An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship (A Book in Progress)

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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 (due in part to unexpected road construction on the toll road), 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 a job promising 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 indefinitely. Eighteen months later, I was spinning my wheels, tweaking my project’s Business Requirements Documents (BRDs), studying for the PMP exam, driving to an office being converted into data center on the other side of town where the decision-makers and stakeholders no longer officed, logging hours to a project that clearly wasn’t happening. 

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 the 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 or else not related to the job. 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, records and reporting. 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:

neverexplain

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 determine first how it relates to an assignment before deciding to assist them.) It may not be measurable. There is no test. Heavy library users use the library because they are intellectually curious and want to learn about the world around them.

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 and librarians have been the subject of reinvention, renovation, experimentation and elimination over the last thirty years.

Many believe that engineered facilities designed for collaboration and extended study are a better use of the library’s physical space than using it to “warehouse print materials”—which, for what it is worth, is not what a good academic library ever did, or why it needed degreed librarians (and quite often people with second master’s degrees and doctorates) to work in them, but how it has come to be dimly perceived by many outside of the library field. 

On some level, this trope of the library as a book warehouse is also an example of what philosophers might call a reification,12 taking something intended to be experienced on an abstract, intellectual, aesthetic, social or symbolic level and stripping it down, often for pernicious purposes, to some bare concrete form, e.g., a house is just a roof over one’s head, a church is just a meeting place. People who work in officers are paper pushers. Library as a book warehouse has been used by ebook vendors13 and architects to advocate for a new vision of the library as a kind of vibrant collaborative space, an intellectual hub, much more cost effective and efficient than what preceded them. It has been used to sell their services, with the attitude that anything is better than what the library could potentially offer, even an empty space. Like the courtiers and townsfolk in The Emperor’s New Clothes, we are encouraged to look upon an empty space as a modern library instead of what it really is.

Of course, the good library of old was never a book warehouse to those who valued them. A good academic library was a place which reflected and reinforced the values and tastes of people who were educated, self-directed and interested in the world around them. At a university, it reflected activity in the scholarly disciplines supported by the university. It reflected and communicated shared knowledge, what other people thought significant and good. The library was a content-rich learning environment which sought to create a certain kind of intellectual and aesthetic experience through the medium of its collections. It sought to educate people, and encourage reading.

On the other hand, library work, education and access models have all changed since I got my degree over 30 years ago, with many people, even some librarians, not knowing what they are for anymore, or how librarians add value other than to help people who do not seem to need or want our help very often. 

Unfortunately, the experience described on Reddit by this newly minted librarian in her first academic library job is all too common in our field:

So my issue is that, about 2 months in and it feels like there almost isn’t even a need for this position. Thus far I occasionally take a desk supervisor shift at the front desk – mostly on the weekends when I work – although that goes mostly to our undergrad student assistants and graduate assistants. I usually enjoy this the most because I get to help and interact with the students. When I’m not at the front desk I’m usually back in my office area…doing not a whole lot. Recently I have had to keep asking my boss for things to do because there have been several days where I did absolutely nothing for 8 hours. Tasks I have done in the past is go through lists of patrons to weed out those who owe less than are fine limit, decorate our office bulletin board for the season or holiday, do a bulletin for our student committee, and I helped hand out free t-shirts at one of our programs once…

The thing is that obviously this is easy money, and some people I talk to are like, ‘I’d love that, you don’t have to do anything’ but I want to be doing work, I want to be in this field so I want to continue gaining experience and learning, and I currently feel like I’m just sitting around.

Obviously there are days I enjoy that but most of the time it is insanely boring and feels disappointing. I feel like I shouldn’t constantly have to ask, ‘hey what can i do?’, and yet it doesn’t seem like I have any daily tasks except to check to give student assistants breaks.14

Due to a whole host of factors, many of them seemingly beyond our control (but they are not, or I would not be writing this), academic librarians today may be the most underutilized resource on a college campus, unless they are strategically and deliberately integrated into the departments to support the educational, instructional and publishing initiatives of students and faculty. But even then, the lack of knowledge-centric approaches inside of libraries, the lack of provision for quality collections, which we have almost universally exchanged for the convenience of an e-resource discovery model, has transformed the library into being a search engine competing with more specialized, commerical subject-specific search engines that faculty often prefer. Our library management systems must be optimized for the display of titles in collections, not simply the discovery of content which lives on third-party websites.

I see libraries as fundamentally experiential, providing an aesthetic and intellectual experience grounded in shared cultural and disciplinary knowledge, not so much about “potentially useful scholarly resources” or information in the abstract. Access to subscription content is important, but not nearly as important as strategizing how to get people to engage with content in the first place. In higher education, the classroom and the library should be on equal footing, with the library about support for independent learning and acquisition of knowledge outside of a specific class assignment.

Contextualization of works in academic collections creates a good user experience and supports user engagement. It is an important part of what we do, and moreover is something that Google or a search engine does not do. Library classification and descriptive cataloging help scholars make meaningful connections between titles. Librarianship done right provides for an ideal user experience of intellectual works. The collection presents the bodies of knowledge corresponding to the academic degrees offered by the school. 

What I am suggesting is that as academic librarians, we must define what our business and organizational requirements, along with our user experience, educational outcomes and our stakeholders, and not let vendors, architects, system designers or other departments of the university define us. No, we are not just an architectural “space,” as architects are inclined to see us, we are services; and these must be made visible in the space. The collection itself is a preeminent service, and one which lends credibility to the university.

I believe that, especially in this digital age, library collections are our primary service, our value add, and what makes the library a good and interesting place for scholars and academic library users. By becoming merely about access to commercial resources, indexed aggregations of various third-party digital content acquired in bulk packages, the academic library did not actually evolve according to our own professional ethos. It slipped backwards into what library Collection Development warned us against: becoming a repository lacking academic rigor, personal appeal, interest and vibrancy. We must get beyond being just an index.

The “new library Gothic.” Admittedly, the image of the librarian and our unshakeable association with the book format have long been perceived as albatrosses around our necks.

Recently, librarians were horrified when Bill Maher made cracks at our expense along the lines of “Oh, pleasewhy does anyone need a master’s degree to shelve books?”15 If he thinks the entry-level requirements for “wannabe librarians” are absurdfrom what I gleaned viewing older videos which mentioned librarians, he also thinks public libraries are a waste of moneyhe might be surprised to learn that the requirements to become a School Librarian in most states, including my own state of Texas, are far in excess of the MLIS degree.16 

Public opinion and Bill Maher aside, it would appear that academic librarianship has recently hit a new low, ironically at a time when new academic libraries without any visible collections are being built at college campuses everywhere. Now that we have gotten rid of the books to become more of a social space, how is that working out?

Indeed, some librarians have proposed that libraries are now simply “about” their facilities,17 being a work or meeting space, a venue, or student support/tutoring center. The many new college and university libraries constructed around this ideal in recent years (some which are pictured in this book), exemplify a trend which I call the “new library Gothic.” In the new library Gothic, glass and open concept buildings with various centralized seating arrangements and controlled natural light (offset by energy efficient artificial light) are the defining characteristics of the space, which is constructed around the ideal of collaboration (a popular trend in education), and not so much “raising literacy levels” or communicating shared knowledge, our former library educational objectives. What is illuminated is an empty atrium, a light filled cavernous space. How well these new designs work for a college campus library is really an unknown, since libraries have no measurable learning outcomes of their own, a stumbling block when it comes to assessment and demonstrating value in educational settings; yet, this vacuous space ripe for repurposing, has become the standard model for new libraries constructed since 2010. 

Why do I label these often inflated glass structures with nothing inside of them “Gothic”?

“Gothic” is one of those peculiar terms in the English language, like “sanction,” which can mean one thing (e.g., light, unornamented, streamlined and modern) and its exact opposite (dark, ornate, heavily decorated and detailed) depending on its context. In the Middle Ages, the Gothic movement (which was not called that at the time) sought to apply new building technologies to engineer towering, cavernous streamlined spaces full of glass and light, in contrast to the heavy, thick-walled, dimly-lit, ornate Romanesque-styled churches full of statuary, stained glass, narrative forms, candle light, relics and painted icons. It was dark in a romantic way. Compared to what preceded it, Gothic architecture was “modern,” and while it flourished toward the end of the high Middle Ages, the iconoclasm of the Reformation countered by the Classical revival of the Italian Renaissance gave the style a whole new meaning. During the Renaissance, this perpendicular, light-filled and relatively unadorned style became labeled “Gothic,” used as a pejorative alluding to the ignorant Germanic barbarians (“Goths”), the invaders blamed for the fall of Rome and the decline of learning in the West leading to the Dark Ages. From the myopic vantage point of certain Renaissance scholars and intellectuals, evidence of cultural decline included this newer style of architecture, which they called “Gothic.”

In typography, the term “Gothic” is used similarly; Gothic fonts are unornamented (sans-serif), of unvaried widths (strokes), used to convey minimalism and modernity.

What is going on in libraries today is seemingly driven by a similar minimalist design aesthetic led by outsiders, as well as a similar reforming, ideological and iconoclastic impulse to eliminate the “darkness and clutter” of the stacks, to deliberately break from culture and tradition, to construct large monumental spaces emphasizing light, height, space, glass, openness, modernity and transparency, with the user experience unimpeded by the distraction of books or print.

Print and paper have been banished, censorship imposed by a blanket of invisibility. We place unreasonable expectations on uneducated people, a.k.a “students,” to discover items needed to become educated people; or perhaps, we have no expectations of them to become educated people. The new librarianship merely emphasizes efficiency, technology, modernity and collaboration (peer learning and orality) over and against traditional educational and cultural objectives, including raising literacy and conveying shared knowledge. It values technology over culture, progress over collective memory, efficiency over learning for learning’s sake, and like the original Gothic movement, often features exaggerated verticality, smooth surfaces and glass walls. For me, “Gothic” is the perfect way to describe the new bookless, collectionless libraries, which are not just a break from traditional architecture, but are also a break from our former educational goals and values.

In the library world, from what I have casually observed, this is a movement that is not being spearheaded by librarians, but by outsiders, Svengali-like architects who attach themselves to college presidents at conferences and claim special insight into the creation of 21st century “learning environments,” settings which may not actually be libraries by any library professional or educational standard for them. In fact, the needs or desires of the library, its own business and functional requirements, may hardly be a consideration in these new designs.18 While there are many renderings by architectural firms showing off their idealized designs being enjoyed by fake students, there are no published post occupancy assessments of these new libraries in library literature, or at least none I have been able to locate. How successful are they, and by what standard are we to measure their success? 

These are typically not content-rich spaces which raise awareness of publications or titles students might want to read or know about. These are not places which present targeted collections of interest to users. These are not spaces which seek to stimulate intellectual inquiry. These are not facilities which present users with a body of shared knowledge corresponding to academic degrees, representing them with the authorities in their fields or just good things they might like to know about. They do not provide the collective experience of what other educated people are reading (or viewing) to support and sustain a community of readers, writers, scholars or intellectuals. These are not spaces which encourage reading, writing, self-directedness or creativity. These are not places where educated people, or those seeking to become educated, might want to spend time to recharge and keep their research interests from fizzling out. They may claim to be hi-tech, but none of this technology may be of much benefit to users. This trend, this new library movement, has occurred everywhere and is not isolated to one institution.

Librarians want their spaces to be a metaphorical window onto the world, not literally a “window.”

Astonishingly, encouraging resource use—turning people on to new things—is not even a design priority for the architecture of new library buildings, new library websites, or of new library system software. In fact, each of the three components which collectively define the modern library—our facilities, our websites and our systems—may no longer even be controlled by the library, which in turn contributes to a diminished ability for the library and its librarians to have significant impact on users in this digital age. We must take back the library, or put the library back into it, if we are to ensure learning.

Academic librarians do not educate students merely by answering questions or by “providing access to resources,” but just like any teacher or educator, we educate by selecting, organizing, describing and presenting scholarly content so it can become known, and those at our institutions made aware of what others in their respective fields know and value.

This is part of the dark magic of what librarians actually do, how they add value, which many people do not know or think about.

Like any professional educator, we are responsible for ferreting through, evaluating and then presenting content, specifically cultural and intellectual content, so that knowledge can be known by a larger public.

The organization, metadata and display of the traditional library was oriented toward both resource discovery through a catalog and also browsing the shelves, with the latter regarded an important form of information gathering and research activity. Cataloging and classification were ways of organizing and packaging content so it can be communicated, known and evaluated within a common intellectual framework. How do we support scholarly communication in this new environment which has no collections, nor visible titles organized according to the priorities of the academic disciplines we supposedly support? The academic library has been undermined by systems designed to accommodate the needs of commercial vendors, to monetize their content, and not to provide engaging user interfaces or support the framework of collections–which is about selectivity, not bulk acquisitions or indexing aggregator content. 

At large institutions, librarians function also to preserve knowledge for future scholars. Our educational function as librarians is intimately tied up with maintaining collections. (Collections represent bodies of knowledge, and knowledge represents the academic disciplines. Academic degrees are a measure of one’s degree of knowledge in a field.) I believe that the lack of focus on collections in libraries, and on content in general, presents significant challenges to many academic librarians, students and higher education, and represents an unrecognized intellectual barrier, especially in college, where students are expected to function as independent learners, assuming greater responsibility for teaching themselves the material provided by their professors and familiarizing themselves with what is considered authoritative in their disciplines. 

How do they do this without the framework of collections?

Compared to what came before, e-resource discovery systems provide unparalleled access to large amounts of content, which is certainly advantageous for experienced researchers and established scholars. Nonetheless, it constitutes a barrier to students, who derive benefit from the organizational structure, focus and generality of a collection optimized for learning about a discipline, not just being afforded the privilege (while enrolled in a class) to “fish out” relevant content through a search engine. Don’t get me wrong, we need discovery, but we also need collections to fulfill our educational mission.

Students cannot educate themselves effectively or efficiently through a search engine alone, just by Googling topics, or by discovering stuff in discovery—even scholarly stuff—for there is no overview, no visuals, no personalization, no context and no sense of prioritization. It lacks a sense of concreteness. There is no “packaging” of content to form a coherent overview of a topic, field or discipline. There is no overview of scholarly communication. Our UIs and facilities provide absolutely no motivation for students to read or to engage with intellectual works through the library, and the argument that “students are not going to read anyway” is certainly not an excuse to do nothing. 

For some academic library users and librarians, this new ideal of library as a kind of hollow monument to learning, a cavernous light-filled space, may be inspiring, even liberating, in a sort of Nietzschean way, throwing off the crushing weight of history, culture, tradition, and booksand with it, any sense of obligation to read books or be familiar with them. The atrial design of many new libraries, where light shines in on staircases, symbolizes illumination in a Neo-Platonic sense of ascending into light, but that is all. The design does not encourage education or resource use. We are placing emphasis on the space itself, not on our content, and by doing so, we trivialize academic pursuits and intellectual achievement, the very thing we should be about.

For those who got though high school without having read the assigned readings, for those who avoided learning at all costs, for those who think students don’t need to read, they just need to get their degrees, will likely welcome the change as a breath of fresh air. But for others, the gloomy specter of the new multi-million dollar university library without books might be horrifying, a wasteland, a “rip off,” the Emperor’s new clothes, an attack on Western culture, a sign of decay, a complete fraud, or even on assault on higher education itself. From this librarian’s perspective, is unclear if the new academic library is a library or something else. Library as “building” is the latest trend in my field, with light symbolizing knowledge and centralized seating being confused with student-centeredness.

And while there have been increasing calls for accountability (especially in my State of Texas) for what is purchased by school librarians with funds from property taxes,19 the large-scale elimination of all books from academic libraries and the subsequent abandonment of librarian-selected and maintained collections in favor of “e-resource discovery,” a vendor solution, is seemingly of little concern to anyone in this digital age, including my fellow librarians, who have been compelled to believe that a search engine populated by vendors is synonymous with a modern library; that collections are no longer needed; and moreover, that resisting what seems to be our inevitable commodification is a sign of unwillingness to embrace new technology or adapt to change.

Why should booklessness, or going “fully digital,” be at all concerning to any of us (librarians) in this digital age, or to anyone else for that matter? As a society, have we not weathered numerous format changes? Apart from old timers clinging to the old ways, insisting that vinyl sounds better, incandescent produces a truer light, or that people read more deeply when they hold a physical book in their handsno one disputes that any of these are true, by the waynothing has collapsed. Indeed, the only remaining source for physical books for miles around many bedroom communities today may be the local library; Barnes and Noble is relatively scarce, and while Amazon briefly flirted with the revival of mall bookstores, ours came and went quickly. Instead of books and magazines, people read online, on their phones and tables, if they are reading at all. Arguably, people may be reading more than ever, but not print books, and not long-form works.

Influencers, scholars and journalists are still writing books, but physical books and print are no longer visibly woven into the fabric of our material culture as they were in the 70s and 80s, and throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century. Today, talk show hosts like Bill Maher continue to invite guests on their shows who have written books, but I wonder how many people are ordering or downloading the books of his guests. I do, but I know sometimes I intend to, but forget about it. After I hear an author interview on NPR, I will scribble down the names of interesting books on the backs of receipts at traffic stops; but despite my best intentions the receipts end up in the trash when I fill up at the pump. A portion, like spawning salmon, miraculously make it upstream to my doorstep, but of these, a portion sit unread waiting for a day off in the future. Intellectual life requires other people to be part of that life, which is the whole beauty of a university. This is what we should be making happen.

Assault on Print Culture and Reading. Educated people, perhaps most famously media theorist and culture critic Neil Postman, were at one time critical of TV watching and all mass media consumption, speculating that it would lead to social consequences from mental laziness to delinquency to widespread ignorance and demagoguery, even to the end of democracy itself.20 It is hard to say if this has happened yet. Another curmudgeonly author, but one whose works of fiction I greatly admire (and have read), is Nicholson Baker, whose Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper was way ahead of its time in 2001, defending the preservation of works printed on paper but anticipating their demise at our own hands (this book has been called The Jungle of the American library system). 

Among educated elites, the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction now, against Postman and Baker, and against the preservation and perpetuation of print culture, with the weight of informed opinion opposed to paper and print, at least in academic librarianship and higher education.21 To a great extent, book and print culture, which valued the study of the classics and literature, collective memory and even found supreme value in learning for learning’s sake (as opposed to learning for some practical end or task), have become associated with elitism and Eurocentrism, even privilege (citation from CHE coming). In Education, emphasis on reading has also come under attack as marginally discriminatory (I saw this more in California, where I subbed as a school teacher), a form of bias against certain types of learners who do not read well or who cannot learn by reading, and even against certain culture groups who are said to favor orality (oral modes of communication) or kinesthetic learning over literacy. Of course, differentiated instruction is important to reach a variety of students and to allow all students to succeed in the classroom, but at the same time, I do not see quite the same animus against math or calculus (making students do math problems), as I do asking students to read books in this digital age, as if this were an unreasonable request.

Many school districts struggle with students who are reading below grade level, but these same districts are often the ones who are reluctant to assign any reading for homework and set extremely low expectations for students. In these same districts, textbooks, usually written or edited by leading experts in a field, are gone from classrooms, leaving the curriculum without a sense of focus or direction, also sending a message that reading is unimportant; and also promoting the idea that one opinion is as good as another. The textbook is written by scholars. We can disagree with it, but a textbook is important for providing an instructional framework, allowing students to obtain reinforcement and the opportunity to learn independently.

All texts, even the lecture format (which is a hybrid form, oral delivery based on a written text), may now be regarded as bad pedagogy, out of step with the times. As I have recently discovered, reading is de-emphasized in Educator Preparation Programs as a passive activity to be avoided by teachers in lesson planning in favor of more creative activities with visuals, multimedia and opportunities for peer collaboration. A reformed version of Bloom’s taxonomy is sometimes used as a justification for this, that students learn best by doing and creating (“active” activities) and not by reading (a passive activity). Thus far, the collective knowledge of all advanced societies exist and are preserved in the form of written texts. This is the way knowledge is preserved and perpetuated in all advanced societies.

What is also often overlooked is that the famed taxonomy of Bloom, which was itself modeled on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (with self-actualization at the top), was to be used for students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills once these are acquired, and is not a hierarchy for educating students, for teaching them contentwhich books, lecture, educated instructors and homework has done reasonably well for centuries. In lesson planning, teachers may be told (a la Bloom), that no assigned readings and no lecture can be used to teach, for these pedagogical methods do not sufficiently engage students. However, in 1956, when the taxonomy was created, Bloom certainly never said, thought or taught that students should not read or attend to a lecture. I will leave it up to Vanderbilt University to set the record straight on Bloom22 and many others on the benefit of textbooks for retention and reinforcement of concepts. 

In educational circles, where reading books was once widely regarded as actively applying one’s imagination and intellect (as opposed to watching video), reading is now classified as a kind of passive activity with unclear educational benefit. The educational benefit of reading literature cannot be objectively measured. If reading and shared knowledge are inconsequential to education, than where does that leave the library? The library traditionally existed to educate beyond the classroom through a collection maintained in a perpetual state of readiness, in anticipation of use, in anticipation of readers engaged in active learning, specifically in active exploration of a library collection. This is what was thought to provide an optimal user experience of a library. Now many libraries, including school libraries are getting rid of books, all of them; what they offer online is not a collection at all, but packaged content provided by vendors who specialize in the sale of content to schools. 

Even the most conservative Catholic schools are going bookless now, relegating critical editions of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas (along with other prominent founding fathers of Catholicism) to the dustbins. Recall that it was their libraries which preserved knowledge through the last Dark Ages. I’m sure they still have them online or can make them instantly available, should someone need to read them for a class assignment. But this is precisely the problem with a just-in-time model of librarianship, where the entirety of the library comes to be perceived as a kind of search application or tool whose function is to provide instant access to resources on demand or as needed, materials needed to support classroom instruction. The library becomes a resource or learning center, not as an actual library with visible collections of good things maintained in anticipation of use, whose function is to expose students to shared knowledge, to new things, to allow them to determine their own intellectual, spiritual and educational pathways for success in life.

It is up to us, as library professionals and educators, to create a context, to open people up, present to them things they might want or need to know aboutall sorts of things, not just what they might need to know for a test or to be successful in school. Besides, resource centers, the old LRCs, existed alongside libraries years ago, but the former were strictly remedial, never thought suitable for higher educationuntil now that is. LRCs lacked collections and collection development policies; professional librarians did not work in them, and they didn’t function with professional autonomy. 

Library as a “Space” (with a Gnostic Staircase). What architects commonly call “learning staircases” in the new academic library are often a stand-in for collections. Staircases are typically the centerpieces of new libraries built around an open plan, an atrium, where controlled light comes in and the library looks out into the world through glass walls. 

Obviously, staircases do not facilitate learning any more than, say, a ride in the library’s elevators do, which are crowded and slow, presenting library users with similar opportunities for socializing and information exchange, at least as well as the non-ADA compliant learning staircase. Of course, we all know neither staircases nor elevators have to do with higher education, even though many ascend to great heights. Staircases have nothing to do with librarianship or learning, yet they have become the centerpieces, symbols of knowledge, which have replaced actual collections.

A similar rhetoric found in media releases for new libraries is that seating students in the middle of the room is being more “student-centered,” or that empty spaces in the library are functioning like primordial caves, campfires and watering-holes23great places of learning, I suppose, if one is a primordial cave man. It should be determined precisely how we can make what we have in the library, our resources, more more visible and meaningful to academic library users in order to encourage user engagement with them and facilitate the education and development of students, which is what the library is about. Not its staircases, tables, glass, space or light. 

Helping students reach their potential in life, with student success defined by the individual student and scholar to achieve his or her academic success, is the mission of the academic library. Simply getting students to read, offering something they might like, ought to be a baseline goal of almost all libraries. Library architecture, access polices, library systems and library user interfaces should help us to achieve this important educational mission by adding perceived value to the resources, not to the tables and chairs.

Architects often propose that people will be drawn to the new library as “a space,” especially a social space, but the librarian in me wonders why architects do not know how to design a modern library that people, especially educated people and people who want to become educated, would be drawn to as a library.

It can be a multimedia extravaganza, a times square, a public forum, rooms with simulcasts of lectures universities around the world for public viewing, a virtual stacks, physical display with virtual fulfillment, a new book browse bistro, a gigantic video display of what users are engaging with and clicking on at any given time to create interest—something other than just tables and chairs and staircases and catwalks. It can be Gertrude Stein’s living room. Certainly, it would function even better as a social place if people had a reason to be there other than the fact that they wanted privacy or a quiet place to study. (Most students don’t want that anyway, but want noise and movement around them.) 

Can’t we agree that a new library building being created today in the name of a new librarianship, an empty glass building with large staircases and seating in the middle, is just a dull space, and not a library at all, if it does not actively seek to raise awareness of new publications, stimulate intellectual inquiry, encourage literacy, or promote resource use? Can’t we agree that in the 21st century, academic libraries still have some business and organizational requirements, some learning objectives of their own? I realize all libraries are different, but shouldn’t academic libraries, their systems and their websites, have some functional requirements flowing from a singular set of objectives? 

Here is a functional requirement I will propose: the library shall have efficient and effective ways to make users aware of new publications in their disciplines.

I do not care how this happens, whether it does this in print or online, whether the experience is mediated or unmediated, but I care that it happens. It should be a fundamental service the library provides to academic library users, and something our facilities and our systems should help us to accomplish. 

The academic library should help the institution to create educated people. It should help create conversations around books and ideas. To achieve this, it needs resource visibility and collection visibility as objectives.

In what is described as “the new academic library,” books and print are now almost completely banished, deliberately stowed out of view, placed into out of the way locations, tucked away into the shadowy recesses of low shelving units (so not interrupt one’s gaze out the window or the others in the room), or else entombed in remote storage, further compounding the inconvenience of their already inconvenient formats, increasing the odds that no one will ever  engage with them. (Just like with grocery stores, putting books in low shelving and not at eye-level is bad merchandising.) In new libraries, there are no displays of new publications students might want to read or know about. Librarians, who might know something about the collection, also are often tucked away just like the books, removed from the floor (the Reference Desk is gone in most libraries), ensconced in offices behind card-swipe entry doors, discouraging drop in consults and interaction with people. Collections and those who know about them have been replaced by light-infused spaces, staircases, windows and seating.

The Mansueto Library at the heart of the University of Chicago campus. Browsing books are a thing of the past. The elliptical space is designed to have no particular focal point. This is one notable example of the new library Gothic, whose goals and values are different from the libraries which came before them.

 

Another view of “The Blister,” as it is called by The University of Chicago students. The Mansueto Library, constructed in 2010 and financed by NewsBank mogul Joe Mansueto, gave other university libraries permission to go bookless. Below the dome are closed, robotic high density bookstacks. The library is designed to be a social study space, an architectural initiative which occurred without analysis of how this might limit scholarly access.

New roles in empty spaces. While some new roles, such as “Collaboration Facilitator,”24 have been proposed for public service librarians who work in fully digital environments, most librarians, if they do not justify themselves by managing other librarians and staff members, have two options for demonstrating value to their parent organizations: one through teaching (library instruction) and the other through library technical services. 

The Technical Services Librarian, formerly called a “Systems Librarian” (the title used when we managed our own systems and servers, usually on some flavor of Unix) or the Digital and Technical Services Librarian, once had responsibility for maintaining the library system and servers (proxy server, web server, system server, and mail server), the library’s website, the cataloging records (or responsibility for the integrity of the cataloging records), patron records, collection analysis, usage reporting, the link resolver, and often collection development along with responsibility for instruction for digital resources. This role or function has pretty much been eliminated, because vendors maintain our cloud-based systems for us and also provide most of our metadata. Other library technical services functions related to access services (authentication) and the library’s website may have been reassigned to IT Departments. Many universities have adopted centrally managed content management systems (Cascade, Omni Update, etc.) with a centralized style sheet and approval workflows to establish uniformity and top-down control over published content. Within the framework of a CMS, users who are not administrators are only able to add text, links and images; a library’s pages are fairly static by design, rather than functioning to present dynamic and personalized content which encourages engagement when users come to it. We should be the latter in this digital age, at least presenting new books to users. We should be able to leverage new technologies to encourage user engagement with content. 

The role of the Technical Services Librarian today often loosely corresponds to what our system vendor calls an “Electronic Inventory Operator.” Because library technical services is now equated exclusively with e-resource discovery management or electronic inventory management, the role is that of supporting acquisitions and troubleshooting a vendor solution rather than being defined more broadly about improving the user experience of the library online. While part of the library has “gone online,” there is really no role inside the library to promote content, for putting the digital content that the library licenses where it will be seen by anyone, let alone arranged into a meaningful disciplinary framework according to our former academic library best practices. Hierarchical lists of relevance-ranked citations have replaced browsing authoritative collections mapped to the disciplines. I believe that scholars should be able to come to an academic library website and view new acquisitions in their field of interest as well as a sidebar featuring personalized content, say the journals they are following. We can do this, achieve this level of personalization, provided we have good metadata and can manage our own web presence.

The proper organization of bibliographic content in an academic library is by LC classification, a classification scheme mapped to the academic disciplines, so it forms into a pleasing mosaic representing shared knowledge to a community of scholars. It is that alchemy which turns scholarly content into disciplinary knowledge, transforming straw into gold. Now all we have in our toolbox are resource discovery along with LibGuides (another vendor product). Realistically, there are only so many LibGuides we can create, and it seems after a short while the act of creating them is merely compensatory for the lack of visible collections and a good digital storefront, adding insult to injury. There is no reason why I am manually embedding new art or neurology ebooks into a LibGuide (which will not be new next year) except that are user interfaces are wholly inadequate, demonstrated by this act of creating webpages for each topic. We should not need to acquire a separate CMS to promote our collections. This bento box is something our library system should be able to do for us.

Again, it all goes back to business requirements for an online library.

We have very limited ways of encouraging engagement with the digital content we acquire through use of our vendor’s cloud-based library solution.

E-resource Discovery supports a commodified, collectionless version of the academic library. From a requirements and user experience standpoint, discovery is not the same thing as an online library. The discovery model—the library fashioned entirely as a kind of federated search application—is a limited conception of an academic research library where our collections are comprised of indexed subscription content which is virtually indistinguishable from vendor inventory, commercial content. Of course, we can add our own collections records into the mix, but there is no there there, no visible collection which is the product of librarians or those at the institution. Adding collections to resources means more potentially discoverable resources, not larger collections.

Collection or “resources,” what difference does it make? Many librarians use these terms interchangeably. Collections are entitlements, all that users are entitled to access. However, a collection means something different. A collection possesses academic rigor and intentionality, scholarly value, an entity whose sum is worth more than the whole of its parts, where resources do not rise to the same level. One is library-centric and scholarly, the other one is vendor-centric and commercial. We need a pleasing balance between these two, a middle way.

There was once an idea, which I believed was fundamental to traditional academic librarianship, that the successful library plays a vital role in educating students and scholars by stimulating demand for its own resources and encouraging the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge through the management and presentation of quality collections.

Display and organization were very important for providing a certain intellectual and aesthetic experience which the library supported and academic library users valued. Our library metadata standard was developed around the concept of information retrieval and display in a catalog, in a collection, where works are intellectually related to each other. A library is not a search engine and a search engine is not a library, but the new librarianship based exclusively on e-resource discovery, a search box alone, does not adequately differentiate between the two. We have become one with our vendors.

The lack of resource and collection visibility, and lack of systematic arrangement of titles into collections, into a disciplinary framework, are major shortcomings of the new librarianship formed entirely around empty spaces (physical collectionlessness) and vendor-driven e-resource discovery systems (virtual collectionlessness). Aside from being uninteresting and impersonal, they lack a sense of academic rigor.

Indeed, we have highly efficient, just-in-time models for acquiring e-resources in bulk and making them immediately discoverable through a search engine, but at this point, we lack effective ways to put resources where they will be seen, and beyond that, appreciated in context by students and scholars in either our physical or online spaces. Our educational function has been diminished in a weird zero-sum game with publishers and aggregators, whose primary goal is to drive our users to their own platforms and cultivate loyalty which might translate into revenues after students graduate, once they enter the workforce. For most academic libraries, the library system vendor is a content aggregator who also sells content to libraries. 

Ultimately, I believe that the empty facilities and empty websites which have been created create empty minds and indifference toward scholarship and learning (and indifference toward librarians, to be sure)The empty library, the library that lacks collection and resource visibility, instills ambivalence about the institution in students, and also in certain contexts makes students question their own academic commitments to education. 

  • At the college, collectionlessness discourages literacy—which in higher education includes familiarity with knowledge of the published literature in the field—knowledge acquisition, and scholarship; and therefore, it encourages ignorance by not doing what it is supposed to be doing and shortchanges those students who would otherwise benefit from a good library.
  • At the university, collectionlessness stifles innovation, because no one sees or is kept apprised of what is new, causing faculty research to fizzle out and the curriculum to become ossified. 

In place of physical libraries, we are erecting vacuous spaces which signify nothing, teach nothing, stand for nothing, communicate nothing, and are not places students, scholars or intellectuals want to congregate or spend time. The deathly quiet of the library spooks people, because like horses, cows and dogs, humans are social animals. (A walk around campus will reveal what kinds of spaces students enjoy. ) Although they may not know why, students feel uncomfortable and insecure seated in the middle of an empty expanse, a “voided panopticon”; they prefer more intimate, semi-private spaces with others around. This is why stores play music, restaurants try to be noisy, and why students are studying in cafes, campus food courts and student centers. A modern library needs its first floor to have some “bustle” as well as books. Let the college radio station be heard, let new books be displayed, let student art be seen, encourage discussion and intellectual exchange. Let there be a place for poster sessions to showcase all of the good work done by the students and faculty at that school. Showcase works and the thoughts of others. That is how you turn the campus library into a hub of learning.

To be sure, discovery is an invaluable research tool today. But discovery should be balanced with library collections, not replace them. The library’s recent transformation into some kind of a institutional student center or work space is certainly not indicative of progress in the library field, especially when we do not have a compelling virtual storefront which has demonstrated the capacity to attract readers and scholars to it. It is not progress in academic librarianship if we have eliminated classification and browse, we discounted circulation as a meaningful metric, and our content is to remain invisible until a search is performed; and even then only a paulty few relevant records out of thousands can be displayed at a time. Nor is it more of a social space than what preceded it, because there is nothing there which speaks to people, and we have given people nothing to talk about. We appear to lack a commitment to the preservation or perpetuation of knowledge, so how can we begin to inspire others to invest in it?

Our Faustian Bargain. In the original Elizabethan play by Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus is a frustrated university professor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge. The fabled story has many versions, including a better known one by Goethe (in which the devil, after making a wager with God, assumes the form of a poodle who follows Faust home), but what people do not know is that it was the pursuit of knowledge (not power or money) which drew Faust to magic in the first place. In the original tale, Dr. Faustus inadvertently summons a demon, Mephistopheles, who promises to give him answers to all of the questions he is seeking. It was the desire for easy access to knowledge which led to Faust’s downfall. After Faustus makes a pact with the devil, none of the knowledge he gains is meaningful to him. It comes in bits and pieces, there is no context for any of it. The power he acquires is squandered on silly pranks and satisfying lust. Over time, he realizes that the knowledge and power he obtained are worthless, even though he paid the ultimate price to acquire them.

Discovery, the totality of the library experienced through a search engine of indexed third-party content, may be the library’s Faustian bargain. We provide users with convenient access to a world of information and content, but no framework in which it is perceived to be meaningful or valuable to students to get them to engage with it in the first place. Universities spend millions on institutional access to content and usually over 150K each year just for the e-resource discovery system. To me, this discovery model underestimates the importance of visible collections of shared knowledge to motivate user engagement. Such as it is currently implemented, discovery is based on an aggregator model, a commercial model which benefits vendors, not a scholarly/intellectual academic library model which primarily benefits students and scholars, even though it provides convenient access to scholarly resources. To be clear, I am not defending physical books and print, but merely stating the obvious, that we should not be promoting the exact same UI or search paradigm in a bookless environment that we used previously when we had visible collections. 

Librarians have now embraced a model where we do not need to know anything except for what databases to buy each year. As a result of content being provided in commercial packages, we are not compelled to keep up with the disciplines we support (since acquisitions is no longer done on the title-level). We don’t know what we have until we search for something, but nor does anyone else. The library has sold its soul to the vendor.

Relevant Results vs. Shared Knowledge. What is most interesting to me is that this commodified aggregator model of a digital library was at one time criticized and unanimously rejected by the academic library community, when librarians tried to put their finger on why Questia, the first online academic library whose content was determined by license agreements with publishers, was not a real academic library.

It is no secret among librarians, at least those of of my generation, that Questia, the first commercial subscription-based online academic library, did not hire librarians to manage its collections. Well, they did for a short while.

In fact, I was officially Questia’s first librarian, flying solo for half of a year prior to launch, even though the company did not think it needed to hire any librarians even when it hired me. Unfortunately, what was in Questia’s collections struck educated people as random and oddball stuff, which it was, especially in the early years of Questia’s existence. Nothing could be done about it. Questia really wanted to be a real library, but it recognized that this goal was not attainable, for reasons I will explain below.

Questia’s Marketing department was aware that only educated people might know or care about the difference between a scholarly collection of titles and random scholarly content. Only educated people might know that what was being called an online library were just aggregations of digitized content, not a collection of the best resources, which libraries provide. Therefore, Questia marketed its library not to educated people, that is, not to to librarians or to scholars, who would likely see the glass as half empty, but directly to students, to uneducated people, who would not know or care if they used the best resources to write their research papers. Questia sold convenience at a fair price, not a good education. Their marketing—a sweaty, glassy-eyed student pulling an all-nighter in a library with books stacked around him—said it all. Subscribe and we will make cranking out papers a breeze.

Strong reactions to Questia in the academic library community raised interesting questions, some ethical, which continue to be relevant to libraries today. Questia did want to be a real library. Had Questia offered exceptional content based on their signing on all of the academic publishers in the world, would it have become a “real” academic library then? Do academic libraries need academic librarians, do they need collections, or can the whole operation be fully automated through back office business deals and publisher license agreements? (My exciting project was to design a bibliometric system which would preclude the need to hire librarians to be title selectors, but the company then decided to just sign on publishers and add all of their back stock to the platform as a better strategy, offering resources, rather than developing collections.)

What is the difference, in terms of the user experience and educational outcomes, between an academic research library maintained by librarians and scholars and a search engine indexing aggregated third-party scholarly content? What degree of commercialization or commodification is acceptable for an academic library?

 What impact do varying degrees of commodification have on a library’s service model and perception by the rest of the institution? What might be the most appropriate balance between resources and collections, and how might this balance be achieved when our software really only supports the user experience of resource discovery? 

When we previously purchased books for collections, we were supposed to evaluate each title based on its own merits, relative to what we had in the collection and to the needs of our communities according to the criteria established by our Collection Development policies. We were also supposed to be vendor neutral.

Today, many of us acquire resources in bulk based only on the fact that titles are part of a particular vendor package. Again, this acquisitions strategy was once thought marginally unethical in the past, at least as far as scholarly monographs were concerned. Years ago, the idea that the academic library might buy only from this or that publisher–we buy only Oxford titles, not Cambridge, because we have a business agreement with for the former–would have been ridiculed as unprofessional. (Comprehensive research libraries do not need to make the same tough decisions about which package to buy because they can buy everything; it is a much more difficult decision for a smaller library.) Some version of this has come to be common practice in many libraries.

Moreover, through our current publisher-driven systems, these resources cannot be presented in a disciplinary context, arranged by classification and browsed. This makes it impossible to display resources as collections, or evaluate them as such.

These are deeply philosophical topics and concerns on many levels, and the public might not understand, but all these questions ultimately center upon the continued relevance and definition of library collections managed as collections by those who are, at least for the time being, still responsible for managing them, and the consequences on users of our no longer doing so.

We already know the likely consequences on us as a profession, but what is the impact on the user?

Eliminating collections as a framework, which even many large academic libraries have already done, has had profound consequences on scholarly access, on scholarly communication and on the user experience of the academic library. It has also resulted in newly erected barriers to scholarly access.

Never before in my professional career has the public academic library, which is the academic library attached to a State-supported university, been so incentivized to create barriers to public access to scholarly resources as they have been in the last few years through newer authentication protocols aggressively promoted by vendors to protect their content. The only thing that dampens my sense of outrage is the gloomier thought that maybe no one wants to access scholarly resources anyway.

Somewhere along the way, it was decided that the public is no longer entitled to access the resources at a public university, despite our continuing to say that we support life-long learning. The only thing we now support is life-long enrollment in classes.

Vendors have reached out to us and then to our IT Departments to implement greater security protocols to protect their content from unauthorized access, access which has been defined by vendors and not by, say, THECB, who clearly wants us to share our resources, resources that taxpayers have ultimately paid for. But SSO was part of a larger plan to help large vendors license various educational software packages directly to the university, while at the same time restricting public or unaffiliated access to the library’s electronic resources inside of the library (which IP authentication through the proxy server previously supported) so people would pay for access. It was also a way for them to do direct marketing to our students and faculty. For them it was a win/win. For us, it was a lose/lose.

SSO is a more restrictive access model which permits only those with active institutional credentials to access library resources even inside of the library. We must now go to IT to request test or guest credentials so someone without institutional affiliation can access our resources, and this also sometimes results in delay, and sometimes outright denial. The person is told they must come back tomorrow or not to come back, or that they must go to another library to request the item through ILL. Public access to the resources of a public university should be vigorously defended. Rather than being a resource for the scholarly community, the university library even at public institutions of higher education, is now perceived merely as a kind of commodity licensed only for their own institutionally-affiliated students and faculty, not something educated people would ever want, need or should be able to continue to access after graduation.

This is a much more restrictive access model than we have ever had before, where previously all content was accessible inside of the library on a campus computer and also through ILL (Interlibrary Loan). We always encouraged life-long learning and supported access to library resources inside of the library, even after students graduated. The public academic university library has always seen itself as having an obligation to provide public access to its resources. Now at some State-supported university libraries, even what is in the library is not the business of anyone not currently enrolled there. The library at Sam Houston State University, a publicly-supported four year university, puts its catalog behind a firewall. 

Sam Houston State University is a publicly-supported institution and its library is a TexShare member, but it does not make its online public access catalog publicly accessible. Prospective students really should be able to evaluate the quality of the library at a college or university before electing to go there. I imagine that restricting access to the catalog only to those with current institutional affiliation is something their IT Department decided, for it goes against library principles and values to deny access to knowledge of what is in the collection.

Closed Access, Diminished Impact. My belief is that the collectionless library encourages barriers to access on a number of levels, both real and intellectual, first and foremost, because vendors, not US Copyright Law or Fair Use, determine who is entitled to access “our” content; which is no longer ours.

A point I feel strongly about is that all publicly-funded universities, at least in my State, continue to make resources available to the wider public. This also allows for greater institutional accountability. People in the outside world can easily see what the library is acquiring through online public access catalogs, and the public should be able to come into the library to actually access these resources.

Where am I getting this from, this Socialist belief that public academic libraries (and medical libraries too) are not just for the students and faculty at that school, but belong to all Texans? After all, they are not “public libraries.” Am I some kind of hippie, expressing a desire that academic libraries make their costly collections available to all?

Here is some history behind our State mandate of The Higher Education Coordinating Board:

Texas academic library directors first proposed an academic statewide resource-sharing project in 1988. Dubbed TexShare, the project was first funded in FY94 under the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). Texas’ 53 publicly supported four-year academic and medical libraries were the original TexShare members. . . .

Today, TexShare is an impressive cooperative program designed to improve service to Texans. Currently $1.5 million is spent annually for database subscriptions. Members include public libraries belonging to the ten Texas library systems, academic libraries, and libraries of clinical medicine. TexShare enables libraries to offer a broader range of materials and services than any single library can provide for its constituents. With the influx of an extra $7 million in funding from a Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board (TIF) grant in 2001, the opportunity to build a premier, consolidated database presents itself. A major goal is to deliver full text information to all the citizens of Texas. TexShare programs contribute to the intellectual productivity of Texans at the participating institutions by emphasizing access to, rather than ownership of, documents and other information sources.25

While many states have established similar resource sharing mandates and infrastructure, librarians from outside of Texas may not know that TexShare membership requires resource sharing for the benefit of all Texas citizens, even though vendor license agreements may try to restrict lending and borrowing activity of their subscription content only to those with current institutional affiliation. Indeed, the original members of TexShare were academic and medical libraries, and the idea was to provide for the continuing education of citizens and those who were not students at the school. That was the very point of it. You cannot be a publicly-supported library and deny public access to your collections. These are the rules. 

Vendor control coupled with SSO threatens all unaffiliated access to resources, which in turn also shifts perception that the library is merely about assignment completion while enrolled in school, rather than about life-long learning, sustaining the intellectual life of educated people at the university as well as in the broader community. As Posner suggests, it is up to librarians to resist these trends when negotiating license agreements with vendors.26 However, if library directors and collection managers do not embrace library resource sharing as a legitimate function of their library, public access will not be made a priority, because it might not be for their parent organization unless it is tied to community outreach and increased enrollment. 

As an aside, restricting public access has other detrimental effects. It is also impossible for Executive Directors to raise money through grants for collections which are not publicly accessible, thus limiting the capacity to raise supplemental funding for the library through friends programs and grants if the library limits access only to those currently enrolled. 

A second barrier to access is due to the design of our user interfaces, their being limited to “discovery.” Because the content we license is invisible until a search is performed, few may see it, which constitutes an intellectual barrier. Academic library users cannot browse by call number or their areas of interest, as they were once accustomed to doing. A major access point for collections has been eliminated.

Third, there is no systematic way to display new books in a field of study. Many of us have been tasked with creating LibGuides, first for subject areas, then delving down to creates Libguides for particular courses. As anyone who has done this knows, the process of putting in ebooks is a chore (For each title, we must locate the ISBN number which is in the 020 of our MARC record AND which has a book cover in Syndetics, and then ensure that the URL is proxied), the impact often minimal, and prone to break, as older editions are retired and replaced with new ones. Our library automation system should be allowing us to create, display and promote collections online in such a way that LibGuides are unnecessary.

Fourth, ILL and TexShare in Texas are becoming unsustainable, because no one is buying print anymore and ebooks cannot be shared with other institutions. 

Now that librarians are being systematically removed from the title selection process, and doctorates from outside the library field are being appointed to manage these new learning centers (I am speaking in generality; this did not happen where I work, but it did at some colleges in the Houston area), there is no one left in the library to advocate for broad access, for title selection (collection development), for maintaining library collections, or for raising awareness of good things in collections as librarians were trained to do, rather than being a remedial tutoring center/study hall.

Because of the design of our systems, which encourage collectionlessness (resources come and go as suits vendors), no one is expected to be personally familiar with any of the titles we acquire because we didn’t put them there.

Last, even at large research institutions, there is a lack of commitment for collecting for future scholarship, which is also a form of restricting access. 

These changes are all constitutive of physical and intellectual barriers to scholarly access, and if there is one thing academic librarianship is about as a profession, it is about breaking down barriers to scholarly access.

Breaking down barriers to access also sometimes entails our sending our students to the libraries at other schools (other area libraries) if other schools offer better resources for the type of research the student is doing, and occasionally receiving their students at our library, not hassling them about their enrollment status or making them feel unwelcome in our libraries. For example, anyone doing medical research might consider going to a medical library, or legal research a law library, where there are specialized subject specific databases and librarians who know about them.

It means showing students WorldCat (a database of the holdings of all of the libraries in the world), which is only meaningful if we can obtain those materials for students through ILL, if other libraries will share their resources with us. It also means, to be fair, making sure that our resources remain accessible inside of the library to those without institutional credentials to the fullest extend permitted by license agreements, and even renegotiating licenses to include access inside of the library or choosing another vendor.

It means ensuring our online public access catalogs remain publicly accessible, so others can see what we offer, especially at publicly-funded university libraries. 

It means we define student success as success defined by the individual student and scholar, not strictly in terms of the business objectives of the university. Before librarians put in for an ILL request, we do not interrogate the student, “Is this related to your class? Is this book or article you need related to your degree?” Of course not. We want to encourage independent learning, learning outside of a class assignment, even if it doesn’t meet some pre-defined learning objective or ELO of the classroom. We want the faculty to continue learning as well, and they benefit from collections too, because it helps them to grow and keep up with their field rather than stagnating at the point when they earned their degrees. As libraries, we must be able to set our own course and clearly express our business requirements to IT, the administration and to our vendors.

We support the intellectual life on a college campus to the extent that our budgets allow, and this means being able to effectively present the digital content that the library licenses as library collections, as good things educated people are likely to want to know about arranged according to the priorities of the discipline, not just as discoverable third-party product inventory potentially useful to for assignment completion. 

While many TexShare members are not honoring their commitments to share resources, commitment to public access of resources is a requirement of all TexShare member libraries (most libraries in Texas are members). The promise to share in exchange for subsidized access to databases is misinterpreted by TexShare members to refer only to their print resources. This is not the case, as I discuss below (see The Academic Library as a Community Resource). TexShare and The Higher Education Coordinating Board want public academic libraries to share their resources with each other and with public libraries. Independent learning, learning outside of the classroom, and life-long learning, are our professional core values. We should be living up this and to our consortial agreements to share. This means: permit access to the high school student who walks in because he is studying robotics or competing in science fair. His parents pay taxes and he is a future student, the sort of student the university should want to attract.

We cannot claim to be all about Open Access but then stop people at the doorsteps of our own libraries. Nor can we in good faith claim to be about “life-long learning” yet deny our own ABD students and alumni some reasonable access to their academic research library to help them be successful.

Doctors and researchers who graduate from Texas medical schools must not be told that, because they are no longer enrolled in a medical school, they must use the public library to do research. If we want the citizens of our city, state and country to remain competitive in a global marketplace, we must encourage continuous learning through academic research libraries. The academic library at a university has an important role to play in ongoing the education of citizens. The academic research library should stand for that and resist becoming a vendor commodity. 

Breaking down barriers to access also means designing interfaces which allow for effective browsing and display in order to support a very important information seeking behavior by scholars and those learning about a field. Browsing is fundamental for all types of libraries, not just public libraries. Browsing is a form of learning, an activity we want to encourage among academic library users, and browsing is an important form of access. My belief is that e-resource discovery combined with the elimination of print has led to reduced resource visibility, reduced collection visibility, and reduced library visibility in the academy and society. None of these are good for our students, our libraries, or our institutions.

The problem is not with our being fully digital or being online, but with the limitation of our current software, metadata and user interfaces, and with the now prevalent notion that our purpose is to provide “access to publisher resources” (aggregator model) rather than to authoritative collections (academic library model).

Through the widespread adoption of e-resource discovery platforms as the exclusive way users are to engage with resources, the library and its resources have become less visible, commodified and devalued, offering access to content that no one in the library or at the institution appears to be invested in.

Through discovery solutions, an item might be “discovered,” but there is no social, scholarly or intellectual context for it. In the physical space, which is now empty, and the online space, also devoid of scholarly content, academic libraries are not stimulating intellectual inquiry, the first stage of research. We are not selecting, organizing and presenting resources to enhance scholarly value or knowledge in the discipline, which in turn impedes new disciplinary knowledge. We are not encouraging reading or resource use, the acquisition of professional knowledge in the disciplines, or supporting intellectual life on campus, despite that some of libraries may be making vast quantities of information available through its search box. 

In the new collectionless environment, instruction is the chief way most librarians would claim to add value. We show students to their databases and the discovery tool and how to cite sources using the tools we provide. It is an awkward role, not because we are uncomfortable in a classroom, but because it feels a little superfluous and awkward. Esteemed professors, who at a university hold advanced degrees in their field, and are expected to do ongoing research and writing for publication, should be able to show their own students how to search the databases used to conduct research in their own respective fields. Most of them do not need a librarian to come to their classroom semester after semester (although many find it beneficial for their students or for them to schedule an information literacy session or library orientation). 

Others think libraries are primarily about providing access to resources and assistance to complete assignments, write research papers or provide curricular support. This is what I call the “learning center” model.

I believe academic libraries are really not “about” instruction, nor about “access to learning resources,” for these things do not make the library effective or good as a library, which should be our goal. I believe librarianship is about creating and managing good libraries, and libraries are about instilling a passion for learning in academic library users through the active presentation of good library collections, showcasing what others appreciate and value. It is about turning people onto things and new ideas they might not know about to search for. Libraries are about scholarly culture, current academic titles, meaningfully organized and displayed to users, along with the core titles of their disciplines, so these can be experienced by them.

Even in this digital age, collections must remain the main focus of the academic library, not being a study space or community venue, or a learning resource center for students to learn “how to” do research in the event they might some day need to do so; or an information center, or just a search box for aggregated scholarly content with relevant resources awaiting discovery should someone wish to discover them. 

Academic librarianship as a profession is about the active presentation of scholarly resources in scholarly collections. It is about collection development, collection management, collection assessment, collection display, descriptive cataloging and providing users with access to collections as collections, which in turn reflects the boundaries of the knowledge that is known within the scope of a budget and intended audience. It is about supporting the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge and perpetuating knowledge.

This may be is a hard value proposition in this digital age, but the distinction between resources and collections, and between information and knowledge, must be made.

If a library doesn’t have a library collection which librarians maintain in anticipation of use,
if it doesn’t raise awareness of new things,
if appears to devalue collection use by putting publications out of view in invisible repositories,
if it cannot or is unwilling to acquire new things consistently throughout the year,
if it doesn’t keep up with publishing in the fields it presumably supports,
if it doesn’t define or defend student success as success or learning defined by the student and scholar,
it either isn’t an academic library, or isn’t a very good one.

A library is not a library because it “has books, or print,” provides access to information, or access to online resources, but because it offers professionally maintained library collections, eminently visible to the communities it serves, and which are cataloged, organized and displayed according to academic library standards.

Library collections are a form of scholarly communication about scholarly communication which is vital to education and the creation of educated people, no matter what field of study and no matter what the format or media. Collections and communities of readers, literary culture, are what sustains scholarly discourse at a university. We cannot be successful as a social space without being an intellectual space.  

The Fully Commodified Library: The Tail-End the Publisher-Aggregator Supply Chain

he elimination of collections in libraries is the biggest trend in librarianship since the elimination of the card catalog in the early 1990s, and yet no one in my field is really discussing this much. 

If they are, they are mischaracterizing this trend as “eliminating print,” “going bookless,” or “going fully digital,” and not for what it actually is, eliminating collections to become commodified by vendors. The same thing happened in retail, where department stores became vendor concessions to achieve greater operational efficiency. (Years ago there were store buyers and personal shoppers; now good luck finding anyone so you can pay and leave.) In my field, those who resist these trends are accused of nostalgia, technophobia, or having a some quaint attachment to print format or “reading books,” obviously out of step with the times. I think libraries are alienating their greatest supporters and advocates as well as providing an inferior user experience to academic library users through efficient workflows for acquisition but poor designs for the user experience. 

Spending millions, as many academic libraries do, on third-party content that is visible only through a search box, with no way to present new titles to users, or to display academic content in the context of the disciplines we support, seems not ideal from an educational or even a business standpoint. It certainly falls short of academic library standards for collections. 

It isn’t ideal from a marketing standpoint, either. Is it inevitable that a digital library is a commodified library?

The issue is not print vs. digital formats, but what business model and user interfaces are the most effective for a library. My feeling is that library software is stuck in “discovery,” being just a search engine, a central index, and it is failing to evolve beyond being a search engine. Its stuckness may be intractable, irreversible, because resource invisibility and lack of transparency along with bulk purchasing greatly benefit our vendors, including our own system vendor, also a “content aggregator.” This way, nobody really sees what the library acquires—even librarians do not see what comes and goes—because purchases are often done on a very  large scale; and through discovery interfaces, the only items that are ever seen are those retrieved by a query, those things people care about, while all of that irrelevant muck no one cares about just remains invisible. The “waste” of this system, in which what we buy is invisible, is not exposed in quite the same way as the waste of the old book warehouse.

Now millions are spent on a thick sediment of invisible, largely ephemeral resources, for an invisible library supporting nonexistent collections which no one has intellectually invested in or appears to care about.

Is this progress for a library? No, it isn’t. It is progress for our vendors.

My argument is that discovery is not by itself an appropriate model for an academic library. It certainly has its place in the library, but it is not everything an online library should be. E-resource discovery is, or has contributed to, the library’s becoming increasingly commodified, a process in which vendor/supplier inventory becomes indistinguishable from the library’s collection, or synonymous with it. Rather than remaining independent, we acquire and make available whatever they give us. We have in stock this “brand” (say ProQuest) but not that competitor “brand” (say EBSCO). The metadata for it comes from publishers and aggregators, rather than from catalogers who understand cataloging and our communities, how a work fits into a broader intellectual or scholarly tradition or framework, and how it might be meaningfully accessed by scholars at that particular institution. Because works are seen as ephemeral and something leased, not owned, cataloging them may be perceived to be a complete waste of time. Lack of cataloging in turn means our user interfaces are limited and what we acquire is less likely to be seen. It matters not to the vendor, who has made his sale regardless. 

Even if we are going to adopt a thoroughly commercial model for managing our inventory, where vendors load us up with whatever titles they want to provide us for a negotiated fee, and whatever metadata they want to provide, shouldn’t we have at least have a commercial model on the front end for doing marketing, just like any other online store?

Where is our storefront? Where is our virtual library?

We have no browseable, virtual stacks. We have no ability to create displays of new ebooks. We have no CRM tools to do marketing. Not maintaining visible, well-defined collections corresponding to what students should know, or might want to know about—not even displaying what is current that users might like—seems setting the bar way too low in higher education. We pay many, many times above list price to provide institutional access to academic publisher and aggregator inventories, and yet we have no user interfaces to raise awareness of these resources. All we are is just a search box of vendor entitlements which returns linked citations in response to a user query, dependent on users to come along and search for something for anything to be seen at all.

Very large academic libraries and very small libraries (those who just subscribe to a few databases), have both moved toward a fully automated, publisher-driven, e-resources management model, a model in which the entirety of the library’s content is determined by institutional license agreements with third-parties. These agreements permit institutionally-affiliated users to access publisher / aggregator content on publisher / aggregator platforms. These agreements, along with newer authentication protocols (SSO), restrict access to only who are institutionally-affiliated, meaning that the academic library, even at publicly-funded universities, are cutting off access to outside students, to non-affiliated scholars and other researchers through the adoption of this commercial model, even though its librarians may continue to claim, as we did when we owned our content, to be committed to life-long learning.

Efficient, but not efficacious. The biggest disadvantage of “the new librarianship” is that it is ineffective from an educational standpoint. Content must be searched to be seen, and we cannot provide a context in which any of it appears meaningful or important to know. There is no disciplinary framework or structure to instill a passion for learning or stimulate intellectual curiosity in users. There is no sense of shared community value. We have a limited ability to assess quality, and we cannot present our content in logically ordered collections to users.

We have outsourced collection development to those companies who specialize in licensing content to libraries for a profit, and in the process, done away with the underlying structures and workflows which provided for an optimal user experience of a library as a library. Many libraries just subscribe to aggregator packages which do not have in them current or popular titles. They often consist of backlist titles, the obscure titles which a publisher cannot monetize so he sells them to an aggregator who licenses them to a library as a way of generating revenue. This may be excused because, well, our students are merely using these packages for class assignment, to complete academic exercises, to acquire skills, but not to obtain knowledge. 

In addition, through being incentivized to acquire in packages, libraries often pay many times over to provide institutional access for the exact same content with the same vendor and different vendors, like some elaborate shell game. 

The Shell Game

Duplication and overlap is just the cost of doing business today. Because academic libraries license digital content in large packages, they are incentivized to acquire the same content residing in different packages, in theory paying for it many times over. Here, The Washington Post is shown to be available through this library through various service platforms. Note that direct access to The Washington Post is not provided by this library, and most of these platforms in which the newspaper appears does not provide access to the current issue. Some libraries will opt to limit the number of service links which appear for a popular title.

A commercial model. What librarians now provide in place of a authoritative collections is “access to” third-party content. For those with institutional credentials, provided the library has paid for institutional access, the same content is often available directly on publisher platforms and through Google / Google Scholar, which is what our users prefer to use. Because of the limitations of the metadata provided by publishers to us through this supply chain model, our own systems no longer organize titles into collections, according to library standards, so they can by experienced by users by systematically browsing a virtual shelves as a library collection:

  • The content we license cannot be pulled together and experienced in the common disciplinary framework, LCC, which academic libraries believe is the best for the organization for academic library content, reflecting knowledge in the academic disciplines. LCC is “currently one of the most widely used library classification systems in the world.”27 Through our current systems, we cannot display book, ebook and journal titles by LCC, which is necessary for a library collection to support scholarly communication in the disciplines.
  • Content (and metadata) is controlled by publishers or aggregators. Things pop in and out of inventory without impacting our license agreements with publishers and aggregators. 
  • We have no way to systematic way to display new titles. Indeed, all that is accessible to the user community is invisible unless people think to come along and search for something, the exact same criticism as our old “print warehouse” model, only at least the warehouse could be browsed by LCC.
  • We are not supporting life-long learning as we once did through providing access to collections because vendors are seeking to restrict access of their content to only those currently enrolled in school. We cannot lend this content, either. How is this affecting attitudes about the library and its mission?

We tend to think of discovery as tool which makes content discoverable and therefore visible, but on the flip side, libraries acquire access to large quantities of digital content, for which they pay many times above list price, but giving users no reason to explore them and like a grab bag, we do not know what we are buying.

Significant titles, mixed up with insignificant ones, are practically invisible on our websites and, as a result, are not likely to ever seen or discovered by users (unless a professor tells the student to use a particular resource). While we can provide convenient access to more information than ever before through discovery, we fail to provide that unique organizing principle, that disciplinary context, that academic framework, that which helps to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into education. A search box provides limited educational or scholarly value and little incentive to learn. 

Discovery or e-resource management systems have eliminated the framework of authoritative collections, the careful presentation of the knowledge that is known, and what is widely accepted as true and authoritative.

It has systematically eliminated our ability to manage our collections, promote new titles and put new content in front of users. It has made us efficient at buying access to large amounts of electronic content, yes, but ineffective at encouraging engagement with it. I am not defending the old library full of print, but I am defending the value of collections as a scholarly and intellectual framework which should be applied to electronic resources as well. 

Previously, with our old service model, books and journal titles were selected by librarians for their communities, cataloged and arranged by LC classification, organized by discipline, subclass, topic, and other factors depending on the subject area. LC Classification, while certainly not a perfect system, generally reflects the organization and structure of knowledge in the disciplines. This system provides a scholarly interpretive framework, a backdrop against which new publications can be evaluated, assessed presented to the scholarly community in context. Our MARC records and cataloging standards were not designed merely for discovery, but also for display in a catalog and on a book shelf within the context of a collection of scholarly materials.

Without collections, the impact and functionality of the library from a scholarly standpoint is mitigated, because intellectual works cannot be systematically presented in their most appropriate intellectual and scholarly context. The lack of collection visibility makes the resources in the library less valuable from a scholarly perspective because there is no intellectual context or framework to give them meaning. If electronic resources were presented by classification, as browseable collections representing objective knowledge on a subject, rather than presented to users as some “relevant resources” users “might find useful,” it would create a more meaningful context for user engagement. 

Where scholarly content is the product of publishers, scholarly collections are the rightful creative and intellectual work of academic librarians. Collections are what guarantees a good user experience of a library as a library, what guarantees integrity, academic rigor and good stewardship over our budgets, even if the library is comprised entirely of licensed content. Visible collections are necessary for a library to be and function properly as a library.

I believe that the e-resource discovery and management systems most libraries have adopted in the name of greater efficiency has helped large publishers and aggregators monetize their content at the expense of library collections, librarians, and the user experience of a library.

A search engine that searches publisher inventories is a commodification of the academic library, and despite its making large quantities of content easily available to users, this model is neither efficient nor effective for educating students, especially undergraduates, who benefit from overview, organization, structure and content that is geared for their level. The vast amounts of very expensive scholarly content which often gets thrown at them through discovery is not meaningful to them because it isn’t geared toward undergraduates. A library needs both collections and discovery.

In many instances, libraries are simply relying exclusively on aggregator packages for all ebooks, packages which typically exclude better and current titles. While in the case of serial content, this method of acquisitions is advantageous, since serial content is indexed in discovery at the article level, but it is not ideal for scholarly monographs (books and ebooks). This method of acquisitions is not only reducing the resource visibility, but it is also impacting the quality of our content and our services to the half of the university which relies upon scholarly monographs as the primary mode of scholarly communication. We are also compromising the general education of students.

In the physical space as well, the model of a library typically promoted by architects today makes no effort to prioritize the intellectual, educational and cultural aspects of an academic library, but seeks to transform the library into a bland learning center consisting of vacuous work spaces, easy for them to pitch to presidents and to design. Architects know how to design well-lit, energy efficient buildings for people to sit and study. What architects do not know how to do very well (although I show some designs I really like below) is build a modern library facility that stimulates awareness, instills a passion for learning and engagement with library resources which are available digitally, or in a hybrid environment. The result is that with print gone, academic libraries have become collectionless entities in both their physical spaces and online, and this is occurring without any evidence or assessment of the impact collectionlessness is having on education or the user experience of the library. The concept that there are core titles in a discipline, that titles and authors comprise a discipline, is being lost. 

Without a doubt, college and academic libraries are disappearing, or being transformed into something called a “new library,” or library learning center. In this learning center, new titles are not being selected, cataloged, preserved, perpetuated or emphasized.

There is no mechanism for stimulating intellectual inquiry, providing users with the shared knowledge of a discipline through visible collections. There is no way for students to obtain an overview of the published literature in a field of study to even begin to learn about it (although many librarians create topical research guides). The knowledge which was reflected in our former collections, titles which students and generally educated people should want to know about, has become nothing more than discoverable content should someone have a need. Most shockingly to me is idea that physical books and reading materials in the library are potential distractions and obstacles to a student’s success, rather than being regarded as an essential part of it. 

A new focus on work and productivity, on “doing” and not “having,” on information literacy skills rather than knowledge, is redefining academic libraries as remedial tutoring / learning centers, where collections and knowledge are deemed irrelevant to the library experience.

Academic library budgets are increasingly tied to student productivity and success defined by measurable outcomes: higher GPAs, mastering the ELOs of the classroom (including finding credible information and citing sources), and degree completion. While providing students with good collections was once seen as fundamental to the work of the librarian and the mission of the library, now library collections even at large universities may be imperiled, seen as needless distractions and largely irrelevant to the degrees offered by the school. The library learning center might provide access to relevant resources to complete assignments or support instruction, but offering anything beyond this might be seen as extraneous. 

Libraries of all types, public and academic, are being made over into ambiguous public work spaces. This model really has nothing at all to do with librarianship, with the exception that new libraries are now being designed around contradictory goals and objectives. State legislatures are allocating funds to build new libraries, but it is not clear that what is being built in the name of librarianship is really a library at all. It is an empty building:

  • Are we still about literacy? 
  • Are we still about resources and resource use?
  • Are we still about intellectual inquiry and learning?
  • Are we about collections or knowledge?

If so, how do we support these through our designs and assessment measures?

College and academic libraries today are seemingly more “about” their own modern architecture and innovative work spaces than the resources they provide, even online. If books are retained, they have been moved off the floors and placed out of view in the name of “student success,” as if the presence of books created an obstacle to learning.

There may be nothing in the library to stimulate engagement with resources or encourage intellectual inquiry or growth. Apart from students quietly studying, it is lifeless—far from the social spaces it may have been intended to be for the reason that (even without the presence of shushing librarians, coming and going through empty floors like ghosts), it is assumed that people in a library are there presumably because they do not wish to be disturbed. Everyone else is hanging out where there is noise, people and movement around them: cafes, the student center, their departmental lounges. 

Online, the library may or may not offer fantastic content through their license agreements with publishers, but even if there is good content there, there is no way to present this as our product, the product of expertise. It is just discoverable content provided by vendors, not by librarians, and it is the same vendors each year. Much of it is of low interest to college students. 

Large academic libraries have always been about the creation, perpetuation and preservation of disciplinary and cultural knowledge, and through library collections, promoting resource awareness and use.  They are about helping people acquire and create new knowledge to allow them to reach their creative and intellectual potential. Collections provided a intellectual roadmap to the knowledge in a field. What we have now, this e-resources discovery approach, provides abundant access to information and resources, but it provides no framework in which any of it is related to anything else, or anyone else, who is present at the university. It is a Faustian bargain we have made.

The mission of librarians at a university should not be just to provide “access to information,” or access to relevant resources to complete assignments, but presenting and preserving knowledge in the academic disciplines and helping the knowledge which exists become known. Our scholarly mission is to create educated people. My belief is that existing only as a search engine on third-party content without visible collections doesn’t support this learning objective very well.  

The idea of a library is to encourage a passion for learning, to represent academic and intellectual achievement in the disciplines we support, and encourage life-long learners. At the college level, the library should be a content-rich learning environment which helps the student achieve his or her creative and intellectual potential by exposing him to ideas, concepts, authors and knowledge so that the student can achieve success not just in the classroom, but in life.

The Elephant in the Room

s an academic librarian, the question I am most frequently asked is to account for my profession, “Why do we need libraries if we have Google?”

With each passing year, the question is becoming harder to answer, and not just because Google, Google Scholar and Google Books are indexing more scholarly content, with more peer-reviewed Open Access content added to them every day (by both publishers and authors), but because academic libraries have become more like Google, a search engine of popular, scholarly and Open Access content. 

Furthermore, independent learning (outside of class assignment or grade), reading and library “collection use” (usage stats) may no longer be looked upon by university administrators as evidence of our value, or evidence of our contributing significantly to the learning objectives of the university. Why? Administrators care about enrollment, retention, and completion, not library circulation or usage stats. The widespread adoption and acceptance of outcomes assessment, demand for greater accountability as defined by business objectives, means that increasingly the institution wants the library to acquire only what is guaranteed to be used for class, or what supports the pre-defined learning outcomes of the classroom. These approaches to assessment are guaranteed to change the library in the same way that standardized testing changed education. Once we embrace that model, the core values of the field and our own library-centric values, what we need to be good and successful as a library, may be challenged and undermined. Knowledge is not a measurable outcome.

The question about why libraries or librarians are needed has become harder to answer for the reason that we are seemingly not committed to maintaining collections, and collections were the main thing academic libraries were about. In this book, I make a distinction between collections and print; collections are an intellectual and aesthetic construct which can come in any format. Collections are not resources or vendor entitlements. Through the foggy oracle of discovery, I cannot see my disciplines, my fields of study, my Renaissance and Medieval scholars placed into a neat wall of fame. I cannot see English and American Literature. I need collections, logically arranged, so I can “see” History, Literature, Philosophy, Art, the Social Sciences, the Sciences too, spanning before me, and the scholarly activity that is occurring in them through publications. I believe our users do, too. I need a bird’s eye view, a roadmap where others have gone as a culture and a practice, as a discipline and where the discipline is heading. Library collections are our past and our future. I need to see new books, visibly displayed, with pub dates, but in context, under the wide umbrella of an authoritative collection, which, like the moon hanging in the sky, everyone who is part of the academic community can see and share and comment on. That is the beauty of it. And that is what librarianship is about.

Unfortunately, at this time, there may be no rational as to what is in the modern library’s inventory other than the fact that a publisher sold the content to an aggregator who licensed access to the library in a package. Sure, sure, there are adequate resources for a student to write a paper. But are they the best resources? In terms of organization and user experience, the modern library is much more a repository of scholarly resources than a scholarly collection of scholarly resources, which is not to say there aren’t good things in them, but it is not actually a library collection of selected titles, just scholarly content licensed in aggregate and whose metadata is indexed by a search engine. 

For the most part, academic librarians are not much curating the content that is in the library anymore, and in many libraries, subject librarians have been removed from the title selection process.

Because librarians are removed from title selection, and content is loaded on the back end, librarians are likely to know about new books. Resources are part of an inventory management system not capable of arrangement as a collection. They have no classification numbers. If librarians do not know about new books coming in, chances are, they do not know what isn’t coming in either. I say this package of academic ebooks in literature doesn’t have x, y, z. There are no books by Stephen Greenblatt or Harold Bloom. There is no Barbara Lewalski. There are no critical editions of major works.  

When I began my career over 30 years ago, long before Google, university libraries used subject specialists, often people with doctorates, to select titles for them. These were sometimes called Bibliographers or Collection Development librarians.

Then, title selection fell to subject liaisons, librarians who often possessed a second master’s degree in an academic field, people who were expected to work collaboratively as peers with faculty to do collection development and provide “bibliographic instruction.”

Now, it may be no one’s job in the library to keep up with new publications and order titles. People who order books from time to time may be tasked with the unambitious objective of spending the remaining budget money, use it or lose it. In fact, the acquisition of individual titles in a collectionless environment may be a rare or occassional occurrence, thought to be of little consequence; devoting time processing these books no one cares about is an act of abbsolute humility, like monks making rice mandalas. We are not building anything permanent, the grains of rice will quickly blow away in the wind. Libraries now license digital content in bulk from aggregators and publishers, and there are no collections to maintain. Online, there are no collections, only resources. Our new role is not to promote our collections, or titles people might want to read, but commercial vendor packages. But I’m not on ProQuest’s payroll, yet.

Our mostly invisible content is not organized for display online as an authoritative library collection. I may want a list of the titles we have in a certain subject area. I now have to get at these titles though subject headings and text search, often a combination or these and using various synonyms, which is certainly not a reliable or professional way of doing things; where before I could easily extract and present title lists from our systems, neatly arranged by topic using call number ranges, a shelf-list. What we have now cannot be assessed or experienced as a collection of titles, only as result sets of linked citations doled out in response to queries.

There is no way to get an overview of what is in our inventories, as we could with our traditional OPACs. In the modern collectionless library, there is no need for title selectors, catalogers, or circulation staff. Most institutions renew the same digital packages year after year. We have no way of actively or systematically promoting intellectual inquiry or user engagement with our content as we could previously though display.

Through the great efficiency of the workflows of the e-resource discovery systems many of us have embraced, we have become publisher-driven, a commodity. We appear to have made a Faustian bargain with our vendor, and quite literally sold our souls. Although the library provides access to more content than ever before with less need for human intervention, the library user interface as a search box is an opaque black box which does not inspire, encourage reading, intellectual inquiry or independent learning any more than Google. We have not made content relevant to the user because we have not presented it in the form of collections. Rather than adding value and respect to the scholarly enterprise through careful selection, context and display what we offer now diminishes value, our own value and the value of our resources.

While the distinction between a repository for commercially-licensed content and an actual library collection may be an exceedingly subtle one, I believe academic libraries should be committed to acquiring and presenting scholarly collections of titles, and not just committed to making third-party aggregated content “discoverable.” Access to collections are what make a library a good library.

Collections of books and journals are what give the library integrity and meaning, what brings it to life, and what makes it an educational and enjoyable experience for students and scholars. Current books and periodicals, displayed by classification so they can be seen and shared by the community, give it importance and provide users with insight into what is happening in their field and in the world.  

Better user interfaces online could be designed if titles could be browsed by classification, as academic library collections, according to academic library standards, even if “the collection” might no longer be being managed on the title level. This would also allow libraries do what they used to do, generate and distribute new title lists to faculty and to stakeholders. Content curation and display of selective book and journal titles by LC Classification should be an essential feature of all academic library user interfaces.

We must recognize that library as “a search engine” (or library as a repository for vendor entitlements), like library as a “book warehouse,” is just another reified model of the library, one which offers efficiency, but lacks of efficacy and interest. If we want to encourage user engagement, reading, research, self-discovery and learning, if we want to create educated people and encourage academic achievement, the face of the library should be curated collections of outstanding titles reflecting what is significant and good, not just a search box.

Browsing a good collection is itself an important form of learning for students and scholars.

Having said this about the necessity of collections, I must acknowledge that our subscription content, often referred to as “resources,” also have a significant place in the modern library, but the titles we obtain through license agreement must still be subordinate to an overarching framework of collections (even if we are not buying title-by-title), in part because collections are an academically rigorous approach, where providing access to aggregated commercial resources is not. I don’t care if we get 100 nursing titles in this package (resources), I care that we identify, acquire and present to users the 10 most important ones (collections approach); and if we have all 110, that we should be able to present these also in a logical arrangement to the nursing faculty and students using a classification scheme. Through our most advanced online systems, this is no longer possible, and this is not acceptable to me. 

We should be able to efficiently pull all subscription content together in a meaningful way so it can be seen, browsed, and evaluated, regardless of what vendor package it is in. 

The University Library as a “Learning Center”

any years ago, I was sitting in Faculty Senate with someone who had been the Interim Assistant to the Provost (a “Provost” is over academic affairs at a university). Partially under her watch, the library had been transformed from a facility maintaining comprehensive and historical research collections in a wide range of subject areas into a new facility called a library learning center. I personally weeded about 250,000 books to get ready for the move, a bittersweet activity that created confusion in me, because I took this very seriously. I spend many weekends and days off poring over spreadhseets and worrying over what books to keep or toss. At lunch, before the proceedings began, when everyone was chit-chatting and sharing the news of the day, she put this question to me: “Emily, can you explain this new learning center concept to the faculty? What is the difference between a library and a learning center?”

The room fell quiet. Some who knew me thought this question might trigger me into saying something I might later regret. I was not thrilled with the state of the new five-story study hall with multi-million dollar programmable window panes, smart gates and a few self-check out machines, but nothing set aside for books or resources of any kind to go into it. There apparently had been funds for “technology” which needed to be spent. And it did seem a little late for someone in the Provost’s office to be asking this particular question, since we were having lunch in the new building called a “library learning center.” Where had Faculty Senate been in the planning stages of the new facility? 

While I was cognizant of the fact that my role on the committee was only to represent the library (in a positive light) and not my academic department (English), I was also aware that this new space did nothing to benefit my students in English or enhance their knowledge of literature. Faculty in History similarly. At the end of the day, we offered nothing more online that we hadn’t previously through the years. The only difference was that the collection was gone along with our parking lot. In response to the question, I said that it would be best to invite the Library Director to speak at the next Faculty Senate meeting so she could answer all of their questions about the new library learning center. Faculty Senate went on to discuss their usual grievances about lack of parking on campus, perception of inequitable pay, adjuncts taking their jobs, and the ever-impending threat of post-tenure review. The library did not rank high on their list of concerns. 

If I had responded to the Interim Assistant to the Provost, what might I have said?

It is valid question which deserves a thoughtful response.

While a library and a learning center are both ostensibly about learning, their goals and objectives are not entirely complementary. An academic library can be a good learning center, but a learning center cannot be a good academic library.

Libraries are primarily about learning outside of class assignment (independent learning), research, success in life and in a discipline or profession, and life-long learning, while learning centers are really just about success in the classroom. I get the impetus for this change, motivated by the need to provide greater accountability, and the perception that a learning center is actively helping students to succeed, while a library may appear to do nothing. It is just a warehouse or repository providing no measurable learning outcomes. In actuality, however, libraries are far more ambitious and accountable than learning centers, and are more academically rigorous: they strive to represent knowledge in the disciplines, the body of knowledge which corresponds to an academic degree so that students may become educated.

A campus library learning center may also be evaluated differently than a library. For example, learning centers may adopt a business objectives model whose KPIs are pre-defined measurable learning outcomes. You know what are not measurable learning outcomes? Collection use (these are measurable, but considered outputs,” not “outcomes”). Independent learning. Research. Knowledge. Self-discovery. Entrepreneurship. Insight. Personal growth. Literacy. Education. Improved reading skills. Innovation in the community, and new jobs arising from start-ups. Creativity. Self-actualization. Awareness of new trends that might fall outside of the established curriculum. Greater academic commitment from students feeling nurtured and supported by a library which reflects their interests, issues, aspirations and values. High school students who visit the university for a research project and have such a great library experience that they decide that this is where they want to go to college. We helped them complete a research assignment rather than telling them “go away,” go use a public library, access to institutional resources is only for our students.

An outcomes assessment model, which is now, unbelievably, recommended by ACRL in place of prescriptive library standards, is dooming the library to being an instructional support / tutoring center, providing only “relevant resources” (as opposed to relevant collections) and texts needed to support instruction. My feeling is that the university library must be funded, evaluated and assessed as an academic library which supports disciplinary and cultural knowledge and a vibrant campus life, and not as a perfunctory tutoring center or study hall. The latter is a learning center. Libraries have collections maintained in a perpetual state orf readiness anticipating use, where learning centers provide resources to complete classroom assignments.

Scholarship is a fragile thing. It is easily derailed. Heavy-handed application of outcomes assessment to libraries will destroy a library, making it into a learning center, just as its heavy-handed application in K-12 education has been said to hurt education by establishing less ambitious goals which are measurable as opposed to higher order goals that are more difficult to assess; teaching to the test does not demonstrate greater accountability, it only lowers instructional standards and provides students, especially better students, with less opportunity to learn and to reach their potential.

An example of this business objectives approach in a library might be as follows: according to a grading rubric, students need to identify, utilize and cite five peer-reviewed articles for a research assignment. It has been determined that one multidisciplinary database, Academic Search Complete, will provide adequate numbers of peer-reviewed resources on any topic for all disciplines. Therefore, everything else (unless needed for accreditation or other institutional business objective) should be eliminated to make the library more accountable, less distracting and more student-centered. Why waste money on other resources when students can get what they need from one resource?

Sadly, and not just for career librarians, this is what is happening at many schools, and students do not have access to a real library even in college, even online, because it is perceived as no longer contributing to student success as defined by the institution. According to this framework, reading not for a specific assignment is a perceived to be a distraction from education, rather than contributing to it, or being a part of the educational experience to which students are entitled.

Libraries and learning centers in opposition: the library values independent learning, reading and intellectual inquiry as objectives (and regards “collection use” as indicators of learning); the latter regards all objectives not tied to the ELOs of the classroom as a waste of time and institutional resources.

Other advocates for collectionlessness in the library world comes from the Serials community, who often assert that no one needs anyone to curate content for them in this Digital Age, or for librarians to be “gatekeepers.”

I totally get that perspective in theory, but not in practice.

Because funds are not unlimited, the alternative is letting unscrupulous profit-driven publishers or those without academic credentials drive our acquisitions processes; or acquiring “just what is requested,” which also leads to a lackluster user experience. Each of these are ad hoc models thought not conducive to a good library management. Good stewardship of a library as a library means maintaining collections in anticipation of use and presenting what is thought significant and good by experts to scholarly audiences. Also, the reason for the library is not just to provide passive “access to information,” or instruction to students of how to access it, but to provide them with access to knowledge, which requires the expertise of knowledgeable, dedicated people to create and sustain to present good titles to those who would want to know about them.

Just to clear up misconceptions readers may have, when librarians select titles for their institutions, they rely upon specialized collection development tools which allow them to make good choices based on many factors, including expert reviews, knowledge of the field, familiarity with programs and curriculum at the school, and the interests of students and faculty. We rely on bibliographies and publications which have reviews by experts often before the book comes out. But what we buy is always balanced against what the library already has and its history of usage as well as where the institution wants to go.

Collaborative collection development, where we share with faculty the new titles coming out in their field, is beneficial to the library and to faculty. We send them notification of new titles in their field and we tell them when new books come in. This helps keep faculty informed and up-to-date. 

If we are doing our jobs, we do not buy just what we like, but what experts in the field like, what educated people like, what we think others will like or appreciate, and what is most suitable for our target audiences (undergraduate, graduate). We weigh the needs of one department against another. 

However, I would hope that some of what a librarian buys, a librarian also likes, and can personally recommend. Librarians should be readers and intellectually curious people, for it provides them with a significant occupational advantage over the many non-readers who have joined our ranks.

I would also hope a radio DJ likes music, a museum curator likes art, and priests believe in God. Librarians should be enthusiastic about books, reading, culture, knowledge and ideas, in order to encourage students to creatively explore content they might like or find beneficial to them.

If we truly want students to benefit from the library experience, and for the library to become a vibrant learning hub (and a social space), we need visible library collections, knowledgeable staff familiar with the collection, and library systems which foster content-rich learning environments. We must stop heaping undeserved praise on ineffective modern library designs and focus on designs suited to the objective of engaging students in hybrid (print and digital) content logically organized into browseable collections, actively presenting new interesting things to them while accurately representing scholarly activity in the disciplines. 

From Library Collection Management to Content (E-Resource Discovery) Management

xactly how a library balances collection development with resource management today will no doubt vary by institution, mission, audience and budget size. There is no right or wrong answer here, and all libraries are different; many are deciding no collections are the way to go. Without a doubt, publishers and aggregators, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, have been in cahoots to move both library systems and our profession deliberately toward an automated e-resource management model which, of course, helps libraries efficiently acquire in bulk (many titles at once, no need to select them or catalog them), and helps publishers and aggregators to better monetize their digital content. Aside from OCLC, a not for profit vendor, the providers of large academic library services platforms are themselves content aggregators, and the discovery model is better for their business. Systems and workflows have been designed to make bulk acquisitions easy and to make licensed content discoverable, not to support genuine collection development and create an online library which abides by more stringent standards for inclusion and display in a selective collection of bibliographic content. 

A drawback of this system is that it doesn’t help the library to present this content in meaningful ways to users. Our content is largely invisible unless someone comes along and searches for something. Furthermore, even librarians do not know what is coming in or what has been loaded into our systems. We do not know what is there or not there until we search for something. 

This is not to say that the traditional academic library full of print resources had nothing comparable to this system to help it keep up with publications, for it most certainly had standing orders and approval plans before, as well as bulk downloads and uploads of MARC records. It has been a long, long time since anyone was cataloging all those books from scratch, or even copy cataloging them. The main difference now, apart from the fact that content and metadata is delivered digitally at the time of acquisition, is that what we acquire is invisible to both us and our users, and furthermore, it cannot be organized, presented or evaluated as a library collection, as knowledge, or as scholarly communication in a discipline. What we have now is not a library collection management system built around titles in collections, but an e-resource management system based on commercial packages.

What we have now is not a library collection management system built around titles in collections, but a resource management system based on commercial packages.

Another difference with modern library systems and workflows is that in the name of greater efficiency, subject librarians and faculty, those presumably with knowledge of the discipline, have become completely removed from the title selection process.

Librarians have been systematically excluded from the title selection process of what is going into the library. 

In this new fully automated environment, what is coming into the library isn’t seen by anyone or capable of being placed into any kind of disciplinary framework so our inventory can be assessed, viewed or evaluated by anyone as a library collection. 

The new model of a library does not promote awareness of titles to encourage resource use or provide for collection visibility.

There is no view of print resources integrated with digital resources or even just digital content mapped to the disciplines, as a whole collection.

Furthermore, we are told that this “collections framework” we once thought so important is not even the correct way to evaluate and assess our subscribed content, of course, because we no longer offer collections, only resources relevant to users. The department in the library responsible for acquisitions may be called the Department of Resource Management or Collection Management, or some combination, with resources often signifying subscribed content and collections being owned content; or else what is acquired in packages (e-resources) vs. title-by-title (collection development). Many academic libraries do not see themselves, their institutions and/or their workflows as supporting collections or supporting traditional library collection development anymore, and have eliminated the word “collection” from their organizational chart.

Collection management means a commitment to keeping up with new publications in subject areas and acquiring titles which are capable of being presented and viewed as a whole, as a collection. Newer systems and modern libraries tend to be organized around an resource management and discovery model, the library as a search engine, rather than collections.

Previously, the academic library was expected to provide users with authoritative collections reflecting what experts in the field or the community of scholars and educated people believed significant and good, organized by topic and discipline, and not just vendor packages of commercial content. Because we do not offer visible collections online, what we might buy individually is practically invisible and not capable of being browsed or organized according to classification, as a library collection.

The User Experience of the New Academic Library

ny philosophy of librarianship must address the ideal user experience of the library as a library, which means, unless we are going to just talk about the furniture or the space, entering into the realm of aesthetic and intellectual experience, especially the student’s and scholar’s intellectual responses to a content-rich environment we ideally create for their benefit. (And if we are not creating content-rich environments, we cannot be effective as librarians or educators.)

Whether the library consists of digital content or actual collections, there still needs to be ways to encourage engagement with resources, because isn’t that what it is all about? Why acquire or license content if no one is going to see it? 

With cataloged collections, I could always extract a report of new books and journals in call number ranges, sorted by call number, and send this list to faculty or create a feed to a web page. It is a simple task, a basic function I thought all systems should be able to do. I could create new book feeds organized by call number. With cataloged collections, I could identify collection strengths and gaps, and evaluate usage by granular subject areas and call number ranges. I cannot do this now, since e-resources are not cataloged. I believe the intellectual framework of collections provide for a better and more engaging user experience, and is also of greater scholarly and intellectual value, than “resources” or “facilities.”

Collections and a collections framework provide a higher level of service to academic library users because the content is visible and capable of being browsed and evaluated, each item in context according to the discipline in which it is deemed authoritative. Visibility and context are important determiners of use, and lack of collections constitutes a barrier to access.

Indeed, academic librarianship as a profession is all about this intellectual and aesthetic environment so that titles can be seen and be presented in their most scholarly, disciplinary context, where they are perceived to be visible and valued by a scholarly community of readers and relevant to the discipline.

Our collections should constitute a very important part of this environment, that is, if we want users to associate the resources we acquire with community value, a body of knowledge of things they might want to be familiar with. Resource and collection visibility are important design objectives for a library and a its website. When items are put into public view, it shows respect for them (the Latin root of “respect” means to look at or consider again and again). The assumption is that they must be of interest to others or important. Setting out new things in traffic areas is a way of stimulating interest in them. The user experiences we want to cultivate through our collections and facilities is intellectual curiosity, desire to learn, academic intimacy, sense of connection, possibility, creativity, community, regard for scholarship, shared experience and personal growth, brought about through the consistent delivery and presentation of interesting, important and current publications formed into visible collections and placed into public view for community use and appraisal. That is a library.

Academic libraries today are failing to deliver a good user experience of a library because they are no longer striving to be content-rich learning environments.

Libraries have abandoned their commitment to collections or scholarly communication is the disciplines. They are not supporting browsing or the display of new books. While today new spaces called “new libraries,” or library learning centers, are being built “to house people, and not books,” to be modern work spaces with moving walls and walkways and staircases to fill the large empty space up, there is seemingly little attention being paid to the user experience of the academic library as a library, either in the physical space or online, apart from being a public space and search application for accessing “relevant resources” for getting assigned coursework done. 

“Innovative spaces” being built in the name of a new librarianship are hollow glass boxes with little of interest inside of them to draw students and scholars into the space aside from a cup of coffee and a place to be.

These spaces are said by architects to be vibrant hubs of learning, but they are large vacuous spaces with nothing in them. Grandiose as they are, these human habitrails, with their breezeways and staircases and reliance on architectural features to fill up the space, form a poor impression of a library to a scholar’s eye. It isn’t that the architecture is bad, but that these facilities make no effort to educate students, stimulate them or inform them, or present them with new things.

Architect’s vision for the Sawyer Library at William’s College. The space is given greater prominence by being empty but with aerial breezeways. It reminds me a bit of the old Red Roof Inns with indoor golf courses in the middle of them.

New libraries are said to “promote collaboration” through the simple gesture of making study rooms available and making other people more visible in the space.

I personally love the idea of creating intimate art-filled spaces, salons to stimulate discussion and creativity. My ideal library has art studios and writers workshops, a viewing room, poster sessions, art gallery, fireplaces, a waterfall, an art studio, music room, theater, and a way to post covers of new ebooks with QR codes for instant download. It would feature the best of the best in publishing, and the greatest hits of the academic disciplines we support. I would make available the local paper, The New York Times, The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and others in the library coffee shop for community reading between classes. 

Building empty glass boxes with oversized staircases and air taking up most of the building is not “progress.” What is being constructed today in the name of a new librarianship is nothing more than a building with tables, chairs, vacuous and some private conference rooms inside of them.

Libraries need books and collections to make them interesting and good as learning spaces, especially if they offer graduate programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences. We may need fewer books and better displays, with the ability to tap to download books from the item or a book cover. We may need author podcasts to promote engagement with them, and have book-tastings where people can come to the library to hear about new publications from the subject librarian who acquired them, or the faculty who wrote them. We must be more about content than modern design.

Public libraries are beginning to move in the same direction as academic libraries, clearing out the books, and grappling with some of the same questions of how libraries in this Digital Age might support marketing, browsing and greater community engagement and learning in an environment where the whole of the library is designed as a search box and a space to be. If we want to create a sense of value and community around books, reading, literacy and scholarship, we are moving in the wrong direction by putting content out of view and not developing digital marketing strategies which create interest and value around publications. 

Good Libraries are Content-Rich Learning Environments

cademic librarianship is about creating and managing content-rich learning environments which encourage intellectual inquiry, personal growth and the acquisition of knowledge (for the creation of new knowledge), which means, to be interesting, good and beneficial to users, that libraries must be fundamentally “about” their collections, about publications, about books and other resources. Most importantly, though, they are about knowledge.

Librarians and their systems ought to be “about” collection management and development, collection presentation, content curation and display, bibliography, and of course, encouraging resource use to facilitate learning and to help students and scholars reach their potential. Academic libraries should be focused on presenting and preserving outstanding academic titles in collections, exposing students to good and significant things, not just providing them with passive “access to” aggregated third-party content. 

I believe collections and collection management, the bibliographic aspects of the library, provide an additional layer of scholarly value above and beyond access to commercial content. Library collections, displayed, organized and maintained by people familiar with them, their users, and the scholarship in the field, are not online today. Good collections, displayed and maintained as collections, are the basis for the unique intellectual and aesthetic experience of the academic library, and not what Google, our publishers and our library system vendor offer. Imagine the academic library’s website as a place scholars could reliably visit to see what new books are coming out in their field of study? 

Organized collections of titles capable of being presented in context provide an additional layer of information, accessibility, immediacy, meaning, scholarly value, accountability (people know what titles we have at any time in a subject area without having to fish for them) and interest to users, especially for those just learning about a discipline. Visual, browseable collections suggest to users titles, topics, artists and authors students might not have thought or known about to search for. We need this and a visual store front which puts content where it will be seen by all who come to our websites. 

Of course, when it comes to libraries today, there is the undeniable reality that everything that is perceived to be of any intellectual value, influence or importance is available online, and of course, online is the preferred modality for user access due to its immediacy and convenience for academic library users and researchers. 

In theory, this should present new impetus for the development of new academic library interfaces to support the presentation of online collections. It should also provide mechanisms for bringing online collections into the physical space, and these might be replicated beyond the walls of the library. One example of this are displays of book covers with blurbs and QR codes which can be posted in classrooms or academic buildings for easy download. Another is virtual fulfilment, where the book remains in the library where it can be displayed and browsed, but downloaded rather than being checked out. The physical copy of a new book remains on display to stimulate engagement. The main thing we need, however, is a digital store front which supports collection visibility and browsing.

In the digital environment, to be effective, we should be able to deliver searchable, browseable collections, as collections, to academic library users, maintained as collections, the best of the best, and arranged according LC Classification (that is, as a collection), our own academic library professional standard for arranging collections of bibliographic content, and not just offer just discoverable resources reflecting third-party vendor entitlements which happen to be in inventory at any given time. We can offer that too, of course. We must be able to put content where users will see it in a way that will be valued, and where it will be likely be seen again, next to titles that it relates to, if we are to make others believe resources are worthwhile and of value.

We must provide a more valuable and engaging experience to academic library users than a search box.

Our systems must provide a mechanism for visible, curated collections, especially the presentation of what is new and significant in a field. Collections can be online or physical, or both, but they must meet library standards for arrangement, inclusion, display and metadata.

Collections are comprised of what experts and influencers believe to be good and important to know, a body of common knowledge, arranged according to the priorities of the disciplines we support. Curated collections are fundamental to our discipline and library best practices. They are fundamental to encouraging literacy and a student’s education. They are, or ought to be, fundamental to library assessment and accreditation, for how can we claim to be supporting students without providing them access to good collections? 

Given that library resources are available online, and so many modern academic libraries are both bookless and collectionless, my colleagues at ACRL have proposed a “collaborative learning model” for a library, with librarians acting as “Collaboration Facilitators.”24

This new pre-eminent role for 21st century librarians in a bookless learning center parallels trends in K-12 education and in the college classroom. In the modern classroom, teachers now serve not as authorities who know something about a discipline, but as instructional coaches to facilitate student peer group interaction (usually with students facing a screen in front of them and peers) and discovery to get students to solve predefined problems or reach a conclusion based on evidence gleaned from a variety of resources. “Activities” are assigned to students facilitate active learning; which attending to lectures or reading books are not, at least according interpretations of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (An important aspect of Bloom which is often overlooked is that knowledge was postulated by Bloom to be a prerequisite for all of it, a precondition for the putting skills and abilities in Bloom’s hierarchy into practice. Skills do not replace knowledge, but demonstrate it.22

Given the transformation of the modern classroom into a kind of collaborative learning lab about shared discovery and collaboration, it was proposed that librarians presiding over new bookless, collectionless facilities might also function as a kind of peer collaboration facilitator, although how we might get people to collaborate with each other or the measurable learning outcomes from this is not clear. It also seems, at least from a library traditionalist standpoint, that the goals and values of a learning center are on some fundamental philosophical level at odds with the goals and the values of the academic library in its efforts to create knowledgeable, educated people. 

From a traditional standpoint, the “library” learning center is a form of library that places little or no emphasis on the user experience of collections or resource use.

  • It is a library which places no value on knowledge, publications, ideas, or the display of new books. It is a library which does not in any overt way promote awareness of titles, demonstrate respect for scholarship, or encourage user engagement with resources.
  • It is a library which does not encourage intellectual inquiry beyond providing users with passive access to some “relevant resources,” that is, should they have a need to search for something in the first place.
  • It is a library which places no value on literacy (at the college level, “literacy” means knowledge of professional and scholarly literature in the disciplines, as well as cultural literacy, familiarity with leading influencers and ideas), inquiry or scholarship, or learning outside of required coursework. It may offer an efficient mechanism for searching an inventory of online entitlements, but by default, neither great collections nor resource use are the focus of the library or learning, in terms of either the architectural design of the facility or the design of its interfaces online.
  • It is a library that may make claim to offer advanced technology, but its user interfaces are incapable of leveraging SSO to offer personalization or putting meaningful content where users are likely to see it. It is a library which seemingly makes no intellectual investment or commitment to its own content other than to make it accessible. 
  • It seems the new academic learning center represents a contradictory value system from that of an academic library, which previously aimed at raising literacy levels (not just information literacy, but actual literacy), educating students through the presentation of scholarly resources in collections, and perpetuating knowledge. As I will discuss below, the empty library sends an ambiguous message which might impact students’ academic commitment to the university. 

While usage statistics of the academic library’s electronic resources may provide important metrics for justifying library acquisitions budgets, and librarians are still expected to teach instructional classes explaining to students how access the library’s resources, the locus of learning in the library learning center has perceptibly shifted away from encouraging user engagement with significant titles organized into visible collections toward “facilities use” on the one hand, and demonstrable learning outcomes on the other—with “usage” shockingly dismissed out of hand as an “output” or indicator, and not constituting evidence of student learning outcomes. 

Of course, today an abundance of materials is available online, both through the library’s license agreements and through open access repositories. Students have access to more online than ever before, both through their library and the Internet. But there is nothing either in the physical space nor online to encourage resource awareness or use, and in many libraries, even the librarians have been moved off the floor. In the new academic library, seating and people quietly studying may be the only features of the new learning environment. Even online, resources are not particularly visible or promoted, and collections might be said to not exist at all, even if invisible librarians are still doing a small percent of title-by-title acquisitions to place invisible titles into invisible collections which arguably do not even exist at all.

At a university, the academic library’s focus is disciplinary and cultural knowledge, a construct that is satisfied only by the presentation and preservation of visible collections of titles in the disciplines; this is what the university stands for, for it makes claim to bodies of knowledge which comprise the academic subject areas it teaches.

After all, academic degrees are measures of one’s degree of knowledge by the estimation of peers, and collections constitute these bodies of knowledge. In a sense, the very legitimacy of the university stems from the academic library. Collections in this digital age need not be physical or owned, but they must be visible, formed into collections, and placed where they will be seen by the community. Collections not only support research, they actively influence and shape it. Without organized collections, the library lacks sufficient impact, credibility, purpose and reach. 

At the college level, the collections should be geared toward undergraduates, current authors, influencers, ideas, and possibilities for success in life. They should also reflect the unique character of the institution, the interests of its students and the research interests of the faculty. Above all, a good library demonstrates care for students.

Academic libraries are or ought to be intellectual and cultural places emphasizing outstanding collections, ideas, authoritative sources, “literacy,” knowledge, independent learning (open-ended, not pre-defined), new and influential titles, and the creation of new knowledge and conversations around scholarly publications. Libraries can be social places too, but if this is the objective for the new library, it helps to give people a reason to be there and something to talk about. 

Beyond Discovery: Thinking Outside of the Search Box

he challenge of making academic libraries more relevant and valuable to users at this time when so much is available online is not capable of being remedied simply by making all of the library’s resources available through a search box, the strategy most academic libraries have already taken, including leveraging the convenience of our web-scale library systems to populate them. Even if a library’s licensed content is fantastic, with budgets in the millions, the online library is still just a search box, a “black box,” opaque to its users and, because content is invisible and not organized by discipline, also very easy for people to ignore.

A search box does not incentivize use or attract scholars to it. We know this from years of studying the behaviors of our users. They do not care for discovery. Everybody knows this. There is no debate about it. In the library world, we have known this for a really, really long time. When given a choice, scholars prefer going directly to the publisher’s platform or utilizing what appears to them to be a more comprehensive search tool, Google Scholar. They go to subject specific databases to do research. Therefore, if we are to appeal to students and scholars, we cannot get away with being just a search box. We must return to the organizing principle and the academically rigorous user experience of collections. 

Despite the vast entitlements of the large university library, for all of the millions of items it counts as its holdings, the user interface provides no aesthetic experience comparable to browsing the awe-inspiring large library collection with millions of holdings. Instead, the user experiences the most immense collection with thousands of relevant results per query through a disappointingly narrow window, often ten or twenty citations at a time. That’s no way to experience a vast collection. The experience of the large library with large collections is flattened, not enhanced, by our limited technology. 

By the same token, smaller libraries lack the charm, personalization and aesthetic appeal they once afforded to students and scholars through display, an aesthetic called “academic intimacy.” We have neither the sublime nor the intimacy which characterized the former library experience. Libraries are spending far more per title than list price for licensing academic ebooks and costly journals, but these titles lack visibility in our systems.30 There is no visual clue that other people value them, either. This is a shortcoming of our user interfaces, and of the mentality which thinks that making third-party resources “accessible” through search is sufficient as a service model for an online library.

Academic libraries are about, and have always been about, providing access to carefully-developed collections of scholarly titles arranged according to the academic disciplines, reflecting what scholars and educated people believe to be important, authoritative, significant, interesting and good, so that students and scholars can more effectively acquire knowledge, and through this, become literate, educated people who can make contributions to their field and to society as a whole.

Good service as a library means that we show care for the student and the titles we acquire for them by organizing them, publicly displaying them, preserving them, providing broad access to them and knowing about them. In an academic environment, we should model literacy and reading. Libraries are not about knowing how to find information, they are about the the acquisition of knowledge. My instinct is that a discovery model does not create educated people.

Do Collections Still Matter to Libraries?

iven the universal adoption of discovery services as the academic library’s user interface, and the fact that for many libraries, collection development has less to do with the selection and acquisition of titles and more with the licensing of large packages of publisher and aggregator content, we might ask if and how collections still matter to libraries in this Digital Age.

What is the perceived value of a resource in a collection (presented as part of a collection), as opposed to being experienced by the user merely as some discoverable resource in a third-party package? Can this value add be in any way quantified? 

The presentation of a work, surrounded by similarly scoped works, being able to easily navigate from the abstract to the specific and getting an overview of the organization of the discipline, would seem to me to add value and meaning. The fact that academic libraries use the same classification scheme is also beneficial for comparing one collection with another, and it certainly would make marketing easier. By a collection, I do not mean the print format, but an an intellectual and aesthetic framework surrounding curatorship, selection and description, developing collections intended for that school and arranged by discipline, as librarians were trained to do, as opposed to providing users with passive access to aggregations of third-party content. Just because we deliver our content digitally is no reason to abandon standards for bibliographic description and display. 

Some have asked this question in other ways, for example, exploring the impact of library acquisition patterns on use31 or how the presence of physical bookshelves influences student behavior and choice of study location (I review these studies later in this book). 

There is also the obvious problem of semantics, for if I were to survey a group of librarians, “Do you still maintain collections?” as I have in the past, some would say, “Yes, we have a small leisure reading collection,” or “Yes, we maintain a special collection of x, y and z,” with the respondents thinking that I am asking them only about the nature and extent of their print holdings, which were always managed as a collection, not as random books stored on a shelf, evidence of our fall away from professional standards. It isn’t just a matter of monographs (books), either, for scholarly journal titles were also assigned classification numbers so current issues could be effectively browsed by discipline. People loved that ability to browse the current periodicals rack and current newspapers. It was the only reason some faculty ever came into the library. This was part of the experience of collections too, for periodicals were also organized by classification and date in the grand scheme of the library’s collections. 

Others would say yes, we have collections; but it quite is likely they do not differentiate “collections” from aggregator or publisher entitlement packages of e-resources, or they consider collections to be the practically same thing as resources. In an environment where the library is just licensing electronic content anyway, most perceive little difference between providing digital collections and providing access to discoverable resources. Others might say yes, because they believe I am asking if they still do any title-by-title selection, keeping up with forthcoming publications and following methods and workflows optimized for good collection management, as degreed librarians were taught to do, and is still recommended as a best practice.

However, most academic librarians with only digital holdings would say “no,” that even though we have a collection development policy as is required by SACS and other accreditation agencies, we no longer do collection management or collection development, or do much title-by-title acquisition, or very often collaborate with faculty on acquisitions, or let them know of new titles published in their areas of interest or specialty, or let faculty know of new titles we purchased for them or their students, or catalog our resources (or pay much attention to the cataloging records which slip into our systems when electronic resources are activated in discovery), or keep up with new publications in the disciplines we support so that we know with reasonable assurance that what we offer (given the size of the budget, student body and other considerations) is best given our constraints.

Many of my colleagues would assert with confidence that the future of the library is not “a collection.”32

They would argue that libraries consist of discoverable resources, with everything conveniently accessible through a search box. According to this popular conception, the whole of the library can be outsourced to select vendors, publishers and aggregators, from whom we license digital content. It is for this reason that the modern academic library has been aptly described by vendors, publishers and aggregators as the tail-end of the publisher-aggregator supply chain. Records of resources licensed in bulk come into our systems already “cataloged,” where they remain invisible, camouflaged, until someone performs a query, retrieves the citation and goes to the publisher’s platform to access the item. 

As evidence for why collections are no longer needed by libraries, some would say that for the most part, with this current arrangement of licensing large packages of subscription content from publishers and aggregators, users have no difficulty searching the library’s inventory to find whatever they are looking for; and also, for the most part, no one is complaining about what the library offers. The library is doing its job by making so much content available. Furthermore, there is a STEM bias, a belief that books, or more accurately, scholarly monographs, are not important to STEM fields except as reference tools, to look something up; and this information is often in a serial title anyway. Therefore, we have settled on discovery as the library’s pre-eminent research solution, despite the fact that it has never been popular with researchers. Many of us have stopped imagining an alternative, since most of our technical library conferences, often vendor sponsored, seem to be organized around existing products and solutions. 

Discovery, the mechanism through which we conveniently make our resources available to users, is especially advantageous for libraries with large and/or specialized acquisitions budgets. Realistically, if one already knows that the library is going to license everything from Oxford, Cambridge, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE, Wiley, EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale, JSTOR, McGraw Hill, thousands of videos from Alexander Street and JOVE, and Elsevier, why not just pay the invoices, activate them in the library’s discovery system with a check of some boxes. and be done with it for the year? It’s a no-brainer. The library was going to acquire all these titles anyway. Only now, the work of one person, the Electronic Resources Librarian—which luckily happens to be me!—has replaced Catalogers, Collection Development Librarians, Subject Specialists, Acquisitions and Serials Librarians. Circulation staff may also be gone. With this design, one person can easily manage acquisitions, discovery and technical services for a large academic library and have time left over to teach classes. There is no need for a large staff.

And yet, despite the relative ease by which I can make the whole world of academic content available through a search box, I feel that the library is failing to have the impact it might otherwise have if it continued to offer visible collections.

Now I can activate 130,000 ebook titles in discovery, tens of thousands of dollars worth at a time, and there is seemingly nothing to show for it but an empty search box. The titles are loaded and accessible if someone wants to search for something. But why should they? I remember what 130,000 titles looked like on shelves. No one wants to check out books, people say, and I would concur. My belief is that people still want to see them, know about them, browse through them, and then, in the end download them to their phones or mobile devices to read them. 

Despite its advantages, its fantastic efficiencies of scale, this search box seems almost like a black hole through which there is no effective way to make content visible or valued by those standing on the other side of it. For libraries to add value as libraries, it must be able to put content where it will be seen by users.

How can we be about scholarly communication if we cannot communicate to scholars through collections?

The Future of the Library vs. The Library of the Future

In recent years, the decision for academic libraries to go fully digital has often been little more than a decision made by administrators to remove books from libraries, renovate the building, and repurpose the space into a kind of student support / study center with much of the old library re-allocated to nonlibrary purposes (administrative offices for tenants), moreso than some carefully thought out vision or plan—developed in collaboration with librarians, consulting library literature and library best practices, after reviewing post-occupancy assessments and studying what worked and what didn’t—for how to bring the academic library fully and successfully into the Digital Age. 

For example, inside the library, upon the announcement of a new library, librarians may be considering new and exciting possibilities for how we might deploy innovative technologies to create an immersive multimedia library experience in the physical space, with or without the presence of physical books; experimenting with virtual fulfillment or even virtual reality; creating “book bistros” on the ground floor of the library, with music playing around them to encourage browsing and conversation, while upper floors are for study and collaboration with librarians; or how to improve the online experience so people enjoy coming to our websites to learn new things and explore the latest publications in their academic discipline or specialty, perhaps developed in collaboration with Choice or Books in Print. We are thinking about how to promote independent learning (learning outside of a classroom assignment or task) and resource use. 

However, we must admit that none of these library-centric goals and objectives, including “independent learning,” “increased usage,” “improved literacy” and even scholarly research may be high priorities for our parent organizations, who understandably care more about enrollment, retention and graduation rates (the business aspects of running a university) than these other incidental byproducts of the academic library.

Therefore, when the stars align and library renovation projects arise, we inside the library may be envisioning the library of the future, while administrators and college presidents are thinking about the future of the library, and might not even have the library as a design priority, at least not in the same way librarians do. Architects are building what they call “learning environments” to replace the library. The State funds a “new library,” and media releases use the term “library,” but what is created is arguably not a library by anyone’s standards, but is more a design about its own design, a space about its space, a post-modern monument to learning. 

It has become common today for architects claiming special insight into building what they call “21st century learning environments” to create prominent, multistory iconic glass buildings called libraries with nothing inside of them but wide central staircases, arial walkways, an assortment of meeting rooms, and highly secure office spaces.

So not to interrupt the view of other students, or views out the window, whatever books that remain are moved into low shelving units where they sit in the murky shadows of LED light, sapping everything of color underneath it. Books are also put away into closed stacks, into remote storage, into basements, shellacked into wall decorations, and tossed into dumpsters. There is no place to display books in the library, even new books which students could conceivably browse in the library but scan a QR code to download (physical browse, virtual fulfillment). Glass walls prohibit anything of interest from being placed at eye-level and create a monotonous effect, for the buildings next door aren’t all that attractive or interesting that I would want to see them when I come to the library. These libraries often feel cold and impersonal. There is no thought given to visual display or encouraging intellectual life. The space is stagnant, lifeless and unchanging.

This bookless space is dubbed a “modern” library, and they are now ubiquitous on college campuses. The campus bookstore and student center may be a more inviting and interesting place for people to congregate and browse between classes than the library.

Architectural design firms may fail to fully consider the function of the library much beyond its being a meeting and work space for study and assignment completion. If we are to be just a space, my ideal would be something resembling Gertrude Stein’s living room, a salon, an art studio, intimate creative spaces which stimulate intellectual exchange and conversation about ideas.

And why not a movie theatre or viewing room in the library? I’m more than ready for multimedia presentations of highlights in book publishing, author interviews, art house / indie films and documentaries. Many of us license streaming video via Kanopy, so why not stream indie films in our own in house movie theaters? 

What is troubling to me is that in this new “learning environment,” there is seemingly no genuine commitment to literacy, learning, education, knowledge, media, the scholarly community, culture or collections.

Finally, by following some sad outcomes assessment model recommended by ACRL,33 we can be transformed into pretty much anything which adds value to our parent institution, including an empty space ripe for repurposing, which suggests that quite possibly our empty spaces are our most valuable commodity. ACRL, my professional association (College and Research Librarians), has not pushed back, but proposed silly new roles for us in these empty spaces, like “Collaboration Facilitator.”

There are no prescriptive standards of excellence for the design of new library buildings, for library spaces, for library collections, or for library websites to ensure an optimal user experience of the academic library, to guarantee optimal library learning outcomes, as there once were.

Therefore, not knowing what a library is for, it is easy to confuse an attractive space, something architects know how to create, with good library design, which should be a content-rich learning environment that encourages resource awareness and use. Part of the problem is that we lack definition or prescriptive standards for what the user experience of a library should be in the 21st century.

Some of the issues confronting the modern library online are not unique to libraries, of course. Consider that traditional brick and mortar stores face some similar challenges as to how to make their products visible and compelling online, how to create a sense of value around that which cannot be seen, touched or placed side-by-side with related items which would complement them.

However, it just so happens that books, art and other unique cultural objects typically require even greater social and intellectual context to convey value, to create a sense of value and community around them, which is what the library environment, catalogs, website and its librarians should be striving to achieve. Visible collections, organized as collections by classification, are important for good library marketing, analysis, good service, good decision-making/budgeting, maximizing value, scholarly communication, and supporting a preferred mode of information-seeking among many scholars.

When libraries go fully digital today, there is typically no planning for an improved library experience online, for better marketing of library resources to encourage resource use in the absence of physical collections, or establishing a better instructional experience for the academic library online for students and scholars. We are using the same interface we have used for years and years, even when we had physical books. Most of the focus is directed to the aesthetics of the library building, on the light and seating, and not on improving library user interfaces or the educational experience. There is no emphasis in the design of these new spaces on literacy or on scholarly communication. Our spaces and websites are stagnant. There is often no dynamic content in the library or on its website to promote user engagement.

In fact, even as the library claims to be fully online, the IT Department has in all likelihood assumed control over the library’s website (which the librarians like me once developed, managed and ran on their own servers) and authentication protocols. Now the system vendor controls the discovery interface, which, apart from minor customizations, is the same across all subscribing institutions, leaving little room for development, creativity and innovation online.

The library’s inability to manage its online presence and its lack of autonomy in the digital realm further restricts the possibility for more sophisticated user experience, marketing efforts, personalization, and the creation of websites that are much more of a destination for scholars than they currently are.

What are “Collections”?

ost librarians had to spend an entire semester in library school in a course entitled “Collection Development.”

In this class, students learn how to develop collections of titles that are balanced, current, consistent in scope and fall within a certain budget. They learn evaluation techniques like conspectus analysis, peer comparison, cost per use, evaluating turnover, budgeting, usage reporting and assessment. The course often covers community standards (for obscenity, for example), defending free speech against censorship, different acquisition models (approval plans, demand-driven, other), different access models, book jobbers, subscription agents and some legal aspects of librarianship pertaining to collections, especially gifts and donations.

All libraries have a document called a Collection Development Policy, even though today, ironically, they may lack collections.  Academic libraries are usually required to submit this document for institutional accreditation purposes. In some cases, the policy is designed to explain how the library plans (realistically, given the size of its budget; the CDP cannot be just pie in the sky) to support particular programs, degrees, and special research interests of the school. Some can be quite granular. The CDP is like a business document explaining what the library plans to do for a collection and how it plans to do it. It sometimes it includes how the collection will be assessed.

Sound collection development practice in an academic library typically necessitates that the library acquires continuously throughout the year so it gets new things at the time they are released, and so the collection does not develop gaps. It means understanding that some disciplines are higher users of books and ebooks than others; and if a university is offering graduate degrees, it must allocate funds to the program to support collections appropriate for graduate research (not allocate funding strictly by the numbers, some formula based on enrollment in classes or number of classes offered). Graduate classes are small and few classes are offered, but they are higher consumers of resources, and their resources are more expensive. It means avoiding ad hoc spending, excessive duplication (libraries often the same content many times over because we acquire in packages, so overlap is often unavoidable), dated collections, as well as working effectively with stakeholders and community representatives. 

And yet, despite all of the emphasis on collection management and development, and the attributes of a good collection, a definition of a library collection is actually very hard to come by in library literature, especially at this time.

Many years ago, academic libraries were loosely defined as a collection of research which inspires research.

Given that we can make so much content easily accessible through a text search interface on third-party content, how important is an actual collection for supporting research and instruction today? Does passive access to research online through a search engine inspire research or intellectual inquiry in the same way that visible collections do or did, or was presumed to? In the same vein as “a collection of research which inspires research,” large academic collections might be regarded an important type of scholarly communication about scholarly communication, and an important service the library provides to the academic community. How does a collection communicate to scholars if scholars cannot see what is in the collection?

There are considerable intellectual and aesthetic differences between the user experience of searchable aggregations of content and the experience of actual library collections, even if the entirely of the library is online, and even if anything anyone might want can be found through the search box. Our user interfaces, while allowing a mechanism for discoverability through a search engine, also cloaks library resources in a layer of invisibility

Authoritative collections, not aggregated resources, represent the weight of scholarly opinion of the academic community as to what is significant and good to know. They reflect a community. Visible collections encourage intellectual inquiry and intellectual life on campus. If librarians do not know what collections are for, or why collections are still valuable and worth preserving, we cannot very well demonstrate why the library itself is a valuable asset to the university. 

For a library collection to be a collection, the items in it must be described and arranged in a way that allows others, especially educated people and scholars, to perceive it as a “collection.”

A collection is organized, arranged, consistent and logical. They can be in any format.

Good collections are experienced as intentional, possessing the quality of intentionality. This means that people can tell it is an actual collection, managed and organized around the priorities of the discipline. A collection is a form of scholarly communication maintained by scholars for scholarly audiences.

There is a logic to collections. They reflect consistent scopes, and they often tell a story, that is, the history of an idea or thought; they possess synchrony (what the discipline looks like now) and diachrony (how the discipline has evolved over time). The organization of resources into collections is in itself very valuable for encouraging literacy and engagement with the items in them. They reveal what others in that field think significant and good. What is authoritative in Theology might not be authoritative in History, for example, although each may appear scholarly with footnotes. The collection is also an extremely important part of a student’s education because it exposes them to what they ought to know to become educated.

You would not expect students to have to “fish out” what they are supposed to learn from a class, so why expect that a library experience based on text search alone, providing library users with a search box, would be effective at encouraging engagement with scholarly resources? Collections reveal the structure, organization, authorities and priorities of an academic discipline, and that is the context in which resources have value.

Through discovery solutions alone, the front-end of the modern academic library system, academic libraries possess no ability to present library collections online, even if we are continuing to maintain them through our acquisitions practices.

The solution is not to abandon collections, to declare them irrelevant and focus exclusively on our work spaces or collaboration or teaching people how to use the discovery tool, but to establish business requirements for our websites, software and spaces which support the user experience of an academic library, which means support for the maintenance and display of academic library collections online. 

As the majority of the academic library is now subscribed content provided by aggregators and publishers, organized conceptually not around intellectual works and titles in collections, but more around “e-resource discoverability,” the relevance of library cataloging and collection management practices have been questioned:

  • Why waste time cataloging objects or enhancing the records of objects which do not belong to us?
  • Why bother managing a collection, or keeping up with current publications (doing title-by-title selection), if our vendors can manage the collection for us?
  • Why acquire individual titles if no one can see or browse them (the titles we actively buy are not distinguishable from those we passively acquire)?
  • Why waste money acquiring for the future rather than just for the here and now?
  • If we can provide instant digital access to requested items, why bother to attempt to anticipate need, rather than simply waiting for users to request items before we buy them?

The traditional academic library and its catalog were full of items that were curated and cataloged by the library and the librarians, items thought to be significant and good by those working in the disciplines we supported. 

It wasn’t a perfect system, of course, and we sometimes guessed wrong and no one checked the book out, as some have aptly pointed out; sometimes mistakes were made and we wasted money. But we were never previously compelled to buy unwanted titles in order to acquire a single desired title from a publisher, and we were not paying many times above list price for items never seen in their lifetime. A waste of a $20-40 for a print book becomes a bigger waste of $200-400 for an ebook. Without the organization of resources by LC Classification, we do not even know what we have, and duplication of content is unavoidable with bulk purchasing from publishers and aggregators. 

The psychology of collectionlessness is also something which should be of concern to a university. The collection represented care over time by the college or university library, which naturally made students believe that their education was something lasting and also worth investing in, increasing what education administrators call “academic commitment.” Visibility of collections in a community space, where it could be seen by many, endowed it with respect (literally, the Latinate meaning of “respect” is to put something into view where it can be seen and considered again and again). While it might be far-fetched to link library collections to academic commitment, I cannot help but think there is something to this. 

The collection’s arrangement by LCC made it possible to obtain a big picture view of a field, and for knowledge to be conserved and preserved over time. A well-maintained collection full of a mix of old and new was also a pleasure for educated people to browse, and formerly a source of institutional pride. Arrangement by LCC made it easy for newcomers to a field to learn what publications and authorities comprised their disciplines, and to hopefully see some of their own interests and aspirations reflected back to them. 

At the time of this writing in 2022, collections are almost gone from the academic library space, and if they remain, they are treated as vestigial. I do not mean just the physical book or print collections. Neither the modern library design nor its online equivalent places any emphasis or value on collections of book or journal titles, on the organization of titles by discipline and topic so they can be effectively browsed. Our user interfaces do not encourage user engagement with publications or promote independent learning beyond providing passive access to content through a search box. 

Also, today, it is common for whatever content libraries license forms their “collections” since we often refer to them that way, especially for accreditation purposes (e.g., “The library’s collections include over 600,000 ebooks, 70,000 journals, 360 databases and 200,000 print books. . . “) but in all likelihood there are no actual collections there, just aggregations of subscription content. This is not to say that there are not good things in them, or that they are not useful for completing essays and writing research papers; but that no matter how much the library offers in terms of databases, these are not collections in the library sense, in the bibliographic sense, of representing what is representative of scholarly activity in a discipline. 

Previously, in traditional librarianship, collections (as collections) were thought important for supporting independent learning, intellectual inquiry, the preservation of knowledge in the disciplines, authoritativeness, credibility, accountability, library marketing initiatives, professional competence, literacy, assessment, responsible budgetary allocation, deselection decisions, scholarly communication, resource visibility, impartiality, vendor neutrality, maintaining balance and objectivity, instilling respect for scholarship and learning, encouraging greater user engagement, reinforcing students’ academic commitment and providing for a good user experience of a library as a library.

Yet, inside the library, librarians are supposed to be embracing booklessness and collectionlessness as “progress.” 

When scholars at a university object to their library’s going bookless, their response is sometimes imagined to be due to anxiety stemming from a lack of experience with discovery tools (just a search engine), fear of new technology, resistance to change, or a personal preference for antiquated reading formats, rather than legitimate objections to the loss of a valuable library service and information-rich learning environment for which there currently exists no online equivalent.34

As McKay points out, going bookless means the loss of browsing: 

The loss of the option to browse means those seeking ebooks must rely on search, which is notoriously poor for supporting imprecisely defined information needs (Belkin, Oddy, & Brooks, 1982; Borgman, 1996; Kuhlthau, 1991; Marchionini, 1997) and supports serendipity poorly (Foster & Ford, 2003). Given the importance of serendipity and browsing to information work, they are information-seeking strategies we lose at our peril (Cooksey, 2004; Foster & Ford, 2003; Makri & Blandford, 2012a, 2012b).35

but the loss of browsing in libraries means a loss of access to collections and a loss of learning. 

The Empirical Typology of Browsing Behavior (Scholars like to Browse, Browsing is Scholarly Activity)

Librarians have all seen the memes satirizing patrons’ extreme reactions to the library’s routine weeding of books, reactions which many of us have experienced and dreaded throughout our library careers.

Therefore, when it comes to reactions to the academic library’s going fully bookless, either by the library’s deaccessioning all of the books, or else by a slow pulling off of the band aide, failing to continue to maintain collections (so that the library’s decision to not buy books is not as obvious or noticeable to the casual visitor), it is easy to misunderstand their responses as having to do with an irrational, emotional and backwards attachment to print in this digital age, when it actually has to do with something else, the loss of information about publications, the loss of visible and visibly maintained collections, and with academic library users’ legitimate needs for a supportive learning environment to which the college and university library and its librarians were formerly committed. 

As a former subject liaison for Humanities and Social Sciences for a medium-sized academic research library which went bookless (and therefore, also collectionless), I can attest to the fact that the issue in my disciplinary areas (English, History, Art, Communications and the Social Sciences) was certainly not a predilection for obsolete reading formats or ignorance of search techniques on the part of the faculty, but the library’s seeming lack of commitment to maintaining quality collections in their disciplines. 

Especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, without the library’s commitment to visible collections, there is no real commitment to the general education of students or supporting many academic library users’ preferred information-seeking behaviors.35 The newcomer to the field wants to browse and all scholars want to keep up with new publications.

They want to see what new books are coming in and what we are buying that they might want to know about. Good collections are an important source of scholarly information and supportive of an experience for which there is as of yet no online equivalent in 2022.

Along with the new academic librarianship’s lack of support for browsing—which McKay points out in her wonderful “Empirical Typology of Browsing Behavior” is actually a complex of often misunderstood behaviors—equally concerning to me, and something no one is really talking about in the library field, is the increasing commodification of the academic library, often at the encouragement of library system vendors who stand to benefit from the library’s bulk purchasing practices.

There is little recognition from within our own ranks that the transition from being about “collections” to being about “resources,” while convenient for many of us who still work in libraries, is not necessarily indicative of progress when measured against educational outcomes or cost effectiveness, even if it drastically cuts down on staffing requirements inside of the library. Title selection has become a thing of the past in many libraries, or relegated to nonprofessionals to give them something to do if there is any money left over at the end of the year. 

Like de ja vu, I experienced the same thing twenty years ago, at a library called Questia, the first online academic library, funded with 161 million dollars in venture capital, now defunct.

At the time of its launch and for many years after, Questia was lambasted by academic librarians for not being a real library, but a kind of “McLibrary,” despite its providing convenient, low-cost access to an abundance of searchable scholarly content, books and (later) journals, along with citation tools to help students write papers quickly and from the convenience of their dorm rooms.

By the definition of a library at that time, Questia was thought not to be a real library, not because it was online, but because its business model was that of an content aggregator, a business which makes its money by licensing access to packages of digitized publisher content for a fee.

It was thought by many of my colleagues to be vaguely unethical because, while it called itself an academic library, it indiscriminately added content to an online platform which it licensed to unsuspecting students who could not different between a quality library and an aggregator package. It lacked impartial, knowledgeable “title selectors” (librarians and subject specialists) who acted with autonomy, impartiality and integrity to place worthy publications into collections motivated by the knowledge that those titles were considered best by the standards of the academic discipline. Now, indeed, everything added to the platform was “scholarly,” or might be construed as having some potential interest to scholars, but it wasn’t necessarily good scholarly. The service didn’t offer authoritative collections, or attempt to do so, and therefore the fact that is called itself an academic library was offensive to many academic librarians. 

It wasn’t just that Questia “didn’t hire librarians to manage their collections,” which was the common complaint that reverberated throughout the library community at the time. Why would anyone care about their hiring practices? Misunderstanding the nature of the complaint, the Marketing Department at Questia took it upon themselves to do damage control by hiring librarians to be there, even giving them important-sounding titles, but it didn’t change the fact that the resources it provided was more an attempt to monetize publisher content rather than to be good as a library

Questia’s founder, President and CEO, Troy Williams, began with a dream of providing universal access to a quality library like Harvard’s Lamont Library. He had wanted to replicate Lamont, title-by-title. When I was hired, the company, then called TLG, was small (about 20 people) and it was almost hard to believe what they wanted to accomplish. I explained to Troy that big libraries often keep a lot of stuff on their shelves that wouldn’t be cost effective to try to recreate online. He realized that the library which had developed collections over decades, the work of many dedicated librarians and scholars, could not be profitably recreated online in a short time (the slated time to launch was one year), especially with the existing scanning technology and worse, having no at hand source for out of print books in Houston, where the company was located.

In 1999-2000, the digitization of publications was extremely labor intensive. Sources for books had to be first identified, the books acquired, shipped to the Houston office, and then boxed up and sent overseas to be scanned. Books were unbound and destroyed in the scanning process. Metadata had to be manually created for the books. Even five years later, in 2005, with more capital, the benefit of non-destructive high speed book scanners, and partnerships with large university libraries to supply books—Harvard’s library was the first—Google was also not successful at creating an online academic library. 

An even greater obstacle, which Google later discovered, was that copyright or license agreements had to be negotiated for each book, as well as for each illustration inside of them. Questia had been beset with the exact same obstacles years before, forcing it to negotiate with publishers early on to license their back-stock, or whatever publishers would ultimately agree to putting onto Questia’s platform, which often wasn’t their better content. Furthermore, many art, architecture and art history books when online without images, due to copyright restrictions.

Around 2000, Questia’s two main rivals (NetLibrary, which became EBSCO ebooks, and ebrary, founded by Adobe heir and letterpress enthusiast Christopher Warnock, whose contents later became the core of ProQuest eBook Central) also called themselves “libraries,” until these companies determined that the librarians they wanted to sell to objected to the comparison between their aggregated offerings and a library collection. They removed library from the name of their platforms, and sold to their content to libraries to supplement their collections (not “to be” the collection).

In 2000, there was widespread agreement that a real library employed knowledgeable librarians to select titles and form them into collections for the benefit of their users. A real library did not allow publishers to dictate its contents, for this was a conflict of interest. Few librarians even took notice when Questia closed in December 2021 after a 20 year run.

The second mouse gets the cheese. As much as librarians bitterly complained about Questia for trying to pass itself off as a real library, Questia was the prototype for the modern, collectionless academic library.

Today, academic libraries have themselves become more like content aggregators fed by commercial aggregators and their publisher partners, remade in the image of our library system vendor (Clarivate ProQuest Ex Libris), a content aggregator, only rather then selling low cost individual licenses to subscribers, we provide access to individuals who have paid tuition.

Arguably, if publishers are determining our contents, we are moving closer to becoming a commercial product, to being fully commodified like any big box retail store. What we have in “inventory” is there because of a license agreement with the publisher. (Of course, with highly reputable academic publishers like Springer, Taylor & Francis, Oxford University Press and Elsevier, it is hard to go wrong.)

Large academic libraries have gone collectionless, and now very small college libraries are deciding that library collections are a luxury that they cannot afford.  The model works best for the largest libraries who can afford to subscribe to everything. Small libraries do not fair as well. Many are opting to subscribe to a few online aggregator (EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale) databases, whatever they believe SACS or their accrediting agency will allow them to get away with, and that is all. In the State of Texas, TexShare makes it easy for libraries to subscribe to a few databases and be done for the year. What began as a way simply to supplement library collections has now become the whole of the library. I am anticipating that ProQuest Ex Libris, now Clarivate ProQuest Ex Libris, the largest academic library system vendor and also the largest content aggregator in the world, will attempt to make the library “ex libris” in a few years, replacing it with their fully customizable comprehensive research solution licensed directly to the university.

Most academic libraries rely upon Ex Libris’ LSP, its flagship product Alma and its discovery platform, Primo. Clarivate ProQuest Ex Libris has acquired just about all academic library systems. ProQuest’s main content rival EBSCO, the second largest academic content aggregator, is launching their own Library Services Platform which will serve as the backbone for their comprehensive research solution and which will likewise be positioned to replace the academic library in the future.

With library collection management, it was assumed that librarians inside of the library were keeping up with scholarly publications and were selecting titles for inclusion in a collection based on a number of considerations, including currency, superior quality, the reputation of the scholar, relevance to the curriculum, target audience, cost, how it complements the existing collection and potential interest to the library’s users. Collection Management and Cataloging often go hand in hand, for both are concerned with the scholarly value of bibliographic resources and enhancing value of items in a collection. At many academic libraries, however, Collection Management has already come under Resource Management, or been eliminated, along with Cataloging and most title-by-title selection workflows. In this new environment, librarians may no longer be professionally committed to the ideal of maintaining strong collections in the disciplines, for as long as the user experience is just a search box, so long as there is no way to present browseable collections to users, there is no real incentive to maintain them. It is very easy to give in to commodification (for example, letting ebook Central or EBSCO ebooks comprise the totality of the library’s ebook resources), if library professional practice does not address it, and if those around you and above are saying, “This is progress.” 

The acquisitions model where libraries license annual subscriptions for content that is autoloaded into its “service platforms” offers many advantages and efficiencies of scale to the modern library. Even before LSPs, large academics relied on approval plans and blanket orders. I get that, but it was balanced against collection development activity of librarians. Today, large retail stores use a similar acquisitions model as modern libraries, in that “the product” comes in based on license agreements with the manufacturers. The store agrees to license all that the vendor produces in advance, regardless of product quality. I think it is important to ask what degree of commodification is acceptable for an academic library? 

In theory, library collections are not online, only vendor products, titles which cannot be presented or experienced as collections because they lack needed metadata and systems that support browsing. Library booklessness precedes collectionlessness, if only because we have no way of presenting browseable collections online to academic library users. Subscription resources can be searched, but they cannot be browsed or visibly displayed as a collection, and as quite a few researchers (including McKay) have pointed out, browsing the shelves is a motivator to read (therefore, is conducive to support for literacy) and a valuable form of information-seeking behavior among academic library users

What is the impact, if any, of library collectionlessness? How do acquisitions practices impact use?

One obstacle that I encountered in attempting to answer this question is that the old library with collections has already become a straw man, its shortcomings exaggerated to justify its replacement by newer bookless library facilities. According to these fictionalized accounts, the old library was cramped and dark, even lacking sufficient light to read and places to sit down; but this has never been documented in any actual library that I know of. Most older libraries had ample light and seating, and many had been retrofitted with cafes, concessions and vending machines in them already or in their lobbies; relaxed food and drink policies are nothing new, nor are individual study rooms. There have always been lectures, commons areas, places to study and meeting spaces in college libraries, so the emphasis on the social aspect of libraries is also not new or innovative. All of these changes, including relaxed food and drink policies, occurred at least twenty to thirty years ago. Discovery tools in libraries are also not new; academic libraries have offered discovery solutions since about 2007, and they were not all that popular even back then.

The only truly new aspect of the new academic library and the “new academic librarianship,” a common thread or theme which is new to librarianship is a de-emphasis on collections, collection development, reading and literacy. 

In new library construction projects, bookless designs are defended, not with the argument that “everything is online now” or that “books are obsolete,” or by a cost benefit analysis which conclusively demonstrates how ebooks save money, but rather by stressing the educational benefits of the interior architecture itself, especially of oversized staircases as a catalyst for learning, and vacant “space” and rooms serving as educational resources; plus an equally dubious emphasis on the random people occupying the space themselves also serving as educational resources through an analogy between students in the library space and the subject matter experts of a high-tech company. The rhetoric of the new librarianship, especially its claim to “put people first” by seating them in the middle of the room, or to be all about “collaboration” because it offers a few group study rooms, are absurd.

Seating students in the middle of an open room  or on central “seating staircases” is not “putting students first,” but rather depriving students of the learning opportunities that they might have otherwise had from experiencing good collections. I’m all for great architecture, but it is foolish to believe that staircases possess magical powers to help students learn. 

According to the ideology of the new librarianship, buildings and people have replaced books as intellectual resources, and our pre-eminent role as librarians in the 21st century is to be a “Collaboration Facilitator.”24

The open office design of the new library, architects explain, is meant to break down information silos; but I do not see how this model applies to students who should depend on the library to learn about a discipline or scholars who want to learn what is new in their fields of study. Even if we could get people to collaborate with each other, why is it assumed that a student or peer will give better information than published, authoritative resources? And while these new innovative facilities called “new libraries” continue to be built often at great public expense, published post-occupancy assessments of these facilities are lacking.  

Therefore, we do not even know how successful these new collectionless academic libraries are, or even by what standards we ought to measure their success. Beyond the need to update old facilities to improve their aesthetic appeal, there are unclear educational and library learning objectives for the redesign of new libraries, for example, that they should in some way promote learning, encourage resource use, advance knowledge of the disciplines, and provide a better user experience of the academic library as an academic library. 

The Digital Dark Ages?

ven my personal Narnia, the idyllic Catholic liberal arts college library existing almost outside of time with its unbroken intellectual tradition extending back to ancient times, has largely determined to go bookless and collectionless,38 even though, as we all know, it was the libraries in their monasteries, universities and cathedral schools which preserved knowledge and literacy through the last Dark Ages. There had been several impressive renaissances before the Renaissance, but these earlier revivals in literacy, art, culture and learning, including “the High Middle Ages” (the Renaissance of the 12th century), were localized to universities and courts, and therefore 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 for themselves), is often thought to have brought about a permanent Renaissance, the renaissance that finally lasted and could build on what came before. Science could build and knowledge would spread across space and time, with one scientist’s published observations confirmed by another in another country in the common language of educated people and scientists, Latin. As a result of mass production of books and rising 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 and books seemed perfectly plausible to everyone in 1979, when Eisenstein first published her famous book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.39 

Digitization has been seen as furthering this democratizing trend and boosting literacy and education around the globe. But inside academic libraries, digitization has also meant the elimination of both print and online collections, increasing restrictions placed on access to scholarly resources by publishers, restrictions on scholarly publishing (the author pays manuscript processing fees often in the thousands to get published), the commodification and homogenization of library content, failure to collect for future scholarship (even failing to acquire in anticipation of need or use, sometimes in favor of “just-in-time” models), the systematic removal of librarians and subject matter experts from the acquisitions process, turning control of content and metadata over to publishers, and in turn, increased capacity for vendors to exercise monopolistic control over library content, systems (one vendor controls 80% of the library systems market), pricing structures, and access.

Inside of libraries, digitization has meant abandoning collection development and disciplinary approaches in favor of ones which make it more convenient and efficient for publishers to supply libraries with their content (for publishers to “monetize” their content), and conversely, yes, for libraries to be efficiently supplied by them. It has meant librarians divorcing themselves from their former professional commitments to the evaluation, presentation and preservation of scholarly content in the disciplines, with many in the library field now assuming that the reliance on a handful of commercial entities to supply institutional access, content and metadata through “big deals.” 

In librarianship, as well as in the art world, a collection is an intellectual and an aesthetic construct implying curatorship, quality and selection based on a number of factors. A museum which exhibits the art from commercial art galleries, for example, runs the risk of losing its credibility as a museum, and potentially even jeopardizes its 501(c)3 status if it is trying to make money off the sale of exhibited works. In the same way, the academic library should not be reduced to a vendor commodity or commercial entity. We should be a scholarly product and not a commercial one. 

However, our current systems and workflows seem to all be tilting heavily in this direction toward greater and greater commodification. Under ideal circumstances, the library should not be compelled to acquire titles in digital format that it never would have acquired in print format; and yet libraries do not tend to apply the same rigorous standards to content they license digitally, for even though they may pay more for it, they do not “own it,” and most importantly, the stuff no one finds of little interest or relevance, no one needs to see. In some cases, to obtain access to a few desired publications, the library must acquire the whole package. The irrelevant and low demand titles are not considered a problem. They do not constitute clutter or waste or cause embarrassment in the same way as if they had been acquired in print, sitting on a shelf in plain view, because no one knows they are there, and anyway, they were part of a package of resources, not part of a collection.

Many fully digital libraries and librarians now see themselves as no longer “about” books or scholarly publications in any format, or about knowledge or raising literacy levels, but are about simply providing access to commercially-branded third-party products, or else about “facilitating collaboration” in their architecturally-designed work spaces.

When compared to the content-rich learning environments which preceded them, places which represented sustained commitment to scholarship over time, the life of the mind, creativity, campus 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, the very antithesis of a learning environment and what a good library should be.

Where before we presented to users what was thought significant and good by experts in the field and the user community, what now? Walk through the doors of the campus “library learning center” and you will likely see nothing but perhaps some other people sitting there.

Online, there is just a search box on the library’s landing page and sometimes pages with links to research guides. It is unclear by what measure we are to count the new library as successful. Again, I’m not speaking about one library, or my library, but a paradigm shift which has occurred throughout the entire State of Texas, the country and the developed world.

The library space is no more educational, unique or recognizable than any other space in the 21st century. 

Browsing and The Student-Centered Library

he physical library may now be full of natural light and technology and modern architecture, 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 space and calling it a “library” just may well be. If there is such a thing as a sin for librarians, this is it. There is nothing in the library to experience—views out windows? A central staircase? Rooms? Other people sitting around studying? This is not exactly what I would call a vibrant library experience or an intellectual hub of learning. I have visited many libraries in the Houston area, bringing my reluctant eldest child around to various campuses to get him excited about college. Naturally, as a librarian, I evaluate the school by evaluating the library, because it is the only visible part of academics I can see. I do not know how other parents feel, but if I don’t see books on display in the library, I’m not happy. From the library without books, I make an assumption that the school is not student-centered.

Why do I feel this way about the presence of books in the library, even if it might be true that most students today do not want to read them? I have no doubt that the majority of students who attend college do not want to read, but the 5 to10 percent who do are the ones who often go on to do great things in the world, and these students are worth the investment, which really isn’t all that much compared to the exorbitant cost for institutional licences for ebooks that no one is likely to read either. Do not talk to me about the “cost of warehousing that print book on the shelf.” The cost of providing perpetual access for all FTE to that same ebook is fairly ridiculous, way more than $5.

The library, even its modern incarnation as a kind of open office space, should still provide for a unique user experience which is fundamentally “about” its content, about what is significant and good in the scholarly disciplines, about culture, knowledge, and ideas, and not resign itself to being “about” the user’s responses to space, light, or worse, else “about” the other random people who happen to be there. 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 the waiting area of a dealership waiting for my car to be serviced.

I know, the academic library is online now.

Therefore, there is no need for books, cataloging and collection development. Should an information need arise, users can search for whatever they want using Google Scholar or subject-specific databases, and if that fails, resort to the library’s discovery tool. 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 have in managed the electronic resources, the proxy server and website for several libraries, along with doing cataloging, collection development and instruction.

I even consider myself a fortunate beneficiary of my own library’s incredible bounty, my life-line to scholarly content preserved after all these years, even as those more deserving individuals who have graduated with credentials far exceeding my own have become ex communicado, thrown to the curb, cut off from scholarly literature, their credentials immediately revoked even after years of paying graduate tuition, unless they somehow managed to land a teaching position at a university right out of graduate school. It is a travesty.

Doctors cannot use their medical school library, teachers cannot use the education resources at their alma maters, journalists cannot fact check using the library’s resources, and the community can no longer regard the academic library as being their for them. 

Faculty (and librarians) at community colleges or small institutions seeking to do research and publish to advance their careers or keep their knowledge current might be surprised that they now need institutional credentials to access the scholarly resources inside of the library at public academic universities or their former alma maters.40 Schools are raising their drawbridges to the community, with some public academic libraries (Sam Houston State University, for example) not even allowing the public to search their catalogs unless they have current institutional credentials. Consortial sharing through TexShare and ILL is becoming unsustainable because ebooks cannot be loaned, and few are buying print. 

Despite my own library’s largesse, I cannot help but feel the library as a institution is falling far short of the sort of educational experiences the library ought to be providing to students and scholars, and even the educated public (who should be entitled to use the public academic university, since it is taxpayer supported), despite our being able to facilitate convenient access to so much content, especially journal content.

There is a sense in which the library, as a library, should also be creating demand for their resources and keeping their communities up-to-date by presenting overviews of the current scholarly literature and publishing activity in their fields. Our systems, our spaces, our websites and policies should be helping us to accomplish these objectives, but all we seem to be doing effectively is driving our users to publisher websites to do research.

The digital academic library has become to a great extent an invisible, searchable repository of vendor entitlements, a search box. There are no collections in the physical space anymore, and none in the virtual space, either, for our systems cannot display items as collections. There is only access to licensed content. It doesn’t get any duller than that. The ideal of bodies of knowledge, a consensus or common framework of what educated people are expected to know to have mastered a discipline, is also gone, at least from the academic library space. 

Without the framework of collections, a body of knowledge, are we not just an aggregator like many of our vendors, and not actually a library?

How do we balance collection development with resource management? Is this even a worthwhile goal? The lack of differentiation between searchable aggregations of publisher entitlements with actual library collections seems not ideal from a scholarly or ethical standpoint. In addition, the library as a repository where content is passively acquired but not necessarily seen by anyone, a black box of a search box, creates a disconnect where few people know what titles are in the library in the first place, which further reduces the library’s efficacy.

Libraries pay many times above list for digital content, but it is practically invisible unless the user comes along and performs a search where the item shows up in a results set. Why or how would students even know about a title, concept or idea to search for it in the first place? The library conceived of as a search box places a burden for users who are unfamiliar with their disciplines to come to it with prior knowledge in order for the library to be useful to them.

The user interface which goes hand-in-hand with this publisher-driven system is not particularly modern either, in the sense that discovery has been around for a long time, commercially available to libraries since about 2006, and of course, search engines have been around for much longer. Discovery is an invaluable tool for scholarship where collections are large and comprised of a large percent of hosted serial content, but the search experience alone should not constitute the totality of the user experience of the library, which it now does.

I would also think that by today’s standards, a “modern” user interface for a library would involve some form of personalization.

Give me (because I am me) the links to current articles in the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, etc., and maybe Library Trends (whatever library publications I want to follow) in a sidebar when I go to the library’s website and sign in.

Better yet, show me the forthcoming and new books (from Books in Print, or perhaps Choice Reviews) related to my interests in Art, Literature, History, Philosophy and Librarianship in order by classification, just as I used to be able to visit my favorite spots in the stacks, or visit a new books area, to see what is new.

Through library system software, let me create my own personalized dashboard of content and publications with reviews, and let me be able to click a link to let my library know I am interested in their providing access for me, if they do not already.

Let me use the library’s software to create my own virtual library online which others can visit and explore to create a community of readers.

If this level of personalization is too ambitious, let’s support something which is more fundamental to academic libraries and traditional academic library systems: collection browse by LC classification, to give students and scholars an overview of the library’s “collection,” as a collection, so they and faculty can readily see what is in it, and so it can be objectively and qualitatively assessed and evaluated as a collection. 

Many small college libraries in Texas have opted to go collectionless. They offer the bare minimum to get through SACS accreditation, which for small college libraries in Texas is a page with links to TexShare databases,41 while others, some large university libraries, often aim to subscribe to everything under the sun. Either way, small or large, there may be no library collection development activity going on inside of the library, and even if there is embellishment of vendor packages, these hand-picked titles often go unnoticed by users. SACS has made collections optional.

Being “student centered” for an academic library has never had anything to do with our centralized seating arrangements, putting students out into the middle of a room, or seating them on a “learning” staircase—which is like something out of Scientology; and certainly not with orality—with primordial “campfires, caves and watering-holes,”42 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.

Architectural rendering of a staircase in a library. Staircases have become a central architectural design feature of new libraries and other public buildings, often endowed with special symbolic meaning as a space for collaboration, sharing and a place to be seen. New designs are concerned with making students visible, not so much library resources.

Holding the Line: The Library Reimagined as a Library

bviously, I’ve thought deeply 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? Is there now no collective memory?

Even now, what knowledge is being lost by failing to collect for the needs of future scholars, or even for present ones, or by our not being able to present to the public or our communities with what is significant, good and noteworthy in academic publishing or contemporary culture? What knowledge is being lost by libraries not being able to acquire in anticipation of use or present content to users?

It used to be that smaller libraries could depend on bigger libraries to supply them with ILL books and articles. But large academic libraries have stopped collecting, leaving content and rules for lending up to the vendors from whom we license content; even without rendering any sort of judgement on the quality of this content (much of which we would never have acquired under other circumstances), a more pressing issue to me is that the content we obtain through this route it is not visible in any immediate way to users, or even to us inside the library, nor is it shareable with other libraries since it is not ours to share. We didn’t select it, we do not catalog it, we do not own it, and it is only seen if someone performs a search or goes looking for it. When a resource is seen, or “discovered,” it is not presented in an intellectual context beyond relevance ranking.

There is no illusion of a library collection there, no effort to keep up appearances of an actual collection there. The library is largely an illusion, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if we could provide for a more vibrant, stimulating and unique user experience in the physical space and online. It provides convenient access, yes, but it does not in any way encourage scholarly value, literacy, intellectual inquiry or user engagement with content. Library “collections” signify what is good by community standards, where “resources” are just what might (or might not) be useful to complete a task. 

An old definition of the academic library was a “collection of research which inspired research.” What now?

I’m not confident that aggregations of resources residing on the dark side of a search box have the same impact on the user as those with eminent community visibility as a collection which represents a body of knowledge.

Regardless, our vendors and our accrediting agencies have each in their own way encouraged this trend toward greater commodification, ad hoc (or no) collection development, and reduced collection visibility, as if “access to” content has ever been sufficient to get students to engage with it.

As any educator will explain, the premise is fundamentally incorrect. In a classroom, students benefit from what educators call “graphic organizers” and “scaffolding”—from visuals, context, and giving students what is just beyond their reach to help them grow, and personalization. They need intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Classrooms today must be content- 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, structure, collection visibility and personalization to be conducive to learning. 

The library as a search engine provides absolutely no motivation for anyone to engage with content, even if good content is in it; and now the disconnect between the library and the rest of campus has grown wider, because there is little collaboration with the faculty on collection development.

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 emails to faculty like, “I saw this announcement for new book on the History of Wallpaper and thought you would be interested!” (we may not have bought it, but they liked that we were letting them know about it); 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 as a result, we have less contact with our faculty and no collections to worry about.

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. Of lesser concern is that no one at the school knows that the librarians added them, or that they are there in inventory awaiting discovery. We can only hope that someone comes along and searches for something so it might be “discovered” by a user in its lifetime.

Shockingly, our library systems provide us with no mechanism, no widgets or plugins, to display new titles, but without call numbers or at least a well-formed 050, there would be no way to organize a new title feed.

Increasingly, the ocean of content to which we subscribe as part of “big deals” is not cataloged according to library bibliographic metadata standards either, and therefore, it cannot be meaningfully displayed and presented online according to a disciplinary framework.

Now it is more difficult to spot what important titles might be missing from the library’s “collection” or to apply bibliographic approaches to the management of scholarly resources, and some might even question the validity of such bibliographic approaches to the management of digital content.

Contrary to good library practice, publishers often provide little more than the title and publication date in the discovery records they supply to libraries. Therefore, the resources we license from different vendors cannot be displayed in their scholarly context as a library collection. They are searchable aggregations of content which scholars might find useful. 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 (due to publisher embargoes), unless we have added them ourselves.43 They do not signify what is important to know.

Journal articles, once considered ephemeral entities, now may enjoy a longer life than the scholarly monograph, which was previously treated as more enduring. 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 a fluid repository or commercial product inventory, a record of just-in-time entitlements linked to publisher websites. Aggregators and publishers add and remove content from our inventories, often trading titles among each other like a back-room poker game, without much effecting our license agreements. Librarians have become increasingly divorced from content, a consequence of our automated systems. 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, our roles, our access policies, our metadata, our interior architecture, and our capacity for user engagement, but yet its impact on learning, literacy and scholarship, especially future scholarship, is largely unknown, unrecognized, unexplored, and not even discussed much in library literature.

Libraries have indeed become the “tail-end of a publisher-aggregator supply chain.”44 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 to 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 academic library collections? 

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, because what is retrieved, while relevant to the query, seems random, not relevant to anyone else. It is not ideal for communicating scholarly value.

Only collections provide a needed overview, sense of value, 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. Only collections signify what others think good, which is a motivator to engage with the resources in them. 

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 and practice today, just because our resources are delivered digitally? Whether in print or online, the framework should be the same. 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 thought significant and good by our faculty, librarians, scholars and experts in the field? Can we really be good stewards of our acquisitions budget, are we really serving the needs of the university well, with this model?

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 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.

Sidney Harold Meteyard. The Lady of Shallot.

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.45 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 not just to “resources,” but 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. 

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. 

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. 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 discovery be the whole of the user experience of the library. Search should be only half of the equation. It is not rich or immersive enough, and does not convey or confer scholarly value. Total immersion in peer-reviewed 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 accomplished this by creating context-rich learning environments suited to the tastes and needs of their audiences.

Maintaining good collections is what being student-centered was about for a library, not providing centralized seating arrangements.

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.46 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 of licensed content is ever seen, only now we may be paying a whole lot more per use, or for lack thereof. Libraries cannot buy just one title, but we often are often strong-armed into buying the whole package, even if we do not want to. Academic titles cost the library many more times than its physical counterpart, but small college libraries cannot easily benefit from an economy of scale of a larger institution; yet they are often required to support distance learners and equitable access to library resources by SACS accreditation’s guidelines. 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. Only collections truly support these educational objectives.  

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 and generic databases. It must operate on the title-level to offer actual collections. Art schools must offer art books, HBCUs must offer black books, seminaries must offer religion and philosophy books, and those who teach journalism must acquire titles written by journalists. These titles must be presented in a way that is visually compelling and public, as in, this title is of presumed interest to many people. 

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. 

Franz von Stuck. Falling Stars.

The expansive experience of collections is what defines the aesthetic and intellectual experience of an academic library. At a university or college, can the value of academic library collections be demonstrated from a business or educational perspective?

Collections are our former glory. They are what made the library an intellectual and a 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 often 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 with a critical mass of similar or similarly-scoped titles surrounding them, the library does not reflect the current state of 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 combined with instruction, because knowing how to find information does not inspire independent learning. We must have a way of delivering a better library experience in person and online to be the unique educational experience we once were to support user engagement.

The trend away from collection development, where librarians and faculty work collaboratively with faculty to select and raise awareness of individual titles, toward blanket acquisitions and resource management, the practice of licensing large packages and having vendors supply the library’s contents, is the path toward greater commodification, reduced quality, lower literacy levels and diminished impact on college campuses. A college library must maintain collections in anticipation of use to be effective and to create a sense of place. Doesn’t this mean that a library needs a large budget? No, it merely needs to be “right-sized.” A small college library can be excellent, especially if it maximizes the value of titles through presentation, display and promotion.

The collection development statement of Lee College, a small community college in the Houston area, describes an admirable philosophical commitment to quality collections maintained in anticipation of use:

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.47

Where the University of Houston Library System, in contrast, states on its website that it will no longer be able to afford to buy books in anticipation of need, but will wait for book requests before acquiring them.48 I do not know whether this policy extends to ebooks as well.

A library which purchases books only upon request or in an ad hoc way is no longer functioning as a library (we all know this from library school), and is less valuable to scholars who might have previously relied upon the library to help them keep up with scholarly publishing in their disciplines. If I were a prospective student, I would think twice about attending a university whose library waits until a request comes in before it buys books. Something is very wrong with that. 

In the transition to booklessness and collectionlessness, librarians have outsourced cataloging and selection to the vendors from whom we license digital content. I realize that this trend developed out of necessity, for we had no digital content or hosting platforms of our own, and the tide of digital resources rose too fast for us to rise with it. We had to scale quickly to meet demand, negotiating deals to license thousands of ebooks and journals at a time. New library systems, workflows, vendors and digital products sprang up to meet this need. In all honesty, libraries went online without a carefully developed online interface, business plan or standards for the user experience of a digital library. We simply bought what was available on the market.

Where the practice of buying in bulk was once regarded as acceptable to supplement the library’s collections, now packages of aggregated content have replaced them. Many libraries have done away with the professional and intellectual activity of title selection or content curation, monitoring scholarly publishing, reading reviews, and the evaluation and selection 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 with buyers ensuring the quality of the merchandise. 

A modern academic library cannot do without these workflows, especially for managing its serial content. It took years, many hands and expertise to develop our print collections title-by-title, cataloging them as we went. Packages of digitized content provided by aggregators and publishers were needed and convenient. It was good for the transition. 

Now we need systems designed more around collection development and collection management, marketing important titles and maximizing their value by being able to place them within an academic framework, rather than our providing passive access to aggregated commercial packages of content. Libraries must provide a better, more robust and engaging user experience than passive “access to,” and it must offer a more meaningful framework than discovery. It must strike more of a balance between collection development and resource management. It needs content curation, display and personalization. 

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. I don’t care if this publication lives in SAGE and another one lives in Science Direct. Is should all come together. 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 or the low bar of “adequate relevant resources.” 

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. 

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. If we do not administer our own websites, it us difficult to develop content-driven or dynamic websites to engage with users online, the sort of features one might expect at any ecommerce store or publisher website today. (For a short while, popular content management systems like WordPress did allow for the creation of easily maintained, dynamic sites, but in the university, autonomous sites were replaced by institutional content management systems controlled by IT.) 

Therefore, our resulting static pages tend to emphasize what is stable over time, commercially-branded products or our interior spaces, or generic Pexels images approved by Marketing, but not our dynamic content, what’s currently in demand, what other scholars or users are reading, or what is new in the library. EBSCO and ProQuest databases are platforms, but they are not in themselves scholarly sources. (Scholarly sources are authoritative titles, intellectual works, not platforms or services.) 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 stressing collaborative learning and oral forms of knowledge transmission. The academic library places no emphasis on titles, intellectual works, only convenient access to publisher platforms.

Inside the library, as on our websites, there is no emphasis on books, publishing, scholarship, ideas, culture or any form of intellectual life. 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” in a library means seating students in the middle of the room and putting books out of view, or not providing them at all. “Putting students first” (as in, we want a librarian who puts students first, not books first), has become a euphemism for library booklessness and practically a slogan for the new librarianship. Putting students first in the library should never mean not providing books for them.

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 warned us not to do. 

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 totally 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 intuitively browse to become aware of new 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 library should provide for a shared community experience, not just 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 and greater engagement. 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 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.

Architects know how to design beautiful spaces, but not necessarily beautiful libraries which promote awareness, learning and engagement with scholarly resources.

A beautiful space is not good enough.

The Academic Library as a Community Resource. 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, and some still believe, that the State of Texas liked it this way, and that there existed a State mandate or requirement for publicly-funded academic libraries to share their resources with other publicly-funded academic libraries, with public libraries and the visiting public. 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 TexShare program was established by the State legislature 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.

When a library becomes a consortial member of TexShare, they not only are able to buy a subsidized comprehensive package of scholarly databases, but it is implied that the participating member will share the rest of their resources, or their collections, with other TexShare member libraries, who are comprised of public and public academic libraries. 

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 the legislation—I suppose it doesn’t exist if TexShare, SACS or THECB doesn’t enforce it—certainly it seems a contradiction, a bit hypocritical, for us inside the library, especially libraries that are TexShare members, to say we are all about creating life-long learners, while simultaneously denying life-long learning opportunities to anyone not currently enrolled in classes in our institutions. 

Our former broad 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 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 with other publicly-funded universities, and especially TexShare institutions, erecting barriers to my students from accessing their publicly-funded, tax-payer subsidized resources, not due to license restrictions or policy change or some new definition of Fair Use in education, but due to a new authentication protocol promoted by our vendors called “SSO.” 

For me, access is very much a matter of principle, because it isn’t like people are beating down our doors trying to obtain access to our resources. Previously, academic libraries were about the scholarly nature of their collections, not so much who was entitled to access them. We offer scholarly resources (that is, for use by scholars), not scholastic resources (that is, for use by those in school). It was our product which we managed, and it was subject only to US copyright law. 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 and grant writing, 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 or protocol, brought about by technological advancement and our vendors’ professed need for greater security, has prompted the widespread adoption by academic libraries of Single Sign On (SSO), a type of federated authentication protocol. Usually where SSO is implemented, the proxy server is dismantled. As Dowling points out, access by visitors inside the library is no longer supported, limiting our ability to share:  

Likewise, as access to publishers becomes established as just another service available through the SSO, universities will increasingly look for options to turn off the library’s proxy system and remove the complexities, administrative overhead, and security risks involved with running it.

. . . Unfortunately, implementing an authentication system that removes IP access and requires all users to provide login credentials excludes one category of valid users. Many libraries explicitly serve walk-in users and license online content to include access for them. As walk-ins, physically present in the library, they are well served by IP authentication. This is a situation in which authenticating the location works well, because the individual is not in the user database.[43.

Dowling, Thomas. We Have Outgrown IP Authentication, Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 32:1, 2020, 39-46, DOI: 10.1080/1941126X.2019.170973.]

Our largest vendors promoted SSO, promising a more personalized user experience on their own platforms if authentication were tied to users’ individual university email accounts rather than to a virtual server location (the proxy server managed by the library), and claiming security concerns with proxied access.

After the implementation of SSO, however, there was no need for our institutional users to come to and through the library’s website to be authenticated. All 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, just as our vendors must have anticipated, establish more 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 creative and intellectual product of librarians, faculty and scholars, and more a commodity or tool of vendors to be used by those enrolled in school to complete assignments.

Additionally, through these restrictive policies, the library and institution has missed out on important opportunities to use the library as a recruitment tool, to do fundraising, to support alumni, to form partnerships with business and support innovation in their communities.

It missed out on opportunities to support future scholars and scholarship.

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 not contributing to student success in the short-term, within the time constraints of the assessment period. 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–or what is thought needed to get through the accreditation process–rather than devoting themselves to the more scholarly activity of shaping, directing and anticipating future research needs through collecting activity.

Browseable, visible collections, logically arranged according to the disciplines and topics within them, 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 necessarily selected to purchase for their respective communities or libraries. I understand the advantages, that we can provide easy access to so much more content than we could before, even if it might not be “the best” content. When it comes to package buying of digital resources, most of us think we are paying for some good stuff, and all of the other content is “free.” We sacrifice quality for quantity, thinking that more is necessarily better service in the Digital Age because no one has to see whatever they are not interested in. 

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 arrangements by LC classification. This very legitimate complaint has nothing to with anyone’s 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 highly beneficial to scholars, as well as being better for us inside the library to market our resources and manage our budgets responsibly. 

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 websites 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 simple updates or alter their own websites without involving university IT personal or Marketing Departments, or both. (I have heard several library directors complaining of their strange predicament of having no control over their library’s websites, even though their library is online. Their library is online, but the library has no control over it.

To facilitate online communication, often to get around roadblocks, academic libraries typically purchase a CMS product called LibGuides, which function like a secondary website, templates that allow librarians to create and maintain instructional pages and topical research 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 managed by IT, the system vendor’s 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 saying: “Here is the vision I have for the library’s website,” and then showing three completely different websites cobbled together, each with its own navigation menu and home page. This is now typical for a library. 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.

This situation is so common, in fact, we may hardly think about it in the library world, and if we do, we think of it as normal. Isn’t everyone using LibGuides? But we ought to think about it. 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 and can easily die off. If intellectual life doesn’t exist even at the largest of universities, it exists nowhere. The university library often supports innovation and entrepreneurship in its earliest stages. The library nurtures intellectual and creative life. The state of the library is a canary in the coal mine, the coral reef which attest to the ability for the ocean to sustain life.

What took over 3,000 years to create can be destroyed in less than a decade. For the most part, scholarly literature does not live in the library anymore—the institution does not “own” it—but it exists in data centers belonging to a handful of very large companies to whom the academic library, and therefore the university, is beholden. They now own us. 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 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 conceivable circumstance. These are the people who never went to the library in college. These are the students who didn’t bother to buy the textbook. I don’t know what is wrong with these people. Beautiful historical libraries everywhere are being gutted and 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. The faculty have no use for it, because they cannot use it to keep up with their disciplines or trends in scholarly publishing (of course, we do license the content which they can access online). Educated people in the community and independent researchers don’t come to it, at least not anymore, because in many libraries, visitors are no longer permitted to access to the online resources, even if they are allowed to enter the space.

All we appear to offer is a work space, and there are spaces just like it all over campus.

I am not saying that we cannot make the academic library into a space to be enjoyed by many more students than currently do, but can’t we at least 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 an empty space with empty rooms, more seating areas, more windows 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 a space 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 order 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 shared objects of joint attention. There are opportunity costs. 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 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, and indeed more important because they often are what make life worth living to those who can make a better living. Do you want to live in a colorless world without music and art? My librarian 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 they are wrong. This is truly what our old, more personal and intimate book-filled spaces were about: scholarly discourse and conversation. Now, few dare open their mouths in the echoing monuments to learning which have been erected in theor place, for the moment they do, will be silenced by the others who are there just to study. Without collections and 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 to inspire their creativity and development

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, value, 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 with vendors. 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 donenot easily done without classification or call numbersmuch 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

n his plea for balance in libraries, The Enduring Library : Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance,49 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. “How” will likely involve entities outside of the library, working with Clarivate, OCLC, the Mellon Foundation, ALA and accrediting agencies to establish standards and systems which support broad access to authoritative library collections. 

To achieve library goodness, I believe academic libraries need online store fronts 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 librarians according to expert reviews and community interests.

The library should be interesting and educational to browse. Inside the library, we should emphasize publications, conversations about ideas and trends. We should 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 exchanges around books, ideas, and scholarly literature (including the sciences).

For libraries who maintain print, we need better tools and strategies to manage hybrid and digital collections as collections, rather than managing print here and online resources there, maintaining two distinct repositories. We must return to offering collections as our main product, not access to vendor packages of resources or architecture as our product, our core assets.

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 signifies our investment in them over time, and if we are not investing in them, why should anyone else? It constitutes a form of scholarly communication which expresses, preserves and sustains community value across generations. It allows for cultural continuity. 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 at the same time 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 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 scholarly 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

n 2020, we are confronted by many of the same issues Gorman identified in 2003 in his library manifesto, The Enduring Library,50 and again in 2015, The Enduring Library Revisited,51 but contributing to the library’s transformation in the academic space 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 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 are impacted by the commodification by our vendors.

For the most part, a modern library system is just an inventory management system populated with content by aggregators who control the academic library market. As with any big-box retailer or department store, the library’s inventory is determined by logistics. Academic libraries are on the receiving end of the publisher-aggregator supply chain,44 passively acquiring most or all of what we have in inventory at any given time. This makes it possible for the largest academic library to be managed by a miniscule staff, perhaps in the near future, no staff; just an annual subscription to one vendor who provides their comprehensive “research solution.” 

The commodification of library services by content aggregators and large publishers for whom the library is its only market (the pricing point of academic titles are too high for most people) 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 print or online. Staff may say “the collection is online,” but what is online is not a collection at all, any more than a big box retail store inventory is a “collection.” It isn’t a collection in the intellectual or aesthetic meaning of the word. It just sounds nice, because collections are nice.

In place of collections, we offer a searchable inventory of entitlements which mostly 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 great! Who wants to go back to the days of bound periodicals? Using institutional credentials, researchers can access thousands of scholarly resources through a search box or else by going directly to the publishers’ sites and authenticating there to conduct research. It is wonderful and convenient, especially if budgets are large.

Unlike collections, “resources” possess no intrinsic value to users. We are not giving anyone a reason to engage with the content we license, since it no longer represents to them what scholars in the discipline think important to know. The intellectual and scholarly framework is gone. It reflects not necessarily what is good, but what an aggregator has thought profitable to monetize and make available to subscribers. 

Whether a Catholic library or HBCU, the user experience of the modern digital library is generic: 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. If no one is selecting them, no one knows about them, and no one in the library can advocate for them.

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 intellectual 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 value: not our value 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 (the library may license the same content many times over but in different 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, EBSCO and ProQuest. 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. ProQuest 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 user engagement with any of it aside from making it available.

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?53 What is a modern library, and what constitutes a good one, seems important for the world to know.

Library Aestheticism (Learning for Learning’s Sake): 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. In these outcomes assessment plans we must not just demonstrate collection use, but that students are learning from this use. Moreover, the learning must be tied to measurable objectives.

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,”54 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 understandably 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. Encouraging learning for learning’s sake seems to run up against the idea of “outcomes assessment” in the university. That whole OA model was designed to promote greater accountability in education, but what does this look like when applied to the academic library? It might mean in practice that the library buys only what is needed to support classroom instruction, which means it is no longer acting as a library with necessary autonomy and funding. 

A good library encourages students to pursue their own curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular research interests to go beyond classroom instruction to exploring 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 and keeping faculty apprised of the published literature in their 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.

We believe in the benefit of learning and the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, not necessarily in relation to a class assignment or higher GPA or a degree. We want students to explore their passions and channel their interests into creativity and the production of new knowledge–or how about people who feel good about being on campus at a university? This is not to say we have no relevance to the business objectives of the university, but 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 quite often their ambitions are not completely satisfied by what they are learning in their classes. The library is often the anchor for disaffected students, “better” students, and nontraditional students who do not necessarily care about homecoming or student life.

It often happens that 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 that the student needs to know to be competitive. In all honesty, sometimes students object to the politics of the modern-day classroom. Finding alternative points of view in the literature can be validating. 

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, custom cars or something creative, not industrial pipefitting. The library supports these more individualized and personal pathways to success in life, catering to the whole person, 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 through resources 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.55 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,56 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. To tuition-paying parents, the library they see when bringing their kids to tour the school influences their perception of the quality of the education at that school, whether their child takes advantage of it or not.

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. I’m all in favor of intimate spaces scaled to books and people, warm light, and electric fireplaces.

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 to increase their visibility. I brought her an ink jet printer on an after Christmas close-out sale at my local Walgreens, 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 digital content 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 are 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, through what is called “outcomes assessment,” but these measures often have little to do with collection development, collection use (use has been classified as “output” and not an “outcome”57), robust library user interfaces, independent learning, 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. We are about independent learning, not learning tied to successful completion of tasks.

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 its 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 successwhat students need to complete courseworkand 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”56 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.”59 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 Houston60 uses a Pexels image of a bookstore in Greece (all the books are in Greek), not an image of the school’s own library:

Likewise, this image of a bookstorenote the giftwrap racks in the backgroundis used by Texas Southern University in Houston to represent its College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences 61 after its library went almost entirely online:

I realize that these images are merely convenient images for someone designing a school’s webpages or in the Marketing Department to grab and use to get their job done. It may be intended to be a visual metaphor, not to be understood literally as in “this is a library on our campus.” But still, the fact that neither of these schools provides images of their own campus libraries while at the same time alluding to a traditional library ideal in their media releases and websites is in itself 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 are not a turn off, or else Marketing wouldn’t use images with books in them to market the school.

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 that attitudes toward print have been influenced by, and conflated with, unfavorable attitudes toward “book learning,” lecture format (a cross between reading and oral delivery) 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 knowledge not immediately tied to some practical purpose, immediate task or demonstrable “skill”; the educational benefit derived from sustained engagement with texts in any format is being questioned. In modern educational theory (informed by a hierarchy known as “Bloom’s taxonomy,” used by Educator Preparation Programs), reading and lectures are frowned upon as passive activities. According to a current mentality, teaching students to use a free online app to create something is “good pedagogy,” but having students read a book or attend to a lecture is “bad pedagogy.” What is often overlooked is that Bloom’s taxonomy was supposed to be a way for students to demonstrate knowledge, not for them to acquire it. 

Even in higher education, there is a new bias against text-based learning in favor of what is called experiential learning and “learning by doing.” Granted, there is nothing quite like the thrill of looking into through the lens of a microscope and seeing paramecia, didinia, volvox (if lucky) and amoebas (also if lucky) in a perfectly clear drop of pond water (been there, done that, with my own kids). It is a wonderful adventure into an unseen world. However, there is no recognition that experiential learning is also inefficient and limits the type of learning as well as the content that can be achieved within the time constraints of the classroom. For example, is it really preferable for students spend an entire semester rediscovering the laws of motion and gravity for themselves using model rockets, when they might spend one week reading a good book on gravity, and then move on to some other aspect of physics? A civilization that cannot perpetuate knowledge through texts is doomed.

Newton’s famous Principia Mathematica, 1687. Newton discovered gravity and wrote a book about it, so students today do not need to waste time rediscovering the effects of gravity for themselves. It is knowledge that is already known. 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.62

My son is graduating from a recognized suburban high school in Texas this year without having been exposed to any English or American Literature. His district also got rid of curricular textsno textbooks, no teaching of literature, no Great Books, no Puritans or poets, no Hawthorne or Poe. No Transcendentalists or Modernists or Progressives or Social Realists. No Depression-era writings of hardship and survival. No Dust Bowls. No plays. No knowledge of literature, literary periods and genres. 

The reader might be quite surprised that I am circumspect about these changes to the high school curriculum. Does it really matter if he has not plodded through Homer, Oedipus, The Canterbury Tales, a Shakespeare play, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Swift, Shelley, Waugh, Hemingway, etc., done the big sweep of the Great Books, 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. I do not know. I cannot decide if these are timeless texts or merely cultural artifacts. I think there is a place for them in high school, but there may be greater value pushing the canon forward to more contemporary times in order to boost reading and literacy levels. 

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. 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.63 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.

It isn’t just about the elimination of print, but a de-emphasis on all forms of reading. Everywhere, including library job postings, there is an absurd idea that student-centeredness for a library has to do with centralized seating arrangements rather than an emphasis on providing outstanding collections. (The last time I saw this was a job posting from Alvin community college.)

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. 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 and for the viewer. 

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 (2000-2021)

Twenty years ago, after Questia introduced one of the first online academic libraries, it was dubbed a McLibrary.64 Even years after it launched, librarians contended that Questia wasn’t a real library, but rather some commercial product posing as an academic library. Its content was determined by license agreements with publishers rather than by librarians.

But being a “content aggregator” was not the vision their founder originally had for the platform (I do not even think content aggregators existed back then). 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 of $19.95. I could really get behind that, since I was all about the democratization of libraries, having experienced my own perpetual frustrations with access to scholarly resources once I left school, often begging my friend at Rice to fulfill ILL requests for me (and wave the 18 dollar 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, to take the job at Questia, I resigned from 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.

Since rare books and antiquarian prints had long been a passion of mine–I had been collecting since I was 14, since discovering Samuel Weiser’s antiquarian bookshop on a trip to NY–the Museum of Printing History had also been a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was a museum start-up and a conservative institution, which is itself a rarity in the art world. The Museum featured artists and master printmakers, past and present. The museum also showcased culturally and historically significant objects, including bibles, books and historical documents which changed the course of history.

We showcased pop-up book engineers and Japanese woodblock prints. It had several working art studios with resident artists so people could see art being made. I enjoyed creating programs for adults and children, writing grants, putting together exhibits and helping it grow, which it did through the help of printing companies, oil companies and other corporate sponsors, gallery owners, dealers and collectors. Our conservative orientation, and emphasizing the connection between printing and political freedom, helped our cause as a tiny upstart museum in Houston. 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 spread democracy and changed the world. It featured gorgeous engravings and lithographs of explorers like Audubon and other naturalists, engravings by war correspondents in the days before photography, historic newspapers and documents, maps, and a variety of operable printing presses, including a working model of Gutenberg’s press.

I mention all of this because I went to Questia thoroughly believing in the cause of democratizing the academic library. I was a very frequent user of academic libraries. At Questia, I thought I was on the ground floor of some great and noble venture, like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Only in the Houston office in 2000, there were no Mortimer J. Alders, no intellectuals or philosophers, just MBAs from Compaq, Minute Maid and Enron. Soon, in the wake of Y2K and dot.com busts, MBAs started flooding in from all over the country to create the world’s first academic library online. Strangely, the executive team didn’t think they needed any academic librarians to create this academic library, except for me; I was the exception. I was golden for a time, even though I was there only on full-time contract for much of my tenure. I didn’t know if this was hubris on their part or ignorance on mine, but I discovered that most people had a very different concept of an academic library and librarians than I did. For me, it was than just as it is now, all about quality collections. Questia was not going to be about that.

I concluded that it said less about me and more about the company that I was Questia’s first and only librarian for many months in the year leading to launch, even though the company had raised over 160 million dollars in venture capital to become the first academic library online, inspired (according to the founder) by his own experience with Harvard’s undergraduate library.

For my first few weeks, I thoroughly enjoyed my solo status, explaining things like OCLC, authority control, MARC records, AACR2, LC Classification, CIP data, LC Subject Headings, collection development, a collection conspectus, and other library standards to MBAs, most of whom, 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 the staff or MARC view of online library catalog (I think Voyager libraries), what the MARC record looked like, and how it was tied to search and display in library systems. I explained aspects of the bib record to programmers. Since I was in Product Development, 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. I talked about the necessity for browsing by call number, and therefore the necessity of a MARC-based system. I had also learned the rudiments of the Perl programming language, which I had been familiar with prior to arriving at Questia. This library built on Perl, Oracle and Unix was interesting to me; I was interested in the system display and well as the content. I lived 5 minutes away but hardly ever went home, working from 7am until late at night. Everyone did. The company brought food in so people would not go home.

Initially, the CTO, an imposing man who went by the name “Krately,” was not much 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 programmers were already doing on his side of the floor. Everyone, including me, was intimidated by this man, but I thought an outsider to my profession developing a library system from scratch seemed unwise when existing ones might be adapted with metadata gotten for free from harvesting the Library of Congress and other Z39.50 targets (from university libraries and the Library of Congress). Open platform systems were available. It would be like setting out today to develop a spreadsheet instead of using Excel, or writing an application to interface with Excel rather than using SharePoint. There was no need to reinvent the wheel, even in 2000. 

In 2000, academic libraries had already developed consistent and uniform industry standards for bibliographic description, record sharing, searching, cross-referencing, sorting (on LC number, developing sorting routines is no easy task because the number is not strictly alphanumeric and it may have more than one decimal), authority control and interoperability, and much of our software was open platform (the code was proprietary but customizable once you bought it). The fact that there were no other librarians there serving as consultants to him concerned me. What was this CTO doing? I feared he and his programmers were underestimating the complexity of library systems, as lay people often do, and wasting time developing something that would not meet academic library standards for the search and display of bibliographic content. So I persisted, not wanting the product to fail. 

After providing him with a copy of Library Technology Reports‘ in-depth review of large library systems (which I obtained Rice, photocopied and left anonymously in his chair), something clicked. Maybe he saw the possibility of adapting an existing system. He sent out a memo announcing a sudden change in direction toward a MARC-based system, crediting my influence. He had me write an RFP for a library system, tailored to his specifications, checking off and circling some of the things mentioned in the report. Through 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. That would be NetLibrary.

About a month later, he resigned. There was much speculation as to why he had departed. Layoffs followed the next month, completely blindsiding everyone; and it was only the first round. My beloved boss (VP of Product Development) was terminated along with many others. Everyone I was close to at Questia was suddenly gone, and in their places, 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, with Marketing at the helm, I felt my chill token status inside the company despite my important sounding title. I was there so that Marketing could say, “Yes, we have real librarians working here!” They began to recruit bright-eyed librarians from universities, who asked me, “What are we supposed to be doing?” They were hired for their academic credentials to give the service credibility. By then, Publisher Relations determined the contents of the library. The company had been correct, they didn’t need librarians to manage their collections, because they didn’t have any collections to manage. The library’s contents were to be determined by deals with publishers, large license agreements with them, and these deals were negotiated by MBAs. This is my point for sharing my Questia story: Questia was not only the first online academic library, but the first collectionless library and also the first librarianless library.

From the outset, the company did not want to hire librarians, not even me, to select titles or manage their collections for them, at least after retrospective collection development was done. My boss had told me as much before I took the job, but I didn’t fully comprehend what he was saying to me.

How do you create an academic library without collections and librarians to maintain them? It seemed as if it would have collections, just assisted by technology, and my role at Questia was to help with that. I had been hired for a unique 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 to be used when Acquisitions was negotiating for rights for titles with publishers, basically so they would know how much a title was worth to scholars. 

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 library at the University of St. Thomas (they were not available online in 2000) 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. That had been my brainchild. 

When I was at Questia, I was also studying computer programming and Perl at HCC. Perl was a language I was had already been dabbling in, since it was used to customize and develop library systems. I especially enjoyed a side project at Questia 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 Questia’s 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, adding it to the platform and cataloging it. It would be impossible to create a digital library quickly using this title-by-title workflow. They had to sign on publishers, and took whatever scholarly content they could get to form its collections.

The company had apparently 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, no one wanted 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 books containing photos of artwork hanging in a museum, it wasn’t even clear who even 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 at a sufficient pace so it could start selling subscriptions and generating revenue, management realized that agreements had to be forged on a much larger scale. Because the traditional approach to creating a library wasn’t working for a for profit business, Questia ended up signing on publishers, 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 an undergraduate library and more like a content aggregator.

Apart lack of a quality collections (which library critics always 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 like Questia could never be a real library.65 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, a mere commodity, 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 third-party 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. Everyone has embraced discovery as the accepted solution for libraries. 

This is why, like the Ancient Mariner, I am driven to share my Questia story.

As much as librarians complained about Questia back then, protesting 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 back in the day, who argued Questia wasn’t a real library because it didn’t have collections, academic libraries today have almost all adopted the same or similar acquisitions model which Questia helped to forge. 

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 into collections which comprise the disciplines. It is what people think of when they think “library.” 

The presentation of quality publications arranged by classification, described according to a set of standard rules for bibliographic description, and 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, namely, 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 in the way a good library should.

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 whose quality content is vouchsafed by its brand or label, just like any other commercial product or commodity. 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. It isn’t inspiring and doesn’t reflect the user community at that school. 

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 and a sense of community. 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, trends, 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 presentation 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, 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 our 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 agowhy, of course, libraries have collections, you may be thinking to yourselfin 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 search tool is an 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. Today we might not notice what important titles are missing from the package. We do not worry about what we do not have as we used to when we maintained collections. We are no longer responsible for the content of the library. 

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 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. A search engine 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?66

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.67 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 in the library.

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 (except of course for the few oddballs who were studying history, art history or literature). 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, saying we were all about “doing, not having,” it was all about access to information. 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, a search box.

Once physical collections were no longer funded, public services went into free fall and the whole thing fell apart. 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 that library, including system upgrades, managing the website, access services and discovery in addition to instruction and practically ghost writing a few theses and dissertations to help people “get through.” While I used to do collection development for books and ebooks, my favorite thing to do, I also 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 on my own time. 

Our own literature proclaimed, “Reference is dead!” and “Librarianship is Dead!”45 Others said academic librarianship was dead. I wondered, based on my own experiences, if librarianship really was dead, or if we had killed it.

Like Gorman,[48. Gorman, Michael. The Enduring Library: Technology, Tradition, and the Quest for Balance. ALA Editions, 2003.] I too didn’t like what the library was becoming. I would chalk it up to age, but no one else, including our students, seemed to like it either, which was a clue we were doing something wrong.

Without books and print, the library was a boring, colorless space, stagnant and unchanging, with nothing new to share or experience but an empty space. 

Our primary purpose and function in the library 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 supposed to be aspirational. Previously, before the library became subscription content and a search engine to search this content, 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. Now what?

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 what I call “the new library Gothic,” with height, space, light and glass being primary design attributes. It did not seek to encourage literacy or support intellectual engagement. It lacked narrative value. It has not been designed to promote resource awareness or use. The library so full of mysterious things and semi-sacred artifacts had been whitewashed, desacralized, converted into a generic office building.

Today, architects pitch directly to college presidents at conferences, telling them their “dark and cluttered” library has to go.69

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 hollow 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 strive to develop prescriptive standards to ensure “library goodness.”

To me, if a design does not promote resource awareness and use, it should not be considered a library. Maybe instead of windows, it needs tall walls on which to project virtual collections, or offer some other kind of interactive digital experience. A library should meet certain performative requirements to be a library, such as it makes users aware of resources to encourage engagement, literacy, knowledge and learning.

Moreover:

  • 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 made 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 the communities we purport to serve.

Once libraries do not own their own resources, vendors can dictate the terms of access, as they are currently doing. 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 our efficacy, and 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 to scholars. 

Where in years past, academic librarians were expected to be familiar with the collection, today many of us have fallen victim to our own 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 by subject specialists, 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 them, discovering the ebook in its lifetime is slim to none if discovery is all we have to make people aware of new titles. 

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.70 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 and Intellectual 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 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 and worry. Public Affairs always had interesting guest speakers and seminars, intellectual life. It wasn’t like there was no campus life. It was there on the 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 in their buildings. The faculty believed books were still valuable to students, even if the library 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 because they had long ago given up on the library, which was never responsive to their requests. 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 an expensive 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 the exclusive benefit of own students and faculty. This kept students and faculty working in their respective departments or colleges, but it made it difficult for Public Affairs to use the GIS software licensed by Geography. There were already a variety of study environments and computer labs for students all over that campus. I concluded that without either collections, coffee or media labs with specialized software staffed by people who knew how to use them, the central 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 current collections, which was certainly not my choice. In my first year or two, I did collection development, but that Director departed and was replaced by an interim who stopped all print acquisitions. After a few years, she was replaced with someone who continued the policy of not buying any books. 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. I was the only librarian on the floor because I  typically nested at the Reference desk, and I taught most of the classes anyway. I also was one of the few white people on campus, so I was easily recognizable to students, my face like a salesman’s tie. I thought I had good insight into how the library might improve, and yet I often felt that whatever I said I felt was suspect. The campus bookstore was more interesting to browse than the library, presenting a small selection of books of interest to college students. I often dropped in there to scan popular books and the textbooks (to know what was being taught each semester).

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 or tablets (virtual fulfillment). We can also market ebooks in the library through displays of their covers, both inside the library and in the departments, 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 it 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

Most of the faculty and students were African-American, and most students chose to attend the school 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, impersonal ebook in a generic vendor package, a book 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. There was no leisure reading collection either, except a few very old paperbacks locked up 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 customarily locked away 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 if not protected. This policy of placing all of the black books into Special collections, 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. Even I couldn’t buy books for the library, for about four or five years. I operated like an Adjunct, scanning my own stuff and putting on Blackboard.

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 43 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. There was absolutely no concern at all about the abysmal state of the collection or the impact this was having on students. It had been allowed to languish for years. The collection was seen as irrelevant to library services. We were all about instruction, and maintaining a collection had nothing to do with it.

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 poured over spreadsheets of titles, researching them, checking them in WorldCat, reading reviews and compiling lists of titles we should retain and others that we should have. It was my escape, along with teaching World Literature. I loved literature and intellectual history, and even though the old books were physically in bad shape, the collection contained some gems (which I left behind if I thought someone else would appreciate them). 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 have 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 many 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 or ever would again.

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) with pictures of what appeared to be German officers. 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 many decades, spines barely readable and fore-edges covered in dust. At one time, the collection had been excellent and cared for by educated people who, German encyclopedia set aside, knew what they were doing. The library had been impressive at one time.

Faculty received first dibs on everything, then students. I, on the other hand, was reluctant to partake, concerned about apparent conflict of interest and the optics of the librarian filling up the back of her SUV with library books (should someone think to take a picture of me and post it to social media). I also weeded the Humanities conservatively because I wanted the collection to be good for students. In hindsight, I might have made different decisions, but I never had the big picture of what this new library was going to be. I did bring home some Classics books which required knowledge of Greek or Latin to utilize, something for my old age; and quite a few specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias to help to rebuild civilization when civilization collapses. 

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. Therefore, I was weeding in the dark, without a scope. Without a book budget, I had no sense of scope for each area I was weeding except for what I conceived as my ideal. In my mind’s eye, I had a new collection development policy which guided my 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. Weeding meant making sure the discarded book was removed from the catalog and went through a deaccessioning process. Rather than depreciating the books, which is the norm in libraries, accounting wanted to know the dollar value of each of the books we were discarding, and this need to research and report the price of the books were discarding creating confusion and delay. In the meantime, the old library had become a composite of subscription databases, packages of resources requiring almost no ongoing maintenance. The transition from http to https and the need to install security certificates 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.

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 that 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 on a campus of 8,000. 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. They were grateful to have my help. 

Over the years working in the library 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. If people aren’t coming in then you need to change your collection development practices.

Admittedly, it was harder to sort cause from effect now, especially because 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 booksIt was not necessary for the library to offer reading materials any more, thought the Director too, 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 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 my spending a few weeks on an Opening Day Collection, filling up an Excel spreadsheet title-by-title with ISBN and price, the Director suddenly decided to commit the funds to purchasing another database. 

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 $99K.

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

I complained to the Director in private. We had gone many years under her administration 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, either. 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 authorsWhy 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 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. At first I had thought this reader might be me, but as she went on with her story I could tell 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 to express that that the objective, her objective, was simply to eliminate print. “Eliminating print,” the more the better, was apparently what the university administration understood. 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 was 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 were not involved with the decision to no longer buy books or maintain collections. I was close to the Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences faculty because I also taught classes. 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 collections 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, 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, or listen to an interview with an author or book discussion on NPR or watch Bill Maher 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 books, but fewer people came to the new library because of its location on the edge of campus and lack of parking. When we opened, librarians were assigned to tour people through “the space,” which is what it was–a space. Why are we giving tours of “a space”? 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?” Not even Faculty Senate, who came to the library once a month to air their grievances about lack of parking, Adjuncts and post-tenure review threatening their jobs, low pay or increased teaching loads, said anything. 

Well, someone did, actually, one person, a doctoral student, also a friend of mine, who emailed the President asking why the library new library had no new books. (I was blamed for this complaint, as if no one else in the entire university but me would care that we weren’t buying books.) After that, because the President contacted the Provost, and the Provost contacted the Library Director, she was supposedly “drug across the carpet” (for what exactly I do not know–not buying books?), and we ended up buying some new things, but it was too late. A collection must have some critical mass, and you cannot just stop for years and start on a shoestring. Plus the modern, minimalist design of the space and bookless lobby, that it had been designed to place no emphasis on books, would have made it difficult to place new books where they might be seen anyway. Months later, COVID hit, enrollments plummeted, my classes were cancelled, furloughs were threatened, and I headed out to greener pastures. 

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 universitiesmy bellwether, because of their strong intellectual tradition in the Liberal Artsto 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 need 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 makerspaces 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 crafted with faculty input) 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, bookwise, 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. I pulled Choice reviews and years of New York Times Book Reviews back out and carted them to my office. I also mined Books in Print online to populate 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 unique insight into collection gaps and where it needed to improve. I never imagined 43 million dollars could be spent on a new library with no set aside for books to go into it, or built with 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.

In the very beginning, a team of architects–I am not sure they were the ones the administration ultimately hired–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 romantic use of metaphor and British accents, 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 public Town Hall meetings. Their definition of the library’s community seemed to be Third Ward, the black neighborhood surrounding the school, not the students or faculty, the actual users of an academic library. (Despite the gesture, the residents of the surrounding neighborhood would not be granted access to the digital 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 either. 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 shelves. 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. I think she was frustrated too, because I know she didn’t get many of the things she wanted, either.

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 completely 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 very 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 cares about the windows? I thought. Who is going to ask us about our 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, but seemed to drain the life and color from things around it, like being underwater), narrowness, exposed conduits and persistent loud hum gave it a strange vibe, like being on the inside of a fish tank or some other failing 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 a sense of serenity 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 that it was actually a beautiful day outside. Inside, there was no signage directing students to staff or to the small unmanned computer labs and print stations on each floor, a decentralized stacked design which created support issues when the printer ran out of paper, as it did each day, many times a day, or someone couldn’t figure our how to login to study hall, which also resulted in misdirected anger at me, the only staff person around. Frustrated students found their way to my office, where I would call OIT and volunteer to print their papers using my printer if they sent it to me by email (I was not allowed to put their unclean flash drives into my USB port). On each floor, the view of the librarians’ offices were eclipsed by a protruding façade of airport-style restrooms. Not putting doors on restrooms within a quiet study space meant industrial strength toilet flushing and dryers were heard throughout 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 from the adjacent restroom and those several floors above her office. The fact that they would put open airport restrooms in the middle of each floor suggested that maybe these people really didn’t know how to design 21st century learning environments after all.

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 and maroon, several floors of near identical floor plans and lack of display space 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. It was gorgeous. 

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 or way to display them; study rooms placed on the far ends of upper floors of a five story building where they could not be monitored by the one staff member on duty at night and on weekends (people did bad things in them); no way to secure the building during extended hours; no exhibit space for student art of travelling exhibits. There was also 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. That meeting space had been heavily used for instructions and programs. There was no visitor parking close to the building as there was with the old library, where we had a visitor parking lot. It seemed to be designed to be an empty space, with atria, walkways and staircases and other unusable space taking up much of the interior space of the building. 

The State of Texas had funded a new 43 million dollar library, but there was no library there, just an empty building seemingly designed to remain empty by design.

And so like that, my academic library with comprehensive collections preserved since 1927 was gone, replaced by some over-engineered technological scheme with millions put toward a skin of programmable window panes–like that was going to be meaningful to students–and useless self-check out machines and high-end smart security gates (Why, why, why if we are not buying books?), but nothing at all for books or resources to go inside of it. This was the building indeed “full of technology,” an objective we had heard about for years. None of this technology had much to do with improving the user experience of a library as a library, improving education, or attracting people to the space.

It made me wonder what, if anything, could be done to build a better library, or improve the existing one.

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, but now, not so much. In this cold remote outpost, far from my academic departments, librarians were even less visible, eclipsed by the enormity of the building itself. Those few who came to the library slipped silently into private and group study rooms with wheeled luggage in tow. 

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? Is this the future of libraries?

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 satisfying to work in a library without either seeing new books or students. Even I couldn’t acquire books for my own classes. 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 my advanced age, but my younger colleagues seemed also not to prefer the desolate new space either and the experiences it provided to students. 

As I have come to discover, what happened to my library, this white-washing by tall windows and whiteboards is 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.18 There are no post-occupancy evaluations of new libraries as libraries in library literature, for obvious reasons. 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, only as spaces.

With new academic libraries, the more impressive the space, the more conspicuous 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. The SMEs are not there.

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 for scholars.

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 in 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,72 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. 

When it comes to the construction and design of new academic libraries, the planned de-emphasis on collections 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 convey 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) 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 shrinking cluster group of people who visit bookstores and is interested in national 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 it aggregated packages with better titles, picking out books title-by-title, but 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 it will make a 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. If we meticulously add titles, no one even knows we have added them. This presents a disincentive to librarians’ 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,73 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,74 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 video75 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,76 and from surveys we know that such a minute part of the academic library’s acquisitions budget (if anything is allocated to them),31 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.78 

What compels them to do so? Do they really believe in this brave new world of librarianship? 

Is literacy even a goal of new libraries? How are new libraries to be assessed, especially compared to the old? 

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)? The question is important, and not just for librarians. Since public dollars in the tens of millions typically 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,79 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?80 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,81 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.”24 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.83 There is nothing in ACRL’s Standards to ensure quality or quantity of library collections, formulas which had been provided in library standards until 1995.84 

Regional accrediting agencies like the NEASC (even in New England, where I would expect the standards to be the highest in the country)84 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.86 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.

Selling Our Soul to the Vendor: Our Faustian Bargain with Discovery

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 what is good, reflecting intellectual achievement and shared value. This is how it motivates creativity in others.

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 intellectual 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 help them see the publishing activity disciplines, to present and preserve scholarly content. If the collection is good and arranged appropriately, browsing is learning.

The collection itself is an important form of scholarly communication revealing what the discipline thinks important to know. We cannot communicate effectively if our content is invisible, not organized by the priorities of the discipline, or not maintained. 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 ebooks30 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 or intuitive 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 as 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 old 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.70 

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.”32

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, appearing to invest intellectually in the goodness of our own content.

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 care for the user. Having no way to organize our content by subject and discipline is bad for our business as academic 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 needed for good stewardship.

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 contexts, 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 disciplines. It meant recognition of flagship journals and seminal works. The collection, comprised of publications in the disciplines, was what established common ground for collaboration to occur. Scholars do not need a space for collaboration, for they can collaborate online.

In terms of outreach to students, librarians want to encourage literacy, reading and consulting authoritative sources, not consultation with peers. Maybe collaborative learning works better in Denmark,90 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 study with others 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. 

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 “enterprise anything,” the focus of these workforce-oriented courses. I cared about developing digital libraries and natural language interfaces.

While I was studying programming and digital libraries, 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, 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 onlinevirtual browsingis 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. 91 

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 onlinea virtual stacksis 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?

From Outcomes Assessment to 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 [good] 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 greater than the sum of its parts. 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?92 93 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.94 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,95 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,96 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 broader 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 encourage reading, 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 / media centers, it is worth asking if in the 21st century, librarians in such sterile 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 funding request, but which have no collections inside of them or online, or no library business requirements? The campus gets a new building, but it doesn’t get a new library. 

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,”24 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!” Many parents were at a loss. Given the ability for modern school-aged children (Gen Z) to spend hours in front of a screen playing Minecraft and Pokémon and Call of Duty, why should the online classroom have proved so daunting to them? Probably for the same reason hours of Zoom meetings are so draining to us.

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,98 99 100 101 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.102 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. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34605/61.1.lynema.pdf?sequence=2] 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,103 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.104

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.”105 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.”106

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.107 

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 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 and 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,67 might be surprised–although in the case of Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen, I do not think so–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”109(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 year13 was trying to sell ebooks to libraries. Why listen to what he has to say? 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 hosting platform may make the hosting platform better, but it 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.111 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.93 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.113 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 to know.  

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 assigned textbooks on collection development, 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.114

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.115 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.116 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 or coverage dates, usage/circulation stats, and 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 or aptitude of technical services to create such reports. Sometimes they even involved 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 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.117

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 Organization44, 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.119 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 user