An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship

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An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship:
Reflections on Library Goodness in the Digital Age

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

Prologue. Many years ago, I went for a job interview for a Technical Services / Systems Librarian position at a community college library 10 minutes from my home in suburb on the far southeast side of Houston.

I thought I had a good chance at it. I have an ALA-accredited Master’s degree in Library and Information Science (commonly abbreviated MLS or MLIS) from a top-ranked school and years of professional experience in libraries. I knew basic programming (C++, VB, Perl, SQL, JavaScript, CSS and HTML) and a flavor of Unix (Solaris) upon which many library systems run—or used to run, at least. I have installed and configured proxy servers, web servers, mail servers, cataloging records, patron records and the library’s website.

At that time, I had more than a few years of experience as a Technical Services Librarian, Digital Services Librarian, Head Cataloger and Automation Librarian for a large school district, Collection Development Manager and technical consultant for a commercial digital library (the first large-scale online subscription undergraduate library, Questia), Library Director of a new Art Institute campus, “Data Standards Manager” for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and “Client Relationship Manager” for a popular and powerful federated search / discovery application whose technology was used by EBSCO and Gale (among the largest academic content aggregators and database vendors in the world). I had been a Systems and Digital Services Librarian for a Graduate Theological Seminary with five campuses. I was a Certified Information Professional (CIP) through AIIM. In addition to all that, I had many hours of post-graduate work in English Literature, Philosophy, History, Art History, and Latin, along with courses in Computer Science, Business and MIS.

Having worked for the last 18 months as a “Project Manager / Corporate Librarian” for a telecommunications billing software and engineering company two hours commute from home, on an automation project that was rapidly coming to an end—and seeing no new projects on the horizon because the Houston office was being converted to a Data/Network Operations Center—I was eager for the chance at a stable position, ideally where I could put my technical, academic and library skills to use. I had taken that position, leaving a (completed) grant-funded position at the Museum of Fine Arts, for the promise of SharePoint development experience, Project Management certification training, and a trip to the company’s sales back office in Bangalore, India. Less than thirty days after I started, the company laid off many people, including me. After writing a letter to the CEO, I was reinstated, but the project I was hired for, the implementation of an Enterprise Document and Contract Management System, was put on hold. Eighteen months later, I was still spinning my wheels, updating my Business Requirements Documents, driving to an office turned into data center with the decision-makers moved out, logging hours to a project that clearly wasn’t happening. Returning to library work seemed a very good choice for me and perhaps my only option. 

The day of the job interview at the community college arrived. To my surprise, especially since I was interviewing for a technical position in the library, I was asked to share with the search committee my “Philosophy of Librarianship.” This was one of just a few questions asked during the interview, none of which had to do with anything technical or systems-related (“technical services” in libraries entails management of cataloging and patron records, the library automation system, collection analysis, reporting services, the proxy server, discovery tools, electronic resources and the website).

Hmm. Ask me about my experience with library systems or digital libraries or discovery tools, metadata or web services, MARC records or metadata, and I might have something to say. Ask me about my experience creating websites. Ask me to define “responsive web design” or explain what a proxy server does. Ask me a cataloging question.

But my “Philosophy of Librarianship”?

I had nothing, and whatever I thought to say in that moment I feared would come across as disingenuous. Actually, I was having a hard time even relating a “philosophy” to the job description of a Technical Services Librarian. What were the possible correct responses? I feared I had simply missed something, having worked outside of libraries for a few years.

The Public Services Librarian who posed the question indignantly poked me: “What, are we librarians just circling the drain?” 

As far as I was concerned, I would be there to fill a specific role involving access to electronic resources, systems, the website, servers and records. I was offering my skills to solve problems. I didn’t see how my personal librarian philosophy, whatever that might be, mattered, or even related to the job. 

Since that time, I have discovered that the question is not such an unusual one in the library world. Academic librarians of all types, both in public and technical services, are being asked to provide a philosophy of library practice in job interviews or as part of their performance review process. These days, they may even need to provide one to keep their jobs. 

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

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

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

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

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

Whenever one is asked to justify one’s value in some sort of formalized statement, it is never a good thing. It means that your value to the organization is not obvious.

And whenever this happens, no philosophy or explanation, no matter how carefully crafted, is likely to change anyone’s mind:


Nonetheless, this trend of self-justification in academic librarianship has become so pervasive, that librarians are even posting them on their personal websites. 

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

Many college and academic libraries are getting rid of print altogether 3 4 5 6 7 while erecting new libraries, 21st century architectural wonders consisting of collaborative and innovative work spaces, video conference rooms, meeting rooms, and high-tech classrooms, sometimes resembling more a modern open office space than a library.

Across the country, colleges and universities are spending millions to create modern spaces, variously called “new libraries” or “learning centers,” or “library learning centers,” for students to study, socialize, drink coffee and learn in a more collaborative, interactive and personalized fashion. In a library setting, collaborative learning, where students work together as a team to solve problems, or come together to share their knowledge with each other—emulating some idealized vision of the project-driven, team-oriented business world8is fostered at the expense of collections when it comes to the allocation of space and funding for these new facilities. 

New libraries are popping up everywhere. Should librarians be cheering?

Within these new libraries, such as this feature photo from the Jan/Feb. 2020 issue of American Libraries, “Show Us Your Beautiful New Library,”9 one might imagine that it would be difficult for librarians who work there to place value on reading or publications in any format.

Despite being heralded as a new 21st century learning environment, it might be harder for librarians to encourage the sort of learning we have always encouraged through user engagement with our resources, which may or may not have had anything to do with assignment completion or “success” as defined by the business objective measures of the institution. Academic libraries support scholarship and research, offering services on a more individualized and personalized level, and these may or may not be contributing to anything but greater knowledge. This knowledge may or may not have to do with retention, progression or completion of a degree. (When we serve students, we do not ask why they want to know something, or grill them on how it is relevant to an assignment.)

Even though the building may have been designed to utilize the most up-to-date technologies, it may be more challenging within the context of these new centers to effectively deploy new technologies to put new titles in front of users, or place titles into a disciplinary context to enhance their relevance to users, or to convey their cultural and scholarly significance. It may be harder to encourage learning.

Despite their bright colors and modern, airy designs, the new library facility might also seem less inspiring to students, even as a place to study, when compared to a library with visible contents.10 11




From Browseable Collections to Socially-Oriented Spaces:
From Libraries to Learning Centers

am willing to concede that the traditional academic library, our old library service model, may no longer be viable in the Digital Age. Just as many are rethinking higher education, and how technology should play into it, so too, libraries have been the subject of reinvention, renovation, experimentation and elimination over the last thirty years.

Increasingly, reading books, regardless of their format, is seen as irrelevant to higher education. An assumption is made that students aren’t going to read books, since they didn’t grow up reading them, and they aren’t about to start when they go to college. Even if they do, reading books (especially outside of a graded class assignment) will have little to do with a student’s academic success, with “success” defined by college administrators as timely degree completion, not success in life. Increasingly, books in libraries are perceived by administrators to be a distraction or diversion from studies, rather than being an essential part of a student’s college education. According to this perspective, all of the books in the library might be eliminated to make the library more student-centered, a kind of student support center. Even though it may still be called a “library,” its mission is not that of a traditional college or academic library, but something far less ambitious.

All that remains of the library at many community colleges and even some fairly good-sized universities are the links to consortial databases and packed content, and perhaps a discovery tool for searching across them; computers, scanners, charging stations and some comfortable chairs. There are no actual collections, either in print or online, and no collection development activity going on in the library, despite the fact that SACS still seems to require a Collection Development policy (which would seem to presuppose a “collection”) for accreditation purposes.12 Even at university libraries, not just school and community college libraries, a similar trend is occurring. Collections in print and online are abandoned, and what remains of the library is turned into a bookless facility, with the library subscribing to pretty much the same databases each year. Even though it may still be called a “library,” and librarians may still work there, it isn’t functioning as a library except to provide access to resources which might be consulted for a research paper or writing assignment. Whether the new library, sometimes called a learning center, needs professional librarians to staff them is open to conjecture, as SACS requires “qualified staff,” but not necessarily degreed librarians. The impact that these newer acquisitions patterns and learning centers have had on learning and the business objectives of the university is largely unknown.  

Even my personal Narnia, the Catholic liberal arts college library existing almost outside of time with its unbroken intellectual tradition extending back to the beginning, has largely determined to go bookless and collectionless,13 even though, as we all know, it was their monasteries and university libraries which preserved knowledge and literacy through the last Dark Ages, culminating in the High Middle Ages, the “renaissance of the twelfth century.” The truth is, there had been several renaissances before the Renaissance, but these earlier revivals in literacy, art, material culture and learning were localized and short-lived. Printing, coupled by an explosion in literacy (the latter spurred on by the availability of Bibles in the vernacular and a new religious imperative for people to read them), is often thought, by the people who think about such things, to have brought about a “permanent Renaissance.” As a result of mass production of books and improved literacy rates, knowledge would never again be lost, or so the theory went, because a copies of books would always exist in some library somewhere, and mass distribution allowed for wider readership. This idea of a permanent Renaissance brought about by printing seemed perfectly plausible to everyone in 1979, when Eisenstein first published her famous book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.14 

Digitization is typically seen as furthering the democratizing trend and boosting literacy around the globe. But in academic libraries, digitization has also meant the elimination of print collections, the increasing commodification of scholarly content, more restricted community access to resources, failure to collect for the future in favor of “just-in-time” access models, reduced or no title-by-title selection, and the increased capacity for third-parties to exercise greater control over both library systems and the user experience. It has meant increasing homogenization of content across libraries throughout the State through an acquisition pattern of acquiring only the databases needed to get through accreditation and nothing more. It has meant libraries and librarians abandoning collection development, descriptive cataloging, a disciplinary framework, and increasingly divorcing themselves from their former commitments to the presentation and preservation of scholarly content in the disciplines, with many claiming that the modern reliance on commercial entities for access to their content is what it means for the profession to “evolve.” 

Many fully digital libraries and librarians now see themselves as no longer even about books or scholarly publications in any format, or about knowledge, but are about their commercially-branded products or their architecturally-designed collaborative work spaces. When compared to the content-rich learning environments which preceded them, places which represented learning, the life of the mind, creativity, culture, a rich tapestry of human achievement and experience—at least presenting what is thought significant and good in the disciplines by the larger community of educated people—the space of the modern academic library is a wasteland, or at least it has the feeling of one. It is even unclear by what measure we are to count the new library as successful or not, and if any expectations are being placed on it other than to be a place for students to be.

The physical library may now be full of natural light and technology and modern architecture and ascending staircases, its formerly opaque walls replaced by glass and whiteboards, but despite its brightened appearances, it is a place of darkness. No, I am not crazy. But offering users an empty office space and calling it a “library” may well be. There is nothing there to experience. The library, even its modern incarnation as a kind of modern open office space, should still provide for a user experience which is fundamentally “about” its intellectual and aesthetic content, about what is current, what is significant and good in the scholarly disciplines, and not be “about” the user’s own solipsistic response to an empty architecturally designed space (as a space), or else “about” the other random people who happen to be occupying the space with them. Increasingly, the design aesthetic of the new library promoted by architects and library designers is really no different from what I experience when I am sitting in a dealership waiting for my car to be serviced. AutoNation Toyota is not the correct or appropriate aesthetic for an academic research library. 

I know, I have been told that the academic library is online now. It has been explained to me, as if I am oblivious to the what this self-styled modern library has to offer to the digital-age student and scholar. I consider myself a lucky beneficiary of my own library’s rich bounty. But despite the largesse of my library’s online resources, I cannot help but see the library as falling short of the educational experiences we ought to be providing students. Online, what many college and university libraries offer are “access to” subscriptions to academic databases with a discovery tool to cross-search them and not access to collections. This is the standard model for the new librarianship, where third-party packages form our core and often the totality of the library experience.

Many small college libraries offer the bare minimum to get through accreditation, which for small college libraries in Texas is TexShare databases,15 while others, large university libraries, often aim to subscribe to everything under the sun. Either way, small or large, there is no library collection development activity going on, and even if there is some, it often goes unnoticed by users. There is no way in our bookless environments to present titles to users as part of a quality library collection online, or as anything but discoverable third-party content which lives far away on commercial platforms, seemingly of no immediate interest to anyone on campus, and which few people in the real world can access if they are not currently enrolled in school or affiliated with a university. There is no sense of immediacy, ownership or scholarly value communicated through our current systems. 

Of course, I see the advantages of resource management over collection development, the efficiencies of scale, the fact that we can provide access to so much access to content without anyone needing to know anything except for how to perform a search. There is an indisputable advantage, in terms of staffing, for those who work in a modern academic library, to not need to know anything except for how to find things, or pull things out of databases. The workers at big box retailers do not need to know much about their products, either; they need to know enough to help customers find items they might be looking for. We must have safeguards in place to prevent the library from becoming commodified, a way of differentiating our product from our vendors’ products, as much as they would like this to be the same thing. As a librarian and an educator, I perceive the loss of a quality user experience of the academic library which we once thought so vital to educational achievement and student success in higher education. 

Being “student centered” for an academic library has never before had anything to do with our centralized seating arrangements, putting students out in the middle of a room, like putting cows out to pasture, or seating on a “learning” staircase (which strikes me as something out of Scientology); and certainly not with orality—with primordial “campfires, caves and watering-holes,”16 the way pre-literate people had to transmit knowledge—but always with literacy, providing a collection of literature that was fine-tuned to the needs and interests of students, scholars, and other presumably literate people. It meant librarians being familiar with what was in the collection in order to encourage user engagement with the titles in it. It meant letting users know of new and forthcoming titles and things of interest which might appeal to them. It meant creating a content-rich learning environment.

That was being student-centered for a library.

To my knowledge, it still is.

Holding the Line. Obviously, given the length of this document, I’ve thought long and hard about the question of what difference does it make, not just to me personally or to my fellow librarians, but to the user experience, the quality of education, to the school, to the community, and the rest of the world, if academic libraries are not only fully digital, “bookless,” but also collectionless

Who is capturing the Spirit of the Ages, the Zeitgeist of the 70s, 80’s, 90’s, of 2021, and on into the future, if library collections no longer exist, even at the largest of universities?

What knowledge is being lost by failing to collect for the needs of future scholars, or by our not being able to present to the public or our communities what is significant, good and noteworthy in academic publishing or contemporary culture? 

Academic libraries have stopped collecting and librarians have stopped curating, leaving content up to the vendors from whom we license content, but this content, for which we pay dearly, is not even very visible in any immediate way to users. There is no illusion of a library collection there, an effort to keeping up appearances. Each in their own way, vendors and our accrediting agencies have encouraged this trend toward greater commodification, as if access to content has ever been sufficient to get students to engage with it. The premise, as any educator will tell you, is wrong. In a classroom, students need graphic organizers and “scaffolding,” context and visuals. Classrooms today must be content-rich and media rich, customized to students needs and interests. A good library is really no different from the classroom in this regard. We must have organization and structure conducive to learning. Library as a search engine provides no motivation for anyone to engage with it, and the disconnect between the library and the rest of campus has grown wider through this model of librarianship.

Libraries may no longer seek to even involve faculty in collection development decisions, instead licensing annual subscriptions to large packages of digital content which lives, often fleetingly, on commercial platforms. Where we once sent around publisher catalogs and forthcoming title lists (which faculty appreciated because it helped them keep up and keep their research interests from fizzling out); where we once consulted Choice and other book review sources, and sent personal emails to faculty like, “I saw this announcement for new book on the History of Wallpaper and thought you would be interested!” (even if we might not have acquired it for them); and where we once managed the budget conservatively so it lasted throughout the year to avoid gaps in the collection, now the budget is put into packages in the beginning of the year and we have less ongoing contact with our faculty. 

Of course, sometimes librarians can and do add individual titles to the aggregator’s or publisher platform, often at significant cost relative to list price, but when they do, these additions are not visible to those on the other side of the search box. No one knows that the librarian added them, or that they are there awaiting discovery. We can only hope that someone comes along and searches for something so it might be found. Shockingly, our library systems provide us with no mechanism for display of new titles to a website or to promote titles of interest to the community.

Increasingly, the ocean of content to which we subscribe as part of “big deals” is not cataloged according to library standards, and therefore it cannot be meaningfully browsed and presented online according to a disciplinary framework. Now it is more difficult to spot what is missing from our online library or to apply bibliographic approaches to the scholarly resources to which we subscribe, and some might even question the validity of such bibliographic approaches to the management of digital content, a debate which I will get to much later on in this book.

Bibliographic description, or descriptive cataloging, has been an important part of academic library practice ever since the beginning of bibliography (ca. 1814) because it places titles into their disciplinary, cultural and intellectual framework to facilitate broad access and understanding by scholars. Classification of knowledge into topoi is an even older library-like practice which began with the Ancient Greeks, a practice which aided both understanding and memory. Through cataloging and collection development, librarians preserve the scholarly content of a discipline. Libraries were formerly about the care and display of intellectual works, not functioning as a secondary Internet for searching commodified commercial content. 

Publishers often provide little more than the title and publication date in the discovery records they supply. Therefore, the resources we license from different vendors cannot be displayed in their scholarly context as an academic library collection—nor is it one, technically, by our own academic library standards. They are aggregations of content. Items do not stand in intellectual relationship to each other. There is no internal logic to our holdings. There are secondary sources but not the primary ones, minor works but not the major ones, literary criticism but no literature, volume 2 but not volume 1, and often nothing, in terms of scholarly monographs, that are current or in demand, unless we have added them ourselves. 

Strangely, in this environment, journal articles, once considered ephemeral, may enjoy a longer life than the scholarly monograph, which was once thought to be relatively permanent. Vendor-controlled bare-bones discovery records come and go as portfolios come and go, so what we have at the end of the day is not a fluid repository or product inventory, a record of just-in-time entitlements linked to publisher websites. Aggregators and publishers add and remove content from our inventories based on their business needs and objectives and without effecting our license agreements. In this way, the academic library has become commodified, and the trend will likely continue until the whole of the library is a subscription to one or two aggregators’ comprehensive database packages, licensed to universities as “Academic Complete,” with a choice of two flavors, EBSCO or ProQuest.

The increasing commodification of the academic library has transformed every aspect of our systems, our standards, our workflows, our staffing levels and hiring practices, our access policies, our metadata, our interior architecture, and our capacity for user engagement, but its impact on learning, literacy and scholarship, especially future scholarship, is largely unknown and not even discussed much in library literature. For the most part, libraries have become the tail-end of a publisher-aggregator supply chain. Metaphorically, we unpack the boxes and put the inventory out on the floor, and sometimes, as with autoload holdings, we don’t even need to do that much. Our vendors like it that way, for it helps them to monetize their content. 

How can people at a university even begin learn about an academic discipline, or feel that they have achieved some level of mastery over it, if a discipline is no longer visible or accessible to them through an academic library collection? 

What does an academic degree represent if not familiarity with the published literature in a discipline?

A search engine alone is not ideal for this kind of learning. It is not ideal for communicating scholarly value. Only collections provide a needed overview, integrity and disciplinary framework appropriate for an academic library. Only collections, because they can be tailored to the needs and interests of their audiences, provide for a truly student-centered library learning experience for the college library. Only collections signify and convey care and respect for scholarship and learning to foster academic commitment and user engagement with the resources provided by the library. 

And if collections once vitally mattered to the library profession thirty years ago, the very thing which fundamentally defined a library as a library, why should collections be considered to be so inconsequential to our library service model today just because our resources are delivered digitally? From the standpoint of the user experience and education, is the “discovery of resources” on aggregator and publisher platforms really a replacement for curated collections reflecting what is significant and good by our faculty, librarians, and experts in the field? 

With digitization in libraries—or more precisely, the shifting of responsibility for the provision of the academic library’s content and metadata from the librarians (and faculty) to large commercial entities—comes the challenge not only of what to do with the space where the stacks used to be, but how, and if, the library might support more ambitious and idealistic academic library objectives, e.g., “intellectual inquiry” or “literacy” or “access to disciplinary knowledge“—or even serve as a reliable foundation for learning about an unfamiliar field or area of study—if what we have to offer is for the most part invisible to users, and not organized or displayed as a collection of titles, or authoritative, that is, presenting what educated people or scholars working in the discipline think significant and good to know. The content we offer may be “scholarly,” but searchable aggregations of content is not scholarly, or adding scholarly value. This may be a hard point to get across, but the metadata we provided which constituted the old catalog was not just about access, but context. Discovery is a mish-mash of content—a useful tool, but not a great digital library interface for an academic library.

The collection itself is an extremely important form of scholarly communication for which there exists no online equivalent or substitute.

It is what made the library a valuable resource to students and scholars beyond just providing access to information. Resources plus resources equals just a bigger bag of resources, but it lacks organization or integrity. The intellectual work of the academic librarian, of evaluating, selecting, cataloging, describing, preserving and displaying individual titles in collections mapped to the disciplines, so they might be seen and appreciated by others, is almost gone.

Traditional academic library objectives, the more scholarly objectives of college and university libraries, were about presenting, preserving and providing broad access to the scholarly literature of a field and community, a coherent body of knowledge, common points of reference through which it was possible to create new knowledge and erudite people. It was not just about access to information in the moment, but about knowledge itself; encouraging actual familiarity with the authors, titles, influencers, ideas and the literature of educated people in society. 

Traditional librarianship also valued independent learning by students, that is, reading outside of a class assignment, because it is not reasonable to expect that a few classes are going to teach everything or even most of what a student needs to know to be successful in his field. It upheld the idea that reading is empowering, an act of self-determination and self-actualization. Traditional librarianship stimulated demand for its collections by acquiring titles in anticipation use and placing them into a larger intellectual context.

This is how it encouraged browsing, and browsing is learning.  

Achieving the more idealistic or philosophical objectives of academic librarianship has become more challenging as the resources that the library acquires, whether individually or as a subscription package, are neither presented online in some immediate, visible way to users, nor capable of being experienced as browseable collections. 

The model of a physical library as a kind social space for people to be to get work done and of an online library as a search engine or a fluid repository of resources which might be useful to someone should he have a need is a passive model which does not actively encourage user engagement with resources. It does not encourage literacy. It isn’t a good or effective model for teaching, learning, or creating educated people. We need discovery, but the whole of the library experience constituted by a passive search portal affords too shallow an experience to be an online library for a university library. 

  • It does not help students grow in knowledge of themselves or of the world.
  • It does not inspire or turn people on to new things.
  • It does not keep faculty up-to-date, or make scholars aware of new titles in their field.
  • It does not improve “academic commitment” or attachment to that school, since there is nothing local or unique.
  • It does not instill respect for intellectual achievement or inspire the creation of new knowledge.
  • It does not create educated people.

These are some of the outcomes I would expect of any good college or university library, including one that is fully digital.

The traditional academic library presented users with a pleasing tapestry of human creativity and thought as it evolved through time. Collections were our product, and they were visible as collections to a larger community of scholars. Through cataloging and collection development, the academic library preserved the scholarly content of the discipline over time and made users aware of new titles in their areas of interest.

Throughout this book, I will express hopes, expectations, needs and requirements—say, business or organizational requirements—for a future library and future library software, so the academic library might be reimagined and reinvented, rather than being seen often as it is today by many people in my field, a lost cause.17 A change of direction is possible through four mechanisms:

  1. The work of OCLC and the Mellon Foundation, who are doing interesting things with collections and collection metadata in an effort to protect and preserve cultural knowledge in both libraries and museums. Because OCLC has experience with large-scale aggregation and metadata enrichment, with conspectus analysis and collection evaluation tools, they have the potential to develop new and more engaging library user interfaces for the academic market, building upon its academic library services platform, WMS. OCLC currently has only a small share of the academic library system marketplace, but unlike EBSCO or ProQuest, it offers vendor neutrality. I will discuss some of OCLC’s more recent initiatives later on in this book.
  2. A return to prescriptive standards for libraries through ACRL, with the recognition that institutional “objectives-assessment” approaches in higher education and libraries have only resulted in continuous cost-cutting and lowering of academic library standards, not in continuous improvement or greater accountability. For reasons I will explain, following this model, which ACRL recommends, does not help the library to be more accountable as a library. ACRL should also seek to develop standards specifically for libraries which are fully digital, even if these are just a prototype for something yet to be developed.
  3. With library-centric prescriptive standards or recommendations, ACRL / ALA can exert influence with accrediting agencies like SACS. College and academic libraries have always needed accreditation to be our big stick. 
  4. Working with library system vendors to improve their product. If the only user experience a library system affords is searching across databases, are they needed? When looking for articles, researchers tend to go directly to subject specific databases anyway. Vendors should realize that once collections go, library systems go. We don’t need it to check out or manage books. No school is going to pay for the convenience of searching across databases, especially once administrators realize that a webpage with databases will afford access to the same content. It is in our vendors’ best interest to develop more engaging collection-centric interfaces.

I believe we must embrace a more humanistic and scholarly practice, a return to raising awareness of new and important publications, of stimulating demand, and providing access to knowledge. This does not necessarily mean a return to print, resuscitating the library of thirty years ago. Far more than “access to information” or familiarity with vendor products and platforms, students and scholars need an objective and impartial view of their field or what is good for educated professionals to know. We can provide that independent perspective, where our publishers cannot. There are things we should be doing to enhance the user experience of the modern library to stimulate inquiry and engagement with resources.

The ability to accurately and impartially visualize the world of knowledge and the scholarly activity in it, along with the ability to present curated content of interest to a particular community, is the true and unique work of academic librarianship. We might also provide a more curated experience, populating a website or personalized dashboard with titles of interest to users.

Why shouldn’t we be able to creatively leverage SSO to our own advantage to allow our users to create their own shareable virtual library collections, dashboards and personalized feeds, for example? Why can’t we create a virtual visual library?

The online user experience of the academic library today is a generic and fairly uniform across all college and academic libraries, cloud-based search application capable of cross-searching the library’s owned and subscription content and returning ten items at a time. Discoverability is beneficial, of course, especially if one does not know where to look to find scholarly books and articles online. But this discovery experience, text search with hierarchical list-ranked results, is not one that is unique to libraries (Google, for example, is not a library, nor is it perceived as one), nor should it be the whole of the user experience of the library. It is not rich or immersive enough, and does not convey or confer value, neither our value as librarians, nor the scholarly or intellectual value of the items within it. Total immersion in scholarly literature is also not an ideal approach for teaching lower-division students. Undergraduates benefit from a library with books and publications tailored to their needs, interests and educational level. Traditional libraries created context-rich learning environments suited to the tastes and needs of the audience. That is what being student-centered was about for a library, and it still is today. 

Despite what librarians may do currently to select and add individual titles to aggregator platforms, to enhance vendor products, its contents are no longer perceived by anyone to be a product of librarians, or human effort, or a reflection of local or community interest or values. 

When we add a title to an aggregator platform, we are throwing the starfish back into the ocean.18 We know we have done a good deed by buying that certain ebook or journal, but no one else knows it is there. If anyone comes upon it, they assume the book was there all along, just a part of the vendor package. Furthermore, only an infinitesimal percent of the library’s resources is visible at a time. On a very basic level, a ten million dollar library is experienced the same as one with a ten thousand dollar budget. There is neither the awe inspiring experience of the library sublime of the large university library with large historical collections, nor the academic intimacy of the small college library, where each resource was selected with care and attention for the benefit of the user or community. 

People complained about the old library being wasteful, but the library in the cloud is no less so: a small percent of any library gets used, only now we may be paying a whole lot more per use. Small campus college libraries which cannot easily benefit from an economy of scale (ebooks for libraries are much more expensive to acquire than print), but yet are required to support distance learning and equitable access to library resources by SACS accreditation’s guidelines, are particularly challenged when it comes to doing collection development and maintaining library collections. As it stands, it would appear that databases are needed for school accreditation, but collections–that which defined a library as a library–are not. If the objective is literacy and independent learning, this is not a correct model. 

A Catholic school or an HBCU, art school, or any other school with a unique community or specialty or following cannot effectively promote its resources to its respective communities through the singularity of a search box or generic databases. It must offer collections. Library systems and websites must help us to create a unique sense of place online and in person, one that is enjoyable, interactive, and educational to browse. Browsing is learning. At this point, through discovery, we can only acquire items and hope they get discovered in their lifetime. The model is ineffective, and no amount of instruction of direct student engagement can compensate for the lack of library collections. 

Collections were our former glory. They are what made the library an intellectual and social place. There are what made the library good. People came to the library to see what was new in their field, to spot trends, and to stimulate their own research in new and grow in unexpected directions. They made the library aesthetically and intellectually pleasing, even as a place to study. Without collections of fresh and interesting titles on display, organized by discipline, the library does not reflect knowledge, literature, expert opinion, or what is thought significant or good by a larger community of readers and scholars. “Access” alone is not enough, even with instruction, because this does not inspire learning. We must have a way of delivering a better experience in person and online.  

Access alone does not, and cannot by design, reflect scholarly activity in the academic disciplines, especially over time. It does not preserve knowledge or culture, or support the creation of new knowledge. T

he trend away from collection development, where librarians and faculty work collaboratively to select individual titles, toward blanket acquisitions and resource management, the practice of licensing large packages and vendors determine the library’s contents, is the path toward greater commodification, reduced quality, a poorer user experience and diminished impact. A library must maintain collections in anticipation of use to be effective.

The more traditional collection development statement of Lee College, a small community college in an industrial part of Houston, describes its beautiful philosophical commitment of a small college library to maintaining quality collections:

The goal of the Lee College Library collection is quality, not quantity. A collection has quality to the degree that it is relevant and appropriate in quantity to the number of students and faculty who use it. Quality is compromised either when new material is not added or when inappropriate material is retained. As a secondary goal it is preferable that the library’s collection be used. But there’s an attendant need for the library’s collection to be potentially useful, in anticipation of use. A high usage rate usually correlates with material purchases that meet the needs of the curriculum. On the other hand it must be acknowledged that it is impossible to accurately identify uses that fall outside of actual circulation. In-house use is a notoriously poor measure of use, since students frequently reshelve books, and some books that are reshelved were not helpful. Therefore, books that show little to no use in the statistics will be critically evaluated for potential usefulness, accuracy, timeliness, and quality, in order to determine whether to promote them or deselect them.19

Where in contrast, the comparatively affluent University of Houston Library System, a university which claims Tier One status, states on its website that it will no longer be able to afford to maintain collections or buy books in anticipation of use, but because it lacks requisite funding, will wait for book requests.20 A library which purchases books primarily upon request, rather than buying them in anticipation of need, is no longer functioning as a library. This is not opinion or conjecture on my part. We were taught this in library school. 

In the transition to booklessness and collectionlessness, librarians have outsourced cataloging and selection to the vendors from whom we license digital content, including one from whom most of us license our system. I realize that this developed out of necessity, for we had no digital content of our own. We had to scale up quickly to meet demand, negotiating deals to license a hundred thousand ebooks and journals at a time. New systems sprang up to meet this need. We went online without a carefully developed online interface, business plan or standards for the user experience.

Where the practice of buying in bulk was once regarded as acceptable to supplement the library’s collections, now packages of content have replaced them. Many libraries have done away with the professional and intellectual activity of content curation, monitoring scholarly publishing, reading reviews, and the evaluation of individual titles, in favor of a more efficient and streamlined resource management approach, where acquire whole product lines as an annual subscription, just as any big box retailer today might manage its product inventories. We are more like a Kohl’s or any big box retailer than we may realize or want to admit. 

An academic library cannot do without these workflows, especially for managing its serial content. It took years, many hands and scholarship to develop our print collections title-by-title, cataloging them as we went, and these have gone away. Packages of digitized content provided by aggregators and publishers were needed and convenient. It was good for the transition. But it is time for library systems to evolve to support the work of librarians of preserving the scholarly content of the disciplines. We need systems designed more around collection development and marketing titles than providing passive access to aggregated commercial packages.  

Libraries must provide a better, more robust and engaging user experience than access. It must strike a balance between collection development and resource management. It needs content curation, display and personalization. It must help scholars keep up with their discipline and stimulate inquiry to be good. 

I realize that scholars in the sciences want up to the minute access to journals a resource management approach is ideal for a library with all serial content. By the same token, there is no reason why all of the journal titles and scholarly monographs in an academic library collection should not be able to be browsed by LC classification, and no reason why favored journal titles should not be able to be browsed online though institutional and personalized dashboards as part of our own 21st century library systems. There is no reason why journals and ebooks both they should not be able to be arranged and organized by classification so they can be visually navigated (browsed) online like a real library, regardless of their originating source. We need better systems and better metadata to create better library interfaces, and a return to the ideal of access to library collections online, not greater access to more information.

We must stop competing with the Internet and do what we do best as libraries. This does not necessarily mean a return to paper (there is a cost-benefit which I will cover in a chapter below), but it does mean constructing a community and communal experience around texts and ideas. It also means putting a stop to perpetuating the ideal of the library as an empty open office space, rather than a stimulating content-rich, media-rich environment. 

We might begin with our own websites, optimizing them for promoting dynamic content. Unfortunately, our previously websites, which ran on our own servers when we maintained our own locally installed systems, have now been claimed by IT Departments with our home pages contained inside the university CMS. If people wonder, “Why can’t we be more like Amazon?” “Why can’t the library be more fun to browse?” one reason is that most of us do not administer our own websites or servers anymore. It is difficult for librarians, even those who know how to code (many librarians do–the degree is Library and Information Science), to develop content-driven or dynamic websites to engage with scholars online, the sort of features one might expect at any ecommerce store or publisher website today, if we do not control our own websites, servers, metadata or content.

Therefore, our resulting static pages tend to emphasize what is stable or static over time, commercial products or our interior spaces, or generic Pexels images approved by Marketing, but not our intellectual content. At the same time as library systems and content are all hosted and increasingly managed by vendors, and our websites have been co-opted by IT Departments, our physical spaces are being transformed into meeting spaces, seating areas, and conference rooms in the name of a “new librarianship” which stresses collaborative learning and oral forms of knowledge transmission. 

Inside the library, as on our websites, there is no visible emphasis on books, publishing, scholarship, ideas, culture or any form of intellectual life. It is not aesthetically pleasing. They are just vacuous institutional and impersonal spaces which are open long hours. The Reference desk is also gone in many libraries, replaced by a “Welcome desk.” There is a popular idea that “putting students first” means literally seating students in the middle of the room and putting books out of view, or not providing them at all. “Putting students first” has become a euphemism for library booklessness.

If there are any physical books left in the academic library space, they are likely just serving as academic wallpaper, not as a collection we would expect anyone would want to engage with. Random old titles set out on shelves, a result of ad hoc acquisition patterns, what Collection Development 101 warned us against. It feeds perceptions that books and libraries are obsolete, rather than communicating and amplifying their value.

Scholarly value is aesthetic value, and the library’s role is to create that context in which titles have meaning (that is, heightened aesthetic and intellectual value). This is how we encourage literacy

Libraries are a reflection of their larger society, and as a society, we may be beyond circulating physical books. I get that. I don’t want to carry books around either, or shelve them, and I expect immediate access to what I want to read when I want to read it.

But we must reimagine the online library and our physical spaces both as destinations which are enjoyable and meaningful for users to browse to become aware of publications and ideas in the first place, and to become engaged with the scholarly, intellectual and creative activity of literate people, even if the content is delivered and consumed virtually. The space should provide for a shared community experience, not of a space, but of culture. Users might browse a physical or virtual manifestation in the library, but check books out digitally (tap and go) to read them. In the library there can be video presentations about current titles and interviews with scholars to create a shared experience. There is opportunity for virtualization, content curation and even artistry on a conceptual level

Beyond selecting which big packages to renew each year, the intellectual content of the library is perceived as no longer even our responsibility. We license the package, vendors provide the content. We neither select nor catalog individual titles. We do not do marketing or display of titles. We do not inform faculty about titles (I do in my practice, but many do not.) We may negotiate better prices to be able to license more or better packages of content, but through these same systems provided by our content aggregators, scholarly activity is practically invisible both to us and our users, unless someone thinks to come along and search for something. Lacking immediacy, mere access to resources does not instill respect for scholarship.

To respect something is to make it visible, to place it into public view where it can be seen and considered again and again. The more public and seemingly permanent we make something, the more an object is perceived to have social value and respect.

With the near universal adoption of cloud-based web-scale discovery systems, academic libraries have become efficient at acquiring and providing seamless access to ever expanding digital content (e.g., I can activate and make instantly available a package of 130,000 academic ebooks in less than a minute in our discovery system, no cataloging required). The system is scalable, meaning we can buy a huge package and make it available quickly. 

And yet, despite offering users convenient access to an ever expanding universe of articles and publications, there is a feeling that librarians are delivering less value to their institutions, not more. In fact, it often seems like the more we access provide, the more hours we stay open, the more we classes we are willing to teach at a moment’s notice, the shorter the response time to a query, the more we beg to embed ourselves into the classroom, the harder we try to serve the goals and objectives of other departments, the less we are valued. Far from the vibrant “learning hub” architects promised to create, libraries have become desolate places. 

The creation of open office spaces in the name of librarianship does not represent progress in librarianship, it is just the only thing architects know how to sell, for they do not know how to create a modern library, only a modern space.

We must reject commodification in its various forms and return to the ideals of what made a library a good library to regular users and scholars, the representation of what is current, interesting, significant and good to other scholars. 

Federated vs. Proxied Access. People used to be able to go inside the academic research library and access all of its owned and subscription content. It was an asset to the whole community. Many librarians believed the State of Texas liked it this way, and that there existed a mandate for publicly-funded academic libraries in the State to share their resources with each other and with public libraries. The legislation which established the TexShare program (TGC 441.223), a statewide library consortium originally intended for public academic libraries, would seem to imply that such a mandate exists, as the program was established for the following reasons:

(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.

Resource sharing has usually been regarded by librarians as being in the best interest of students, scholarship, the institution, and society. Whether or not a mandate can be inferred from this legislation–it doesn’t exist if TexShare, SACS or THECB doesn’t enforce it—certainly it seems a contradiction for us inside the library, especially libraries that are TexShare members, to say we are about creating lifelong learners while simultaneously denying lifelong learning opportunities to anyone not currently enrolled in school.

Our former access policies meant, for example:

  • doctors would continue to have access to medical literature after they graduated;
  • lawyers (and the public) would always have access to a law library;
  • architects to the literature of their profession;
  • museum professionals, art dealers, conservators and artists to an art library;
  • teachers, engineers, grant writers and computer scientists would continue to be able to return on occasion, should the need arise, to consult an academic research library.
  • retired mathematicians could continue to engage with publications and work on proofs and unresolved problems;
  • alumni could return to the library to recharge, retool and refresh their skills.
  • a business library was available for start-ups (market research, business plans, access to technical and trade publications) to support entrepreneurship by their own alumni. 
  • future scholars—high school students—could use the college library and not only get a feel for being on a college campus, but could possibly change the world, as many a brilliant high school student has done.

As collections have gone away, so has community access to scholarly resources through college and university libraries. As a librarian who helps students with their research projects and theses, I take umbrage at other publicly-funded universities erecting barriers to my students from accessing their publicly-funded resources, not due to license restrictions or policy change or some new definition of Fair Use in education, but mainly due to a new authentication protocol promoted by our vendors called “SSO.”

Previously, academic libraries were about the scholarly nature of their collections, not so much who was entitled to access them. As a university, we were open to everyone, all scholars–the very connotation of a “university”–even if few people ever came back to the university to do research. We could leverage public access to the academic library when doing development work, since the library could be presented as an asset to the entire community. Never before have we created barriers to students from other schools in public colleges and universities who wanted to use the library. 

However, a new, more restrictive access policy, brought about by technological advancement and our vendors’ professed need for greater security, prompted the widespread adoption by academic libraries of Single Sign On (SSO), a type of federated authentication protocol. Our largest vendors promoted SSO, promising a more personalized user experience on their own platforms if authentication were tied to users’ university email accounts rather than to a virtual server location (the proxy server managed by the library). This new arrangement where users coming to their platform could be individually identified, rather than through a generic IP, had the unintended consequences of restricting access by visitors to the library and allowing our institutional users to bypass the library altogether. 

After the implementation of SSO, there was suddenly need for users to come to and through the library’s website or come inside our spaces to access subscription content, and all forms of public access to the library’s subscription content was either discontinued or required IT’s involvement to generate temporary credentials. The IT Department now controlled access to the library’s digital content, and would, as our vendors probably predicted, establish restrictive access policies to library content based on the same generic rules and policies that applied to computer access, institutional email, Blackboard, campus software and other commercially licensed products. 

In this way, the library became even less the intellectual product of librarians and scholars, and more a commodity or tool to be used only while in school to complete assignments.

Abandonment of Collections. In the last ten years, university libraries across the country have abandoned their former commitment to collecting for the needs of future scholars, or for future scholarship, either expecting resources will be always be available digitally in the future, or else not concerning themselves with it. 

As I will discuss below, the objectives assessment approach to budgeting and institutional assessment has also discouraged use of library acquisition budgets in ways that might be construed as contributing to student success in the short-term. For many medium-sized college and university libraries, going fully digital has meant adopting a “just-in-time” acquisitions model, licensing what is needed for class by current students, or what is thought needed to get through accreditation, rather than the more scholarly activity of shaping, directing and anticipating future research needs through collecting activity.

Browseable, visible collections, locally arranged according to the needs of scholars, developed and maintained in anticipation of need, have been eliminated in academic libraries, and replaced by searchable aggregations of scholarly resources, much of it, for better or for worse, nothing anyone would have selected to buy for their communities or libraries in the first place. The possibility of reinvention and renewal has seemingly alluded the library profession, as we have witnessed our user interfaces, our metadata and display standards, our authentication services, and even our physical spaces, falling under the spell of commercial entities and other departments who do not share our library professional values or standards, or place any value on the library as a library.

Inside the library, we may say we are about scholarly communication or life-long learning, but our unmediated presentation of content through discovery no longer mirrors scholarly communication in the disciplines, as did our former logical arrangements by LC classification. This complaint has nothing to with personal preference for print vs. digital format, or “nostalgia,” or resistance to change, but preference for a mode of presentation which was widely believed to be beneficial to scholars, as well as being better for us to market our resources and responsibly manage our budgets. 

The academic library lacks the autonomy it enjoyed even a few years ago. Consider that libraries formerly maintained their own web servers which they themselves managed and administered, along with library system software, a proxy server and mail severs. This allowed us to do creative things with our websites in terms of displays, feeds and marketing. I developed many library sites with new books feeds and “mash ups” with other content, which was the trend in the 2000s.

Now many academic libraries are unable even to make updates or alter their own websites without involving university IT personal or Marketing Departments. I have heard several library directors complaining of their strange predicament of having no control over their websites, even though their library is 100% online. To facilitate online communication, often to get around roadblocks, academic libraries often purchase a CMS product called LibGuides, which function like a secondary website, templates that allow librarians to create and maintain instructional pages and topical guides. The library’s discovery layer from their system vendor constitutes a third website, complete with its own navigation menu, meaning that the academic library now consists of three websites kludged together: the library’s home page, the discovery layer homepage, and the LibGuides pages. 

No organization would ever set out to design its online presence in such a disjointed way. Imagine a web developer in a conference room full of librarians and saying: “Here is the vision I have for the library’s website,” and then showing three completely different websites, each with their own navigation menu and home page. Add to this the fact that the physical space, designed by an architectural firm, and the virtual space of the academic library may seem as if they have absolutely no unified sense of purpose or anything to do with each other. 

This situation, along with our lack of agency in our own academic libraries, is perceived as “normal.” Different entities now own a piece of us, reducing our agency. It is so common, in fact, we may hardly think about it, and if we do, we do not think of it as problematic. But we ought to. Like how plant and marine life respond to incremental increases in temperature, the intellectual life which comprises culture and civilization is a very fragile thing. If it doesn’t exist even at the largest of universities, it exists nowhere. 

What took over 3,000 years to create can be destroyed in a decade. For the most part, scholarly literature does not live in the library anymore—we do not “own” it—but it exists in data centers belonging to a handful of companies to whom the academic library, and therefore the university, is beholden. Our major software vendor is also content aggregator, and through it, we have remade in its image, the with the consequences of this on learning and literacy unknown. 

The new “library learning center.” It also feels like those who are advocating for change in libraries for the sake of a better learning environment would never be themselves inclined to actually use an academic research library under any imaginable circumstance. It is true. Historical libraries everywhere are being repurposed in the name of a new librarianship, but whose librarianship is it? Scholars aren’t coming to the space, for we have given them no reason to come to it. The faculty have no use for it. It doesn’t conform to library standards for an optimal learning environment. Arguably, it doesn’t offer the user experience of a library.  

I am not saying that we cannot make the academic library into a space to be enjoyed by many more people than currently do, but can’t we consider the possibility that we are making it bad and boring to students and scholars, not necessarily any better for learning or even any more social, by transforming it into a collection of minimalist spaces with more rooms, more seating areas and grand staircases leading nowhere? This has little or nothing to do with helping the academic library fulfill its scholarly mission or helping students realize their potential. It is an empty space for people to study, not unlike spaces just like it all over campus and just about everywhere else in this Digital Age. 

We are also ignoring a healthy contingent of students who enjoyed the traditional library for what it was, those for whom the library already was already a social place, thank you very muchstudents who enjoyed hanging out (yes, sometimes with me at the Reference desk, which has been since removed by architects in to promote “collaborative learning”) sharing a book they read or discussing ideas. Why are you reading Schopenhauer? Wow, how do you know about the Dice Man? This sort of casual conversation is not likely to occur in our newer bookless spaces because there are no objects of shared attention. Readers and creative types who were attracted to the traditional library were often the same intellectually curious students who went on to populate the graduate schools at the university. 

The academic library was that special, memorable place on campus to discuss Foucault, Said and Chomsky, a new urban fashion clothing line, or some real world entrepreneurial project they were working on or thinking about. It takes all kinds of people pursuing all disciplines to make the world a good place to live; from an academic perspective, art, design, music and literature are no less important than any other major. My colleagues each brought their own flair and personal enthusiasms to their roles, as each librarian will tend to attract his or her own followings among the student body and faculty. For us, it was not “about” access to information, or desk statsbah! It was about intellectual discourse, fostering creativity, and maintaining a content-rich environment where people feel motivated to share and explore ideas, and creating a place where scholars felt good about being scholars.

Architects make claim that these empty spaces they are building are about collaborative learning, but this is what our old, more personal and intimate spaces were about. Now few dare speak in the echoing monuments to learning which have replaced them, for the moment they do, will be silenced by the others who are there just to study. Without collections or new things on display, books to browse or authors to discuss, we have given them nothing to talk or think about. There is no intellectual life in it and nothing of interest to meet the eye. 

Beyond being another a social place on campus like the student center, the library should maintain as core objectives and mission improved literacy (as in, knowledge of the literature of educated people in the discipline), independent learning and community engagement with texts and other cultural objects.

To this end, the future library needs carefully considered business requirements for how its physical environment, its website and even its authentication protocols will all work in concert to support learning, literacy, and intellectual inquiry, with “literate” at the college-level meaning someone who is culturally and professionally literate (someone who possesses knowledge of the literature of a discipline), familiar with the authorities, vocabulary, references, core publications and influencers, themes, topics, trends, biases and limits of knowledge in his or her profession. This means thinking about how the academic community at the college is made aware of current titles, how the library is going to market them, including digital content, both online and in its spaces. 

Unlike a collection, what we now offer to our users online now isn’t perceived by users to be the intellectual product of academic librarians, nor anyone else for that matter. It isn’t. It is just content or resources which the library has made available though license agreements. For a profession which in the 1990s aspired to “organize the Internet,” we now appear unable to organize ourselves, to develop standards for how scholarly content might be displayed online within a disciplinary framework. 

At this point, our electronic resources cannot be meaningfully browsed. This is a serious shortcoming for a library. There is no overview of what is in our repositories, because there is no classification / call number assigned to them. Should a collection analysis be done–not easily done without classification or call numbers–much of what is included in our inventories would not be what any expert or subject librarian or expert would have acquired for their communities according to our former collection development guidelines. 

Putting the Library Back into the Library: New Strategies for the Digital Age

In his plea for balance in libraries, The Enduring Library : Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance,21 Michael Gorman, widely regarded a founding father of the library profession, laments that libraries are placing excessive emphasis on technology and information, and not enough on what he refers to as “true literacy” and traditional library services.

Since he wrote The Enduring Library, books have all but disappeared from many libraries, along with reference librarians and catalogers. To my mind, the challenge before us, if we believe it is still worth the trouble, is to identify what was good and valuable about the traditional library, and if possible, to try to bring these ideals, values, perspectives, user experiences and functionality forward into the Digital Age. The first step in the process is identifying what we want to be, then concerning ourselves with how. 

To achieve library goodness, I believe academic libraries need online store fronts (better user interfaces), ones which place emphasis on good titles in collections, the ability to present titles as collections. We need improved browsability of resources as authoritative collections, organized by the priorities of the discipline, so our contents can be meaningfully assessed by users and managed by us. Inside the library, we should emphasize reading and publications, hold book tastings and experiment with virtual fulfillment (that is, users can browse a print copy in the library but download a digital copy to take it with them) to encourage intellectual discourse around books and literature.

While all libraries are different, I think many more should aspire to the intimacy of Gertrude Stein’s living room than to an impersonal office building, which (as we have discovered in the pandemic) few would voluntarily go to unless they had to.

Architects love to show off their successes designing open offices with staircases and glass and commons areas, but it is helpful to keep in mind that the people in those videos may be occupying those spaces because they must, because they work there, not necessarily because they are “drawn to the space.” What works for an office building to break down silos and promote collaboration may not have the same outcome on campus. 

For libraries who do maintain print, we need better tools and strategies to manage hybrid and digital collections as collections, rather than presenting some print here and online resources there, two distinct repositories. We must return to offering collections as our product, not vendor packages or architecture as our product. We need mission statements focused on literacy, culture, knowledge and education. We should focus on unique titles, even if these are accessed digitally. We must form an understanding that to collect, or the illusion of a scholarly collection, is honoring and valuing to works. It is a form of scholarly communication which expresses and preserves community value. Digital library systems must fully support the concept of collections and display, not just “discovery” and access.

We need personalization and many of the features of e-commerce businesses, while cultivating the unique experience of a library in our physical and virtual spaces. We need to take browsing seriously as a form of learning and build spaces which encourage that. We should provide content-rich spaces, where books and publications are the focus, because this is an important part of our educational mission. The college bookstore should not be more interesting to browse than the college library.

We must be student centered, but not be a student center. We need to use media and technology to make our libraries more experiential. We need virtual stacks, perhaps a culmination of the largest academic libraries in the world combined, a virtual WorldCat.

We must strive, even against all odds, to bring collections of titles back into focus, because collections are a unique and important part of how the library and its librarians add educational, intellectual, cultural and scholarly value to the university and the community at large. Visible collections of selective titles, organized according to the priorities of the discipline, educate users and express value, respect for scholarship and intellectual life. 

Collections present the scholarly activity in the discipline, a subset of the knowledge that is known, and through this arrangement, works belong to the discipline where they are considered to be authoritative or significant. Its scholarly context and value can be easily apprehended and relationships to other works more easily discerned. Library collections also have character, allowing the presentation of special subjects or topics relevant to the school, where through a search engine these same resources lack visibility, especially as a form of communication. Works stand in intellectual relationship to other works, and this layer of organization achieved through classification, bibliographic description, and display is what librarianship is about. In this way, we transmit and preserve knowledge. 

At a research institution, browseable, maintained collections allow researchers to quickly assess new titles and see where there are gaps in knowledge. Collections signify to users intellectual engagement and expertise by librarians and faculty at that school. 

Collections of thoughtfully selected and arranged titles have intellectual and aesthetic appeal, signaling their value, while creating additional opportunities and incentives for independent learning and browsing, where the results of a search engine do not.

If the library is to be a social space which remains true to its mission, it must design spaces which promote browsing and engagement with library collections. We must take back the library, or put the library back into it. Regardless of the format of the resources of the library, quality collections must remain central to the mission and marketing initiatives of a library for it to maintain its credibility, and our credibility as academic librarians within an academic environment.

The Commodification of Modern Academic Libraries

In 2020, we are confronted by many of the same issues Gorman identified in 2003 in his famous manifesto, The Enduring Library,22 and again in 2015, The Enduring Library Revisited,23 but contributing to the library’s transformation in the academic arena is not so much digitization, but outright commodification by commercial entities known as “content aggregators,” businesses who buy content from publishers, often back-listed content, and re-package (aggregate) it for sale as databases for institutional licensing and access. The leading academic library systems are now owned by academic content aggregators, ProQuest and EBSCO, who control the market.

Today, everything from our content to our metadata to our access model to our user interfaces to the search results are impacted by the commodification by vendors. For the most part, a library system is just an inventory management system populated by vendors. As with any big-box retailer or department store, the library’s inventory is determined by logistics: we are on the receiving end of the publisher-aggregator supply chain, passively acquiring most of what we have in inventory at any given time. This makes it possible for the largest academic library to be managed by a tiny staff, even perhaps no staff, just an annual subscription to one vendor who promises to provide a comprehensive research solution. 

The commodification of library services by content aggregators is the most significant development in library services today. While academic databases formerly complemented collections, now many libraries offer only subscription packages and databases, but maintain no actual collections in any format. These sometimes continue to be libraries, but there is a very different professional practice and orientation between this model and a library.

Staff may say “the collection is online,” but what is online is not a collection at all.

It is a searchable inventory of entitlements which live on various third-party platforms. Isn’t it great that the library can allow users unmediated access to so much content? Of course it is! I sincerely mean that. Researchers can access thousands of scholarly resources through our search box or else by going directly to the publisher’s site and authenticating there. It is wonderful, especially if budgets are large. All I am saying is that it is a Faustian bargain we have made. Unlike collections, “resources” possess no intrinsic value. We are not giving anyone a reason to engage with the content we buy since it no longer reflects what scholars think important to know. 

Whether a Catholic library or HBCU, the user experience of the modern digital library is the same: EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale databases typically form the library core, complemented by JSTOR, SAGE and Science Direct. There is a high probability that no one in the library is selecting titles individually for that school. Even if some librarians are augmenting aggregator packages with additional titles added to the platform, these are not experienced by users as belonging to a collection of good things. Few associate any of the titles discovered in the online library as having anything to do with the efforts of the librarians who work there, even if they are doing their due diligence and adding better titles to vendor-branded platforms (often at a high cost, for these titles are often licensed at many times above list price). While affording great conveniences and efficiencies of scale, this model of librarianship does not communicate or express worth: not our value or worth as librarians, nor the intellectual or scholarly value of the works themselves.

Our major academic library system vendors (ProQuest Ex Libris and EBSCO Folio) are in the business of aggregating and packaging academic content for sale to libraries in ever expanding and often overlapping packages, databases whose cost increases each year at rates that have been declared unsustainable even by the largest universities. Librarians often complain about the lack of cooperation between the two major players. Because of EBSCO’s lack of cooperation with ProQuest, EBSCO content doesn’t work well in ProQuest’s discovery tool, and its usage stats cannot be harvested through the ALMA platform. ProQuest will not allow EBSCO’s discovery tool EDS to serve as a front end for ProQuest Ex Libris systems. ProQest Ex Libris customers don’t want to buy EBSCO databases and ebooks because their content isn’t very visible in Primo.

Most concerning to me than lack of vendor neutrality is the lack of emphasis on literacy, reading or knowledge either in the physical space of the modern academic library or online, and the transformation of campus libraries into vacuous learning / tutoring / student centers or work spaces. Like Google, we provide passive access to contentgranted, it is better content than what can be found on Google or Google Scholarbut we are doing little to stimulate intellectual inquiry, knowledge or engagement.

Maybe it is too late to be posing this question to my fellow academic librarians, but do we sincerely believe that searchable aggregations of academic contentwhat many of us have been reduced to in recent yearsare functioning as academic libraries from an intellectual or aesthetic standpoint? 

An even larger question, perhaps, is do we feel we are even entitled to business requirements or prescriptive standards of our own for what makes an academic library good, even after ACRL, our professional association, has moved away from developing standards in favor of advocating an institutional outcomes assessment model?24 What is a modern library, and what constitutes a good one, seems important for the world to know.

The True Measure of Our Success 

he plight of the college and university library, like the rest of higher education today, is often tied up with institutional accreditation and assessment, specifically how the school defines and measures student success, and how the library is seen as contributing to this plan. Librarians may be asked to justify themselves and their budgets according to an institutional outcomes-assessment plan, and not according to what makes the library good and successful as a library. 

According to the way student success is measured by educational institutions, providing quality collections to users, even providing evidence of increased collections use, are likely to be dismissed as “outputs,”25 not evidence of learning outcomes. Proof that we support student success often means subordinating the needs of the library to the ELOs of the classroom, a “learning center” model. 

Understandably, college administrators are often preoccupied with student success as defined by traditional indicators of institutional effectiveness (enrollment, retention, progression and degree completion rates), while traditional academic librarianship, librarianship as a profession, has always regarded itself as being more about student success as defined by the individual student and scholar. 

What I mean by this is that a good library encourages students to pursue their own curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular research interests to go beyond classroom instruction to explore individualized pathways to success in their chosen field and in life. It does so primarily through the provision of engaging and attractive collections and library professionals who are knowledgeable about what is in the collection, keeping up with the published literature in their subject disciplines. Academic librarians support the acquisition of knowledge and learning, whether this is for a class assignment, enrichment, reinforcement, professional development, the public good, personal interest, a publication, career advancement or intellectual curiosity. 

This is the academic idealism upon which the library and library profession is founded. 

Perhaps more than any other entity on campus, the library acknowledges that students come to the university with their own educational or career objectives in mind, and to be frank, quite often their ambitions are not satisfied by what they are learning in their classes. It happens. The student’s interests may be too specialized or too advanced, or fall outside of the degree plan offered by the school. The curriculum often lags behind new trends and developments in the field. The faculty cannot be expected to know or teach everything. 

The student’s educational goals and aspirations may be perfectly valid from an academic, professional or industry standpoint, but the institution, in order to achieve its own economies of scale and its own business objectives, must channel students into one of a few career pathways leading to a generic degree which they offer. Students are earning an IT degree, but what they have in mind, and what is driving them, is writing an app for an Android phone, game development or something to do with cryptocurrency. They are learning welding, but they dream of Burning Man, or something creative, not industrial pipefitting. The library supports these more nuanced, individualized and personal pathways to success, representing multiple pathways to success in life, and by doing so actually reinforces a student’s academic commitment and attachment to the school. 

The academic library should provide a framework for independent learning, creativity and self-discovery. Creating a warm, intellectually stimulating environment is part of it. 

This is student success as defined by the student.

The library also seeks to turn students on to things they might like or want to know about.

This is also student success as defined by the student. 

How are these different definitions of student success, the one defined by the institution and the other defined by the student, to be reconciled in terms of a library’s budget? 

The honest answer is, they aren’t.

Depending on how student success is defined, outcomes assessment can become simply a cost-cutting measure.26 Indeed, as a result of a narrow definition student success which emphasizes only objectives-based assessment measures leading to degree completion, the academic library is rapidly disappearing at institutions of higher education,27 at imminent risk of becoming a student success or learning resource center, a tutoring center, or just a quiet space to study to get work done.

To many of the scholars at a university, and to many tuition-paying parents, the value and appeal of the university library is not in the provision of work space or “adequate resources needed for course completion,” but in providing engaging, attractive and authoritative collections representing disciplinary, academic, professional and cultural knowledge, what is thought significant and good by those working in the field or discipline. That is what makes the library good and effective, social and engaging as an academic library for students and scholars.

The design of library buildings and library websites both should emphasize knowledge of collections and resource use, that the promotion of the titles people might like, want or need to know about to be competitive in their field or to be an educated person, even if these resources are delivered or consumed online, a reality which should present new opportunities for library designers to create new and compelling environments beyond the glass study halls being constructed in the name of a new librarianship.

The library might be a Times Square, a marketplace of ideas, a window onto a larger world, a virtual stacks of every library everywhere in the world, but there is no excuse but failure of the imagination, or anti-intellectualism, for a library to be just an assemblage of tables and chairs, even if the entirety of the library’s collection is online. At a former library, the Cataloger took it upon herself to catalog ebooks which she thought would be of interest to the community. I brought her an ink jet printer which she used it to print out covers of select ebooks to display in the library. (Previously, when she cataloged print books, she would strip the jackets and display these in the library.) It was beautiful, but in the library’s redesign there was to be no paper or bulletin boards.

There was no thought given to how to we might raise awareness of ebooks or anything else in the design of the physical space. 

Traditionally, academic libraries were able to stimulate demand for their resources and create a sense of shared value by a kind of visual merchandising, showcasing good content within organized collections reflecting knowledge in the disciplines and contemporary culture. Our industry standards were designed around this ideal of broad access not just to information, but to knowledge, through search and browse of cataloged collections. 

There is an experiential and social dimension to traditional libraries, with collections presenting to its users what others think relevant, good, authoritative and valuable to know, cultural value which is just not conveyed through the passively-generated hierarchical list-ranked results of a query performed against aggregated, commercially-branded publisher content. Our largest library system vendor is an academic content aggregator, and through it, the library has been remade in its image as a kind of mini-aggregator, a federated search portal which we call “discovery,” an application which has almost universally replaced the traditional library catalog in academic libraries everywhere.

  • Through discovery alone, the student has no ability to obtain an overview of his field as he could with browsable collections.
  • Faculty have limited ability to see new things that have been added to the library’s inventories so they can keep up with their areas of interest.
  • Records of entitlements are loaded into our systems automatically; therefore, no one inside of the library sees them or knows about them, encouraging ignorance of staff.
  • Although this streamlines acquisitions and eliminates the need for title selection or cataloging, the records of books which have been added to our system remain invisible to us and to our user community as well.
  • Of course, resources can be found if someone thinks to come along and search for them, but the value and reach of each title is significantly reduced both by its lack of visibility and lack of scholarly context.
  • Nothing is seen unless someone comes along and searches for it, which is unlikely, because nothing is seen.

How is this encouraging learning, especially among undergraduates?  How is it encouraging literacy or knowledge?

Yet, in our new assessment-driven environments, the more idealistic or philosophical objectives of academic librarianship, such as promoting independent learning, promoting knowledge of the disciplines, encouraging literacy, maintaining good collections in anticipation of use, or even support for research, may be perceived as frills, even an irresponsible use of funds, antithetical to the more pragmatic institutional objectives of “get them to and through.”

Likewise, encouraging students to read for pleasure, the pursuit of personal knowledge or even purely academic interests, support for intellectual inquiry or inviting students to explore anything outside of what is needed to complete a graded class assignment are likely to be judged a waste of students’ time and the financial resources of the college or university, rather than a fundamental part of the college experience of students’ college education to which they are entitled.

It is through visible collections that the traditional library was capable of motivating students to learn beyond the classroom, presenting knowledge of the discipline or profession, what others think good or good to know. This was one of its many benefits, including representing diversity of opinion and thought.

Visible collections formed the intellectual backbone of the campus library and of a university, signifying to others what is significant and important to know by educated people, by scholars and professionals working in a discipline. Visible collections, putting resources where they can be seen and considered by users, convey respect (from the Latin specere, “look at”) for authorship and scholarship. Visual collections is an important part of our merchandising, a necessary part of our business model, and being able to be good and effective as libraries.

These days, rather than assessing whether the library is good as a library and requesting funds to achieve library-centric goals and objectives, many schools are asking their library to justify their budgets only according to direct and measurable contributions to student success, and these measures often have little to do with collection development, collection use (use has been classified as “output” and not an “outcome”28), robust library user interfaces, or being a good library. 

While the library conceived as a tutoring, resource or study center to get assignments done is certainly not without practical value, the purpose of a college or academic library, why it exists, is not the completion of anything. As a profession, librarians claim as a core value to be about life-long learning, which would seem to contradict the short-term outcomes-based assessment methods against which we are increasingly being asked to benchmark library services. 

Good academic libraries encourage learning and knowledge for its own sake, as a core value, as an intangible good, not just for assignment completion. 

The library’s purpose is to showcase works and publications of community value in order to encourage user engagement with them and through this, further the education of its users so they can reach their potential. Despite its good intentions, the academic library has never been able to develop measures to demonstrate either the business or scholarly value of its collections on learning outcomes, increased graduation rates, retention (increased academic commitment of students), enrollment, completion rates, or even student and faculty publications resulting from the library.

This is not to say it has no value or impact on these measures, or that the collection has no value, but that their value cannot be unequivocally demonstrated through concrete, objectives-based assessment methods which have become standard determiners of value in higher education.

We have usage stats, but no way to demonstrate the impact of either collection use or library facility use on “student success” or “institutional success.” As libraries continue to be redefined and funded by their institutions only according to a narrow definition of student success–what students need to complete coursework–and as big deals with large commercial vendors replace cataloging and collection development activity (eliminating the need for librarians), our spaces are being converted into bland learning centers, or “swapped”27 with other learning spaces on campus, even eliminated to the extent that accrediting agencies will allow.

One example of such a swap may be found in a job posting for a Head Librarian at a local community college, where one of the chief responsibilities of the librarian is to “Make the library an integral part and essential component of Learning Commons; make library services people-centered rather than book-centered.”30 The Head Librarian is to report to the Director of the Learning Commons, rather than the Learning Commons being a component of the Library, as was always traditionally the case. There is also an assumption that a library that is book-centered is not student- or people-centered.

In researching this book, I have often encountered this strange sentiment over and over that books are an impediment to student success and learning (I devote a chapter to this below, see “Putting Books Before Users”).

Yet, when it comes to marketing, colleges such as this one will resort to stock images of bookstores rather than showing what their own barren library looks like. This advertisement for Alvin Community College which appeared in a newcomer’s guide to Houston31 uses a Pexels image of a bookstore in Greece, not an image of the school’s library:

Likewise, this image of a bookstorenote the giftwrap racksis used by Texas Southern University in Houston to represent its College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences 32 after its library went almost entirely online:

I realize these may be just convenient images for someone to grab and use to get their job done. It may just be intended to be a visual metaphor. But still, the fact that neither of these schools provides images of their own campus libraries while at the same time alluding to a library ideal in their media releases and website is suggestive of the fact that booklessness may not be such a positive image for a college or university library after all, even in the 21st century. Maybe no one really believes that bookless libraries are more appealing to students, that they create a more student-centered environment than those without (I explore this in my chapter entitled, “Do Students just want Normal Libraries?”). Books apparently have some cache, or Marketing wouldn’t use images with books in them.

The appeal of the library to students is in its ability to convey what is significant and good according to the field, culture and larger community with which users seek to identify. For an academic library, this means it must be able to raise awareness of publications organized by discipline and subject. It must be able to promote new and popular titles. 

I believe that the physical library and its website should strive to be content-rich learning environments

Whether this is achieved through the medium of pbooks or ebooks, smart boards or virtual reality (see “Virtual classrooms and online libraries,” below), through websites or bookshelves, or some combination of all the above, it doesn’t matter to me. What is important is that the library provide an interesting, meaningful educational experience reliably reflecting a larger world of scholarship, culture, ideas, knowledge, innovation and goodness. 

Strategies for how this might be achieved are discussed below.

Collections : Libraries : : Curriculum : Instruction 

any people, including most of my librarian colleagues, now regard “booklessness”bookless is what is called a library that goes all-digitalas forward-thinking and progressive.

The idea that print is obsolete is not an uncommon sentiment in higher education today, but in some circles it would appear as if attitudes toward print have been influenced by, and conflated with, unfavorable attitudes toward “book learning,” lecture format and reading as dated pedagogical models. In other words, it isn’t just about a book’s particular format anymore, whether it is read on paper or online, but about the value of the knowledge and educational benefit derived from sustained engagement with texts in any format which has come into question. In modern educational theory (informed by a hierarchy known as “Bloom’s taxonomy,” accepted as gospel in Educator Preparation Programs), reading is frowned upon as a passive activity. Teaching students to use an app to create something is good pedagogy, but having students read a book or attend to a lecture is bad pedagogy. There is a bias against text-based learning in favor of experiential learning.

I agree with Gorman’s assessment that academic librarians should play a key role in raising literacy, not just information literacy; but these days it does feel like an uphill battle.33

Some school districts in Texas have banned the teaching of novels in their high school English classes. Unless students are in AP classes, many graduate without having written anything longer than two pages, because this is all that the STAAR test requires. In many classrooms, seating is arranged so students do not face the front of the class prepared to listen and learn from a teacher—indeed, lectures are discouragedbut are seated in groups facing each other and their computer screen, a laptop issued by the school, which presents them with exercises and activities they are to complete in collaboration with their peers.

The teacher is there not to teach a subject, to “lecture” students to impart knowledge, so much as to provide brief instruction and coaching for students to answer questions and complete assigned tasks on the computer. She is on her laptop a good portion of the class period, grading and providing feedback in real time of what the students are writing on their laptops about a commercial (media literacy) or random poem chosen for its ambiguity so students can apply critical thinking skills. This is the modern collaborative learning classroom where everyone is looking at a screen and their peers for guidance, even when there is a teacher in the room. This model has now influenced the design of libraries to be less about individual learning and more about peer interaction and collaboration. That seems to be the tail that’s wagging the dog. 

My son is graduating from a recognized suburban high school this year without having been exposed to any English or American Literature. His district got rid of curricular textsno Norton Anthologies or textbooks, no teaching of literature, no Puritans or poets, no Hawthorne or Poe, not even online. No Transcendentalists or Modernists or Progressives or Social Realists. No Depression-era writings of hardship and survival. No Dust Bowls. No plays. Knowledge of literature, literary periods and genres, or the teaching of Great Books, is not a part of the new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in his district. In some ELA classes, students read something of their choosing, silently, for ten minutes at the start of every class period, while teachers take role (this is called “student choice”), but that’s about it. 

Does it really matter if he has not trudged through Homer, Oedipus, The Canterbury Tales, a Shakespeare play, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Swift, Shelley, Waugh, Hemingway, etc., as I was expected to do in high school? Does it matter if he has never read Animal Farm or 1984, or Anthem, Brave New World or even a contemporary novel in its entirety? I honestly cannot answer this question with any certainty, but if English literature is to be taught, I cannot justify not teaching English from the perspective of a literary canon, for the very idea of a canon lends legitimacy and academic rigor to our teaching. What works should comprise the canon can be debated and revised, but I do not believe that as a concept it should be eliminated, if only because it lends coherence to the curriculum. One author, deemed great in his day, influenced another up until the present time, which is the way culture and civilization work. 

Some speculate that we are entering a new digital Dark Ages, a new post-literate society, where people have lost the ability or will to read. If we are, it isn’t clear which side the library wants to be on. 

In a 2011 commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, author and speaker Marc Prensky, who has written books on education reform, proposed an outright ban on print books at the university, arguing that such drastic measures are necessary to move education forward into the 21st century.34 I’ve discovered that this idea that the elimination of books in itself constitutes a form of progress is a fairly common one, or at least something I have heard repeated at my own university when it was constructing a new library that was predominantly bookless.

Everywhere, including library job postings, there is an absurd idea that student-centeredness for a library has to do with their centralized seating arrangements rather than an emphasis on providing outstanding collections.

Visible collections form a necessary intellectual framework and core for the academic library and its services. It provides an overview of the body of knowledge and scholarly communication in a field of study. It is a mechanism by which libraries raise awareness and promote learning. Without visible collections in print or online, the library ceases to be a library. Furthermore, just because a library has books doesn’t mean it has collections, and collections do not necessarily require physical books. They are not the same thing.

A library can be a library without physical books, but without visible collections and collection visibility the library loses intellectual appeal and integrity as an academic library. 

Collections provide for a certain kind of pleasurable user experience that is unique to libraries, but surprisingly, they have no corresponding equivalent online. As I will illustrate below, many have attempted to develop a robust virtual browse tool to replace the physical stacks, but these projects never got off the ground. The lack of support for collections, content curation and resource promotion in our user interfaces present significant shortcomings in the library’s transition to being fully digital.

What online libraries do not have:  virtual, browseable stacks. Book and journal titles cannot be visually arranged by LC classification, which has for decades been our industry standard.

It might be argued that only an educated person might perceive the difference between academic library collections and citations of aggregator content returned to students through a search query. Only someone knowledgeable about the field and keeping up with scholarly publishing would know or care about what is missing from aggregator packages. It is precisely for this reason, because students cannot be expected to know, that we act in bad faith as library professionals and educators if we abandon the ideal of providing quality collections to them.

A curated collection constitutes the most student-centered learning environment possible, because it is intended for the students at that school and demonstrates care both for the student and for scholarship. We show respect for the items in our care by selecting, organizing and presenting them in meaningful ways, placing them into collections and making them visible to members of our community. We show respect for them also by investing in them, knowing about them. Placing them in positions of prominence so they can be seen and considered by others—the original Latin meaning of “respect”—within their most appropriate scholarly context shows respect for the objects in our care and respect for our users.

To make something visible, to put it in a visible location, to put it into context where it can be appreciated, is to show care and respect for it. 

A library collection gives a broader scholarly context of a work to enhance its meaning and perceived value by a larger community. It is only when titles are arranged into a collection that they reflect disciplinary knowledge. A collection also gives the impression of lasting value, something worth investing time into, and which other have invested in, where, in contrast, ad hoc resources that are part of publisher packages are perceived merely as convenient but as ephemeral, not memorable, and ultimately insignificant. When books and articles appear online, the html format seems less valuable than the corresponding PDF of the printed page because the fact that it exists somewhere in some physical format, that it was printed, gives it greater weight and value. 

A good library acquires items in anticipation of need to encourage collection currency and browsing. Persistence over time and visibility in a public space lends meaning and social value to the intellectual and cultural objects in our care. We show respect for scholarship when we appear to invest in the titles themselves, placing them into selective, visible collections developed to meet the needs and interests of the community. 

The academic library whose content is determined not by the collection development activity of librarians but by contractual agreements with vendors was at one time deemed unscholarly. Take for example, the story of Questia. 

Questia: The First Academic Undergraduate Library Online (2000-2020)

Twenty years ago, after Questia introduced one of the first online academic libraries, it was dubbed a McLibrary.35 Even years after it launched, librarians contended that Questia wasn’t a real library, but rather some commercial product.

Granted, many librarians objected to the fact that Questia did not employ librarians to be title selectors. Whether it did or didn’t—the truth is a bit complicated—is beside the point. Academic librarians were also predisposed to dislike Questia for other reasons, including its marketing strategy to bypass the library and sell directly to students and anyone else willing to pay $19.95 / month to access its content. In 2000, when Questia launched, many publishers didn’t want to work with Questia, and like librarians, publishers regarded Questia’s objective of placing academic content online as a threat to their own livelihoods until they could be convinced that it represented a financial opportunity to them. 

While it called itself an academic library, Questia’s model was not that of an academic library, but of a content aggregator, a business which acquires and digitizes publications and attempts to monetize online access as a commercial product through reselling licenses, giving older titles a second life online and a way for traditional print publishers a new way to generate revenue for content that is no longer in demand. In some ways, this is the opposite of what we want a good library to be. (Even academic libraries don’t want titles not in demand.) Also, while it called itself an academic library, but it did not offer collections, just random digitized academic content, much of it dated and obscure, thing which only an extremely large academic research library might have in conjunction with the better things. But it was missing the good and important stuff, and the current stuff.

But being a content aggregator was not the vision their founder originally had for the platform.

I know this for a fact, because I was there in the Houston office in January 2000, months before it became “Questia” (it began as “TLG,” for the first initials of its three founders, all Rice graduates, but L and G soon went their own way), drawn to the company by Troy William’s democratic vision of creating the first Liberal Arts and Social Sciences library which would be accessible to everyone in around the world for a low monthly fee. Also, as a former System Librarian, it would be fascinating to learn about the architecture of a digital academic library. I had been reading about them at Rice University’s Fondren Library, where I often went to use the art library and keep up with journals in library and information science. 

As a side note, I left my position as Chief Curator and Assistant Director for the Museum of Printing History, where I often spoke to school children about the importance of books and reading to civilization, freedom and democracy, for a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to work toward the development of this first academic library in the cloud.

Admittedly, since rare books and antiquarian prints had long been my thing, The Museum of Printing History had also been a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a museum start-up. I enjoyed creating programs for adults and children, writing grants, putting together exhibits and helping it grow. The museum’s permanent collection, which I had helped to shape and develop, along with about 25 exhibits each year, showcased the Great Books and documents which changed the world. It featured gorgeous engravings and lithographs of explorers and naturalists, and the newspapers and documents which had influenced civilization. It replicated a medieval scriptorium and had a working model of Gutenberg’s press. The museum emphasized how printing and books altered the course of history and advanced it forward in a steady march of progress up to the present time. 

I mention my involvement with the Museum of Printing History because I went to Questia thoroughly believing in the cause of democratizing the academic library. I thought I was on the ground floor of some great and noble venture, like Encyclopedia Britannica. Only there were no Mortimer J. Alders in the Houston office in 2000, no intellectuals or philosophers, just shell-shocked MBAs from Compaq, Minute Maid and Enron. MBAs started flooding in from all over the country. Strangely, the executive team didn’t think they needed to hire academic librarians to create this online academic library. I didn’t know if it represented hubris on their part or ignorance on mine, but people had a very different concept of an academic library than I did. 

It said less about me and more about the company that I was Questia’s first and only librarian, and only there on full-time contract, for many months in the year leading to launch, even though the company had raised over 100 million dollars in venture capital to become the first online academic library, modeled upon Harvard’s undergraduate library (the founder’s alma mater). I thoroughly enjoyed my solo status, explaining things like OCLC, authority control, MARC records, AACR2, LC Classification, CIP data, LC Subject Headings, a collection conspectus, and other library standards, to dumbfounded MBAs, who, despite having attended the best schools, had no idea that librarianship or its metadata was so complicated. I passed around my tattered copy of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules and the largest binder ever made containing the MARC bibliographic standard. I demonstrated using library catalogs online what the MARC record looked like in academic library systems, and how it was tied to search and display. I encouraged academic library standards for the development of the user interface for the Questia library, with authority control, not just a search engine on digitized books.

The CTO, an imposing man who went by the name “Krately,” was not interested in what I had to say about existing library systems and how they worked. He was building it from scratch, he informed me, which is what his team of 30+ programmers were doing on one side of the floor. Everyone, including me, was intimidated by this man, but I thought developing a library system from scratch was ridiculous. It would be like setting out today to develop a spreadsheet instead of using Excel, or writing an application to interface with it. Libraries had already developed fairly consistent and uniform industry standards for bibliographic description, record sharing and interoperability, and much of our software was open platform (code was customizable). The fact that there were no librarians there also concerned me. What was he doing? I feared he and his programmers were underestimating the complexity of library systems and wasting time to launch on LC sorting routines or developing something that would not meet academic library standards for the search, display of bibliographic information (especially considering that all of these books Questia was planning to acquire would need cataloging). So I persisted.

After providing him with Library Technology Reports‘ in-depth review of large library systems, which I copied from Rice, he sent out a memo announcing the change in direction toward adapting a MARC-based system, crediting my influence (he may have used the term “persistence”). He had me write an RFP for a library system, tailored to his specifications. In this bid process, we discovered that a competitor to Questia, who was racing to launch against us, had already signed an agreement with the leading library system vendor. 

About a month later, he resigned. There was much speculation as to why he had departed so suddenly. Drastic layoffs followed the next month. My beloved boss (VP of Product Development) was terminated along with many others. Everyone I was close to at Questia was gone, and in their place, strange faces. I was spared, offered a permanent position at a reduced salary and moved under Marketing, where I was given the dubious title of “Collection Manager.” After that, I felt my chill token status. I was there so that Marketing could say, “Yes, we have real librarians working here!” By then, Publisher Relations determined the contents of the library. They had been correct, they didn’t need librarians to manage their collections, because they didn’t have collections to manage. And this is my point for sharing the story. Questia was not only the first online academic library, but the first collectionless library. Academic libraries are at a place now where Questia was years ago, a library which doesn’t need librarians.

From the beginning, the company did not want to hire librarians, not even me, to select titles or manage their collections, or advise them on user interfaces or systems. They had told me as much before I took the job. I had been hired by the VP of Product Development for one major project: to create a collection development strategy for automating retrospective collection development, a bibliometric system for recommending good titles and establishing their relative worth when Acquisitions was negotiating for rights for them with publishers. 

The system was successful. It was fed by citations, recommended title lists and the records of peer libraries in Questia’s priority disciplines. Any librarian would have done exactly as I did, reaching out to OCLC (who initially did not want to work with Questia because it was a commercial entity). Through a Conspectus Analysis which I developed using the print LCC schedules in Technical Services at the University of St. Thomas and publications on conspectus from Rice University’s Fondren Libraryand OCLC, of course, for they possessed the holdings records of every academic library in the countryQuestia successfully harvested, normalized, weighted and ranked the holdings of twenty liberal arts libraries, including Harvard’s Lamont Library (the library which had inspired the founder), mapping titles to Questia’s supported disciplines in order to feed Questia’s Rights and Acquisitions pipeline. 

When I was at Questia, I was also studying computer programming and Perl at HCC, so I especially enjoyed a side project working with a Perl programmer on a citations tool so students could cite their sources MLA, APA or Chicago style, extracting data from the MARC and XML record and manipulating it to form a citation. 

The greatest challenge for Questia was not identifying what books to acquire, which is what librarians on the outside thought when they saw what was in “the collection,” but the time and expense locating and acquiring a good copy of each book, arranging for it to be sent to the company, acquiring rights for it, sending the book to Indonesia to be digitized, performing quality control on the scan, marking it up, and adding it to the platform. It would be impossible to create a digital library title-by-title with this workflow. 

The company had started out with an acquisition model very much like a traditional library, but Questia’s acquisition, rights management and digitization process was inefficient, expensive and slow. Questia had no reliable source for obtaining out-of-print books, something I also helped with. (Years later, Google partnered with academic libraries to digitize their collections for Google Books, but publishers sued Google for copyright infringement.) Books with photos and illustrations presented additional copyright barriers, no small problem for supporting disciplines like Art and Architecture. Furthermore, as far as I could discern, no one wanted to pay lawyers to negotiate for rights over this and that title, let alone for the little images, photos and illustrations inside of them. In some cases, with photos of artwork hanging in a museum, it wasn’t even clear who owned rights to the image. (Many books on the platform went live with the images stripped out until the photographer or illustrator could be tracked down and permission obtained.)

For the library to grow, agreements had to be forged on a much larger scale. Because the traditional approach to creating a library from scratch wasn’t working, the library could not grow fast enough, Questia ended up signing on publishers, agreeing to digitize and add their entire back-stock and back-list titles to the platform, not selecting individual titles based on their scholarly value or individual merits, as academic librarians do, or at least did back then. In terms of its business model, Questia was forced to become less like the idealized undergraduate library it had set out to become, and more like an academic content aggregator, and convenient service to help time-strapped students write papers quickly, even if it didn’t necessarily provide the best resources, or what Harvard or any decent college library might offer their students. 

Apart from not employing librarians to be title selectors—Questia did recruit Dr. Carol Hughes and a few other librarians after I left, also to be “Collection Managers,” but they were laid off after a short while—and perceived lack of a quality collections, which library critics always erroneously associated with the company’s lack of librarians, a few librarians also objected to Questia’s format, with some speculating as late as 2005 that an electronic library could never be a real library.36 The complaint was not so much that it was electronic, but that it did not reflect local character, the students and faculty at a school. It was impersonal and generic, and a good library could never be that.

After continuing to sign up academic publishers over the years and selling its service to Gale, Questia closed doors in December 2020. The founder’s dream of providing universal access to an academic library collection for a low monthly fee died with it. 

The irony is that on the academic side of the library profession, we are almost all McLibraries now, with most or all of our content provided through aggregator databases and commercial platforms, and with very little of it selected title-by-title, cataloged or displayed according to traditional library standards or the best practices formerly advocated by the library profession. This is why I am sharing my Questia story. As much as librarians complained about Questia back then, that it was a commercial product and not a real library, we have all become Questia now. 

Despite Questia’s cool reception and widespread criticism on intellectual and philosophical grounds by academic librarians who argued Questia wasn’t a real library, academic libraries have almost all adopted the same or similar acquisitions model which Questia helped to forge twenty years ago. We are content aggregators, not libraries.

From Booklessness to Collectionlessness:
The Academic Library as a Work Space and Discovery Portal

t isn’t emotional attachment to print format, or job security, or technophobia, or nostalgia, as many undoubtedly think, which causes librarians such as myself to question the strategy of booklessness for a college or academic library, especially at schools with programs in English literature, Art, Communications, Journalism, History, Music, Education and the Social Sciences (disciplines where the book format is still integral to scholarly communication), and with large populations of undergraduates attending on campus. I realize that defending collections goes against current trends to improve and modernize libraries by re-purposing stack space for sitting and collaborative work space, and to realize some progressive ideal of what a modern library ought to be, which, of course, is paperless

The new library in the cloud, and the empty spaces it leaves behind, does not encourage learning in the way that a traditional library did. From an educational standpoint, it is ineffective, not necessarily because its content is delivered digitally, but because our interfaces are not designed to be “digital libraries.” We have no online storefront which is library-like. Our interfaces do not support the user experience of online collections. Our systems—I am mainly speaking of ALMA Primo and OCLC WMS, and others which use a discovery interface—merely support the retrieval of linked citations of academic content determined to be relevant to a query, that is, whenever a user comes to the library’s website and performs a search. 

Until recently, academic libraries supported the user experience of both search and browse, the latter forming a visually and intellectually pleasing experience of the publications which comprise the disciplines. It is what people think of when they think “library.” 

The presentation of quality publications arranged by classification, corresponding to the organization of disciplinary knowledge, was at one tine thought to be of utmost importance to the student and scholar, not just because it allowed items to be easily located on the shelves, but because the arrangement allowed users to visualize the scholarly activity in their disciplines: the authors, titles, topics problems, and ideas which shape and define it. It is that unique user experience of collections, a visual representation of what is thought meaningful and good by a larger community of learners, authors and scholars, that is being rapidly eliminated in favor of a one-dimensional experience of a search portal to e-resources which live in on third-party commercial platforms.

Librarians should create content-rich environments which prioritize resource visibility and use which are interesting and educational to explore. Libraries must be about both retrieval of resources and browsevisual display, logical arrangement and visual navigation of curated resources intentionally developed to be a collection for that community of usersto be effective, and being “effective” means nurturing independent learning. Providing users with the opportunity to browse a good collection is an important part of the educational experience an academic library provides. Browsing visible collections, corresponding to the discipline and the interests of the community served, actively encourages intellectual inquiry and independent learning in ways that a search engine does not. 

Certainly, the library in the cloud provides an efficient mechanism for finding and accessing whatever content someone might come along and think to search for, but it doesn’t raise interest or promote intellectual inquiry.

It doesn’t offer access to authoritative collections, even if good resources have been licensed by the library. They are not able to be presented to the user in a disciplinary context as a collection. What many of us offer now is a search box that searches the metadata of content that lives on aggregator and publisher platforms. It also does not appear to others that the library is selecting resources for them, even if they are. There is no sense on the part of users that people knowledgeable about the discipline acquired these resources, because over 95% of the library’s content is so obviously part of a package. Whatever the library buys on top is simply added to an aggregator package where it often remains invisible throughout its lifetime.

If a library has abandoned its commitment to quality collections, it is not encouraging learning or student engagement as it should. It is merely offering a convenient way to search aggregations of third-party content which no one else appears to care for or about. I’m not saying people inside the library do not care, or that its content is poorit might be exceptionalbut that is beside the point. 

Despite the millions spent annually on library resources even by medium-sized colleges, and typically at least 100K annually just for the system alone, the user experience the library provides is not as robust, immersive, interesting or engaging as it ought be. 

A library at any school, college or university exists to promote learning opportunities outside of a class assignment, to encourage creativity, to promote literacy, and to stimulate intellectual curiosity. Librarians support literacy and learning, not just by assisting with class assignments and helping students locate relevant information, but by exposing users to the titles, resources, ideas and concepts they would not have otherwise have known about or thought to search for, or necessarily been exposed to in class. At a university especially, the library should be able to present to students the core publications which comprise their disciplines and titles that are of interest to generally educated people. We want the library facility and its website to provide a content-rich, stimulating environment that is interesting and meaningful for users to explore. 

I believe students want their school library to present them with the latest and greatest, to expose them to new ideas and thoughts so they can grow and learn, and envision their own pathway to success. 

They want the library to show them things they might like or want to know about, what other people like or believe important to know in their disciplines. The collection should provide a needed intellectual context and scholarly framework conveying community value and meaning in relation to larger culture or community of readers. It is that relationship of the work to a larger intellectual context of a collection and community or readers which stimulates interest and creates a sense of value.

While the landscape and priorities for college and university libraries are rapidly changing, there continue to be legitimate reasons for many college and academic libraries not to go fully digital at this time which have nothing to do with anyone’s personal preference for a particular reading format. I am not going to defend print format, at least not yet. I will defend, as a fundamental business requirement for an academic library, the provision of visible, browseable collections reflecting scholarly activity in the disciplines supported by the university. 

About intellectual and cultural objects, not empty spaces. The purpose of a library is to promote independent learning, support scholarship, and promote resource awareness and use. To this end, the college and academic library must offer visible, browseable collections organized according to the priorities of the disciplines. To be effective as a library, the library facility, the library system and the library website ALL must support the goals and objectives of collection visibility and resource use. 

Collections may be independent of format and access model, in the sense that collections can be physical or online, licensed or owned, or a combination of all of the above; but bibliographic resources must be represented (and perceived) by users as collections of scholarly titles in a field of study in order for an academic library to be credible, trustworthy and successful as a library.

Discovery does not replace the need for a bibliographic approach, making sure the library provides the best of the best in scholarship. For example, at a university, how would you teach WWII without reference to the works of George Mosse? If your school offers graduate study in English literature, you should have Harold Bloom’s and Stephen Greenblatt’s books and critical editions of the works of major authors. Someone must be keeping up with the field to make sure that the library offers new titles of significance. Every academic field has its rock stars, its luminaries, and if you are not recognizing today’s bright stars, you are not encouraging the stars of tomorrow.

The academic library which appears to not significantly value scholarship or learning is not a place where scholars (even aspiring scholars) or learners want to spend their time.

Ensuring that titles are capable of being placed into their most appropriate scholarly contextcapable of logical arrangement reflecting the organization of knowledge in the field or disciplineis something library professionals should require as baseline for the user experience of any academic library system

Libraries must promote resource use in their physical spaces and online, because display in context is a vital part of creating and assessing scholarly value. Students learning about their field should be able to visualize scholarly activity through the collection, at least what forms the core titles in their respective fields.

Visible collections, maintained as collections, also means users can more easily grasp what is new, significant and authoritative in their areas of study. The organization and presentation of the collection by discipline, the design of the library’s website and design of the facility, must all be intended to promote resource visibility and use.

The collection itself, its contents and organizationthe fact that it is perceived by users as an authoritative collectionencourages learning, where a search box whose content is made visible only in response to a query is less effective at stimulating inquiry and communicating scholarly value. 

Collection Management, a scholarly journal for librarians. Collections have always been fundamental to the user experience of a good library. Can collection management now be replaced by resource discovery (a search engine) without compromising the user experience? 

People today often express the sentiment that books, and therefore collections, are obsolete. I completely understand this point of view; people today read online. I read online. However, when it comes to educating students, we know that merely making content findable through a search portal is bad pedagogy. It doesn’t inspire learning, raise awareness, convey the social or intellectual value of resources, or promote disciplinary knowledgeeven if good things might be found in the library’s digital repository. 

Access alone is not enough. For most libraries, merely providing access to scholarly resources contained in a repository doesn’t constitute an effective learning environment. If the objective is to support independent learning and promote intellectual inquiry—”inquiry” is considered the earliest stage of research—the library without managed, visible collections falls short, because it offers no mechanism for the promotion of new resources, no organization of selective titles by subject or discipline, and no user engagement with an actual collection reflecting disciplinary or professional knowledge. It doesn’t expose students to new things or present them with an organized overview of their field of study, provide insight into what others value or think important, or reflect the priorities of the discipline. 

The user experience of a collection–both the opportunity for the student to learn what others in the profession think important to know, and the opportunity for the student to discover what he thinks important or interesting to form a professional identityis an essential part of a student’s college education.

Defenders of the new empty spaces will say that librarians should now focus on people, not books. In job interviews, school administrators want to hear, “Books don’t matter. It’s people that matter!”

This is like saying teachers should focus on students, not on instruction. 

Academic librarianship is not about seating arrangements, modern buildings, or empty spaces. It is not about who is entitled to access entitlements. It is about presenting to scholarly audiences what is significant, authoritative and good as defined by a larger community of readers, scholars and educated people, and conveying a sense of shared value. A good collection reflecting scholarly activity or community value is our main product. A library anticipates need and stimulates demand for its own resources through the care and presentation of collections, through showcasing what is good. 

Academic library collections reflect expert opinion of what is important to know, what is good, the best, what other people or professionals in the field think valuable and are reading and discussing, combined with what is believed to be of interest to the local community. It is an expression of shared culture, shared values, shared interests and a community of learners

A good library should be a content-rich learning environment presenting students abundant opportunities for self-exploration and incentives to browse. The library should be dynamic and changing, reflecting publishing activity, culture, creativity and innovation in a changing world. My vision is to showcase books and ideas, human experience and creativity, not furniture, architectural space or views out the window. 

The library should be designed to showcase the creativity, interests and work being done in the community or at that school: if a university library, it might feature poster sessions of research, examples of student art and writing, performances, faculty publications and book recommendations. The creativity and the work of others inspires creativity, and this should be the primary purpose of the library: to inspire creativity and the production of new knowledge.

The emphasis on collections stimulates intellectual curiosity and demand for services. It encourages resource awareness and use, and sense of community value.

Of course, libraries in the Digital Age don’t need to hold on to as much as we used to. Since so much of the collection is digital, we might begin developing effective ways to integrate display of ebooks with physical offerings in the library space, as well as offering digital downloads of a selection of current physical books which stay in the library.

People still enjoy browsing print, being introduced to good things even if users may prefer to download a digital copy (virtual fulfillment), leaving the book in place for someone else to see and discover. With some initiative and access to color printers, ebook covers can be printed and placed in the library and even all over campus, for example, displays of the covers of new and noteworthy science books in the Science Building, art books in the Art Department, etc., where they can be made visible and downloaded on the spot.

We also need better websites for showcasing content, including the support for the virtual browsing of digital content, and ways to generate and manage digital notifications of new books, including ebooks. Offering browseable virtual collections organized by LCC should be what library system vendors should be striving to achieve.

If we are to be fully digital, we need online collections and also marketing tools to promote awareness of new titles, rather than being a passive repository for people to come along and discover whatever is of value to them, content which is likely to appear to users to possess no intrinsic value of its own.

Commitment to independent, self-directed learning. Libraries in higher education should be invested in quality collections reflecting trends and scholarly activity, concentrating efforts on exposing students to great titles to encourage greater knowledge, literacy and sense of self-direction. Investment in collections requires intellectual investment, following publishing activity, reading reviews and alerting faculty. They are a reflection of the expertise, commitment to scholarship, keeping up with academic publishing, and care for students at the school.

While the relevance of collections to libraries, and libraries to universities, may sound obvious to those who graduated even a few years ago–why, of course, libraries have collections, you may be thinking to yourself–in truth, faculty can no longer count on academic libraries to offer them in any format. College and university libraries may subscribe to a few large multi-disciplinary  aggregator packages and subject-specific databases and nothing beyond that. The only thing emphasized by the library or by its librarians (if there are any) may be familiarity with vendor products for completing classroom assignments. 

While our physical collections have gone away, our online presence, our user interfaces, have not expanded to provide a modern browseable store front or virtual stacks

Certainly, discovery has been an invaluable tool for medium and large libraries to allow their electronic content to be searchable though one convenient Google-like search box, and its widespread adoption as the library interface, one encouraged by system vendors, has also assisted publishers who sell to academic libraries to allow them to better monetize their content. Discovery systems help the library acquire content in large packages, and make this content instantly available without need for cataloging. Libraries now acquire items in bulk, including many items which they would probably never have elected to purchase individually under former library collection development guidelines. 

Discovery offers so many advantages that the downsides are considered negligible, if they are considered at all. But there are many downsides to discovery as the totality of the digital library interface in terms of facilitating user engagement and learning.

From knowledge to knowledgebases. What librarians call discovery is an excellent tool for providing access to large amounts of proprietary content which resides on publisher platforms. Most academic libraries use a discovery layer as their OPAC (online public access catalog), more commonly known as the “search box.” Behind this federated search tool is a central knowledge-base, a unified index to which academic publishers who sell to libraries contribute. However, discovery encourages only a shallow or superficial level of engagement with resources, first because it requires users to search for content for it to be seen (not ideal for students and those who are unfamiliar with the discipline, or those who want to keep up with their field).

Second, it does not position a work within a broader scholarly context in which it is considered valuable or authoritative by scholars. Third, the user interface presents too few items on a page to give a good overview of what is there in the repository. Last, publishers and aggregators often omit from packages the most significant, recent and important titles, which they hope to license to the library individually and at a higher cost. Only, today we might not even notice what important titles are missing from the package, since we do not seek to maintain collections.

These drawbacks, if they are considered at all, are thought negligible; as long as sufficient “resources” are findable by others who might look for information on a topic, we dust our shoulders. It is now up to users to come along and find discover for themselves what has value to them, rather than academic librarians presenting to the community what has objective value to a discipline or community of readers, scholars, professionals and experts. 

Consider that the meaning of an academic degree is not the number of hours spent in a classroom, but literally a person’s degree of knowledge, his mastery over the body of literature which comprises an academic discipline.

But what and where is this knowledge at the university, if it is not in some way represented by visible collections of good and significant titles, arranged according to the priorities the discipline?

A good academic library collection tells students: here are the key resources, the authorities, the major works, the minor works, what is new, the common reference points, the critical editions, the key issues and the trends, the works most valued by those in your field.

It also allows users to easily grasp what the library has in an academic or topical area. This experience of collections is a fundamental part of the education of students, their becoming independent learners and professionals in their field. Collections need not be physical, but if they are online, they must be visible as collections of intellectual works in a discipline, and not as searchable aggregations of content whose only manifestation and sense of importance is in their relationship to a user’s query. 

While the academic library is rapidly eliminating its print collections in campaigns to modernize and innovate, it has no ability to support browsing collections through its web-scale discovery systems. The metadata isn’t there.

Discovery systems used by academic libraries for search are not capable of adequately supporting the user experience of an academic library collection. They are search engines indexing a central knowledge-base containing the metadata of licensed publisher content which the library’s users are authorized to access. This user experience supports resource discovery but not collection discovery. It doesn’t provide students or faculty with an overview of the scholarly activity in their disciplines. I’m not saying we should get rid of discovery, but that it is insufficient to be an online library. It should not define the user experience of a library in the 21st century. 

Just like everyone else in the 21st century, I spend most of my waking hours online, including portions of that time reading books and articles which I access though my library. But I see the changes which have occurred within college and academic libraries as lost opportunities to develop better and more valuable library experiences and better user interfaces, for librarians to be able to facilitate user engagement with books and other cultural resources in new and innovative ways. 

I believe that:

  • Libraries should be more dynamic, inspiring and interesting than just spaces to sit to study or complete assigned coursework.
  • Library websites should be more engaging than static pages featuring a search box and links to online resources. They should be dynamic and continuously updated to encourage resource use and user engagement.
  • Libraries should not depend on its users (collaborative model) to share their knowledge and expertise with other users in the space to allow it to function as a place for learning.
  • The academic library, its systems and its spaces, must be designed not just to provide passive access to library resources, but to promote and display new and significant titles in ways that enhance their scholarly value for users.  
  • A business requirement of a library (as opposed to a repository, which is a different entity) is that it actively and effectively promote resource awareness and use.
  • Libraries should strive to be content-rich, interesting, intellectually stimulating and educational places about ideas and knowledge.

I’m all for the creation of beautiful environments and sun-lit social spaces. I’m all for amenities to help students succeed in school and in life, and enrichment programs to bring more people into the library. I like food, drink, and poetry slams as much as the next person. I’m ready to convert our spaces into a home away from home, like some Internet start-up company circa 2000, so students can work around the clock and never have to leave (as long as I don’t have to stay late or clean up after them). I’m in favor of discovery.

But how do we balance students’ personal needs with our academic mission to function as a library? How do we market the library’s resources to facilitate learning without being able to effectively place content in front of users, or present resources to them in ways that are interesting and meaningful to students and to scholarly audiences? 

The larger question may be how far do we go toward the transformation of the campus library into a student center, media center or study lounge (with a search engine as our primary user interface) without forgoing what is good about the library, and especially when universities already have a student center, many computer / media labs and lounges all around campus?

How do booklessness and collectionlessness affect the perception or our brand as a library?37

How does booklessness influence student perception of the quality of the library as a library and of the quality of instruction at the school? How does “the new academic library” function to help students learn, as new library advocates claim, and where is the proof of that? What are the outcomes of the library’s becoming only a study space and a resource discovery tool?

Is this still even a “library” by library professional standards? 

The New Library Gothic: Glass Windows, Tall Buildings, Light and Air

n recent years, the traditional library has been portrayed by new library advocates as a wasteful, decaying book repository whose time has come.38 Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. Closer to the truth is that at many campus libraries, print collections stopped being funded, or adequately funded, many years prior to the current efforts to eliminate them. 

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the library’s budget was increasingly committed to journals, whose cost continued to skyrocket at the expense of books. Then, in the 00s, online databases consumed the acquisitions budget. There was need for the campus library to support distance learning and online degree programs, but its budget remained flat. At that time, and continuing to the present, funding was allocated for library databases and serials subscriptions online, but not much, if anything, for print books. As the physical collection dwindled, replaced only by the same databases and discovery interfaces which had already been in place for many years, fewer people came into the library, either because users found what they needed online, or else people no longer anticipated good things would be there.

At many academic libraries, the print collection languished and was abandoned. It become a reliquary of intellectuals of the twentieth century, not in alignment either with curricular programs or student interests. Despite ample seating, plenty of space, extended hours and friendly librarians eager to assist practically around the clock, fewer students were coming to the library even to study, preferring other locales on campus where they could more predictably gather with peers, socialize and eat while working on assignments. With the widespread adoption of campus course management system software, professors were always available by email and willing to help students succeed in their classes. 

In the Digital Age, fewer students appeared to want or need the services many librarians traditionally prided themselves on providing. From what I could tell from library literature and blog posts, this was not just at my library, but everywhere. 

Librarians continued to assert that collections didn’t matter to their business model. For libraries that went fully digital, ongoing collection development, title selection and cataloging was soon replaced by “resource acquisitions management,” negotiating prices for large or specialized packages of digital content and making them available through a discovery application. 

Once physical collections were no longer funded, public services went into free fall. I saw it happen in my library, for through the years my desk stats, which in 2012 averaged about 30 visitors / day, fell to pretty much zip. My title was Reference (changed to Research and Instruction), but for years I did almost everything that there was to do in the library. While I used to do collection development for books and ebooks, my favorite thing to do, I also managed the electronic resources, discovery, was the primary technical contact for vendors, was the liaison with the graduate school, taught most of the instructional classes (Freshman and everyone else), did student orientations, taught all of the graduate student library classes and administered the website for library. I was liaison to several departments, all Humanities, Communications, Computer Science, some Sociology. I also taught World Literature in the English Department. 

Our own literature proclaimed, “Reference is dead!” and “Librarianship is Dead!”17 Others said academic librarianship was dead. I wondered if librarianship really was dead, or if we had killed it.

Like Gorman, I didn’t like what the new library was becoming. I would chalk it up to age, but no one else, including our students, seemed to like it either. Without books, the library was a boring, colorless space.

Our primary purpose and function had always been to maintain a content-rich learning environment, to actively promote literacy (informational, academic, disciplinary, cultural), to encourage knowledge of the collection (with which we were expected to be familiar), knowledge of publications in the disciplines, and to showcase good things other people might want to know about.

Being a good library meant stimulating demand, and being a window onto a world of ideas, thought and possibility, which in turn motivated and inspired students to want to learn and pursue their own individual pathway to success. The library was aspirational. We kept faculty apprised of new publications in their areas of interest which in turn kept their research from fizzling out. We helped them keep up to date, and the library up to date, so our students were kept up to date. 

From about 2006 to the present, new libraries were built at college campuses across the country, hollow monuments to learning, designed around a fundamental assumption that library collections are online, and the library facility itself need not play any role in the presentation of the intellectual content of the library to students. What developed was the new library Gothic, with height, space, light and glass being primary attributes. It did not seek to encourage literacy or support intellectual engagement. It has not been designed to promote resource awareness or use. 

Today, architects pitch directly to college presidents at conferences, telling them their “dark and cluttered” library has to go.40

What they present as their library solution is a vacuous glass box, a prominent building comprised of many levels of expensive custom-designed seating with no thought given to the display of resources. 

One example of such a new library is the Harper College Library, shown below:

This facility, as with other “new academic libraries,” does not encourage resource awareness or use. It is just an open concept building. Does it meet library professional standards for what a library is and does? If no collection is being housed in it–the collection is online these days–how is a building justified as a new college library and not a student center?


Grand staircase typical of new library designs. It takes up space and is the main design feature to give the building greater prominence (height). Here the grand staircase is called a “learning link,” in other libraries, it is called a “learning staircase.” We all know it is just a staircase possessing no magical properties.


Architects build new libraries on a monumental scale, but there is nothing inside of them to warrant such a space. As a selling point, they claim the new library “focuses on people, not books.” State legislatures are funding new inflated glass libraries at colleges and universities often without any post-occupancy assessment as libraries or reference to library requirements.

I do not mean to pick on any one library. I do not have to. (And I have never been to this library, I am going from the renderings that the architect has put online.) There are now countless examples of vacuous multi-level glass boxes just like this one which have been built at college campuses over the last few years. Most look like this. These buildings, impressive from the outside–Wow, just look how big the library is! one might be inclined to think–but there is not much library on the inside. At this time, historic Carnegie libraries are also being converted into office buildings and public work spaces.

This building is just a building, not a library. It is hallow and redundant, with many floors of open seating, open atria and open stairwells to give it height. 

And now, like the small child in the famed story, I will point my finger in the hope that others in my field might follow suit. This building is not a library. Why? It does not promote independent learning, resource awareness or use. It does not stimulate intellectual inquiry. It is not a content-rich learning environment. It does not promote library professional values or the goals and objectives of the library to be a library.

  • It does not represent to users scholarship or publishing in the disciplines.
  • It does not seek to raise awareness of new things. 
  • It lacks emphasis on knowledge or ideas.
  • It doesn’t motivate students to learn.
  • It doesn’t place value on reading or literacy.
  • It is just an empty building.

Suppose I am right, and everyone in the library world agrees with me. What should be done about it?

For one thing, ALA should oppose them. They should say: State legislatures must stop committing millions in public funds to the creation of new libraries where there is no library in them. Library magazines should also stop showcasing empty spaces as libraries and start asking “Is it a library?” We should develop prescriptive standards for library goodness.

To me, if a design does not promote resource awareness and use, it should not be considered a library. If the public is funding a library, it needs to be a library, or designed to be one, and not just functioning as a space. A library should meet certain performative requirements to be a library.


  • Accrediting agencies should evaluate whether these empty facilities are providing a library experience and a good value for students, especially at four-year schools.
  • ACRL should stop worrying about how we can add value to the institution and start defining about how to be a good academic library.
  • In the State of Texas, The Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) should evaluate its requirements for the libraries at publicly-funded universities to provide access to the citizens of the State of Texas to scholarly resources, given the increasing trend of libraries licensing and not owning content, impeding libraries’ ability to share resources.
  • Perhaps the Texas State Library and Archives Commission should require matching funds for TexShare databases into collections for all participants in the program, so member libraries do not just offer access to TexShare databases and provide only these, saying “This is the library.”

If I were the TSLAC, I would also stipulate that libraries who subsidize their offerings through TexShare, and all publicly-funded academic libraries in the State of Texas, must make their resources available to the public. If they receive public funds and TexShare databases, academic libraries must post notice on their websites that resources are available to the public inside of the library. 

There has been a gradual restriction of public access to academic library content over the last 30 years coinciding with the shift from owned to licensed materials. License agreements with vendors and federated authentication protocols (Single Sign On) restrict access to only those with active institutional credentials, allowing for no or limited community access, which academic libraries once provided as a matter of principle. Physical books and media were once lent from academic to public libraries; but ebooks and articles in many ejournals cannot be loaned though ILL.  

Teachers, community college faculty, museum professionals, medical professionals and grant writers often make use of the academic library’s resources. I am not saying libraries need to retain books or print journals just to ensure sufficient public access to scholarly resources and technical literature, but we must understand the broader impact of our acquisitions decisions on our communities.

Once libraries do not own their own resources, vendors can dictate the terms of access. While librarians may be about broad access to information and encouraging life-long learning, vendors are about monetizing their content. Increasingly, they determine our access policies. What is at stake is not just our idealism. Without the ability to offer community access to library resources, the library loses out on opportunities to supplement its funding through community partnerships, membership (friends) programs and grants. Library Directors will have difficulty raising funds for a library that only serves those currently enrolled in school. Alumni will be less inclined to donate to the library if they cannot use it. The institution may no longer support high school projects which involved use of the college library, missing out on recruitment opportunities. 

If the library goes bookless, it still needs ways to expose students and scholars to new titles and the publications in their disciplines and ways to make the library content-rich. The facility must fulfill business requirements and objectives of an academic library, especially if it is funded by tax money to be an academic library. A good rule of thumb: if it doesn’t promote literacy or resource use, it is not a library. 

The academic library should have functional requirements other than to be a space or a building. The academic library should have its own business requirements and prescriptive standards which constitute a common framework for being online. Post-occupancy assessments of publicly-funded libraries must be published to ensure public accountability for facilities built with public money. If the library is fully digital, or bookless, library designers still must take into account how users will be made aware of resources in the space.

While these inflated glass showrooms are being built and floors emptied of books, no corresponding library user interface has been developed to sufficiently compensate for the fact that the library’s collections are no longer visible to users.

The new library should be conceived of as a whole, not the building as one thing and the user interface another. We should think about library design holistically, as a complete user experience, not the building, web presence experience and systems each as separate entities, each with their own requirements. In the 21st century, libraries require a comprehensive library design strategy. The physical and the virtual should be integrated with a singular strategy, purpose and mission. The library should have one uniform set of business requirements which delineates its purpose and requirements as one 360 view.  

Through our current systems and spaces, it seems we are limited in two significant ways:

  • Resource visibility: Resource visibility is a measure of the likelihood that a particular item added to our system will be seen in its lifetime by those who would be interested in it (if they were aware of it). What good is buying an ebook if no one sees it? Discovery poses a resource visibility problem because a user must look for the item to be discovered.
  • Collection visibility: Collection visibility is the ability to present resources in their most appropriate and meaningful scholarly context, where they might be most valued and appreciated by our users, for example: Here are the key resources which comprise an area or discipline, the seminal works, the works about works, logically arranged and presented according to how users would expect to find them. Discovery systems do not afford the user experience of a collection.

Currently, we cannot present collections as collections online, even using the most state-of-the art library systems. Just making things available should someone come along and search for them does not strike me as an effective library service model.

The user experience of the library online. When I speak of the online experience of the library, I am not suggesting that the online offerings are not good, but rather stating that through our user interfaces, publications are invisible to the student and scholar, minimizing the chance that someone who might otherwise be interested in a title would learn about it through the library. We can buy abundant resources, but the design of our websites and facilities does not add additional insight or value. We are not capable of supporting innovation or helping the cause of education with such passive interfaces and empty spaces.

Where in years past, academic librarians were expected to be familiar with the collection, today many of us have fallen victim to passive acquisition systems: librarians removed from the acquisitions workflow do not know what is in inventory until they themselves perform a search. At many libraries, collection development no longer exists. Collection development, formerly done title by title, has been replaced by more efficient resource acquisitions management workflows, the licensing of large packages of vendor content made instantly accessible through discovery. 

There is a nagging suspicion with our current user interfaces that even if we were to provide access to everything that anyone at the university might want to search for through our discovery portals, we and our user interfaces are still not adding significant value to the educational experience because as libraries have become increasingly automated we are neither promoting knowledge of the discipline through our resources and interfaces, nor promoting resource use in any visible way.

We are acquiring and activating resources, but not effectively activating readers. 

What we offer online is not the experience of a robust online library collection, one that fosters community and intellectual engagement or exposes people to things they might be interested in, but rather a searchable repository of licensed publisher content available to people enrolled in school to get their assignments done. There is a world of difference between these two service models.

In the academic space, we must offer more engaging user interfaces to serve as our store front and also ensure some way for our systems to support browsing selective collections. I also believe libraries should be experimenting with virtual fulfillment (browse print, check it out by downloading) and the display of ebooks in their spaces. 

Academic librarianship was always about supporting and nurturing intellectual inquiry, not merely providing passive access to resources. The library should strive to be a content-rich learning environment. Browsing authoritative collections and displays of current and contemporary works of interest to students makes students want to read and learn, making their education more meaningful and relevant to them. The library should be about presenting what others in the scholarly community are reading, writing and thinking about. It is about knowledge and ideas, good things brought to light and shared with a larger community. 

A search box and relevance ranking alone doesn’t convey quality or goodnesswhat’s in, what’s interesting, what’s new, or what’s good. The experience is not particularly meaningful to the user who is trying to obtain not just relevant resources to complete a class assignmenta myopic viewbut knowledge of the scholarly activity in a discipline or obtain a broad understanding of an academic subject area.

If in 2021 we are continuing to do title-by-title selection in this new environment, it may also feel thankless, for through discovery systems alone, the ebooks we are buying individually (often at a premium price) have no way of being presented to the user as part of a visible, browseable collection, and therefore nobody is likely to see them or even know they are there. The likelihood of anyone, including those who might be inclined to read it should it cross their path, discovering the ebook in its lifetime is slim to none if discovery is all we have to make people aware of it. 

Schemes to convert the physical library into something which never was an academic library by library professional standards, a learning commons/media center, or just a digital repository, have become popular among some librarians, with legitimate opposition to this trend by others.41 But the opposition is shrinking, growing smaller every day, with some college students who prefer the experience of traditional libraries using their public library instead. 

Our modern systems have been designed to facilitate efficient acquisition and online access, and not to engage students or scholars, help them learn about their disciplines, or promote resource use. Our systems must support the organization of titles by classification and support the experience of browsing collections if they are to provide scholars with a unique and meaningful academic library experience. Likewise, our modern spaces must strive to be content-rich and intellectually stimulating to support a library experience. 

Findability is important, but what about turning people on to content they might like or need to know about? Isn’t support for intellectual inquiry a fundamental requirement a good library? 

The Necessity of Browsing to the Aesthetic Experience of a Library

t my institution, a university with over 8,000 FTE, and many graduate programs including in English literature (where I was also Adjunct Faculty), History, Communications, Education, MIS, Urban Planning, Education, Business and the Social Sciences. The departmental buildings, some of which had history and character, been retrofitted with student lounges, computer / media labs, writing labs and vending machines. The Science, Music, Art, Humanities and Education buildings had study spaces. As far as I could tell when I walked to these buildings to give presentations, these were where students were spending time during the daytime. Music and Public Affairs were bustling (and Music had music, and believe me, they liked it that way!). The new Science building had comfortable seating, tables, chairs and a café. The Art Department had Apple computers, the software students needed, and of course, the studios where they needed to be spending time to create art. I loved the Art building, the smell of the studios, where so much student work was on display, the achievements of brave souls whom I imagined were pursuing art degrees despite their parents’ loving disapproval. Public Affairs always had interesting guest speakers and seminars. It wasn’t like there was no campus life. It was there on campus, just not in the library.

After the library stopped buying books, the departments would sometimes create secret satellite libraries of donated books and materials. The faculty believed books were still valuable, even if the library and administration did not. Departments also had desk copies of textbooks and other books which could be lent out to students. It was also common for faculty to lend personal copies of books. I observed that students spent time between classes in the buildings and colleges where their classes were taught or in the student center where there were concessions, other students, a bookstore, a computer lab, tables of people selling stuff, occasional DJ, giveaways, and other diversions. Many departments provided students, at least graduate students, with quiet places to work and student lounges where they could use a printer and could collaborate with faculty who officed close by. Many colleges had their own media centers and software used by their discipline or department. One school licensed GIS software, another video editing software, another a statistics package, another a digital soundboard and television production studio. Each college maintained its own licenses and media labs, often supervised with experienced lab technicians for their own students. It was actually quite nice and this kept students working in their respective departments or colleges. There were already a variety of study environments and computer labs for students all over that campus. I concluded that without either collections or coffee, the library offered no strategic or social advantage to students as a place to study.

When I taught instructional classes for senior capstone projects, I was surprised, but not surprised, to learn that many graduating seniors had never been to the library even out of curiosity, even though our campus was fairly small. Students were everywhere, it seemed, but in the library. We had plenty of space, seating and light: what we lacked were good collections. If students came to the old library, they went straight up to the third floor to go to the computer lab to print out a paper for class and back down and out the door. To go from point A to B, they didn’t pass any books or resources, and if they did venture out into the stacks, they would see nothing but extremely old and dusty materials.

It didn’t help the cause of the library that those who entered the space didn’t see any new books, or any books for that matter. And students entering for the first time were expecting to see them, and disappointed by their absence. Don’t y’all have any good books? is not something a librarian ever wants to hear. 

Current titles on display make for more interesting and intellectually stimulating environment and serve as a marketing tool for the library, the librarians, the school, and the books themselves, of course, because–unlike their ebook counterparts–they are visible, provided that people are coming into the library in the first place. People want to experience what others are experiencing. Books on display are also perceived to be books that are valued and in demand. 

If the library is configured for it, students may browse print in the library but download the book online. There may be no need to physically check books out. People may want to see the book on display and browse through it before deciding to invest time into reading it, but they might be able to simply download a copy to take it with them to read on their phones (virtual fulfillment). We can also market ebooks in the library through displays of their covers so people can be made aware of them. This would allow for a greater emphasis on ideas and content in our increasingly sterile and impersonal spaces.

The presence of quality collections organized by the disciplines, and our making an effort to display what is new, significant, good and interesting in the field and in contemporary culture, also suggests to others that the librarians are actually doing something, they are keeping up with new publications, and that the librarians just might know something about them and about the discipline. Good collections boost library usage across the board. Booklessness, and a lack of collection visibility, on the other hand, what many of us have been reduced to in the last ten years as part of the “new library movement,” robs users of learning experiences which come from serendipitous browsing, the most enjoyable experience of libraries reported by users.

Why should we librarians celebrate as progress the elimination of what our users liked best about us? 

The main reason why books and collections continue to be important in the college library space is that they expose students to new ideas, thoughts, movements, intellectuals, and trends, and disciplinary knowledge (the body of knowledge which comprises an academic discipline or profession).

Even if the library is completely online, maintaining strong collections in the disciplines should be regarded as a key service we provide. It allows our graduates to be more competitive, and encourages them to exceed the knowledge of their professors, who may have graduated a long time ago or specialized in one narrow area. It also makes the library as a space more interesting. 

Browseable collections, in print and online, are essential to libraries if the library is to be good, or if it is to be a library at all.

In theory, good college and academic libraries are not about satisfying existing demand for resources but about actively stimulating inquiry and independent learning. To accomplish this requires that we present to scholars not just with “good resources,” but with authoritative collections, and for resources to be able to be displayed and comprehended as carefully and intentionally developed collections reflecting the current status of the discipline, and not just searchable aggregations of digital content the vendor made available.

It is our job as academic librarians to present to users what is good, new, significant, authoritative, important, talked about, seminal, acclaimed, controversial, cutting-edge and award-winning.

The library must encourage browsing and display, and not depend on someone to come along and search for something. We should be telling users what’s good by community standards, or at least leading them down interesting pathways to explore.

The library should raise awareness. It should showcase good things. It should be current. If the library is good, I believe students will come to it to browse, or at least, will be inclined to browse and engage with books and ideas. 

If the collection is good, browsing is learning

This user experience of a good library can only occur if the library is committed to maintaining visible collections in the disciplines, not just to resource discovery.

As an academic library, we ought to be able to present library collections arranged by discipline in some immediate, browseable way, so users can see all of the titles the library has on whatever topic, arranged in a logical order by discipline. How can we expect anyone to obtain an overview of a new area or learn about an unfamiliar discipline if the publications which comprise the discipline are not visible

“The Reader” in the New Academic Library

y library happened to be at a university with beautiful landscaping, 150 acres of flower beds and old growth trees, a residential campus with ten colleges, a school which emphasized its unique and diverse culture, character and history. As an HBCU, it emphasized pride in the cultural and intellectual achievements of African Americans, and aspired to create the leaders of tomorrow. 

Even more reason, it seemed to me, to provide a stellar and vibrant undergraduate library experience emphasizing the cultural achievements of African Americans inside the library and online, and even more reason to provide books, beautifully and attractively displayed. Many students there had come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, given their backgrounds, the impression of the bookless library, or one with just with very old books on the shelves, did not strike them as being particularly modern or innovative

How does the university create the leaders of tomorrow without exposing students to the leaders of today?

Full disclosure, I was one of a handful of employees who were not African American. Most of the faculty and students were, and most chose to attend in person for a unique college experience, dubbed an “HBCU experience,” a selling point for the school. I believe that in that particular environment, where students were on campus–this was not a commuter or online school–the physical book had cache and signified value to those students who came to the library. It embodied worth, including self-worth, and investment in them, where the invisible ebook in a vendor package, that which had to be summoned from a database to even be seen was perceived as a cheap substitute for the real thing. 

The library didn’t have books, except extremely old and worn copies, and any newish ebooks were just whatever was included in an academic aggregator package online, which meant we had nothing current or in demand, and no literature. There was no leisure reading collection either, except a few very old paperbacks in special collections, since the older generation of librarians insisted that academic libraries do not have popular books. Books about the African American experience–ordinary titles, not rare books–had been placed into special collections, even those titles with multiple copies, making these titles unable to circulate, less visible and less accessible to users. This restrictive policy was established several Directors ago who believed that the African American resources would just get stolen, so they had to be locked up to be protected from theft. This policy, along with refusing to buy new books, infuriated many faculty members and two successive Deans. A widening chasm grew between the library and the faculty. Nothing could be done about it. 

When I taught English classes, I purchased and lent copies of my own books (even though I was “the Librarian”): Black Athena, Blacks in Antiquity, The Story of Black, lots of others which should have been available through our library. 

Years after the library stopped buying books, the plan to build a new library funded by the State of Texas was formally announced. We were receiving 50 million dollars for a new library.

After that, the need to weed the collection became the new justification for not buying books. We are getting a new library in four  years. Why start buying books now? We’ll just have to move them! There was no thought about the large gap in “the collection” or that students would come and go without having access to current resources. 

Because of the perceived necessity of drastically reducing the size of the collection and moving the remainder to the books into the new space, whatever could be back-filled into the design, the policy of not buying books was continued, and could conceivably be continued indefinitely, which made weeding decisions more difficult. Out of 300,000 books, I weeded about 250,000 to meet the Director’s monthly weeding quotas so we would “fit into” a new five-story building.  

The task of weeding pretty much fell to “the reader” in the library. I didn’t mind. I loved literature and intellectual history, and even though the old books were physically in bad shape, the collection contained some gems. I reconnected with wonderful oddball titles I had long forgotten about since graduate school, Valentine’s The Experimental Psychology of Beauty and Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of “As If.” It was interesting that that library has so much by Thomas Carlyle, his brilliant one-hit-wonder Sartor Resartus, a literary parody of German idealist philosophy, formerly read even in graduate English classes, but studied no more; the works by and about the obscure American fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, popular in the 1920s, whose beautifully illustrated editions I had at home. There was an almost full run of Loeb classics for Greek (green) and Latin (red) authors, so precious to me when I studied those languages a long time ago. There were many books on ancient languages and comparative linguistics, Proto-Indo European language trees and Anglo-Saxon dictionaries; books on Neo-Latin and the pastoral form; rows of German, Russian and French literature which no one at that school was studying. There were illustrated travel books from the late 19th century with engraved plates and elaborate fold out maps. Intriguing to me also was a German encyclopedia set from the 1930s printed in fraktur, the preferred typeface of Nazi Germany. The library had opened in 1927 and was never weeded, and it was an excellent collection probably until about 1985, when it fell off a cliff, having to allocate more of its budget to serials and then databases. Its collections were now faded from having been continuously bathed in fluorescent light for decades, spines barely readable and fore-edges covered in dust.

Faculty received first dibs on everything, then students. I, on the other hand, was reluctant to take, concerned about conflict of interest and the optics of the librarian wheeling books truck to the parking lot and filling up the back of her SUV with library books, should someone think to take a picture and post it to social media. I also weeded the Humanities conservatively because I wanted the collection to be good. In hindsight, I might have made different decisions, but I never had the big picture. One day, after the whole first floor of the library was stacked with discards no one wanted to take home, a crew showed up and carted them all off to a local prison. The rest went into dumpsters.

I taught most of the library instructional classes at that school, and had for years, so I was very familiar with our programs, but I did not have any idea to what extent the new library’s collections were going to be funded moving forward. I was weeding in the dark. Without a book budget, I had no sense of collection scope for each area except for what I contrived as my ideal. In my mind’s eye, I had a new collection development policy which guided weeding decisions, and I began to write down notes for each section. Still, I was less likely to weed a worn out copy of Othello, for example, if I thought it might not be replaced.

The faculty from each area who assisted me with the weeding project were asking me the same questions. When and will we be able to buy books again? I did not know. How big is the space we are trying to fit into? I did not know. I was merely given monthly weeding quotas, never a total number, causing me to weed and re-weed sections as the plans changed and there was going to be less library in the new library. In the meantime, the old library had become a composite of subscription databases, packages of resources requiring almost no ongoing maintenance (I did troubleshooting and filed tickets with vendors). The transition from http to https caused some hiccups with the proxy server, but it was pretty much smooth sailing after that. ProQuest and EBSCO ebooks, aggregator packages constituted our ebook collection. I implemented discovery, and did as other libraries had done, making it the OPAC to conceal the fact that except for Special Collections, the print collection was already gone. No books had been purchased in a very long time. 

Months prior to weeding, I led the library through an upgrade to put into place functionality which would help streamline the weeding process. I went to ELUNA and learned a later version of our Voyager system had features to help with global changes and deletions through its Pick and Scan module. I also implemented Discovery, both Primo and EDS, making both available to our users because so much EBSCO content didn’t turn up in Primo, and each has a different algorithm for searching. While my title was Reference—there was no job title on the books for Technical/Digital Services or Web, although for years I did Reference, Instruction, Discovery and Web—I wondered what Discovery Services Librarians at other institutions did all day, and if there was more to it than what I was currently doing. I had no trouble managing discovery, the website, reference, technical support, usage reports, most of instruction, LibGuides, weeding, much of ILL, accreditation reviews, and other things, including serving on university committees and Faculty Senate. I was one of three librarians, and I still felt underutilized much of the time. Graduate students came to see me to discuss their research, and I soon realized my value was assisting the graduate students with theses, dissertations and papers. 

Over the years I had witnessed the steady decline in foot traffic which coincided with the moratorium on book buying. It is instinctive for a librarian to assume that failure to maintain good collections, to buy and promote new books and provide nothing of popular interest made the library dull and unattractive to users. 

This is what our library professional literature had always told us, at least. Admittedly, it was harder to sort cause from effect now, especially because of course times had changed, degrees had changed, and so many were claiming, or rather proclaiming, that even at a university, today’s students and scholars don’t want or need books—not just physical books, but any books at all. It was not necessary for the library to offer reading materials any more, thought the Director, who claimed throwing out the books (which she had done at her last college) was progress.

I pondered how we could legitimately claim to support information literacy, which we did, without supporting actual literacy, or keeping our collections current (of course, “currency” is a factor in assessing a item’s credibility, according to the infamous “c.r.a.p.” test). 

A pervasive attitude among administrators seemed to be:

These students don’t need to read, reading is a waste of time. They just need to get their degrees.

Was it elitist of me to defend the library “full of books” and leisure reading materials when all students really needed was Academic Search Complete to find their requisite five peer-reviewed sources to write their five-page essay on gun control or “A Rose for Emily”? Was it elitist to argue that students benefited from reading, including co-curricular and extra-curricular reading? Were libraries now seen not as democratic institutions which compensated for inequity, but as elitist institutions catering only to intellectuals? 

On a more practical level, it seemed many of our students wanted popular books to read, and these popular books did not cost the library much at all. 

Each year before the budget hearing, I continued to advocate for books, and for doing collection development as my profession taught, and also for acquiring ebooks (having a budget for that) where I thought there was sufficient demand. The library had a generous budget for the size of its enrollment, but it was always sunk into packages at the beginning of the year. (When I administered my own budget, I always made it last to be able to do continuous collection development and avoid ad hoc spends).

When planning one year before the new library’s opening, I ran usage reports and showed where we could easily shave $100,000 off database renewals (redundant and unused resources) and use it for new books; I know $100,000 doesn’t go very far, but it would be a good start for an Opening Day collection, especially if we used those funds to acquire popular materials, and if followed by $100,000 set aside in a draw down account each year. After a side-mouthed promise of 100K from the Director, and spending a few weeks on an Opening Day Collection, filling up an Excel spreadsheet title-by-title (we had no jobber then, but ProQuest had agreed to fulfill the order), the Director suddenly and unexpectedly decided to commit the funds to something else. 

For just under $100,000 (anything $100,000 or more had to go to the Board), the library purchased perpetual access to the Houston Chronicle Archive, a resource which is available for free to subscribers of the newspaper (which we were) and available to non-subscribers for a very low fee of $2.50 a week. The Serials Librarian / Interim Assistant Director twice recounted that she said to the saleslady when asking for a quote, that the cost had to be under $100,000 so it didn’t need to go to the Board for approval. The salesperson came back with a quote for $99,000.

So like that, my promised book money for the Opening Day collection was gone.

I complained to the Director in private. We had gone years under acquiring nothing. How were we even a library? The budget was always sunk into databases at the beginning of each fiscal year, and then there was no money when someone requested something. We had no current titles. When the faculty made requests, the answer was always, “We have no money.” If faculty published a book, we made them donate a copy of their book to the library. It made no sense. It was embarrassing. We were an HBCU, but didn’t acquire books of interest to black audiences. The university offered graduate programs in English Literature, History, Journalism, Education, Sociology and Communications. I was the liaison for the Humanities and the Social Sciences. These disciplines needed books. We had JSTOR, which is great, but people in literature need literature. Students in Journalism, Public Affairs, Sociology and Communication needed contemporary authors

Why was there 100K to sink into the Houston Chronicle Archive at this time and no money for books for an Opening Day collection for a new library?

That day, the Director, who has since retired, quietly sat me down and poured out a cup of tea, and then revealed to me that at her previous institution, a community college, she had simply thrown out all of the books and shelving (but in this same conversation she also mentioned, that they had brought them back after she retired). She had been at her former institution for 30 years, threw out the books, retired, and then came out of retirement to my institution to “build the new library.” She apparently regarded getting rid of books as an accomplishment, as moving the library forward. In this context of her “throwing out the books,” she mentioned to me that there was a reader in the library where she used to be. I could tell from her story there had been friction between her and this reader in her old library. At first I had thought this reader might be me, but as she went on with her story I could discern that there really was “a reader” where she used to work, someone she said she almost fired because he “read books at work”—and it was most definitely a “he.” The purpose of the story was not to warn me–well, there might have been some of that—but to express that that the objective, her objective, is to “eliminate print,” not to maintain a collection. That is what the administration understood. Apparently, they wouldn’t understand weeding the books and buying them again. (As in, why did you just throw out 250,000 books if you were going to start buying them?) In her mind, the elimination of print itself was itself indicative of progress. 

I also imagine her belief that there was no connection between collection use and library effectiveness was as troubling to the reader at her old library as it was to me.

I knew that my faculty in the English Department, History, Art. Music, Journalism and Communications, a few of the departments which offered graduate degrees–my liaison areas–were not involved with the decision to no longer buy books. I was close to the COLABS faculty. We weren’t buying ebooks either, at least not individually. There was no strategy, no collection development plan, no collaboration with faculty, no concern about the intellectual content of the library, no concern that not providing library books hurt the education of students, especially in the Humanities, depriving them of learning opportunities that they might have otherwise had. This was not some “emotional attachment to print” on my part, but my attachment to being a good library. I tried not to care, to distance myself, but when a new book came out by or on Colson Whitehead, for example, or something on African American art and literature which I knew we ought to have to be a good HBCU library, it bothered me. I couldn’t peruse Choice or Booklist or read the New York Times Book Review or wander Barnes and Noble, listen to an interview with an author or book discussion on NPR without feeling guilt and regret when I became aware of wonderful, worthy titles that I thought the library should have, but I could not acquire. We were depriving students of a library.

After weeding over 75% of the collection, we moved to the new space and opened the new library, now called a “library learning center,” without new books. I expected the faculty to complain, as they had been for years about our not buying, but fewer people came to the new library because of its location on the edge of campus and lack of parking. They had become accustomed to not having access to a physical library and we offered nothing to bring people in the doors. When we opened, librarians were assigned to tour people through “the space,” which is what it was. There was to be a special grand opening just for the faculty, but it was called off. For those who came in, no one seemed concerned or surprised that there were no new books in the new library. No one asked, “Where are all the new books?” Well, someone did complain, actually, one person, a doctoral student, a good friend of mine, who went to the President. (I was blamed, as if no one else in the whole university but me would care that we weren’t buying books.) After that, we ended up buying a few new things, but it wasn’t enough to make a visual impact, especially in that empty space. The modern, minimalist design of the space and bookless lobby would have made it difficult to place new books where they might be seen anyway. It had been designed to be more to be a study space than a library. 

Whether new books would have made a significant difference on usage patterns in our library, I really cannot say. For my own curiosity, just to satisfy myself, I wanted to determine through some study how library acquisitions patterns impacted resource use, student enrollment and retention, and how collections added value, but I had no practical way of gathering this data or isolating the issue apart from all of the other factors afflicting libraries today. 

The question is not about just retaining books in the library or about numbers of books relative to FTE, data which one can easily obtain from published library surveys, but the impact and value of maintaining and presenting good collections. Collections, not just “books.” Even if they have a collection development policy, as most libraries do because these are required for institutional accreditation, who is to say that schools are following them? 

I wanted to find out how other college and academic libraries, those holdouts who hadn’t gotten rid of print, those who were actively maintaining collections in any format, were faring compared to the new barren libraries which just subscribed to databases and were done for the year. I was informally following Catholic universities–my bellwether, because of their strong intellectual tradition in the Liberal Arts–to see if their libraries were also getting rid of books, and if so, what they were putting in their place apart from just more seating. Were Conservative universities more likely to retain print than Liberal ones? I was also wondering about those libraries who had gotten rid of print, but still did title-by-title collection development of ebooks.

How were they doing compared to their peers? 

Without books in the library, or without any title-by-title selection going on even of ebooks, there was no a happy collaboration with faculty, as I had previously done when I first arrived at my university, sending around Choice forthcoming title lists and publisher catalogs, asking them about their research and keeping an eye out for other things they might like. Keeping faculty apprised about forthcoming titles and maintaining good collections was an easy and much appreciated service I previously provided, a small way that I added value.

Now, there was no collaboration or sharing books with students or faculty, or turning users on to new things they might like. There was no collection development, and there were no collections anymore. Library inventories seemed to be on autopilot and invisible, which was as frustrating to me than the empty space we now occupied. 

Increasingly, I was feeling that Discovery was a like a black hole that the entire library had fallen into. I had implemented it, I understood it, and I saw its advantages. But it was a federated search application, not even a digital library. It doesn’t do what the library did.

It also seemed, compared to years ago, librarians at the university were now no longer expected to know much about anything but vendor products and how to pull things out of databases. We were not expected to be familiar with the collection because there was no library collection to be familiar with. 

Now no one in the library was reading reviews and selecting titles. No one was cataloging books. No one was weeding them. No one was engaging with them. Because no one inside the library knew about them, no one was promoting books to students or faculty. What we offered to users were packages of digital content brought to us by publishers and aggregators, EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, SAGE, Elsevier, JSTOR and a handful of others, searchable in discovery in the event someone might want to access them. I wanted desperately to get away from there, do something else, go to work for another library (which I eventually did, but it was to another library which also decided to eliminate collections), but like being a horror film, all libraries were Zombies, moving in this direction. It was inescapable. Libraries were all on autopilot, subscribing to the same packages and no longer doing cataloging or collection development. 

There is an ideological debate raging within academic librarianship, with some librarians proclaiming that defenders of print–or the opposers of schemes to convert libraries into desolate work spaces–need to evolve with other librarians digging their heels in, not wanting to see their libraries destroyed by those who think throwing out books in itself represents a form of progress–especially when there is nothing to take the place of the browseable collections through our current user interfaces.

My thoughts are that it is not so much the librarians, but the library user interfaces which need to evolve, so that the library can maintain and market its collections in a more modern and professional way, and return to being a reliable source for what is good, significant and important to know in a field.

Our websites should be a destination for scholars, presenting them with lists of forthcoming titles in their field, articles on notable books, calls for papers, and insight into what others in the university are researching.

We needed a rich store front.

Because of the current limitations of discovery interfaces to assemble e-resources into browseable collections online, with booklessness, necessarily comes collectionlessness. People are proposing that library collections reflecting the academic disciplines, traditional collection development strategies and modes of presentation, can and should be replaced by more modern and efficient acquisitions and access workflows. Through this model, where the library agrees to buy in bulk from publishers, the library can license and make available tremendous volumes of electronic resources at once and not need to worry about selecting titles or cataloging them.  

By going predominantly bookless, my library hadn’t just eliminated print. It also did away with collections, display, promotion, scholarship, access to bodies of knowledge, opportunities to turn students and faculty on to new things, the idea of creating a stimulating learning environment, and all that had been good, interesting and unique about the user experience of the library. It had eliminated our chief marketing tool and the main thing which people liked about the library experience: the ability to browse good, authoritative and interesting collections. 

Online, we became just like most other academic libraries. A search box, a listing of databases, LibGuides, and some forms.

There was no longer any sign of intellectual life in the library. We were perceived as just a search application for third-party content needed only for institutional accreditation and assignment completion, the bare minimum to get students through their programs and get the institution through SACS, and nothing more than that. 

The User Experience of the New Academic Library

nitially, everyone in the library was excited and curious about this strange animal called a “new library,” and the promise of new growth opportunities and roles it might bring. Like the blind man and the elephant, each of us had different hopes and expectations of what the new facility would be like. The Library Director spoke about maker-spaces and green screens. The architects spoke of their experience and insight building new libraries, and claimed special knowledge in constructing 21st century “learning environments.” The IT Department spoke about a building full of technology, and Facilities spoke about energy efficiency. I wanted to learn more about new libraries, too, for they portended the future of my profession.

Naturally, I thought we would have an Opening Day collection (I had already developed one in Excel for a little over 100K, along with a new collection development policy better aligned with programs) and a new books display area, perhaps a leisure reading collection which we had never had before. 

I imagined we would have guest speakers and gallery space for traveling exhibits. I thought for certain we would start buying books again with a good-sized book budget. I had thought things would be, well, normal again, after having been on hold for so long. I kept a wish list in my drawer, compiled by perusing back-files of Choice and NYT Book Reviews which our Serials Librarian had tossed into the recycle bin when she cancelled most print subscriptions, and listening to NPR. I pulled them back out and carted them to my office. I also mined these and Books in Print online for for a spreadsheet entitled, “Opening Day collection.” I also had lists of each year’s best books from NPR and other sources.

Having weeded most of the old collection of 300,000 titles, working with the faculty in the departments on that task, I felt I had insight into collection gaps and where it needed to improve. I never thought 50 million dollars could be spent on a new library with no set aside for books to go into it, or no place to display new books. 

The new facility took a little less than three years from conception to completion. However, for reasons I might only speculate about now, the tiny library staff and faculty were hardly involved in its planning. During the public comment period, a part-time librarian colleague and I ventured to the General Facilities building to make our comments, since librarians hadn’t been asked by the architects or the Project Manager for our input or needs (I’m sure they spoke to the Director, but she remained poker-faced, probably to keep us calm and plodding forward). In the very beginning, the architects spoke to the library staff, but it was a sales pitch explaining their design concept based on primordial campfires, caves and watering-holes, their points of reference for the design of 21st century learning environments (taken from pre-literate / oral culture, I noted to myself). Had I not been so caught up in their use of metaphor, I might have asked, “Why are you building a library based on design principles inspired by pre-literate peoples, and how will this design promote literacy?” 

When it all began, I had assumed, just as with any project, there would be a requirements document created that would identify the library’s needs, what the library was expected to do, in granular specificity, classifying these needs as essential, desired, or just nice to have. I urged the Director to create a Requirements Document for the new library, and I provided her with examples and new library checklists I came up with from other new library construction projects. She responded coolly that she was not the Project Manager for the new library and it was up to him. Who is the Project Manager? I do not know. 

The way those of us who worked in the ivory tower found out what was going on was through media releases. In them, the architectural design team kept speaking about “community engagement,” gathering community input at Town Halls. Their definition of community seemed to be Third Ward, the black neighborhood surrounding the school, not the students or faculty, the actual users of an academic library. They never conferred with the librarians in any formal way. They also did not engage with the faculty, of which I was one. My Chair had heard nothing. Weeks later, during the public comment period and at my request, the Director gave us the go ahead to make our comments, and so off we went on in search of the building which contained the room which contained the plans for the new library. 

In a large conference room across campus, where the blueprints for the new library were set out, my colleague and I went to work. We plastered the blueprints with handwritten sticky notes which we had brought with us for that purpose. I added notes like Reference doesn’t have a physical collection, and doesn’t need all these stacks. Reference should be called “Research Services,” and we need semi-private consultation space (not behind a wall where no one sees us). Also, Research Services should be close to where wherever people are actually working on papers (close to the front entrance of the library there are only directional questions asked, and there is no place for consultation). The technical processing area does not need to be so spacious, for there is only a Cataloger and Cataloging Assistant, and books will be coming in shelf-ready. 

Where is our instructional classroom / presentation / meeting room? It should seat at least 50, as our last presentation room was often filled to capacity. Where are new books displayed? Where is a secure gallery /exhibit space? Where is secure storage? Where is a loading dock? Where are the public service points on the upper floors? How do we secure the building for after-hours study? These were things I had mentioned to the Director after she had shared the preliminary plans weeks ago with the staff. 

In the end, the sticky note campaign had no discernible impact. 

What was erected was a very narrow building that was mostly hollow atrium and unusable space, a five-story glass structure located on the far end of campus, far from the colleges of Sciences and Arts, across the street from the law school and law library. It was far from English, Journalism, Communications, Music, Journalism, Art and those disciplines (my disciplines) which had made some use of the old centrally located library, disciplines whose students where most likely to be readers. The new library was empty through the center of it, with open space on each level centered around a hard wooden bleacher sitting (collaborative learning) staircase, the building’s centerpiece.

The structure had been designed to be as tall (“iconic”) as it could be under the circumstances of having nothing much to go inside of it. It had a large open stairwell on one side which took up one whole side of the floor in addition to a staircase in the middle with an atrium above. No one was likely to use the wide stairs which took up a good half the building, so anything placed on that side would not seen. The building was comprised of open stairwells, atria, and wide hallways, large unassigned offices, offices assigned to tenants, elevators and huge open airport-style restrooms without doors, positioned next to restrooms with doors for the staff to use. 

Its walls were glass computer-controlled electrochromic windows, a special reflective material containing ionized iron particles capable of turning black and dynamically blocking out the sun when stimulated with an electric current, each window section programmable through a cloud-based application. It seemed fairly useless and expensive technology, and we kept having meetings about the windows so we could “explain the windows” to people when they came to the library (Who give a damn about the windows?). In that building, why would I want to be able to dynamically darken a particular window panel? Likewise, the building featured outdoor balconies, but the doors had to remain permanently locked for safety reasons. Its thick blue-gray glass walls, glaring ugly LED light strips (which were unpleasantly bright, its piercing short energy-efficient waves did not illuminate the space with a warm light), narrowness, conduits and persistent loud hum gave it a strange vibe, like being on the inside of a fish tank or some other life support system. Despite being torturously cold (my office was a perpetual 68 degrees), the smallest space heater could cause a breaker to blow, so they were forbidden. One day, for some inexplicable reason, the AC unit seized up, and a blanket of warm humid air and still quiet filled me with relaxation and peace.

On my floor, the dynamic windows were set to gray so it looked as if a storm were perpetually approaching; I would go outside and realize it was actually a beautiful day outside. There was no signage directing students to staff or to the small unmanned computer labs and print stations on each floor, a decentralized design which created a support issues. On each floor, the view of the librarians’ offices were eclipsed by the central protruding airport-style restrooms to which the floor seemed dedicated. Not putting doors on restrooms in a quiet space meant toilet flushing and dryers were heard on each floor, but was especially loud in our offices and in the Director’s office. Every conversation in her office was punctuated by the sound of flushing toilets, coming even from the floors above. Admittedly, the building looked fantastic on the outside, but on the inside there was little of interest to meet the eye. The sheets of glass, gray and white, several floors of near identical floor plans and lack of display meant that there was little to see or experience in the space except for one beautiful spot, a permanent installation of African Art outside of Special Collections. 

I never would have imagined the long-awaited new library would be like this, especially because it also replicated so many of the shortcomings of the old library, the things we had complained about over the years: an open empty lobby area with no books, study rooms placed on the far ends of upper floors where they could not be monitored by the one staff member on duty at night and on weekends; no place to display new books; no way to secure the building during extended hours; no exhibit space. There was no classroom or meeting space, a problem with had been remedied in the old building by tacking on a large meeting room to the exterior of the building. This meeting space had been heavily used for instructions and programs.

The State of Texas had funded a new 50 million dollar library, but there was no library there, just an empty building seemingly designed to remain an empty space.

And so like that, my academic library with comprehensive collections preserved since 1927 was gone, replaced by some over-engineered technological waste with millions put toward programmable window panes–like that was going to be meaningful to students–and useless self-check out machines plus high-end security gates, but nothing at all for books or resources to go inside of it. This was the building “full of technology” we had heard about for four or more years. None of this technology had anything to do with improving the user experience of a library as a library.

Why should I, a reader and intellectually curious person, be drawn to that space? What would be the attraction, say, for someone like me? (I am sure some students liked it though, but liking the aesthetics of a building and the aesthetics of a library are two entirely different things.)

The administrative offices were camouflaged behind a permanently locked card swipe utility door without signage, quite the opposite of the inviting double glass doors and open offices in the old building which encouraged people to drop in and chat.

After the novelty of a new building on campus wore off, fewer were coming into the library than before, even to complain about it, or to tell me they got a job, or got accepted to medical school, or were going to graduate school, or had read a good book; before, people often dropped in to see me and now, not so much.

In this remote outpost, far from my academic departments, librarians were even less visible, eclipsed by the building, concealed by the restrooms. There was no way to form or maintain the personal relationships and the intellectual life which had previously sustained me. Those few who came to the library silently disappeared into private and group study rooms with wheeled luggage in tow. I was sinking into the dark depths of nothingness. But at least I had a job, which many librarians did not. And besides, I taught an English class each semester, which connected me with the rest of the campus and made me feel alive. 

According to the American Library Association’s magazine, American Libraries, this was an award winning new library design. I pondered to myself, is this really a 21st century library? 

I tried to keep an open mind for my own sanity, but it seemed to me little more than a place to sit and look out a window. It wasn’t very satisfying to work in a library without either seeing new books or students engaging with them. I looked to other libraries, but they were all going in this direction, even Catholic liberal arts colleges. It would be easy to chalk my response up to age, but my younger colleagues seemed also to not like the new space either.

As I have come to discover, what happened to my library, this wihitewashing, is actually a common occurrence today, including the fact that the librarians are discounted or excluded from the design process for new libraries, rather than being regarded as stakeholders or subject matter experts.42 There are no post-occupancy evaluations of new libraries as libraries in library literature. “New libraries” continue to be built at great public expense with the acclaim of the American Library Association but without any assessment of them as libraries.

With new academic libraries, the more impressive the space, the more conspicuous is the absence of books, whose cost pales in comparison to the technology, empty space (for things like monumental learning staircases), and the commodified packages of aggregated content the new library typically provides.

Scholars and intellectuals, the sorts of people who are generally found on college campuses, have no interest in visiting or spending time in empty spaces, so I am not sure why they would be better for collaborative learning.

Educated people and scholars care about books, content, culture, media, and especially knowing what other educated people know and are writing / thinking about. Even if they don’t care about reading physical books per se, they care about the ideas in the books. They want the library to turn them on to new things and new thoughts. That is what makes a library good.

Whether usage would have dropped at my library regardless of efforts to revitalize the collection through an Opening Day collection of new books, attractive displays, leisure reading, sponsor a book program, exhibits and current materials targeted more to the interests of undergraduates, and creative ways to display ebooks in the physical space, coupled with programming–fun things like Bob Ross nights and “tell us about your research” night–is a question no one can answer, but my own opinion is “yes.”

It was at least worth a try.

I wanted to display ebooks in the space to encourage use. (I also wanted to simulcast and stream college games in the library above the collaborative staircase.)

Online, I wanted to showcase outstanding student work in our library’s digital repository so parents could google their child’s name and see a paper they had written at school, and this might possibly help that student land their first job after graduation.

I wanted art exhibits and Research Week poster sessions to bring the place to life.

I had hoped to display student art and writing in the library space. I wanted musical performances from the Music department, video shorts from Communications, and a way to bring people together. It was an HBCU, so I definitely wanted to showcase the best black literature, authors, artists and intellectuals. I wanted to create a vibrant place for community and culture to thrive. 

For a medium-sized campus library with large numbers of undergraduates and graduate students on campus, the presence of new books in the library, attractively displayed, would have contributed to the creation of a stimulating and educational learning environment.

It would have made the library more interesting and appealing to students, even as a place to study. 

Do College Students just want Normal Libraries?

he trend in my field is to insist that students do not want or need books, but spaces to create media and tools for making objects (3D printers, laser cutters, and materials). There has been recent anecdotal evidence, which I will present in the course of this essay, that students actually want “normal” libraries with books in them,43 and not the innovative work / study spaces–with maker-spaces and green rooms–being built to replace them. According to Wong:

Likely in the hopes of proving that they have more to offer than a simple internet connection, many college libraries are pouring resources into interior-design updates and building renovations, or into such glitzy technology as 3D printers and green screens that is often housed in media centers or maker-spaces. Yet survey data and experts suggest that students generally appreciate libraries most for their traditional offerings: a quiet place to study or collaborate, the ability to print research papers, and access to books. Many college libraries are reinventing themselves, but perhaps they’re trying to fix an institution that isn’t, in fact, broken.

However, if administrators or library leadership are convinced that college students aren’t checking out books (I think they want to see them in the library, browse them, and then download them to check them out), or interesting in reading them, or that a library isn’t needed to support academic degree programs, it becomes a self-fulfilling situation, confirmation bias. 

Yet, when it comes to the construction and design of new libraries, the deliberate and planned de-emphasis on collections in the space and resource use in assessment should be concerning to everyone at a university, even the Marketing Department, because the collection that people see reflects the quality of instruction at the school. Not only is the library without books unappealing to students, but it might be conveying a negative message to prospective students and their parents about the quality of education at that school. 

Whether the empty college library, the collectionless library, is interpreted by outsiders and prospective students as modern, forward-thinking and progressive, or whether it is judged negatively, as boring, unappealing, unintellectual, impersonal and stingy–are two (categorically speaking) entirely different responses to our new bookless spaces.

My own belief is that libraries, museums, and churches all share a similar sort of ethos, to preserve and present to users what is significant and good by community standards, that is, what the discipline, culture and community thinks significant and good. This is what makes a library interesting and good for others to explore. 

The Significant and the Good. While through the years, some of my favorite students, my fellow readers, expressed disappointment that there were no good books in the library and my favorite faculty members boasted to me of visiting larger area libraries with new books and print collections, it appeared to administrators that no real harm was being done, either to the students or to the school, by not buying books, and condoning the suspension of all collection development activity except for the acquisition of subscription databases and a few independent newspapers and journals.

Certainly, many libraries, especially community colleges in Texas, are going in this direction, replacing libraries with learning centers, and making the MLS degree optional even for the director of these spaces–or in some cases, leaving library director and librarian positions vacant until SACS accreditation comes around, or turning former Librarian positions (MLIS required) into Library Assistant roles. Collections and collection development activity in libraries are becoming increasingly scarce, as are professional and good paying jobs, as acquisitions is done through large license agreements. 

Aggregator packages of ebooks have come to play a more significant role in the academic library. Previously, aggregator ebook packages were intended merely to supplement library collections, never to be the library’s collection. Admittedly, the average student might not perceive the shortcomings of ProQuest Academic Ebook Central or EBSCO ebooks to be a college or a university library’s book collection quite as acutely as myself, someone who teaches English literature, reads the New York Times, listens to NPR, watches PBS and reads books. I’m sure I fall into a certain cluster group of people who visit bookstores and is interested in book awards. It takes someone knowledgeable about the disciplines and keeping up with scholarly publishing to know what isn’t in aggregator packages. Front-list titles, better titles, and titles in demand are never included in aggregator ebook packages. Like kid’s toys, the cooler stuff is deliberately omitted and sold separately. 

Only an educated person might notice or concern themselves with what is not there which really ought to be. 

Of course, the library can pay more to fill up aggregated packages with better titles, title-by-title, but it may or may not be worth it to them. It may not be a good value proposition, because adding titles a la cart costs a lot more per title, and there is no way to know if providing an enhanced “Academic Ebook Complete” will make a significant difference. Adding selective content to aggregator packages often feels as if we are enhancing the user experience of the package, which we are, rather than enhancing the user experience of the library. This presents a disincentive to doing collection development.

Users have no idea that the titles we add to an aggregator platform didn’t just come with the package, or the efforts and cost we have undertaken to add them to a vendor platform. The value add of collection development is imperceptible through our current systems.

Aggregators employ artificial intelligence for monetizing their content, for identifying what titles that are in demand, and just like any commodity, can predict how much each title might yield in the market at any given time. Better titles are strategically withheld from aggregator packages. Publishers know what is in demand, what not to put them into aggregator packages, because they want motivate libraries to buy these on top of the package at a premium price. I imagine they use a tool like what the airline industry uses to assess the value of titles. (ProQuest knows which texts are being used for a class. If a book becomes popular, it gets removed from the platform and a salesman tries to sell the book individually to the library the following year.)

For someone needing resources to write a paper for class, the ebook package is fine. For someone wanting to actually learn about the discipline or conduct research, it is not fine. Shouldn’t the latter be the objective for all colleges? The inability to browse and display books by call number also creates a barrier to access.

As mentioned above, as a consequence of reduced budgets and/or shifting priorities towards serials and then toward online databases and digital formats, and then ceasing to buy print altogether, the same books remained on the shelves year after year with no new things added to them, forming a faded, dusty repository of limited scholarly value or aesthetic appeal, a collection gone to seed.

Low circulation of print and not the library’s failure to maintain collections, was used as evidence to confirm, should anyone think to question it, that books at a university library were not cost effective and no longer needed to support the university’s academic programs.

This same story played out, not just at my library, but at countless academic libraries across the country. Of course, changes to the way that libraries are assessed contributed to the neglect for library collections. Under a corrosive but surprisingly common management philosophy in higher education, one which promises greater accountability of public funds,44 usage of library resources were dismissed as incidental, not providing sufficient evidence of learning leading to student success, at least as success was defined by the institution. Under an outcomes assessment approach, one even encouraged by ACRL (Association for College and Research Libraries) to demonstrate value, usage of library resources was deemed an “output,” not an “outcome,” and judged to be irrelevant to the mission of the library and the school.

Buildings, Not Books:
Anti-Intellectualism and The New Academic Librarianship

fter decades of research during the 20th century extolling the educational benefits of books, libraries and reading on studentsand the detrimental impact of booklessness particularly on minority and disadvantaged communitiesit would be hard not to consider the “new academic librarianship”which emphasizes “buildings, not books,” to be a kind of scam, the proverbial emperor without clothes.

Why would legislators across the country allocate hundreds of millions to erect new buildings called “libraries” with nothing inside of them, and moreover nothing meant to go inside of them in the future, or anything more for online resources? Why are proposals to build libraries without books or collections receiving such generous legislative, local and donor support? 

Some institutions not only constructed prominent bookless buildings called libraries, but also moved their print holdings into doomsday-like facilities equipped with robotic storage and retrieval systems,45 as if they were storing gold bricks, weapons-grade plutonium or antidotes to smallpox, instead of old textbooks from the 60’s and 70s, and many other things which would have been weeded under good collection management practices. Unfortunately, mixed up with them (I looked at their catalog) are viable, seminal works in literature, history, philosophy and art, perhaps never again to see the light of day.

A peek inside the ARC (Automated Retrieval System) at University of Central Florida’s John Hitt Library, which, when complete, will house all of the library’s print holdings.


The automated retrieval of a zoology textbook from the 1970s in a promotional video46 used to demonstrate book retrieval using the ARC. In the UCF library system and many others, books have been eliminated from the library to make room for collaborative study spaces. Interesting that this unattractive text was used to as marketing to demonstrate the benefit of this multi-million dollar system.

Paradoxically, while print books–and perhaps any book outside a textbook–are deemed as being of little value to a college education,47 and from surveys we know that such a minute part of the academic library’s acquisitions budget (if anything is allocated to them),48 at the legislative level, there still seems to be unlimited funding for technology for the manipulation, storage, retrieval, securing and tracking of print materials, such as robotic storage and retrieval systems (RSRMs) and offsite storage facilities; RFID automated material handling systems and smart gates; self-check out machines; dynamic glass and sophisticated computerized LED lighting systems to ensure that the natural light entering the building never perceptibly fluctuates (which might be distracting to readers of print, but not those on screens). Why invest so much in print technology when libraries themselves seem to be no longer investing in it?

With many new libraries, books are eliminated from the floor, with the entirely of the stacks placed into offsite storage, or discarded, reduced to whatever can be incorporated into the design like wallpaper, set into nooks and shelving units in low traffic areas to lend atmosphere, placed in areas where one might have formerly expected to see potted plants. They do not meet the viewer’s gaze. They are marginalized, just part of the décor. There is no expectation anyone would want to engage with them. 

There may be no books displayed or placed in prominent places in the new library. There is no assumption that people would want to see new books when they walk in the doors of a library, or would find them more interesting or valuable, say, than views of others occupying the space, or views out the window, or absolutely nothing. Most astonishing to me, there was also no sense that the library had an obligation to provide authoritative, visible collections, representing knowledge in the disciplines, as part of its academic mission. 

While new libraries are all different of course, a common theme which unites them as a new library is not the age of the facility, but an ideological emphasis on collaborative and individualized work space, over and against the intellectual space which was the 20th century library, which was about literacy and knowledge through collections.

Seeking to redeem the new space, and to a lesser extent the librarians within it, is a bizarre theory that sitting-and-talking space–termed “collaboration”–is the new locus of library learning, the seat of intellectual exchange, rather than readers engaging with authoritative collections and scholarly resources. The librarian is re-envisioned as a “collaboration facilitator.” This new pedagogy exonerates the new facility from having to concern itself with the practical details of how the library without visible collections, even online, will actually encourage learning and awareness of resources. The most valued “resources” become the other people who are there.

The response to booklessness and collectionlessness by new library advocates is not that “the collection is online”–because that would negate the rationale for a space in the first place. Such a response might also risk criticism that, even though the stacks are rapidly disappearing or already gone, the library’s collections really aren’t online, for libraries do not yet have the technology at their disposal which can present digital collections to its users as collections so they can be browsed.

In addition, current and more popular titles are often excluded from packages licensed to libraries.

Nor can we assess the impact of abandoning of collections as a construct for searchable digital aggregations of publisher content, where no discernible investment effort has been made them except for making them available, should someone wish to access them. While all libraries are different–students and faculty in STEM fields may not have the same needs as those in the Humanities or Social Sciences–the abandonment of visible collections is bad for business, both the business of librarianship and the business of the university. 

If book learning and reading are considered irrelevant to higher education, perhaps we might question the value of all scholarship, publishing, and academic credentials, and treat them as the mere Vanities many people already believe them to be, especially as the Open Access movement increasingly shifts costs from the institution to the author in ways that seem to be becoming closer and closer to pay-to-publish schemes anyway.

By eliminating visible collections, we are suspending disbelief in the possibility of reading, education and scholarship to positively impact the lives of our students. The elimination of the library is just a canary in the coalmine. 

New Library or No Library?
The Need for Business and Functional Requirements for Academic Libraries

Within librarianship, it is puzzling why so many librarians are willing to embrace the new academic library, with its various study spaces, collaborative learning staircases, and lack of emphasis on reading resources or publications, as signs of progress.49 

What compels them to do so? 

Is literacy even a goal of new libraries? How are new libraries to be professionally assessed?

What makes a library a library in this Digital Age, and beyond this, what makes it a good library, as opposed to some other kind of entity or service (e.g., a building with tables and chairs, a search engine, a book repository, a computer lab, a help desk or a student center)? Since public dollars often support the construction of new libraries, should there not be some common understanding of what libraries are in the 21st century, what they are for, what they are expected to do, and what makes them good? 

Of course, the academic library now provides over 95% of its resources online, but how does this new space prompt users to engage with these online resources? How does the facility promote resource awareness and use? And, if the expectation is that the library is online, what should that user experience be like to encourage learning? What should the user experience of the online library be like? 

As university libraries go bookless, what defines the library as a library, or the user experience of one? What are our standards for library goodness?50 Library goodness puts into perspective that the library has valuable outcomes which are (1) unique to libraries, but which (2) are not directly measurable in terms of its outcomes. 

Library goodness acknowledges that the greatest benefits of the library are immeasurable, learning objectives not defined in advance, which is not to say that they are worthless or without value, but that its value might be judged through qualitative or indirect means. The impact of a good library is not measurable, but the impact of collections on knowledge, perception, perspective, thought, learning, literacy (including cultural literacy), creativity, identity formation, experience, opinion, judgment, behavior, action, critical thinking, culture, professional competency, sense of community, inspiration, self-discovery, meaning creation and truth.

On the Necessity of Business and Functional Requirements
for Achieving Academic Library Goodness

As much as Library and Information Science purports to be an empirical and evidence-based discipline, there is no consensus as to what our buildings, our collections (if we need them anymore), our services, or our user interfaces should be at this time, or generally what defines a good user experience of a library in the 21st century.

For college and academic libraries, there are really no prescriptive, qualitative standards or business requirements for libraries, even to assert:

  • the library, including its facilities and websites, should encourage resource awareness and use;
  • the library must promote literacy (including cultural and professional literacy);
  • the library by definition supports “success” as defined not just by the institution, but also by its students;
  • the library strives to expose students to disciplinary and professional knowledge beyond what is needed to support classroom instruction;
  • the library must support the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge in subject areas relevant to the mission of the school;
  • the library must add educational and scholarly value to the institution through the appropriate care, management, access and display of authoritative collections, in print and online;
  • the library must provide some mechanism to keep students and faculty informed about new and emerging scholarly activity in their areas of interest and specialization.

These are some bullets I’ve pulled off the top of my head, just to get the ball rolling. I imagine others will have thoughts based on their own experiences.

Once the brainstorming stops, the work of developing business (technical, functional and nonfunctional) requirements begins. In an ideal world, our faculties, our websites, or systems, our methods of assessment, and hopefully our funding, should be perfectly aligned to achieve whatever ends are determined to be the library’s mission. 

Academic libraries are in need of business and functional requirements of their own, that is, existing outside of the institution, in small part because many have experienced the detrimental impact of library leadership defining the library only according to hard evidence of measurable-learning-outcomes-of-student-success-as-defined-by-the-institution. It’s a beanbag throw at a carnival, meaning we waste a lot of time and energy throwing beanbags at a really small hole, and the prize isn’t that good.

Outcomes-based assessment is what drives the university today, and admittedly there is little that critical thinkers, scholars, or anyone else can do about it. As others have described,51 outcomes assessment initiatives in higher education have not always led to continuous improvement or greater accountability, but to continuous cost cutting measures for anything whose impact cannot be explicitly and measurably demonstrated to benefit “student success” as defined by the institution (mainly, degree completion). Librarians should not all rush to become “collaboration facilitators.”52 We just need stronger leadership and better advocacy in the academic library world. Accrediting agencies and library software vendors are our two big sticks. 

We need library facilities and websites which are designed to encourage resource awareness and use, and we need library systems which help us to manage, promote and market our collections online. We need assessment based on library goals and objectives, with the implicit understanding that a good library with strong collections is good for the institution.

The assumption in academic librarianship has always been that students would not be adequately prepared, become educated people or professionals in their field just from classroom instruction and assignment completion alone. At better institutions, the library was on equal footing with the classroom, and students were expected to take greater responsibility for their own education. The collection was there to support assignment completion, research and self-directed learning.

However, under outcomes-based assessment tools, collection usage doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count as a learning outcome, and therefore, the library’s collections and resources do not matter, either. By advising that academic libraries commit themselves to outcomes assessment, knowing full well that collection use is not an outcome, ACRL has not done anything protect libraries from the notion that everything we do or that everything a student learns in school has to count toward degree completion or else some other measurable outcome. A college that is just about degree completion and not education is what we once referred to as a “diploma mill.”

Since 2011, ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education shifted away from a prescriptive model for what makes a library a good library to an outcomes-based assessment model in which the library establishes its own measurable outcomes to fit within the institution’s assessment outcomes.53 There is nothing in ACRL’s Standards to ensure quality or quantity of library collections, formulas which had been provided in library standards until 1995.54 

Regional accrediting agencies like the NEASC (even in New England, where I would expect the standards to be the highest in the country)54 and SACS in south, set minimum standards to which a school must comply, including its library. All require evidence of the provision of adequate and appropriate learning / information resources to support the mission of the school.56 There is no definition of “adequacy” in terms of prescriptive measures or formulas, as there once were. Some require the library to provide tangible evidence of student learning outcomes, typically supported by evidence of library instruction and other forms of direct student engagement, which ignores the role of the collection (any format) in student learning and support for research.

This has allowed the academic library to be redefined in the following ways:

  • as a collaborative and private space for meeting and working (should students need a place to go);
  • as a service to provide instruction and research assistance (should students need help searching for relevant articles or citing sources);
  • a search application to discover resources and access licensed content (should students need to look for something, or access something, presumably that their professors told them to look for);
  • as a static repository of old books and documents (special collections);
  • all or any combination of the above.

How a collaborative space manages to generate measurable learning outcomes, while collections use and stack space do not, is somewhat puzzling, but the answer is there is often asserted to be a connection between “time spent studying in the library” and higher GPAs or degree completion. Prior to COVID-19, this connection between a “space” and “learning” was one which institutions could take to the bank. 

None of this really has much to do with what makes an academic library a good library or even necessarily an optimal learning environment for college students or scholars. It is not indicative of what is taught in library school programs about our core values, collection management, user engagement and building community, all of which form the essence of a good academic library experience. 

In academic librarianship, the extent to which a library succeeds in inspiring intellectual inquiry, independent learning (learning outside of the classroom) and cultivating knowledge is the extent to which an academic library succeeds as a good library. 

The work of the librarian is to create and maintain a context-rich learning environment consisting of intellectual and cultural works reflecting disciplinary and cultural knowledge—presenting what others in the field think significant and good—so that meaning-creation and independent learning by its users can occur. 

If academic libraries are to be interesting and valuable to both students and scholars, and remain viable into the 21st century, they must provide compelling, unique, intellectual and personal experiences, and employ modern marketing techniques like any other online business today which have successfully transitioned from brick and mortar to online.

Our business and functional requirements for our facilities and our systems, as well as our methods of assessment, must reflect the library’s own mission, goals and objectives beyond being an empty space or a scholarly search engine.

Our Faustian Bargain with Discovery: The Library as a Search Box

I believe that good libraries exist to provide opportunities for users to discover common cultural, disciplinary and professional knowledge, what others think significant and good in their respective communities. It conveys collective culture for what is good, reflects intellectual achievement and shared value. 

The experience of visually navigating titles hierarchically arranged into a library collection is commonly referred to as “browsing,” but it would be a mistake to associate browsing with lack of seriousness, intensity, or value to scholars and students trying to learn about an academic area or discipline.

Support for browsing collections of publications arranged by discipline, specialty, field and topic, is a fundamental part of the user experience of a good academic library. Librarianship isn’t about books as physical objects, or preference for particular reading formats, but it is about intellectual objects, publication activity (which some have called “scholarly communication”) and presenting these in a way that enhances their value to scholarly audiences. Scholars need to see their disciplines visualized; it is the function of the academic librarian to present and preserve the scholarly content of the discipline. If the collection is good and arranged appropriately, browsing is learning. The collection itself is an important form of scholarly communication.

Librarianship is curatorship, not presenting what we think is good, but representing to others what the academic community thinks significant and good. 

At this time, libraries have no efficient mechanism for providing users with an online browsing experience to compensate for the lack of physical collections and elimination of browseable stacks, at least when it comes to ebooks and ejournals. This is because academic librarians cannot sort, arrange, order, harvest or evaluate collections of titles in their inventories without call numbers in the metadata and databases configured to sort by LC Classification. For the most part, the digital content we license in quantity from publishers and aggregators do not have call numbers, thus limiting the design of our newer systems to being efficient resource acquisitions management tools, but not good collection management tools. 

These days, we may casually say to users that “the collection” or “the library” is online, but what most libraries offer to users is not a collection in the traditional library sense, or in any sense, anymore than what turns up in a Google Search is a collection or a library.

The academic library collection is not really online. The resources we license from vendors are available in abundance online, but the library’s collections, as collections, are not. This seems to be a problem on many levels, for us and for our users, who now cannot get an overview of publishing activity in their disciplines through the library. There is not only “no library in the library” in the library space, but there is no library in the library online either, at least from an academic librarian’s perspective.

We just provide the ability to search scholarly content, but there is no academic or disciplinary context provided for any of it. The experience is impersonal; through our systems we cannot even display new books or a selection of items on our home page which might be of interest to our communities. 

What we offer is a searchable aggregation of licensed academic content, a search application, one which, for many reasons, provides insufficient visibility for ebooks57 and no support for browsing collections, either browsing or collections of digital content. In addition, resources are often simultaneously available on the publisher’s own platforms, meaning there is no reason for the user to necessarily go to the library’s website or through the discovery portal.

From a user experience, discovery provides insufficient visibility for the tremendous amount of content large libraries acquire on behalf of their users. Despite the library’s paying vastly more for academic ebooks than their print equivalent, digital content is not all that visible through discovery unless someone looks for the item. 

Students go through their programs experiencing only a small fraction of the library’s vast inventories. I have a million relevant results, but my screen at most displays only ten items at a time. I know, I know, we are supposed to teach people to narrow their topics and filter. But ten results at a time is not an optimal way to experience a medium to large academic library. Whether one is searching the Harvard Library or Haverford College, the experience is identical, ten records at a time, not proportional to the holdings or result set. Furthermore, the content discovered in discovery is often over the reading level and too narrowly focused for undergraduates. Compared to the collections which discovery has replaced, which could be more finely tuned for toward specific audiences, it may not really be an effective pedagogical tool given the millions spend on licenses to make scholarly content available. We need “collections” back.

Discovery is a wonderful research tool, but to me, it is not a library online. I want to be able to see and assess my collections, for example, to retrieve all the titles (books, ebooks and ejournals) that I have in the area of, say, 16th century English literature (arranged by author, title, criticism about the title, etc.) or fine art, or printmaking, or ancient philosophy, and place them in a logical order. I want to visualize and experience the collection as a scholarly collection, identifying strengths and gaps, new titles and ones, not just perform a text search on my holdings. I want to sort and assemble all my books and ebooks in some meaningful order together, so I can organize them by discipline, sub-discipline, topic and title. I want a shelf-list. I want users to experience items placed within their disciplinary context. I want to be able to weed my ebook collections, seeing what items have been superseded or dated. I want to send around system-generated new title lists of books and ebooks arranged by call number. I want to manage my collection as a collection, not as vendor / publisher “inventory.”

Even if the library acquires millions in licensed content, the visual experience of it is the same as one with a very small collection. A library consisting of ten million volumes or ten thousand provides fundamentally the same user experience online. Through our UI, the amount of content a library has may hardly be perceptible. Library interfaces typically display, at most, ten items at a time to ensure legibility on the mobile screens. On a horizontal axis, such as a laptop, one may see only three or four items at a time:

View of the library catalog from a 14″ laptop. Because of the inability to view more than just a few results at a time in response to a query, even where the user is told there may be thousands of relevant results, much of the library’s entitlements lack visibility.

This design is intended to be mobile friendly, but most people sitting down to do library research are doing it though a laptop or desktop computer. As our collections have gone online, this standard interface, which was fine for locating the call number of a book on a shelf, is disproportionate the amount of content we have, or would like to put in front of the user as a digital library. 

Also, when users perform searches in discovery, substituting a synonym or slight changes to the query can produce very different results, making the user feel as if his research is always incomplete. While bibliographic and authority control in discovery is complex topic which warrants a separate article, search engines are semantically dependent, while retrieval through a classification scheme is not. It’s not an either/or but a both/and. I will speak more about discovery interfaces below, and one alternative to classification for the organization of bibliographic data. 

As the physical collection is rapidly disappearing, we must address the limitations of our user interfaces and fact that our online catalogs and discovery tools are being asked “to be” the online library, a purpose for which they were not designed and a function which they are not equipped to fulfill.

For the online library to be successful as a library, new user interfaces must be developed which support virtual browsing, online marketing, and greater collection visibility as a collection which reflects scholarly values and value. 

Dissenting Voices. As Sherlen and McAllister write, it is easy to ignore the voices of librarians at conferences, and at the university, who disagree with visionary schemes to eliminate books and convert the library into little more than media labs and group study spaces.41 

If the strategic direction of university libraries is guided to a great degree by the goals and priorities of their directors, then an examination of those values is warranted. It is important to assure a university library—under the direction of the library director’s leadership—continues to properly align with the mission to serve the university’s research and curricular needs. But a trend in current library leadership values and priorities can arguably become disconnected from the library’s traditional service mission to university research. This trend is exemplified by the popularity among university library administrators to direct their libraries to repurpose budget funds and floor space away from traditional book and other tangible collections toward new services such as digital project services, local e-publishing, expanded media labs, and group project facilities (Blumenthal 2005; Gladden 2018).

It is common for architects design new library buildings without placing any importance on physical collections, nor offer any solution for how to employ new technologies to increase user engagement or awareness of the library’s online resources and support browsing within the physical space. 

What seems to me a chief business requirement for a good library, to encourage resource use, is not even necessarily a design consideration for new academic libraries today. But just like any retail operation, we must be able to effectively market and merchandise our resources. The physical and online library should both constitute content-rich learning environments respectively, not empty spaces.

Support for collections. The library’s collection, as much as the classroom, is a pedagogical construct which encourages knowledge in and of the disciplines. Its objective is to enrich the learning and the intellectual life of its users, not just by providing access to needed resources, but by presenting to users a coherent body of knowledge and turning them on to what is significant and good in their field so they in turn can become educated. 

It is not a passive book repository or an aggregation of resources, but an effort to provide a snapshot of what the discipline and other educated people regard as significant and good. It reflects community standards for what is significant and good.

The collection seeks to expose scholars and students to new and significant titles, ideas, authors and topics that they might not otherwise know about or think to look for. It has both a marketing and a pedagogical function. The college library collection reinforces learning in the classroom and often makes classroom learning (the education he is receiving at the school) more valuable and meaningful. Ideally, collections encourage students to go beyond the classroom to obtain knowledge on their own, becoming more competitive in the workforce or pursue applications for the knowledge they have acquired in the classroom.

Good collections, visibly displayed, also honor and value the publications in them. They demonstrate care for the student and consideration for the scholar, and also for the scholarly enterprise. The art and science of situating and presenting cultural objects within their most appropriate social, intellectual and historical context within a collection, is what also makes academic titles more valuable and interesting to students and scholarly audiences to browse and explore. 

Today, the curated collection is likely to be negatively portrayed as construct of traditional librarianship, or some elitist activity, where librarians are the gatekeepers of knowledge who limit access, rather than affording it through professional judgement, knowledge about publications and discipline, and judicious allocation of the budget. Naysayers will say that: “The library collection is built on speculation. It is created and shaped by people who often know their disciplines quite well, but are unable to guess with real precision the exact needs of the library’s specific patrons.”59

This negative depiction has only arisen in light of alternative modes of acquisition for electronic resources encouraged by vendors, where librarians license tremendously large packages of resources in bulk, or by PDA programs where oftentimes casual user behavior triggers costly purchases for items unlikely to be used again or which duplicates content already owned by the library. I also understand that the idea of collections and a librarian as a curator of content is often treated derisively in the age of text search, relevance-ranking, Big Deals and PDA. Many in my own field assert that the idea of a curated collection is obsolete. Why do we need anyone to curate content for users in the 21st century? The answer is both that we must not allow vendors control over our acquisitions, and second, that we add scholarly value by presenting an item within the context of its discipline.

We cannot provide or convey value without content curation.

Maintaining strong, quality collections, in anticipation of use, was once regarded as a pre-eminent service academic librarians provided to their user communities, and the way libraries demonstrated responsibility and accountability for their budgets.

Rather than being done away with, the need for collection management tools are more important than ever precisely because acquisitions is automated. If the collection management tools are not available, we may end up paying a lot of money for open source content, things that are dated, a whole lot of foreign imprints, obscure things which have nothing to do with our curriculum or community, dated titles and things of poor value. We may be buying the same titles from multiple vendors. Collection management tools must also be there so items that are of greatest value to our user community can be displayed on our websites. We must provide users with a way of browsing our collections by discipline.

Books presented not in any particular order in a library context, dated and superseded titles, for example, signifies a lack of care with regard to the collection, lack of care for the user, and/or lack of knowledge about the discipline and lack of care for how institutional resources are being allocated.

Ad hoc collections of random academic content, or collections presented in no particular order, a volume 2 without a volume 1, demonstrate a similar kind of neglect, lack of care for the collections, a disregard for scholarship, and lack of concern for the user. Having no way to organize our content by subject and discipline is bad for our business as libraries. Being able to retrieve and sort by classification number is what I consider to be a fundamental business requirement. It forms the basis for collections and collection evaluation.

A collection means that users can predict with some degree of accuracy what will be in the library when they need it and to keep them up to date with new things. However, as the library’s budget is not unlimited, it would certainly be better to acquire what experts in the field think is good and significant at least as its core (libraries would always be able to buy what patrons wanted throughout the year) rather than allow vendors or uneducated people to drive the acquisitions process for higher education any more than we would have them teaching the classes. 

Library collections consist of the items that the discipline or generally educated people think significant, presented in their most appropriate context, so they make sense to other educated users. Presenting visibly curated collections of titles arranged by discipline is our ideal. It is an important part of libraries’ ability to add value and encourage learning.

Classification is the key to be able to analyze and assess a collection, so it is significant when this functionality is dropped, missing, or no longer supported by the vendor of a library system, saying it is no longer needed. 

As our print collections have disappeared, our user interfaces have remained item retrieval tools, not able to offer the user experience of browsing a library collection online. Discovery systems, the library’s current UI, and its workflows, provide no support for browsing electronic collections by classification. This is reason alone some libraries might want to hold on to print a little longer, at least until our systems have evolved to be able to present browseable ebook collections online.

Good collections, visibly displayed, kept current and focused on student and faculty interests, help the library and the school create a sense of community and value surrounding academic achievement, the work of scholars and knowledge, and it is this same sense of value and appreciation for scholarship which keeps students interested and engaged in the university’s own academic programs. 

Support for collaboration. While libraries should support collaborative learning, as they have always done, I am not convinced that collaboration is more valuable or significant than the sort of learning librarians encouraged through engagement with significant titles and good collections. Our method of collaborating with students and faculty previously involved cultivating a mutual appreciation for the intellectual and cultural works which comprised the discipline. It meant recognition of flagship journals and seminal works. It involved making qualitative statements like, “This is a really good book.” The collection, comprised of publications in the disciplines, was what established common ground for collaboration. 

Librarians want to encourage literacy, reading and consulting authoritative sources, not student consultation with their peers. Maybe collaborative learning works better in Denmark,60 to tackle real world problems, but not so much at American universities.

Of course, students want to study with classmates and peers around them, especially working late into the night when other places are closed. This is a good thing. Those who do so may be more successful academically and less lonely, and therefore more likely to stay in school. But good libraries are also a good thing for students, and being a “space” has nothing to do with being a library. Students could just as easily be anywhere–a student center, café, bar or in the dorms–and have the exact same learning outcomes as if they studied in the library.

Support for creative ideation. Students attending a college or university want to belong to something larger, to forge personal and professional identities. Provided it is good, the library can and should be an important part of creating that identity as well as their discovery of new possibilities and interests which they didn’t know they had. It is this positive vision of a successful future self, and reinforcement for a sense of value for the knowledge they are acquiring in classes, is in large part what keeps students in school. 

Ideally, the library provides students not just with just what is needed to complete a degree. Apart from supporting research, a library should present to students what they need to be successful in their field or discipline, and also help them to become educated, interesting, creative and engaged people. The library doesn’t simply support success as merely defined by degree completion, but presents students with myriad individualized pathways to success in life beyond the degree. 

A good academic library supports not only student success as defined by the institution, but also as defined by the student.

It should turn them on to things they would never think to look for, and reinforce goals beyond their degree to motivate independent learning. It should be a window onto the world.

Funding co-curricular resources which appeal to student interests is an small investment the college or university can make which can play a significant role in keeping students engaged in school. Once upon a time, I began taking computer programming courses at the community college. I didn’t care about the enterprise anything, the focus of these courses. I cared about developing digital libraries and natural language interfaces. My outlet was the academic library, mainly the Rice Fondren Library, where I could access many good books and journals on topics relevant to my academic interests. It also let me feel that on some level I was part of a larger community, albeit invisible, and even if only vicariously skirting along the outer edges of it and looking in.

Whatever the particular demographic, a good library will speak to the hopes, dreams and personal aspirations of a wide variety students in ways that their textbooks and course curricula do not. It is a place not just for completing coursework, but for what I call, “creative ideation.”

This is good for the university’s bottom line and for campus life.

Browsing / Collections as Business Requirements for Academic Libraries

The libraries I remember were vibrant, interesting and hopeful places which featured works which other people found interesting and good (which is in part what made them interesting and good to me as places to browse and explore). Browsing a good library collection let me know:

  • what was newly published in my field 
  • what was valued by others in my field
  • the larger disciplinary context for a work 
  • related items in my area of interest
  • historic trends in the discipline over time 
  • an overview of what was available in a discipline, field, specialty or topic
  • interests that I didn’t know I had, things I would never have thought to search for, or even consider. 

The library was formerly committed to showcasing what was significant and good.

Today, academic library systems, or our user interfaces, do not do any of these things, at least not very well.

For example, where I used to be able to use my system to generate new title lists to share with faculty or put into an RSS feed–and put this out to my website–this is now no longer possible. Even if we have good content, we cannot market it effectively because–shocking for a library system–we have no way of placing electronic titles acquired through packages into a meaningful and pleasing order. 

Physical collections of titles, with titles selected individually according to their merits, are gone or going away, replaced with searchable aggregations of academic content, scholarly resources licensed in bulk from vendors whose business is the commodification, packaging and licensing of digitized publisher content to academic libraries. This content cannot be reassembled into a library collection because it is not cataloged according to library standards. The academic library’s leading system developer is also a “content aggregator.” Through these interfaces, which all large and medium-sized academic libraries use, there is nothing to replace the user experience of browsing the stacks. Classification/call numbers, which formed the intellectual backbone of academic library collections and supported browsing, are also gone or going away.

Within our most sophisticated and advanced library systems, there is surprisingly little support for managing, assessing or presenting our digital or hybrid collections as collections to our users. It is not possible even to generate a shelf-list of ebooks and ejournals in a call number range. ALMA, the leading system, merely treats the 050 field (LC Classification) merely like an alphanumeric field.

Library systems are adept at ingesting publisher provided metadata, but the industry has not made support for browsing by LC Classification or virtual browsing a priority, despite the fact that numerous studies suggest that browsing collections offers a uniquely defining experience (that is, the experience is unique to libraries) which is meaningful to students and scholars.

Browsing is especially important in the early stages of research, especially stimulating it in the first place. Providing some reliable mechanism for browsing library collections online–virtual browsing–is to my mind essential for providing good library services, and even more so now that the physical collections are disappearing. Although written in 2012, Lynema’s “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources” provides an excellent overview of experimental user interfaces which leverage virtual browsing, including images of browsing interfaces which are no longer around. 61 

It isn’t necessarily the print format or the physical book that is significant for academic librarianship–I’m not hung up on the book format–but the presentation of visible collections which reflect the scholarly activity in the disciplines, and the proper placement of publications into their broader social, intellectual and historical context, according to library industry best practices and standards.

Visibility is an important attribute of value. What has value is visible, and what is visible is more highly valued, and more likely to be valued by others. 

The ability to browse visible collections, and all of the benefits of this in terms of enhancing scholarly value, creating a sense of community around scholarship, and promoting engagement with resources, is a core business requirement of any good library, whether physical or digital. Print books may be optional for some academic libraries, but highly visible and visibly maintained collections are not.

While wandering through the stacks and browsing is what people report liking most about their experience of the academic library, browsing collections of ebooks and ejournals online–a virtual stacks–is not supported by any modern library system today. What we offer in its place is a Web service called “discovery” which searches a centralized index of normalized metadata records of the books and articles to which the institution is entitled based on ownership or license agreements, generally including large aggregations of content. Based on a user’s query, the service returns relevance-ranked results. In most instances, the bibliographic records (MARC records) and the linking mechanisms to sources are now maintained by vendors. The advantages to the library are scalability, being able to acquire large aggregations of content by activating them in discovery, and, in theory, eliminating the need for cataloging.  It supports newer, more efficient models of acquisition and resource management. Today, one librarian can effectively do what used to require the coordinated efforts of many. In less than 15 minutes, a library can acquire and make available (to authorized users) 130,000 academic ebooks provided by an aggregator. Discovery has been a game changer, especially for libraries which have a lot of buying power.

Discovery is also particularly advantageous for journal articles and serial content which must be continuously updated. Not only is there not need for a Cataloger, but there is no need for a Serials Librarian. With books eliminated, there will be no need for Circulation, either. 

Rather than assuming discovery is simply a more modern and intuitive experience for users, we might ask how well do discovery interfaces support the library’s “business requirements.”

For example:

  • How well does discovery (search engine) alone encourage user engagement and resource use? 
  • What impact does collectionlessness and booklessness, in both our physical and virtual spaces, have on perception of the library, its librarians, scholarship or the behavior of users?
  • How might visible, browseable collections of ebooks be offered online and in our physical spaces, even through tokens or books which stay in place in the library, but can be download to be read (virtual fulfillment)? ‘
  • What are the advantages and unique opportunities to the user of being able to browse collections?
  • How might providing visible collections and increasing collection visibility assist the library with marketing efforts?
  • How does discovery impact the perceived value of the items in our care?
  • How do we properly assess the value of library collections within institutional assessment plans?

Functional and Technical Requirements for Academic Libraries

In the next section, I will do a deep dive into current library technology, mainly academic library systems, and specifically our discovery systems, to function as a digital library in the 21st century. I will explore ebook metadata and the standard user interface, as well as exploring other user interfaces which go beyond discovery.

Given that the library has acquired access to relevant resources, is access alone though a search portal sufficient to meet the academic and educational objectives of a library? Should it satisfy accreditation requirements? Can we be successful creating and sustaining educated, knowledgeable, communities of learners merely by providing access to relevant resources, but not browseable collections?

A library collection is special type of scholarly communication about scholarly communication.

As a form of communication, a collection must be visible or perceptible as a collection to convey meaning and value. A collection must have intentionality. That is, the items in it must appear to have been selectively chosen for a specific purpose or audience based on shared or common values, and their parts must have a meaningful relationship to one other, forming a whole. Good library collections have a rationality, predictability and pleasing consistency to them which allows its users to anticipate with some accuracy what is and will be in the collection (good collections are often said to anticipate use). 

What tools, technologies and strategies are in place for the academic library to present the library’s entitlements and holdings as collections to scholarly audiences today?

Do libraries still offer the experience of a collection, or are collections themselves, in any format, now considered obsolete, as some librarians have asserted?62 63 Is the provision of relevant resources sufficient to meet the goals and objectives of the college and the university library? What are our library professional standards for an academic library online, and can librarians even have any standards, given consolidation in the library software industry, seemingly irreversible changes to acquisitions workflows, and the fact that librarians are exercising less control over their systems, their collections, their metadata, and their user interfaces than ever before? 

In this first section, I discuss the limitations of our most widely used academic library system from both a traditional (collections-based) library approach and a modern marketing perspective. I emphasize the continued relevance of library collections in the Digital Age. The second is about new models of assessment in academic libraries, with special attention given to the “outcomes assessment movement” in higher education and institutional assessment plans, and their impact on how libraries are being assessed.

Institutional assessment are commonly based upon a “business objective” or outcomes assessment model, a management approach borrowed from the business world and applied to education in the 1980’s to ensure greater accountability in education.64 Where library-centric objectives like “collections use,” “independent learning,” and “support for scholarly research” fall into this model is unclear, because although libraries support learning, we have no pre-defined learning objectives and the impact of libraries on literacy and reading, or a way this might be assessed, is also uncertain. The first one, collections use, has been dismissed in library literature as being a mere output, not an outcome,65 and the latter two, or anything similar to them, are not measurable. The issue is not just an intellectual or philosophical one–what one considers to be an “outcome” vs. an “output.”

At many institutions, budgetary appropriations are tied to specific objectives which must be be assigned either to some measurable scholastic outcome (for example, higher GPAs) or business outcomes (impact on enrollment, retention, and completion). This often puts the academic library in a very difficult and precarious position. 

In trying to manage by objectives and align the library operationally to the goals and objectives of the classroom or to the parent institution, which our professional association advises in place of standards,66 it is tempting to sacrifice the library’s own intangible goals and ideals to achieve greater cost-savings to the university. 

Perhaps we might want to question to ask if an outcomes assessment model is necessarily a fitting or an appropriate one for an academic library to begin with, or an institution of higher education for that matter. Are we going to suggest that the only acceptable form of learning or knowledge in higher education is that which has predefined answers or performance indicators or known outcomes? Isn’t the whole purpose of an academic library to encourage independent, self-directed learning and support for the creation of knowledge that is not yet known?

What one expects a college and academic library to be and how we justify ourselves in the Digital Age, whether the library exists merely as a study hall and a service for students to retrieve needed resources to complete assigned courseworka learning resource center modelor whether, as was traditionally the case, the library is conceptualized to have a mission and purpose of its own which extends beyond the classroom, e.g., to support independent learning, to stimulate intellectual inquiry, to support the student’s own definition of success (that is, whether or not it is tied to a specific class learning objective or degree requirement), to facilitate the acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge, to support research and inculcate the habit of life-long learning among its graduatesand other immeasurable learning objectivesare now in question. 

Because of the widespread adoption of business objective / outcomes assessment models, and through it, the downgrading of the academic library into less ambitious learning resource centers, it is worth asking if in the 21st century, librarians in such environments remain committed to the idea or ideal of learning beyond the classroom, and if so, do administrators at the university, Provosts and Academic Deans, acknowledge and support this mission?

It is also worth asking if, for the sake of public accountability, is it ethical to fund the construction of huge multi-million dollar buildings on campus called “libraries” in the finding request, but which have no collections inside of them or online? 

In an academic setting, does our function as librarians begin and end with the acquisition and activation of resources in discovery systems, or is there an obligation on the part of librarians to market their collections, to stimulate demand for their resources, and to create environments whose purpose is to promote engagement with resources?

The last section more closely examines the physical environment and rhetoric, or theoretical framework, of the new academic library. The architecture of the new academic library has a pattern language all its own, often involving an emphasis on negative space and natural light (even if it is filtered through computerized glass walls to prevent glare, and modulated by computerized LED light strips to compensate for cloud cover), modern design, over-sized seating, grand facades, collaborative and private work spaces, big-stepped sitting staircases linked to learning, and tall glass windows. Unlike libraries of old, which encouraged academic intimacy, these new structures are designed on a grand, open scale. If there are books, they are often placed into low shelving units (or out of sight and where they are less likely to be used), so as not to interrupt the view of other users in the space or views of the outside world. There may be little inside of these new and newly renovated facilities, but the building or space is impressive, even if the purpose of its design seems mostly symbolic. 

Within the new librarianship, there is a discernible emphasis both on visual appearance of the facility, and orality, that is verbal exchanges resulting from open concept designs and collaboration in our newly transformed spaces; but the learning outcomes of these new designs are not documented, at least not in library literature. There are almost no post-occupancy evaluations of new academic libraries. For the sake of public accountability of the university and job security of its employees there would probably only be positive evidence presented, not an honest critical evaluation. The lack of standards or business requirements going into these projects, combined with lack of post-occupancy assessment, allows for new buildings to continue to be built which have nothing to do with being a library as opposed to a “space.”

I will discuss what has been proposed as the pre-eminent role of the 21st century librarian, a “collaboration facilitator,”52 within these new empty spaces, and other notions about modern learning environments rooted in oral culture–all of which have seemingly arisen in response to library booklessness, and the need to justify both new library building projects, and to a lesser extent librarians, at a time when books and collections in any format are going away. While architects emphasize openness, screens, technology, automation and empty space, these designs might also be construed and boring, impersonal, monotonous, stagnant, institutional, cold and stressful. The design most conducive to reflection, and associated with it, is one of intimacy: dens, cozy spaces, soft surfaces, organic materials, a varied color palette, variety within the space (capacity for exhibit and display), clerestory windows (for the placement of interesting things at eye level while bringing in light). “Academic intimacy” is the aesthetic of wanting to curl up with a book, and of scale and lighting most appropriate to the presentation of books. The library should be spacious, but not feel empty.

As I have already mentioned, the move to eliminate print collections at universities, and vocal proclamations of print’s imminent demise are not well-coordinated with available technologies to present library collections (as collections) virtually, to effectively promote resource awareness and use, or increase an appreciation for them as shared intellectual and cultural objects which have value.

In this age of Amazon, decision-makers, and even my fellow librarians, may be unaware of the limitations of modern library systems when it comes to collection management and display of electronic resources, which increasingly come and go from our inventories like sea shells rolling in the tides. 

Virtual classrooms and online libraries:
Do libraries have an educational pedagogy of their own?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, students experienced surprising difficulty learning in online classrooms when their schools closed. Night after night, the news featured children expressing profound sadness that their school was closed, because online learning was too hard for them. They said that they just couldn’t learn online. My own child, who was not particularly bothered by school closures,  exclaimed, “Mom, online learning is crap!” Parents were at a loss. Given the ability for modern school-aged children to spend hours in front of a screen playing Minecraft and Pokémon, why should the online classroom have proved so daunting? 

Perhaps learning would have been better through a more immersive virtual reality platform like Second Life, which many colleges experimented with years ago, with interest peaking in 2009. Around that time, several colleges, including even a few in Texas (it wasn’t just a California thing) built out entire virtual campuses, classrooms and even libraries online,68 69 70 71 and advocates extolled VR’s potential educational benefits.

Second Life still exists, but I don’t know who goes there these days. To my knowledge, there have been no revivals of Second Life classrooms in the wake of COVID-19. Some libraries apparently continue to live on in some capacity in Second Life, complete with card catalog, reference desk, reference librarian avatar and visible stacks–artifacts which, ironically, may not exist in the physical realm of their libraries anymore. An example of a Second Life library (albeit public) can be seen here:

Curiously, the effort to build virtual libraries online, complete with browseable stacks, has never been a goal for mainstream library system developers, even though this virtual library experience is what many ten years ago predicted the future of online libraries would be.72 The project is continuously taken up by universities. [ 34. Lynema, Emily, et. al. “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources.” Library Trends, 2012, Vol.61 (1), p. 218-233.] and abandoned.

It is likely that the trend in academia toward the development of virtual campuses, and by association, their libraries, was curtailed by iPhones, the need to design responsive, lightweight platforms for viewing on mobile devises and smaller screens, rather than on  immersive virtual worlds. Perhaps it just struck everyone as immature, like building a university in Minecraft and expecting people to take it seriously. (Also, when virtual libraries peaked twelve years ago, the ebook market was not nearly as mature as today.)

Where it was not possible years ago, today it might be possible to build out virtual libraries with readable ebooks, or make something like this replica of J.P. Morgan’s library functional, not just a Second Life mesh:

The JP Morgan Library in the VL platform, Second Life. This is just a skin or mesh, but other library additions in Second Life allow real books and archival boxes to be opened and viewed.

Or create one’s own library (with the extension pack):

A book display made by someone in Second Life in 2010, with books that can be opened and read. A Virtual Reality feature which allows students or professors to make their own libraries or bookshelves for others to explore might be a very popular add on to a library automation system at a university.

While these early efforts to graphically recreate the physical stacks in virtual environments using video game technology may appear to trivialize the research process–it does rather remind one of Minecraftthe importance of serendipitous browsing and discovery to research, as one could the physical stacks, particularly at the early stages of the research process, has been somewhat documented,73 as is the perception among librarians for the perceived need to create a better platform for browsing in an academic environment, now that accessible collections are rapidly disappearing from libraries.74

As Cook writes, “It is incumbent upon librarians to take seriously the role of serendipity in the early part of the information search process, and what may be lost as a corollary result of the ongoing shift away from physical research materials to online research.”75 While universities are experimenting with Oculus systems (requires a headset) and VR technology to enhance the study of archaeology an architecture, Cook concludes that while “physical collections are quickly disappearing to make room for collaborative learning spaces . . . the books-on-a-virtual-shelf conceptions of virtual reality have not yet been realized.”76

All of this talk about classrooms and collections in VR may sound pie-in-the-sky, which at this point it is. However, as educators, academic librarians might consider that if an online classroom through the university’s learning management platforms fails to sufficiently engage students, why should we expect that the online library modeled upon a search engine, our current heuristic model, should succeed in educating students, encouraging research, or inspiring people to learn? 

If learning online poses such challenges, why expect providing passive access to ever expanding digital content (especially much academic content that is not geared to undergraduates) will sufficiently engage students and scholars, especially when these same resources are often accessible to authorized users other ways, for example, by going directly to the publisher’s platform, or through Google Scholar?

Even now, scholars can often experience a better, richer, more personalized and more comprehensive search experience by going directly to the publishers’ own platforms where their documents reside. On some level, academic publishers are competing with the library for the same users. Indeed, scholars tend to consult just a few publishers and platforms regularly, and if they can get to full-text, they prefer to go directly to them rather than indirectly, through the library’s discovery layer.

One study claims that even librarians tend to avoid discovery in preference for subject specific databases (publisher’s platform), unless they are searching interdisciplinary areas or areas with which they are unfamiliar.77 

Although it is easy to search and retrieve content through a search engine, at large universities, discovery tends to submerge students into a sea of esoteric, peer-reviewed scholarly articles in response to their customarily overly broad queries.

What comes up in discovery is often irrelevant and incomprehensible, say, to a first year nursing student needing to write a five-page paper on diabetes. I know, we all tell students that the peer-reviewed article is the gold standard, a source of good and credible information, that it is better than Wikipedia and information they can obtain by Googling; but we all know this is not true, not even in the sciences. It is a white lie we all tell. Unfortunately, the sola scriptura of the peer-reviewed article is very often written in opposition to the magisterium of received doctrine, knowledge represented by books in collections, contained within less volatile and more readable publishing formats. It is the nature of scholarly publishing that progress is made by reacting against conventional wisdom and the status quo, but these students may not have the perspective to differentiate possibility from truth. Students lack discernment because they are not yet educated in their disciplines.

In healthcare, consumer-oriented websites often contain better information for students, presenting standard protocols and orthodox opinion, rather than scholarly articles intended for researchers describing statistically significant findings, which can be less than .01%, from experiments with mouse models and tissue cultures in Petri dishes, or with limited populations. Seasoned scholars take these articles with a grain of salt, for they know how to put findings into perspective. They also know negative findings have not a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published, so investigators positively spin their findings, within ethical limits, to argue a significant outcome even if it is less than .01%. In scientific literature, there is subtlety and bias. We tell students peer-reviewed sources are unbiased and objective, but scholarship will never be unbiased as long as people must write articles to keep their positions or their funding from drying up. 

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, books are the most important vehicle for scholarly communication. Books are often aimed at generally educated readers with background material provided, where articles are written for specialized scholarly audiences, experts presumed to be already familiar with a topic. Books are what earns tenure. Books reflect sustained intellectual effort, usually providing the conceptual framework necessary for a subjective opinion to form into objective fact. The old library, our cogent book collections, were better suited for broad searches and the undergraduate experience, and through their durable cloth formats and consummate placement in a good collection, they communicated that they were objects of value, worth investing time into. The collection communicated, “These are the titles valued by those in the discipline or by educated people in contemporary society.”

Even though we tend to think of relevance-ranking as returning results most relevant to the user, information retrieval through a library discovery service is also a more impersonal experience lacking social context or disciplinary framework. This disciplinary framework establishes a work’s value as authoritative within a particular context or framework. This information is meaningful to scholars, for what is authoritative in one field is not in another. 

With our current user interfaces, it is also not clear that anyone selected the items turning up in discovery, knows anything about them, or has invested in them. They appear when needed, summoned by a search query, and disappear when they are no longer needed. If they are relevant only to the user, they might not seem very important to know about. 

On the other hand, with print collections in our traditional library space, we could put a book in a student’s hand and say, “You really need to read this. It is right up your alley!” Or, “Doctor so-and-so, I immediately thought of you when I saw the review of this book! Let me know if you want me to order it.”

With our print collections and bibliographic systems, it was easier to keep faculty up to date about forthcoming publications, and for our systems to support collection development activity. Academic intimacy in the library was fostered by visible signs of readership and use (date stamps, pencil marginalia), the fact that there was a discernible intellectual relationship between one work and another, and that collections in the library reflected the values and interests of a community of scholars at that particular institution. 

Those who decry the old library as a passive book repository, and complain about the amount of money spent to “warehouse a book” on the shelves each year,38 might be surprised at the cost academic libraries incur to for pay for annual or perpetual access, along with hosting fees and other indirect costs for titles no one at their institution will likely access–not even necessarily because no one would be interested in them (there is that, of course), but because they sufficient visibility.

No one will think to seek them out, or be motivated to look for them in the first place. I view this as both an inventory (right titles) and a merchandizing problem. 

There is also the issue of quantity over quality. Large aggregator packages to which all academic libraries subscribe have been described as “churning constants”79(I think of them as chum buckets because they typically “chum” our collections with an abundance of cheap content no one in the library would otherwise have acquired) for content that doesn’t move in print or cannot be monetized any other way, often cheaply obtained by the aggregator from the publisher, including many titles that are dated, and out-of-scope, foreign imprints; books on narrow topics which may never have been singled out for purchase by anyone in the library or its faculty under our former, more stringent collection development guidelines. This is not to say there isn’t some good stuff in them, because there is; but its purpose is to monetize content for the aggregator, not to be a good library collection. Choice Outstanding Academic titles for libraries and New York Times bestsellers are not included in these packages until many years go by.  

Many libraries buy, as they must, individual ebook titles on top of aggregations to entice users with more fresher, more relevant or more popular titles to their users, but the terms of doing so title-by-title are often egregious. These are not Amazon Kindle ebooks, cheaper than print. These ebooks titles, licensed only to libraries, cost hundreds or even thousands each, often 10 times list price, or more. The prices for academic ebooks are ridiculously expensive, and getting higher each year. The economist who wrote the often cited article explaining how much it costs libraries to warehouse a book on the shelf each year80 was trying to sell ebooks to libraries. I’d rather have the same book on my shelf for $4.20 for five years than have to pay for it many times over at $150, with hosting fees on top. Even more problematic for the library, is that on an ebook platform users have no idea that a particular book was selected by a librarian. Whatever individual titles we purchase and add to the platform may make the platform better, and doesn’t add to the library’s perceived value.

Title-by-title acquisition of ebooks feels like throwing the proverbial starfish back into the ocean.81 We have no way of presenting “our titles” to users, our select items. Users come upon the items we laboriously purchased mixed up with a bunch of other aggregator stuff. And then there is the junk purchased in perpetuity which was great at the time, but turned into an albatross. Even with the knowledge that no one would would want to access a Excel VBA Programming for Dummies 2009 in perpetuity, the library may have been forced to license it that way.

The old book repository which represented waste and decay is no better or cheaper in digital format. It is just less visible to everyone, including even to librarians, in an environment where collections are invisible and might be argued to no longer even exist.

Visualizing collections. The point of the academic library is not to provide access to needed resources to support classroom instruction (learning resource model), but rather to stimulate intellectual inquiry and independent learning beyond the classroom. The extent to which it does so is what makes it a good library.

However, our most advanced and sophisticated academic library system, with all its analytical and data visualization capabilities, its Oracle Business Intelligence, are not configured for collection-based management, the assessment or the display of e-resources as library collections. The system’s main purpose is resource acquisitions and electronic access management, facilitating the efficient acquisition and access to a mix of aggregated and selective vendor packages of academic content which live (and are simultaneously accessible to authorized users) on publisher and aggregator websites. Our major system developer, ProQuest Ex Libris, is a content aggregator, and through this system, the academic library is but a smaller content aggregator. Due to the limitations of our current online environment, booklessness has become nearly synonymous with collectionlessness, where libraries no longer seek to provide ways to present authoritative, quality collections to users so that publications might be meaningfully browsed or experienced as collections. What we offer instead is a kind of scholarly search engine.

While the acquisitions strategies vary from institution to institution, with some offering PDA and others doing more traditional title-by-title collection development, increasingly libraries mostly offer searchable aggregations, not curated collections reflecting what experts in the field think important to know. Most in my field see this as progress.63 Obviously, I do not. 

The library’s discovery tool allows those with institutional affiliation a convenient way to search the library’s owned and subscription content. With single-sign on and other methods of authentication, students and faculty can conveniently access library-licensed content through the library’s discovery interface. They may also access subscription content through Google Scholar, or by going directly to the publishers’ websites. E-resources do not need to be “cataloged” because the vendor and publisher assume responsibility for access through our discovery systems through the provision of KBART files and MARC records. 

In the modern library, scholarly content has been made more accessible than ever before, but there is a downside: access alone is limited in its ability to encourage use or convey value. A search engine is neither an effective pedagogical tool nor a good marketing tool. 

Human beings assign greater value to what is valued by others, which was part of the excitement of the old library. The traditional library was a construct which conveyed value for scholarship in ways that the modern library experience does not. It emphasized in an objective fashion what other people, experts in the discipline, regarded as important to know, not just what is most relevant to a query, summoned up in the moment just to complete a certain task.

Visible collections help to emphasize the value of the items in them and help to make users aware of them. They are an invaluable educational and marketing tool. It isn’t that libraries are obsolete, but I fear we are on the verge of making them so by not sufficiently appreciating and capitalizing on what made libraries good and pleasing to students and scholars in the first place. 

Browseable Collections vs. Searchable Aggregations. One important issue to me, perhaps the most important one in the debate about print vs. digital formats, is that the technology is not yet available to afford users with a really great online library experience, particularly when it comes to ebooks or browsing digital collections.

Through the academic library systems we have available to us, ebooks cannot be ordered into virtual stacks for browsing.83 Our systems and their interfaces are fine for what librarians call “discovery,” that is, for item retrieval, especially for known item retrieval, and also for locating whatever physical books and journal titles may remain on our shelves, but, rather astonishingly, they do not support collection browsing. 

Rather than moving towards a better, richer, more immersive and enjoyable user interface to compensate for the lack of visibility of physical collections in libraries (resulting from the shift to e-preferred collecting policies, robotic or remote storage schemes for print materials, and new library designs which place books out of view), as one might expect or assume in this time, our current academic library systems are built around what is commonly referred to as discovery, a cloud-based application which searches vendor- and library- supplied metadata records for everythingarticles, books, ebooks, videosto which the library is entitled, and then some; but which at this point, displays only ten results at a time. 

Web-scale, indexed-based library discovery systems, or “discovery” for short, is the technology behind the library’s all-encompassing everything search. This technology is not a new development. It has been around since about 2006, available as a subscription search service which for a long time co-existed with the traditional library catalog. Gradually, it came to replace the traditional OPAC, the online public-access catalog, which had been used mainly for locating call numbers of titles of print books and journals so they could be located on the shelves of the library. Discovery interfaces now often come bundled with academic library management systems. Academic publishers have contributed to the success of discovery. It helps them to license large subscription packages of ejournals and ebooks to libraries year after year. It helps publishers to monetize their content, and it helps librarians keep their content, especially serial content, up to date. 

Despite the obvious advantages of discovery, its seeming ability to search across so many publisher platforms–it is searching a central discovery index of metadata records, not performing real time searching thousands of ebooks, articles and documents–it is worth raising the question why search alone should have come to define the user experience of a modern academic library, rather than offering users a more immersive, immediate, visually pleasing and unique experience of browsing library collections.

Where did our stacks go? Browsing the stacks has defined the library for hundreds of years, and was a prominent part of early efforts to create virtual libraries. The stacks are what made us good and memorable, representing what was good.  

What commercially viable online storefront would survive as a static web page with a search box featuring, at most, ten items at a time, while telling the user that thousands of potentially relevant items are in its inventory? What library would offer random resources of indeterminate quality, rather than striving to offer the best? 

Our inventories are not comprehensive, yet we don’t seem to offer selective collections either. Our websites and user interfaces do not place items into a disciplinary context, where they might be valued by audiences seeking to obtain an overview of their field and what is in the library. They would probably like to know what other scholars are viewing. Of course, libraries don’t incentivize demand for items like retailers with pop up balloons, “Someone at x university has just downloaded a chapter of this book!” or, “102 of your peers have read this article!” The least we could do as academic librarians is present titles to users in ways that are attractive, logical, organized, engaging, attractive and visible.

Through the latest technology available to us, library collections for all practical purposes no longer exist, and it is no wonder users may feel that their searches though discovery are incomplete (I discuss user and librarian attitudes toward discovery below); classification provided a reliable way to browse, at least at the title (book and journal) level. The latest academic library systems do not support collection browsing, the visual presentation of ebooks and ejournals organized in a logical arrangement according to classification or some other external framework.

The most frustrating aspect to me is knowing that the problem is not resulting from any technological limitation. Library book browse tools have been around for a long time. Nor does it represent a philosophical shift among library professionals, that use-based analysis alone is sufficient to ensure quality or demonstrate scholarly value. The most recent and commonly referenced textbooks on collection development in academic libraries, for example, Peggy Johnson’s primer, Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management, still widely used in library collection development classes, explains collection-based approaches in libraries and their history. Any mention that there is now no way to meaningfully apply these approaches outlined in her book to e-resources in our current environment comes at page 290, in a cryptic statement:

Although e-resources always should be considered when the collection is being analyzed, many of the analytical methods described in this chapter cannot be applied easily to these formats.84

The problem is lack of good metadata. Unlike their print counterparts, ebooks and ejournals are not assigned call numbers since they live online, not in a shelf location. Without classification, ebooks and ejournals cannot be placed into a meaningful scholarly context for them to be evaluated or valued as we did our print collections.

Without classification, there is also no systematic mechanism for making new additions to the collection known to users who might be interested in receiving notifications of new titles in their areas of interest. As it is, vendors add new titles, delete others, all through an API, but it is up to the library user to come along and periodically conduct a search to see what new items have been added to our inventories. 

What library discovery systems discover are the citations generated from the metadata records of third-party content available to the library through its license agreements with publishers: libraries license the package, the publisher provides a file of our entitlements to our library system vendor, and items become discoverable in our systems.

I believe that scholars want to know more than what publications are relevant to their search query. They also want to be made aware of the latest trends and publications are in a particular discipline, and where an item fits into a broader scholarly conversation. Scholars want to keep up, and they want the library to help them stay current. They want to be made aware of things they did not know about or think to search for. If the library is merely a conduit to publisher content, it is not living up to its potential as an academic library. The library should support all stages of research, including stimulating it. 

An online academic library must also support the acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge through the presentation and display of titles as collections. It must in all ways strive to be a content-rich learning environment which celebrates and inspires academic achievement, knowledge, research and authorship.

Classification of Knowledge. Librarianship has often considered itself to be about the organization of information. What is the ultimate point of this organization? What is the value of a taxonomy or classification scheme where text search exists? Search is about locating information, but classification is about representing knowledge.

Educator preparation programs place emphasis on tools used to organize the information presented to students so it can be more easily comprehended by them, structures called “graphic organizers.” Graphic organizers and scaffolding, gradually moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, are important for learning in the classroom. In the library, the same instructional principles apply. An organized, visible collection supports learning. 

It is only recently, with the widespread adoption of discovery systems and the advent of bookless libraries, that classification has been assumed by library system developers to no longer be needed. Why a classification scheme might still be needed for direct retrieval, or to organize a library’s ebooks and ejournals so they can be effectively and meaningfully browsed when, after all, our systems provide a seemingly more intuitive way to find books and articles through text search, does appear to require some explanation.

Since electronic resources do not need to live in a single shelf location, why bother to classify or assign call numbers to them at all?

Indeed, classification today might seem rather pointless, as people have told me. After all, not one is likely to look for a book by typing in a call number, as they might, say, an ISBN number. Agreed, users are not likely to search by class or call number. But users might enjoy the opportunity to visually navigate a selective collection of books and journals online which are organized by classification, that is, by their discipline or field of interest, and they might enjoy viewing lists of new titles organized by classification, so like topics and titles fall together. They might want to see all that we have on a topic or subject area that is semantically independent. How are we to manage our collections without classification?

Scholars might enjoy being able to browse items to the left and right of a virtual bookshelf to see what else the library has which might be of interest to them. All of this was made possible by classification.

In Western philosophy, logic, classification and knowledge are interrelated. Knowledge involves categorization of the known.

The art or science of classification, the ability to organize information so it can be comprehended and retained, and knowledge are inextricably linked. In the Western mind, at least going back to Aristotle’s Categories, things can only be known, analyzed or fully understood only if they can be classified. Classification has served as the basis for the logical arrangement and meaningful organization of knowledge, but especially of scholarly books in libraries, so that like topics collocate and items within a collection can be properly contextualized and evaluated within the scholarly context where it is most valued. While the LC Classification system (LCC) is not an ontology, and has certain peculiarities–for example, 100 years ago, there was no Computer Science, so that had to be placed inside of Math–classification is necessary for an academic library to properly manage its collections and support browsing in academic disciplines.

There is a consensus that academic libraries cannot provide quality collections to its users without reliance upon an appropriate classification system.85 A library does not offer meaningful collections to the user without classification, and cannot itself evaluate and assess its own collections without use of it. A library should provide not just access to content, but context, and that disciplinary context is provided by classification. It should seek to provide users with a unique form of visual navigation and systematic display called “browsing,” which is not a casual activity or noncommittal attitude as the word might suggest. Browsing in the library and scholarly sense is describes navigational functionality, a reliable way to visually navigate and apprehend collections of bibliographic data, and is not indicative of attitude or level of seriousness of the user toward his subject.  

Currently, our systems provide librarians with no ability to generate and display new ebook title lists, no ability to facilitate online browsing (virtual stacks) or present users with the experience of academic library collections as such.

If the purpose of the academic library is to support intellectual inquiry and scholarship, it certainly must support search. That goes without saying. But it should also support collection browsing, engagement with library collections as collections, and encourage resource use through contextualization. Marketing resources, not just passive access, should be the primary objective of our systems and our user interfacesOffering passive access to vast aggregations of digital content is not an ideal pedagogical or business model for a library because it does not encourage resource use or user engagement. It does not promote library use. It does not represent bodies of knowledge.

One modest advancement would be to expect that library user interfaces support browsing of ebooks and e-journals by classification, where items can be precisely and most meaningfully situated into their most appropriate disciplinary context, and presented by classification for users to browse.

Another advancement would be a mechanism for displaying new books and significant publications in their respective fields of study, that is, browseable collection highlights. This functionality would also be dependent on classification, or the assignment of call numbers, to the bibliographic record.

Browsing is Learning. Browsing in academic libraries has historically been facilitated by use of the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system, or reliance on some other classification scheme which reflects the way the library’s users would logically expect to find materials arranged in a collection.

An LC Classification number is part of the full descriptive bibliographic record for academic book, ebook and serial titles, regardless of the number by which a library might choose to shelve it. The number in the 050 of the MARC bibliographic record reflects one cataloger’s understanding of the most appropriate, logical placement for a work, considered in its entirely, based on its intellectual content. Where subject headings can highlight different aspects of the work, including specific chapters, the classification number alone describes what the work as a whole is about. 

LC Classification helps to define the value of the a scholarly work in context, according to its discipline and place within a hierarchical knowledge tree, where it stands in intellectual relationship to other items around it. Scholarly works are perceived to be more valuable as part of a broader scholarly conversation. According to cataloging practice, academic library books and journals are cataloged in the specific sub-classes and divisions where they are considered most relevant to users, and also considering who is the scholarly audience for which the work is written.

Scholars want to see a publication presented in its scholarly context. If a library book, scholars want to be able to browse to the left and right on a shelf to see what other books are there on the topic. We should be able to provide this user experience online.

While some may not grasp the importance of classification and browsing for supporting scholarly research, browsing is indeed an important information-seeking behavior among scholars, every bit as important as search. Understanding the context in which a scholarly work is written is an important part of understanding the text.

Browsing also helps to stimulate and inspire new research so scholars do not continuously go down the same pathways and eventually have their research interests fizzle out. Browsing helps to stimulates intellectual inquiry and the newcomers to a field or area learn more about it. It is fundamental to the learning experience libraries provide. Browsing is a form of learning and engagement with resources which we should encourage. It is what defines a library as a library. 

Academic libraries online must support browsing of ebooks and ejournals. While services such as Browzine have stepped in to fill that need, to enable the browsing of ejournals by discipline, nothing like this yet exists for ebooks. 

Browzine is a popular Web service available to libraries which allows their journals to be browsed alphabetically by title within subject areas though a graphic interface. It also provides thumbnail images of journal covers. Why is browsing not part of a modern library automation systems?

The problem of classification of ebooks and other digital content so that they can be effectively browsed online is a vital problem. I believe if libraries are to survive into the 21st century, we offer an experience that is more exuberant and valuable to students and scholars than “information retrieval.”

Is Library Classification Vestigial? It remains to be seen if LCC will continue to be used for the presentation and arrangement of ebook and serial titles in new bookless libraries, or if it will even survive into the second half of the 21st century.

Understandably, there is a feeling that, with the disappearance of print, classification is no longer needed because e-resources do not need to live in one location on a shelf. Where the LC classification/ call number in the 050 was at one time extremely helpful to catalogers when it came to assigning local call numbers to the holdings record for physical books–the locally assigned call number is placed into a different field, not part of the bibliographic record as is the 050–now it may appear that it serves no function and can be disregarded. The old title-by-title cataloging workflow does not even exist so much in libraries anymore, and especially not for ebooks or for the library’s online resources. 

Interesting to me is that this particular change, unlike those that occurred to metadata in previous years–like Dublin Core, or METS and MODS–is not the outcome of a library standards committee convening and making a determination that we don’t need to follow our metadata standards anymore, or that our bibliographic cataloging standards for books do not apply to ebooks. Ideally, by library professional standards, we ought to be cataloging our ebooks as thoroughly as books, but workflows vary significantly from library to library, with many deciding that vendor discovery records, while admittedly not good, are good enough. 

I also understand the feelings of indifference when it comes to cataloging ebooks. It is easy to sweep bad or incomplete metadata under the rug. First, few see it, after all, and only librarians know, or have the ability to know, if the metadata is bad, and what is not showing up in a query when someone conducts a search. It is sort of an honor system that we try to make things the best they can be.

Second, although over the years we have carefully cataloged our libraries book by book, there was so never so much interest in the library’s print collection as when the books were being thrown out. All we had to do was set out a discards cart, and people came out of nowhere, flocked to the books and carried them off, like seagulls to a bag of Cheetos. For many of us, the old library is gone and not coming back. Do we really need to start cataloging ebooks when vendors are willing to provide us with an easy alternative? Wasn’t that the selling point of the new system, that we wouldn’t need to catalog our ebooks? The will to catalog ebooks (or, more realistically, to develop workflows for enriching vendor-supplied metadata) is weak, understandably so, when many of these books are not even ours–we are just leasing them for a limited time period. Some we buy in perpetuity, but most we license for a while and then they disappear. 

Perhaps there is no point in trying to tame the tiger of ebook metadata.86 Vendor titles seem to slip in and out of our inventories without affecting our license agreements or customer satisfaction. People rarely seem to miss what isn’t showing up when they perform a search, even if we think it ought to be there. 

From Booklessness to Collectionlessness. In traditional academic librarianship, the collection was equated with the library, and was practically a philosophical topic in its own right. Traditional collection management presupposed that the library’s product was not just information (or its transfer to the user), but disciplinary knowledge, embodied in collections of books and journals, organized by discipline. 

While methods for assessing the scholarly value of both the individual titles, sub-collections and the collection as a whole varied, the starting point for assessment generally began with a shelf-list report of books and journals arranged by classification. These might be sometimes be mapped to specific disciplines, called a conspectus, or a collection map. The report could include other aspects: cost, publication date, usage, format. It could be used to evaluate how funds were being allocated, or which subject areas were being most heavily used. The methods for evaluating collections varied from institution to institution, sometimes depending on the capacity of technical services to create such reports. Sometimes they even involved granular comparisons with peer libraries. Histograms could be performed to assess collection age in specific areas or disciplines, as the books in different disciplines age at different rates.

For a collection to be a strategically planned collection, items have to stand in a logical relationship to other items in it, and reflect publishing in the discipline. There are general guidelines librarians follow, for example: We don’t have volume 2 without volume 1. We do not have the minor works without the major ones. We do not have works about x without having the works by x. We don’t keep many years of superseded titles or dated materials. We do not buy in an ad hoc manner–year after year buying nothing in a discipline and acquiring only because of an upcoming accreditation review. If we have Marcuse, we have Adorno and Habermas. The collection should be balanced. We try to maintain a consistent scope so users will be able to anticipate what will be in the collection and come to expect good things will be there. We do not add irrelevant titles to the collection just because they are cheap, donated or free.

At least, those were the old rules and conventions under which the physical library operated. With discovery and our electronic collections, such as they are, we do not appear to worry so much about quality. We are a portal not a collection. We buy or license large packages of scholarly content, and beyond that, let users decide for themselves what is good and relevant to them. Many libraries are deciding to no longer offer collections to users in any format, merely packages of aggregated content. New academic library systems have been designed to manage the acquisition and user access to large packages of ebooks and journal content offered by publishers and aggregators, in which we license the good with the so-so. 

Modern library systems are not built to help librarians to manage or evaluate collections of titles using traditional assessment techniques, tools and approaches that we were taught to apply to print collections. Discovery systems, our modern library management systems, are not designed to help librarians to evaluate online collections, create digital displays, encourage user engagement, or promote resource use using digital marketing techniques. We can certainly evaluate the usage of a publisher platform, a package or a portfolio, but without call numbers it is impossible to evaluate the quality or scholarly or intellectual value of our collections as a whole.

As mentioned above, the metadata for ebooks and ejournals now placed directly into library systems by vendors are often lacking LC Classification, which provided a disciplinary context for an academic title. While some vendors, for example Taylor & Francis, have successfully partnered with OCLC to provide enriched metadata to their academic subscribers, others are loading into our Community Zones records that are not descriptive, which some have referred to as “discovery records.”

It’s Called “Descriptive Cataloging” for a Reason. The objective of descriptive cataloging is to accurately describe the intellectual contents and scholarly significance of a work, both the work as a whole and its component parts, so the work is able to be discovered and contextualized by scholars through the record that the cataloger creates.

There are many arcane punctuation and encoding rules to follow in creating good MARC records, and every so often, to my surprise, new rules and fields come down the pipe. In addition to accurately transcribing bibliographic data and following odd rules for capitalization and punctuation, catalogers create access points through use of a classification system and subject headings. Here familiarity, with the subject matter and the discipline is extremely helpful. Of course, one must first read (or effectively skim) the book, and then assign metadata to it. 

We librarians don’t do that much anymore. MARC bibliographic records now go into our systems without much notice, sometimes hundreds or thousands at a time. In the system of my library, I have to go out of my way to view them, which I do from time to time when I want something to do. Ever since the 1990s, when vendors began providing shelf-ready books with cataloging records which could be uploaded into our systems, catalogers have been complaining about their poor quality. But it was never like this, never what I am seeing now coming into our discovery systems, and I cannot help but be concerned when I see them.

I have received promises that the records will eventually be automatically updated, that these records are just provisional or preliminary, but there is apparently no timetable on the part of vendors for updating the CZ, the Community Zone. My colleagues on library lists do not know either. Oddly, there is nothing about MARC records in our license agreements with publishers. I have a feeling that with the transition to digital formats, vendor supplied metadata for ebooks and ejournals will continue to erode, especially as publishers are told by vendors of library systems that LC classification and other library-centric values are now optional.87

During the COVID-19 crisis, when library conferences were cancelled, a cabal of publishers and aggregators (there were a few librarians present) gathered to try to define the minimal standards for ebook bibliographic metadata in the form of a new NISO standard, “E-book Bibliographic Metadata in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization88, as if libraries hadn’t already defined this for ebooks through their MARC standard. I didn’t find out about it until a few days after the 45 day public comment period closed, after which time I began to send emails with my comments. That publishers and aggregators are seeking to define the minimal standards for the metadata for ebooks doesn’t sit well with me, for librarians and their MARC records are on the tail end of this metadata supply chain. 

As most librarians know, many years ago the Library of Congress took it upon themselves to prepare a MARC record for every not-yet-released book sent to them by publishers. This resulted in the image of a card catalog card or its values being represented on the verso of the title page, the copyright page, for most books a library might be interested in acquiring. It also resulted in a librarian-created MARC record, at least a skeletal one, for every library book, complete with LC classification and LC subject headings, which other libraries were free to copy or download into their system though a standard protocol (Z39.50).

CIP information of the verso of the title page. Publishers partnered with the Library of Congress to provide metadata, including LC subject headings and classification numbers, to libraries. LC is not eager to extend its cataloging program to ebooks.

Unfortunately, the LC CIP program is not being extended to ebooks unless there is a print equivalent published at the same time.89 In other words, it is reserved for print books. Therefore, publishers do not have a reliable mechanism of obtaining library classification and subject headings for their ebooks unless they hire their own catalogers or else contract with a third-party cataloging service, which some do. 

Despite the lack of classification numbers and subject headings in much of our vendor-supplied metadata records, the will to catalog ebooks and the staffing to perform the task in libraries today is often lacking, especially with the common belief, promoted by library system vendors, that discovery systems have made cataloging unnecessary. Libraries may purchase ebooks by the hundreds or thousands in a package. These titles magically appear in discovery, and even if their metadata isn’t good by library cataloging standards, it is often good enough for someone who looks for a specific title. Without subject headings and other enhancements to the record, items may not be all that discoverable, but they usually can usually be found with sufficient effort. 

Cataloging ebooks, or at least editing, enhancing and providing LC classification / call numbers (and subject headings) to potentially thousands of vendor discovery records may feel like a thankless chore and an unwise use of resources in today’s libraries. This is especially true for ebooks, which are perceived to have a more limited lifespan than print. The fact that they are now acquired in bulk also has something to do with it. It is likely that no one inside the library hand-picked these titles, they do not live on university servers, and often seem to fluidly enter and exit from our library systems as it serves the needs of publishers and aggregators rather than the faculty or librarians, creating further disincentives to invest in them, to treat them as anything but the commodities they have now become. 

This is not to say that discovery systems do not also provide great advantages. As I mentioned above, library holdings can be immediately updated by the vendor and publications made instantaneously accessible to our users. Who would want to catalog those books? Our systems are scalable: we can activate three items as easily as 130,000 in discovery by activating a publisher package. Article content, which was not visible in our former catalogs, have become a primary focus of the discovery experience, which is extremely advantageous for STEM fields, where the peer-reviewed journal article is the primary format for scholarly communication. It had become an indispensable tool to make immediately accessible large quantities of continuously updating serial content.  

Until a few years ago, most academic research libraries offered a catalog for monographic (book) titles and print journals, and a standalone discovery tool for their searching their databases. Now that print is being eliminated or not maintained by many libraries, replacing the traditional catalog with discovery makes the collection appear richer and up to date. Prioritizing digital content and discovery has significantly impacted library workflows by making them more efficient.

Increasingly, however, no one inside the library routinely familiarizes themselves with the ebook titles that are passively acquired by the library through these blanket publisher agreements. No one has selected them. No one has cataloged or physically processed them. No one knows they are there, or notices when they depart. They enter and exit the collection on quiet cat feet.

As part of a regular workflow in the library, no one routinely sees ebooks, or their metadata, except to make sure items in the collection are active in discovery.

We have no mechanism for actually displaying new titles through an automated feed, so we or our users can see them.

There is no way to display or arrange our ebooks as collections to be browsed or evaluated as collections.

The essence of a good library is not passive access to resources in the event someone should think to look for them, but in encouraging resource awareness and use, and creating dynamic environments which cultivate interest in books, reading and research.

To sustain user engagement, we must be able to market the items in our inventories as belonging to a quality collection.

The hallmark of a good library is not defined by access to items which can be found on our site–they can be found by Googling too–but inspiring our users to learn more, to explore and to grow through engagement with collections because they represent a body of knowledge worth investing in.

New Uses for the 050 field. So far I have spoken in generality about the limitations of new system designs and vendor supplied metadata. It is surely a chicken and egg situation. The fact library systems emphasize discovery and not collections or browsing means that publishers have no incentive to provide an LC Classification number as part of the metadata it provides to libraries. Metadata costs them money. They want to sell books, not catalog them. 

I have argued for the need for classification numbers to support browsing, for without being able to organize our collections by classification. LC classification reflects the disciplines. Without that, there is no disciplinary context. Browsing publications by classification is unique to libraries. You cannot do it through Google Scholar. You cannot do it at a publisher website. It is uniquely a “library” thing. When people reflect back about what they liked about their academic library experience from their college days, it was browsing the library’s collections; it was not just the books, but their organization into meaningful collections. Browsing quality collections, consisting of publications which others in the field think significant and important to know, is a fundamental part of the library experience and how we encourage independent learning. It absolutely and uniquely defines the user experience of an academic library collection. We must be able to replicate this experience online.

Discovery records for academic ebooks, cataloging loaded into our systems by vendors, often lack LC Classification numbers. Even those from some of the best academic publishers, with the most robust metadata, lack 050 fields or valid LC call numbers put into them, and therefore, as far as I can tell, there is no source for LC classification to support a book browsing tool or to facilitate collection browsing. 

Even the best academic publishers, with the richest metadata, cannot fathom the Library of Congress Classification system well enough to provide libraries with a well formed LC call number in the MARC record. Springer consistently places broad class numbers into its ebook records, which would undermine efforts to develop online browse tools which feature collections of library ebooks.

Example of a skeletal MARC record for a new ebook, with no 050 field at all, nor any LC subject headings. Discovery records such as this are being placed into our systems in large numbers through large deals with vendors. Without enhancing the records, many of our newer ebooks may be undiscoverable though discovery.

It is important to note that this field can be either assigned a value by the Library of Congress or by any library who wishes to assign a valid LC call number to it, as long as the proper indicator is chosen.

The Library of Congress recognizes the function of the 050 field to support collection evaluation and browsing applications.90 As I will discuss below, slightly more attention is being paid to the 050 now because of the desire on the part of some librarians to harvest and organize ebooks by classification, and to perform collection assessment by discipline. In addition, OCLC has recently launched an experimental tool called “Classify” which might help facilitate the rapid assignment of classification numbers to ebooks to facilitate bookshelf browsing.91 As far back as 2004, Frank and Paynter experimented with an application for automatically assigning LC classification numbers to the contents of a specialized digital library based on LC subject headings of the items in the collection.92 It remains to be seen if virtual bookshelf browsing will become as important feature of OCLC’s library system, WMS, which could give it a competitive advantage over Ex Libris’ Alma when it comes to winning librarians’ favor. 

A few libraries and developers have tried–indeed, even Google has tried–to develop a virtual library which supported browsing by classification.93 Vendor-supplied ebook discovery records are widely recognized as being not up to library cataloging standards for books, but, due to the dynamic nature of ebooks, many smaller libraries have come to depend on them rather than laboriously editing, enriching and/or batch-loading them, as many larger academic libraries do.94 

Library Interfaces without Classification? There is an alternative to classification for the organization of bibliographic citation data in discovery tools which does not require an external schema or taxonomy, or for classification to be part of the metadata record itself.

Fifteen years ago, there was a fully developed library discovery tool called “Grokker” which could search and index hundreds of sources and databases at a time, return results, place them into metadata fields, form these into citations, dynamically cluster and label these (even allowing for disambiguation) and permit users to zoom in to clusters of bibliographic citation data linked to its source. Each circle represented a clustering category created on the fly, with the size of the circle reflecting the number of results. Grokker was based on a federated search model combined with a semantic-clustering engine. Rather than going to a centralized index of publisher provided metadata, as Primo does, Grokker went directly to publisher platforms through connectors (APIs) to conduct real time searches of the documents and return results to the application for processing. 

The simple circular interface Groxis, Inc. developed is now gone. The company closed in 2009 after signing an exclusive agreement with Gale, a competitor to EBSCO and ProQuest, which turned out to be not a good business move. Its underlying technology of dynamically clustering bibliographic citation data is still around,95 and people are still conducting research on building better semantic clustering engines for bibliographic citation data.96 

Grokker ca. 2007 employed an intuitive visual navigation system based on semantic clustering which combined searching and browsing. The size of the zoomable circles clued researchers in to the number of search results retrieved in a category.

Semantic clustering to dynamically organize / cluster citation results better seems to be one way library discovery interfaces might improve, and in some intuitive way combine browsing with searching. Using of a clustering engine does not rule out the possibility of applying an external taxonomy or subject classification system to citation results, but one is not needed for categories and labels to be generated.

The Limitations of Discovery as a Library User Interface. While Grokker and semantic clustering search applications are able to combine searching with browsing to some extent, and therefore offer a richer and more intuitive search experience, they still do not convey that there is a collection there. We are still limited by the fundamental drawback of discovery as a library user interface, that it is dependent upon people to pull things out of it, and does little to place items into a larger disciplinary framework.

As the reader might have inferred, I believe that good libraries are about the presentation of good collections, actively presenting what is good or significant, and perhaps even accounting for why an item is good and/or significant. Through discovery alone, there is insufficient collection visibility or strategies to promote user engagement with quality collections. Indeed, there really is no such thing as a library collection in discovery, only aggregations.

Libraries should now be thinking beyond discovery to make library collections visible again.

I understand the logic and practicality of not assigning LC classification / numbers to items that do not live in a particular shelf location. Indeed, while some publishers manage to do a great job, it also perhaps seems unreasonable to expect that academic publishers, from whom we may license tens of thousands of books at a time, to provide libraries with catalog records pre-populated with library-centric metadata (LC classification, LC subject headings) to make their ebook content more discoverable in our systems, especially if our library system vendor is not actively encouraging these standards,97 and especially when, on some level, publishers are competing with the library to be a research destination; and when they themselves do not use anything like a MARC record to facilitate discovery on their own platforms. 

Whether vendors assume responsibility for the MARC record is an interesting question, probably one of the most interesting ones which has arisen with new systems designed for vendors to load records into our systems.

Can we legitimately complain to the publisher that the library cataloging records they are placing into to our Community Zone are lacking good metadata? My feeling is that is that if Taylor & Francis can do it, so can Springer and Elsevier and other international publishers.

Either work it out with OCLC or hire catalogers. 

Beyond discovery interfaces. The library can facilitate a unique and valuable experience to scholars only if it maintains good metadata and if it supports collection browsing. In the library world, browsing is the visual presentation of ebook and ejournal titles by subject classification, so they can be presented and experienced by users as an academic library collection according to academic library professional standards.

The elimination of book browsing from our interfaces, and lack of support for classification of ebooks and ejournals (which supports browsing), not only influences perception of value of items in our collections, but also makes our collections less capable of being evaluated, managed and assessed by librarians according to our own standards. It also makes our discovery service less able to be assessed, that is, for librarians to determine what is not showing up which should when someone conducts a keyword or subject search. It makes the library less meaningful and valuable to scholars who want to be able to browse publications in an area, and makes it harder to promote what we have in our collections to users. 

It contradicts numerous studies supporting that faculty prefer browsing, at least to see or visually navigate collections to obtain an overview of a field, discover new books added to the collection, and discern trends over time in a field or specialty. As one scholar writes over concern of his library going to robotic retrieval and closed stacks, browsing collections is critical to research:

Being able to browse the library shelves is a critically important part of my research as an academic. I often find vitally useful resources by tracking down one book through the catalogue and then looking at the surrounding shelves to find related topics. I am very concerned that an automated retrieval system will prevent me from finding such important research materials. If there is to be an automated retrieval system, could there at least be a photographic representation of the surrounding books on the shelf so that the shelves could be “virtually” scanned by eye? (Robins 2008)98

Even if, when surveyed, faculty do not express preference for a particular reading formata common question asked in surveys by librarians when determining how much space and the library’s budget to dedicate to print in new facilities–their response, one way or another, does not mean these scholars do not wish to be able to browse library collections online.

Sentiments such the one expressed above by faculty in the quote above motivated the Macquarie University Library to develop a virtual browse tool for print books, when in 2012, when they went to closed stacks (as a result of implementation of a robotic storage and retrieval system). However, they encountered difficulties continuing to use this tool after moving to a new automation system, Alma/Primo.99

In May 2013, Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab launched a visual stacks browse tool prototype for their Hollis catalog, called StackLife, which featured a dynamically assembled vertical bookshelf generated from bibliographic and circulation information fed into it by their library system, which included print and electronic resources. Users could click on the book to get to the record or the resource. With this new visualization tool, which was a prototype, the spine measurements and page numbers generated a book icon proportional to the description in the bibliographic record. The book icon cover could appear in one of 10 shades of blue, corresponding to the number of times a book had circulated. While the project was abandoned after the Harvard Library went with a new automation system, interest in developing a browse tool for the academic library space is evident.

The University of Minnesota also made use of a collection browse tool which was part of a former system, but abandoned it after the tool was no longer supported.100 There have been many efforts to build a virtual library which would support shelf browsing, including by Google. 

Alma / Primo VE, regarded as the most powerful library system on the market, comes with a little known Collection Discovery feature which allows librarians to create user-defined collections, and manually populate these with titles, but for reasons I have already mentioned, the application cannot place titles in order by classification. (They are in MMS/system designated number order.) Shown below is a collection of new books on “Allergy & Immunology,” but books on AIDs, food allergies, and asthma are mixed up. In addition, the bibliographic data which appears on the tile does not include author or publication date, making it of less value to scholars compared to the information on the spine of a library book. 

“Collection Discovery” is a feature of Alma/Primo which allows titles of books, ebooks and ejournals to be manually added to user defined collections for virtual browsing, but the books in these collections cannot be ordered by classification, and tiles do not display (even on mouse-over) basic bibliographic data scholars expect to see, for example, author and date of publication.

As much as librarians are eager to display new ebooks to users so that they might have greater visibility and use, no librarian wants to present books to users in random order, and with incomplete citation information. I’m hoping that this feature of Alma/Primo VE is just a start of something good. As publishers, aggregators and library system designers are trying to forge new metadata standards for ebooks to make it easier for them to monetize and auto-populate our collections with their content, we must respond with some library-centric standards of our own.

Clearly, there is a strong desire and demand for academic users to be able to browse collections of ebooks online, as this has project been taken up by several universities in over the years.101 Support for LC classification and collection browsing is a perfectly reasonable expectation for academic libraries, even if it remains to be seen how LC classification numbers might be systematically assigned by publishers to the discovery records they are placing into our systems. 

Putting Books Before People: The True Meaning of a Patron-Centered Library

s print collections dwindle in the drive for libraries to innovate and modernize, no new interfaces or library standards for discovery metadata have emerged to support visually browsing a library’s online or hybrid collections, or to assist librarians perform collection-based assessment for their ebook collections. We cannot easily put new books in front of users through our systems. We have no store front, only a search box, in some instances front-ending millions of dollars of inventory. All we have to show for it is a search box which produces ten results at a time. 

Alma libraries have the capacity to harness Oracle Business Intelligence and Data Analytics, but wait, what?–it cannot be used to produce a simple shelf list of print and ebooks combined?102 

The 050 field, the Library of Congress Classification / Call number, could be used to support a virtual browse interface, as several have suggested,103 too often this field is incorrectly populated or omitted altogether by publishers and vendors in the MARC records they provide to libraries. Few libraries have the staffing to manually provide LCC numbers to the records of the thousands of ebooks they obtain from vendors, a reality which left one librarian to conclude that, if we are to support browsing, we must lobby MARC record vendors to make them aware of the importance of including call numbers.104

So far I have discussed that the technology available to libraries to support booklessness leaves much to be desired. Through the technology we have, our collections are not only invisible, but they cannot be meaningfully be browsed like a library collection, making them less useful to scholars, especially to those in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Resource visibility and visibility as a collection are important to ensure a good user experience of an academic library. Our current systems do not have any way of making collections visible. It is not a good model for students who come to the library without knowing anything about a discipline.

The academic library must put books before people to be effective. It must maintain visible collections and collection visibility. 

Do students prefer bookless libraries? What we know from the limited studies105 that students do not care very much for bookless libraries, and when given a choice, such as in a major metropolitan area like Houston, with several universities in close proximity, students will sometimes choose to go to libraries which maintain larger print collections. In my library orientation class, after explaining all of the fabulous things students have access to through the library, including ILL, I tell them that by virtue of their being enrolled at an institution of higher education in Texas, that they are entitled to check books out from any state supported school or public library, should they wish to do so. All they need is a TexShare card. A surprising number of students line up to get the card, even though I make it clear that they only need to obtain one if they wish to check out books from the other library. Many professors in graduate Research Methods classes at my university require students to visit other libraries, and they recommend students request the card.

Granted, larger libraries might offer other attractions and amenities beyond their print collections, such as other electronic databases, cafes, relaxed food and drink policies, longer hours, and perhaps more people around. An student  from India who felt homesick and isolated at our campus (an HBCU) went to the library at the university down the street, where she often ran into people from her own country, which made her happy. We do not even know to what extent other libraries are used by our students, how and with what frequency, whether the presence of current print collections makes libraries more intellectually stimulating and appealing to students as places to study.

We do know that often it is the pursuit of a single book which initially sends them to other library in the first place, and sometimes they want to go back to check out books, that is, asking for a new TexShare card when a new semester begins.

TexShare cards, which extend borrowing privileges of students enrolled in a Texas public institution of higher education to other libraries in the state, can anecdotally help the library track where students are going, at least as a preliminary. It is none of our business why they are using the other library or what they are doing there, because it is an entitlement. Because students can decide if they want to order books through ILL or go in person to the other library to obtain a book, we know students can be surprisingly eager to venture forth to unfamiliar campus libraries in pursuit of a book. I hope that they want to see what else the other library has which might be of interest to them, which is why they choose to go in person, TexShare card in hand, rather than requesting the book through our ILL services. (But realistically, they also might not trust our ILL services to produce the needed book in their desired time frame.)

Along the same lines as why students prefer one library over another, if students have a choice of where to attend college, to what extent does a library with physical collections (or not) factor into their decision of where they go to school? By that same token, do prospective students evaluate the library’s website and databases online to form an opinion about the quality of education at that school before applying there?

What is it prospective students are hoping to see when they are herded through the library by tour guides? Are they looking for other people? Are they looking for computers? Are they looking for interesting books on display? Are they looking at the size of our collections? The friendliness of the librarians? Collaborative learning spaces? Are they interested in seeing the library at all, or just taking the requisite tour all around campus?

Yes, absolutely students want the convenience of databases to get their assignments and coursework done, but I think, they also want a library with visible collections to experience, especially one with books which appeal to them and reflect their interests, personality, tastes and identity.

They want access to see and browse through books that are current, even if they might prefer to download a copy to take it with them to read (what I call “virtual fulfillment”). They want to experience the books that other educated people in their field know about. They may want contemporary nonfiction and leisure reading. I believe that student preference for books or visible collections might even ultimately impact the business objectives of the school, but studies of this nature–whether the quality or mode of the academic library influences enrollment and retention–are non-existent. 

When people think positively about their experience of college libraries, it is the pleasurable experience of wandering through the stacks coming upon something unexpected, but deeply meaningful, which comes to mind. This is called serendipitous browsing, but chances are, as accidental as it may seem to the user, in some way a quality collection (and therefore a librarian) was behind it. 

Years ago, librarians were taught that the experience of curated collections was essential to the academic experience, how we supported intellectual inquiry and added value to the university. I still believe a good collection should be thought of as a pre-eminent service libraries provide to their user communities.

Perhaps because it is just a bit gratuitous in this digital age, physical collections might also demonstrate greater respect or care for the academic disciplines we support, greater respect for scholarship, and greater care for the student. Curated, cared for, collections create new avenues for discovery and a motivation to learn. They represent a body of knowledge. Done right, collections are enjoyable and meaningful for scholars to browse, where random aggregations and ad hoc accumulations, in any format, connote the opposite. Lack of care and ignorance of the discipline. If we want to build communities of readers and scholars, we need for collections to be visible, not just searchable. 

As many of our institutions are rapidly moving toward booklessness, large packages of ebook and ejournal content are comprising more of our collections. Some of the largest aggregator packages are often comprised of academic titles which are no longer in demand. While there may be good things in them, publishers will tactically withhold their better titles, current titles, seminal works and critical editions to encourage academic libraries to pay for these titles individually.

Even if we laboriously add better titles to the EBSCO or ProQuest ebook platform, we end up knocking ourselves out only to enhance the user experience of our vendor’s ebook platform, but not necessarily improving perceptions of the library. Users do not know which titles librarians have selectively added to the EBSCO or ProQuest ebook platforms.

If their experience is a positive one, they will think well of the platform, but not necessarily any better of the library. 

A searchable aggregation of resources is not the same thing, or a substitute for, a good library collection. Presenting users with visible, curated collections and emphasizing what is good are our best marketing strategies, for both print and online.

Discovery alone fails to cultivate a culture of learning on a college campus and diminishes our value, as well as the value of the items that are in these aggregations we are calling a collection, but isn’t, anymore than what Google Scholar searches can be experienced as a library collection.

A good library collection is what makes the library interesting, what supports a sense of community and continuity. Resources are our common bond with faculty and students. By placing quality, appealing and relevant collections in front of users in a way that can be easily seen, visually navigated and browsed, users are more likely to find something they like, something meaningful, something significant, something interesting, and oftentimes, something completely unexpected

Maintaining browseable collections which reflect scholarly activity in the disciplines is an important way academic libraries and its librarians stimulate intellectual inquiry and inspire research. To continue to do so into the 21st century, we must decide either to hold on to print for a while longer, at least until the point at which our vendors provide user interfaces and metadata which fully support and promote the user experience of academic library collections. 

Improving Collection Visibility in Library User Interfaces

ith bookless libraries, the collection may be visible only through what librarians refer to as “discovery,” a search engine, which is to say, it isn’t visible as a collection at all.

I believe the lack of visibility of collections is a serious problem facing all academic libraries at this time, especially as more libraries go fully digital. If we cannot see or visualize the collection, we cannot effectively manage or promote it, or the resources inside of it. If users cannot see the collection, they will not benefit from the learning opportunities and stimulation that a good collection provides. If the collection cannot be made visible as a collection, we cannot work collaboratively with faculty to make the collection better. Most of all, though, a collection that is out of sight is out of mind. It does not motivate or inspire.

While some have speculated that research libraries today have no need to support browsing or even collections in the traditional sense–and that conspectus (which I will discuss below), collections and browsing have been made obsolete through a combination of search, “big deals” and PDA,63–to me it is not a good thing, or a sign of progress, that the user experience of the academic library in the 21st century has been reduced only to search, and what is being searched is looking less and less like an academic library collection, and more like, well, random aggregations of academic content which cannot even be reassembled into a meaningful collections for browsing or assessment.

Discovery, the library’s indexed-based search application, which searches metadata of the library’s owned and subscribed content, is truly a wonderful thing.

But realistically, as an interface, it has not made libraries more attractive or valuable to scholars or regular users. In fact, the opposite may be true. Today users often prefer to bypass the library’s discovery interface or website (depending on the method of authentication supported by the library) to go directly to the specialized databases and journals we license on their behalf.

Once users figure out the platform or database where their journal or preferred content actually lives, and that they can get to full-text through single sign on (authentication on the site itself), we lose them, which means to me that our discovery interfaces are not a good value proposition. It isn’t that they are too hard to use, or professors do not know how to search them, but as just search engine, we offer limited value to our users. 

Sure, we can track and claim any usage activity on the publishers’ websites “for the library,” but we should not ignore the reality that on publisher and aggregator platforms, researchers are often afforded a more attractive search experience than what we provide. There, users have greater confidence that their search has been exhaustive, thorough and current. Through search alone, libraries are not competitive with publishers and we are not giving users a reason to come to the library or our website. 

Indeed, numerous studies over the years have revealed that neither librarians nor its users even like or trust discovery interfaces, and for many reasons prefer to go directly to the publisher’s platform to conduct research.77 Another place they prefer to go is to Google Scholar, where they can search citations from university repositories, open access repositories, academic publisher platforms, as well as the library’s subscribed content–and then link to full-text that way. 

It is time that library system user interfaces presented users with a unique and inviting library experience, and not just a generic search experience for aggregated content. This means we need to support browsing, affording users the opportunity to visually navigate and engage with good collections. We need to make collections visible again. And it can be more than just access to resources. In an online environment, we should strive to make usage by scholars visible to other scholars (how many times others have downloaded the title) because in academia, just as outside it, use by others compels interest; people naturally want to read what other people are reading so they are not left behind. We need better user interfaces which support collection browsing, engagement, and analysis.

Our purpose as academic librarians is to maintain and promote quality collections which reflect scholarly communication in the disciplines, not just to provide access to subscribed content. Tools for better collection management and collection development, along with collection browsing online, should be requirements for library systems today. Through our user interfaces, we could be orienting users to their disciplines as well as promoting new publications in the disciplines.

The same metadata which supports patron browsing is also a prerequisite for librarians to properly evaluate and assess the quality of the collection. Indeed, a standard approach to collection management in academic librarianship since the 1980s has been through a collection conspectus, which begins by mapping the collections by LC classification / call number ranges to the disciplines supported by the institution.  

The conspectus is recognized as a standard tool for describing, assessing and evaluating academic library collections, even around the world.108 Many collection development policies at universities have been based on a conspectus approach. The Library of Congress still uses a conspectus approach, and it is still recommended by IFLA. OCLC currently owns the last version of the RLG/WLN Conspectus, which they call “CES,” but it is not too difficult to create them from scratch using the LCC schedule to make one’s own collection map.

Without something like a conspectus, or a collection map, as some refer to it,109  it is impossible to do strategic collection development in a large academic library. Today, libraries can run usage reports to evaluate journals usage, platform usage, ebooks usage, and database usage, but we cannot evaluate the quality or depth or usage of our collections as collections, by discipline, division and subject. We cannot evaluate the intellectual contents of our collections, or report use by subject, institutional disciplines or specialties (which in the conspectus is defined by call number ranges). Sadly, libraries cannot even easily or reliably generate a simple list of books and ebooks combined, let alone do analysis by classification, as we used to be able to do. We cannot perform a histogram on our collections as we used to be able to do, to visualize the age of our publications in targeted call number ranges. The rise of discovery has made it easier to acquire and make available digital resources and journal content, but harder to assess the quality of our monograph collections.

Some libraries are going to great lengths to develop their own collection maps, either applying traditional conspectus divisions as their starting point110 or simply trying to generate a shelf list of both print and ebooks by classification and then adding visualizations to answer questions about the collection, such as usage by subject area.100 An outcome of Johnson and Traill’s efforts at the University of Minnesota was an integrated browse tool for both ebooks and print resources, which was not previously possible because of missing LC classification data in the 050 fields of the MARC bibliographic record.

With the shift from print to e-resources, and the restructuring of systems away from the traditional bibliographic approaches, our systems no longer support the analytical approaches librarians commonly applied to collections to evaluate them.

Using the most advanced system available to academic libraries, I can run analytics to evaluate usage of a vendor package of aggregated academic titles of ebooks, for example, but I cannot tell which specific call number ranges are being requested more frequently, identify superseded titles, identify subject areas which are most heavily uses, identify assess gaps in the collection, compare my library’s collections with peers, or systematically compare them against “outstanding titles” lists. 

Making collections visible as collections should be a priority for library system developers and our user interfaces, especially as libraries are becoming fully digital and the collection is currently not visible any other way.

At this point, many academic library interfaces have become mere record retrieval tools, more specifically, a searchable index of the metadata of third-party (publisher and aggregator) content to which the library is entitled, with some of our own (mainly print, sometimes ebook) records added into the mix. Publishers place a file of the library’s entitlements into a central discovery index where they become immediately accessible to users upon activation. With the growing trend toward booklessness, users experience the totality of the academic library’s often vast holdings and entitlements through the narrow window of the library’s discovery interface.

Indeed, students are likely to encounter this same user interface at almost every medium to large academic library in the US:

Results display page of Alma, the most widely used academic library system software in the world. Even as libraries move towards fully digital collections, discovery is all it does, 10 results at a time. The result is that library collections lack sufficient visibility and intentionality (no one knows if the book was deliberately selected for inclusion or if is was merelyt part of a vendor package). Lack of intentionality and collection visibility are two unfortunate side-effects of going fully digital.

Granted, there is a magic to its ability to search across so many different sources, publishers and media types in one fell swoop, which is precisely what it was designed to do. It is convenient for us and for our users. When we purchase an ebook, it can be made instantly available in discovery without needing to catalog it. A record, albeit often perfunctory and substandard by library cataloging standards, is placed by the publisher into our systems upon activation of the resource.

Through discovery, librarians can acquire and immediately make available very large packages of aggregated content, ebooks and e-journals, without having to catalog all of these resources. Selection and deselection, additions and deletions, are now handled automatically by the vendor, offering certain advantages (namely, scalability), especially those libraries with a lot of buying power. 

The downside of discovery, particularly when the print collection is all but eliminated, is that it is just a search tool, not actually an online library. 

  • Discovery doesn’t do anything to establish the library as a unique experience, to stimulate inquiry or resource use, to promote books or reading, or to place books and journals into their appropriate scholarly or intellectual context.
  • It also doesn’t expose people to new ideas, to unthought thoughts, to the things they would not otherwise go looking for, or might not know how to even search for. 

The ebooks in the bookless library cannot be browsed in the way print collections could, in call number order. What we offer now falls short of both professional library standards of the presentation and organization of bibliographic materials, as well as industry standards for e-commerce to market products online. A bookseller or publisher would never use search alone as its user interface with customers, and it would not limit users to a view of ten items at a time, but would present 50 or 80 items in order to increase the likelihood users might find something they like. 

Another limitation with our user interfaces, which also impacts our success, is that it is incumbent upon our users to periodically come along and perform searches to discover what new items have been added to them, for we have no systematic way to extract and promote new titles in the disciplines to highlight them.

Showcasing what is new, topical and current is another business requirement libraries have in order to remain relevant to our users. 

Another challenge with ebooks within the new discovery paradigm has to do with the metadata being placed into our systems. Vendor-provided MARC records for ebooks often lack library-centric metadata, specifically LC classification and LC subject headings. As publishers and aggregators are looking to streamline their own workflows, they are attempting to define the minimal metadata for ebooks112 to a few data elements which fall far short of the national standards for descriptive cataloging for books which libraries adhere to, the MARC 21 bibliographic format.113 Of course, libraries are free to enhance and load their own cataloging records, but even then, if they go to the trouble of adding classification to the 050 fields of ebook records as some have done,100 our systems still do not support browsing by classification.

Another issue with booklessness is the high cost of academic ebook titles compared to print. For libraries, academic ebook titles are much more expensive than list price for print, some reported to be up to 150 times list price for simultaneous multi-user access.115 Small and mid-sized campus libraries, if they select titles individually or are keen to provide their users with in-demand (front list) titles, are not likely to realize any cost savings by going fully digital. Our pricing tends to be supersized, as we often pay for unlimited access, in perpetuity, whether we want it that way or not. The cost for an academic library to warehouse a book80 on a shelf is really trivial compared to licensing and hosting fees for an ebook. With a small library budget, I can acquire so much more in print, often with considerable discounts, than by going with the electronic version of the same. Another problem is publisher embargoes, the fact that the ebook is sometimes unavailable to be licensed by libraries until weeks after it appears in print.

Studies by librarians on the value of ebooks compared to print, especially for smaller campus libraries, have not corroborated assumptions that ebooks actually save the library money. For libraries, ebooks are much more expensive than print. Yet, decision-makers outside of the library often erroneously believe the university will save money by cheaper book prices, and also no longer needing to warehouse books on its shelves. 

Ebooks also cannot be shared among institutions like print, and, as with much of our digital content, they are not accessible to those who are not currently enrolled in a course or affiliated with the university. If the mission of the academic research library is to support life-long learning, as is often stated, why should the holdings of the academic library be inaccessible to alumni? Why should doctors after graduating from medical school no longer have access to a good academic library?

If our mission is to support scholarship, why not continue to provide access to ebooks and ejournals to scholars outside of the university? The simple answer is that if we did so, we would be in violation of our license agreements with vendors. But we never had these restrictions before, when we were predominantly print collections, when we owned our own content outright. When we bought the book or journal subscription, we owned it: “fair use” and copyright laws governed our policies, not vendor license agreements. 

With print, academic libraries provided public access to books and journals. We provided access to all scholars who came into the library, regardless of enrollment status or institutional affiliation. 

Academic librarians always served students who attended other schools, people who needed to do research for a project for their jobs, journalists, grant writers, teachers, artists, museum professionals, high school students, writers and independent researchers, lawyers, business people and entrepreneurs. (Outsiders were never beating down our doors, and it was kind of exciting to assist someone with a real world project for a change.) In the transition to becoming fully digital, many academic libraries have been forced, because of vendor license agreements and single sign on protocols, to restrict access only to those with current institutional affiliation. Our facilities may be open to the public, but our resources are not. 

Finally, another challenge with the policy of booklessness is that students who attend on campus, those who desire to have the full college experience instead of the convenience of an online degree, still expect to see books and current titles in their campus libraries. They feel that the library with books provides them with a higher level of service, a more vibrant and meaningful experience than online access alone.  

To prospective students and their parents, a visible physical collection is perceived to have higher value and signify greater investment by the university than an invisible online collection. Good physical collections convey greater personal investment and expertise by the staff.

When there is a physical library, students and faculty believe that the library staff are personally knowledgeable about the collection. However, they do not have the same high opinion of librarians once the collection goes online, even if librarians are reading reviews and continuing to do title-by-title selection just as before, adding our contributions on top of packages. 

When touring campus, people judge the library, its librarians, and faculty–indeed, the entire institution–by the collections they can see. Of course, students want and need electronic databases for paper writing, research and assignment completion, but they also want a library with new (and old) books. They want to see and experience the books that other educated people know about and value. They believe, as do their parents, that the library is a valuable part of their college experience and education to which they are entitled. It is what makes the library interesting and good, and the university seem a less lonely place, even if many use it simply as a place to study. Other students will take advantage of the additional learning experiences the library affords. Students feel as if they are part of something larger when they study surrounded by books, because it means they are standing in a tradition of those who have achieved success and recognition in their field of study, and this in itself is motivating.

Even if books are not strictly needed for the successful completion of assigned coursework, students derive educational benefits, better knowledge of their disciplines or profession, intellectual stimulation, a historical perspective, and enjoyment from being able to browse library collections. Books reflect the culture and the character of the place, the spirit of the age (and sometimes of former ages), and the interests of faculty and student body. Seeing books on display raises students’ awareness of the world around them, deepens their understanding of their discipline and the world, and stimulates intellectual curiosity.

It is an essential part of their college experience.

The library with books prominently and centrally displayed, with collections maintained over time, also creates a sense of continuity and community on campus in ways the bookless library does not.

Print collections also allow librarians the opportunity to casually engage with students about their academic interests and intellectual pursuits, where initiating conversation with students gazing at screens–even to ask, “Do you need assistance?”– feels a bit invasive. A library with physical books and maintained collections creates a sense of value around scholarship, while electronic texts are experienced as ephemeral and inconsequential, or at least perceived to be that way by students. And to a large extent, they are correct, for who outside a university setting can even access that academic ebook?

To Prensky’s point, libraries really cannot be forced to evolve beyond the limitations of the software that is available to them. Taking print away won’t force libraries, their systems, or their users, to evolve faster, or necessarily make the online experience any better or more engaging for our users. Evolution requires that our profession return to the development of standards for its systems and its metadata, and envision what a fully-developed digital library online should look like. 

Library designers and architectural firms who claim to be engineering the 21st century library experience might give some thought as to how digital collections might be meaningfully integrated into the physical space to create a modern library that is more than just a building with open seating areas. At the same time, library software product developers might consider how a library online can be more than just a search box with list ranked results. 

In both the physical library space and the virtual one, we want to provide users with a browseable collection of new and significant titles, prominently displayed, to encourage engagement with our resources.

Library collections serve an important educational role and are central to the user experience of a good library. Discovery is about finding information, but library collections are really about about knowledge. Collections reflect the library’s commitment to the academic disciplines, to scholarly communication, to education and to knowledge. Whether in print or online, collections are the essence of a good library. 

For libraries to be libraries, they must be content-rich learning environments, where items are not only visible without needing to be invoked by a user’s query, but also stand in relation to other items in collection, developed and maintained by scholars (or scholars at heart) over time. Collections are an important part of the library’s aesthetic appeal, the primary way librarians inspire learning at the university.

Beautiful redesign of the Haverford College Lutnick Library, PA. Do libraries at conservative institutions hold on to print more than libraries at liberal ones?

Is the “New Academic Library” the Emperor’s New Clothes?

n library professional literature today, all aspects of the traditional service model are being questioned, including the value of physical books in the academic library space, the value of reference and instructional services (or maintaining the reference desk as a distinct and separate service point from circulation), and most recently, the value of maintaining collectionsOpinions among librarians vary widely on all of these aspects of our practice, but the overarching question really is what should be the user experience of an academic library in the 21st century? 

In recent years, there has been a very peculiar philosophy of librarianship emanating from both ACRL, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the dean of a large library school,117 perhaps the largest library school in the country, a philosophy which I will call library as facility, where the library is conceived as a new kind of innovative public work and social space, with the librarian acting a collaboration facilitator.52 The new library, as it is sometimes called, was supposed to increase learning opportunities through shared access to work spaces, technology, materials, tools and people–anything but books, it often seems. Work spaces, maker spaces, and computer labs do not perpetuate and sustain a culture of learning and education at a university. 

The traditional collection-centric service library model accomplished some important things that their new library, despite its emphasis on innovation, technology, socializing and 21st century learning, isn’t able to do very effectively, if at all.

Many of these things are what people liked about the library, and what made the library good as a destination, attractive and useful to educated people, scholars and aspiring professionals–even as a place to congregate, collaborate and socialize, which the new library purports, without any evidence, to do better than the old. 

The library, provided it was good, represented the current state of culture of educated people and the current state of the disciplines supported by the institution. It actively showcased new and significant publications, and helped users keep up with trends, which were important ways the library added value to the university. It represented the contributions of intellectuals and scholars across place and time, something one cannot get from Google. By going to an academic library, students and scholars felt as if they were experiencing something meaningful, learning what other scholars in their field deemed important and meaningful, inspiring their own research and intellectual inquiry, taking greater control over their education and their lives, as well as connecting with others through shared texts and common cultural reference points. It was an ideal learning environment. 

The old library certainly didn’t need to have everything to be good. No one ever expected that of the library, and if it retained everything, we know as library professionals that this would not result in an optimal user experience for users. Being a repository was never our objective. We knew if people could see an abundance of good things in the collection, they would come to trust it and us, and assume items with which they were not familiar were also good, or something they just might want to know about.

These are important ways in which libraries encouraged independent learning, intellectual curiosity, scholarship, and the pursuit of knowledge and fulfilled its educational mission. This is the aesthetic of the academic library, the essence of “library goodness,”119 and the user experience we should still be striving to cultivate.

New academic libraries being built across the country and around the world at this time are based on different service models and assessment plans, and often on ambiguous concepts (e.g., collaborative learning spaces, active learning centers, student learning environments), which seek to justify, through some new pedagogy, the provision of little more than the provision of tables, chairs, seating arrangements, study rooms and empty space in the place that the traditional library once occupied. 

As more of the collection is online, academic libraries are being converted into student centers, and public libraries are being converted into public office spaces, all in the name of building a better library

Yet, new library buildings are often designed without any emphasis on collections, books or reading in any format. American Libraries, a magazine of the American Library Association, often features these new facilities as modern libraries, and as evidence of continued investment, innovation and support for libraries–but in fact, the opposite may likely be true. Generic buildings such as this new library may be built with re-purposing in mind:

Many new academic libraries, such as this one at TSU in Houston completed in 2019, are designed without placing emphasis on books or reading. The assumption of this atrium design is that books are no longer central to the mission of the library.

It is not my purpose to argue for the legitimacy of a traditional library service model widely lambasted in my profession as dated and nostalgic, but to say that we librarians should strive in all ways simply to bring what was good about the old library into the 21st century, to construct an immersive and vibrant user experience grounded in user engagement with quality content. We should try to make our spaces educational and “aspirational.” 

I believe that without visual emphasis on books, scholarly publications, and collections--basically, intellectual objects–new libraries cannot function successfully as libraries, any more than a museum can function, or create value for its users, without an emphasis on cultural and aesthetic objects. Libraries and museums are both fundamentally experiential, and regular users go their to browse, to find something they like, or find intellectually or aesthetically stimulating. Just as a museum is focused on aesthetic objects, a library’s focus should be on intellectual objects.

Within a library setting, emphasis on titles and resources conveys a sense of value and commitment to scholarship, a common culture, the absence of which sends a message which has nothing to do with innovation, technology, or anything positive. It represents ignorance and deprivation, especially because it is called a “library” and people come to it expecting to be turned on to new things in that space. 

Libraries should place popular and interesting titles in high traffic areas to encourage browsing and student engagement with them.

They should strive to creatively merchandise publications, make users aware of them, promote them, and create conversation around them. They should try to instill the habit of reading outside of class assignments. They should convey value and respect for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just for assignment completion. Librarians who are knowledgeable about the collections encourage reading in students. 

If there are physical collections, virtual fulfillment may represent an important avenue for libraries to explore. People still enjoy browsing print, but may not wish to carry books around to read them or be obligated to return them. With virtual fulfillment, users can browse print in the library but download an electronic copy to with to take them to read. We should also try different ways of representing ebooks and e-resources in the physical library space and even beyond the walls of the library. 

Modifications to our discovery tools and websites to make the library’s online collections more prominent and easy to browse is another area ripe for development. There have been projects at universities and Google to develop virtual bookshelf apps to recreate the experience of wandering through the stacks.93 Unfortunately, these initiatives have been short-lived, perhaps because increasingly, ebooks are not afforded call numbers and quality metadata like their print counterparts,121 making it harder to order them on a virtual bookshelf. 

Libraries and museums share a similar ethos: they are about cultural and aesthetic objects, and presenting these in ways that constitute a meaningful experience.

For the user experience of the library to be good, and for librarians to be valued as professionals, we must make a determined return to content–including digital content–within our physical spaces, and also develop rich, content-centric websites to enhance our online presence, with personalization and many of the features one would expect to find in commercial websites.

Library as “Building” and Learning as “Staircase”: The Rhetoric of the New Librarianship

oday, funding for the construction of new libraries is often allocated entirely to the building and building technology. There is often nothing inside of them but tables, chairs, sofas, study rooms and empty spaces. Books are either not visible, or else appear to serve a purely decorative function (sometimes referred to as “academic wallpaper”). 

With new library renovation projects, is not uncommon for millions to be allocated to energy efficient smart window and lighting control systems, robotic storage and retrieval systems, remote storage facilities to house a worthless collection while the new library stands vacant, RFID systems, retro modern-styled furnishings, with an abundance of empty space left over serving no discernible purpose. 

Who cares about robotic storage and retrieval technology and self-check out machines when the library is not investing in books anymore, and hasn’t in years? 

Despite the investment in technology as itself a kind of design objective, there is often little discussion about the user experience of the library beyond providing quiet places to sit to get work done, or learning objectives of the space beyond assistance with assignment completion. 

Library professional magazines routinely and uncritically feature these new bookless spaces as innovative libraries, as examples of “new libraries.” As I write, historic Carnegie libraries are being converted into open, empty public work spaces, their books often put into remote storage. In a college and academic environment, the elimination of books in the name of 21st century learning, progress, and improved librarianship, should not be regarded uncritically by our own profession. It is not proven that, all things being equal, bookless libraries offer superior learning outcomes when compared with our former content rich, collection-centered facility which emphasized books, ideas, research and publications. 

I understand the need for libraries to be digital today. STEM libraries in particular, where journals comprise the collection, significantly benefit researchers by being fully digital. In addition, libraries with a strictly vocational (skills-based) orientation, where people need access to technical manuals and reference materials are fine online. Students and faculty need access to scholarly databases, which get more expensive with each passing year.

But let’s not be eager to redeem these empty spaces which are replacing the traditional college and research library by imagining them to be functioning as some sort of “learning commons,” or worse, a primordial learning environment suited for the preferences of the 21st century learner.122

For even if as a culture we have slipped into a period of secondary orality, why should the library make its priority to contribute to illiteracy and ignorance?

And if the space were designed for oral knowledge transmission like in the days before books (aka, the Dark Ages), the faculty are still not going to be the rhapsodes or storytellers for our imaginary campfires and watering-holes inside the library. Older generations of scholars are not eagerly waiting on our collaborative staircases to drop wisdom on passersby.

Indeed, our spare, light-infused learning environments have little appeal to scholars. We cannot feed their creativity or inspire their literary production through the provision of vacuous spaces, tables and chairs.

Libraries are about creating community by showcasing cultural and intellectual achievement: what is current, significant, new and compelling in the disciplines and in culture. They are about what is good. Libraries add value to the academic community by placing intellectual objects, usually in the form of texts, into broader public view.

To this end, a library really needs three things to be successful:

  1. the right titles,
  2. the ability to place these titles into meaningful relationship with other titles, into a collection,
  3. the capacity to place its collections into public view. 

Librarians who are intimately familiar with, or at least know something about the collection, are a plus. 

A library must display and promote publications, contextualize them, and create meaning around them. This is the primary way academic librarians support reading, research, education, community, intellectual inquiry and knowledge in the 21st century. 

New Models of Librarianship. There are many proposed library service models to address the phenomenon of collectionlessness in the new academic library. The deans of library schools, such as Danuta Nitecki, are particularly adept at re-purposing the library and librarians through schemes which try to reassure everyone that the library, and librarians, aren’t going away any time soon. Library as venue, where success is measured by facilities use, is her latest rendition of a libraries matter but collections do not.117 

It is foolish to think that after eliminating all of the books, that we can turn around and assert value as library professionals simply by documenting facilities use. Everyone knows how many students are using the space to study or complete group work has little to do with the efforts of librarians. Furthermore, students can study with wi-fi all over a college campus today, and often prefer to do so where there are food services and other students around them. Every academic building on a college campus today has seating, tables, lounges, vending machines and students at the tables set out for them to study. No one is counting heads at these various locations to determine how many students are studying, say, in the Communications or Education building. What difference does it make where they do it?

Another proposed scheme for asserting value without collections is serving as some kind of “collaboration facilitator,”52 but what are the measurable outcomes for facilitating collaboration among faculty members and students? And what magic wand do we have for getting faculty to collaborate with each other? 

Good libraries encourage browsing, intellectual inquiry, the exchange of ideas and the feeling of community much better than the generalized, bland and often empty learning centers now called libraries, where knowledge transmission is often theoretically moored, not in authoritative collections, publications, or even online resources, but in orality, in the big nobodaddy of collaboration, which architects and library designers (even our own library professional associations) are keen on advancing as the pre-eminent learning modality of the 21st century library.

he trend for new library construction projects to downplay the library part of the library goes back at least to 2003, in what began as fascinating study by a doctoral student in Education to assess institutional priorities motivating the construction and design of new academic libraries.42

The conclusion, derived from a survey of 53 new academic libraries (85 surveyed), is that in most instances, the needs of the academic library and its operations were not considered or thought important in the new library planning process.126 In many instances, funds were allocated to “sophisticated light and window control systems for both energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.”127 Building size was also considered an important factor independent from collections128 or library operations.

According to this study, while there were acknowledgements that students were now using different formats, but there were no new service plans or funds set aside for deploying new technology to enhance the user experience of online library resources, to raise awareness of digital resources by those in the physical library space, to improve the collection itself, or how they might be displayed to add interest or promote resource use. 

  • Why not, for example, use technology funds for a new automation system and enhancements to the catalog and website?
  • Why not devise tools to promote online resources in the physical environment?
  • Why not devise tools to promote new ebook titles online?
  • Why not use technology and visualization tools to track and display to other users what researchers are doing in real time and where they are going online?

Why are so many new library design firms fixated on strategies to manage physical inventory through costly solutions (RFID technology, robotic storage and retrieval systems, smart gates, self-check out machines), when everyone acknowledges that circulation is at an all time low, and less than 5% of library budgets are going to print?

Why declare the physical collection to be obsolete, but at the same time deploy robotic technology for storing, managing and preserving the physical book? How does the new multi-million dollar library function any better than the old in terms of learning outcomes?

Despite much speculation about how the new people-centric, socially-oriented empty spaces will add value to students and to colleges and universities, there is no evidence that a building alone, or a building that is just an empty space, no matter how nice, how architecturally innovative or spacious, will result a better education, improved scholarship, increased professional development, better retention, higher enrollment, support meaningful intellectual exchanges, or offer any measurable educational or learning outcomes.

It isn’t that I am insensitive to the need to replace worn out facilities, to provide beautiful study or work spaces to students, or for librarians to evolve and adapt to new roles in the Digital Age. It just seems that the millions going into a new library building construction projects are a lost opportunity for genuine innovation to improve library services. I care about the user experience of the library itself, not the user experience of an iconic space.

We know from many years of study with low income students and families throughout the course of the 20th century that impoverished learning environments do not inspire learning. How is it that a library that is not focused on its resources, on the importance of its own scholarly content, in any way capable of encouraging others to attribute value to it, or to the scholarly activity they represent? How is a library that is primarily a work space attractive to faculty or aspiring scholars?

No genuine philosophy of librarianship can be founded upon the mere provision of study spaces, seating and natural light. At a university, the focus on intellectual inquiry and creativity is what makes it good and attractive to scholars. 

Library architecture and infrastructure, including our websites and automation systems, must serve a legitimate 21st century librarianship, without which architects and educators–jumping on the bandwagon of the “new library movement“–will continue to create multi-story structures of open staircases, lounge areas, balconies and study rooms, glass and LED lighting, without sufficient consideration given to the educational, intellectual and humanistic purpose of an academic library, our processes, and our need to actively promote resources to those who come into our spaces.

Some new libraries often use staircases, landings and catwalks as design elements to emphasize vertical lines and transparency, while putting books out of sight.

Dignitas or Vanitas? The hidden meaning of the stacks

In the Digital Age, where so much is competing for our users’ attention, academic libraries must seek new ways to offer a stimulating and vibrant learning experience for scholars, which means a concerted focus on content, especially new content, to put intellectual inquiry and new ideas front and center to our communities. This is the only way to make the library a destination.

With the move to becoming fully digital, new academic libraries have gone not towards vibrancy and the world of ideas, transcending time and place, but have been more “about” the superficial experience of their engineered architectural spaces and views of outside windows, or else about the intellectual exchanges imagined to be going on inside of them, especially on large-stepped learning staircases, which have become popular with architectural designers for the last several years.129 Light-infused big-stepped learning staircases coupled with empty space lend an unprecedented prominence to new library buildings, while collections inside them have withered.  Libraries are no longer about publications and ideas, but about their glass windows, over-sized staircases, designer furnishings and whiteboards. Yet we do not know if the learning center model is any more popular with our users, if it is any more effective at encouraging learning than the old library full of books, which always seemed to have plenty of seating for those who wanted to sit and study or do work. 

Holding on to old and worn books to lend atmosphere, like some Disney theme park, is not the answer, although some have proposed that we do precisely that, including the green banker’s lamps.130

Within academic libraries with large historical holdings, the unkempt stacks which have not been replenished with anything new may have already come to resemble a medieval Vanitas painting: a pall of dust may have settled over everything, cloth spines deteriorated to the point where the majority of them are unreadable from age, wear, and decades of radiation from fluorescent lighting. (Still, I marvel at a critical edition of Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology and Crito in Greek from 1924. Who at my university continued to check this book out into the 1980s and 1990s? A clue: they underlined using a pink ballpoint pen. . . ) Everything was in a state of ruinous decay.

The sad plight of the stacks, and the works of those who devoted themselves to scholarship–the seeming lack of care for library collections over the course of decades–will no doubt cause some to question the viability of their own scholarly pursuits and speculate whether it is all a vanity; or else, on the other hand, if the collection is good and cared for, to consider, as Classical philosophers say, that intellectual achievements are timeless and enduring, and that one’s education will be valued by others long into the future.

Whatever one’s declared major or metaphysical leanings, the question might be looked upon, as all things might, from a strictly business perspective in the modern university: in an academic setting, the care and condition of the library’s collection symbolizes purpose and dignity (dignitas, respect and esteem, as opposed to vanitas, a “vanity” or folly), respect for knowledge and scholarship. The quality and condition of the collection speaks wonders to answering this gut-wrenching question which our students are undoubtedly asking themselves each and every day: Is it all worth it?

I believe a university should care very much about how their current and prospective students are determining to answer this question for themselves.

Vanitas or dignitas? At a campus library, how users view the collection can impact enrollment and retention.

The Academic Library as a “Work Space”

e can easily speculate about architects’ and administrators’ motivations for building spacious new libraries that are not libraries, or have little library left inside of them. I understand their motivations perfectly well. More puzzling to me is why my fellow librarians and especially our library professional associations are celebrating the conversion of their libraries into desolate work and office spaces

Contrary to the stereotype,”131 132 the ones resisting are not the old, nostalgic and techno-phobic librarians who are stuck in their ways. Mid-career librarians and scholars alike, particularly those in the Humanities and Social Sciences, will undoubtedly feel confused by the rapid degradation of the academic and college library into little more than lounges, stairs, atria, balconies, catwalks, private and group study rooms, empty office spaces, and programmable glass windows, all in the name of learning

Not so long ago, academic librarians fought against a perception by administrators that the library was nothing more than a study hall. Now, librarians may feel very much between a rock (“book warehouse”) and a hard place (“work space”), even blindsided by the cringe-worthy messaging emanating from our own institutions and municipalities that the elimination of the stacks, or placing them out of sight, constitutes some form of progress: our students will be able to learn better now that the books are gone. 

I am not wedded to the stacks or book format. Just like everyone else, I do most of my reading online. It is not only more convenient, but I can make the fonts bigger and read in dim light if I so choose. But to me, progress for a 21st century library would be replacing the stacks with something better, something which would help us market our content better, to help us become a modern library, and not just a modern space

Truly, I love the idea of the public library as a vibrant community center, with cooking and art classes, music lessons, café, with performances of live bands on its rooftop. I’d like to drop my kids off to spend an afternoon doing something productive, even if they are not reading. I’d raise money for an indoor multistory play structure / obstacle /ropes course in the middle of the children’s section. I want Bob Ross painting classes, sewing circles and leisure learning. I want exhibits by local artists and children’s art on display. But just as with academic libraries, public libraries are also likely to be made over into some kind of horrible, vacuous bookless business center.

Indeed, the trend to turn the public library into office / business / work space, paralleling trends in academic libraries, is occurring in public libraries everywhere. This is one architect’s vision 133 for one of the oldest libraries in the country, the Free Library of Philadelphia:

The Free Library of Philadelphia appears to be free of books now.

This might have been a meaningful project for the architect, and undoubtedly lucrative for the storage solution provider, but why would anyone bother to enter the building or spend time this place? (Why convert a historical building to mid-century modern design?)

What makes it successful, or not, as a library?

Closer to home, in my own suburban community, League City, TX, library planners insist, based on the studies they have conducted, that what people really want and expect from their library are not books or resources, but private study rooms and public work spaces.134 Who are these people? Why is it the residents of League City have so much work to do? The finding that citizens need more work space justification for the construction of much bigger, empty facilities at taxpayer expense, and with little more (and often less) for the collections inside of them or offered online. 

The vision for new libraries advanced by architects and self-appointed library design consultants, is seemingly the same everywhere: very large, minimalist spaces for people to get their work done. At the end of the day, the new library is a public office space or lobby. There will no doubt be social gatherings and events as well, but ultimately it is just a business center, not a library, which is about creativity and ideas.  

Where before the collection allowed people to feel grounded in the space and gave them a reason for being there (even if all they wanted was a computer or place to sit), inside the new library there is no connection between the library and the scholar, or the library and its community, or the library and ideas or larger world, nothing to establish a unique sense of place. 

No doubt, many new academic libraries offer a certain kind of anesthetized appeal as buildings, but from what I have seen in library publications, many do not offer to users the intellectual stimulation, the academic intimacy, the inducements to learn, or the aesthetic experience of a good college or academic library. 

Our library professional magazines devote special issues to these spare facilities, proclaiming them to be beautiful and modern, but I don’t see what is to be gained by “converting historical Carnegie libraries into modern vacant structures.135 Isn’t it time to assess if vacant spaces are really meeting the needs of students and scholars?

Granted, every library is different and we all might not see things the same way. But the 21st century academic library should not be conceptualized as vacuous spaces, illuminated stairwells and open seating arrangements, with success measured by body counts. If the collection is online, we need a way in the physical space to emphasize our online collections.

Nor should it be envisioned as assemblages of primitive learning environments, “caves, a campfires, and watering holes,”122 from a time people were illiterate (the “Dark Ages”) and therefore had to get information from other people, instead of books and authoritative sources. It shouldn’t be envisioned as a chat room or public lounge where the users are on display (“Users are seated in the middle, because they are the focus, not books. . . “), with rooms off to the side available to rent by the hour.

Academic libraries should foster engagement and awareness of the most significant cultural and scholarly resources today. That is our mission, to help create and sustain educated people.

The new 21st century library should make an effort to harness new technology to do what the traditional library did, only better. It should be a content-rich learning environment, a Times Square, a marketplace for ideas.

The library should be a vibrant and stimulating attraction, full of distractions and temptation to read, learn and explore, one that strives to actively and imaginatively engage users in significant and interesting resources from the moment patrons walk in the door or land on our websites. It should speak to users like an oracle, fostering serendipity, meaning creation, knowledge and insight. It should stimulate the mind and the senses. It should awaken creativity and curiosity. 

At minimum, it should convey the value of scholarship and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just to pass a test or complete a task. 

The modern library done right in the Netherlands, called LocHal, made from a converted train shed. New books are attractively displayed in an inmate space which encourages browsing, but there are still plenty of options for socializing, gathering and public programming. The collaborative staircase does not replace the collection, but balances it; the regular steps are proportioned wider than the bleacher stairs, creating a more inviting appearance than large block steps which create an obstacle. Books are visible on the ground floor where librarians can provide assistance and readers advisory, putting books in readers’ hands.

For the last 15 years, there has been a vigorous re-imagining of libraries as conference centers, social study spaces and tutoring / learning centers, with a determined shift away from collection-oriented interiors and assessment plans toward what is conceived by architects, college presidents and some library futurists to supposedly more socially-oriented, service-oriented and consumer-driven designs.137 New libraries, supposedly developed around new service models and priorities, are popping up everywhere, showcased in library literature as beautiful and innovative. But are they really? More to the point, are they really libraries, or are they the emperor’s new clothes? How successful are they as libraries and by what measure do we evaluate their success?

We might take a step back from philosophies and ask what categorically defines libraries as a libraries–as good and beautiful libraries–from a professional library standpoint, and are these new facilities better than the traditional library for supporting higher education and learning? How do new college and university libraries actively support publishing, research and scholarship? How do they support student success? How do they support intellectual inquiry?

As libraries are shorn of print, paper, publications, collections and outward signs of intellectual life, there has been a concomitant ratcheting up of pressure for librarians to gather evidence, based on measurable outcomes, to demonstrate their continued relevance to the university, and specifically to “student success,” however that might be defined (at this time, 2020, there is no consensus). We must forget about “life-long learning” because that’s not a measurable objective. “Knowledge” or “inspiration” isn’t measurable either. Usage stats? No good, that’s on output, not an outcome.  

Staring into a dark abyss of institutional assessment, with their nagging insistence on tying all conceivable library goals in some measurable way to either classroom learning or institutional outcomes, goals that are not library-centric (that is, measures having anything to do with the library’s being a good library), librarians face a profound challenge: The college and academic research library was never fundamentally “about” instructional support for classroom learning, and even less about the business objectives of the university. Indeed, the harder we work to tie the library to the remedial learning objectives of the classroom, the more redundant and irrelevant we become, a resource room to support instruction. In terms of demonstrating value to those who fund us, however, it seems we can only be about “student success” as defined by the institution (enrollment, retention, progression, completion), not about scholarship, publishing, learning for learning’s sake, or success as defined by the student or scholar. 

The academic library was always, theoretically speaking, more ambitious than mere classroom learning or assignment completion, even degree completion. Libraries are about learning beyond the classroom and research. They have always been more about learning outside of the classroom than inside of it. We are about support for the acquisition (and creation) of disciplinary and professional knowledge. We serve the academic disciplines and the purpose of furthering intellectual inquiry. We serve the individual’s own definition of success, helping him or her achieve his creative, intellectual and career potential

A corollary of this is that as library professionals and educators, an important part of our job function is to actually stimulate demand for resources, not to passively make them available to those who might wish to access them. That is not being a good library, or affording users an optimal library experience.

Mechanisms for stimulating demand–for marketing resources and content–must be a key part of the design of the 21st century library, a part of the architectural solution or plan. It must promote resource use of print and online resources (there is absolutely no reason we should need to print out and tape up covers of ebooks in a brand new library–there should be comprehensive plan for the promotion of ebooks and ejournals baked into the very design of the building). But a prerequisite of this is maintaining a good collection with the technological infrastructure in place to provide a 21st century library experience.

Influenced by a common perception that everything students want or need can be found online, many within the library field are ready to proclaim that we are no longer about publications, reading, titles or collections in any format, but about teaching information literacy classes so students can identify truth from fake news (I’m not sure I can do that. I’ve been “foxed” by fake news quite a few times. . . ), or help students with their class assignments. This certainly sounds practical and very meaningful, a way to directly add value and justify ourselves in some way that aligns with university assessment plans.

Librarians can certainly support classroom instruction by showing students how to perform research, identify authoritative sources, and cite sources for papers. Indeed, we have always done so.

However, it may not be clear to university administrators or the faculty that it is the responsibility of librarians to perform this function, or that they are vitally needed to perform this task. If I were a Provost or Dean, I would assume that any faculty member qualified to teach college-level courses, and who are presumably spending all their spare time outside of the classroom writing papers for publication, should also be able to show students how to perform basic research in their disciplines and demonstrate whatever tasks and skills are needed to complete their own course assignments. 

The solution to making ourselves relevant is not to declare collections obsolete or make support for classroom instruction our exclusive mission, but to more effectively leverage new technologies and designs to promote engagement with content, specifically with collections, both in print and online, in order to create and sustain the next generation of readers, writers, scholars and leaders. We need to build and sustain content-rich and dynamic learning environments which reflect scholarly communication in the disciplines.

We should seek to preserve and amplify what made the library good for scholars, and explore truly innovative ways to market physical and virtual content to both physical and virtual users. That should be the primary objective of new library spaces, along with greater integration of the physical and virtual resources to support community engagement with our content. As a profession, it is vital that we renew our commitment to the disciplines, and to the provision of quality content within a disciplinary framework. We need a clear sense of what the user experience of a modern library should be, and what our business and technological requirements are to achieve this, rather than depending on architects and design firms to define what a library is and what it will be in the future.

It is the communal browsing experience, the shared cultural referents, and disciplinary knowledge which we want to encourage and preserve. That is what makes the library a library, or at least, what makes it a good one. 

Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Library has completed a beautiful redesign with a good balance between the social and the intellectual, the modern and the traditional, space and content. Do conservative schools value print more than liberal peer institutions?

Making Room for Space

hen new libraries are discussed, whether public or academic, there is one universal theme: elimination of stack space to make room for collaborative study spaces. 

Booklessness, or the appearance of it (books may be stowed away in low traffic areas or moved off site), is often spun as a peculiar benefit of the 21st century library, in itself signifying progress and innovation. There has been very limited discussion about the value of collections to our academic missions, but a shift from collection-centric assessment models to outcomes-based models has also, for obvious reasons, tended to negate the value of collections and those who work to maintain them.

On a conceptual level, I think it important to ask:

  • What does the new library have to offer to faculty and students who are interested in orienting themselves and succeeding within their academic disciplines?
  • How do new libraries effectively promote innovation or awareness of new or significant publications in the disciplines or encourage use of these resources?
  • How do they encourage learning?
  • How do they browsing for new ideas to encourage inquiry and research?
  • How does a bookless library reflect upon the university?

With this shift away from publications and collection use, there has also been a new emphasis on librarian initiated-interaction (e.g., poking students who come within eye-shot to see if they need help, greeting people as they walk through the doors; more aggressively selling ourselves and our “services”; and assiduously documenting these efforts and casual encounters as “evidence” of our value).

There is also a questionable trend to count in our assessment frameworks the utilization of our spaces by students for any conceivable purpose,138 whether for study, reading, creating, conversing, snacking, meditating, socializing or sleeping. Why is facilities use a measure of our success?

New libraries are being built without consideration for the most important function of the academic library within a university: raising awareness of new and significant publications (in all formats, print and digital) within the disciplines, and encouraging user engagement with them.

For example, we buy thousands of ebooks, but have no effective or efficient mechanism for promoting them in the modern or traditional library space. This seems like a design flaw to me. If our collection is predominantly online, why can there be no way to promote e-resources in the physical space?  If more than 95% of academic library acquisitions budgets are for online materials,139 why should there be no evidence of this in the physical library facility? There is so much discussion about data visualization right now, yet there is no way to visualize the library’s collection in our physical spaces? 

The same sort of criticism would be leveled at an art museum which places insufficient focus on the art in its collections. Expecting people to learn about new and significant titles on their own by pulling them out of your catalogs and databases or discovery layer is not an effective library service model

Libraries have the same or similar aesthetic purpose as museums, to cultivate awareness and appreciation for intellectual and cultural artifacts.  

In order to do so, it needs just a bit of darkness and mystery, a feeling of transcendence of time and place, not glass walls where dust motes float in the air and the mundane world is ever present.  

Cornell Art Library

Scaled to the Book. The architect of the Cornell Art Library, Wolfgang Tschapeller, wanted to devise a way to emphasize vertical lines and openness along with creating more intimate spaces for books. While not filling me with warmth and and a sense of intimacy, the book grotto is a place I’d like to explore. There is no focus on new books or “marketing” or resources in the space.

False Dichotomies in Librarianship: Having vs. Doing

hile these new facilities are still called libraries, and librarians work there at least for the time being, it not clear to librarians that new libraries are serving in that capacity well, or at allor what library professional assessment standards, if any, ought to be applied to them.140

Around the world, a similar trend to convert libraries into social and work spaces is occurring, including in public libraries, which are being transformed into stunning community centers “with books thrown in,” as one BBC reporter cheerfully describes.141 We have yet to know how these library spaces are faring, their impact on their communities, their impact on librarians, if the renovation has succeeded in attracting new users while maintaining the old, and most importantly, their impact on learning. So many articles and press releases bear curious statements like, “With the new building, we decided to put people first,” referencing the fact that expanded seating arrangements in the middle of the space have replaced the stacks.

Well, what did they think they were they doing before? Putting books first? It does sound catchy: The library is a place where we put books before people. 

In addition to creating buildings for gathering together, campus and community leaders alike are eager to build new libraries not full of books, but full of technology.142 Just as books were once thought indispensable to the scholarly enterprise, technology is now presumed to be a similar sort of intrinsic good. In the public discourse surrounding new libraries, “technology” is often used euphemistically, as code for “not books,” rather than something specific that everyone wants (it is hard to get people to agree on what technology is needed beyond wi-fi, larger screens for communal viewing and a place to recharge). Nonetheless, engaging with technology and others in the library space is thought to have educational benefit in higher education, and appear to occupy a status that books once held. 

The often repeated sentiment in library literature now, that “We all know that today, having doesn’t matter, it’s doing that counts. . .”, stated by the President of the American Library Association,143 presents a dangerously false dichotomy, one that too often underscores a troubling reality that the impact of our collections on learning cannot be meaningfully evaluated or factored into the outcomes-based assessment models in wide use today.

Having a collection, one that is current, topical, interesting, selective and browseable, is an important service which libraries and librarians provide to their communities. Academic librarians cannot provide good library services without a means of offering visible, meaningful collections that stimulate, support and inspire research. Without doing, we cannot have, and without having, we cannot do.

Having quality collections is fundamental to a good user experience of a library. Collections do not need to be physical, but they need to be visible, browseable, and perceived by others to constitute an actual collection, cultivated with intentionality and care–not passively acquired, random aggregations of third-party content. The library must strive to be more than a costly academic search engine. 

It is an error in thinking that now we librarians should now be wholly unconcerned about “having,” or about resources, that we can  shift gears and be about doing. I would venture to say that to users, our having resources is what matters most to them, and if they had to choose between access to a librarian or access to resources, they would pick the latter. 

Providing quality collections is a core function of libraries, along with stimulating demand for resources, which it cannot do well without collection accessibility, high resource visibility, a marketing plan, and staff who read, specifically who keep up with the scholarly literature in the disciplines.

That colleges and universities are building “new libraries” without investing in library resources should not be a cause for celebration by ALA and ACRL, and should not be treated as a kind of progress. 

So please, my fellow librarians, stop saying “having” doesn’t matter in the 21st century–it matters to our users and should matter a great deal to us.

New Library (Nieuwe Bibliotheek) in the Netherlands, which based its design on patrons surveys, is a departure from pragmatic American new library “work space” models. Dutch models promote learning, leisure, hanging out and socializing, not bring your office work there. Dutch audiences prefer an intimate bookstore merchandising model where books are displayed with jackets on face-out. There is a stylish cafe which looks like a place you’d go on a date.  

The Value of Collections: The Impact of Library Acquisition Patterns on Use

ith the advent of new libraries,” the once lively debate over formats (print vs. digital) has been overshadowed by more fundamental questions about the need for libraries, or librarians, to maintain robust collections in any format,144 145 and moreover, how this need might be persuasively demonstrated to those who fund us.

While the leadership of our two pre-eminent library professional associations, ACRL and ALA, have long embraced booklessness–as a profession we’ve supposedly been about information since the late 1980s, and twenty years later, the library science degree at top-tier library schools morphed into “Master’s in Information Science” (no library in their name)–the sudden disappearance of open stacks over the last few years, and rapid conversion of many college and university libraries into bookless study / learning centers, collaboration centers, tutoring centers, media centers, and maker-spaces, etc., is making it harder for library directors to justify their acquisitions budgets and professional staffing levels.

Within library literature, those who defend books now risk being castigated as technophobic, unwilling to adapt to change, nostalgic or “sclerotic.”131 132

While scholars and intellectuals are still writing and reading books, guests routinely appear on talk shows and in the media to discuss their books–and publications are still the basis for tenure at a university–within the library profession, even reading has become something of a liability. In a publication devoted to books, Publisher’s Weekly, in an article written by a librarian148 there is implication that librarians who like to read are not tech-savvy or not sufficiently customer service-oriented. 

  • Why would someone who reads not be technically inclined?
  • How can you as a librarian provide good library service if you yourself do not read?
  • Why seek to stigmatize readers and reading in the first place?

Common advice for candidates for library jobs is if asked why you decided to become a librarian, never mention that you love books and reading

Today, you can be all about instruction/teaching, information literacy or “helping people,” but not about reading or liking books.

How can one be really about information literacy but not actual literacy

I believe that reading, learning, publishing and ideas should be celebrated in the college and academic library space. The space should be a celebration of books, thought, ideas and cultural values. 

Therefore, we shouldn’t be hiding books out of sight, acting as if they are a source of embarrassment, treating them as decorative wallpaper–gluing, shellacking them and tacking them to the wall or putting them into inaccessible wall niches–or making assumptions that the stacks are somehow getting in the way of students’ ability to learn, or no longer relevant to our academic missions because we are all about technology, work spaces and collaboration now.

We are supposed to be encouraging respect for publications, writing, and scholarship. 

We should not prioritize empty space or views out the window over titles, as if “nothing” has more value than the “something” we provide, whatever that something might be. Again, showing respect means to put it into view so it can be seen. Prioritizing empty space or modern design over publications is respectful. 

The impact of library acquisition patterns on use. Even as millions are spent on online resources per institution, investment in print now comprises less than 5.8% of academic library acquisitions budgets, according to a recent study by Ithaka S+R.149 The Ithaka study uses acquisitions data harvested from library automation systems over a period of three years, 2014-7. The percent of ebooks purchased individually (title-by-title selection) was less than 1% of the budget. The decline in both print and title-by-title selection practices are not really news, but what this large-scale study, generously funded by the Mellon Foundation with the support of OCLC WMS and ProQuest Ex Libris, reveals is the sheer difficulty of gathering data to study library acquisition patterns in the first place, let alone assessing the impact these trends are having on user behavior.

In the annual academic library survey conducted by ACRL (ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey), print books are lumped in with all other one-time purchases, which may include individually selected ebooks, videos, and anything else not part of a subscription package. The ACRL survey attempts to capture detailed statistics on academic library services for all sizes of library, and it has captured this same information over the course of years to allow for identification of trends over time. However, it does not ask about percent of budget spent on print, percent devoted to books in all formats, percent obtained through DDA/PDA programs, etc., or provide detailed information about acquisition patterns to allow for an investigation into how changes in acquisition patterns have impacted library usage, student behavior, perceptions of the library, learning outcomes, or the library profession as such (something ACRL’s membership would certainly care about). Through ACRL’s metrics, one cannot make any correlation, say, between declining print purchases and reduced foot traffic in the library. 

I am not attached to any particular format, but rather to the objective of maintaining stimulating, current, and visible collections which support browsing for ideas, current scholarship, creativity and independent learning. I would like some way to integrate ebooks with print books in the stacks, and raise awareness of ebooks in the physical space.

Regardless of their format, collections, titles, reading and publications must remain central to our academic mission and messaging, and to the user experience of the library.

By becoming an even bigger computer lab or study hall with more meeting and study rooms, by our focusing on connecting people with each other rather than encouraging people to engage with books, ideas and current scholarship, we may not actually be creating environments conducive to learning, despite what architects have to say about the matter. 

I believe that booklessness, and the premise of the “new librarianship,” that we are just about collaboration or technology or our services or our work spaces, but not about collections, are hurting students and faculty in ways that have not been fully realized.

It is also taking away from scholarship as a focus of the library and the librarian-facilitated conversations that new libraries are supposed to be encouraging. 

The Value of Collections. To date, no large-scale study has been conducted which seeks to determine the relative value of maintaining physical collections in a predominantly digital library environment, although this conclusion has been alluded to in a few recent studies.150 

Another related question, one completely independent of choice of format, is the continued value of title-by-title selection in an online environment, where it has become easy to allow patron-driven and vendor-driven models to determine what is offered, excluding the librarians from the process. Does it make a difference who does selection? What acquisition model makes the library the most successful?

When a greater percentage of titles are selected individually by selectors and faculty, do users benefit? How does the institution benefit? Aside from offering better, more focused collections of titles thought to be significant or relevant, when librarians (and faculty) are more actively involved with title selection, are they not better equipped to encourage use by students? Are they more satisfied with the library if they can be involved with collection development?

Is there a difference in usage or the user experience of the library where there is more collection development activity, as opposed to the library’s functioning as a passive gateway to subscribed content?151

There are significant costs for college and university libraries to fully divest themselves of print. On a title-by-title basis, pbooks are still more cost effective for smaller campus libraries (see below, The real cost of ebooks ), and most books published today are not available in ebook format to be licensed by a library–at least, not for a few months or years after their print debuts. Those books available to be purchased by a library in ebook format represent a very small percent of book publications. Therefore, without print titles, our collections cannot remain current. We also have a difficult time promoting or raising awareness of ebooks in the library space. 

Our often misunderstood job as academic librarians and educators is not to satisfy demand for resources, but to stimulate it!

Libraries play a significant role not just in meeting needs or answering questions, but in creating them in the first place, stimulating demand for their own resources. 

Our collections should inspire wonder, curiosity, investigation, reaction and research. We cannot accomplish this without high collection visibility and a discernible commitment to maintaining quality content. 

Whether public or academic, our patrons don’t necessarily know what they want when they come into the library or come to our websites. Rather than looking for something in particular, they come to the library to browse, looking for something to like, something interesting, something that jumps out at them, something meaningful to them, to see what is new, or explore their chosen career. 

This is the aesthetic experience that a good library provides. Our websites should cultivate the same aesthetic, putting our content out in front to invite exploration of the invisible world of intellectual endeavor, scholarly pursuit and creativity. 

A good library collection is like a living thing, the substrate of intellectual life at the university, a colorful coral reef that the whole academic community feeds upon to nurture ideas, learning, knowledge creation and intellectual development. New books are the blooms. Primarily through its collections, the library serves as a visually and intellectually stimulating place for scholars and aspiring scholars to visit to gather ideas and explore. Good collections take years to develop. Kill off the reef and the fish are going elsewhere!

Choose wisely for your library and your university.

Down(sized) and Out(sourced) in the Digital Age:
From Academic Research Libraries to “Learning Centers”

he centripetal pull of new academic libraries away from content and collection activity in the disciplines to “collaboration” and student support seems to beg the question: Can college libraries simply subscribe to online databases and be done with it?

No need for librarians to be title selectors, as vendors (and patron-driven acquisitions programs) will select and manage ebooks and ejournals for us. No need for catalogers either, for Web-based discovery services are replacing them. Ex Libris, the largest academic library system and content aggregator, is positioning itself to sell universities a complete academic library in the cloud. Ex Libris has made the library ex libris. What will be the response from my fellow librarians then, I wonder? Arguing that it doesn’t meet our library standards for collections then will be a little too late. McLibraries of commodified content populated by annual license agreements are fine now and will be fine then. 

The thought seems to be that without collection development, collection management and technical services consuming so much of our space and energy, the academic library and its librarians can be liberated, transformed into something better and more useful to students. Library professionals in technical services will be freed up to do “more important things,” like instructing people how to use the discovery tool. 

At the same time, the focus of the new academic library/learning center is no longer on the provision of quality collections, engaging content, or ideas, or fostering communities of readers, but on seating arrangements to support individualized learning and study styles, innovative and inspiring architectural spaces, and offering various support services in partnership with other entities on campus.152 Space is allocated to group work with large screens (for collective viewing), video conferencing and the latest technology for brainstorming and motion capture (capturing the body language and hand gestures of participants). In other instances, there are only chairs and tables with outlets, for all library resources are available online.

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

or North Carolina State University’s Hunt library,

or Temple University’s Charles Library:

and countless others under construction or renovation at this time,153 154 books are not visible to patrons when they walk through the doors or in most places in the library.

Unlike traditional college or university libraries, in these new 21st century libraries / learning centers there may be no inducements for students to read–in any format, in print or online. 

There is no emphasis on interesting content, new books to encourage casual reading or awareness of the world of ideas and scholarship. There is nothing to stimulate meaning creation or intellectual engagement. There may be no perceptible collection development activity of any kind.

If research activity is going on, it is not perceptible to others–and it could be, through real-time data visualization of where scholars are going and what they are doing online (while respecting privacy, of course). There is no thought to building online communities, or how to bridge the gap between the online and physical library experience.

It is merely a comfortable, communal place for students to study their textbook and get assignments done. If there are print books, they are often treated as vestigial, placed out of view (away from high traffic areas), moved off to quiet study rooms, scattered around conversation areas to create atmosphere, or placed into low shelving units to not block sight lines to other people or disrupt the view of the outside world. Books may not hit one’s gaze as in traditional libraries, where the books located at eye level circulated more frequently.

The design concept for many new libraries is to achieve a feeling of transparency and openness, and to promote collaboration, rather than academic intimacy. Within the grand scale, open context and vastness of these new facilities, if there are publications, they may seem small and unimportant, niceties to complement the space, not thought an essential part of the user experience.

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

There is a peculiar rhetoric surrounding new academic library architecture which seeks to justify an enormous outlay for the creation of cavernous facilities, often with high ceilings and monumental staircases, glass walls and natural light, robotic storage and retrieval (RSRMs) and “smart” windows which can calculate the angle of the sun, the seasons, and position of the moon and stars, but nothing additional for the collections housed inside of them or anything more for resources offered online.

The rational, or assumption, seems to be that an inspirational building with computers is what drives learning in the 21st century. The building may be smart and technologically advanced, but what about its users? How are they “progressing”?

According to the Vice Provost and Director of NCSU Libraries, when planning the new Hunt Library,Our goal was to make a difference in the education and research of students, and something that made them want to become lifelong learners, so we decided on an iconic building.”155 This statement, along with recent trends to create bookless libraries, raises some interesting questions:

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

When planning the $170 million Charles Library at Temple University, a fantastic building which would serve as a collaboration space, “a place where intersections between all of the students and faculty and other folks who chance to be on this campus can occur.”156

No doubt, aesthetics is a very important part of the user experience of an academic library. Not only does it makes the library more enjoyable to users, and encourages them to stay, but it also symbolizes the value placed on scholarship and learning by the institution.

Without a comparable commitment to the provision of quality content and effective online strategies for promoting awareness of content, a building is just an empty gesture. 

The aesthetics of openness and transparency, and talk of collaboration of those who happen to walk through the door, is really the aesthetics of nothingness, and in many ways represents the very opposite of what a good library should be: a content-rich learning environment, where people are inspired to pursue meaning and knowledge creation on their own terms.

Campfires, Caves and Watering Holes: Librarianship for the Digital Dark Ages

he emphasis of the new academic library is on impressive architectural space and awe-inspiring technology, providing spaces for study, interaction with technology, the creation of digital media, social learning and above all, collaborationIn new libraries, collaboration is ostensibly the focus, while the stacks are drastically reduced or eliminated, pushed to the margins, and placed into less public, less visible, and less accessible locations. 

In a presentation given at my library, an architect from a prominent design firm explained to librarians the “new academic library” concept. According to him, the library is essentially comprised of three learning environments: the campfire (where the older generation, the faculty, pass knowledge down to the younger generation through stories), the watering hole (where people from different disciplines come together to socialize and share knowledge, or figure out what to do with the knowledge they got from the campfire the night before), and the cave (study rooms). I later discovered this came from an often quoted book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments by David Thornburg. 

Architects and new library advocates place emphasis on collaboration deriving from group study rooms, communal seating areas and chance encounters of students and faculty with each other in a common space on campus, a space everyone likes to visit because of its beautiful architecture and amenities (tables, computers, couches, whiteboards, study rooms and large screens), not necessarily, or even essentially, because of the library’s resources

Enabling conversation, facilitating social introductions, and promoting discussion are all folded into the idea of librarians as collaboration facilitators, but how we are to do this if scholars (people with knowledge) are not coming into our spaces? Indeed, facilitating collaboration is regarded by as a pre-eminent 21st century role for librarians by those in leadership of ACRL (Association for College and Research Libraries). In the conclusion of their report on the value of academic libraries in the 21st century, Brown and Malenfant emphasize our role as “campus connectors,” specifically within the outcomes assessment movement:

The higher education assessment movement provides a unique opportunity for library leadership. Academic librarians can serve as connectors and integrators, promoting a unified approach to assessment. As a neutral and well-regarded place on campus, the academic library can help break down traditional institutional silos and foster increased communication across the institutional community. Librarians can bring together people from a wide variety of constituencies for focused conversations and spark communities of action that advance institutional mission.52

Despite the authors’ insistence on libraries adopting an outcomes assessment framework, they themselves fail to explain how our new roles as “connectors and integrators,” which they recommend, can be meaningfully assessed according to the very outcomes framework they advocate. 

The impact of collaboration, or rather collaborative learning, which theoretically occurs in these newly renovated spaces, is frankly no more measurable or significant than the impact of collections, and from an assessment standpoint, cannot be differentiated from other forms of socializing. The impact of both, or each, is as immeasurable as the other.

Even if hi-tech collaborative learning or knowledge-sharing could be meaningfully captured and differentiated from mere socializing, the library still cannot lay claim to it any more than it can, or could, the learning or research which occurred from utilization of the print collection.

If collection usage (usage stats, circulation stats) is now trivialized as having no clear or demonstrable connection with student success (that is, “success” as defined by our parent institutions, not by the users themselves), and provision of quality content is thought to have no meaningful impact on student learning or the university’s business objectives–student enrollment, retention, persistence, graduation rates–surely collaboration cannot be a preferable substitute. Collaboration has no measurable outcomes which can be used to substantiate our value, which is a good thing because we do not know how to facilitate it anyway.

Truly, I love the emphasis on community creation and socializing in these new spaces. Having more people in the library, even if all they want is a cup of coffee, a comfy couch, wi-fi and a study place is not a bad thing. But whatever happened to our profession’s commitment to scholarship, research and publishing

t was hypothesized twenty-five years ago, when people first began speculating about the 21st century library, that in the future, only top-tier schools would continue to afford their students with access to print collections, and that there would be a widening gap between library “haves” and “have nots.” This not was because of the popularity of ebooks, but due to the skyrocketing cost of serials and electronic resources cannibalizing what remained of the print book budget. 

I cannot say for sure what is happening at newly renovated academic libraries across the country--I wish ACRL would tell us that in their annual member survey questions–but it does appear from library literature and websites that there has been a seismic shift, even in the largest and most well-funded libraries, from emphasis on collections, new publications or content–including new digital resources–toward remaking the library a kind of study hall offering customized learning environments (noisy, quiet, public, private, semi-private, low tables, high tables, sitting up or reclining, bright light or dim), and coffee bars, with various student support services tacked on. There is no discernible intellectual life in the library, it is just tables and chairs. 

Libraries have become the new student centers, funded by State legislators in the name of building a better library, but they offer no meaningful scholastic purpose over the old library. Libraries even at our most elite and competitive institutions are making their collaborative and creative work spaces top-level menu items on their websites, touting their furniture on wheels, tables, couches and available study spaces, rather than emphasizing their collections and scholarly content. 

Ten years ago, academic libraries would never have thought to devote prime real estate on their websites to promoting their comfortable couches. To do so would be inappropriate, sending precisely the wrong message. Representing the library as a study hall or computing lab was considered vulgar, and the wrong message to send to university administrators and faculty to maintain a healthy acquisitions budget (and of course, respect for what we do).

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

Research Help at Harvard’s famous Lamont Library is available only between the hours of noon and 5pm, while media help can be had from 9am until 10pm. 

Some older librarians may recall that from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the Harvard Lamont Library generated core bibliographies of what undergraduate libraries ought to have in their collections, called Books for College Libraries. Now they are featuring movable furniture, whiteboards and armchairs. 

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

What’s Available:

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

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

The focus on collaborative or group study spaces in libraries parallel broader educational trends which emphasize a greater degree of peer interaction, project-based learning, and providing real world work experience in the classroom. I do not mean to discount the numerous studies which show that students who study and interact with peers in college are happier, have a more positive outlook, and earn higher grades. It is only natural that students would want to study together, and the library is a logical place for this. But the library should aspire to be more than this.

Aside from being a place for collaboration and group study, the new university library is also typically envisioned as a learning laboratory where people from different disciplines gather together to tinker in maker-spaces and solve real world problems using 3D printers, laser cutters, and digital production studios. No one has called my library or come in asking for this technology. They have come in asking for books, though. 

While collaborative and more traditional text-based and individualized approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive modes of knowledge acquisition and learning, and can certainly co-exist in a library setting along with beautiful architecture, it nonetheless strikes me that the consistent focus in librarianship on dialogue, collaboration and consensus-oral modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission–over content, text-based and more individualized forms of learning, hearken back to a time before printing, books and libraries.  

If you thought libraries were unexciting places to be before, taking the books away and replacing them with more computers, more tables and chairs, seating on wheels, glass-walled study rooms, vacant space, engineered surfaces and whiteboards, are surely not likely to make them more interesting places to be. 

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

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

The Academic Library in the New Digital Dark Ages

alk is cheap? Well not anymore. Now, it requires video conferencing technology with hand-gesture recognition and brain-storming apps.158 Indeed, when people speak about library renovation projects, collaborative learning and videoconferencing spaces are often emphasized. It all sounds very promising.

But in an almost Orwellian fashion, we must get rid of books and paper, even the bulletin boards (“free speech areas”), in order to promote more modern, technically advanced and carefully monitored forms of expression which do not involve reading or writing. 

From a traditional librarian standpoint, much of this may make no sense. No one has come into my library asking for these things in recent years, but they have asked books–especially “book” books. No one has called about 3D printers or laser cutters either. They have asked for popular (leisure reading) books, which sadly, we do not have. We observe that people are more engaged in sticky note walls, the rebellion of the handwritten, than on slick graphics or modern spaces. We observe that when books are set out, people stop to look at them, even if they came in for some other reason. These things attract us because they are evidence of the human and they speak to our humanity. 

Let’s talk about collaboration. Realistically, how are we librarians to get people inside the library to collaborate? And once they do, how does this fulfill our educational mission as academic librarians? At the end of the day, are we not left with little more than empty spaces consisting of tables, chairs, computers and staircases? 

Admittedly, fewer people today are reading books, and reading is not looked upon as the sign of status it once was. In fact, one study mentioned that reading books may be a signal to others that one’s time is not in demand by anyone, therefore has a negative stigma attached to it. Despite its undeniable educational benefits, reading books is no longer viewed as a productive activity.

Even at a university, there is often limited capacity for people to make a connection between reading and academic successPractical, project-based, collaborative and hands-on, career-relevant learning at the university are now seen as superior ways to prepare students for the workforce of tomorrow, while book-learning, reading, or traditional lecture format are rejected as outmoded pedagogical methods. In Education, text and lecture based formats are eschewed for collaborative activity and group work to allow less prepared students to succeed in the classroom. 

Public libraries are also be vulnerable to a similar stigma with regard to reading. Sociologists have suggested that in today’s economy, busyness and overwork are status symbols, not leisure, enjoying cultural activities or reading books159 which may account for why the general public, when surveyed, express great interest in turning their public libraries into work spaces even when they do not necessarily have any real work to do. 

Libraries should strive to create a social context within which intellectual inquiry, reading and creativity are nurtured. This is the community we must try to build and support. That is our vocation.

In its defense, print still has many things going for it over ebooks, superior readability and visibility chief among its virtues–provided that you have a centrally located, accessible campus library. Print books can be more cost-effective for smaller campus libraries because the pricing does not include multi-user licensing or hosting in perpetuity on a third party platform which no one knows will be around in ten years.

Most importantly, though, is that “reading matter” placed front and center signifies to others that reading matters.

The presence of reading material in the library space signifies community value. Ideally, one could browse the book in the library, but be able to download it to take it with you. 

Administrators often speak about the library’s going online or being online as a selling point, especially for marketing its graduate programs. But what does it really mean for a university library “to be” online in the Digital Age? How do we effectively market our collections to turn people to things they might like or want to know about? What strategies do libraries need to employ to promote learning?

Given the consolidation of library automation system software vendors, can librarians even propose standards for our online catalogs and discovery tools, or must we now simply accept whatever is given to us by our vendors? 

Bookshelf browsing, virtual newsstands (like Browzine), and other visual navigation applications to facilitate an enjoyable, intuitive browsing experience are overdue as enhancements to the front end of academic library systems, as is personalization, the ability to present users with new content that is of interest to them when they come to the library’s site.

Certainly, the common limitation of ten results to a page, when the system often boasts so many relevant items, is tedious for users to navigate. As mentioned above, there are alternatives to ranked search engine lists, such as those which cluster results, provide for disambiguation, and visual navigation for a more intuitive search experience. 

Libraries might also benefit from what e-commerce already has to woo customers, presenting things they might like, and we also must be able to represent online an actual library collection as such, rather than simply presenting ways to conveniently parse though indexed metadata of third-party aggregated content so someone can find it, should they want to. That does not lend meaning and value to our content or our profession.

The user experience of a good collection–both in print or online–promotes creativity and independent learning, precisely the same sort of open-ended and unstructured creative exploration people are trying to facilitate though maker-spaces and more collaborative modes of instruction. We need to afford users a better user experience of the library online so that it can be more closely tied to education, not in terms of classroom learning objectives, but it in terms of disciplinary and cultural knowledge. We also must be able to effectively operate on the level of titles and publications. 

Many challenges are now before us. As a society, seem to be returning to a kind of primitivism and literalism associated with backwards and oral cultures, where people actually can’t learn unless they see it and experience it for themselves. For various reasons many have guessed at, people are losing the will and the ability to read.160 This phenomenon has been dubbed “secondary orality,” a return to orality by post-literate societies. 

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

But after the facility is built and the dust has settled, what then? Where are the impact studies by libraries who have fully transitioned to the new concept? Is it progress or regression? Is it the Enlightenment or a new digital Dark Ages?

Does it produce literate or enlightened people or promote ignorance?

From what I have been able to ascertain so far based on anecdotal evidence, is that no one in my discipline seems to know how to get people to collaborate, mentor and share knowledge once the old spaces are renovated or new facilities are built161, or how to differentiate collaborative learning from other less important forms of social interaction in order to arrive at measurable outcomes for our assessment plans. 

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

Of course, if more people are coming in, for whatever reason, even just to sit on our comfy couches or retreat into caves, they are more likely to talk to a librarian who can then clue them in to all that which great content we have which may not be apparent to them. 

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

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

Despite protests by library users and faculty when initiatives to eliminate print are implemented or proposed, and even after similar projects are deemed failures and the books are brought back–for example with the Cushing Academy’s celebrated bookless library162 163–this trend of getting rid of print, placing books out of sight, into underground storage lockers, into compact shelving, into low traffic areas, or incorporating them as meaningless abstractions into a comprehensive design scheme continues to trend upward in buildings called libraries.

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

I would say replacing a large portion of the traditional library, but despite the enthusiastic participation of library directors in creating these promising new spaces (which open right before they retire), I’m not sure others in the college and university administration regard media labs, maker-spaces, and smart classrooms as belonging to the library. Librarians who resist these trends with skepticism or scholarly research, risk criticism on many fronts, by administrators looking for ways to save money, by those wishing to be regarded by others as forward-thinking, by an insecure older generation fearing to appear obsolete, and most of all, by architectural design firms who are eager for commissions to design unique and expensive buildings called libraries, but which in no way promote resource use or library learning.

Architectural rendering of a new modern library (can’t find the source, most unlibrarian-like of me!). This is a typical design, where books and resources are not visible in the entrance way or on the first floor. It is harder to promote content or cultivate readers in this sort of modern library space.

Library Journal, American Libraries and other library publications routinely showcase the new academic library architecture without ever mentioning the impact these vacuous facilities are having on acquisitions budgets, professional staffing levels and usage of resources. After new libraries are erected or renovated, and the ribbons are cut, the library appears to be reduced to promoting its (empty) spaces, their furniture on wheels, and the same instructional services as before. 

I think it is great that libraries are striving to become more social places. I really do. Libraries were never really the stultifying study halls or book warehouses some new library advocates make them out to be.

Students have always been able to study and socialize in libraries, and relaxed food and drink policies have been the norm for most libraries since I graduated from library school in 1990. Many libraries were built with cafes in them. There is nothing 21st century about the combination of coffee, books, and people, or comfortable seating. Drinks allow for minute mental breaks which are needed to sustain prolonged focus. 

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

Younger university administrators also are less likely to be champions of the library, believing that books are not needed in any format for students to be successful in their degree plans. In their minds, the success of online degree programs have largely proved the irrelevance of the physical library and print collections to the mission of the university. All students require are their textbooks and access to Blackboard, and the library is only something to be concerned with when it comes time for accreditation review.

Many within a university administration do not understand or appreciate the extent to which a well-stocked, well-maintained library is a key marketing tool for the university, and that books contribute to the operation of the university as such. The library is the ultimate resource for demonstrating student-centeredness and care, precisely because many of the books in the library are there to support have the students’ own definition of success, not because they must be used to be successful in degree programs.

Because it is just a bit gratuitous, good library collection is the ultimate reflection of genuine student-centeredness on a college campus.

Nevertheless, for the first time in academic library history, books are an albatros we must be liberated from.

The rationale is, “Get rid of print,” and we librarians will be freed up to do more important things–like helping students (as if we’ve always not done both, thank you very much). Get rid of the books, and people will want to come to the library once again. Get rid of books, and our students will be forced to embrace new technologies and be better prepared to enter the workforce. 

Even though new titles are rarely available to libraries in digital format for many months after their print debut, the book is viewed as an outdated product 164 that many library directors and administrators are eager to distance themselves from for a variety of reasons, some valid, and some not. 

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

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

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

Despite the strong movement forward, some still find the concept of a digital library uncomfortable. When the director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Medical Library announced last year that the library was going online only and closing its physical doors, the Johns Hopkins constituency shrieked and formed a committee (Nichols 2013). However, the transition has since moved along and from the outside looks both inevitable and wonderfully enviable (Michael 2013). Instruction librarians are in a discrete space, while the emphasis of the collection is on digital holdings. This model speaks to the essential, core functions of an academic library: collection and instruction. 165

Librarians may feel pressured to reiterate exaggerated claims about “the cost to warehouse a book on the shelf” each year–about $4.20–taken from a very impressive analysis done by economist Paul N. Courant, who was on the board of several large scale book digitization ventures 80 when published that study (2010), and concluded:

Finally, we note that the argument in favor of moving toward digital versions of books and sharing both electronic and print collections is further enhanced when we recognize that university libraries tend to be located on prime real estate, and that there are uses of central campus stack space—for classrooms, study, offices, and enhanced library services, among others—that would be far more valuable than using that space to store materials most of which are used rarely, provided that access to the materials in aggregate could still be provided reliably. 167

His figure of $4.20 per annum per book has been repeated so often at library conferences and in Power Point slides, even in Newsweek,168 it has become a factoid,169 a perfect example of what happens when articles are mined for information and not read critically for bias. He was selling digitization services, after all.

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

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

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

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

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

The high price for e-books is not that surprising as most pricing models for academic ebooks generally add a high percentage to the list price for the purchase of e-books. Multi-user licenses are an even larger percentage. In most situations, even-single user academic e-book titles are more expensive than their print counterparts.” 170

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

Another factor is scalability, that many users could potentially access the book at the same time. This a great benefit for large academic institutions, but smaller and medium-sized libraries cannot benefit as much from economies of scale.

Ebooks usually do not represent a significant cost savings over print unless the library is buying a package of oddball academic titles, UK imprints, dated titles, or things that the publisher can’t move in print any longer, in which case the book is valued at less than list price for print. What goes into a content aggregator’s ebook package is based not on careful vetting by librarians but blanket publisher agreements. They are commodities, like soybeans. The success of the aggregator depends on negotiations with traditional print publishers to digitize, aggregate and monetize their back-stock, called “backlist” titles. These aggregations are not “collections” in a librarian’s sense of the word. They are merely chum-buckets of aggregated content no longer able to monetized in print by the publisher. Not there is not anything good in them, but they do not represent the current state of the discipline, nor do they pretend to.

However, only those already familiar with a discipline, educated people, may appreciate the difference in quality between a package of academic ebook titles and an actual library collection. If the priority is providing relevant ebooks so students can complete a writing assignment, aggregates of ebooks are fine. If the priority is doing research in a discipline, they miss the mark.

Most academic libraries already buy large ebook packages, but deliberately excluded from these subscription packages are front list titles, newer titles and titles in demand, which the vendor hopes to sell to the library individually at a higher price. Better titles get added to the online platform at a premium cost to the library.

More concerning to me is that there is a psycho-social aspect of ebooks which discourages users from actually reading them. Since no personal investment appears to have been made by anyone in selecting the titles, and no great expense appears to have been made by the university to acquire them–since everyone outside the library believes ebooks to be dirt cheap anyway–why should our students place any value on them? Why would they want to read them? To them, ebooks appear to be items called up and used when needed to write a paper or complete an assignment, and then are to be forgotten about. Ebooks are merely commodities. There is no sense of permanence or influence, that these titles mean anything to anyone. 

No one honestly expects others to have read or heard of an ebook they come across in an academic ebook collection, but I believe the same is not the case with print books in an authoritative, up-to-date library collection. Print books are still seen as more “legit” in the eyes of young users, and they are correct: if it’s on the shelves in the library, at least a few other people think the book is worthwhile.  

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

Tangible Outcomes from Intangible Goods:
Assessing the Value of the Academic Library 

Philosophies of librarianship are part of a larger trend of libraries requiring librarians to re-invent and market themselves to demonstrate their value at a time when the institution of the library, and its relationship to the rest of the university, is under increased scrutiny and attack. The challenge is a difficult one, and also new. Historically, administrations questioned whether their library was good, and perhaps how we librarians knew it was good, not whether a library was needed

No one was requiring personal philosophies of librarianship or annual self-justifications to keep one’s job, either (they don’t where I work, but at some university libraries they do each year). They were expecting the library to come up with metrics and measures which tied to library-centric goal, not forcing them to justify their existence through measurable business objectives. 

The decline in the perceived relevance of college and academic libraries can be accounted for in many ways.

The most obvious cause is an increased reliance by administrators and scholars on information resources found on the Internet.

Today, neither the physical library nor the library’s website is the first place people begin their research. Rather than checking our catalogs and online resources first, researchers find content they might like on Google Scholar or on publisher platforms, and then check to see if the library has them. People come to the library and the library’s website not as a starting point for research, but often as a last resort to obtain a known item they learned about some place else. If all we offer is access, we have already lost the battle. Scholars have no compelling reason to come to the library or its website. We give them no reason.

Our interfaces are not interesting for students and scholars to browse. As I see it, a modern library is a content provider like Amazon and Netflix, but, for various reasons, our catalogs and user interfaces have not evolved into the kind of intuitive, content-rich environments that might allow us to compete for our users’ attention with commercial entities whose websites people actually enjoy visiting and browsing.171 

The library profession has become dependent on vendors even for much of our professional development, our content, our systems and our web services. There has been so much industry consolidation, we don’t have much choice. We must deal with products and tools which do not integrate well with each other by design, because our vendors are in competition with each other. EBSCO won’t provide metadata to ProQuest’s Primo Central and ProQuest doesn’t allow EBSCO to automatically harvest catalog data to support EBSCO’s Discovery tool, EDS. 

We permit, even promote, branding (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Gale-Cengage, etc.) instead of white labeling. We take it for granted that patrons will be driven away from the library’s website off to various third-party commercial platforms for doing research. We inadvertently end up with multiple (vendor-created) pseudo-home pages, as vendors–Credo Reference, SpringShare LibGuides, ProQuest and EBSCO–encourage the library to customize a landing page with their search own box on it. 

Compounding the problem is the necessity to create responsive (scaled to mobile devices) websites, which has made it even more difficult to place content where users can see it when they land on our sites. It had become more difficult to design content-heavy websites (to promote content and services), because mobile friendly designs collapse the home page into a screen-sized menu. A further barrier to putting content where it might be seen is being contained inside an institutional CMS.

Libraries are in the process of becoming that which they previously sought to avoid, becoming a “repository” through ineffective marketing and poor designs which communicate that collections do not matter, despite what our users say and surveys show. I believe that, even in this age of Google, scholarly content is what matters most to our users in the university, and this should be emphasized in the design of our facilities, our websites, and our assessment models.

Legitimization, Outcomes Assessment, and the New Grand Narrative in Librarianship172

One of the most influential trends over the last 30 years in academic librarianship has been to devise new ways to assess library quality and effectiveness, and not just in-and-of-itself (i.e., “Is the library good?“), but within the context of the goals, objectives, and business management methods (“Quality Assessment”) employed by their parent institutions to evaluate institutional effectiveness, sometimes referred to as the “Institutional Effectiveness Plan” or “Quality Assessment Plan.”173

One person aptly referred to this phenomenon as the “outcomes assessment movement.” 174

This approach has also become a relatively new (since 2011) best practice, or standard, for academic librarians, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL Standards in Libraries in Higher Education), the professional association for college and academic librarians. By the standard committee’s own admission, the 2011 standard 175 represents a shift in the way libraries are to think about assessment, in terms of methodology (must be “outcomes-based”) and emphasis (prioritizing the achievement of institutional and departmental instructional objectives, instead of those internal to the library):

These Standards differ from previous versions by articulating expectations for library contributions to institutional effectiveness. These Standards differ structurally by providing a comprehensive framework using an outcomes-based approach, with evidence collected in ways most appropriate for each institution.176

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

According to ACRL, we are to adopt the goals, objectives and outcomes of our respective institutions, including other departments and even student affairs as our own to facilitate greater partnerships across institutional boundaries, and establish our relevance accordingly.177 And we are to demonstrate our effectiveness by measurable and verifiable (evidence) assessment outcomes tied to the goals of the institution.

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

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

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

Also, because accreditation standards are intended to be minimum standards, if the word “library” is dropped and replaced by “learning and information resources,” as has already happened in several places in SACS,178 it is surely with the understanding that small colleges with limited enrollments, or online colleges, or vocational schools, can still obtain institutional accreditation for their programs even if they lack libraries.

The wording of regional accreditation guidelines is not intended to be a checkered flag for universities to divest themselves of their libraries, or to downgrade them into LRCs, which require neither a library collection nor any professional librarians to maintain.179 Nor is it intended to encourage the provision of merely adequate resources by the library–whatever might be construed as the defensible minimum needed to pass an accreditation review. 

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

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

The Rube Goldberg Machine: Managerialism in the Academic Library

any faculty members have decried the rise of “managerialism”180 or an increasing corporate orientation in the university.181 182 183 The best definition of managerialism I have come across is “an exaggerated belief by professional managers in the value of the management concepts and methods they use, regardless of the unique values, culture and methodology of the organizations they manage”; the notion, for example, “that the same principles, values and methodology can be applied to managing a university, a hospital, a TV station, a car factory, a chain of coffee shops or an army.”184 Some have argued that corporate culture threatens to undermine or erode the humanistic and intellectual ideals of the university.

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

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

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

At a university, academic librarians support student success, not just as defined by the university, but also as defined by the student, helping him achieve his educational goals and research objectives regardless of whether or not it is needed for a particular class assignment.

We support the student’s acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge, and therefore offer significant titles on a regular and timely basis, even if we cannot tell if this is helping students complete their degree pans. We also serve the faculty, whose research and publishing activity usually does not directly serve the business interests of university either. 

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

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

The library will always be a cost center, never able to justify itself financially though a measurable impact on GPAs and retention rates. In fact, operating within a strictly institutional or business framework, where the library’s goals have become one with that of their administration, the most successful and effective library manager could conceivably be one who spends as little as possible on library resources, but still manages to skate through an accreditation review. Arguably, this would be the most accountable way to go, but it is not a recipe for a good library.

This isn’t good for students or faculty, or for libraries or librarians–who will surely have difficulty “partnering with faculty” (one of the stated goals of the new ACRL standard) if the materials that they and their students expect to find in the library are never there, if users are routinely compelled to use other libraries to access significant or core titles in their disciplines, or forced to buy the books they need to support their research interests. Over time, if collections are not maintained, demand for the library’s services will drop off, and suspicions by decision makers that the library or books or librarians are no longer needed will be confirmed by low circulation statistics. 

The new ACRL standard was intended to promote greater collaboration and to advance our roles as partners educating students and contributing to their success.185 However, real collaboration is a two way street: partnering is more than just our teaching information literacy courses.

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

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

Measuring the tangible impact of an intangible good. The business strategy of aligning with institutional goals and objectives, specifically institutional quality assessment plans, is particularly problematic for academic research libraries for the reason that the impact of their collections on users cannot be assessed through any objective measures that can be tied back to “student success,” as defined by the university’s quality assessment/enhancement plans.186

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

Few libraries exist in a vacuum, accountable only to themselves. There is this always a larger context for assessing library quality, that is what and how well does the library contribute to the overall goals of the parent consistencies? The major objective for academic libraries, especially in an environment of increasing academic pressure, structural change, and technological innovation, must be to align themselves with the structures of higher education and the criteria by which these institutions are judged.187

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

. . . still lacking are agreed upon and objective ways to measure and incorporate library value into such processes as academic accreditation, educational assessment, and ratings of graduate programs.188

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

By making institutional outcomes our exclusive focus, it is easy for academic librarians to forget who we are, and why most of us got our degrees in Library Science–which I doubt was to “teach Information Literacy,” “support the curriculum” or to “improve institutional outcomes,” or any of the other objectives found in librarian philosophies and in newly minted mission statements.189 Not that these are not worthwhile objectives, but they are too narrow, and they miss the point of the library.

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

This experience is what I call “the aesthetic.”

The aesthetic is the value-add which cannot be measured, the subjective experience of self-actualization and self-determination fostered by a great library collection. It is the thought that “this book was put here for me to find” by someone who knows or cares.

Of course, “greatness” is subjective and not measurable (there are surveys, of course, and usage stats), an aesthetic judgment, which are to be avoided when it comes to all types of quality assessment planning. It is the library sublime. The aesthetic is experientialThis poses quite a philosophical dilemma for libraries.  Aesthetic judgments, judgments about quality cannot be completely rationalized or measured.

As the philosopher Kant maintained, they are beyond reason. This doesn’t mean aesthetic judgments are irrational, but that rational modes of analysis can carry us only so far. In addition, libraries are compelled to maintain collections in a state of readiness, in anticipation of use; the sum of the whole–a collection–is greater than its parts, another challenge for evaluation.

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

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

Libraries have always attempted to measure themselves and their services to evaluate their effectiveness, impact on users, or “goodness.” This is nothing new. Some have even criticized the discipline for its seemingly unbridled enthusiasm for measurement, for being “confounded from the outset” by false “certainties of empiricism” stemming from the fact it regards itself as a science, and takes as its domain information.190 I have worked in libraries which felt like a continuous time-motion study.

For many reasons both theoretical and practical–whether stemming from professional orientation, need for greater accountability, or job insecurity–librarians already do tend to place great emphasis on empirical data, inputs (budgets, size of collections) and outputs (circulation, reference questions answered, usage stats), ratios (percent of budget spent to support certain programs, numbers of books per student per major) and performance measures which, regrettably, cannot ever be meaningfully tied to user outcomes, and which therefore “do not assist managers in providing a true picture of libraries to the lives of our users. . . “191

For many academic libraries, and particularly those in Southern states,192 “Quality Assessment” has presented new and interesting measurement challenges, tantamount to devising Rube Goldberg Machine that will, at the end of the day, reveal and heighten our impact on the much larger machinery of institutional outcomes assessment.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The sort of accountability required by institutional quality assessment plans inevitably entails both measurement and outcomes, but the library profession has never been able to successfully arrive at meaningful measures linked to outcomes.28

And it isn’t for a lack of effort or focus on the problem, which are further exacerbated by a failure to recognize or accept that academic libraries are about the subjective experience of users–I call it “the aesthetic”–including browsing, familiarizing oneself with a discipline, reading for enjoyment (often because users find it interesting/significant/relevant), seeing what is new, reacting to the works and ideas of others, and, perhaps most cherished by users, “serendipitous discovery.”194

We librarians deal for the most part in the realm of private experience, in intangible goods, intellectual freight, but we are expected to deliver, or provide an accounting of, our tangible value so university administrators can see a return on investment.195 If we do have measurable user or student outcomes, they are often contrived for the sake of satisfying our QA plan, and usually involve those charged with Public Service and teaching Information Literacy courses, because there is evidence of student engagement.

By what mechanism is the library evaluated, in terms of its impact, other than this limited intervention, or Reference stats? We cannot lay any claim to research and publications by the faculty, even though our resources and access services support them.

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

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

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


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

Another issue fundamental to our identity as academic librarians is a commitment to students and faculty, specifically to the individual’s pursuit of knowledge. By adopting as our highest aspirations institutional goals as defined by external IE/QA plans (plans shaped exclusively by goals and objectives for institutional accreditation, rather than library standards), as ACRL has now advised196, we are moving away from a holistic model of librarianship, in which the user defines his success, towards one that is narrow, passive, unambitious and not actually user-centered, but institutional: we merely “support the curriculum” with “adequate resources” rather than (more idealistically) helping our students obtain disciplinary knowledge, our faculty keep up with trends in their field.

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

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

One would assume that promoting self-directed and independent learning at all levels–from leisure reading for college students to original research for publication for upper division and graduate students–would be fundamental to the core values of lifelong learning and academic achievement, principles we are supposed to be instilling in students.197 But even the seemingly straightforward concept of lifelong learning has been co-opted by what Elmborg alludes to as a “neoliberalist” agenda, as opposed to the more idealistic values traditionally upheld by the library profession:

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

From the administrative point of view, lifelong learning is most easily translated into a task-driven, programmatic initiative that can be easily assessed and measured for short-term success. From the pedagogical point of view, lifelong learning is translated through great effort into the problem-posing, one-on-one exploration whose outcomes are fuzzy and may not be measurable for years to come. It might be naïve to suggest that libraries should defy the spirit of the age, denounce neoliberalism, and make a pure stand for social justice and democratic pedagogy. However, it seems equally unwise to embrace a neoliberal worldview that is openly hostile to almost everything that libraries profess to represent in their core values.198

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Why Academic Libraries Still Matter in the Age of Google

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

Anyway, the entire library shouldn’t revolve around “me” or my services (some days it seems like it does, but I know it doesn’t). I want people to benefit from and enjoy the library itself, without me. Thankfully, many people use the library regularly without ever needing to consult with a librarian, because if they did, that would be frustrating both to them and to me. Even back in the day before Google, which I am old enough to remember, few who used the library ever needed to consult with librarians. This may come as a shock to some but it is true. Using the card catalog, most users managed to navigate to the resources they were seeking without our help, and most came in to browse and stimulate their own creativity and interests, not necessarily to find answers to pre-existing questions. They were pursuing knowledge of a subject area or inspiration, something to like, not answers to pre-defined questions. They come to wander around and stimulate their own creativity.

When I speak to students, I am merely the messenger. I try to represent good published authorities and the peer-reviewed word. I represent resources which impart disciplinary knowledge. That is what the academic library as a whole ideally does better than Google and Google Scholar.

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

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

Awareness of authorities and trends in a discipline defines a person as a professional. Libraries have a vital role to play in this aspect of a student’s professional education, but only if we are able to present selective, quality collections as such.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would have been preferable to me had ACRL also succeeded in making the “library” part of the library less expendable through its various publications and roadshows teaching librarians how to make a case for themselves.

I mentioned earlier a trend in the literature of library assessment of marginalizing the role and value of collections, or proclaiming them to be irrelevant to the success or quality of the library. Although we try to carve out new roles, in most instances, computer labs, tutoring, student affairs and online learning are handled by other entities on campus. The only thing that makes the library unique, relevant and effective to our users are our collections, our scholarly content, and the provision of support services related to these. 

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

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

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

    • Obviously, if your collection is inadequate, your users must resort to interlibrary loan for items which probably ought to be in your circulating collection. ILL service may be heavily used, responsive and popular with your patrons, but you are still providing users with poor service if they must resort to borrowing materials that should be in the library in the first place.
    • In information literacy classes, we teach students how to evaluate resources, with currency being a factor. A dated or poorly maintained collection reflects poorly on our own instructional objectives and professional competence. 
    • The number of questions received at the service desk should not be confused with, or used to justify, the “value” of library services. A high number of questions relative to resource use are often signs of unresolved problems and poor customer service, not evidence of value.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Library Assessment Plans are often a Rube Goldberg Machine

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

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

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

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

Consider that many goals in life are worth striving for, even if they are widely held to be unachievable: objectivity, beauty, wisdom, insight, truth and knowledge, to name a few.

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

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

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

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

It is an intangible, but intangible does not make it inconsequential.

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

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

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

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

What people experience and value about academic libraries are primarily their own responses to a collection of works which they perceive to be relevant and interesting to them. Academic libraries are, in essence, collections of research that inspire research. If there is no discernible collection (but simply an aggregation of content) and it does not inspire people. It does not inspire research. It is human nature to care about what others care about, which is why curation adds value and intellectual interest to a library. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The information model made popular twenty-five years ago, when library studies morphed into information science, was a very convenient but limited model of what a library is and should be.

According to that model, people come to the library to satisfy information needs–or get assistance fulfilling requirements for assignments–rather than seeking a kind of self-directed experience “wandering through the woods and tasting the unexpected berries.”

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

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

Patrons don’t come to the library primarily for our services. Even before the Internet, a time which I remember, people used the library without asking for assistance. They come for resources relevant to their interests, and to keep up with what’s new in their field of study. 

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

Even a small library with a small budget should strive to immerse students in a world of ideas. It should be content-rich.

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

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

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

This one is really good too:

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

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

Building Content-Rich Environments. Many enrolled in academic programs today would rather browse for books on Amazon and Google Books than in the library catalog. They would rather search for articles and information on Google (and Google Scholar) than in the library’s electronic databases. Libraries must afford a better, more interesting, content-rich online browsing experience.

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


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


Make sites more about the content that our users might want or find appealing, less about us librarians and our services. Make it a site that appeals to scholars and scholarship.

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

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

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

Putting the Library back into Librarianship.

Librarians may not be able to compete with Google or Amazon, but there are things we can do to make our libraries more appealing to our constituents:

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

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

Information Literacy and Instruction. A large study of California college library mission statements in 2006 “Thinking Boldly!199 concluded that many library mission statements have replaced “building strong collections” with “teaching information literacy.”

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

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

This is a pretty typical PoL:

I acknowledge that libraries as an institution have a broader purpose, but in every library, librarians exist to teach people how to access and use information. Our role as educators and teachers is what makes us unique. In short, I see the heart and soul of libraries in information literacy.– Kim, “Our Philosophies of Librarianship,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. Oct. 17, 2012. 200University libraries who can afford it are hiring “Information Literacy Librarians” and “First-year Experience Instruction Librarians” to teach Freshmen the basics of how to find, evaluate and use information.

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

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

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

What is most interesting to me is how now so many older librarians (since I am one, I can speak freely) express utter disdain toward the traditional library and print, arguing that it costs x amount of money to “warehouse” each title/year “just in case” someone needs it. This warehouse/repository is a straw man to serve the purpose of ebook salesmen and people who have no use for books of any kind. The ebook “repository” is even more costly than the one that was just eliminated, but its use, or lack thereof, is invisible. The problem is with being a repository, not with the format.

Once treated with a kind of reverence as works, books have now become dusty, unclean and obsolete, a whole lot of trouble to keep on the shelves, and not worth the expense. They say that online and on demand is what the library should be in the 21st century. Books are a thing of the past, with only 0-13% of the academic library budget now going to them. 

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


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

Bookless Libraries: Progress or Decline?

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

At this time, modern, very spacious minimalist libraries without physical books are in fashion, and those libraries that have books are drastically reducing their numbers and placing them on the periphery, into storage, or completely out of sight, making it more difficult for patrons to discover them, undermining the browsing experience, and reducing the learning and research opportunities which come about through browsing. 

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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