most academic librarians possessed considerable graduate work or credentials beyond the MLIS, and most had faculty status. Most kept up with scholarly publications in their fields (not just in library science) and helped keep faculty aware of trends so that they kept up with new and forthcoming titles in their areas of interest. The collection that the librarians developed and maintained was the main attraction of the library.

It is worth reflecting on how the library and librarians added value then and compared to now, because while interfaces and modes of access have changed, the needs of scholars have not significantly changed all that much. It might be helpful to think about what the library was before discovery services in order to envision what it might one day again become.

The Public Academic Library as a Community Resource: How Librarians serve “Humanity.”

In the 80s and 90s, academic librarians believed, or were told, that they were in some small part serving humanity by inspiring and preserving human communication and intellectual achievement.30 We were part of a priesthood and the library was our sacred temple. Putting the right book in someone’s hand was a spiritual act. 

This idealistic mission, codified as the first of one of the “Five Laws of Librarianship” proposed a former ALA President Michael Gorman, may seem uncomfortable and even grandiose today, more so now perhaps, since few libraries are committed to preserving anything, and not really serving “humanity” much these days except perhaps their own students and faculty, which was not the case back then. 

The print collection was always, within reasonable safeguards, publicly available to scholars, as was the online catalog, and we liked it this way, so that scholars on the outside would know what the library had on the inside, so that they would visit us and use the collection to further their own research and scholarly understanding. Libraries universally supported resource sharing. 

All academic libraries all had a public service mission. It was like a priesthood, a noble calling.

Especially those of us in Special Collections wanted the community to come to us to conduct research. We believed in the value of life-long learning. We continued to use the academic library after we were no longer in school and assumed that all educated people did the same.

Those of us who did library instruction hoped and expected at least some of our students would come back and continue to use the library even after they graduated. Our doors were open. We sometimes sent our students to other libraries to do research, other libraries sent their students to us. The university succeeded in creating educated people if students had become life-long learners. That was the goal, self-actualization and self-determination, to create educated people who wish to stay that way, not just until they completed their graduation requirements. 

Contrary to what might be the perception now, those who continued to use the library after graduation were not the “slackers,” those who had no other place to be, those whose time was not important or valued by anyone, but people who were one day going to change the world, write a book, or do great things in life. When students returned to us, it often meant that they were pursuing a project, a passion or a dream, thinking about graduate school, starting a business, or doing something requiring research or retooling. They were self-actualized. We had succeeded.

The academic library uploaded its holdings to OCLC, that public union catalog of all libraries combined (www.worldcat.org), to support resource sharing. Our commitment was always to advancing scholarship and serving the scholarly community, not just to furthering the business objectives of our own institutions (that would be crass). Our own students benefitted by our representing the discipline, a window unto a world of scholarship, not just providing them with access to some relevant resources to complete assignments. 

Most publicly-supported college and academic research libraries regarded themselves as a community resource, providing access to everyone, to the scholarly community, not just to those with institutional affiliation or those currently enrolled in school. However, with the loss of faculty status by librarians over the last few years and the elimination of collections in libraries—the conversion of the academic library into ugh—learning centers—librarianship is itself at a crossroads. Are e-resource discovery solutions, the library which consists of a search box of subscribed content fed by third-parties, meeting our own business requirements to be an academic research library? Or is it contributing to a our planned obsolescence, where ProQuest or EBSCO will license a one stop “Academic Complete” research solution to the university? What are the outcomes of our providing temporary access to everything to a few, but owning nothing and failing to support a larger community because of real or perceived licensing restrictions?

There was always a strong progressive emphasis in librarianship, a social or practical philosophy connecting libraries and their services with democracy, classical liberalism (freedom for individuals to rise and to reach their potential in life), and intellectual freedom. Many believe, and are often taught this in library science programs, that librarianship is a form of political and social activism, with a mission and ethical responsibility to actively combat censorship, fight misinformation, support freedom to read, and provide equitable access to information to all. These ideas are promoted by the American Library Association, who accredits master’s degrees in library science in the United States. Unfortunately, implicit in these idealist principles is intellectual property rights. Intellectual freedom, like other forms of freedom, isn’t “free.”

Four out of seven of the planks of the ALA’s Bill of Rights, the librarian’s ethical professional code of conduct,31 address intellectual freedom and combatting censorship. While in theory, the ALA Bill of Rights applies to all librarians, it does not make clear the obligation of the academic librarian when it comes to service to the public. However, it has often been assumed by librarians and library directors that it does apply to academic libraries, especially those attached to State-supported institutions, since they are taxpayer supported or subsidized; it has often been assumed that the public is entitled to access what public money has been used to acquire. In the past, our professional ethical obligations to serve scholars regardless of their institutional affiliation did not present any fundamental conflict with institutional objectives. 

Academic libraries have historically supported and encouraged public access to their collections and participated in resource sharing programs to allow for the flow of information and ideas beyond their institutions. Some university libraries make clear that they serve the public through statements such as found one UH’s website: “The University of Houston Libraries serves University of Houston students, faculty, staff, and the scholarly community.”32

Rice University’s Fondren Library mentions under “Alumni” that “Fondren Library’s entire collection of online resources is available on campus computers or on devices connected to the campus Wi-Fi network. Computers for public use are available on the first floor of the library by the Reference desk.”33 Service to the scholarly community has entailed that the library provides public access to both print collections and electronic resources inside of the library so it could be used for conducting research, that there is no format bias, and that the library participates in Interlibrary Loan services, usually through OCLC and TexShare. To borrow books or obtain a higher level of access sometimes required that the borrower become a friend of the library or obtain a TexShare card from a public library.

Of all the ALA Bill of Rights, article number four, “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas,” has the most strange and far-reaching political implications for librarians.

Article four audaciously suggests that librarians should act passive aggressively and not cooperate or resist cooperating with persons and groups who seek to restrict access, which is perhaps meaningful for those of us who work with the IT Department negotiate vendor license agreements, or manage authentication systems.

Perhaps what was intended by that is that we might resist groups seeking to ban books or impose other forms of censorship. Still, I think it has implications for the academic library, for intellectual and academic freedom, particularly when the academic library condones policies and practices which impede access to scholarly resources inside the library (for those conducting legitimate research) and decides it will no longer participate in institutional lending or resource sharing because doing so might potentially violate a license agreement with a vendor. 

If the library believes that public or community access is good and right, it should think twice about compromising its idealism for the sake of convenience when restricting access. Academic libraries, medical libraries, and libraries who receive State-funding have an obligation to share. 

Librarians have known for a long time that there are practical and financial benefits to resource sharing. Our students benefit from their ability to use other (often larger or more specialized) libraries from time to time, and we should reciprocate in kind by allowing visiting students to use our library. 

We also want to keep alumni and the community happy. We have always tried to create a welcoming environment for students, potential students, and scholars from other schools, and they have always welcomed our students. Resource sharing is what libraries do, and they do it particularly well, compared to say, museums, which despite the efforts of the Getty Library, ArtSTOR and OCLC, never developed uniform standards for records which would permit aggregation and record sharing. And then there is the principle of the thing, that we might regard access to resources to the scholarly community as part of our mission.

Years ago, when I worked for a State-supported university library, I defended public access to resources. I often did this, actually, even though the public wasn’t beating down our doors. One day, the Library Director asked me in a staff meeting if I was a “Socialist” (to give some context, Bernie was contending to be the Democratic nominee). She meant this to be a joke. I thought our ABD (All But Dissertation) students should not need to pay to access library resources, forced to enroll in a nonexistent one-credit hour class. I responded very earnestly, “No ma’am, I am a Librarian!” My point is, I think it is wrong, and all librarians should think it wrong for publicly-supported libraries to charge their students to access resources needed to finish their dissertations. I believe academic libraries who receive State funding must be open and accessible to the public. That is part of our mission, what we do. 

However, most of my colleagues in libraries today, especially those who did not come up in a world of collections as I did, would be inclined to think that people who are not currently enrolled in classes do not have a right to access academic library resources paid for by the university, no matter also that some unspecified amount of public funding may have gone toward library acquisitions, the building, and our salaries.

They are inclined to believe that resources represent institutional entitlements, intended only for use by currently enrolled students and faculty members hired to teach a class that semester.

Isn’t that what our license agreements say? Actually, no, most license agreements between vendors and libraries allow for community access inside of a library or on a campus network. It authenticates by IP address. But things are getting a bit with sketchy and complicated with SSO. Some vendors are now seeking to restrict access to the public inside of the library, and if they are not, our IT Departments most certainly are, since credentials (library access) have become dependent upon enrollment just about everywhere as a result of SSO, which large vendors aggressively promoted. Posner believes Serials Librarians should strive to ensure that license agreements and policies remain library-friendly, allow for resource sharing and public access.34 

Public access was never an issue when we provided access to physical collections and to e-resources inside of the library through a proxy server, which librarians like me managed without any help or interference by campus IT Departments. Proxy servers were usually configured to provide access through IP authentication, so anyone on a campus computer could access all electronic resources inside of the library. It has only been with the widespread adoption of an new authentication protocol, SSO, which was aggressively promoted by large vendors ostensibly to improve “customer experience” on their websites, that people had to use university-issued credentials to gain access the library’s electronic resources. At that time, the ball was put into IT’s court to control access to library resources and determine access policies which are often more restrictive than what our license agreements require. 

I believe that public access to scholarly resources is inseparable from other related issues of intellectual freedom or fighting censorship.

The mandate that we share resources in the Texas Administrative Code, TGC 441.223, which I will discuss below, suggests that resources acquired by public universities should be for the education of all citizens.35

I remind colleagues every now and then that the intention of the mandate was resource sharing, not to guarantee equitable lack of access. The State of Texas and most state legislatures believe that it is in the public interest for scholars and citizens to have access to the scholarly resources acquired by libraries at public institutions, and especially for researchers to continue to have ongoing access to good libraries of clinical medical research even after they graduate. All citizens should have access, is how the law is written, and it does not stipulate access only to physical resources. It does not say citizens shall have access only for one hour a day for a week and never on weekends. I do not know why libraries insist on contributing to their own irrelevance.

Public academic and community college libraries have a mission and a mandate to serve the public, and this legislation seems to express that academic libraries have a role in educating students throughout their lifetimes, whether they are enrolled in school or not. 

Scholarly access is a form of intellectual freedom, and intellectual freedom is a core value of librarianship.

If we are librarians, we must uphold access as a fundamental right, like freedom of speech. Knox observes that the library profession as a whole, “especially through codification, institutionalization, and investigation, is dedicated to upholding support for intellectual freedom as a core value,” even though this value may not be communicated to the public or put into practice very well, and therefore often ends up being more symbolic than practical.36 Diaz and LaRue affirm that “Intellectual freedom, whether viewed as a fight against censorship or the impassioned defense of the right to question, is a fundamental library value,”37 at least as far as the ALA is concerned. They provide an overview of the American Library Association’s support for intellectual freedom, litigation and publishing activity and the freedom to read initiatives. 

It is easy for those of us in an academic setting to think that intellectual freedom and censorship is just public library stuff. I am amazed at how often I have heard (or overheard) academic library directors of public universities expressing the sentiment that researchers should “go use the public library” to conduct scholarly research. If becoming a kind of propriety learning resource center causes to us abandon our library professional idealism, maybe it isn’t the right solution for the academic library.

Toward a Unified Philosophy of Librarianship.

Various efforts have been made, going back to 1934, to establish a unified philosophy of librarianship, or at least to codify principles of professional practice.38

Of these, Michael Gorman, a past ALA president, sometimes considered a founding father of librarianship, has been among the most influential, at least among academic librarians. If his name sounds familiar to librarians, it is because Gorman was the main contributor to the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules and author of Concise AACR2. He is one of the most prolific and prominent academic librarians, a creator and defender of our bibliographic standards, someone I consider a librarian’s librarian. To me, he bridged a gap between public and academic library practice by stressing access to knowledge and librarianship as a humanistic practice when it was not necessarily popular to do so.

In 1995, Gorman recommended these five principles, sometimes called the “five laws” of library science:

  1. Libraries serve humanity.
  2. Respect all forms by which knowledge is communicated.
  3. Use technology intelligently to enhance service.
  4. Protect free access to knowledge.
  5. Honor the past and create the future.39

Gorman’s five principles take the sentiments behind the ALA Bill of Rights and put them into more of an academic library framework. Number one is that “librarians serve humanity” and number four is that we protect “free access to knowledge.”

Reading back these five principles in light of the fact that today many libraries no longer own their own content, control their own interfaces or websites, or even manage “collections” at all, it would be very difficult to see how these five laws still apply to academic library professional practice in 2023. For example:

  • We cannot very well “protect free access to knowledge” if we do not control access to content and cannot organize it into knowledge in the first place (with good metadata and systems that can leverage it to enhance engagement).
  • We also cannot protect free access to knowledge if institutional credentials are needed to access library resources.
  • We cannot “use technology to enhance our services,” at least not to our full capabilities, if we do not manage or our own metadata, our websites, our content or user interfaces. 
  • We cannot “honor the past and create the future” if we merely subscribe to content on demand, preserving nothing for the future, or acquire only in response to a need in a reactionary way.
  • We do not honor scholarship  or scholarly communication if our offerings are invisible, needing someone to come along and discover resources for themselves in order for resources to be seen by users. 
  • Finally, we cannot really have laws or principles if we lack organizational business requirements of our own which reflect these core values.

Indeed, none of Gorman’s five principles apply very well in the library-like (or library-lite) environments many of us now find ourselves, facilities called “new libraries,” other times “learning centers,” even though they may not actually be libraries at all by our own professional definition or standards.

While we are doing good helping our own students and faculty, it doesn’t seem as if we are “serving humanity” very much anymore.

It is also harder than ever to see how the ALA Bill of Rights or Gorman’s laws apply to the practice of academic and research librarians when we are mostly or entirely operating in the realm of commercial license agreements, autoload holdings, subscription content, electronic resource management/discovery systems, vendor-supplied discovery records, and federated authentication (SSO), with the exception that acquisitions librarians might choose to try to protect and defend public and scholarly access as much as is in their power, say, by promoting library-friendly license agreements,34 protecting public access inside of the library, and participating in consortial and resource sharing networks like OCLC.

It isn’t like people are beating down our doors to obtain access (most people can find what they want through Google), but I think preserving public access to academic library collections and resources carries significant symbolic value, or what Knox describes as symbolic capital.41 Librarians should also fight to take back control of library website, for honestly, how can libraries claim to be fully digital if they cannot even control their own websites? It is absurd. Librarians have been licensing SpringShare products like LibGuides just so they have an online platform under their control, some reliable way to communicate with library users and the academic community because at many universities, they now cannot make updates to the library’s own website, which has fallen under the iron control of IT. It wasn’t like that previously, when libraries maintained their own servers, which they did when they ran locally installed systems.  

We might work with vendors (I’m thinking of our not-for-profit, OCLC, or open source system developers like ByWater Solutions) on the design of new library systems to facilitate web hosting, digital communication, collection management and browsability (currently lacking in academic library systems) and also to ensure that library metadata is not eroded with metadata that is easier and less costly for vendors to supply. 

Our websites could be integrated with other tools to create a unique destination where researchers might learn, for example, what books and articles are coming out in their areas of interest. It might include calls for papers. It might include the latest faculty publications. If it is in a CMS, it might include widgets and plugins designed  for libraries. We could design our sites to offer greater degrees of personalization to present what content users are interested in. To enhance our website, we can borrow many of the tools of ecommerce. At minimum, we should feature books and publications on our home page, not a search box and static images of our now denuded spaces. 

For libraries which maintain physical spaces, the first floor of a library should be devoted to browsing with interactive displays, like an Exploratorium, a museum of contemporary thought, ideas and publications. It should have bustle, movement and sound, a sensory experience. It should be ever changing, reflecting the world of scholarly communication in all formats.

It should have coffee, newspapers, journals, books and screens, areas for browsing and conversation. I believe we should have music, because it relaxes people and provides healthy sensory stimulation, like aromatherapy. There should be interactive displays. One might view a podcast, and download the book, or browse related books to read more about a topic. New books and journals will have QR codes (download now!) on them and stay in the library in place to encourage display, community browsing, reading and sharing. Physical display with virtual fulfillment, as I write about later on, is one way to enhance and enrich the library browsing experience. The library space itself should also be scaled to people and to viewing, to intimacy and communication, to showcasing intellectual objects, and not to cold, echoing pointless monuments of glass with nothing of interest inside of them but tables and chairs and oversized staircases.

There should be media rooms for streaming academic conferences occurring across the country, and classroom lectures at other schools. Like a science fiction convention, there should always be something going on in viewing rooms at all times, if only to stream 60 Minutes or Frontline or Ted Talks, or perhaps classroom lectures going on around campus. I think there should be art, design and music studios in the library, but it depends on the nature of the school. The first floor of a college and academic library should have the flair and excitement of a convention like SIGGRAPH, with people able to wander from room to room to discover and collectively experience new things and new ideas. That is the unrealized promise of a “new” academic library.

When Google took off around 2000, coffee mugs and buttons appeared for librarians which said, “I’m your human search engine.”

I didn’t like the sentiment back then, but I really dislike it now.

My job, as I saw it, was to do precisely what a search engine could not do, which is to create content-rich learning environments which communicated knowledge and inspired learning. Now, at many institutions, there is little left of the user experience of a library but a search engine on subscribed content and links to subscription databases, the same ones renewed year after year.

Inside of the library, we may be enamored with discovery, but our users are not, and we have known that for a long time. They are not using it. Meanwhile, the library itself, that content-rich learning environment to which many of us were once dedicated, is gone. 

There is a common perception is that the library is online now—but it isn’t online.

It could be, but right now, it just isn’t.

A search engine of entitlements is online, yes; but the library, a digital library built around collections and library business requirements is not online. It hasn’t been developed yet.

If the library cannot display new titles in a browsable format by classification, it is not online. Until we have virtual stacks—perhaps one which one day can leverage the holdings of libraries nearby or all of the libraries in the world—the library is not online.

Until the library has a way of supporting virtual browse of new titles, the library is not online. Until the library is a destination for the community to learn what is new in their areas of interest, it is not online. The library should feature the creative works of students and faculty and serve as the basis for community.

Until we have a store front, it is not online.

Until the library supports and encourages broad access to knowledge to promote life-long learning through collections, it is not online. 

No one has yet analyzed the differences, in terms of the user experience between a library (and its business requirements) and a meta search engine front-ending subscription content, one fed entirely by vendors, with no one really paying much attention to what goes into or comes out of the invisible repository. Our systems are designed so there really is no good way to know what is in them. Our content is invisible. We don’t know, and our users certainly do not know what is in there. Our systems are designed so we cannot assess the quality of our content according to library professional best practices, through a conspectus analysis.

We depend on vendors to provide the metadata (much of it is poor, especially for new titles) and it is unable to be analyzed as a library collection, according to library best practices we were taught for collection management and managing a budget.

There is no way to organize and display our subscription content as a library collection. All we have is an impersonal digital repository of linked metadata of entitlements, a black box fed by third-parties. This really does not require much expertise to maintain but it also does not meet library bibliographic standards. We have devolved into being a content aggregator, an efficient business model never before thought appropriate for an academic library.

No one has addressed what is perhaps the fundamental question facing librarianship: whether the user experience of a search box can or should replace the experience of the academic library without loss or disadvantage to the education of users or society.

Many will respond, “Where have you been, my dear? It already has!” 

The New Academic Library “Learning Center.” What is it?

Academic libraries are now fashioned as sterile student centers whose greatest aspiration is to be a quiet space to study. Library websites are equality boring, not designed to be attractive destinations for scholars. I can’t bounce over to any university library to explore what new books are coming out in my fields of interest. 

We have no store front, only a search box on an empty page which rarely changes. 

Even libraries with millions of volumes feel compelled to use their home pages to advertise their comfy couches, study rooms, and staplers. It feels like we’ve gone from a five-star resort to a motel that checks rooms out by the hour. Honestly, we have always had private and group study rooms and ample places to sit before, but never thought it necessary to advertise them. It wasn’t a big deal. We announce our “couches” and scanners, but not our content. 

Nothing of interest meets the eye in these sad, desolate places.

There is no inducement to browse or read, no possible excuse for speaking to another to exchange ideas, even though they often claim to be about “collaboration.”

We’ve given them nothing to discuss, and if there is, someone will complain that people are talking in this echo chamber. It seems to me not to be an innovative kind of library, one which “deploys technology to enhance its services,” like Gorman recommended thirty years ago, but an empty facility ripe for repurposing. The space and its website are stagnant. There is no sense of the library’s own agency or its website as a destination. There may be nothing of interest to meet the eye. 

What does a successful, thriving academic library look like in this digital age? What are its objectives and desired outcomes? 

In a research environment, libraries were once said to be “collections of research which inspire research.” We should ask ourselves, if we believe this to be true, how do we inspire research or learning by design without collections? 

The collection is long gone, a decision finally made after years of abandonment and neglect by those put in charge of library acquisitions. It wasn’t loved or cared for, and when it was finally discarded after years of neglect, it felt like a big relief, a dying animal put out of its misery.  Even if we were to acquire ebooks title-by-title, which some libraries still do for a very small part of their acquisitions budget, what librarians acquire is invisible.

In the last ten years, the academic library has been reformed, and not by our own initiatives or according to our own industry standards for quality, but by vendors who stood to profit financially from the library’s commodification.

Many of us have been persuaded into thinking that “this” is what the future of librarianship looks like, rather than recognizing it for what it is, our commodification by vendors, many of whom are jumping over the library and sending renewals directly to the Deans and business offices, and in similar fashion, will soon each offer an “Academic Complete” research solution that will replace the library altogether. That is around the corner. 

Increasingly, the library is already managed like a vendor concession. We are expected to carry their product lines. We have no store front of our own, just a search box. Vendors are more than willing to teach our instructional classes for us, biasing students toward their products and their content. If you need help doing research, “contact the vendor.” We withdraw from resource sharing and make it difficult for researchers from the community to access our content, telling them to “use the public library.” We create ridiculous rules that are demeaning and insulting to scholars and designed to do nothing more than create a barrier to access, rather than understanding that scholarly contributions advance the field and contribute to shared knowledge which nobody should own.

To Gorman and to many of his generation, librarianship was a calling, like entering the priesthood.

Gorman’s principle number one was that librarians serve “humanity”not just those with institutional affiliation. To this end, academic librarians once universally promoted the ideal of independent and life-long learning, education as a kind of habit of mind cultivated through continuous engagement with scholarly publications (or at least the publications other educated people read) throughout the lifetime, an ideal which was they backed up by community access, and also in the following ways:

  • librarians themselves being readers and scholars;
  • by descriptive cataloging according to library bibliographic standards, to promote greater scholarly access and awareness;
  • library participation in resource sharing to facilitate the flow of information;
  • maintaining collection in anticipation of use and need, in a perpetual state of readiness;
  • liberal access, borrowing and lending policies.
  • service to everyone, whether enrolled in our programs or not.

Even many private institutions, such as Rice University in Houston, support public access to their library collections and online resources. All academic libraries once did. We sent students to other libraries when we thought it would benefit them, other libraries sent their students to us. That is what we were supposed to do, expose students to the best, not limit them just to what we had. 

All libraries also offered public access to their catalogs, called online public access catalogs.

Academic librarians who interface with patrons are still often referred to as public service librarians, often working in the department of “public” services, which proves how deeply engrained the concept of public service is in the academic library world, even if the public is told to go elsewhere to do research. Historically, the academic library was defined by the nature and purpose of its collections, not by who was entitled to access its resources. The academic library and its open access policies served the interests of educated people and scholars and an educated society, and also by advancing the pursuit of knowledge in its purest form—whether scholars are enrolled in school or not.

It was an ideal which brought with it other good things which benefitted students, alumni and the university, such as more students enrolling there (recruitment), grant-funding (since grants usually require that the public benefit), and the ability to form business partnerships in the community. For example:

  • Continued access to the library often gave students advantages once they entered the working world. Teachers, faculty at community colleges and others would benefit from ongoing access to an academic library.
  • Reciprocal borrowing gave students access to the resources that belonged to other institutions and facilitated collaborative purchasing.
  • The high school student who used the academic library to do research for a robotics competition or conduct research in AI was precisely the sort of student the institution should want to attract down the road. 
  • Lawyers and engineers who used the academic library for research would often become good friends of the library.
  • Partnerships between the university and business and industry often entailed granting employee access to library resources, but it sometimes gave students access to subject matter experts, funding and internship opportunities.
  • It raised the profile of the institution in the community.
  • Public accessibility made the library competitive for grant-funding awarded for projects which would benefit the broader public.

Academic libraries have historically served not those currently enrolled in school, but future scholars, scholars at other institutions and the wider business, professional and scholarly community.

This service mentality did not just arise from some ideal that “librarians serve humanity” or from our own professional code of ethics, the ALA Bill of Rights. There is legislation in Texas and in many states which express the sentiment that all public, state-supported academic libraries and libraries of clinical medical research must share their resources with the public.

Public academic libraries, those libraries attached to colleges and universities who receive some form of public funding in the State of Texas, and those libraries who choose to become members of the State-wide TexShare library consortium, have, according to the Texas Administrative Code, an obligation to serve the citizens in the State, to provide equitable access to research in order to support education, regardless of a user’s enrollment status, institutional affiliation, or the library’s own self-perception of whom it serves.

While the debate over public access doesn’t come up too often in my experience as an academic librarian, when it does, it is always because someone from the outside wishes to come in and use the computers or research databases, which sometimes precipitates an often unpleasant discussion with IT. Possibly, our lecturing them about the Texas Mandate and how the library world does things, and why resource sharing benefits all students, and their lecturing us about their security requirements and that we should only serve the institution, not students enrolled in other schools or even alumni. 

They and administrators may feel that the university has no obligation to people once students are no longer paying tuition. From a library perspective, this is incorrect.

The State Mandate to Share.

I mentioned above that the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights, an ethical code to which all members of the library profession are to adhere, stresses that librarians are to promote access to everyone, and furthermore, to resist efforts by groups who would seek to restrict access to information.

I also mentioned Michael Gorman’s principle number one, “Libraries serve humanity.” Of course, the exact meaning of “service to humanity” may be open to interpretation. Are we serving humanity by serving just our own students and faculty, or are we supposed to be serving everyone, like a priest, even those who are not members of our own congregations? Do academic librarians, especially those who are State-supported, have an obligation to maintain collections to support future scholars or to provide access to scholars at other institutions, regardless of a user’s enrollment status or institutional affiliation? Do we have any obligation to scholarship as a good, to serve the public and to share our resources with them? Do we have an obligation to the future?

Is access to scholarly resources an entitlement and might it be construed as a business requirement for public academic libraries?

A bit closer to home and less purely speculative is something librarians in Texas, particularly academic librarians refer to as “The Texas Mandate.” In Texas, there is a mandate on the books (Texas Administrative Code, TGC 441.223) that libraries who receive State funding must share their resources with other libraries and all of the citizens of the state.35 Many states have similar mandates.

However, some libraries, even those who belong to the State-wide TexShare consortium (where they make a promise to share their collections), might reasonably assume that the mandate no longer applies to them, since they no longer possess physical collections (when it suits them, they call online resources “collections,” but whenever the context is sharing, they do not have collections). When the top medical libraries in Texas decide to no longer participate in ILL, interlibrary loan, or opt out of OCLC, what impact does this have on medical advancement and health outcomes throughout the State?

The same is largely now true of law libraries, who satisfy the needs of their users through subscriptions to Lexis, Westlaw and Heine Online, plus a few other databases. Law libraries are also not maintaining collections, or if they are doing so beyond textbooks and study guides, it is purely optional. 

IT Departments also often exert control over access to computers and the network on campus, limiting access to library resources by restricting access even more than what is necessary to satisfy our vendor license agreements (many of which do permit public access inside of the library). IT Departments may also have assumed control of library websites, and in some cases, have put the library’s online catalog behind a firewall (Sam Houston State University is an example). As a tuition-paying parent, I might want to know if the library is keeping up with new titles, say, in animation or 3D modeling, if I am considering that program for my child. Besides, State-supported schools should be providing access to citizens of their OPAC, their online public access catalog, not putting that behind a firewall. 

The Texas Mandate, known also TGC 441.223 mandates all State-supported academic, public and medical libraries to share their collections with each other and with the public. But what happens when libraries no longer own intellectual property rights to resources as they once did? The mandate specifically mentions public, state-supported academic and medical libraries, since it was believed to be in the public’s best interest for medical professionals to continue to have access to medical research after graduation from medical school. The intention of this bill was that clinical medical research be available to researchers. To say we do not have collections but “resources” is a kind of slight of hand. 

It says in the first section that one purpose of this legislation is to “expand the availability of information about clinical medical research and the history of medicine.” How is this working in practice?

The Texas Medical Center Library is an independent, stand alone medical library and a 501(c)(3) in Houston’s Medical Center, which is called by everyone whole lives in Houston the “Texas Medical Center,” even though, indeed, Dallas has a Texas Medical Center, too. Houston apparently has the largest medical center, so it claims bragging rights and the name, the “Texas Medical Center.”

Medicine and biotech are major industries in Houston. According to the Greater Houston Partnership:

Health care and life sciences are major industry sectors in Houston driven by world-class institutions and professional talent. Houston is home to the largest medical complex in the world, the Texas Medical Center, which provides clinical health care, research and education at its 61 institutions. TMC’s presence is a major force in the broader region’s thriving life sciences sector. Houston has more than 1,760 life sciences companies, cutting edge hospitals, health facilities and research institutions with a workforce of more than 394,500 people in health care, biotech and related fields in the area.43

One would think that with a medical complex this large, health science librarians and libraries would be in great demand, especially by the 394,500 people who work in this sector.

It would make sense that there is considerable research going on, and access to clinical medical research would be a priority to support innovation in Houston. In the whole of the medical center, there is only one library that claims to be independent, existing for the benefit of everyone: the Texas Medical Center Library. The TMC Library is a TexShare member library and receives considerable funding from a State-supported university, The University of Texas.

The TMC Library is the library of record for Baylor College of Medicine, the McGovern Medical School of the University of Texas, and several other member health science schools affiliated with The University of Texas or select departments of State-supported schools. It is a funded largely by The University of Texas and Baylor, but mainly The University of Texas. It offers online access to clinical medical research, tens of thousands of medical journals and ebooks.

Inside, however, there is now very little as an effort to modernize the library resulted in the elimination of its physical collections. Print is for the most part gone, except for some ad hoc titles acquired by donation and end of year spends, random things meant for leisure reading. These sit on built-in shelves along with assortments of puzzles and games put out for the relaxation and enjoyment of students. The library also offers a small selection of popular fiction books placed into an alcove by the Harris County Library System.

There is the assumption, which I do not dispute, that everything serious researchers and scholars might want or need today is available online, so whatever is in the physical space is merely window dressing. The space of the library is a student study hall, not an academic environment, a place for scholars to conduct research, because those who do research are doing it from their offices, not in the library.

All of this is perfectly understandable.

The TMC Library, which began as the Houston Academy of Medicine, at one time served the entire Texas Medical Center, including its hospitals, nurses, students and anyone who needed to do medical research. Parking was readily available to those who wished to visit the library. I remember that library, and visited it a few times when it was the Jesse Jones Library.

Today, however, it is not staffed, organized, licensed or designed to serve the public, including medical researchers, doctors and students in the Texas Medical Center who are not institutionally affiliated with Baylor, UT or a few other TMC Library’s institutional affiliates. It provides remote access to scholarly resources for students, faculty, researchers and others who possess institutional affiliation (must be current students, faculty or staff in school of member institutions).

It does not serve area hospitals, or unaffiliated scholars who work in hospitals or are in private practice. The entire building, which was once the Jesse Jones Library, was taken over by the administration of UT Health, and visitor parking is almost nonexistent. One would think on the weekends it would be easy to obtain a spot, but on weekends the library is closed to outsiders. 

In 2019, the TMC Library underwent renovation of its spaces, after most of the building was taken over by UT Administration. In 2020, a few weeks following my arrival, my department changed its name from the “Department of Technical Services and Collection Management” to the “Department of Resource Management / Discovery Services,” because it was no longer managing or maintaining collections and the IT Department had taken over many Technical Services functions. Before going there, I thought the purpose of the library was as it had been, to support medical research in the greater Houston area. But the library was for its own institutional members, not for those without institutional affiliation. It occurred to me that over the years, the parallel trend of collectionlessness had led to more restrictive library access policies everywhere, a side-effect of becoming a suite of commercial vendor products. I do not mean to be critical. I am stating that The Texas Medical Center Library serves a small percent of those working in the Texas Medical Center. 

The TMC Library is a most interesting case to me, for a number of reasons, including its name, which certainly suggests that it serves everyone in the Texas Medical Center, which it once did. The fact that it is a 501(c)(3)—entity which exists for the public good, and “must be organized and operated for the public interest”; the fact that it is a “library of clinical medicine” as referenced in the Texas Mandate; the fact that its acquisitions are through a State-supported public research institution (The University of Texas); and the fact that at one time the library did previously serve the entire Texas Medical Center, forms the distinct impression in everyone’s mind that the library serves the whole of Texas Medical Center, that it is for doctors who need to conduct research. The TMC Library today is essentially a private library funded by public support. 

The Texas Administrative Code stipulates that libraries who receive public funding, especially those of clinical medical research, must make their collections publicly available:

Sec. 441.223. FINDINGS; PURPOSE AND METHODS. The legislature finds that it is necessary to assist libraries across the state to promote the public good by achieving the following public purposes through the following methods:

(1) to promote the future well-being of the citizenry, enhance quality teaching and research excellence at institutions of higher education through the efficient exchange of information and the sharing of library resources, improve educational resources in all communities, and expand the availability of information about clinical medical research and the history of medicine;

(2) to maximize the effectiveness of library expenditures by enabling libraries to share staff expertise and to share library resources in print and in an electronic form, including books, journals, technical reports, and databases;

(3) to increase the intellectual productivity of students and faculty at the participating institutions of higher education by emphasizing access to information rather than ownership of documents and other information sources;

(4) to facilitate joint purchasing agreements for purchasing information services and encourage cooperative research and development of information technologies; and

(5) to enhance the ability of public schools to further student achievement and lifelong learning.

In the sprawling Texas Medical Center, there really is no “public” library of clinical medical research. There are public law libraries (maintained by the county), but not public medical libraries. 

The Jesse Jones Medical Library, the former Texas Medical Center Library which once occupied the whole building, at one time served everyone who wanted to conduct medical research. No one was turned away. There was no limit for how much time one could spend engaging with the resources there. (No one was saying, “You have been here for an hour one day a week, now you must come back next week.”) Many years ago, I used that library when I worked for a hematologist and oncologist who sometimes served as an expert witness in toxicity cases for environmental pollution. . . someone who lived downwind from a dump possibly had cadmium poisoning, which stuck in my mind because my paints then had Cadmium (Cadmium Red and Yellow). Later, I worked at the TMC Library, surprised that as a 501 (c)(3), it was not working in partnership with county agencies, non-profit organizations, area hospitals or businesses who do research and development. 

The library that was there before it became the TMC Library provided access to practitioners, benefiting the entire Texas Medical Center. My husband actually worked there when he was a student at the University of St. Thomas. He remembers it as I do. Today, however, it is a very different place with a different service model. At this time, public access to electronic resources is granted to an unaffiliated researcher for one hour and only during a work week. Parking is difficult and limited during the week (one can park a block and half away). They believe that their mission is to serve those only member institutions who fund them, and also a secondary concern that providing public access might violate license agreements with vendors. They cancelled membership in OCLC, the network which facilitates exchange between academic and public libraries. Cancellation of OCLC meant that they could not automatically update DocLine holdings, so someone had to this manually. 

Now, imagine if all health science libraries were to replicate this model, this means that those who graduate from medical schools no longer have access to a medical library. Think about specialists and practitioners whose source of information may be limited to PubMed, one or two professional journals a year, and whatever Open Access content they find online. There is good reason for the University of Texas to pay millions each year for access to medical databases. 

Over the years, and with the abandonment of print collections and a collections framework, the TMC Library has increasingly became more of a kind of private library of vendor entitlements without a strong sense of outreach or connection to the larger community in which it is situated, the Texas Medical Center, after which the new library is named. This pattern replicates what is happening at research libraries everywhere across the country. 

These trends are diametrically opposed to support for intellectual freedom and access which academic and medical librarians once stood for.

It is opposed to the ethos of collaboration and openness to which we presumably aspire, and to facilitating partnerships between universities and business to facilitate innovation. 

The progress made in the 70s and on to facilitate scholarly access, resource sharing, and the preservation of knowledge is now being eroded by commercial forces which seek to turn the academic library into a vendor commodity consisting of licensed products available only to those with current institutional affiliation. 

Vendors have succeeded in reshaping our own self-conception of what a library is and does in this digital age. At this time, many academic research libraries have become little more than customer service agents for subscription database products and the tail-ends of publisher-aggregator supply chains.

Public access to the research library and to scholarly articles is becoming increasingly difficult, even as so much information is available online.

This trend toward greater commodification and privatization, and higher and higher costs, is likely to continue, unless the library profession, accrediting agencies, or the State is willing to enforce their own mandates for academic and medical libraries to maintain collections and to share them with the citizens of the State. The Medical Library Association should address collectionlessness and the impact of the increasing commodification of the health sciences library.

From “Access to Information” to the Communication of Knowledge.

The academic library collection represented a body of knowledge corresponding to the academic degrees, what one might ought to know, or be familiar with, to become educated or knowledgeable in a field of study, profession or an academic discipline. A librarian’s chief duty, our primary purpose, was to maintain the collection in anticipation of use and need and also to raise awareness of publications. The collection was what reliably communicated disciplinary knowledge and was a vehicle for education and independent learning. It kept the faculty up to date and the institution moving forward.

A good academic library was always envisioned to be a collection, first and foremost, capable of being experienced as a collection of items related to other items and to a discipline to create a meaningful picture so others could come along and more easily connect the dots. The library an aspirational place creating a context for independent learning through a unique content-rich learning environment which stimulated knowledge-seeking behavior. 

Until twenty years ago, the academic library was never conceptualized as place to just to come to “get answers to (pre-existing) questions” or to satisfy some information need, or a place to sit and study, but as a place one went to stimulate inquiry in the first place, a place where educated people and scholars could go to obtain better understanding of their fields, the scholarly literature, or just to explore new and interesting titles. The transactional model of a library, in which the librarian’s worth was measured in terms of numbers of questions answered or units of information exchanged (“quantiles”) became popular with the rise of “information science,” and an effort to emphasize librarianship as a kind of empirical and theoretical discipline worthy of being attached to a research institution.

The library was always an aesthetic and intellectual experience which stimulated the mind and the senses. It was a place for meaning creation and immersion. Most scholars use or used the library to keep up, to identify trends in their field, and to keep their research interests from fizzling out, not just to answer pre-existing questions. Scanning the spines of books and covers of journals helped them to identify trends. Even before Google, the research library had a much broader purpose than to provide “access to information.” Even before Google, Reference services was never the main reason people went to the library. Even back then, most scholars used the library to conduct research without ever needing to speak to a librarian. Our main service was in maintaining the library as a library in anticipation of use and need.

The library collection engaged and broadened users, and the collection was the primary service we provided. The academic library was not a curricular resource in that it facilitated learning beyond the classroom, and to drive this point home, did not carry “textbooks” (many went back on this policy, or made efforts to get the departments to put a copy on course reserve). To the extent that the library inspired others to engage with the collection, that is, the extent it stimulated demand for its own resources, was the extent to which a library was judged successful in achieving its educational mission. The objective of circulation was to develop strategies and displays to increase circulation, not to check books in and out. The objective of collection development was to strategically develop the collection to avoid gaps, and to anticipate use and need to make sure the collection provided an optimal intellectual and scholarly experience to its users. Our own investment in title selection and familiarity with subject areas demonstrated care and commitment to the scholarly enterprise.

The library collection was arranged in such a way to present and represent the scholarly and professional literature in a subject area so that this information could be efficiently transmitted to students, scholars and future scholars. The collection was therefore also a form of scholarly communication about scholarly communication

But that was then, and this is now, and it is now unclear what of traditional librarianship still pertains to us in the all digital environment we now find ourselves, in which we offer access to everything but own nothing, and increasingly exercise very little control over the content we offer or the way in which we offer it. As vendors have taken responsibility for metadata, even forging new metadata standards, the possibility of creating a true digital library experience online (as opposed to a search engine on third—party content) is becoming an increasingly remote. The profession seems to have reconciled themselves that discovery is “it.” 

It is common knowledge that today, academic libraries are abandoning their collections, both their carefully considered arrangements of physical books on shelves, and also any obvious commitment to the ideal of curated collections online, in favor of something more efficient and practical: providing passive access to aggregations of third-party resources through license agreements and electronic resource discovery systems, a search box.

In place of this, we have e-resource discovery, a search engine.

“Discovery” is what the library world calls “search,” or Google-like search. Discovery tools are sometimes bundled with integrated library systems (Primo VE with Alma, WMS with OCLC), similar to the way IE came bundled with Windows; or, they can be standalone tools (Primo, EDS, Summons). Discovery tools are specialized applications configured to search a central index of records of the bibliographic content belonging to vendors and which libraries have licensed (typically referred to as “entitlements”). By checking boxes on the backend of our system, a process known as resource activation, libraries make their entitlements available to users, typically thousands of records at time, through the discovery portal where content is invisible until someone performs a search. It takes seconds to make 130,000 titles available in discovery. We can make so much more content available this way—provided people come along and search for something. But the search box itself which returns some list-ranked results without any kind of overview of what is there, fails to inspire user engagement among students and seasoned scholars. Increasingly, users go to vendor platforms and do not bother to come to us. Statistics show that in most academic settings, our discovery tool is hardly being used (slightly more than LibGuides). Provided going through the library’s website is no longer needed for authentication (that was the old way), users prefer to go directly to subject-specific resources to conduct research. 

With the shift from collection management to e-resource management / discovery, academic libraries have become less about the intellectual work of selecting, managing, arranging and presenting titles in collections—and the user experience of collectionsand more about the mechanics of managing vendor entitlements and negotiating pricing for entitlement packages, which is activity that is very different from what academic librarianship once prescribed as a best practice. The system itself, as well as the modern library’s having developed workflows around discovery to achieve maximum efficiency, has consequently eroded traditional standards for selection, description and display.

Through this scalable system to which all academic libraries now subscribe, millions of records can be made instantly available, although none of them are particularly visible or memorable to library users, even to the other librarians who work in the library.

No matter how much we acquire, all anyone sees is a search box with list-ranked results when a query is performed. The discovery experiencenot browsable titles in collectionshas become the primary experience of the modern academic library in this digital age. We may acquire and activate millions of dollars in scholarly content, but have only a search box and some static webpages to show for it. 

From Collection Management to Electronic Resource Management. Ack!

Electronic resource management is the management of license agreements (including negotiating pricing and renewals) of intuitional access to third-party content, rather than managing content itself, which was always the emphasis of collection management and traditional academic librarianship. 

And yet, if no one is managing the intellectual or academic side of the acquisitions, managing actual titles, how do we know that we are acquiring what is best, rather than just what a vendor is making available? For example, we know that aggregators who sell packages to libraries routinely omit better titles and current titles from these packages. Aggregator packages often contain backlist titles, older content, obscure titles and foreign imprints, and sometimes present content in a format that is unappealing to users (e.g., the experience of reading The New York Times through a Gale database).

Does quality suffer when a library decides it is not going to acquire title-by-title in anticipation of use, and only acquires subscription content in large packages at the first of the year? Does quality suffer when a library decides it will only acquire serials or databases and ignore scholarly monographs or even important trade books?

What is the benchmark against which a library is to be evaluated?

Unlike collection management, the practice of ERM requires no awareness or evaluation of new titles, no particular subject expertise, and no knowledge of the disciplines beyond what vendor platforms are most valued by users. That is all. Once the framework of collections is stripped away, the job of performing acquisitions for an academic library no longer requires keeping up with new titles, and in its own way, the system itself—that is, e-resource discovery systemsencourages the removal of librarians from title selection activity, affording greater degree of disengagement with scholarly literature.

I believe vendors like it that way. 

In the library of old, people with subject expertise, or at least a subject commitment, selected titles, often in collaboration with faculty and through consulting expert review sources; a cataloger also saw items, and the item was visible both in the catalog and in a collection, increasing the likelihood that others would see the item and be able to place it into context. Today, no one inside or outside the library may see an item in its lifetime. The problem is not that the item is digital, but that it is practically invisible inside of discovery systems, as is most of the content the library acquires.

Today, library acquisitions is almost completely automated. With integration profiles and autoload features, the library’s discovery system remains synced to the platforms of large vendors (aggregators, publishers) and journal hosting platforms. No one inside of the library may be selecting what titles are loaded in or the metadata (discovery records) that comes into our systems when resources are activated or know they are there, or more importantly, what isn’t there which ought to be. It makes it so no one is paying attention to the content, which is invisible in discovery until someone performs a search.

It supports a passive method of acquisition and access though an empty search box and in its own way, encourages ignorance (lack of knowledge), because items in it lack sufficient visibility and scholarly context. What we have created is a system, including the organization of the modern library, which provides access to some scholarly resources “in response to,” a reaction, not a real academic library online which encourages literacy, knowledge, engagement or intellectual inquiry, letting people know what it is they do not know or know about.

A search engine is not a library, nor does it meet our business and technical requirements to be a library. No one believes that Google is a library, so why should the library aspire to be like Google? 

Despite its many drawbacks, electronic resource discovery systems have come to define the academic library landscape as well as roles in the library. Yet these tools were never designed to be online libraries. They were not developed around library business requirements. For many years, they were a convenience, a federated search tool for users who had no idea where to begin their research.

As is the case today, better search results often are obtained by going directly to vendor platforms and conducting searches there, which is what most experienced researchers prefer to do anyway.

Furthermore, the user interface of discovery is not, and never was, designed to represent bodies of knowledge any more than Google or any other search engine. It isn’t bad, but it is just the wrong tool for the job. Just as one cannot use a dictionary when one needs an encyclopedia, and vice versa, discovery is not going to give you an overview of a field or the experience of a library collection. It would be nearly impossible to study the Humanities through it, but it seems the study of every academic discipline, even STEM fields, are impeded because there is hardly any ability to determine what is generally accepted as true, the status quo.

Even its hierarchical orientation is “wrong” for an academic library, which should be primarily about representing knowledge in the disciplines, and only secondarily about satisfying a user’s particular research need. The collection, signifying objective knowledge, is the backdrop; that objective view of the disciplines and culture, preserved over time, is what a library is. Items in a collection are organized by classification mapped to the disciplines, not according to relevance to a particular user query. While granted, everyone uses search engines, library discovery solutions do not appear to offer much value add to scholars, and yet, this, combined with stagnant library websites now under the control of IT Departments, is how the modern academic library has come to be defined in this digital age. It is imperative that we develop better user interfaces capable of representing all of the library’s holdings as a collection so that titles have greater visibility and academic works are presented in scholarly context.

In academic libraries today, new titles and trends, once an important part of the user experience, are not visible library users. How are we helping them keep up? How are we raising literacy? 

Collections, which once defined the library landscape, are entirely gone in any and all formats, which means: no new books lists, no browsing a section of new titles, no promoting awareness of “the new,” not holding on to the old and significant, seminal works. There is no there there.

A significant barrier to resource discovery through discovery tools is that people must come to it already looking for something. Search results are not well defined or scoped by the generality of the search query. What I mean by the latter is the person who puts in a one word search is likely looking for general information and not scholarly articles with that search term in its title. (I am thinking about the Freshman experience when they are told to find five peer-reviewed articles on “diabetes.”) It is also limiting access in other ways, including by encouraging bad metadata as normative or acceptable, as part of this trade off where we have become little more than the tail-end of a publisher aggregator supply chain.

We are encouraged by vendors to see the efficiencies of scale brought about by these systems and the upending of traditional library roles as progress in the field, but I really do not think so in terms of the intellectual experience or scholarly value we might otherwise provide. We have simply lowered our standards to accommodate the business requirements of vendors, not developed robust user interfaces to reflect the values of the academic disciplines we supposedly represent or the values and standards of our own profession. We have allowed ourselves to become commodified, a commodity.

Consider that when we managed actual collections, few of us acquired titles simply because they were published by a particular publisher with whom we had entered into business relationship (indeed, to acquire items for a collection in this way would have been considered highly unethical, or at least an act of bad faith); and when we designed our libraries and our systems, display and logical arrangement by classification was thought an important aspect of them.

The recommended way of doing professional collection evaluation for an academic library, through conspectus analysis, is no longer even supported by electronic resource discovery systems, leaving us unable to leverage automation to systematically evaluate the intellectual content of our own offerings.

Even generating a simple shelf list in order by LC classification of all of the titles licensed and owned by the library is nearly impossible.

We should be thinking outside the search box and asking what we want the user experience of the online library to be in this digital age. Do we want the library to be just a search engine? Or something more engaging and valuable to scholars which will make the library a destination?  How might we develop a more engaging user experience online?

Library resources no longer reflect local or institutional culture or the interests of the faculty. They no longer reflect a value system in which it is important to know or academic values, the values of educated people. Where before we maintained a balance of collections and resources, now “resources”no, mere access to them, which is even further removed from our former academic idealshas become the basis of the user experience of the library online. This is bound to lead to disengagement.

As academic libraries have become collectionless, functioning only to provide remote access vendor products through resource discovery tools, the whole framework of the library has been transformed into something which does not reflect care (the root of “curation”) or intellectual investment.

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There words are of great relevance to librarianship. Part of our role is to create value around scholarly resources, but if we do not seem to care about them, why should anyone else? 

No Culture without Collections?

Nothing reflects academic culture like a well-maintained collection, because “culture” itself is collective of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.44 

Culture, or academic culture at least, really does not exist outside of a collection of common references and exists only as common reference points upon which knowledge (and culture) can continue to build and grow. “Culture” is the narrative we assign to objects to make connections between them.

A search engine may provide access to relevant resources, which is a good thing, but it does not convey cultural, scholarly or intellectual value, because there is no collection there, and no connection between things; this “collection” might exist apart from ownership, but consists of the body of knowledge which defines academic subject areas, the disciplines. The value of academic culture and the value of academic collections are inseparable; the value one places on culture and education and scholarship is the value one places on collections. 

Inside of the fully digital library of today, we ourselves, those who work in them, do not know what comes and goes. Our content, and our commitment to it, is imperceptible. For this service many of us pay vendors millions each year, licensing the same content over and over, with nothing to show for it but “access to” resources which live on third-party websites, and in the case of aggregators, usually nothing that is current or in demand (since these are held out of aggregator packages). Because our content is invisible, it is easily ignored and appears nothing anyone need know about, nothing anyone there in the library has invested in.

Now in the thrall of vendors, the public (State-supported) university library, which has a mandate to serve all citizens of the State, is restricting access to the public, to citizens, in ways it never sought to do before.

Having all but eliminated title-by-title acquisitions, the acquisitions librarian may simply sit and wait in suspended animation, passive, like a spider, for someone to come along and request an item, plucking the string. Even then, the answer is likely to be no, the requestor must simply wait for weeks or months, because all funds have already been committed at the beginning of the year to subscription databases and no other library owns a print copy which they can lend through ILL either, because their institutions have eliminated collections and are also full of spiders, waiting for users to come along and request items, rather than acquiring them in anticipation of use and need to support and nurture intellectual life and humanity at their respective universities.

There is no humanity it it.

Do Libraries Need Collections to be Good? 

We were taught in library school (and I quote from a textbook published as recently as 2019, not from mine from 1989) that libraries are “a collection of what is deemed socially important information,” “organized to enhance access” and “preserved for future users.”45 Libraries are fundamentally about collections, and our value as library professionals is tied to the management and knowledge of what is in the collection. Another aspect of good library services is the capability of stimulating demand for scholarly resources. Traditionally, it has done this through the creation of content-rich learning environments reflecting disciplinary culture and academic achievement at that institution and beyond. It was also done through sending around new title lists and practicing collaborative collection development.

Academic libraries are a unique institution about presenting, preserving and perpetuating academic and cultural knowledge.

They are also about stimulating intellectual inquiry, raising awareness of new publications and increasing awareness of contemporary thought and culture in order that all scholars can reach their educational, intellectual and creative potential. 

To the extent that libraries are capable of stimulating demand for their own resources—not just providing passive “access to”—is the extent to which they are successful as libraries. A good library anticipates demand and stimulates a desire to know, in some small part because other people can know or share the same text (a common reference point). Collections are fundamentally about human achievement and respect for learning, scholarship and knowledge. Librarianship is a humanistic discipline about the perpetuation of culture and knowledge.

Today, “learning centers,” often considered to be a new kind of academic library, are replacing traditional academic libraries, but these are not managed in ways that contribute scholarly value beyond making aggregated content passively available.

They tend to be unambitious places, study halls, with librarians serving not as curators of content, but as building custodians.

While some librarians may provide instruction in database searching, the staff may exercise limited or no intellectual or bibliographic control over library content, limited control over display and almost no ability to communicate with users.

Libraries currently do not possess an ebook hosting platform of their own. This fact has impeded the library’s ability to offer the same academically rigorous standards we once maintained for the acquisition of titles in collections in the digital environment. Where organization by classification was once thought fundamental to access, visibility, display, and a good user experience, today, we simply provide a search engine and links to content which live on remote websites so that students can find whatever they might come looking for. 

A collection organized by classification supports browsing. It also supports content curation and analysis, where discovery supports only the low bar of information retrieval.

The collection itself, organized and arranged as a collection, is a construct which provides an additional layer of scholarly value beyond discovery, but without which libraries are less effective at communicating value and disciplinary culture, marketing their resources, and stimulating inquiry in the first place. A collection is necessary for an academic library to be a library.

The Limits of Discovery as a Library User Interface.

The reconceptualization of the whole of the academic library as a search engine results in a lack of differentiation between “electronic collections” and the digital inventories of our vendors.

Replacing Collection Management with Resource Management (or “resource discovery”) is a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. With the self-conception of the latter the library becomes incentivized to acquire whatever vendors publish. There is no view of the totality. Students who come to a university to learn about a field or profession cannot see an overview of their discipline or what is there in the library, only bits and pieces of what they retrieve in discovery. There is nothing aspirational or compelling about an empty search box.

There was a time when a lack of distinction between quality curated content (collections) and aggregated content (commercial resources) was considered acting in bad faith, by academic librarians who objected to content aggregators (Questia Online Library, NetLibrary, and ebrary) referring to themselves as academic libraries or electronic libraries online when they did not offer collections, at least not by our own professional library standards for them. Aggregators merely digitized, hosted and licensed in packages of often unwanted, low-demand, backlist, or older resources so these could be monetized by the aggregator, an afterlife when the publisher was done extracting all the value he could out of a title.

Obviously, these searchable aggregations of resources were neither libraries nor collections, even if their content was passively compiled for scholarly audiences or would be of interest to no else but a scholar. For libraries to acquire content in this way and present it as some kind of collection, rather than supplemental to it, was a violation of our collection development policies and professional ethical standards. Everyone protested when vendors like Questia called itself an academic library even though it didn’t have librarians or collections. Now, twenty years later, we are doing the same thing, passing off commercial content as if it were academically-rigorous library collections.

With the shift from collection management to electronic resource management, our former academic standards for title selection, description and display have been completely eroded. It signifies not simply a trivial name change. It is a literally lowering of standards of what we acquire and how we arrange and display it. This is the academic library which has abandoned any commitment to collections, to knowledge, or the education of students except through the most passive means possible, an empty search box on an empty webpage. Of course, there is the A-Z and LibGuides. But still. With the widespread abandonment of collections, there is less interaction with users to encourage reading or for us to learn what they are interested in. There is also less (or no) interaction with faculty on acquisitions, no keeping faculty aware of new titles, no collaboration with them as we had in the past, and which was taught to us as a best practice for good collection management. 

Before we kept up with new publications to help faculty keep up. Through resource management alone, and bulk purchasing, a chasm forms between the library and the rest of campus. Librarians in resulting “learning centers” are no longer perceived as part of a network of people on campus involved with scholarship and research.

Inside the learning center, we manage nothing but “a facility” which is no longer functioning as a library. There is less need for subject specialists inside of the library because we have no product of our own. The intellectual work which once defined the essence of academic librarianship through careful title selection, cataloging and content curation, and above all, the pleasure of sharing the knowledge of books with others who might want to experience them, has been replaced with impersonal processes culminating in merely providing access to vendor products through a discovery interface:

. . . the web, aggregators, and the Big Deals all contributed to a culture where individual work was needed less and, perhaps, less valued. Journals bought in large packages only needed a single invoice to pay for scores of titles. . . There was little regard the quality of the records for highly volatile materials. There was little role for collection development since most resources came as part of a package constructed by a vendor or publisher.”46

Indeed, academic libraries now acquire access to ebooks and ejournals by the tens of thousands, with the records of these titles (and KBART files of articles) loaded with a few clicks of the mouse. We do not concern ourselves much with what is in these packages.

I don’t, and I imagine I have more academic interests than most people. Academic titles pop in and out on their own, autoload and autodelete, but there is no sense anyone values them or cares, because there is no content curation (care is the essence of curation) or visibility to endow items with respect (visibility is the root of respect). Once the “collection” is activated, entitlements can be retrieved through discovery interface on a central index of the metadata which vendors provide, or else by going directly to the vendor’s platform. But the resources acquired from these disparate sources cannot be displayed as a collection of titles, within their disciplinary contexts, which has always been our library standard.

The new learning center does not sustain a culture of learning.

Public Access to Vendor Entitlements.

As Luesebrink points out, building and maintaining library collections reflects an institutional commitment, an investment, both in the preservation of the resource and in an item’s intellectual property rights, because content ownership endows the institution with the ability to freely share library material for the sake of research and scholarship in the way licensing access to content does not.47

Therefore, the strategy of merely licensing access to content, but not owning content, is likely to result in curtailing of access to those without institutional affiliation, if not immediately, then in the long run.

Restricting public access to both the library facility and its resources, even by schools which receive public funding, is becoming more common as a result of automation and commodification, and yet there is little recognition of how these restrictive policies (whether caused by restrictive licensing or authentication protocols) might impact the business objectives of the school, for example, its recruitment initiatives and its ability to form partnerships in the community.

It could also be disadvantaging graduates who will try to establish themselves professionally, since recent graduates often take jobs with smaller employers who cannot afford to provide access to costly professional databases. Doctors will not have access to medical journals once they graduate from medical school (except for what is Open Access or through PubMed), therefore potentially negatively impacting research and health outcomes, especially in poorer and rural communities. Teachers, museum professionals and faculty at community colleges often rely upon the public university library. If the public university denies access, they are left with Google and Google Scholar (admittedly, there is a great deal of excellent scholarly content available for free online). Since campus IT Departments have become charged with managing authentication processes which were previously handled inside of the library (often by Library Technical Services), access only to those currently enrolled or institutionally affiliated has become normative, where previously students—all citizens for that matter—were able to go to any State-supported school library to conduct research.

As libraries no longer own their own content, the ethos of resource sharing and commitment to public access to scholarly content inside of academic libraries is being eroded. This attitude that the library is only for those on the inside and provides a support role rather than an educational role has also meant that we may no longer control our website, even at a time when the whole of the library is online. 

The replacement of collections with vendor products results in high levels of efficiency inside of the library, but it also represents the commodification of library services by vendors which is antithetical to the creation of a culture of learning and the life of the mind. Objection to replacing collection management with resource management, or more broadly, or conversion into a learning center,  is a deeply library professional issue. It is probably our most important professional issue.

The Mephisto Waltz:
From Resources to Collections, and back to Resources Again.

I know people do not believe me.

But it would be incorrect to assume that a rejection of resource management as constituting the sole basis for the user experience of a library arises from some emotional attachment to books or print format, rather than a conviction that collections alone properly serve as the basis for an optimal aesthetic, intellectual and educational experience of a library, but one which as of yet has no equivalent online. What might to be done to remedy this situation it is another matter, but first I think that libraries operate best and serve patrons best when their own library-centric standards for service are followed.

When going fully digital, even large academic libraries are devolving into collectionless entities called “learning centerswhich appear by all accounts to need few professional librarians or educated people to manage them. Check the boxes and we are done. Not just for the year, but forever.

The precursor to the learning center, the LRC, never did employ or need professional librarians. This is because it consisted of random resources people could use if they wanted to, but it was not necessary to do so. Learning resource centers, often one or two rooms containing instructional materials, test prep materials, random curricular resources, donated desk copies of textbooks and other resources passively acquired (entities with resources, but without collections, an acquisitions budget or a collection development policy), were never thought appropriate, sufficiently rigorous, for an academic library in higher education, and in years past, would never pass accreditation muster. Someone, often a student, was assigned just to sit there at a desk near the entrance to make sure resources didn’t walk off. While people may have called it a library, it wasn’t, and we knew better than to call it one.

LRCs would not have met accreditation requirements even for vocational institutions twenty years ago.

I know this, because in the early 2000s I earned extra income putting in libraries for a few small career schools seeking first-time accreditation. My work entailed installing a low-cost library system, setting up a proxy server, designing a website, drafting a collection development plan, acquiring databases, copy cataloging, processing what good books were already there, gathering any core bibliographies which might exist, establishing a reasonable budget, developing an Opening Day collection, and training someone there to carry it on. These employers would likely not have invested in a library were it not a requirement for accreditation. Accreditation was our big stick.

Now, with the rise in popularity of resource management / discovery systems, combined with a widespread belief that providing access to the content of vendors completely satisfies our business and educational requirements, no one inside the library may be even aware of what new titles are being added to the library’s inventories, or more importantly, what titles are being omitted.

The online library today is kind of a black box.

This passive method of acquisitions and delivery, where people (and librarians) must search for something for content to be seen, makes it easy to acquire content, but it leads to a disconnect of academic librarians and library users from library content. Nothing is seen. 

New titles come in and out without impacting our license agreements, but no one inside of the library or at the university sees these titles or is even be much aware of them.

What we acquire, often at many times above list price, is invisible until invoked by a query. No one really knows what or how much is in there.

The library with a budget exceeding 10 million dollars has a user interface and similar user experience online as the one which just offers TexShare databases, a search box which results in a result set of 10 items at a time. Whether a library is big or small, the UI is exactly the same. There is no sense of how much is there, or if it is good or reliable.

This disconnect of librarians from library content is not just affecting us inside of the library. It is affecting scholars and scholarship at our institutions.

They are disconnected and disengaged from our content too, and our content is their content. We are not providing the level of service we once did to help faculty keep up. If we ourselves do not keep up with new titles coming out and alert them to what we have or might obtain for them, how do they know? 

Despite spending thousands or millions on library acquisitions, the library does not nurture a culture of learning on campus.

Even on the system’s backend, titles remain invisible unless a query is performed. The library systems marketed for use by large academic libraries, web-scale discovery solutions, are the least likely to support collection development, collection assessment, browsing and display. But browsing is often what stimulates interest and inquiry, the first stage of research, and a collections approach is what was used for assessment.

We cannot assess “resources” in the same academically rigorous way. 

New Barriers to Access from a Resource Discovery Approach.

Apart from links to databases, the whole of the academic library experience is a search engine front-ending an index of the metadata of vendor entitlements, metadata provided by the vendors themselves, which they deposit into our community zones and control. We call this a “discovery layer.”

The shift to collectionless is not just a shift from print to digital, but an ideological one which has far-reaching implications for the library, the university, and society.

It is an abandonment of the university library’s commitment to the presentation and preservation of knowledge for present and future scholars, seeking to preserve and perpetuate what is significant, relevant, influential and important to know. It is the abandonment of our ideal of life-long learning, broad access and resource sharing. It is also an abandonment of disciplinary knowledge. It means the disappearance of collective memory. 

It is an abandonment of the culture of educated people, and of our commitment to it so our students might themselves become educated people. I believe that this is a very serious thing in society. A major university should be counted upon to have new and significant titles, and to preserve these titles for more than a year or two. A major university should seek ways to make its resources more visible than through a search box.

Maintaining collections representing coherent bodies of knowledge was our main contribution to the scholarly enterprise, our “value add” as academic librarians. If there are no bodies of knowledge over which students are supposed to achieve mastery, how can a university in good faith offer academic degrees? 

Library by subscription certainly helps to streamline library operations and provides access to vastly more content than was ever before possible. However, while making so much more content instantly available to users, we have inadvertently erected intellectual and technical barriers to access.

One such barrier is users not knowing what to search for or what the user might find beneficial or interesting.

Students come to the university with no knowledge of their disciplines, and we have no way of communicating this information to them with visuals. Presenting people with a search box to find “whatever they want” is not ideal from an instructional standpoint. Why should we expect people to fish out from a search engine what texts they need to educate themselves in a field? 

Also, if we cannot present new ebooks to faculty and students, how do they keep up? 

In this digital age, there are also technical barriers to access. The metadata we receive from vendors is often poor, especially for new titles, the titles most scholars would want to know about and the ones we would want to showcase.

Because there may be no classification/call numbers in the bibliographic records (the 050) we receive from vendors, we cannot place collections of new books online in some meaningful, browsable, authoritative arrangements for online displays. 

And then there is the strange, almost absurd situation of telling students that these are “their professional databases,” but yet increasingly, few professionals in the real world appear to have access to them. New authentication protocols (single sign on) seek to restrict access to those without institutional affiliation, undermining any of our former pretentions to life-long learning.

As academic libraries have become fully digital, vendors are increasingly dictating our terms of access and authentication protocols and our content, and seeking to restrict public access through license agreements that are less and less library-friendly.

“Resource management” models, where we license the content of others, encourages the idea that only those with institutional affiliation are “entitled” to access the academic library’s content. This model reduces the function and purpose of the library to a scholastic and not a scholarly resource.

New Competencies for Librarians within the Newly Commodified Library.

At academic libraries everywhere, departments of Collection Management have become departments of Resource Management.

However, there are deeply ideological, intellectual and philosophical differences between managing electronic resources and managing collections. The competencies and orientation of these two are very different. Collection management is a bibliographic orientation emphasizing titles. Resource management is a commercial orientation which emphasizes vendor products.

According to NASIG (North American Serials Interest Group), the “Electronic Resources Librarian” must possess as core competencies knowledge of licensing and contract language governing terms of access and service, as well as networking technologies and authentication protocols and discovery tools.48 But in the framework of the core competencies for the Electronic Resources Librarian, there is nothing mentioned about subject expertise or academic knowledge, domain knowledge, despite the fact that, according to this same article, ERLs are often solely and entirely responsible for acquisitions and managing budgets in the fully digital academic library.

Subject expertise or domain knowledge is not thought necessary for resource managers, as it always was for collection managers.

To provide some context, when I graduated with my MLIS in 1990, a second master’s (the MLIS plus a master’s degree in an academic subject area) was a requirement to obtain entry-level employment in an academic library. At that time, most academic librarians had faculty status. A doctorate was preferred for many roles in a university library. Today, the Electronic Resources Librarian may perform all or the lion’s share of the acquisitions for an academic library. This job function is not seen as an academic position, but a technical or managerial role 

One might surmise that librarians with more subject expertise are more likely to engage in content curation and title-by-title selection simply because the staff are more professionally and personally invested in the disciplines. Those who lack subject expertise might tend to exhibit greater deference to vendors (publishers and aggregators), and be more inclined toward acquisitions models where they do not need to know much about scholarly communication in the disciplines.

Electronic Resource Management in many libraries today consists of managing, or really just monitoring, what has come to be a completely automated processes resulting from the tight integration of library systems with vendor packages or products, especially as the same academic packages tend to be renewed each year. A library which has moved entirely from collection management to electronic resource management model does not necessarily need subject specialists or librarians to keep up with what new titles are coming out. Through discovery solutions, the library because more or less an automated feed of vendor inventory or “entitlements.” 

A little over twenty years ago, when Questia, the first subscription-based online academic library launched, a publisher-aggregator driven model was thought unethical by many academic librarians, who claimed that Questia could never be a real academic library because it did not offer librarian-curated collections,3 just digitalized content provided by those who stood to profit financially from such an arrangement. It was dubbed a “McLibrary.”2

I was Questia’s first librarian, only belatedly assigned the dubious title of “Collection Manager,” even though I did not manage their collections. My role, at least initially, was to develop a bibliometric system which generated a prioritized list of titles to feed retrospective collection development so it did not need to hire librarians, title-selectors; I loved that project. I could throw myself into it completely. I also believed in the cause of democratizing access to the academic library, providing remote access to a scholarly research library to everyone, not just to those currently enrolled in school. I was also their consultant for library standards for the user interface and the metadata for their citation system. Much to my chagrin, Questia quickly determined that it was not feasible to do as university libraries had always done, selecting the best titles to be added to a collection and supporting browse by classification to offer users the user experience of good collections. Early on, it abandoned the goal of quality collections for the goal of quantity of resources. My ideal academic library in the cloud was just a fantasy.

From the point I was hired starting the day after New Years in 2000, Questia had less than one year to launch its service. Questia did not have the luxury of selectivity because it had to rapidly grow the size of its digital repository to meet digitization quotas with a scanning company in Indonesia and be able to monetize its content by beginning to generate revenues through the sale of subscriptions. In the early days of digitization, there were many obstacles to be overcome, especially the fear by print publishers of putting their content online. There were problems with sourcing (all books had to be sent to Houston and then shipped overseas); there were copyright issues. Every book with a photo in it had to go through an additional copyright clearance process for the photo, which made the digitization of art and architecture books impossible; they were often added to the platform with their images stripped out, rendering them useless. There were also many scanning issues. Books with non-Roman characters or equations or tables created problems for digitization at that time. Pattern recognition software was used to check for scanning errors, comparing the scanned page with the original, but then human intervention was needed. This was absolutely state-of-the art ca. 2000. Many important titles were out of print and not available, also making selectivity difficult, and again there were sourcing challenges. Digitization back then destroyed the book (high speed book scanners were a later invention), making it impossible to partner with libraries as Google did later in its attempt to offer the world’s largest library. Questia had arrived on the scene five years before Google attempted its large-scale book digitization project, a project which failed because publishers sued them for copyright infringement. 

To its credit, Questia successfully digitized large amounts of scholarly content, whatever it could its hands on in the public domain and get licenses for from publishers, typically publisher back-stock and backlist (that is, known to not be in demand) academic titles; but not necessarily what would have been prioritized or even included in a good undergraduate library collection, even though this content was “scholarly.” It was often “bad” scholarly. I had connections all over in the rare and used book trade at that time. I helped Questia procure titles in the public domain to meet their digitization quotas, and then stuff started to be sent to us by academic presses. In many ways, it was the antithesis of what a good undergraduate library should be: content often wasn’t current, relevant, or authoritative. Even after license agreements were signed with academic publishers, much of it was comprised of obscure and narrow academic titles appropriate only for the largest of academic library collections which supported doctoral programs in those areas. In the end, Questia’s department of Publisher Relations, all MBAs, individuals completely ignorant of the titles they were acquiring or their scholarly value, negotiated deals and signed on publishers, who at first gave Questia only their junk to digitize and / or add to its platform, at least in the beginning until they could see how it would benefot them.

Questia was what came to be known in the publishing industry as a “content aggregator.” Its mascot was a flippant French Marquis who made the point, “Why waste time in the library reading books when you can use Questia to write your papers?” 

The first online academic library famously had no need for librarian title selectors, scholars or collection managers, because in the end it wasn’t going to offer library collections, at least not in the traditional sense. The first commercial online academic library, librarians everywhere noted, neither had collections nor librarians (at least none in prominent positions), and many academic librarians at the time took note of that fact.

I was there on full-time contract for five months, yet to be offered a permanent position. Questia’s Marketing Department responded to the negative publicity by dubbing me “Collection Manager” and hiring a slew of academic librarians who, just as I had months earlier, arrived in their offices wide-eyed and eager to learn all about digital libraries. It was the future, so exciting! Their purpose there was just so Marketing could say “real librarians” worked there. The company predictably let them all go. Not me, but most likely I would have been in the next go-round; I resigned, stepping off to another start-up which had an NIH grant. By that time, everyone around me in positions of influence had been cut or quit. My library degree and subject expertise were useless to the company. The management team came to the conclusion that they were not going to be an academic library like Harvard’s Lamont Library, which had been the original plan. Despite its name and questionable ethical practices of allowing publishers to drive “library” acquisitions, this same practice forged by Questia and other content aggregators at that time has now become standard practice inside the modern academic library.

We now negotiate licenses in exactly the same fashion as Questia did twenty years ago, an approach to acquisitions which was judged then to be unscholarly and unprofessional by academic librarians everywhere. This is the trade off, what “going fully digital” in this digital age means.

Because Browsing is Learning. 

Of course, collections include journal titles, serials and other resources in various formats. Collections of titles have traditionally been our meat and potatoes: titles of books, titles of ebooks, journal titles, titles of videos, of music, all works in all formats, logically arranged according to the discipline (LC Classification). Arrangement by classification / call number is our way of visual merchandizing to enhance scholarly value and to ensure quality. It represents how academic knowledge is defined and organized and what is of value to a broader society of educated people.

Accrediting agencies still request collection development policies as part of the accreditation review process,51 even if many requirements may be satisfied if the school offers adequate resources for degree completion or even just TexShare databases, depending on the school’s mission. A conspectus analysis, which uses the call numbers of titles to map subject strengths and weaknesses using standardized criteria, is still considered in the academic library world to the best method for assessing collections, even if our most advanced academic library system (Alma/Primo), with all of its Oracle Business Analytics and sophisticated reporting features, is incapable of supporting it (because it does not fully support search and sort of e-resources by LC Classification ranges, only print books, which have call numbers).

Publishers and aggregators may seek to eliminate the need to supply library-centric elements in the metadata they provide to libraries,6 and many do not comprehend why classification might be needed if an item is not going to sit in a specific location on a shelf. They are oblivious to the importance of scholarly context and the legitimate need for academic librarians and scholars to be able to browse titles mapped to the disciplines to support this information-seeking behavior, and of course, to perform a collection analysis.

If one of our objectives as librarians is to convey the value of information, it seems our systems, workflows and access policies are conveying the opposite message by suggesting that there is no existential value for a resource outside of satisfying a particular need. How could any text or title in a database be that important if it is invisible, needing to be “discovered” by someone to be seen at all? And how could the databases we license be that important to success in life if few outside of the institution are capable of accessing them?

A comprehensive academic research library attached to a medium-sized university which I worked for in the 2010s transitioned to a learning center in the year before COVID, as did many other academic libraries during that same time period.

All title-by-title acquisitions had stopped around 2013. Another library which was the library of record for eight medical schools in the Houston area decided that it would no longer maintain collections. At that library I been hired to work in the Department of Technical Services and Collection Management, but within a few weeks the department’s name changed to the Department of Resource Management and Discovery Services. It didn’t see the point of maintaining collections or keeping up with new titles that were coming out, and I was disheartened that the metadata for new titles coming in from many academic publishers was so poor that it was highly unlikely these titles would be findable. I could not arrange them by classification to design a new books feed, because the 050 was missing or populated incorrectly.

The academic library world was already shedding staff in significant numbers in the years prior to the pandemic. One former employer who had sustained a professional staff of fifteen has drawn up into a staff of three: a Director, an Assistant Director, and a Reference Librarian who does double duty managing the Circulation/Information Desk and patrolling the floor for food violators. This pattern is not unusual, even at the largest of libraries today. According to a recent survey of the post-COVID library employment landscape,53 mid-level positions in academic libraries have been “choked off,” and new graduates cannot find jobs because there is no upward mobility for those who have been there for years.

It seems to me that the academic library is continuing to cede control of its spaces, its systems, and its websites to outside entities and other departments, to content aggregators who have re-envisioned the whole of the library as a search engine of their content.

Even at the largest of libraries with the largest budgets, there may be no commitment to the maintenance or display of collections as such, no effort to communicate or preserve knowledge, no emphasis on titles acquired in anticipation of need and use, no curatorship or display; what new titles are acquired (or licensed) remain invisible “awaiting discovery” just like the rest of the library’s passively acquired electronic resources.

This model of the library as passive “access to” aggregations of third-party content will certainly make it very easy for our system vendor, Clarivate ProQuest Ex Libris, or whatever they want to be called, to eventually license a comprehensive research solution directly to the university, ultimately making the academic library “Ex Libris.”

The State Mandate, TexShare, and whether Access to Scholarly Research inside a Public Academic University be Construed as an Entitlement by the Public.

Universities libraries, especially those that are publicly-funded, ought to make clear through their policies, websites, license agreements, designs, marketing, staffing, outreach initiatives and parking, that its audiences include alumni and the scholarly community and generally educated people, who should not be charged access fees, made to re-enroll in school, or unduly inconvenienced (allowed only to use the library during the work week and only for one hour, etc.) to use the library in order to conduct research. Research should be our primary objective, and that means making researchers feel welcome.

Rather than erecting needless barriers to keep the community out, the public academic library should be attempting to expand its base of support into the surrounding community. It should be trying to make itself relevant to scholars, professionals and employers. The library should be a marketing and a recruitment tool for the university.

No Executive Director of an academic library can effectively raise funds for a library without providing for some level of community access. Alumni frequently want or expect access especially if they are asked to give money to support the library.

To prevent or deny public access to the libraries of State-supported colleges and universities is to violate the Texas Mandate.35 The intention of the mandate, TGC 441.223, which also established TexShare, was clear, to promote the educational well-being of citizens and allow equitable access to information throughout the State:

(1)   to promote the future well-being of the citizenry, enhance quality teaching and research excellence at institutions of higher education through the efficient exchange of information and the sharing of library resources, improve educational resources in all communities, and expand the availability of information about clinical medical research and the history of medicine;

(2)   to maximize the effectiveness of library expenditures by enabling libraries to share staff expertise and to share library resources in print and in an electronic form, including books, journals, technical reports, and databases;

(3)   to increase the intellectual productivity of students and faculty at the participating institutions of higher education by emphasizing access to information rather than ownership of documents and other information sources;

(4)   to facilitate joint purchasing agreements for purchasing information services and encourage cooperative research and development of information technologies; and

(5)   to enhance the ability of public schools to further student achievement and lifelong learning.

The Texas Legislature mandated that all publicly-funded academic libraries and members of TexShare share their resources with the citizens of the State for the public good.

While there is usually a provision for public access inside of the library in vendor contracts (because many states have similar mandates to allow for public access to electronic resources inside of the library), academic librarians must make sure that this provision remains in license agreements and that IT Departments are made aware that the public is entitled to access resources inside of the public academic research library regardless of whatever authentication protocols are established.

Public access has consequences beyond serving a few unaffiliated people who decide to use the library. Without a strong commitment to public access, the library may also have a difficult time attracting donors and obtaining grant funding. And as a matter of principle, the academic library as an institution must remain committed to life-long learning, and to student success in life, not just while students are enrolled in school. Commitment to that level of access is meaningful to students because it conveys that the library is not a resource just for degree completion, but has a broader purpose and mission, and continuing to use the library after graduation is “normal,” a habit of educated people. People who are intellectually curious in certain areas do not stop once they earn a degree.

The public university academic library is becoming privatized through authentication policies and security measures designed to keep the public out and off the network. Authentication protocols have changed from authenticating by proxy to SSO, where university-issued email credentials are needed to access resources. Scholars throughout the State who are not institutionally-affiliated, or at a small school with limited resources, can no longer depend on ILL or TexShare to provide them with scholarly resources. Members of TexShare make promise to share their resources in exchange for subsidized access to databases, but what happens when they possess no resources of their own to share?

I believe that the ALA / ACRL must define what an academic library is from a business organizational standpoint, mainly so that public funds can never be used to build a library that is just an empty building ripe for repurposing.

I am not going to mention specific instances, and most of my knowledge is based on conversations with colleagues off the record.

It is, however, relatively common knowledge that prominent new libraries are being built with little library in them. This phenomenon has been referred to as “the swap.”22 The lack of clarity or definition of what a library is according to library prescriptive standards has created the opportunity for large buildings to be built at public expense in the name of a new librarianship, but without clear library objectives or library business requirements.

Academic libraries are not just about access to information (and this is a good thing, because information is fairly ubiquitous these days) or meeting existing demand. That model of “meeting existing demand” does not work well for students, who lack education in the first place, have limited search skills, and have not developed a pattern of information-seeking behavior. Students, more than others, benefit from browsable resources in collections oriented to their level of education and their interests.

Good libraries are about stimulating demand for knowledge and education through the experience of curated collections, presenting the titles, ideas, significant intellectual and cultural objects (works) valuable to a community and having the capacity to present a collection to community as a collection. Our job is to represent coherent, credible bodies of knowledge representing the academic disciplines, not to provide access to random scholarly resources. The library’s ability to stimulate demand for learning and knowledge is what reinforces the student’s own academic commitment to stay in school. Our job is to support intellectual inquiry, support research and raise literacy levels. This requires the framework of a managed and well-maintained collection.

Academic libraries are about what is accepted as important to know by practitioners, experts in the discipline and other educated people. Collections (and libraries) are also (and this is critical) about making the knowledge that is known known to others; and is itself a form of scholarly communication. They are about making the knowledge that is known known to others in an efficient way, not requiring someone to come along and discover it for themselves.

Especially at a university, a visible collection with visible resources—and I do not necessarily mean print, but it can be—should be regarded as a business requirement for academic libraries. Just as educators use the technique of graphic organizers, collections are logical arrangements necessary for knowledge to be preserved and to be transmitted to the broader community.

Without them, we are not student-centered at all, but the biproduct of business deals.

Collections are Bodies of Knowledge.

Collectionlessness is not, as people might imagine, because libraries are now fully digital.

For there is no limitation from a technological standpoint, nor from a library theoretical perspective, which would prevent the library from being more fully and authentically online as a library save for the absence of software to facilitate a more robust and meaningful online library experience and good metadata, which is all part of our standard anyway. There is no reason our websites and our physical spaces must be functionally collectionless, no reason that they cannot or should not strive to be content-rich learning environments even in the absence of print.

However, without the ability to manage our own online platforms, metadata, and user interfaces, without the framework of collections to give dimension and context, and without even the capacity to support electronic collections as a fundamental business requirement, the library’s own ability to facilitate scholarly communication and engagement through a collections approach is significantly impaired.

Library collectionlessness has been brought about as libraries have been transformed by two parallel trends: the elimination of the stacks and the replacing the selection of titles with nothing more than the selection of vendor packages, the same which are typically renewed from year to year. 

We might admit that architects who, despite what they claim about their own expertise “designing 21st century learning environments,” have no clue of how to design a modern library which is anything more than an engineered empty space for people to sit. There is no new technology used by architects to promote learning, literacy, community, user engagement or knowledge acquisition in this digital age. An empty space is not a library and does not meet the business requirements of one because it does not promote literacy, knowledge or resource use.

Likewise, content aggregators seeking to monetize their own content sell large packages of academic ebook titles, but in most instances, none of it is current or new or can replace actual collections without compromising quality. They may be referred to as “electronic collections,” but they are not actually collections. Library professionals all know this.

Discovery and resource management solutions provide greater incentive for bulk purchasing, since now there is no collection to manage or uphold. Using the system vendor’s recommended workflows, subject librarians (and faculty) are pretty much removed from the title selection process, which was also a process which guaranteed quality, and a service where faculty were kept up to date about new publications in their fields.

Because discovery is a virtual, invisible repository, it effectively conceals what under our collection management policies would probably have deemed wasteful spending. The fact that the library may be paying for the same digital content many times over in different packages, or paying for institutional access year after year at a rate many times above list for a title which might have been purchased for a fraction of the cost in print, or passively acquiring irrelevant content that is never used is not even an issue as it was with collection management, where duplication and acquiring out of scope titles were frowned upon as wasteful. Discovery systems conceal wasteful spending and therefore makes it easier for publishers to sell to libraries in large packages.

Our former academic library collections represented, or corresponded to, the bodies of knowledge which formed the academic disciplines. The library’s collection is a significant curricular resource which cannot be done away with without having an impact on the quality of education at that school.

Academic library collections should strive to be authoritative, comprehensive within their defined scopes, consistent, and arranged to support browsing of titles in the disciplinary context in which they valued. They should showcase the new, preserve what is seminal, reveal what is influential and where their are gaps in knowledge, defining the outer limits of our current understanding. They should emphasize titles, not vendor entitlements. Only collections reveal patterns and  trends in research in the way discoverable resources do not. For smaller libraries, collections are what is thought to be the best for its audience, purpose and community, often reflecting their unique interests and culture. At large university libraries, collections often define the outer limits of the knowledge that is known and accepted in a discipline.

In libraries today, permanent collections and the catalogs which supported them have been eliminated, replaced with resource discovery/management systems automatically populated with the inventories of vendor packages. No one sees or is even aware of what titles are coming in and out of the library, even the librarians themselves. Our catalogs consist not of records of authoritative titles in collections which we have created over time, important for transmitting knowledge and preserving culture, but passively acquired records of inventories of vendor entitlements which live on commercial websites.

The academic library has gradually become subscriptions to licensed content in a way that should make any academic librarian, any scholar, wonder if whether this arrangement is serving in the best interest of creating educated people and sustaining intellectual life on campus, because we provide access to, but no scholarly context, no arrangement, no browsability or visibility.

Without a way to assess the value of collections, we may never know.

The Birth of Resource Discovery Services.

Discovery systems for the library market were developed in the later half of the 2000s as a natural outgrowth of federated and metasearch technology. Several discovery services for libraries evolved on their own and emerged around 2007. 

Early in 2007, when I first heard about “discovery” serves in libraries, I was a Systems / Digital Services Librarian at a large theological seminary in northern California. As the Digital Services and Systems Librarian, I was responsible for managing the Voyager system (an Ex Libris library automation system which ran on Solaris), the library website, the proxy server, the mail server, the web server, downloading patches for Solaris, running various reports, running system backups, doing bulk uploads of MARC records for books and ebooks, overseeing annual inventory, performing some copy and original cataloging, doing acquisitions for certain subject areas, troubleshooting access, and other duties as assigned. During my brief tenure at the seminary, I repaired their broken inventory system (was written in VBA, which I knew back then), installed a few Perl modules (I also knew Perl back then, or enough to get by) which interfaced with Voyager, New Books and Alpha Mail. I redesigned their website to better promote electronic resources, because I also knew HTML and JavaScript. I installed and configured the EZ Proxy proxy server (I knew Unix and the Vi editor); upgraded Voyager and integrated Voyager with the school enrollment system; I fixed search issues by establishing field weights; I configured the catalog homepage which had never been customized. I implemented Serials Solutions; set up an Open URL Link resolver; created some new reports, and last, set up EDI in their Acquisitions module. I was there for about five months, but by then I had pretty much worked myself out of a job. To give me more to do, I accompanied the Reference Librarian to classes and “explained the electronic databases,” but my days were growing long there.

Despite all of the technical skills needed to accomplish all that I didUnix, Perl, SQL, VB, Access, JavaScript and HTML were standard for Systems Librarians thenand my unique language skills, my grim reality then was I was making only 38K and commuting about two hours (traffic) and across two toll bridges to Marin County, arguably the most expensive real estate in the country. Not that it was the fault of the seminary, but I had a baby and a toddler in full-day daycare, and the biggest perk of the job for me, the practical reason I took this job with the seminary, had been the promise of onsite childcare for employees through their “childcare ministry.” Free childcare was the only thing that made the job work financially for me. Only the employee daycare, which as it turned out, also served the community, never had openings, something I never considered when the childless Library Director toured me through it and I met the smiling director of the center. No one said anything to me about their not having openings. I just assumed my kids would commute with me to work and they would be with me all day in that Eden-like place, with stop-motion deer and lawn-mowing goats. I stuck it out for close to a year to add accomplishments to my resume and hoped for openings in the daycare center.

I saw myself as an IT/Systems Librarian then, but I could never seem to cross over into the corporate world or tech sector, no matter how many times I had proven myself in various contract jobs: yes, I knew SQL. Yes, I could program in Perl. Yes, I could hand-code HTML. I even earned a certification. I was a Certified Information Professional, which meant I was skilled in enterprise search. I once managed a parallel processor, the same one used by bank ATMs and air-traffic controllers. However, my petite stature, long hair and liberal arts degrees always made people nervous; interviewers latched on to my study of Greek and Latin, ignoring VB, C++ and SQL. They just couldn’t reconcile the two. People also didn’t get that a Master’s in Library and Information Science back then was technical, and that librarians managed their own servers, websites, proxy servers, databases and networks. 

However, as a former Classics major who studied New Testament Greek (and Medieval Latin too, not that Latin mattered at the Baptist seminary), I can say I thoroughly enjoyed working at the seminary, and was especially intrigued by my wonderful and talented boss, who later became president of ATLA, and who sewed the most incredible tapestries which adorned the walls of her office and the library. One day, she shared with me that in the Bible, sewing was one of the womanly arts. I pondered that Unix and Perl were not very womanly; but I did enjoy creating websites and graphic design, which were my stained glass windows.

As much as I enjoyed being in that idyllic place, I couldn’t afford to work there for long. My husband informed me that after federal and California taxes, we were losing money by my working. As the Director there made only 50K (no one could comfortably live on that in the Bay Area, even in 2006), I reasoned that no one under her could make more than that. People there were retired from some place else and just needed health insurance and a low paying job to not threaten their social security benefits. Any grumbling about pay only signified one was not sufficiently committed to their cause. 

There were some other job perks being there. While at the seminary, I attended a librarian conference for Ex Libris customers where a product named Primo was being unveiled. I recall struggling to understand what exactly was meant by a “discovery layer,” where it lived and how it worked. It apparently harvested all my catalog records and put them together with various other records (where did those come from?) to create a Google-like interface. That much I got from the fly-over presentation, which left me with many unanswered questions. How did the algorithm determine relevance when documents are of different lengths and item types (books, articles, newspapers, magazines) hitting sources in different academic disciplines? How could it weigh the metadata in a MARC record against that of an article, and where would article metadata come from? Articles didn’t have their own metadata, at least not then they didn’t then (KBART gradually evolved as an industry best practice from 2014-201956). It didn’t make any sense to me.

A few weeks after that, I went to work for a company in San Francisco called “Groxis,” which had developed an award-winning visual search and discovery web service called “Grokker.” The application of the product specifically to school and academic libraries, to be a discovery tool, was a relatively new venture for the company. Prior to that, Grokker had been used by a few large companies (Sun Microsystems and Blue Cross Blue Shield), even the DoD I believe, and there had been a free download that could be used with Yahoo! At some point, the product was reconfigured to search library databases.

It was a metasearch engine for libraries, but with clustering and citation visualization capabilities. The technology for the service, but not Grokker’s patented interface, had been embedded in an EBSCO database feature called “visual search.” In November 2007, when I was hired to be Client Relationship Manager for Gale, the CEO had signed an exclusive agreement with Gale to be its discovery offering, with the understanding that Gale would roll out Grokker to its many thousands of established US library customers in 2008. In return, the company agreed not to sell to any libraries in North America, even corporate libraries or those who were not existing Gale customers. EBSCO was spurned, and not too happy about it. 

Groxis was a very small company, around 20 people, including the developers, sales and marketing, in an office a few blocks off the Embarcadero. Angel investors we never saw kept it afloat. Despite its small size, the product seemed astonishingly more advanced than anything else on the library market. Grokker was a sophisticated visual navigation, search and discovery application capable of performing not just information retrieval with hierarchical list ranked results, what Primo does, but also semantic analysis, dynamic clustering, labeling, faceting and visualizations on the fly. If these features were not wanted, it would do straight relevance ranking without a map view. Incorporated into it was a very powerful real time natural language processing and clustering engine called “Lingo / Carrot2” which was developed by a doctoral student in Poland (Lingo/Carrot are still around today, even though Grokker is not). 

Grokker was a wonderful product in many ways, a brilliant mash up of one technology with another and another, with a patented interface everyone could understand: circles inside of circles, zooming in to drill down, zoom out for a higher-level view. It was dynamic. It could work with or without a taxonomy. It indexed, it analyzed, it organized, it returned cleanly formatted, accurate bibliographic citations with context snippets and a links back to sources which could be reconstructed with a proxy prefix. Despite all of the moving parts, it was surprisingly fast, most of the time. While the visualization piece could be customized and designed with different data views, in the patented interface for Grokker there were no complex, angular foam trees or mind-boggling schematics. It could do that, though, if desired. Someone in IT demonstrated different possible interfaces for the service over a brown bag lunch. However, the default Grokker interface was simple, intuitive, and friendly. Everyone intuitively got (grokked = understood) the circles and their meaning. The system had amazing precision, capable of accurately disambiguating Paris Hilton from a Hilton in Paris and organizing content clusters accordingly with speed and accuracy.

There was nothing like it in 2007, then or now, in 2023.  

In addition, this “discovery solution” might have been scaled to hundreds of library clients without resulting in much additional work a discovery support specialist or need for a large staff.

A persistent problem for Groxis, aside from the fact that so few people had heard of it, was that, because our model was federated search in real-time, and not an indexed-based search, a slow Internet connection between the client and subscription databases would bog it down, potentially affecting the number of relevant results returneda limitation which our main competitor, Ex Libris, avoided with the creation of a central discovery index (indexed-based search) rather than federated search. In contrast, our product launched queries against multiple data-sources and returned fresh content each time a search was performed. It also leveraged the native search algorithm, so for example, if it was a medical database, it would perform the query using the search algorithm that was there (federated search) which would produce better results than what libraries are using now for discovery, a generic search engine on vendor supplied metadata.

It was useful especially in instances where a company might want to search a number of repositories where they did not know in advance what is there. It was slower than an indexed based search, but can often offer more up-to-date results because searches are always done in real time. But no librarian or researcher wants to search at different times of the day (different internet speeds) or on different networks and retrieve a different number of relevant results back from databases. It was unsettling to people who naturally want to know that their searches are complete and replicable. The beauty of Grokker was in the visualization of results and ability to allow a bird-eye view of all retrieved documents. 

Despite a few shortcomings, I thought Grokker was a product deserving of great success. It even had a large cult following. Each month I would catch a new reference and glowing reference to Grokker somewhere. However, things did not go as planned in terms of our business strategy. My boss and I flew to the ALA conference. In the exhibit hall, we swung by the Gale booth, prepared to jump in and help answer questions about Grokker. We were dismayed to discover that the Gale sales team was not featuring us. They were not rolling us out as we had anticipated. Instead, they were promoting other Gale products. Their reluctance to sell us would cut off our company’s only source of revenue for the year. Also at ALA that year, Ex Libris sales reps, seeing on my name tag that I was from Groxis, formed a human barricade in front of their computers and ushered me out of their booth. I was trying to see the new Primo interface (which looked just like the old Primo interface). This told me that at least Ex Libris was aware of our product, even if no one else was.

After ALA, my boss decided that we were going to try to sell to international customers, the Asian market, to try to generate revenue. The agreement with Gale tied our hands for all of North America, and without Gale revenue, we were sinking fast.

Ex Libris’ Primo was our main competition and EBSCO our biggest obstacle; for unlike ProQuest, who was always very kind to us, and gave me APIs and test credentials to search and develop connector to their databases, EBSCO refused to give us API access to their databases. It was their business strategy to be uncooperative to perceived competitors, and a discovery tool of their own, EDS (EBSCO Discovery Service), was in the works.

Obviously, it is impossible to offer a single Google-like search on all library databases without the cooperation of all library database vendors to allow their databases to be searched. Innovative Interfaces, at one time considered the Cadillac of library automation systems, was also rolling out its discovery solution called “Encore.” All of these tools worked on APIs, going through the back door. Programmers developed screen scrapers for some sites, but the problem with screen scraping is that changes to the page layout would cause the connector to break. 

I realized even back then that the discovery experience for all libraries, thousands of them, could be managed entirely on the vendor side of things. The whole of the academic library could be just this, a discovery tool, and it could be done for every library in the world. All they would have to do is check off what they subscribe to and provide credentials. There is is, a library in the cloud, requiring one librarian to maintain a hundred hosted sites. After all, I did it almost effortlessly for about one hundred Gale customers when we were beta testing at Groxis, a time when there was much less standardization and consolidation across the publishing industry. There were no “KBART” files then, no knowledgebases, no central discovery index, and vendors only begrudgingly cooperated with us, not seeing how discovery would benefit them financially.

The landscape has changed entirely.

Now libraries are likely to not acquire resources from a vendor or publisher who does not supply KBART files to Ex Libris (or OCLC). Indeed, at many libraries today, the resource management systems behind discovery are an integral part of the acquisitions process, not just a mechanism to make resources discoverable. A publisher cannot sell content to academic libraries without partnering with Ex Libris and / or OCLC.

And at that time, in 2007, no one ever seriously thought of discovery as replacing the library catalog or discoverable resources replacing the collection. Historically, library collections formed the core of the library user experience along with information retrieval, search of the library’s electronic databases and online resources.

Discovery solutions like Primo, Summon, EDS, Encore, WMS, and a few others like Grokker provided article-level indexing and access to electronic resources which co-existed for a time with the classic catalog. Some research libraries maintained more than one search solution; from 2013 to 2020 my library did (well, it was my idea to offer users a choice). Even though we used Voyager/Primo, which was already in business partnership with ProQuest before its acquisition by them in 2022, I implemented EDS, which EBSCO gave us for free because they were our subscription agent.

Groxis closed in March 2009. I went to work one sunny March morning and there was a note on the door, which was locked. Ironically, this was the second start-up I worked for which Gale (a company which has filed Chapter 11 more than once) had indirectly killed off (the first was Questia). Gale certainly had the Midas touch, which, if you know the fable, is not a good thing. In hindsight, Groxis might have formed a more strategic partnership with an established library automation company where it would have been on neutral ground, not allied with a third-tier database vendor, which pitted our discovery solution against two industry giants, EBSCO and ProQuest. The CEO had come from publishing and was not aware of the cut-throat library market or the long time rivalries between EBSCO and ProQuest.

In recent years, with the success of ProQuest Ex Libris’ Alma/Primo and other library service platforms (LSPs), the “classic catalog” has been phased out of existence in academic libraries. It isn’t just the catalog that is being phased out eliminated, but the ability for librarians to exercise this thing called “bibliographic control” over a collection consisting of print and digital content, or even just digital content, has been eliminated. The backend of the system is designed around “resource management,” vendor packages, vendor inventory, not professional collection management of bibliographic titles. As a librarian, I don’t like this. 

As many librarians may remember, in the 2010s, discovery was proclaimed to be Library 2.0, the “next-gen” catalog. No need to teach students about Boolean operators anymore. By 2020, LSPs, which were designed around resource discovery on the front end and resource management on the back end, came to dominate the academic library market.

And yet, despite our rush to embrace these systems in academic research libraries, there is a body of evidence which suggests our users, especially more advanced researchers, do not like discovery and are apparently not using it much.57 The reasons for this I have already alluded to above.

Collection management requires more staff with higher levels of academic commitment and engagement than resource management /discovery solutions. Collections emphasize scholarly value and scholarly communication (the collection itself is a form of scholarly communication). Collection management is about valuing and evaluating each unique item as a work, as an intellectual object, in a unique collection to serve the needs of that local community.

Resource management, on the other hand, is about managing entitlements. Resource discovery solutions, a one-stop Google-like search interface on all of the academic library’s owned and subscribed content, have entirely replaced the labor-intensive catalog, along with the need for title selection, evaluation, cataloging and our former biblio-centric, scholarly emphasis on titles in collections. With the assistance of discovery solutions and resource management systems, many large academic libraries are now collectionless, offering neither physical nor virtual collections, only searchable records of electronic resources which live on third-party platforms.

The discovery service is hosted, the authentication system is hosted, and the content is hosted, with the exception of a legacy print collection which may have been placed into special collections. What we offer in place of digital collections are aggregations of the inventories of publishers’ products which the library has licensed augmented in big packages (referred to as “big deals”) with just a few individual titles purchased a la carte.

While these packages are referred to as “electronic collections” by our system vendor, they do not meet any library-professional definition for a library collection. Adding them altogether (package 1, package 1, package 3) does not a library collection make.

At this point, librarians exercise limited or no bibliographic control over their content. It cannot be arranged according to our standards for a collection, an arrangement necessary for evaluation as a collection and display as a collection. We may say, “Our collections are online,” but we know that no collection is there, not even in virtual form.

Apart from an agreement to subscribe to a package or platform, we make no commitment to the resources in it, no intellectual investment in it, as we used to do and prided ourselves in. We do not ourselves need to be familiar with “the collection.” Whether library workers have a GED or a PhD, everyone on campus perceives that librarians have little to do with library content apart from providing passive access to it.

This disconnect of librarianship from scholarship and scholarly publishing has contributed to the decline of faculty status for academic librarians and elimination of many academic library positions.

Of course, resource discovery provides great benefit for large libraries with large budgets. As an “Electronic Resource Librarian” for a medical center library, I could make 130,000 ebooks available in discovery (Primo) in seconds by activating a single package (an “electronic collection”) in Alma. Just like this, by a process of checking boxes, millions of records had already been placed into the repository at my library and thousands of others just like it, no need to catalog anything. This particular package of ebooks I was activating was able to be configured to autoload new titles and remove old titles, meaning that once I set up an integration profile, I do not need to do anything to keep it going but ensure that the bill is paid.

As long as invoices are paid, the system will keep going indefinitely into the future, without need for any human intervention.

The library remains synced to the publishers’ platforms like a satellite in orbit. We acquire the whole package, even completely irrelevant stuff no one is going to look at, rather than selecting individual titles for them and placing them into arrangements. Soon all large publishers who maintain their own platforms will be autoloaded and all others will use Ex Libris or hosting service like Atypon to submit the records of their content into a central discovery index.

But those who are left in the library have no sense of what is coming in and going out.

No one is examining the metadata provided by the vendor to ensure that new titles are findable in discovery. Catalogers at many libraries have been freed up to do more important things. There is no better backend view, a spreadsheet view, of our hybrid collections or of the electronic collection.

Through this highly efficient system, one person can manage the electronic resources of a large university libraryeven quite possibly many university librariesand still have plenty of time left in the day to do other things. In fact, academic institutions could subscribe to a single discovery solution fed by all scholarly publishers around the world and there would be no need at all for librarians to manage them.

Questia: the first (fully commodified) Online Academic Library.

EBSCO and ProQuest are large aggregators and hosting platforms who sell packaged content in the form of databases to academic libraries.

EBSCO and ProQuest have each begun licensing resource management systems / library service platforms as well as content. They reassure their customers that these two sides of their operations will remain separate. But put the two sides together and what do you have? A resource solution in the cloud which may eventually replace the library, or as I say, make the library “ex libris.” Ex Libris is the name of the vendor who licenses the most popular academic library system (they control 80% of the academic library market). Their parent company, ProQuest, is the largest academic content aggregator in the world. It makes perfect sense to replace the library with that, if all we are today is a search engine on aggregated content anyway.

The effort to create the first commercial online academic library in the cloud was undertaken by Questia a little over twenty years ago. Questia made claim to be the first online undergraduate library, available to all by monthly subscription of $19.95. It began in Houston, five minutes from my home, with the expressed desire on the part of its founder, a Rice / Harvard graduate, to recreate Harvard’s Lamont Library online.

The service was initially called TLG, for Troy, Lamont and Gary, but it was Troy’s baby all along. The hope was that it would become an outstanding academic research library for students and everyone in world, no matter where they lived or the size of the school they attended. It was a very noble cause to democratize the academic library, and I like the Aquarian Age person that I am, was drawn to Questia like a moth to a flame. It was totally “me.” I have always believed in life-long learning and access to scholarly resources (I have always used academic libraries, even when not in school.) It appealed to my sense of library idealism. I felt like I was on the ground floor of Encyclopedia Britannica or something of that grand stature. It had the potential to be revolutionary. I interviewed over Christmas and started the job the day after New Year’s when the company was about 20 people.

Within four months, the company ballooned to over 200, with MBAs recruited from top schools from all over the country; but no librarians, at least not until several months later, when Marketing decided that hiring librarians would lend credibility to the service. Librarians were hired, mainly for their credentials, so that Marketing could say that real librarians worked there.

At launch in January 2001, what Questia had to offer was not good, but no one could have done anything about it. I was hired initially by my boss, Vice President of Product Development, to design a system to automate title selection to preclude the need for “title selectors” (a.k.a. librarians), a bibliometric system which would feed acquisitions with information as to the importance of a title, its scholarly value, based on bibliometrics, so Acquisitions could negotiate price for titles with some knowledge or appreciation of scholarly demand for each title.

I immediately made contact with OCLC, who initially expressed reluctance to work with Questia because it was their first for-profit library. They changed their mind. Using print LCC schedules (at the University of St. Thomas), since they were not online at the time, I developed a granular, incisive conspectus for Questia, harvesting and comparing the holdings of twenty peer libraries from OCLC as a way of doing retrospective collection development. Along the way, I wrote an RFP and helped them select what they referred to as a “MARC-based system,” assisted with the development of a citations tool for MLA, APA and Chicago style and helped identify and obtain books in the public domain. I advised them on their collections and drafted the pre-launch collection development strategy, which I still have on a floppy disk that says “Questia.” That was my five months of fame.

Questia had to rapidly acquire content and copyright in order for it to generate revenues from the sale of subscriptions to its service. The only way to accomplish rapid collection development was through negotiating big deals with publishers to digitize their entire back-stock or backlist titles (less popular titles). During that first year, Questia digitized whatever scholarly content it could get its hands on and legally add to its platform. It was about adding content, not building collections.

It was also clear to me from the business model which was evolving that librarians would not be needed to manage their collections in the future. Business deals with publishers would entirely determine what was added to their platforms. Publisher negotiations and license agreements would dictate Questia’s content for years to come. They were right. They didn’t need librarians to be title selectors.

Even years after the service launched, academic librarians criticized Questia both for making claim that it was an academic library online, when it obviously maintained no collections, and also for its strategy of selling directly to students, taking advantage of uneducated people who were unaware that they were accessing “random digitized academic content” and not necessarily the best sources to write their research papers.

Questia sold students and their parents on convenience, not quality. They didn’t notice.

Indeed, from the time Questia launched in 2001 until 2005, many academic librarians expressed outrage over Questia’s referring to itself as an “online academic library” when it was not attached to a university, did not hire librarians to be title selectors, and was clearly not providing subscribers with access to quality academic library collections.

In truth, Questia’s credibility and image problems stemmed not from the number of librarians it had on staff, nor even the number of scholarly resources it added to its platform each month, but the fact that it clearly lacked quality collections.

Any educated person could see that. It didn’t matter whether or not they hired librarians. There was no collection there. Questia’s contents were obviously publisher-aggregator driven.

Librarians back then argued that this collectionless product or service, whatever Questia was, was not a real academic library; and moreover, it could never become one, some speculated five years after Questia launched.3 In 2001, my colleagues in the academic library world all seemed to know that collections were fundamental to librarianship, and that they ought not be synonymous with commercial product offerings or inventories, else the library would lose credibility as a library.

In 2022, twenty years later, this “resources only” commercial aggregator model, the acquisition (licensing) of aggregations of electronic resources outside the framework of a collections, which Questia pioneered, has become the norm in most academic libraries today, some of whom now call themselves “learning centers” in order to distance themselves from traditional librarianship, its academically rigorous collection development practices, and its standards for title selection and display.

It would also appear that institutions which have embraced this resource-only model have almost no need for librarians to perform title selection, collection analysis, cataloging or weeding, or much else, just as Questia had no need for librarians to sustain its service for the majority of its 20 years of existence. The future of libraries based on resource management and discovery would seem to be both collectionless and librarianless, a model which places ultimate power in the lands of two or three industry giants who have come to entirely monopolize the academic library market. From this perspective, collections are resistance.

From Titles to Entitlements:
The Rise of the Commodified Library.

At least according to traditional librarianship, scholarly titles in libraries are works, intellectual and cultural objects, and should be described accordingly through formal system known as “bibliographic description.”

In the library world, there exists no lesser library cataloging standard for items that are merely leased and not owned, or which exist in digital rather than physical format.

In theory, the MARC bibliographic record for an ebook ought to contain the same data elements as its print counterpart, including an LC classification /call number in the 050 field and LC subject headings in the 650. The metadata for ebooks and ejournals that libraries bring into their systems should not be defined by the business requirements of publishers to license their content, but rather by the needs of the library to meet its business requirements, which includes display and collection assessment.

Collections not only reflect, or strive to represent, scholarly activity in a field, but they are also a form of scholarly communication necessary for the library to be good and effective as a library. Collections as collections have narrative value which conveys and reinforces scholarly value. Access to collections is a higher standard of care  and investment than providing access to potentially useful resources.

Unfortunately, as libraries have been pressured to go digital without any hosting platforms of their own, they have had to make serious concessions. Through resource discovery systems, they have been remade in the image of a content aggregator, often the sort of company who created their system, acquiring through license agreements the linked citation data of packages of titles acquired in bulk and which reside on publisher platforms. “Electronic collections” as defined by our system vendor are merely inventories of vendor entitlements whose purpose is to drive our users to vendor platforms.

The metadata we receive from vendors for ebooks is often scanty, missing library-centric fields which we would normally employ for bibliographic control and display, metadata needed to create, for example, browse tools and new books feeds and a good user experience of a library. While explaining to its partners that good metadata in desired to drive library customers to their platforms, Ex Libris instructs its publisher partners that they can omit certain library-centric fields, such as classification.59 So unimportant is the 050 field (LC Classification) that Ex Libris did not configure its system for sorting routines needed to arrange titles in order by LC classification.

Many proponents of resource discovery systems argue that collections themselves are obsolete in this digital age, and that the library’s making a wide range of resources discoverable to users is preferable to our serving as gatekeepers, which was what collection management was designed to do. As long as we cannot acquire everything, selectivity is needed. However, our current vendor-driven approaches limit our ability to provide for assessment and for an attractive and compelling user experience on the library-side because we cannot put content into academic context. We seem not to stand behind our own content or be intellectually investing anything into it. Through resource discovery systems, we appear either to be in competition with our own vendors or else promoting vendor products, competing with them for users.

Our system vendor, whose parent is the largest aggregator in the world, would prefer that content and metadata be handled on the vendor side, not so on the library side. We select the packages, and they manage our inventories and our metadata for us. We can still acquire title-by-title, but this process can create management problems for us down the road; for what is manually added will eventually need to be manually removed, and whatever content we add to vendor platforms is attributed to the vendor’s efforts anyway and not to us.

Library professional standards dictate that items in library collections, referred to as “titles” (emphasizing that they are intellectual works which have a creator), be cataloged according to a common set of bibliographic standards which describe both the material and the intellectual aspects of a work using a common set of rules governing bibliographic description (AACR2/RDA) and a technical format that all library systems share, the MARC bibliographic record.

Standardization through the application of formal ruleson my shelves at home, the standard itself is thicker than the Old and New Testaments combinedis the way bibliographic works are described to ensure consistency of display and sufficient access points to allow for record retrieval and analysis. The concept of “bibliographic control” in library science is the foundation for collections and collection management and was the basis for the previous generation of library automation systems. Bibliographic control is “the identification, description, analysis, and classification of books and other materials of communication so that they may be effectively organized, stored, retrieved, and used when needed.”60

Bibliographic control in libraries was, for practical purposes, promoted and enforced library automation systems developed around common standards for interoperability, but also perpetuated by a long-standing cooperative agreement between the Library of Congress and book publishers, who would send portions of each manuscript to the Library of Congress to obtain CIP (Cataloging in Publication) data. This information would appear on the copyright page (verso of the title page) of a printed book, sometimes resembling a card in a card catalog:

The publisher would agree to send a copy of the book to the Library of Congress after it was published, at which point, the CIP record, which was a skeletal record, was often enhanced by a cataloger with book in hand.

As librarians all know, this CIP data which often appears in a book corresponds to an electronic catalog record, a MARC record, and it contains library-centric information which would be difficult for publishers, at least those without librarians on staff or an agreement with a cataloging agency, to create on their own. Cataloging requires training and often expertise in the discipline. The CIP data not only contains basic bibliographic information but also Dewey number (classification used mostly by public libraries) and LC Classification number (scheme used by academic libraries), along with at least one LC Subject Heading (but often three or more). Libraries can freely copy MARC records from the Library of Congress and bring them into their own systems where they can be edited or enhanced to suit the needs of their users or their library. Library jobbers, whose business is to supply books to libraries in volume (often with special bindings, mylar-wrapped jackets, security strips, book pockets, etc.) saw an opportunity to provide additional services to libraries by creating, enhancing and supplying enriched cataloging records so library books would arrive shelf-ready, complete with barcode and spine label. They would often begin with the MARC record created by the Library of Congress, and add descriptive data, Lexile levels, content notes, or additional subject headings to make the record richer.

The advantage of the publisher arrangement with the Library of Congress is that all books sold to libraries would receive preliminary cataloging data in a record which could be easily imported into library automation systems. Publishers went along with this program because they believed it helped the sale of their books to libraries. Many also thought that submitting a copy of their book to the Library of Congress established copyright or added to their credibility. From the perspective of libraries, this program ensured that certain data elements which would be otherwise be difficult for publishers to create on their own would be created for them for free by the catalogers at the Library of Congress, who asked in return only for a copy of the book after it was published.

The Library of Congress has continued to support this program for print books, but it will not extend its CIP program to titles which do not exist in some physical format. The restriction by the Library of Congress on providing CIP for ebooks (eCIP), along with the popularity of resource discovery systems, has spurred on a desire on the part of publishing industry to establish their own metadata requirements for ebooks which do not meet the library’s more stringent standards for bibliographic description.

Now that many large academic libraries have gone fully digital and have replaced their catalogs with resource discovery systems, continuing to maintain traditional library standards for collection development, cataloging and bibliographic description has been called into question by both publishers and some librarians, who believe that e-resource management has made collection management obsolete. From a certain academic perspective, the transition from maintaining “collections” to “resource to discovery”from an emphasis on “titles” to “entitlements”—simply represents a further stage in the library’s commodification where vendors decide what we have and who can access their content.

While discovery of vendor entitlements has its place in the library, it is not a complete library experience. Even if the most excellent resources can be discovered in it, it is not the equivalent of a fully developed digital library experience, possessing the academic rigor, arrangement and scholarly value of our former bibliographic systems. At minimum, our systems should be able to organize and display all of the titles coming into through LC classification regardless of format to support browsing, bibliographic control, reporting services, overlap analysis, peer comparison and content analysis. Generating an integrated shelf lists report of print and electronic resources should be a breeze.

Discovery does nothing to encourage user engagement or to stimulate demand for our resources. It does nothing to stimulate inquiry or curiosity. It is a passive inventory system which drives users to publisher/aggregator websites who are the agents believed to be managing the intellectual contents of the academic library. Our content is merely what vendors have added to their inventories to which we have obtained access, with some items folded into the mix. 

Through resource discovery, academic librarians have become divorced from managing academic content and removed from title selection. Within libraries there is a conviction that achieving maximum efficiency in the acquisitions process, even at the expense of bibliographic control and collections, represents progress, regardless of how this workflow impacts the user experience, display, analysis, marketing or the library as a whole.

Inside the library, there may be no one whose role it is to check on the discovery records (the MARC records provided by vendors) loaded into our systems at the time when packages are activated. I only found out through a project I was working on, which I discuss below, that many of our newer titles had such meager metadata assigned to them that the likelihood of anyone retrieving that resource without specifically searching on its title would be nearly impossible.

This is when I began wondering how these records would get enhanced (Ex Libris told us they would be), by what process, according to what timeline, and by whom. I studied Ex Libris’ metadata standards for their partners who provide MARC records to their library customers. I was told by Ex Libris that when I saw poor records, open support tickets; but I could spend each day doing that. If cataloging was a deemed a waste of time by my library, opening support tickets to complain about bad cataloging records seemed an even bigger waste of time. Ex Libris sells MARC record enrichment services to vendors, trying to compete with OCLC. OCLC member libraries around the world have supplied and enriched the bibliographic records on WorldCat, the largest union catalog in the world.

The publishing industry does not want to be obliged to provide the level of academic content analysis to digital records as cataloger in academic libraries once provided. Academic cataloging is labor intensive and requires expertise both in cataloging standards and some familiarity the discipline. Someone has to actually “read” (skim) the book to effectively catalog it. The cataloger must decide what the book as a whole is about, and then identify how the item might be relevant to scholars so the book is made accessible to them. She has to assign authorized LC subject headings. This cannot be done well by a machine or algorithm. Some large academic publishers like Taylor & Francis have entered into a relationship with OCLC to provide libraries with outstanding cataloging records, but many others provide bare bones and discovery records with missing authors, absent publication dates, no classification numbers and no subject headings (or what they provide for subject is not an authorized LC heading but how the publishing industry defines “subject”).

One reason why there is not more focus on lack of resource discoverability in library systems is that our users are not relying upon our discovery systems to conduct research.

Most scholars are simply bypassing the library’s discovery interface and searching publisher platforms directly, since new authentication protocols allow scholars to go directly publisher platforms to conduct research there without going through the library’s proxy server or discovery layer. Searches conducted on publisher platforms are typically more satisfying to the researcher for a number of reasons. Search on the vendor side will almost always product superior results, because their search engines index both metadata and the contents of articles and books which reside on their platforms. Library discovery systems rely strictly upon the metadata provided by the publisher and of course, whatever MARC records are harvested from our repositories for print holdings.

As libraries have moved into a fully digital environment where we license tremendous amounts of content from vendors, the relevance of traditional library cataloging standards and practices for digital contentor content that is not owned by the library but merely licensed for a limited period of timewill continue to be called into question, along with the need for collections.

Library standards for cataloging require full cataloging for ebooks, the same as print; but there has been erosion in the quality of our metadata (as well as great inconsistency from publisher to publisher) and especially for MARC records coming in through “autoload holdings.” Publication dates appear all over the place and the numbers placed into the 050, if one is provided, is often not a valid LC Classification number. Standards of quality for MARC records are never part of the library’s license agreement with vendors, even though we may acquire thousands of titles from them at once, bringing their records into our resource discovery systems.

Through resource discovery systems, we have become even more of a vendor concession. The academic library should not be, or be perceived to be, merely the tail-end of the publisher-aggregator supply chain, where our inventories and metadata are determined by them, and we have no unique perspective or value to offer to scholars.

This does not support a good user experience of a library.

What is a Library Collection? 

Many people, even some librarians, do not understand what a library collection is, even though it is often thought by library traditionalists and some scholars to be fundamental to the management of a library.

I understand the confusion. Our system vendor uses the term “electronic collection” to refer to their packages of content, to their products, even though these are not collections in the library sense.

These are merely digitized content licensed in bulk. They are product bundles. They do not necessarily have the best content in them. When I ask colleagues, “Do you maintain collections?” I am asking as a librarian about their acquisition policies and processes, if the library is merely acquiring and activating subscription packages (resource management), or actually selecting titles according to a collection development plan (collection management). 

As I sit in my office in a library with three fairly current library science textbooks on collection management, none explain what a collection is or what it is expected to do. The ALA dictionary also fails to offer a definition of a collection.

Interestingly, Saponaro and Evans’ Collection Management Basics, a text which is over 350 pages emphasizing the importance of collection development polices and various acquisitions models, only in one sentence in passing mentions a related but contrasting activity, “information resource management,” which they define as “any organizational context, often without any centralized collection of materials, in which the information resource manager is responsible for identifying and making available to staff members both internal and external sources of information.”61 Perhaps it was inconceivable to the authors of Collection Management Basics that a library could be collectionless, or if the librarian was working in a resource center, the reader would not be reading their textbook on collection management anyway.

No source I have consulted thus far, even the most popular one, Peggy Johnson’s Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management (2009), defines a collection from an intellectual or philosophical perspective so that we might better understand what a collection is, and fully appreciate the differences between collections and resources from a library perspective.

I will take a stab at it, although I am not completely satisfied: academic library collections consist of intentional arrangements of intellectual and cultural objects, whose purpose is to create or enhance meaning and intellectual value for the community the library serves by representing bodies of knowledge so that knowledge can be known and preserved. Collections can be digital, and at the same time, shelves of books and other physical resources may not be a library collection.

To me, a collection requires what psychology calls a Gestalt. This means that people, especially educated people, must be able to perceive it as a collection, as attempting to represent scholarly activity, as having integrity, intentionality, rationality and internal coherence, and goodness to it, rather than being book warehouse or repository of random titles.

They must appear to be curated, that is “cared for,” as a collection, intentional, a form of scholarly communication. Collections are bibliography. 

Educated people, scholars, those familiar with a discipline, can immediately tell if a collection is cared for. To uneducated people, a collection might appear as just books on the shelf or random resources without any particular value or internal coherence. Conversely, a bunch of random books might appear to uneducated people to be a good collection. Subject expertise, academic knowledge is needed to professionally manage an academic library collection. Since our audiences consist of people who do not know, but are paying tuition to become educated, libraries act in bad faith by failing to provide good collections through which students can learn about their disciplines and become educated people.

They can depend on us, and we do have a fiduciary responsibility to them as professional librarians to represent their disciplines and disciplinary culture accurately and with integrity.

Purpose, audience, consistency, currency and arrangement are common attributes of library collections. Collections also possess intentionality: an educated person can perceive that someone with expertise or care put the item there because someone thought it would be valuable to someone else seeking knowledge. Collections must be logically arranged and visibly displayed as a collection (in libraries, this is by classification/call number) in some fashion so that titles appear in their most appropriate intellectual context to support browsing, since browsing, or the experience of a collection as a collection, is an important and valuable form of information gathering behavior enjoyed by scholars and preferred by students (and all those unfamiliar with a field or discipline who want to learn about it). Classification is considered an “access point.” We know from many years of study of patron behavior that closed stacks, even compact shelving, result in reduced circulation.

Discovery systems are a kind of closed stacks, at least as far as ebook and ejournal titles are concerned.

While there are many different types of libraries, collections at large institutions should represent a common cultural and intellectual inheritance, the way knowledge and culture and good things are transmitted and preserved for future generations.

The large academic library is our Tree of Knowledge.

It should be defended against the forces of commodification and commercial influence. Collections are what foster a sense of community, as collections often reflect local tastes and interests. I would not expect an HBCU to have the same collections as a Catholic school. Each library collection has its own unique flavor reflecting and validating and reflecting the interests of their communities.

In the past and in the present still, collections are considered so vital to librarianship that Collection Development forms one of the few core courses for the Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. Collections were traditionally believed to be essential to the functioning and assessment of a library and for good stewardship of library budgets.

The collection was everything to the academic research library. Academic libraries were even said to be collections of research which inspired research. Large academic libraries have often employed a variety of bibliographic approaches to ensure that the collection is as good as it could be, given the size of the budget, intended audience, mission and many other variables. (Collection analysis and development was my chief area of interest.) Consistency in funding and acquisition practices was key to avoiding gaps. Ad hoc collecting patterns (large end of year spends) were to be avoided. The good academic library formed collections around the courses and curriculum and degrees, going into greater depth in areas which reflected faculty interests. Librarians often consulted bibliographies and sought input from faculty when doing collection development, at least sent around publisher catalogs, notifications of forthcoming titles, and lists of items which were newly acquired in their areas of interest.

In recent years, many if not most academic libraries have moved off the gold standard of collections and collection management, and made the determination that, in this digital age, curated collections and cataloging are no longer needed for a library to be successful as a library, or rather for a “degree.” The shift from collection management to resource discovery, a shift which encouraged by the leading academic library system vendor, ProQuest Ex Libris, who is also a large content provider to academic libraries, has been adopted in the name of progress.

Managing Collection Discovery within a Resource Discovery System.

Not only do good titles add value to a collection, but the converse is true: the intellectual framework of an academic library collection, with each title mapped to the discipline to form a big picture view, provides additional scholarly value to titles beyond mere access to them. The collection gives an overview of the discipline and what comprises it. 

A collection provides a sense of integrity, a “there” there, a sense of common purpose and shared value, an enduring quality which legitimizes everything else we do as librarians, determining workflows, roles, capacity for librarians to collaborate effectively with faculty, ability to effectively market new resources, the quality of our metadata, and our level of control over our offerings and our budgets.

By placing scholarly and cultural works into visible collections, they appear in relation to a field of study and to a community of scholars who presumably value them. It implies audience. In a collection, titles convey a greater sense of permanence and greater objective value. In academic libraries, collections represent bodies of knowledge, the same bodies of knowledge which roughly correspond to the academic degree or the subject matter of the library. In the case of the academic library, a collection should be or include the body of professional literature with which people educated in the discipline are supposed to be familiar. That encourages learning. Yes, the collection can be online, but capable of being browsed and experienced as a collection.

The very idea of visible, prominent collection conveys respect for scholarship, shared scholarly / community value, common knowledge and things worthy of consideration, where, on the other hand, the provision of passive access to “resources” lacks the same connotation.

Resource discovery models do not support new book feeds, collection display, or bibliographic approaches needed to create and sustain scholarly value.

In the past, libraries could balance this yin-and-yang between collections and resources; but now many libraries have gone over entirely to resources, subscribing to a handful of vendor packages each year and forgoing collections altogether. Through acquisitions models centered around resource discovery, the library gets what it getsrecords of entitlements linked to resources which live on vendor websitesmainly through subscription to publisher packages, and not by title-by-title selection. Of course, big deals are indispensable in this digital age, and they will permit the activation of over a hundred thousand ebooks in seconds so that they are discoverable without any need for cataloging or anyone inside the library see or bother to know about them.

And yet, day after day, all we and our users see of the library is the same old search box, the same stagnant website, indifferent to the stream of extremely costly content which invisibly and imperceptibly comes and goes through the library like an underground aquafer. We must educate students just to let them know what is there because it isn’t visible. It could be good, it could be bad; no one knows or even thinks much about it, which is precisely the point.

Our systems, developed by the aggregators from whom we buy content, have been optimized to permit rapid acquisition of packages of scholarly resources, not for displaying resources or marketing digital content. They are not designed for the organization and display of actual library collections which requires library metadata of the sort publishers now struggle to provide us. They are not designed to be the best content. Ultimately, these packages are designed to make profit for the vendor.

I believe that for many libraries, the abandonment of collections has been detrimental both to the user experience and profile of the library in society. I believe there are consequences for our seeming disconnect from collections, the seeming lack of investment in our own content, this lack of care (curation means “care”). By abandoning collections, we have become complicit in our own commodification, irrelevance and demise through practices which contradict traditional collection development guidelines for academic libraries.

People associate collections with print and with ownership, since print was always organized and managed as a collection. But the format of items is not important to the concept of a library collection, which is about intellectual/ scholarly works in its scholarly context.

Collection development in academic libraries has to do with the right titles in the right organization (LC classification), described in the right ways (“descriptive bibliography” or cataloging) so that scholarly value can be maximized and communicated to library users.

From a library professional standpoint, at least traditional librarianship, an academic library isn’t primarily about supporting the discoverability of resources, or access to resources which users might find relevant to them, but also about the context in which scholarly publications are thought valuable in the first place. The academic library should help create that context and sense of value for scholarly resources through its designs, websites, systems, acquisition models, marketing and displays. Through our acquisitions models, our metadata and display, we should express our commitment to content and to collections. We should be able to stimulate demand for resources and anticipate use through collections.

I didn’t know much about resource management systems or Alma when I undertook this particular project to make my library’s collections more visible. With my boss’s blessing, I activated a little-known feature in Alma / Primo called “Collection Discovery.” I thought I could use this to create browsable collections of ebooks and ejournals in Primo VE. I would have collections again, but no.

I had been using Primo and SFX with Voyager already for many years prior to coming to Alma/PrimoVE. I was used to a bibliographic system where I could assess usage by call number ranges mapped to the disciplines and could create new book feeds, which I did for my library when I designed a new website for them. I had assumed Collection Discovery in Alma would allow users to effectively browse bibliographic records for the items I placed into its collections, and that titles I harvested through a query would be able to be arranged as a collection using the 050 field rather than as a searchable repository of discoverable resources.

Soon after I began working on this project, I quickly realized the profound limitations of Alma for managing collections of ebooks, books, journal titles and other bibliographic content. I saw the project through, creating 50 distinct collections, including selecting and customizing the graphic image for each collection and populating each collection with titles from what we referred to as “our collection,” which consisted entirely of resources, vendor entitlements. The library was not cataloging its ebooks but relying upon the discovery records provided by vendors, many of which did not provide an 050 field. The project had me looking closely at the metadata records we were receiving, since I was wondering why certain titles I knew we had acquired were not coming up when I performed searches.

Looking at the brevity of their metadata records, I understood why.

I can honestly say that while I received accolades for the project and was even encouraged by a Sales Rep at ProQuest to present it at a conference, the result made me feel uncomfortable.

Using a library system, I had expected to at least be able to retrieve and sort titles by LC Classification to make titles more intuitive to browse rather than their being stuck like fruit in gelatin in some kind of meaningless MMS number order. . . of maybe it was FIFO, I cannot recall. Also, I thought I would have more of the bibliographic content showing on each tile to support browsing. It would be good if complete citation information could pop up with a mouse over. Also, each collection had to be manually maintained rather than allowing a query to continuously pull in new titles as they were activated in Alma, a big nice to have for highlighting new resources and to avoid the inevitable alternative of having to maintain so many different subcollections manually. It was fixed, not a feed.

I have never heard of an academic library system which was incapable of harvesting and sorting by classification number to support browsing and display, but Alma was incapable of doing so. The reasons for this were not just programmatic, something capable of being easily resolved with a product enhancement (apply LC sorting routine to the 050 field), but also the fact that Ex Libris does not require its approved partners to supply the 050 in their MARC records.

During the COVID pandemic, when library conferences were cancelled, the academic publishing industry was conspiring to create their own more relaxed metadata standards for ebooks. They were rushing to codify this in a NISO standard without discussing it with librarians, who are referred to in this document as the tail-end of their (publisher-aggregator) supply chain.6 The publishing industry has perhaps decided it is too hard to catalog books library-style, and not necessary to do so. Because this was perpetuated by a cabal of self-appointed representatives, no librarian expressed that the MARC record is still our bibliographic standard, accepted by academic libraries around the world.

The Library of Congress used to provide free cataloging to publishers as part of LC’s CIP program, but the Library of Congress doesn’t want to provide CIP to publishers for ebooks. The publishing industry does not want to be obligated to provide this library metadata in the metadata it provides to libraries, especially when our systems are apparently doing nothing with it. Ex Libris has established that the 050 is an “O” (Optional). Without the LC Call/Classification number in the 050, there can be no mechanism for displaying collections as collections in a user interface. Titles will appear in random order.

What follows is a perfect illustration of the problem, what happens when bibliographic standards are applied to a system optimized only for discovery (you can see it in action here):

And here is what it looks like on the inside (https://thslc-houston.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/discovery/collectionDiscovery?vid=01TEXASHEALTH_HOUSTON:TMC_INST&collectionId=8191120000005007); titles display in random (or maybe MMS) order; complete bibliographic citation information should display in the tiles instead of just the title.

There is no way to get the titles to collocate by subject/topic.

No librarian really wants to present users with random titles in random order. These are not library collections. They are aggregations.

Also, despite being based on set queries in Alma/Primo, they are not able to be continuously updated or refreshed; they are static arrays which must be manually updated title-by-title. Also, as they do not present complete bibliographic citation information on the title. The author’s last name, publisher, pub date, and other brief information might appear on the tile, with full citation information appearing in a mouse-over.

Classification numbers and pub dates in a standard location in a MARC record are essential for good collection management and display.

Classification numbers are necessary to support collection browsing and assessment, harvesting, arrangement, and to market our collections effectively. From what I have seen and experienced, vendor discovery records coming into our systems are often devoid of library-centric metadata which would make browsing possible. Publication dates are now all over the place and the 050 is missing or incorrectly and inconsistently populated by vendors.

The academic library needs systems and user interfaces which support library standards, collection management and development, collection display and browsing, not just aspire to the low bar of resource discovery. It is time we demand user interfaces for academic libraries which go beyond discovery to provide access not just to resources, but to fully developed collections online.

The academic library desperately needs a store front of its own which is capable of representing knowledge in the disciplines, or at least the best of the best, what is core.

Library system vendors must do a better job of helping the academic library to promote user engagement. The academic library must have systems which support and reinforce the creation of value around scholarly content, and one way it does this is through visible collections. They are necessary to support a content-rich, academically-rigorous entity known as the academic research library. We are not a search engine.

I

  1. Hernandez, Joe. “A Judge Sided with Publishers in a Lawsuit over the Internet Archive’s Online Library.” NPR, 26 Mar. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/03/26/1166101459/internet-archive-lawsuit-books-library-publishers.
  2. Badke, William B. “Questia.com: Implications of the New McLibrary.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000, pp. 61–71, doi:10.1300/J136v05n03_09.
  3. Bell, Steven J. “Electronic Libraries Can’t Be Academic.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52.6 (2005): B.14–https://www.chronicle.com/article/electronic-libraries-cant-be-academic/
  4. A good article on this can be found here: Dumonte, Paul E. “Library Resource Sharing: A Texas-Sized Challenge: Cooperative Efforts of Libraries. Part I.” Resource sharing & information networks 16.1 (2002): 133–144.
  5. “Standards for Libraries in Higher Education,” American Library Association, Feb. 2018. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries.
  6. E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf
  7. E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf
  8. Burke, John J. Neal-Schuman Library Technology Companion: A Basic Guide for Library Staff. Chicago: ALA, 2016, p. 64.”Looking back, there was a move to try to catalog the Web. . . our resources have grown more more and more digital, and we are unable to compete with Google and other search engines. . .
  9. ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries
  10. Daniel, Katherine, et al. “Library Acquisition Patterns.” Ithaka S+R. Ithaka S+R. 29 January 2019. Web. 8 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310937
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  13. Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), p. 212. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211
  14. Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), p. 212. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211
  15. E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf
  16. The “Code of Ethics of American Library Association” (2008) states that “we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.”
  17. https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/academicfreedom
  18. Schlipf, Fred. Constructing Library Buildings That Work. ALA Editions, 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=2543387&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  19. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2022/09/01/2022-library-design-showcase/
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  21. So much can be seen of this bookstore—it is not technically a library—by Googling, but some of the more intimate rooms and spaces not often shown online are included in this video tour here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XY47Yjj4qU
  22. Wood, Adam. “Disappearing School Libraries-Why?” Architecture and Education, June 10, 2018, https://architectureandeducation.org/2018/06/10/disappearing-school-libraries-why/
  23. https://www.bdcnetwork.com/blog/future-libraries
  24. https://www.gensler.com/gri/future-of-the-academic-library
  25. https://www.bdcnetwork.com/blog/future-libraries
  26. Schlipf, Fred. Constructing Library Buildings That Work. ALA Editions, 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=2543387&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  27. Gorman, Michael. “Five New Laws of Librarianship,” American Libraries, Sept. 1995, 784-785, https://thomasisaiahwest.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/gormans-five-new-laws-of-librarianship.pdf
  28. E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf
  29. McKay, Dana et al. “The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Browsing: An Empirical Typology of Library Browsing Behavior.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 70.12 (2019): 1384
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  31. https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill
  32. About UH Libraries, https://libraries.uh.edu/about/. June 9, 2023.
  33. https://library.rice.edu/services/alumni-services. Accessed June 9, 2023.
  34. Posner, Beth. “Insights From Library Information and Resource Sharing for the Future of Academic Library Collections.” Collection management 44.2-4 (2019): 146–153. Web.
  35. Dumonte, Paul E. “Library Resource Sharing: A Texas-Sized Challenge: Cooperative Efforts of Libraries. Part I.” Resource sharing & information networks 16.1 (2002): 133–144. Print.
  36. Knox, Emily J. M. “Supporting Intellectual Freedom: Symbolic Capital and Practical Philosophy in Librarianship.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 84, No. 1, January 2014
  37. Diaz, Eleanor  and James LaRue. 50 Years of Intellectual Freedom.” American Libraries, Vol. 48, No. 11-12 (November/December 2017), p. 40, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26381046.
  38. Danton, Periam. “Plea for a Philosophy of Librarianship: Philosophia vero omnium mater atrium.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 4 (Oct., 1934), pp. 527-551, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4302121; Myra Kolitsch, “Toward a Philosophy of Librarianship.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 25-31, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4303298. Budd, John M. “An Epistemological Foundation for Library and Information Science.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jul., 1995), pp. 295-318; Dick, Archie L. “Epistemological Positions and Library and Information Science.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 305-323, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4309336; Zwadlo, Jim. “We Don’t Need a Philosophy of Library and Information Science: We’re Confused Enough Already.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 67, No. 2 (Apr., 1997), pp. 103-121, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40039699.
  39. Gorman, Michael. “Five New Laws of Librarianship,” American Libraries, Sept. 1995, 784-785, https://thomasisaiahwest.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/gormans-five-new-laws-of-librarianship.pdf
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  41. Emily J. M. Knox. “Supporting Intellectual Freedom: Symbolic Capital and Practical Philosophy in Librarianship.” The Library Quarterly. Vol. 84, No. 1, January 2014
  42. Dumonte, Paul E. “Library Resource Sharing: A Texas-Sized Challenge: Cooperative Efforts of Libraries. Part I.” Resource sharing & information networks 16.1 (2002): 133–144. Print.
  43. https://www.houston.org/why-houston/industries/life-sciences-biotechnology#:~:text=Houston%20has%20more%20than%201%2C760,related%20fields%20in%20the%20area.
  44. “Culture” is defined by Oxford Languages as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”
  45. Evans, G. Edward, and Margaret Zarnosky Saponaro. Collection Management Basics. Libraries Unlimited, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2019, p. 2
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  47. Luesebrink, Michael. “Restructuring Monograph Acquisitions in Academic Libraries,” Rethinking Library Technical Services: Redefining Our Profession for the Future. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 59
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  50. Badke, William B. “Questia.com: Implications of the New McLibrary.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000, pp. 61–71, doi:10.1300/J136v05n03_09.
  51. Baird, Crystal. “Addressing the Library-Related Standards,” https://sacscoc.org/app/uploads/2023/02/Library-Standards-Annual-Meeting-2022.pdf
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  53. Ford, Anne. “The Library Employment Landscape: Job Seekers Navigate Uncertain Terrain.” American Libraries Magazine, 29 Apr. 2021, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2021/05/03/library-employment-landscape/.
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  55. Wood, Adam. “Disappearing School Libraries-Why?” Architecture and Education, June 10, 2018, https://architectureandeducation.org/2018/06/10/disappearing-school-libraries-why/
  56. For the most recent NISO standard for KBART, see https://groups.niso.org/higherlogic/ws/public/download/21896/NISO_RP-26-2019_KBART_Automation.pdf
  57. Nichols, Aaron F., Emily Crist, Graham Sherriff, and Megan Allison. 2017. “What Does It Take to Make Discovery a Success?: A Survey of Discovery Tool Adoption, Instruction, and Evaluation Among Academic
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