An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship

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. (Admittedly, the combination of things often confused people, but to me it all made perfect sense.)

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 (the beltway was undergoing widening), 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 nearby where I could put my technical, academic and library skills to some productive use.

The day of the library 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) or the duties of the job.

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 duties of the job I was interviewing for. I was having a hard time even relating a “philosophy” to the job description for a Technical Services Librarian. What were the possible correct responses? I feared I had simply missed something, some known personage in the library profession, 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 their 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. 

Toward a New Philosophy of Academic Librarianship. 

Now that I work in an academic library again, and have for many years now, 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. 

Even though the building may have been designed to utilize the most up-to-date building technologies for sustainability and universal design, it may be more challenging within these vacuous, streamlined, efficient spaces to effectively deploy new technologies for librarians 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 awareness, engagement, and therefore, to encourage learning outside of class assignment, always the point of the library attached to a university.

And 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 more intimate library with visible contents.10 11 It is unclear how we can create or even contribute much to a culture of learning on our campuses in such vacuous facilities. 

Despite the explosion of the new libraries, and the rapid transformation of libraries into learning centers, none of the ALA Round Tables12 or ACRL surveys pertain to library design, facilities or user interfaces. There are Round Tables for government documents, for intellectual freedom, for graphic novels, library instruction, library history, but nothing about new library design or even library futures.

Therefore, as it has happened, design by outsiders to our profession, by architects wanting to “reinvent the library” or our vendors are what is defining us, for the most part; we librarians are not so much anymore defining what our future will be. As Shlipft points out in Constructing Library Buildings That Work, librarians may not be actively involved in writing the “building program,” i.e., defining the business requirements for the new space.13 Excluding librarians from new library designs in higher education has been a fairly well documented trend, as mentioned as early as 2009 in Stewart’s The Academic Library Building in the Digital Age.14

According to one architectural firm, at the time new designs are proposed, there is sometimes effort by architects to discredit the librarians as having “dated design thinking.”15 Sometimes, librarians (and faculty) have no seat on new library planning committees. In 2015, Sasaki Associates, a Boston-based architectural design and engineering firm specializing in higher education, surveyed academic librarians across the country whose buildings had been renovated in recent years. They discovered extremely high levels of dissatisfaction with new library building designs among librarians, with the priorities of librarians going into the design and those of the resulting facility not correlating well.15

It seems a common experience in academic libraries today that, whether our spaces are very old or very new, we inherit and inhabit them like a hermit crab in an ill-fitting shell, but we are unsure as to the exact cause of our awkwardness or confident it can be remedied. Is this the case of the farrier raising his fist at the automobile? Most people I talk to believe that libraries are obsolete, and yet I cannot help but wonder if we have contributed to our own obsolescence with unambitious models which have nothing to do with librarianship as it was once conceived. As most of us are working in predominantly or exclusively digital environments now, we may think either that, on the one hand, the facility itself no longer really matters, since “everything is online” (in our discovery layer or via Google Scholar), or else perhaps, on the other, that it is all that we have left, believing that being open when nothing else on campus is what justifies our value. 

We may be encouraged to think that collections and content curatorship do not matter in this digital age because of advances in search technology, automated indexing and that most people often can find whatever they want with minimal effort. They need only type words into a search box. Bibliography, metadata and arrangement do not seem to matter. (Our system vendor has conveyed this message through the design of their systems.) Anticipating use doesn’t matter. We do not need to concern ourselves with cataloging or collection development anymore, or collection use, or ensuring that we possess core titles; we let vendors and search engines take care of everything having to do with our online presence. What I want to know is, “Are we good?” Are we educating people and being the best library we can be through our discovery layers and our hollow spaces? Are we supporting intellectual inquiry and the advancement of disciplinary knowledge through these streamlined designs?

And where does this conception of a library as a search engine and study hall leave us in terms of control over the user experience, our capacity for display, placing content where it will be seen, ensuring a quality experience and over managing “our” content? Is our only purpose to provide passive access to commercial resources while students are enrolled in school so they can complete their assignments and degrees? To me, that is not what an academic library is all about. 

Part of the problem to me is that we are not striving to be good as a library, but merely striving to demonstrate that we are relevant, meeting needs, and now often doing so in a space not designed to be a library, through a website that is likely not under our administration, and using tools that are intended primarily to drive users to commercial platforms. Yes, I know Ex Libris’s CDI is something miraculous, and all scholarly publishers who sell to academic libraries contribute to this central citation index, a seemingly indispensable search tool. We’ve put all our eggs in this one basket. We keep trying to perfect discovery rather than imagining an experience outside of it, seeking to balance resources with collections. 

We are perhaps missing an opportunity to offer users with a good library experience, which may be something a bit different from just providing access to relevant items to satisfy search queries. It could be something different from a search engine. 

It was once thought that in order for a library to have integrity, it must provide a visible collection, and this collection should be made visible to a larger community beyond the institution, not be just an index or invisible aggregation of potentially discoverable things to which those with institutional affiliation are entitled to access. We always before supported life-long learning and scholarly access beyond the institution. We should be able to stimulate demand (stimulate inquiry) to truly support scholarship, and we do this through providing engaging collections, not just supporting access to resources on demand via a search application, even the best search application capable of achieving the best results for every possible query.

Engagement means that we can organize our content into meaningful collections mapped to the disciplines and we can make our collections visible as collections. It means we have developed effective strategies to put content where it is likely to be seen. It means have a fully developed platform for library services, not a search box embedded into a CMS with another CMS for LibGuides, a CMS for our digital repository, a CMS for discovery services, a CMS for ILL. It means we have plugins and widgets which are designed for us. 

Even if we are fully digital now, why is this mission of maintaining authoritative collections of texts in anticipation of use and need no longer even a design priority of libraries and their software?

E-resource management and discovery has now come to define the totality of the user experience of a research library. It has replaced the catalog, the collection, and, at many libraries, the need for well-educated staff. That seems to be the trend these days. Faculty status for academic librarians is also in decline. Over the years, we have become one with our vendors, and they, more than us, are managing content and metadata for us; all we need to do is “manage” the license agreement and activate the correct package in discovery. But collections, as collections, embody a kind of objectivity or truth, goodness and intentionality, at least integrity and some dash of academic rigor, a visual representation of scholarly activity in the field or what is good in it, and this is still a valuable perspective worth providing to our users at a university instead of just some relevant results matching search queries. The former is fundamentally a different experience. Even from a business perspective, we are not creating value around our services or our product by becoming sublimated to discovery services and to vendors.

I must reiterate that I am not “against” discovery. Far from it. I have implemented and managed discovery solutions at a few institutions over the last ten years. I have even worked for a developer of library discovery services which was light years ahead of anything on the market today. I use discovery services extensively at my current library and at other libraries. I merely think we should recognize and appreciate the limitations of discovery as the exclusive user interface for an academic research library (aside from LibGuides) so we can get beyond discovery to a more fully developed library platform. We keep trying to improve discovery services rather than the user experience of a library. The more we are associated with an empty search box front-ending third-party content, the more irrelevant we will become. No matter how good it is, it is still a diminished user experience. “Access to resources” will never compare with access to collections. It is really two different things with different outcomes and requirements. 

Maintaining the experience of the library as a library is itself important, and libraries, unlike search applications, must conform to a higher set of standards that discovery, a search engine. At a university, we have an obligation to provide the best resources, not just access to relevant resources. Without a collections framework, we have no idea if what we offer is best, or just what was added to an aggregator package. Moreover, libraries ought to be experiential and authoritative, provocative and engaging. A walk though the library and/or a visit to its website should be a stimulating, mind-expanding, educational experience where people can efficiently learn about publications in their chosen field of study or of interest to them, and not just “about” its spaces or online commercial database products. 

Showing users things they would not have ever thought about or thought to search for is also an extremely important design consideration for a library. We should encourage serendipitous discovery. Precision and recall, as one would evaluate information retrieval tools, may not actually be the most important attributes to the user experience of a library as a library.

A museum communicates and conveys value through selection, arrangement, description and display. The museum does not strive to “meet a need,” but creates an educational experience and helps to stimulate demand for its product. An academic library should be similarly designed to encourage appreciation for intellectual achievement, to promote the acquisition of knowledge, and stimulate engagement and use of resources through selection, arrangement, description and display. The facility and user interfaces should be designed for that shared cultural experience.

I still believe that the library collection (even in digital form), maintained and assessed as a collection, is our main service and responsibility as librarians to the academic community, and also to the public. Yes, the public and future scholars are stakeholders. We must have new websites, new systems and technologies to create a more vibrant experience. It isn’t an either/or. But we may be reaching diminishing returns with search alone. 

There is a “two-way relationship” between the library and academic research. A search paradigm presupposes only a one-way relationship in which the library’s sole mission to is provide access to resources on demand, but itself has no active role to play in the education of students, in the transmission of knowledge or the creation of new knowledge. Without this two way relationship, and without this perspective, the academic curriculum and academic degree are grounded in, well, nothing at all. 

Librarians continue to envision new roles in academic libraries for academic librarians. Our functioning as “Digital Retrievalists” or “Collaboration Facilitators”17 is demeaning to us and our profession. Such conceptions have little to do with academic library’s core mission to be an academic library and to create value around human intellectual achievement. 

It is time for the academic library to take stock and decide what its business requirements must be to be successful and good as a library. Everything else–building design, software design, web design and staffing–should proceed from these requirements, just as with any other modern business or organization.

One such requirement might be that the library be able to stimulate demand for its own resources by making them visible and placing them into an academic context.

Yes, we should have discovery and subscription content in abundance, but if we want students and faculty to become and remain competitive in their chosen fields, to reach their potential, and if we want to support intellectual life on our campuses, the library must remain a visible library, capable of supporting intellectual inquiry, and of being experienced as a library according to library standards: as a  content-rich learning environment.

The library must also offer localization and personalization to put the most relevant content where it will be seen.

We must establish bridges into community to sustain and support the flow of knowledge in the community. We must not erect barriers to access, but strive to take them down.

We must be able to stand behind titles and say, “This is good. You would really like this,” or “You might want to know about this.” We must know if we have the core titles in a field. We must provide regular users with a unique intellectual and educational experience of what is significant and good to know in academic disciplines, because the library is often the impetus for moving the curriculum forward by keeping students and faculty up to date on the latest trends in their field or areas of research interest.

We must explore ways to put the library back into the library in this digital age before it is too late.

The End of the Visible Library.

In 1996, Nicholson Baker, a wonderful writer of novels and essays (including a few essays and a book on libraries), fervently took up the cause of defending the traditional library with historical collections, delving so deep into the inner workings and technologies then employed by academic libraries that it is astonishing to me that he himself is not one.

Few lay people (non-librarians) know or care about OCLC or the intricacies of the old card catalog (which in 1996 was disappearing or already gone) and certainly few librarians can write about these things as masterfully and authentically as Baker does. Fewer still would care about the books and historic newspapers he tries to save from destruction at the hands of unscrupulous librarians in his book-length expose Double Fold (2001), but his campaign to save them made for a fascinating cautionary tale about the power of salesmen, commercial interests, and some librarians seeking to advance their own careers. 

Baker, an author, library user, keen observer of life and historian who is not, to my knowledge, in possession of any academic credentials beyond a B.A. in English—although no one would deny that he is an intellectual—witnessed what he aptly describes as the library’s “pretense toward the visionary” which “removed the concrete world of books from the library’s statement of purpose” and “allowed misguided administrators to work out their hostility toward printed history while the rest of us sleep.18 Because I was then six years into my library career, I witnessed it too, the exact same disturbing trend, first the widespread panic over the deterioration of paper which justified its elimination (science told us that “they’re just going to deteriorate in the next 30 years anyway”), followed a few years later, something Baker does not write about, by grossly exaggerated claims about the annual cost of “maintaining print on the shelves,” whose source was a vendor of ebooks.19

While it is hard to overlook Baker’s love of historic newspapers and other documents and the labor-intensive processes which went into their production—in stark contrast to the cheap and destructive machinery used to destroy and digitize them back in the 1990s, which Baker also describes—he truly gets a bigger picture many miss: the detrimental impact on library users of closed, unbrowsable stacks (whether in the form of microfilm, remote storage or even digital access), a trajectory which has continued today to the point where, in 2020, it is evident to me and to many other academic librarians that even large and well-funded university libraries may now possess no physical collections and present users with no collections in any format, even electronic. We also seem to think that encouraging reading is antithetical to encouraging research. 

In a second wave of digitization, many libraries leapfrogged from booklessness to collectionlessness, meaning they “acquire” (license) whatever select vendors who license content to academic libraries provide. As collections themselves are not longer supported, we have seen the concomitant devaluation of knowledge, which the collection once represented, and the improved ability for publishers to monetize their content as libraries no longer do title selection. 

Most academic libraries have abandoned their historic missions of maintaining collections to focus more on “business objectives,” meeting just-in-time needs, a trend which has been spurred on by institutional assessment plans that are themselves the product of “the outcomes assessment movement” in higher education. Within the library learning center there are competing “collection development” objectives: are we to provide needed resources, or are we to maintain collections which support research? Some libraries are even changing the name of the department charged with acquisitions from “Collection Management” to “Resource Management,” signifying not so much a change in format, but a new philosophy of librarianship that is no longer imbued with academic purpose beyond satisfying business objective needs. This trend has coincided with de-professionalization. 

Resource Management really means increased vendor control over content, more restricted public access, lack of academic rigor or care, and a more limited user experience than ever previously offered by the academic library when libraries were about collection management. Resource Management as a practice, when it becomes synonymous with library acquisitions, means that the library is no longer selecting titles, cataloging titles, or keeping up with scholarly publishing. 

Resource management is a commodification and commoditization of the academic library. Intellectually, there is a world of difference between managing collections (a bibliographic and scholarly orientation) and managing resources (managing license agreements), and a profound difference in the user experience it affords users. It is a different scholarly practice, and may not be a scholarly practice. 

At most academic libraries today, visible and actively maintained library collections have been replaced by discoverable resources which live in the moment, and whose relevance to a query is based on search algorithms whose resulting citations are also subjective and somewhat arbitrary. (When my library used to offer two discovery tools, Primo and EDS, it was interesting to see the different results on the same content.) The library may subscribe to millions of things, there may be hundreds of relevant results, but all one can see are five or ten on a page (I have often wondered if being able to present more items in the result block results in increased usage). 

Now, collections are gone and nothing of interest meets the eye in these hollow places we sometimes call leaning centers or new academic libraries. Librarians are incentivized to suspend all title selection activity and examination of metadata. We may still refer to our online resources as “online collections,” but we know that there is no online library collection there, just product inventory, incapable of arrangement or assessment (and why assess what we cannot control?), standing in stark contrast to what best practices for an academic library collection dictate and what the library profession actually dictates. None of what we acquire through these passive means is very visible or visibly organized, arranged according to our structure. If we were a store needed to sell the items we license, lack of collection visibility and context for them would surely be regarded as shortcomings. The library must be “about” titles, not be just “about” commercial products. 

Of course, all libraries are different, and some continue to do title-by-title acquisition and cataloging for a certain miniscule percent of their budgets. But the apparatus of discovery and emphasis on efficiency plus short-term objectives has also led to an erosion of quality of academic library holdings and services resulting from the lack of faculty participation in the selection process and limited transparency for what is being acquired; a reduction in the quality of metadata resulting from outsourcing to vendors; and more restrictive access policies as libraries have relinquished intellectual property rights and lending privileges. Because the library does not acquire intellectual property rights to the electronic content it licenses, this limits the flow from academic to public libraries and from larger academic libraries to smaller ones and to the public. 

There are a whole host of problems which have resulted from going fully digital without a hosting platform of our own, with the biggest being a lack of resource visibility (items cannot be seen), and second being a lack of contextualization, to the extent that items cannot be properly arranged and displayed (browsed) according to the academic disciplines, something years ago I would have absolutely expected a modern library automation system geared to academic libraries to be able to do. It has also led to an erosion of quality as better titles are routinely held out of aggregator packages, but no one in the library has the responsibility for doing collection development, keeping up with what ought to be there rather than just what is in a package.

Currently, if we license an aggregation of ebooks, it remains an aggregation, a package, rather than being transformed, prism-like, into a visible library collection. For ejournals too this is also true.

A list-ranked view of some relevant resources returned in response to a query is not a sufficient user interface for the millions of dollars of digital content we license each year and it isn’t well suited to education. Our interfaces must emphasize academically rigorous collections of titles, not just potentially accessible resources. I would love to see a new system (OCLC could pull this off!) which would take all ebooks and ejournals and form them into virtual stacks. It will be interesting to see what Ex Libris comes up with, now that it has announced the development of a new Primo UI.20 

E-resource management has created issues and challenges for librarians working in predominantly digital environments, mainly that nothing we acquire is visible or arranged, which causes decline in perceived value and demand for our resources. Lack of resource and collection visibility on hosted platforms decreases the likelihood of user engagement with the resources we have licensed on their behalf.

As IT Departments have assumed control over library user interfaces and vendors have assumed control of our metadata (as the MARC bibliographic record has become just their “discovery record” in a non-bibiographic interface), the odds are further reduced that items will ever be seen by anyone or “discovered.” Because our resources are now invisible to users as part of a coherent collection, and incapable of being assembled into collections, we no longer adhere to a bibliographic standard. Because there is no collection there, there is now disincentive for librarians to do title-by-title acquisition or to keep up with the disciplines they support, bringing us closer to being just like an academic content aggregator who will undoubtedly replace the academic library, making the library “ex libris” with some one-stop customizable Academic Complete research solution which will be licensed directly to the university in a couple years. 

Librarians often say we are about literacy, but we now put books out of view and acquire nothing new and in the media that our students, faculty or educated people would want to read. We say we are committed to life-long learning, but even against our own library professional code of ethics, we do not resist measures to deny access to library resources to anyone not currently enrolled in our schools, including other students attending State-supported colleges and universities. Four out of seven of the planks of the ALA’s Bill of Rights, the librarian’s ethical professional code of conduct,21 address intellectual freedom and combatting censorship. What has happened to us? We treat our acquisitions as vendor entitlements, not as our titles, and abandon library-centric metadata for the convenience of accepting whatever the vendor provides. It is their property now, their responsibility. Why catalog what is not ours? We are buying access in bulk but arranging nothing, describing nothing, and cataloging nothing. New titles come in on the back end of our systems, no one sees them or concerns themselves with them. They remain invisible.

What impact is this resource discovery model in libraries having on users? 

  • The invisible library is an ineffective library because it doesn’t support intellectual inquiry or make people aware of new things. It also doesn’t provide scholarly context.
  • The collectionless library is a library disconnected from the past as well as the future.
  • Academic libraries which succumb to resource management lack academic rigor and academic commitment, scholarly values an academic library represent.
  • Collectionlessness expresses an ambivalent attitude towards knowledge and higher education itself. Rather than respecting academic achievement, it diminishes it. A search box does not sustain a culture of continuous learning on a college campus. It isn’t just about books or content, but how this content is presented to users.

While in the public library world, it seems a common understanding that moving books off the floor and into a storeroom or placing them out of view is potentially a form of censorship, there is no analogous concept of this in the academic library world. In academic libraries, we don’t have to engage users or do anything other than provide passive access to an invisible repository of potentially relevant content. 

Libraries are not just about “access to,” the resources themselves, but “about” titles and publications themselves in a particular organization mapped to the academic disciplines, and about knowledge of key authors, topics, sources and concepts. They are about scholarly activity in the academic disciplines. They are not about relevant content so much as the best content.

If libraries are good, they operate on a “meta” level to let people know what they do not know and about things they might be interested in.

“Organization of knowledge” is an important functional requirement we are now lacking. 

These are reasons why a search box, discovery alone, cannot really “be” effective as a library, and why the library needs visible collections of titles (books, ebooks, ejournals), visibly arranged. We must reclaim a bibliographic framework to be functional, to communicate with scholars, and also to operate with integrity. We must be “about” titles and publications, not just about commercial products. We must have collections or at least their visual representation to operate with academic rigor and support academically rigorous curricula at our institutions so users will have visual clues of what is new and trending.

I realize that all libraries are different and some may say that certain fields need or benefit from collections more than others. There is a common consensus now that STEM fields and medical libraries require only access to databases or packages of peer reviewed content, and therefore most have eliminated collection management in favor of resource management.

What if one desires to present in an organized manner all of the content relevant to a topic or discipline? A resource management/ discovery system cannot do it. These sorts of conspectus reports were common years ago when we all used biblio-centric systems. Shown below is an excerpt of a “collection” of Bioinformatics & Genomics resources in Primo’s Collection Discovery application from a medical library. Once someone has captured relevant resources to add to a named collection, Alma /Primo cannot arrange items in logical order by classification. I think this collection has 200 titles, both ebooks and journals, which then must be manually updated.

Why would a librarian ever want to present titles in random order users? Why do we embrace systems which do nothing to stimulate demand?

This is the grid view of collection discovery in Ex Libris’ Primo. With this little known feature, selected items appear in “collections” through Collection Manager, but there is no organization by classification of ebooks and journals placed into them. This illustrates an important distinction between e-resource discovery and traditional bibliographic systems. Without classification, there can be no collections in the library sense.

The metadata which ought to be in the 050 of the bibliographic record could be used to arrange bibliographic resources, but the metadata is not always there nowadays, and increasingly, as I discovered working on this particular project, it is not there because vendors now believe it isn’t needed for discovery. Discovery is eroding our MARC bibliographic standard for the description and display of bibliographic resources. I feel it is wrong.

This is a small illustration of a larger problem resulting from the elimination of bibliographic standards in library systems for the sake of achieving tighter integration with vendor platforms. To achieve integration, we have had to make compromises. The industry decided that providing classification, along with other library-centric fields of the MARC bibliographic record, is no longer needed, leaving the academic library unable to ever support even the illusion of a collection online on its side. The only purpose for metadata, vendors believe, is to drive our users to their platforms.

We will never be able to offer a robust experience on the library side if we do not have good metadata and systems which are designed not just for discovery, but for the display of bibliographic content in anticipation of use and need. We must have systems which raise awareness and stimulate demand.

Library standards still currently dictate that titles in academic libraries must be organized by an appropriate classification scheme corresponding to disciplinary knowledge, and there are good reasons for this. LCC is not just a book filing system as many think, but an important part of an intellectual framework for displaying, managing and assessing collections. The collection itself is a form of scholarly communication. It is, in itself, a key access point (I may be taking many of you back to cataloging.) LCC enables resources to be mapped to the academic disciplines to form bodies of knowledge of different scopes.

Classification is necessary for the organization and representation of knowledge, which is what libraries and librarians do.

I am not saying we should not subscribe to research databases or promote them, for that would be absurd. I am saying, however, that a collection of titles should always be the overarching framework for the academic library and even guide acquisitions activity, for this is what gives the library integrity and credibility as a library.

We do not really know if what we offer is best without taking a bibliographic approach.

The display and management of collections and its bibliographic systems are absolutely fundamental to aesthetic and intellectual experience of the academic library and to higher education. Without it, the library lacks academic rigor an it devolved into a learning center.

In academic libraries today, books have been removed from view, or deemphasized by a voluminous space not scaled to them. The empty buildings which have been erected over the last ten years in the name of a new librarianship also give no clue to users as to the millions in online content they represent.

All we have to show for it is a search box, LibGuides and an A-Z list.

Other than a return to print, not likely to happen, what would be some solutions to amplify content, to make content visible, and users more aware of resources? Social media can only do so much. Display to a larger community of readers, and potential readers, needs to be an important design consideration, especially on the library’s ground floor or heavily trafficked areas and library landing pages. I also believe libraries must become research and publishing centers where we serve the larger community and help faculty to conduct and publish research. I also believe, bucking web design trends, that the research library should offer a separate app with limited functionality for mobile phone users and design predominantly for laptop screens (PC and Laptop first designs). Our users are not coming to the library on their cell phones, and mobile-first designs do not make effective use of screen space.

In terms of technology, I think museums and trade shows have something to offer libraries create flexible environments which are capable of showcasing the new and noteworthy in publishing and create a more engaging and unique experience while being grounded in library practice. Instead of our being so tightly integrated with commercial product inventory, library service platforms might also provide integration with collection development resources and tools to allow for better marketing of new titles to our users. 

On a college campus, interactive projection technology in the library space and/or around campus could be part of the solution to help achieve greater resource visibility for the digital content we acquire.  Through interactive projection technology, racks of current journals and bookshelves of ebooks could appear, for example, not only in the library, but in the departments—things of special interest to them—and even projected on the sides of campus buildings at night. Walk up, tap a display, and a private browser window opens to explore the contents. (With Browzine, we have similar capability now for browsable journals by discipline, only viewing current contents require a click.) The library could do once a month immersive events, always keeping the space fresh and new. Take a take a tour through the leading articles on x, y, x. We should make the academic library a place for scholarly exploration and discovery. 

It would require some additional coding and configuring (it is my idea, so I cite nothing), but it could be used to let people know of new things and to create a culture of learning and reading on college campuses, which is currently not being well served by empty spaces which now offer no clues as to what the library has to offer.

It could also be part of an urban street scene, where there is a projected pop up newsstand and ebook display. Books can open, allow for browsing and download (with requisite permission). All that would be needed is an empty wall.

Interactive projection technology is used in art and museum exhibitions, and raves, but it has never been applied in the academic library environment. Through this new technology, it might be possible to offer a public browsing experience of a larger library, having dynamic virtualized journal and new book displays, even in pop up locations around campus.

The Browzine app allows browsing of scholarly journals by cover, and combined with interactive projection technology, could be used to create browsing locations by subject discipline in the library and in the departments. Below are some journals in English literature displayed through Browzine, but ideally the table of contents should appear with a mouse over (now one must click the cover):

Interactivity might be further encouraged by allowing students to share quotes from texts they like and place them on a projected wall on the side of the library at night, or on the soaring glass walls on the inside, much like sticky-note walls which people always enjoy. The one floor of the library can be a collection of immersive rooms with virtual stacks of all of our e-content, an immersive space which encourages browsing and engagement, because if collections are properly managed, browsing is learning

The fact that browsing an expertly maintained collection is an important form of academic learning, information gathering and knowledge acquisition in the academic library should guide good library design. A library should never be just an empty space, and a library website should not be just a search box or lists of links to other websites. There is no excuse for that.

We should strive to create content-rich (and media rich) learning environments and intellectual spaces users would want to explore. We should be primarily “about” our content, or exceptional content from an academic perspective, not “about” our spaces or “about” vendor-branded products.

Over the last 30 years, museums have evolved to become increasingly more experiential, while academic libraries, even more than public libraries, are failing to offer users (readers and scholars) a unique and compelling intellectual and aesthetic experience. In this digital age, it is imperative that we have some kind of store front to promote broader user engagement. Such an arrangement would better conform to library best practices for access and display in academic library environments than discovery alone.

At the same time that collections have vanished from our websites and from our spaces, architectural designers have decided that a modern library must simply be a light-filled empty space, a sustainably designed building, with a generic staircase one can sit on and various study rooms capable of being rented by the hour. There may be no place to display books, especially new titles. Architects knock these buildings out in record time without giving much more thought to the interior other than what I have described. What they call a “new” academic library is an empty space with tables and chairs and windows, something they already know how to build.  

These conceptions are dull and unimaginative libraries, troubling also from an ethical standpoint (a new library is not just a new building called a library), and not all that useful to scholars, who are bypassing the library and the library’s website both, because the library is no longer offering scholars even the semblance of browsable, authoritative collections. Even though we offer a world of content online, it feels very much like the emperor’s new clothes.

Browsing is learning, and the browse experience, our keeping users informed of new things and new trends, is what people liked about the library. That made us useful to them. The fundamental experience of the academic library is a collection of good things, things worth knowing about. There are technical solutions to this problem, but first we need to get straight what the library is actually for in this digital age, and what are standards for higher education are. 

In this book, I will provide some ideas, solutions and alternatives, but at this time there should be a condemnation by the ALA ACRL against the dim conception of the academic library as an empty space, student center or an atrial building for people to congregate, because, quite simply, these library designs do not encourage literacy, intellectual inquiry, or the stated goals and objectives of librarianship or higher education. If I were to write a grant proposal for the establishment of a new library but create only an empty building which does not enlighten people or seek to educate them, would this not be a deception? A definition of what a library is should be a priority for the American Library Association. 

Second, we should stop letting architects perpetuate the myth that a modern library is merely or even primarily about “collaboration” (empty spaces for students to congregate and share their knowledge with each other) and space, rather than about literacy (literacy means acquiring disciplinary and cultural knowledge, not just being able to find and cite information), the transmission of disciplinary and cultural knowledge to the student and scholar.

The conception that the library is just a sunny space for people to share information with each other, or some kind of modern-day watering hole, was dreamt up by architects designing new office spaces for a high tech workforce like a campus of Google. The model was one in which collaboration space and commons areas were meant to break down information silos within a tech organization where individuals are assigned to work on various projects in teams. Unfortunately, this model does not have much relevance to a library because scholars, the university’s SMEs, do not office in the library, and they are paid only to share their knowledge only during class-time and office hours, not to hang out on collaborative staircases in library. 

Yes, students enjoy studying together, there are often group projects, and peer study often keeps students in school. That is a good thing. But the library always before supported individual study, group study and collections as being vital to its scholarly mission. 

Therefore, let’s create a library which believes in itself and its scholarly mission. 

The academic library should provide for a unique intellectual and aesthetic experience valuable to scholars, including (of course) scholars who also happen to be students.

Just as a planetarium provides knowledge about the stars and planets and the cosmos, the academic library should provide knowledge about books and publications, especially what is current. It should be an intellectually stimulating place to be. To be effective, to stimulate intellectual inquiry, libraries must strive to be content-rich learning environments, both in the designs of their physical spaces and in their user interfaces. The library should not be the same experience each time a visitor comes to it, but should have its pulse on the new, the significant and the good to know, changing to reflect innovation and communication in the fields they support. This is all common sense.

Our designs, websites, systems, practices, our technology and our workflows should all be intended to facilitate public awareness and engagement with our content, because librarianship is curatorship.

From Browsable Collections to Socially-Oriented Spaces:
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. commodification, disintermediation, and elimination over the last thirty years.  

Today, new facilities comprised mainly of tall window walls, empty spaces, assortments of tables and chairs, variously called “learning centers,” or “library learning centers,” are not helping our causeneither the cause of the library nor that of higher education. They are not helping our cause of creating meaning or reinforcing academic commitment. They are contributing to reduced control over library acquisitions budgets, fostering more restrictive user access by scholars and the public, preventing resource sharing with other institutions, limiting the agency of librarians, undermining our commitment to independent and life-long learning, and supporting an impoverished user experience on the library-side in order to drive our users to commercial platforms to become their customers.

While it might be easy to blame the digital revolution on the sorry state many libraries are in today, libraries have also been complicit in their own marginalization and commodification in the name of greater efficiency. We ought to have focused a bit more on engagement.

As I write about below, academic ebook titles are far more expensive than print, but people do not know that. Beyond choice of reading format, there is a bigger and more perplexing issue of hostility toward “reading” as being an unproductive activity, which is a tougher nut to crack. Weeding the collection so it is attractive and right-sized for the university is one thing, but there may be a fine line between this and outright hostility for the printed word or for scholarship itself, and failing to understand the value of collections so that there are no new acquisitions year after year. 

We also allowed ourselves to be hosted as a service in the cloud but without an any server space of our own which could compensate for the loss of our local installations and the relative autonomy we enjoyed when we ran our own servers. Therefore, many of us pay for web hosting for our website (or else use a server and CMS provided by the university), hosting for our library services platform (LSP), hosting for ebooks and archives to several entities (EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, OCLC), hosting for our institutional digital repository (another CMS), hosting for LibGuides (yet another CMS), and it may seem after a time as if there is no there “there” to the library anymore. It is a bunch of branded home pages strung together.

The people who tend to manage our websites in the academic space typically have no interest or knowledge of our content or our purpose, so the library website remains static, some Pexel image and slides which remain unchanged for years.

No organization in the real world would allow its web presence to be so neglected and disjointed, with multiple index pages. The modern academic library today consists of three CMSs, one being maintained by the university, another maintained by a system vendor and other being hosted by another vendor.

If the modern library is “online” we might want to consider in what this experience consists.

A modern library has also been equated with a “building,” and librarians have become building custodians and facility managers. Many new libraries are little more than empty architectural spaces, seemingly intended to remain empty and stagnant by design, a hard echoing shell with winding stairs. 

I can still imagine a very different sort of space which offers the busting atmosphere of a convention, with new and interesting presentations going on in its rooms and tables of new titles, a real hub of learning, a town hall and a Times Square. We can have Generative AI one night and Studio Ghibli the next. 

While in the public library space, there is active discussion (and experimentation) about renewal, efforts to turn the library into a vibrant “third space,” there is really no comparable dialog around the renewal of the academic library other than to be a secondary student center on campus (by this, a place to sit and study usually outside of normal working hours), which doesn’t hold much appeal or value to scholars or the intellectual community which the academic library once served. Scholars are bypassing the library and going directly to publisher platforms because libraries are not providing users with the unique and valuable experience on our own websites. While we may be a 501 (c)(3), we are increasingly “about” commercial vendor products.

This trend of the library becoming nothing more than searchable subscription commercial content, the same content available on publisher platforms, might be aptly described as the commodification of libraries. Because we are digital, or at least our content is, we are also becoming less capable of forming partnerships with businesses and the surrounding community, the consequences of which are that researchers in a field of study may have limited access to the scholarly literature once they graduate from school, further restricting innovation and entrepreneurship in the community as well as the success of alumni. Another consequence is that we cannot remain competitive for grant funding, because the public no longer benefits from the library thus limiting the grants for which we might otherwise be eligible.

While lack of access to a scholarly library potentially impacts many scholarly and creative endeavors, including Journalism, Teaching,  Design, English, Architecture and Engineering, nowhere is it more poignantly illustrated than in the Health Sciences. Clinicians, researchers, doctors and specialists need continuous access to a library of clinical medical research to stay up-to-date throughout the span of their careers; and yet, shockingly, the medical school libraries which once served them may no longer feel any obligation or commitment to provide access to students once they graduate. 

Even if doctors and companies are willing to pay the library for access, they typically cannot.

This is unacceptable, and let it be noted that it does reflect a huge shift in thinking from when the academic library and medical libraries in Texas maintained business centers and made themselves available to all scholars throughout the life-time, a commitment which was often incorporated into library mission statements.

This trend of restricting scholarly access in universities to only those with current institutional credentials is part of the commoditization of academic libraries. 

Despite the abundance of Open Access content on the web, the need for access to proprietary content is still very great.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the leading medical publishers and platforms (Elsevier and many others) permitted unrestricted access to COVID-related articles in order to do their part to contribute to knowledge about the disease and hasten the discovery of effective treatments.

The use of these materials dramatically increased once they became Open Access.

While this was wonderful, of coursemy library then, a large medical library unofficially affiliated with The University of Texas, probably already offered access to all that was made available to researchersit was also disheartening to me, knowing that the more specialized literature pertaining to rare diseases and genetic disorders, some of which affect the children of people I know (because I am involved in the disability community in Houston, and my own son suffers from some poorly understood condition), continue to sit behind steep paywalls. 

Why not make all Autism/IDD materials Open Access during the first week of April, for Autism Awareness month?

Why not pick other diseases throughout the year to help expedite cures and treatments for them, just as they did with COVID?

At a public research institution, why not provide free remote access one day/month, or try to negotiate temporary remote public access in our license agreements? 

Why not advocate for more library-friendly access policies in the academic space?

Increasingly, hospitals are not providing access to scholarly databases to doctors, and most hospitals have eliminated medical research libraries. If this literature were made more widely available and accessible to everyone, would this make a difference? (Yes, doctors use PubMed, but PubMed provides access to a small percentage of the clinical medical literature, which is why Elsevier and other vendors can charge libraries so much per year to license their proprietary content.)

Previously, all resources licensed by a State supported and even sometimes private academic library were available inside of the library.

Restricted scholarly access to clinical medical literature, and to all scholarly literature through university libraries, is a recent occurrence because of a shift in thinking that academic libraries exist only to serve those with current institutional affiliation, and that is all, rather than serving the scholarly community.

Where we once saw the State-supported academic research library as a community asset belonging to the citizens of the State, now not so much anymore. In fact, there is a State Mandate that all academic and medical libraries who receive any form of public funding make these resources accessible to the public.22 

What would happen if this mandate were actually enforced?

The Fate of Collections (and Knowledge in General) in the Age of Discovery. 

dmittedly, the issue of access may be overstated.

Maybe people are finding whatever they want or need by Googling. Maybe PubMed and Open Access resources are good enough for practitioners in health sciences who do not have access to a medical library through their employers. 

Maybe people out there in the real world do not have unmet information needs which the academic library might try to fulfill. I have often wondered if we flouted our license agreements and offered free online access of our scholarly databases to the world for one month, would anyone bother to use our resources? Would cures be found? What innovations might be fostered by free access to library resources? Maybe I’m just tripping. 

I cannot help but feel that if only the academic library were better positioned to be a community resource, it would foster innovation, knowledge flow, new developments and job creation. The library would be great again. The library should have an important role to play in knowledge preservation and  transmission, not just getting students through a degree program. This former role was a very important part of our self-conception years ago when academic libraries maintained collections which were accessible to the public and often established partnerships with businesses. Because we owned collections, we were able to share them. Because we displayed collections, we organized and displayed titles so that users knew what we had without having to perform searches. Now that we have gone online, we have been forced by license agreements to restrict access as we never did before. For a long time, those who came inside the library where afforded access through IP authentication, but now SSO has replaced that. Now, we do not encourage public access and we do not really do much to encourage resource use. We teach instructional classes and do what we can.

Content curation and display have traditionally been perceived of being of vital importance to the user experience of a good library and quality service and to the student experience of a library. I believe that digital library software should be able to display actual collections, current titles of interest to that audience and to the discipline, not just resources deemed relevant to a query. Even Spotify has playlists to turn people on to new things. 

Our capacity for display, arrangement and promotion, for engendering interest, for scholarly communication, for supporting intellectual inquiry, for the representation and transmission of academic knowledge, and the ability to expose people to new things in their fields, even through our own online platforms, depends on good metadata and display, but both have been drastically curtailed in recent years through the designs of our spaces and new systems, through our limited user interfaces, and through substandard metadata we obtain from vendors who are told by our system vendor that the purpose of good metadata in simply to drive students and faculty to their platforms.

Even on the vendor side, the browse experience of academic ebook titles is poor by library standards, because there, on the vendor side, titles are not logically organized into an academic library collections for browsing and display. For years, EBSCO, our main academic ebook vendor, which calls itself a “collection,” has maintained the same very strange broad categories (Children & Young Adult Fiction; Body, Mind & Spirit; Cooking, etc.) which, while fine for a bookstore, have absolutely nothing to do with the organization or categories of the academic library.

Random titles appear in random order their book carousels because they lack an appropriate classification scheme to organize them:

The EBSCO ebook Academic Collection. Most academic libraries subscribe to EBSCO’s academic ebook collection. Without the application of appropriate metadata, it is impossible to design robust interfaces for ebooks to support a meaningful browse experience. EBSCO Academic eBooks organizes titles in broad categories shown left (and random order within these), subjects which have absolutely nothing to do with the academic disciplines or how a scholar would approach academic titles.

With the application of a classification scheme like LCC, ebooks and journal titles would be capable of being browsed online just like in a traditional library. It is not a hard problem to solve. Libraries have solved the problem. Library bibliographic metadata for books should contain an 050 field. LC Classification would permit the creation of a much browse experience for ebooks and ejournals.

There could also be an industry standard for a physical representation of an ebook which could by interfiled with physical books, and have a QR code for easy download and information about the book on it, much like the way people once communally browsed video boxes. Displays of physical books could support “virtual fulfillment” (books stay in place to be browsed in the library, but digital versions can be downloaded or accessed online to be checked out) would allow for the creation of new book displays in the library which encourage browsing.

All academic libraries should have a new books section and digital feed organized by LCC both online and positioned near the entrance or in high traffic areas. There is opportunity for new library interfaces to be developed which might even be projected into our physical spaces to encourage user engagement and resource visibility of digital content: a virtual stacks.

Modern interactive digital display technology is now widely used in museum and interactive art exhibits. Ebooks could be projected on the walls in large format modern interactive digital display technology to form a virtual stacks, with a way to tap the wall and have a browsing window open at eye level. No, I do not expect people to stand there and read a book or journal article, some kind of digital newsstand, but the visual display of at least a subset of the thousands of books and journals to which the library subscribes creates a compelling infographic, and the browsing wall (or walls) promotes user engagement.

I don’t think I am being unreasonable to expect that modern academic libraries serve to inform students and scholars as to what is new and authoritative in their respective fields and specialties. To me, that is a core function of libraries that was once met by our spaces, our systems and workflows, but which is rapidly going extinct. Inside of the library, we do know (through collection development tools) or have the capacity to know, should we bother, what new titles are coming out, and faculty are often very happy to receive this information. Few librarians are doing this anymore, as title-by-title acquisition is itself in decline.

  • How can we be an intellectual or cultural space with nothing but window walls (nothing of interest to meet the eye) and seating?
  • How are we a fully digital library if we cannot control our own websites and user interfaces, and have no store front of our own?
  • How are we now effectively encouraging literacy without ourselves being invested in literature?
  • How does the library support student education if what it licenses is practically invisible to students? 
  • How are we about scholarly communication if we cannot communicate with our users even what is new in their field in a way that is intuitive and intelligible to them?

The selection of resources in the library, an activity formerly known as “collection development,” has been replaced by blanket subscriptions to large packages of aggregated digital content which no one inside of the library may be familiar with or know much about.

They know about the products to be sure, but not the sources or titles inside of the packages, which remain largely invisible to everyone, including scholars. We have gone from being about titles to being about entitlements. Scholarship, however, is about the titles themselves, not about vendor products. 

The library experience should be about titles, about works, about human intellectual achievement in the disciplines the library supports, not about commercial products.

As Brewster Kahle, Founder of the Internet Public Archive put it, “Libraries are more than the customer service departments for corporate database products. For democracy to thrive at global scale, libraries must be able to sustain their historic role in society—owning, preserving, and lending books.”23 At least, they should be more than that, and have always been able to achieve that independence from vendors to create an experience and learning environment unique to them.

Inside the modern library, invisible content now comes and goes, slipping in and out of our invisible inventories as it meets our vendors’ objectives, and even as it does so, it doesn’t affect us or our license agreements much.

Invisibility and disorganization are barriers to literacy and engagement, and antithetical to good library practices.

Our content exists on the other side of the library’s search portal, and no one, not even those who work there, is much aware of new content acquired by the library through these passive means, which depend on a highly motivated, educated user to discover for himself what is relevant to become and remain educated is a field. There is no sense of personal or intellectual investment or care (curatorship) by librarians or anyone else in the content that the library provides, not just in our selecting it, but in our organizing it, describing it, arranging it, preserving it and presenting it, because for the most part librarians are not, we are not, at least not anymore. Our user interfaces lack any emphasis on publications. Think about it: all ecommerce sites categorize and classify their content to allow for browsing. This is not about some unreasonable attachment to print, but to librarianship

We in the library field, with our well-developed classification systems, have no reliable mechanism for encouraging browsing of ebooks.

Many of our library systems, even those with highly sophisticated reporting features and analytics, cannot handle a simple “shelf list,” the organized view of our entitlements arranged as a library collection. I want to be able to view all of my books, ebooks and ejournals–which we in the field call “titles”–by classification. This should be easy, a no-brainer, a canned report. Our user interfaces should encourage browsing according to library standards, by LCC (it would be so easy to create one based on LCC). Unfortunately, our system vendors, those for academic libraries, say: “Browsing is not important for academic libraries. Researchers do not browse.” There is no evidence to back that up, but if you do not offer it, they won’t.

There is no way for users to experience the collection as a collection, as a meaningful whole, an entity which was believed by most librarians to be fundamental to the user experience of the academic library. Most of us provide federated access to vendor-branded products to be consulted in case someone might have a need to know something or write something, but that is all. Vendors now control our resources, determine our access and lending policies, and increasingly seek to define the very standards of “our” metadata.24 

Much has changed in academic librarianship, leading some in our field to proclaim that due to the digital revolution, academic librarianship is dead.25 Inside the library, there may be few who remember what was good and exciting about the experience of the old library or the ideals that the profession once stood for.

The modern academic library, what passes for some new kind of library, does not make any effort to represent titles, relate them to other titles, place them into broader scholarly or social context, raise awareness of new publications, or create community and value around reading or scholarship. It doesn’t do strategic marketing or CRM or content curation or personalization—some public library software does—although these would be great additions to our system software, which continues only to enhance analytics rather than tools to enhance user engagement.

Finally, the modern academic library, especially as it is conceived by many architectural firms and content providers, does not represent intellectual culture or the culture of educated people, so that culture can be preserved and perpetuated to future scholars. Culture and knowledge are collectives of human intellectual achievement, not something people can easily retrieve or experience through a search box. 

  • By design, the new academic library does not encourage resource use.
  • It doesn’t encourage browsing or awareness of new titles, even online.
  • It does not aspire to raise literacy levels or promote independent learning, which had previously defined the nature of a good library experience.
  • In fact, it discourages it, but ensuring that people who enter and exit the library will rarely see anything other than tables and chairs; people who go to the library online are also likely to be exposed to nothing new. Library websites remain static for years. 

The modern library learning center is a search application on a static website inside of a CMS which for the most part librarians do not administer (we used to manage our own servers and websites) and an assortment of subscription database products.

Our architecture, the designs of our spaces and systems, reinforce this dull conception of library when it appears as an inflated box with nothing inside of it, “soaring structures of glass with little inside but dramatic staircases.”26 

Perhaps it is time we strategize ways to put the library back into the library.

The Innovative Academic Library is not a Student Center.

here seems to be a great a misunderstanding as to what libraries are about today, with architects assuming that the primary value of a library lies in providing student access to space, light, seating, tables and to other students. That is all. This architect, for example, seems to believe that the traditional college library has been “forever changed,” as he puts it, by new approaches which emphasize content creation and collaboration; but from my perspective this isn’t really the case. Students may study together, as they always have, but colleges and universities are still more competitive than cooperative environments, and they have always emphasized content creation in the form of scholarly publication.

This design looks sad to me, but the architect seems proud of it. 

This image is from an article written by the architect who proclaims that the architecture of college and university libraries has been forever transformed into a hub of student collaboration and learning.27 By what measure should we be evaluating there new libraries as successful?

I am not sure if ALA, ACRL or IFLA members would necessarily approve of library designs which place no real emphasis on titles, but this is an important position for them to take up at this time, when so many bookless new libraries are being built. IFLA does issue library building guidelines, but has not done so lately.28

I believe that the definition of a “library” is needed for public accountability.

When State legislatures in Texas approve millions in funding for a new library, I don’t think an empty building (I mean a building meant to be empty) is what State legislators quite have in mind, because this is not what the pubic has in mind when they hear that a new library is being built. But that is what is being built, with or without the blessing of ALA or ACRL or IFLA or the State Legislature, in the name of a new librarianship. I also believe that State-supported libraries must be designed with public parking and a recommitment to resource sharing, at least with other State-supported colleges and universities. 

With the digital revolution, the library more than anything needs digital solutions, not furniture on wheels. A library is by definition a content-rich learning environment, immersive and experiential, and not an empty space full of designer furniture.

The library’s main objective, broadly defined, is literacy, which would entail not just providing access to content, but raising awareness of new publications and trends in the field. Publication is still the basis for scholarly communication. In order to have necessary academic rigor, a library is a collection of intellectual and cultural objects, usually texts (but it can be art and music, any human creation) deliberately selected, described, systematically organized and displayed in relation to each other with respect to a field or discipline and to a user community. It is intended for others to experience as a collective, it is intentional and it fundamentally experiential.

Academic librarianship is about the preservation, perpetuation, representation, organization and communication of cultural, disciplinary or professional knowledge. It is a content-rich learning environment whose content reflects standards for organization and well as its community.

An empty space is not a library, and a search engine is not a digital library. No one believes, for example, that Google Scholar is a library or a digital library. No one believes an empty public building is a modern or innovative kind of library. 

Providing access to collections are what libraries are about. 

Libraries are not about “access to” this or that title, to this or that resource, or providing “adequate number resources,” but consistently, predictably, reliably and publicly presenting to our respective communities the best resources, what is thought significant and good by those in the disciplines and other educated people.

Libraries and librarianship are also about broader social and intellectual context in which an item appears, its significance and relevance not to the individual doing the query, but to scholars in the field. That perspective is missing from our UIs. Librarianship is about publishing, ideas, movements, trends, what is significant and influential to others, a big picture view. I believe that the ability to organize library titles into collections, that objective academic structure, is vital not just to the library profession, but to scholarship at the university, to the education of students, to good management, and to the perpetuation of knowledge in society.

The organization or framework of a collection is a very significant value add of the academic library. Resource visibility is another value or value add of a library, since visibility stimulates resource use and contributes to knowledge. Designs which do not add value to the intellectual experience of a library, which do not contribute to a knowledgeable community, are dysfunctional. 

It isn’t that we failed to evolve, it is that they did not grasp the intellectual and aesthetic experience of a library, what makes it good and valuable to its users and to the academic community at large.

Librarianship is/as a Discursive Practice.

n a philosophical level, the practice of librarianship involves what some have described as “discursive formations” of knowledge, a term coined by Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge.29 Positioning a work into a location, a spot, within an appropriate classification scheme and within a discipline allows for sense-making to occur and for a work to be perceived as relevant to a field, and also interpreted in a particular fashion as belonging to a certain body of thought.

Radford aptly describes this in terms of traditional librarianship’s attachment to positioning a book in a physical location on a library shelf:

. . . imagine yourself standing in front of a library bookshelf. Just by looking at the titles on the spines, you see how the books cluster together. You can see which books belong together and which do not. You can identify those books that seem to form the heart of the discursive formation and those books which reside on the margins. Moving along the shelves, you see the books that tend to bleed over. Moving along the shelves, you see those books that tend to bleed over into other classifications and that straddle multiple discursive formulations. You can physically and sensually experience the domain of discursive formulations by literally having your fingers trail along the spines as you scan the call numbers, feeling the depth and complexity of the collection by the number of volumes and the variety of the titles, reaching those points that feel like state boarders or national boundaries, those points where one subject ends and another begins, or those magical places where one subject has morphed into another, and you did not even notice. Such is the life of a discursive formation; the arrangement of real books on real library shelves giving rise to real experiences.30

Maybe because of my years of Greek and Latin and my interest in medieval scholasticism, my conception of a library pivots around classification as its backbone, as a tree with clusters of topics (topoi) or places (loci), a schema which has a long history in the history of science, with categories and arrangement seen as fundamental to knowledge. A library must possesses structure. Knowledge itself is a construct based on categorization, classification, logic, organization and a tree structure. This metaphorical tree, which predates library bookshelves for centuries, has been referred to as the most important data visualization tool in history.31 While I am not a superstitious person necessarily, Lurianic Kabbalah might provide an apt metaphor for the explosion of our structured, organized tree of knowledge, into a post-structuralist morass in which all we have is bits of truth, shards, fragments, existing outside of context.

According to the way many of us were trained as librarians, academic or disciplinary knowledge cannot exist (the “library” itself cannot exist) without an objective structure and shared conceptual scheme, namely, adherence to appropriate classification schemas, metadata, curatorship, rules and display appropriate to that content. LC Classification, the classification scheme used by most academic libraries, is a universal classification framework which corresponds to the academic disciplines and the topics which define it. 

For a library to be an academic library to be an academic library is to be invested in and committed to certain discursive practices like LC Classification and LC Subject Headings, AACR2, etc., and name authority files, because this is what gives our content body, structure, visibility, legitimacy (authoritativeness) and meaning as a collection. It is bibliography, knowing about publications and how to describe them using a formal language and sets of rules for description. The arrangement of intellectual objects forms a web or tree which as a whole represents knowledge. Our job function, philosophically and professionally speaking, is to care for and maintain “bodies of knowledge” which correspond to the disciplines. 

The collection, experienced as a collection, is our most valuable resource, our most valuable curricular resource, our main contribution, and there are valid reasons to defend it beyond our own job security.

I believe a visible collection is absolutely necessary to create a culture of continuous learning on our campuses.

A good academic library collection represents our common cultural and intellectual inheritance and our hope for the future, as well as the community it serves. It also projects the conception that knowledge is permanent, human achievement is worth pursuing, preserving and sharing, and that there is a common history and humanity which underlies all scholarly endeavors.

For what good is scholarship, what is the point of it, if there is no permanence to any of it, no organization, no visibility to it, no way to make that leap from hypothesis to accepted fact? Without that structure, that overarching framework of collections, all scholarly pursuits are no more than vanity, for nothing can build or grow, nothing is permanent, and its impact may be short-lived. 

The good library represents as a value human intellectual and creative achievement as well as what is new and significant and authoritative in a field of study. A good library honors works. At a university, faculty and students can count on a library to keep them informed of trends in their field. It cannot do this through discovery (a search engine) alone. To be clear, I am certainly not opposed to discovery, but opposed to the mentality that thinks collections are unnecessary now because we have discovery, and the consequences this has on our users. I am opposed to thinking that it is everything to the point where the librsry become so complacent and unself-reflective that it is not concerned with acquiring anything that is not part of its annual license agreement. I am concerned when a major public research institution denies access to unaffiliated scholars because it might violate a license agreement. I am concerned when the library no longer in anyway supports life-long learning because of agreements it has made with vendors or how it has deployed technology.

Whether one is a conservative librarian, believing that large institutions should maintain a commitment to the preservation of intellectual and cultural knowledgebecause realistically, there is no other institution in society devoted to thator more of a progressive librarian, who believes in promoting democratic ideals and values through broad access to informationthe rapid conversion over the last few years of the public academic library into a sort of privatized commercial business center whose resources are accessible only to those who have paid tuition (even despite the university library’s being commonly subsidized by public funds), either way, is not in keeping with our business requirements as librarians nor our library professional ideals. 

The tree is the most compelling visual metaphor for knowledge, and for good reason. Without collections organized into scopes, without classification, bodies of disciplinary knowledge cease to exist.

The New Library Gothic.

dmittedly, the image of the librarian and our unshakeable association with the book format have long been perceived by many in our profession as albatrosses around our necks. 

Thirty years ago, many ALA-accredited Library science programs began removing the word “library” from the names of their courses and degrees, often simply substituting the word library with “information.” Library school students today graduate with “MSIS” degrees to give them maximum advantage on the job market. I studied many programming languages, web design, database management and SQL along with the arcana of cataloging and bibliographic description. Web programming is still a fairly universal requirement of the library school curriculum today, but no one in the real world knows this or associates librarians with web or technical skills, which is the “IS” in the MLIS. Much of what a librarian does in any capacity (other than staffing a help desk) is not understood by the public either, even the educated public, probably in the same fashion as accountants/CPAs are confused with bookkeepers or accounts receivable clerks. 

Librarians across the blogosphere were horrified when in 2021 Bill Maher made cracks along the lines of “Oh, pleasewhy does anyone need a master’s degree to shelve books?”32 He even suggested the MLS (now the MLIS, sometimes an MSIS) is a form of “grift” by universities.

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.33 He might also be surprised at immense new libraries being built at fantastic public expense but with nothing inside of them but tables and chairs as far as the eye can see. He might apply another less innocuous-sounding word than “grift” to the multi-million dollar buildings built at public universities and community colleges which are called “libraries,” but with no library in them or even any more for them online, at least, nothing more than what had been there before. The library may be fully online now, but its user interface is exactly the same as before. While Maher denigrates both libraries and the ignorance of young people, how does he think young people might educate themselves to come to know about the books written by his guest panelists if their books are not placed on the shelves of college and university libraries or featured in some prominent way inside of them? Who is going to put them there, if not the librarians like me who regularly watch his show in order to learn about new books? He is trying to expose people to new authors and intellectuals, and so are we.

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, structures ranging from 50 to 200 million dollars or more. Now that we have gotten rid of the books in order to become a kind of dedicated social study space, what architects call a more “student-centered” library, how is that working out for us (and our students and faculty) in practice?

What is the impact empty libraries and invisible repositories are having on students in terms of educational outcomes?

Indeed, some librarians have proposed that libraries are now “about” their facilities,34 being a work or meeting space, a venue, or student support/tutoring center. Of course, we are about databases too, our costly subscription content, which is completely irrelevant unless someone has a need to access them and fairly useless for acquiring knowledge of a field or academic discipline.

Therefore, couches and study spaces have become the main attraction. I promise you, we had plenty of seating and light and seating before renovation, no one ever complained about not having a place to sit. It’s just that no one ever thought to advertise tables and chairs on the academic library’s homepage before the new building came along. (Do you really want to stay in a hotel that advertises that it is air-conditioned? Don’t people assume we have tables and chairs and couches and light? Must we announce that we have “staplers”?)

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.” The new academic library is a modern soaring glass building, hollow inside.

In the “new library Gothic,” glass walls and open concept buildings with various centralized seating arrangements and controlled natural light are the defining characteristics of the space, which is constructed around the ideal of collaboration (a popular trend in education) and technology for technology’s sake, and not so much “raising literacy levels” or communicating shared knowledge, our former library educational objectives. The sacred artifacts and relics of the past have been destroyed. We have been force to apostatize, to renounce the old faith, to embrace this new progressive embrace of space and natural light as contributing to education. The new library Gothic postures itself as being an architectural or design movement, defined by voluminous glass spaces which serve absolutely no purpose but to represent a deliberate break from the past, but it is very much like a new religion. One librarian, the author of  Constructing Library Buildings That Work, wisely advises:

If your building program doesn’t call for something that belongs in a soaring glass space, you really don’t want one.13

What is illuminated is an empty atrium, a cavernous space with nothing inside of it but staircases and corridors, taking space away from meeting spaces or program rooms on every floor.

Sustainable design may have dominated the discussion so that today, computer controls in a server room measure out precise light, energy and temperature levels to keep everything at operating at an unwavering constant.

New library funding is allocated to sustainable building technology, nothing to innovative library technology. At very large institutions, robots may be employed to retrieve and store books in underground bunkers. It is kind of fascinating, like the pneumatic tube systems at banks, but I am not sure that this is a great use of technology and public funding. Most of the time with new library designs, print books and journals are simply removed to some remote storage facility. Other times, they have been weeded moved into the periphery, the upper floors and farthest reaches of the space, where they are the least likely to accost passers by and distract them from their studies. In the meantime, the first floor remains bookless. No one is going to see new books or pass anything of intellectual interest.

It is unclear to anyone if the library is even acquiring new things, even if it is.

What I call “the new library Gothic” is a trend promoted by architectural design firms to replace libraries with tall glass structures in the name of a new academic librarianship. With this, there is no concern about the user experience of an academic library, only how the space functions as a study hall.

How well these new bookless and collectionless 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 grossly inflated, soaring 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 only called that in the hindsight of the Renaissance—sought to apply new building technologies to engineer towering, streamlined open spaces full of glass and light, in contrast to the heavy, thick-walled, dimly-lit, ornate Romanesque-styled public buildings full of marble statuary, stained glass, narrative forms, candle light, relics and painted icons. It was dark in a romantic way, a sanctuary which many associate with ritual, intimacy, spirituality and otherworldliness. Compared to what preceded it, Gothic architecture was “modern,” clearing out the clutter, dissolving the thick stone support walls and opaque stained glass into clear white glass and letting in light; 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, glass-walled, smooth and relatively plain style without statuary or art in it became “Gothic,” a pejorative term alluding to the ignorant Germanic barbarians (“Goths”), the invaders blamed both for the fall of Rome and the decline of learning in the West. Many Catholics still see things from that perspective. Even today, there is a cultural preference for darker, ceremonial spaces and a dim religious light (and candles) over a brightly lit modern spaces. 

In typography, “Gothic” is used in a similar fashion, a font signifying a break with the past to be bold and modern. Gothic fonts are unornamented (sans-serif), of unvaried widths (strokes), used to convey minimalism, modernity, efficiency and progress over more decorative serif-fonts.

Example of a “gothic” (sans-serif) type font related to Helvetica, which is probably the most popular in the 20th century.

What is going on in many libraries today is seemingly driven by a similar minimalist design aesthetic, which also helps designers maximize their profit to keep costs down. A minimalist design often equates to maximal profit for the architect and builder.

The Gothic is an iconoclastic impulse to deliberately eliminate the darkness and clutter of the stacks, to break from culture and tradition, and from the past, to construct large monumental spaces emphasizing light, height, space, glass, openness, modernity, transparency and collaboration, with the user experience unimpeded by the distraction and clutter of books or print. It is ideological, a new Reformation, a whitewashing with whiteboards and engineered surfaces, with some rushing in to destroy the sacred relics of the traditional library, and others rushing to save the relics from destruction. 

  • Print and paper have been eliminated, and despite our profession’s commitment to free speech and fighting censorship, censorship has been imposed by an impervious blanket of invisibility.
  • Students enter a library and see nothing but places to sit, sometimes for several floors.
  • Students come to our websites and see nothing but a search box.
  • We place unreasonable expectations on uneducated people, students, to discover items needed to become educated people; or perhaps, we really have no expectations of them to become educated.
  • The new librarianship emphasizes amenities, efficiency of access, technology, modernity and collaboration (peer learning and orality), over and against traditional educational objectives, including raising literacy and conveying shared cultural knowledge.
  • The new librarianship appears to want to replace culture with technology. 

Large architectural firms like Gensler and Moody Nolan claim expertise in new academic library designs and building libraries of the future, even publishing research papers on new academic libraries to show off their projects and their prowess.36 37 In these designs, the library is conceived as a place for studying and collaboration, but not for becoming more literate, better educated, more knowledgeable or culturally aware, advancing the goals of librarianship.

Many architectural firms choose to work around the librarians, even making outrageous statements should object to their proposed designs, that the librarians remain captive to outdated design thinking:

“The purpose of this survey was to facilitate a productive and proactive discussion on the physical landscape of academic librarians’ workspaces,” says Bryan Irwin, AIA, LEED-AP, principal of Watertown, MA-based Sasaki Associates, the architectural firm that conducted the survey. ‘Architects are being incredibly innovative in library collection and study areas, yet one of the most critical components — the librarians — remain captive to outdated design thinking.’38

From the outset, this architect associates librarians with “dated design thinking,” and as a result, plans to ignore what librarians might have to say about how to innovate the new library.

The building programming, the library’s functional requirements for the new building, must be provided to the architects during the initial planning stages or it will be too costly to go back and make changes down the road. Shlipft makes the point in Constructing Library Buildings That Work that the building programming (I call these “business requirements,” but he is correct in terms of how architects refer to these documents) must be done by a librarian who understands the needs of the library:

Writing a building program is a job for experienced librarians with extensive management experience, not for architects, designers, or other people who have neither worked in libraries on a daily basis nor had to cope personally with library space problems.

Programming is not a job for administrators who are not librarians—it is not for school administrators, city administrative staff, or university administrators. 39

They must be written by a librarian who is familiar not only with the community and how the current space is being used, but also with how the existing space is not currently meeting the needs of those who do not use the library.

Stewart also notes in a study which goes back to 2009 that librarians are often excluded from the design process for new libraries.14 Architectural surveys show that librarians often feel that they are on the receiving end of these new designs which they must somehow make work once the project is completed:

Sasaki’s library survey uncovered a lot of information about why many academic library renovations miss the mark. For example, when renovations are made, librarians are often on the end of receiving changes they considered low priority: they saw cafés introduced 11 percent of the time, when they prioritize this change just three percent of the time. Meanwhile, shelving was removed 18 percent of the time when only one percent of librarians said the removal was important. These changes have major impacts on librarians, forcing them to try to fit their roles into the physical spaces that exist.

Another example is librarian access to patrons. Currently, regardless of workspace type, 59 percent of librarians stated that their workspace is hidden from the public eye, making it difficult for patrons to know where they can get help and forcing them to rely on technology-aided access. Further compounding the problem, 25 percent of librarians stated that, through organizational restructuring, their access to patrons has further decreased.41

The trend is actually quite well documented. And yes, it is true, Public Service Librarians do not want to be behind opaque swipe card entry doors. They would rather work in semi-public offices where they are visible and accessible to students and faculty, but can also get their work done and consult with people in a comfortable office space.

The administration should be accessible to the public as well, through double glass doors, not hidden behind painted utility doors.

Architectural designers typically begin with an observational analysis of existing spaces and how present they are currently being used,  rather than coming from a perspective of what a good academic library is or what it ought to do, the user experience it is supposed to deliver, from the top down. Bottom up designs are never innovative. One firm did a study of our old library to see how it was being used, they also didn’t consider the ways that the old library was not being used, the fact that most of the publishing faculty and our better students were using other libraries in the city because the old library was no longer serving their needs. (I knew where our students were going because I issued TexShare cards and taught graduate Research Methods classes.) They didn’t need just a place to sit or more comfortable furniture. Designers also didn’t consider exciting ways in which the library could be used to increase engagement with digital media or view lectures going on at other universities, even conferences. There was no news / media viewing room. 

Prior to the discussion about a new library, in the years following changes to our acquisitions policies where it was decided that the library would no longer acquire print, foot traffic had already dropped off. The institution had undergraduate and some graduate programs in the visual and performing arts, music, English, history, humanities, social sciences, communications and journalism, science and engineering, psychology, sociology and social work.

Because we were not acquiring much print, the new space was built without browsable spaces or the visibility of titles to help students and faculty keep up with new things. 

Architects also didn’t consider incorporating technology in new and original ways for display in the space. They did not consider using interactive projection display technology, for example.

They do not consider placing new resources where they were likely to be seen, by the entrance on the first floor (A “browsing book bistro” on the ground floor, where there was foot traffic, which was my suggestion). They also put some low shelving units in areas on the upper floors on the far side of a grand staircase where they would not likely be easily seen by anyone and whose shelf location could not be referenced in a catalog; the rest of the stacks were placed into a irregular layout to accommodate an irregular (triangular) floorplan, staggered across the floor like grocery store aisles (library stacks run perpendicular to the direction of traffic) and not filling out the space. The end result wasn’t the cultural, intellectual or social experience the architects had promised.

It proclaims that books are unimportant, rather than amplifying their value and appeal.

It should be considered in the planning stages how we can deliver a better academic library experience for students, rather than asking why students are currently using a space. For example, resource use or awareness of new titles is often not considered a design priority for new libraries today, but this should be a design requirement and priority for new libraries because it is a core function of a library to be a library.

In addition, there must be tighter coordination between the design of the physical library and the user experience of the library online, rather than these each being treated as two entirely distinct things. Today, many libraries have hybrid collections. The functionality of the building and the software should be interconnected. What is available online should be represented in the space. Browsing and display should be built into new academic libraries. Improving awareness of resources and trends in scholarship and publishing should be a primary focus of the user experience. There are many technologies used in trade show and museum exhibitions which could be readily adapted to the modern academic library to create a more immersive, educational experience. 

While there are many renderings by architectural firms showing off idealized designs being enjoyed by the smiling images of students today, there are almost no published post occupancy assessments of these new libraries in library literature, or at least none I have been able to locate in my library’s databases or online. 

How successful are they, and by what educational standard are we to measure their success? In general:

  • These are 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 shared bodies of knowledge corresponding to academic degrees.
  • They do not provide the 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.

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 most new library buildings, new library websites, or of new library system software. In fact, each of the three components which collectively defines the modern library—our facilities, our websites and our systems—may no longer be controlled by the library, whose lack of autonomy in turn contributes to a diminished ability for the library and its librarians to have significant impact on our communities. 

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 valued in its disciplinary context. It is our mighty graphic organizer, our tree of knowledge.

In this way, students and faculty at our institutions are 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 most 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, with the objective that knowledge (of titles and publications) can be known and valued by a larger public. We keep faculty and regular library users informed of things that might interest them. We are responsible for what is referred to in the world of retail as merchandising and within the art world as curatorship.

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 taught and 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 support? The academic library has been undermined by systems designed to accommodate the needs of commercial vendors 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. 

Looking at their boring library designs, it is hard to believe Gensler is the same design firm who designed the rich interiors for the House of Blues.

Now that’s a collaborative space!

 

Invisibility is/as a Barrier to Learning.

ompared 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, this model for a library does constitute a major barrier to our students, who once derived benefit from the organizational structure and visibility, browsability, and authoritativeness of a library collection optimized for learning about a discipline and also for presenting things of topical interest to undergraduates. While the system efficiently retrieves, students cannot educate themselves effectively or efficiently through a search engine alone, just by Googling topics, or by discovering stuff in discovery, for there is no representation of the discipline or what it is they are expected to know. The content of the library is invisible until someone comes along and searches for something. Apart from that, we are like those old Yahoo! directory trees from 2000-something, lists of links to Internet resources we once compiled and which no one paid attention to then. Today, we offer LibGuides database A-Z lists.

With discovery, there is no manifestation of a body of knowledge corresponding to academic degrees maintained in anticipation of use. We previously maintained a framework for communicating and preserving knowledge, a visible arrangement, our tree of knowledge of important bibliographic titles arranged according the LCC. Now, there is no packaging of content to form a coherent overview of a topic, field or discipline (that organization of resources into a coherent whole, knowledge formation). Without LCC, without collections, there is no overview of the scholarly communication of a field. 

By collections, I do not mean ownership, but curatorship, the deliberate selection, organization and public display of intellectual and cultural objects in their respective contexts (topics), mirroring the disciplines. That is what the library and the library profession is all about, contextualization and formalized description, synthesis and representation of intellectual and cultural objects so that knowledge can be communicated (seen), assessed, evaluated, appreciated, preserved and known, so that people can become more broadly educated. 

For some academic library users and librarians, the new idea of the academic research library as a kind of unambitious hollow monument to learning, a cavernous light-filled space, may be inspiring, even liberating, in a sort of Nietzschean waythrowing off the crushing weight of history, culture, tradition, books and publicationsand with it, any sense of obligation for anyone to read books or to know anything about them. I have observed that the people in the library with the least amount of education are the ones who advocate the strongest for eliminating paper. Finally, a leveled playing field! The librarian doesn’t need well educated people to work in them because no one expects us to know anything about our own content, since we are not actually selecting it.

The atrial design of many new libraries, where light shines in on oversized staircases, might symbolize illumination in a Neo-Platonic sense of ascending into light through passing though levels, like growing in knowledge or academic degrees, but that is all. It is a metaphor, a literary allusion, which most people do not get anyway; to most people, it is just a gigantic staircase you can sit on, despite what the architect might say about the “learning staircase.” The design does not encourage education nor resource use. Human achievement, and the shared value placed upon it, inspires human achievement, not staircases.

Unbelievably, we in the academic world are placing emphasis on space itself, sunlight and staircases, designer furniture, comfy couches, community puzzles, board games from the 70s, coloring books and furniture on wheels, not on publishing, culture or intellectual works, and by doing so, we trivialize academic pursuits and intellectual achievement. The library looks like some kind of adult day hab. No wonder scholars don’t want to go in there.

What does the library have to offer them?

Everyone knows the university library should spotlight human intellectual achievement, knowledge, and things of interest to educated people and to the academic community. It has an obligation to raise awareness and to educate, not just to provide passive “access to.” The extent to which a library is capable of exposing users to content and knowledge which they would not otherwise know about or think to search for is how it should measure its success. 

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 or even the local newspaper inside (no paper allowed!) might be horrifying, a wasteland, the Emperor’s new clothes, an attack on Western culture, a sign of decay, cultural genocide, a fraud, pointless and purposeless, grift, graft, an existential crisis, 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. Trust me, there are no library professional standards for “this,” whatever “this” facility might be. Library as “eco-friendly building” and library as a collaboration space are the latest design trends, with centralized seating arrangements and furniture on wheels being confused with student-centeredness simply because students are encouraged to sit in the middle of the empty space.

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,42 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 comprised of vendor product which has been around now for at least thirteen years, 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 a modern academic library; that collections and catalogers are no longer needed; and moreover, that resisting what seems to be our inevitable commodification and elimination is a sign of an unwillingness to embrace new technology or adapt to change. 

Why should booklessness, or going “fully digital,” be at all concerning to any of us in this digital age, or to anyone else for that matter? 

Apart from old timers clinging to the old ways, insisting that vinyl sounds better, incandescent produces a truer and warmer 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 way—admittedly nothing collapsed with the migration from one medium to another; we’ve been through all of this before, many times over, and with each new media, there have been critics and fearmongers and hand-wringers about what is not being preserved for tomorrow. Why defend books or print? That is so twentieth century. Indeed, the only remaining source for physical books for miles around many communities today may be the local library; the bookstores have all closed. Barnes and Noble is relatively scarce, and while Amazon briefly flirted with the revival of mall bookstores, they came and went like mayflies. Instead of books and magazines, people read online, on their phones and tablets, if they are reading at all outside of social media.

And yet, influencers, scholars and journalists are still writing books—I know this, unfortunately, because I watch TV and listen to NPR, and not because I work in a library; physical books and print are no longer visibly woven into the 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. They are not woven into the modern library either, its modern acquisitions workflows. They are not built into our library system designs. The problem is that we are confusing print with titles. We used to keep up with new titles through Choice and other collection development tools. Now, it may be nobody’s job in the modern library to keep up with new titles or to know about them, because we can opt out, subscribe to a package and be done, putting confidence in the vendor brand.

The function of the library and good library design, however, is to create and nourish creative and intellectual culture, that desire to read, that desire to engage, the desire to create, the desire to know, but it works only if the library is good and provides the right atmosphere, display, sense of community and resources. Intellectual and creative life is a fragile thing but worth defending, against commercialism and materialism. The library should be an important part of an ecosystem which feeds and nurtures the academic community, sustaining it with new titles and ideas and publications.

If it does this no longer, or is prevented from doing so by dysfunctional designs, we need to rethink our designs, rather than the validity of the concept. To serve as an intellectual hub of learning might take more imagination and better designed spaces than what architects are building in the name of a new academic librarianship.

Library as a “Space” (with or without a Gnostic Staircase).

What architects commonly call “learning staircases” in the new academic library are often a stand-in for knowledge, the knowledge that was previously contained in the stacks. 

Learning 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 window walls. Learning staircases, sometimes called “collaborative” staircases, are supposed to transform the library into a collaborative space, breaking down information silos to facilitate the exchange of information.

Obviously, staircases do not facilitate learning any more than, say, a ride in the library’s elevators do, which are often crowded and slow, presenting users with similar opportunities for socializing and information exchange, at least as well as the non-ADA compliant learning staircase might. Neither elevators nor staircases have anything to do with librarianship or learning, yet they have often become the centerpieces of the library which has replaced 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-holes43great 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.

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, a place emphasizing knowledge, culture and ideas.

I suppose they do not know how to create that. Which means that there is opportunity for improvement.

The modern library could 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” (that is people can can physical browse books, but download copies to check them out), a new book browse bistro, a gigantic video display of what users are engaging with and clicking on at any given time, something other than just tables and chairs and staircases and catwalks. It should have at least three rooms with different media: a conference or class lecture; a news channel; streaming documentaries. It can be Gertrude Stein’s living room or a variety of spaces. 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 absolute privacy or a quiet place to study. Most students don’t want that anyway, but want bustle and movement around them, a place where they are more likely to run into other people, combining the intellectual with the social. 

Can’t we agree that a new library building being created today in the name of a new librarianship, a hollow glass building with large staircases and seating in the middle, is just a dull space, and not a library at all, not even a good student center, 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, and 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, to educate students and make them more aware of publications, communication and innovations in their field

Here is a functional requirement I will propose: the library must 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.

I should be able to easily discern what new academic titles are coming out of the library, and what people in my field are reading and discussing. The academic library should offer that user experience of new publications.

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.

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 as 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, and increasing the odds that no one will ever engage with them in their lifetimes. (Just like with grocery stores, putting books in low shelving 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, now 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 library users.

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,”17 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 was my bread and butter at one time.

Systems Librarians managed the locally installed systems, servers, records, the catalog and website. This role or function in the library has pretty much been eliminated because vendors maintain our cloud-based systems for us, our content and our metadata. All we must do is activate the correct package (the ones we have licensed) and the titles in that package become available. With autoload holdings, new titles are added and other titles are removed by the vendor automatically.

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 would encourage engagement with new resources 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, if the role still exists, loosely corresponds to what our system vendor calls an “Electronic Inventory Operator.” It sounds like one of those white gloved elevator operators one sees in old movies. 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 (of course it can be retrieved should someone come looking for it) and arranged into a meaningful disciplinary framework according to our former academic library best practices. Many libraries do nothing to promote resource use except to activate databases in discovery. 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 publications and 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 unique classification scheme mapped to the academic disciplines, so it forms bibliographic content into a meaningful and pleasing arrangement for scholars. It is a special alchemy which turns content into knowledge. 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. 

Titles vs. Entitlements:
Why E-Resource Management / Discovery is not an Online Academic Library.

rom a requirements and user experience standpoint, e-resource 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 in which “collections” (if they exist at all) are comprised of indexed subscription content indistinguishable from vendor inventory. There is a profound difference in the user experience between curated titles (what the discipline and educated people think significant and good) and vendor entitlements.

Library collection or commercial resources, people have posed, what difference does it make? Many librarians today use “collections” and “resources” interchangeably, as in: “Our collections are online.” 

I know this, because I often ask colleagues, “Is your library maintaining collections?” and then must immediately explain what I mean by that. Some libraries like to call their holdings “collections” for accreditation and reporting purposes, but refer to these as resources when it comes to resource sharing, as in: We are required to share collections with the public according to our TexShare membership agreement, but we do not have collections anymore, only resources. 

To some, collections are synonymous with, or limited to, print resources, since print was cataloged and displayed by classification, as a collection. To others, it is synonymous with collection development and an acquisitions workflow of selecting title-by-title, considering individual titles based on merit, because this methodology is emphasized in library “collection development” courses. To others, it has to do with the licensing model. Did we buy it in perpetuity or just for a limited time period? For others still, collections may simply be synonymous with entitlements, all the resources that users are entitled to access at that moment. Whatever we have acquired, even by completely passive means, is the collection, regardless of its quality, relevance to users or impermanence, that we neither own it nor possess intellectual property rights to it. What makes this so difficult is that a collection is essentially a philosophical and intellectual construct which is why it is hard to describe, because the sum is worth more than the whole of its parts. A collection is something theoretical. A collection is logical, predictable, to the extent that users should be able to anticipate what will be there. A collection is deliberate, for that community. It is logically arranged to enhance scholarly value. But it need not be physical.

It is an intellectual and philosophical construct.

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.

Collections were educational, a pre-eminent service we provided.

Browsing them was a means of knowledge acquisition. Display and organization were very important for providing a certain intellectual and aesthetic experience which the library supported and academic library users valued. It allowed us to maintain academic rigor.

Our library metadata standard, the MARC record, 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.

Closer to the truth is that we have become one with our vendors through APIs, a kind of commodity. 

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 or valued, 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, as they see it, is to drive our users to their own platforms and cultivate loyalties which might translate into their business revenues after students graduate, once students enter the workforce and find themselves unable to access scholarly or professional resources through the libraries of alma maters. For most academic libraries, their library system vendor is also an academic content aggregator who also sells content to libraries, and although this is not regarded as a conflict of interest, academic publishers can only hope to sell their content to libraries through making their platforms compatible with this e-resource discovery system and becoming business partners with the system vendor, resulting in a consolidation in a tightly vertical market. 

Ultimately, I believe that the empty facilities and empty websites create empty minds, and this is top of mind to me as a librarian, a professor and a library user.

The empty library, the library that lacks collection and resource visibility, also instills ambivalence about the institution in students, and also in certain contexts makes students question their own academic commitments. I can pretty much guarantee a correlation between a poor library and high student attrition. An unkempt library and empty library are demoralizing to students, even those who have no intention of using a library. 

  • 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 aspiring and hopeful places where 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 also 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 sitting in the middle of an empty expanse, a “voided panopticon” as one architect referred to new libraries; students prefer more intimate, semi-private spaces.

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 to encourage browsing and engagement. Let the college radio station be heard, let new books be displayed, let student art and videos be seen, let cool things be playing in media viewing rooms, 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 and our content is to remain invisible until a search is performed; and even then, only a 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 Profession’s Faustian Bargain with Discovery.

n the Elizabethan play Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Faustus—”Faust” for short—is a frustrated university professor, tired of all of the usual forms and categories of knowledge. He has already mastered medicine, law, religion, theology and natural science, and now he has nowhere else to go.

Through dabbling in magic, Faust accidentally conjures a demon named Mephistopheles, who promises to give him answers to the questions he is seeking in exchange for his soul. The agreement allows him to have a 24 year run. While power was not his original motivation, it gets attributed to him during the course of the play, perhaps since Marlow couldn’t very well write the answers to the mysteries of life. Unlimited knowledge was the main thing Faust was after, the cause of his downfall, the reason he sold his soul. Predictably, in the end, none of the knowledge Faust gains is meaningful or valuable to him; the devil really didn’t keep up his end of the bargain anyway. Information comes in bits and pieces, and there is no context for any of it. Over a period of time, Faust realizes that the knowledge and power he obtained are worthless, even though he has 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 own Faustian bargain. 

Discovery emerged about 20 years ago, a federated search tool which distributes out a search query across numerous platforms and harvests, normalizes, formats, and ranks the results through one seamless interface. Twenty years ago, it was the library’s answer to Google. Through discovery, the library provided users with convenient access to a world of information and content, but, unfortunately, no framework in which the content is perceived to be meaningful or valuable to students to get them to engage with it in the first place. Today, by our own accounts, scholars are not using discovery, preferring instead to go directly to the publisher platforms, rather than relying on this third-party search app which, unfortunately, now has come to completely define the online experience of the academic library. We have become defined by a tool scholars do not like and few are using. We don’t seem to think there is a problem with that.

Universities spend millions on institutional access to content and usually over 150K each year just for the e-resource discovery system, which used to be an add-on product until it became bundled with our ILS, much like the way windows came with IE. To me, this discovery model underestimates the importance of visible collections of shared knowledge to motivate user engagement. 

To be clear, I am not defending physical books and print formats, or saying we should not offer discovery, but merely stating the obvious: we should not be promoting the exact same UI or search paradigm in a bookless environment that we used previously when we maintained visible collections. At minimum, we need a store front of our own and metadata to support a robust browsing experience of a library collection.

Regrettably, librarians have embraced a passive model where our “collections” are vendor products, and we do not need to know anything except for what databases to license each year. 

This “aggregator” model of a digital library was at one time heavily criticized and unanimously rejected by the entire 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. Questia was thought to be “fake,” a McLibrary, not because it was online, but because it didn’t offer collections.

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 very short time.

In fact, I was officially Questia’s first librarian, even though to be honest, the company did not think it needed to hire any librarians even at the time it hired me (first on contract, then permanently) in the year prior to launch in 2001.

The MBAs who comprised the management team thought they could get by just fine without us. The system developer and Chief Technology Officer, who was developing an online academic digital library from scratch, also thought he didn’t need librarians even to advise him. What could an academic librarian possibly tell him about creating an online academic library?

Armed with Library Technology Reports which I copied from Rice University and left stacked in his chair, I changed his mind. At last, he could appreciate the complexity, functionality and interoperability of library systems and library metadata. From my own life experiences, many people do underestimate the complexities of managing bibliographic data. I wrote an RFP so Questia could partner with an existing system vendor to speed time to launch. 

Unfortunately, when it launched, what was in Questia’s inventory, its collection, struck educated people, including my fellow academic librarians, as random and oddball stuff, which it was, especially in the early years of Questia’s existence. Why this was, was that the company took what it could get that was in public domain or through publisher license agreements.

Questia’s Marketing department was perfectly aware that only educated people might know or care about the difference between an academically rigorous collection of titles and random digitized scholarly content.

Only educated people might know that what was being called an online library were just aggregations, not a collection of the best resources, which academic libraries provide. Only an educated person could tell if an academic collection was good or not good. Only an educated person would know, notice or care about what titles were missing from Questia’s “collection,” which was in no way a collection.

Therefore, Questia famously decided not to market its library to educated people, to academic librarians and to scholars, who would likely see the glass as half empty, but to students, to uneducated people, who would not notice or care if they used the best resources to write their research papers.

Questia sold convenience at a fair price. Their marketing—a sweaty, glassy-eyed student pulling an all-nighter in a library with books stacked around him—said it all. Subscribe to our service and we will make cranking out papers a breeze, no more nights in the library. 

Strong reactions to Questia in the academic library community raised interesting questions and ethical dilemmas.

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 essentially maintained by our vendors, an application capable of indexing aggregated third-party scholarly content on publisher platforms? What impact does varying degrees of commodification have on a library’s service model and perception by the rest of the institution? What might the most appropriate balance between resources and collections be, 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 merit, but relative to what we had in the collection and to the needs of our communities, guided by the criteria established by our Collection Development policies. It is a misconception that a librarian buys what he or she likes, but one hopes that the librarian likes some of what he or she buys because the acquisitions librarian is also a reader and has sufficient education to appreciate the significance of what he is acquiring for the collection.

Today, most of us acquire resources in bulk based on the fact that titles are part of a vendor package we have licensed.

This acquisitions strategy was once thought almost sacrilegious, at least as far as scholarly monographs were concerned. One should never include in a collection items which do not meet the criteria established in library’s collection development polices. And the idea that the academic library might buy only from this or that publisher—we acquire titles because we have a business relationship with the former—would have been regarded also as unprofessional and a conflict of interest. Business relationships should never influence acquisitions. The academic library was committed to vendor neutrality, selecting the best resources regardless of the publisher or format. 

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 even to arrange or display resources as collections.

These are deeply philosophical topics in librarianship today which center around the continued relevance and definition of library collections by those who are, at least for the time being, still responsible for managing content, and the consequences on users of our no longer doing so. We already know the likely consequences on us as a profession, but what (if anything) 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 our erecting unrecognized barriers to scholarly access which impacts our ability to remain innovative and competitive.

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 from public access. The only thing that dampens my sense of outrage is the gloomier thought that so few people in the real world want to access scholarly resources anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. Somewhere along the way, it was decided that the tax paying public is no longer entitled to access the resources at a public university library licensed with taxpayer funds, even despite our continuing to say that we support life-long learning.

Realistically, the only thing we 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. 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 without institutional affiliation would be forced to pay for access. It was also a way for vendors to do direct marketing to our students and faculty. 

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, resources which at State-supported universities have always been an entitlement because resources were acquired at public expense. Public access to library 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.

SSO 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, 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 library content.

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 idea from that public academic libraries (and medical libraries, too) are not just for the students and faculty at that school, but belong to all the citizens in the State of Texans? 

Here is some history behind the 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.45

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.  You cannot be a publicly-supported library and deny public access to your collections acquired with public funds.

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. This threatens scholarly access by undermining our larger commitment to resource sharing and to the preservation of knowledge, and limits the quality of education at the school.

At least one Serials Librarian suggests that it is up to librarians to resist these trends when negotiating license agreements with vendors.46 However, if library directors and collection managers do not embrace library resource sharing and scholarly access 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. 

A second barrier to access is due to the design of our user interfaces, their being limited to resource discovery (document retrieval). Because the content we license is invisible until a search is performed, few may see important publications. Invisibility constitutes an intellectual barrier to access. Academic library users cannot browse by call number or their areas of interest, as they were once accustomed to doing in a traditional library. Classification, a major access point for collections, has been eliminated, along with other library-centric metadata publishers do not want to provide. Lack of metadata means new displays of bibliographic information, of knowledge, are not supported. The academic library must be fully online, and this means it supports all library standards for the display and organization of bibliographic content. Many academic departments (those who were heavy library users) are not supported will by eresource discovery solutions. Digital humanities needs collections. 

Third, there is no systematic way to display new books in a field of study. Many of us over the years have been tasked with creating LibGuides, first for subject areas, then delving down to create LibGuides for particular courses. As anyone who has done this knows, the process of putting in ebooks is a chore and the impact often minimal, also 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.

Fourth, ILL and TexShare in Texas are becoming unsustainable, because few libraries are buying print anymore and ebooks cannot be shared with other institutions. 

Now that librarians are being systematically removed from the title selection process, 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, 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. 

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 State of Texas believes that 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 commodity only for those enrolled in school. We always maintained public and community access. 

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 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. Professors, who at a university hold advanced degrees in their field, and are expected to do ongoing research and writing for publication, should certainly be able to show their own students how to search the databases used to conduct research in their own respective fields of study and how to cite source correctly. Most of them do not need a librarian to come to their classroom semester after semester, but some often invite us anyway.

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 we call the “learning center” model.

Never before was this model thought suitable for higher education.

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. It is about preserving knowledge for the future. 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 Academic Library as the Tail-End of the Publisher-Aggregator Supply Chain.

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

he elimination of collections in libraries in 2020 is the biggest trend in librarianship since the elimination of the card catalog in the mid 1990s, and yet no one in my field is really discussing this much. 

If they are, they are mischaracterizing this trend in glowing progressive terms as “going bookless,” or “going fully digital,” and not understanding what it actually is, becoming commodified by vendors. 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, and no way to identify what is missing from it, seems not ideal from an educational or even a business standpoint. 

It isn’t ideal from a marketing standpoint, either.

Is it inevitable that a digital library is a fully commodified library? I fear that because the academic library’s system vendors are also content aggregators (ProQuest bought Ex Libris, EBSCO is investing in Folio), we have simply become more like an aggregator and less like a library.

For me, the issue is not about print vs. digital formats, but what business model and user interfaces are the most effective for a library to encourage a culture of learning. Library software is perpetually stuck in “discovery mode,” being just a search engine, an app, a central index maintained by a vendor, and it is failing to evolve beyond discovery. Its stuckness may be intractable because resource invisibility and lack of transparency along with bulk purchasing greatly benefit our vendors, including our own system vendor, who is also a “content aggregator.” As it is, 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 because the only items that are ever seen are those retrieved by a query, while all of that irrelevant stuff remains invisible. 

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

It is more efficient for us, granted that.

E-resource discovery 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. There is no intellectual space, no curatorship, no organization, no librarianship. There is nothing but a space and a search box.

Is this progress for a library? Are students learning more? Are more scholars benefitting from library services?

We have in inventory the titles of 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, and how it might be meaningfully accessed by scholars at that particular institution. 

Because works are seen as ephemeral and something leased for a short time, not owned by the institution, cataloging items is perceived a waste of time. Lack of cataloging in turn means our user interfaces are limited and what we acquire is less likely to be seen. From the vendor point of view, the library’s sole purpose is to drive potential customers to their websites. 

Even if we are going to adopt a commercial model for managing our inventory, where vendors supply all of out titles for a negotiated fee, shouldn’t we have at least have a store front, just like any other online store?

Where is our virtual library reflecting our users’ interests and priorities? 

We have no browsable, 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 and scholars should know, or might want to know about—not even displaying what is current that users might like—seems setting the bar too low for an institution of 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. 

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, even though its librarians may continue to claim, as we did when we owned our content, to be committed to life-long learning.

Invisibility is/as Censorship.

he biggest disadvantage of the “new librarianship” as defined by architects and system designers is that it is ineffective from an educational standpoint.

Content must be searched to be seen, and yet without visible content arranged by discipline and topic, 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 to stimulate intellectual curiosity in users. Resources are accessible, but not presented as part of coherent bodies of knowledge. There is no sense of shared community value or common experience. We have a limited ability to assess quality, and we cannot present our content in logically ordered collections to users to enhance value or meaning.

Rather than seeing this as a sort of conflict of interest, we have outsourced collection development–no, acquisitions–to those companies who specialize in licensing content to libraries and schools for a profit, and in the process, done away with the underlying structures and workflows which provided safeguards and standards for an optimal user experience of a library as a library.

Collection development was a kind of guardrail against indiscriminate buying. Now, many libraries just subscribe to aggregator packages which do not have current or in demand titles in them at all. Aggregator packages of academic titles 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 revenues. Of course, good things can be found in them, but it lacks academic rigor. This approach may be excused because it is so convenient, and because students are merely using these packages for class assignments, to complete academic exercises, to acquire basic research and writing skills, should they ever need to use these skills in the real world or down the road. We keep kicking the can. The whole of the library is refashioned a scholastic resource, a tool like a textbook to help students complete assignments and nothing more than that. They are not thought to be doing actual research in college these days, but merely going through the motions to learn how it is done, a dress rehearsal.

Should they ever need to do it in actuality, there may not be a research library left for them to go to. Or they might not be able to access it without re-enrolling in school.

Through being incentivized to acquire in large 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, but no one wants to read the Washington Post or New York Times or The Chronicle of Higher Education through an aggregator anyway. It  isn’t the same experience as going directly to the publisher platform.

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, paying for  a title 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.

What librarians now provide in place of a authoritative collections is “access to” third-party content. For those with institutional credentials, 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.”47 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. 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 intellectual approach, the golden thread of narrative of items formed into collections, which helped to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into an education. A search box provides limited educational or scholarly value and little incentive to learn and to know. 

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 provides for a unique experience of a library. 

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 browsable 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.

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 easy to design (architects know how to design well-lit, energy efficient buildings). What architects do not know how to do very well 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, and new libraries are built without atmosphere. 

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 seen as needless distractions and largely irrelevant to mission of the 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. 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 (both by publishers and authors), but because academic libraries have become more like Google, just 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? For one thing, it doesn’t really seem to have much to do with us or our efforts, even if we are teaching students about their subject databases in instructional sessions. Second, administrators care about enrollment, retention, and completion, not library circulation or usage stats.

The widespread adoption and acceptance of “outcomes assessment,” accountability as defined by institutional business objectives, means that increasingly the institution wants the library to acquire only what is guaranteed to be used for class, what supports the pre-defined learning outcomes of the classroom, or else what is needed for accreditation. These approaches to assessment 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, our scholarly mission and quality are compromised.

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 libraries. 

Through the foggy oracle of discovery, I can no longer “see” my disciplines, my fields of study, my Renaissance and Medieval scholars placed into a neat wall of fame as I could with the stacks. I cannot see English and American Literature anymore. I need collections, logically arranged, so I can “see” History, Literature, Philosophy, Art, Architecture, 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 that discipline is heading. 

Library collections are our past and our future. I need to see new books, visibly displayed, with their pub dates, in context, under the wide umbrella of an authoritative collection, which, like the moon hanging in the sky, everyone who is part of that academic community can see and share. Someone who was on the opposite side of this argument who reportedly wrote that “the value, in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been established,”48 does not understand that librarians create and perpetuate intellectual value as part of our job function, and visibility, especially in context, makes an item more likely to be discovered. Residing in a visible collection also creates intellectual value. Making visible important titles is what we do better than Google or a search engine.

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 where it is unlikely to be seen or discovered in its lifetime. ProQuest Ex Libris doesn’t want the library to maintain collections. Aggregators benefit from collectionlessness. 

Sure, sure, there are still more than adequate resources in them 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. 

Because librarians have been increasingly absolved from title selection, and nameless content is loaded by vendors on the back end, librarians are not likely to know about new titles. New books are often excluded from aggregator packages anyway. 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 what new books are coming out, chances are, they do not know what is not coming in. 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. The rocks stars of the disciplines are invisible an they may not even be in there at all. It is not an academic library collection, just some resources. EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete is neither all academic nor is it complete and EBSCO Academic ebooks hardly contains Choice outstanding titles. It is not a library ebook collection, just aggregated academic content.

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 or graduate work an academic field, people who were expected to work collaboratively as peers with faculty to do collection development and provide “bibliographic instruction.” They themselves often had faculty status, not because of their MLIS, but because of their academic subject degree. 

Now, it may be no one’s job in the library to keep up with new publications and order titles. 

In fact, the acquisition of individual titles in a collectionless environment may be a rare occurrence, thought to be of little consequence, precisely because the collection is invisible; devoting time to processing these books that no one is likely to see is an act of futility or humility, like monks spending their days making rice mandalas only for them to be blown away in the wind. We are not building anything permanent for future scholars. Libraries now license digital content in bulk from aggregators and publishers, and there are no collections to maintain. Online, there are no collections. Our new role is not to promote our collections, or titles people might want to read, but in a sense, to glorify commercial vendor packages. We offer product lines, but without any attention given to our own customer experience.

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 professionally 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. The website never changes, year after 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 to them. Although the library provides access to more content than ever before with less need for human intervention, the library user interface is an opaque black box which does not inspire, encourage reading, promote 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 visible collections of worthy things, things we stand behind. Rather than adding value and respect to the scholarly enterprise through careful selection, context, arrangement, preservation and display, what we offer now diminishes value, our own value, and the value of the resources we license.

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 can get 100 nursing titles in this package, I care that we can 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 titles together and arranged in a meaningful way so they can be seen, browsed, and evaluated. Discovery does not do this at the current time. 

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 spare facility called a “library learning center.” At lunch, before the proceedings began, when everyone was chit-chatting and sharing the news of the day, the question was put 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. The Humanities faculty knew me well, and knew I was not thrilled with the state of the new five-story study hall with multi-million dollar programmable window panes, smart gates and self-check out machines, but nothing set aside for new books or any suitable place to display them. There apparently had been funds for building technology, but nothing set aside for books, which had not been purchased in over eight years or more, with the excuse for the last four being that we are getting a new library. We acquire books if we are going to have to move them? Most of the new facility was oversized stairwells, oversized restrooms, and unusable space. Even as a place to study, the lighting and acoustics in the new library were not ideal. It was a strange artificial environment, cold with cool LED light bars which threw out no warmth. Exposed conduits and plumbing in the ceiling, hard surfaces and open airport-style restrooms in the middle of each stacked floor made flushing, running water and other sounds echo across the empty floors. The HVAC sounded like a combination of pinging bbs and roaring river. The blue gray window tint and LEDs seemed to drain color out of things, like parking garage lighting. Librarians were eclipsed in the space. There was no place to display books or paper. 

To me, it did seem a little late for someone in the Provost’s office to be asking this particular question, since we were already having lunch in the new building. Many were already sharing with me that they liked the old library better. No one would dare say that, of course.

I was cognizant of the fact that my role on the committee was only to represent the library and not my own opinions or those of my academic department (English), but I was also aware that this new space did nothing to benefit my students in English nor enhance their knowledge of literature. We offered graduate degrees in English and History. Faculty in History, another liaison area, felt similarly about the new space, and even its location on campus, far away from the Arts, Communications, English, Journalism, Music, made a statement. The Chair of History had refused to participate in the weeding process. At the end of the day, we offered nothing more in print or online that we hadn’t previously through the many lean years. The only difference was that most of the collection was gone, along with our parking lot.

I responded diplomatically, 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 moved away from the topic of the library to discuss their usual grievances about lack of parking on campus, adjuncts taking their jobs, and the ever-impending threat of post-tenure review. 

Had I 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. 

Learning centers are about providing some adequate resources, libraries are about providing the best resources within certain scopes. They have entirely different commitments and goals.

Academic libraries are about intellectual inquiry, disciplinary knowledge and academic research, while learning centers are about assignment and task completion leading to a degree. I get the impetus for this change, motivated by the need to provide greater accountability for expenditures, and the perception that a learning center is actively helping students to learn, while a library may appear to “do” nothing. It is just a warehouse or repository providing no measurable learning outcomes, right? 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 academic degrees so that students might become educated and faculty remain educated. A library has professional standards for collection development and makes a commitment to “collecting,” a learning center does not make any such commitments. Learning centers are not places to explore; libraries are.

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. Creativity. Self-actualization. Awareness of new trends that might fall outside of the established curriculum. Use by the public or alumni. 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 to go use a public library, or informing them that access to institutional resources is only for our students.

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.

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. 

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, Knowledge of the existing collection 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 browsable 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—I’m just saying that, I do believe there is a right—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 the 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. We have been remade in their image, a content aggregator, not a library. We do not cherry pick. Systems and workflows have been designed to make bulk acquisitions easy (in the form of big deals) and to make licensed content discoverable, not to support 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. If we do not know, why should anyone else?

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 JavaScript 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, 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. 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 exposed conduits, staircases and reliance on architectural features to fill up the space, form a poor impression of a library to a scholar’s eye. They do not project cultural or intellectual value. 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 their instant download. It would have digital billboards which would feature Choice Outstanding Academic titles and podcasts about books. 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. It might have viewing rooms of lectures at the university and conference presentations going on in other cities. Poster sessions and billboards, a marketplace of ideas. Entire rooms can become immersive interactive displays. That is a modern library.

Building empty glass boxes with oversized staircases and empty space taking up most of the building, a human habitrail, 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. It disgusts me, not the lack of emphasis on print, but the lack of emphasis on scholarship and ideas, the opportunity frittered away to create something really great and innovative. 

Libraries need texts, works, 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, 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, libraries must be fundamentally “about” their collections, about publications, about books and other resources. Most importantly, though, they are about cultural knowledge.

Librarians and their systems ought to be “about” titles in collection, and facilitate 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 subscription 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 and a way from them to be ordered. This is very achievable right now through Choice.

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, browsable 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 and opportunity 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 theory, we could now provide the largest digital library in the world, experienced virtually. 

In the digital environment, to be effective, we should be able to deliver searchable, browsable 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.”17

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.50

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 to Create a CRLE.

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 simply 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 in our profession knows this. There is no debate about it. In the library world, we have known this for a really, really long time. We all know that, if given the choice, scholars prefer going directly to the publisher’s platform to do research, or else, for a first dive into a topic, utilizing what appears to them to be a more comprehensive search tool, Google Scholar. Mainly, they go to subject specific databases to do research. In the Humanities, many prefer to jump into Amazon before jumping into discovery, EBSCO or ProQuest ebooks. Discovery to scholars seems neither here not there, neither revealing what is super current nor possessing the ability to do comprehensive 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 and pleasurable user experience of curated 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 with each record often appearing unreasonably large on a laptop. That’s no way to experience a vast collection.

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.51 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. 

Given the limitations of our current facilities and e-resource discovery model, what might be done to enhance the user experience and remake the library into the content-rich learning environment a library is? Here are my recommendations:

  1. Break out of the university CMS. Experiment with ecommerce/woo commerce tools in WordPress to better market resources. Make better use of screen real estate than to be a search box. The library website should function as a store front and a destination for scholars, with search being a small part of the layout. They academic library website might consider new books displays, documentaries in the library, poster sessions, and putting outstanding student work in its digital repository.
  2. Make a concerted effort to promote titles and publications, not just vendor products. Give people something to talk and think about.
  3. Stop advertising tables, chairs, staplers and couches on the library’s website. It is like a motel advertising it has AC or color TV.
  4. Return to bibliocentric systems which emphasize titles and sources, not vender entitlements and resources. The latter isn’t scholarly. Work with vendors to design systems which can generate, for example, an integrated shelf list of all titles and ensure the 050 field for ebooks is populated and capable of being used to sort records. With that capability, the library can create browse tools and new books lists for display, as we used to do with our older systems.
  5. Academic librarians should collaborate with faculty on collection development. Librarians should have access to collection development tools like Choice which let them know all of the new and recommended academic titles coming out each month.
  6. The point of collaboration is not just to ensure that the library collection is good and useful to scholars, but that the faculty are kept apprised on new and forthcoming titles in their own areas of interest. This supports inquiry and inquiry supports research and publishing. All faculty (not just one or two appointed to serve on a library committee) should have the opportunity to receive forthcoming title lists and review acquisitions.
  7. If the library is attached to a State-supported institution, new acquisitions should be posted publicly to ensure accountability and to let the community know what new things are available to them. 
  8. The library OPAC should always be publicly accessible, not reside behind a firewall. The public, including tuition-paying students and parents, are entitled to know what the library has to be able to assess for themselves if the library offers quality collections. (Libraries who do not make their library catalog public should face fines and risk losing accreditation.) 
  9. TexShare member libraries should be required to post on the homepages of their websites that their collections are accessible to the public according to TGC 441.223.
  10. All materials purchased with public funds must be publicly available inside of the library. Librarians who manage acquisitions much make sure that license agreements remain library friendly, allowing resource sharing and public access inside the library. 
  11. Inside of the library, there should be attractive new book displays placed by the entrance (traffic areas). These books do not necessarily physically circulate, but can be checked out online (virtual fulfillment). Their purpose is to encourage browsing and raise awareness.
  12. The library as a quality learning resource can only be effective if it is capable of presenting content.
  13. There must be a way to display ebooks and ejournals in the physical space of the library. Titles should be arranged by classification. They can be displayed in the physical library through interactive projection display technology. All that is needed is an empty wall and some modification of existing software. Immersive, interactive projection display software might transform an empty room into a virtual library with digital books and journals that can be clicked on and browsed. Through immersive display technology,  any windowless room or a collection of rooms can be turned into a pop-up library.
  14. Glass-walled viewing rooms stimulate conversation and engagement. People should walk by and look in to see documentaries or conferences or lectures going on in other classrooms and be encouraged to drop in and learn. Most libraries have abundant access to educational streaming video. They pay for display rights as part of their licensing agreement, but are doing nothing with it. The library should leverage this, even posting a schedule of what is being shown. The library should also telecast important conferences.
  15. Display student and faculty work in the library. This nurtures a scholarly community.
  16. Use the institutional repository to showcase outstanding student work. It makes parents proud to be able to Google the name of their child and see a paper he has written. It helps that child transition into a professional career.
  17. Career services should be housed in the library. The library should display sources for financial aid, scholarships and grants. The library might display calls for papers as well. The library should be a place for aspiration and inspiration, ideas and potential opportunity.
  18. Stop building empty atrial buildings where the centerpiece is a staircase. This edifies no one and is a waste of space.
  19. Insist that academic library systems fully support collection development and browsing by classification.
  20. Browsing is a vital function of the academic library, and this should be part of our system software. Engaging with a good collection is important for learning about a discipline and the creation of educated people.

The academic library must have efficient and effective ways to make users aware of new publications in their disciplines. This should be a design priority which is codified into academic library standards, frameworks and assessment measures.

Do Collections Still Matter to Academic 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 be quantified? 

The presentation of a work, surrounded by works on the same or similar topics, and 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 to the user experience. It is the professional way to organize a collection, like good merchandising. The fact that academic libraries all 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 necessarily mean print formats, but titles placed into an an intellectual, aesthetic and academically-rigorous framework for selection, description, assessment and display, arranged according to the priorities (topics) of the discipline. Just because we deliver our content digitally is no excuse to abandon library standards for bibliographic description, arrangement, display and the user experience of titles in collections. 

Some have asked this question about the need for collections in other ways, for example, exploring the impact of library acquisition patterns on use52 or how the presence of physical bookshelves influences student behavior and choice of study location (I review these studies later in this book). There are many independent variables associated with collections. Obviously, subject specialists may spend time selecting title-by-title to augment aggregator packages, but if the only interface is resource discovery, as opposed to collection browse, this would seem to present an obstacle to collection management over time; and of course, there is the loss of the user experience of the collection as a collection if it is represented as a repository and not as a collection. 

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. It isn’t just a matter relevant only to monographs (books), 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 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, as in the way the Alma Primo documentation defines “electronic collections.” These are not collections, but bundles of content for licensing purposes.

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 librarians were taught to do, and is still recommended as a best practice for all libraries.

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 much 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. No, they do not consult Choice or any book review sources. 

Many of my colleagues would assert with confidence that the future of the library is not “a collection.”53

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 now 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 sources, which are usually serial titles. 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 even  imagining an alternative to it, since most of our technical library conferences, often vendor sponsored, seem to be organized around applying existing products and solutions to solve problems that have application to only a few institutions. 

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 and do many other things. A very large library now needs how many professional librarians? 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. 

I can activate 130,000 ebook titles in seconds 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 come along and search for something. I remember what 130,000 titles looked like on shelves like it was yesterday. 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 a copy to their tablets or laptops to check them out and read them at their leisure. But they want to know about them, and the library should be helping to bridge that widening gap. 

Despite its advantages, its fantastic efficiencies of scale, the search box seems almost like a black hole through which there is no effective way to make our 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. We have to put content on the other side of the search box, a store front of our own.

The Library of the Future vs. “the Future of the Library.”

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), more so than some carefully thought out vision or plan—developed in collaboration with librarians of faculty, consulting library literature and library best practices, and after reviewing post-occupancy assessments and studying what worked and what didn’t at other schools—for how to bring the academic library fully and successfully into the digital age. Some Directors decide to eliminate all the books, and those who follow them often bring them back. Neither approach is fully satisfying. 

Inside the library, upon the announcement of a new library, librarians may be considering exciting new 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 labs; 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 about new titles 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, that is) than these other incidental byproducts of the academic library. 

The architectural firm’s Project Manager may not even bother to speak to the librarians, thinking that they could not possibly have anything of value to contribute to the new design.

Therefore, when the stars align and library renovation projects arise, we inside the library may have sugarplums in our heads 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. 

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 a space, a post-modern monument, a symbol or gesture to learning more than a functional library. The steps of the library may represent knowledge or ascension into greater degrees of learning, but it is just a staircase. The glass windows may represent greater connection to the world, but they are just windows. Indeed, it has become all too common today for architects claiming special insight into building what they call “next generation” or “new academic libraries” to create prominent, atrial, multistory iconic glass buildings called libraries, with nothing inside of them but wide central staircases, walkways, an assortment of meeting rooms, a snack bar, and highly secure office spaces with unclear purpose.

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 glaring LED light bars, sapping everything of color underneath them (LEDs have poor color reflective value, or CRV). Books are also put away into closed stacks, into remote storage, into ugly basements, stuck in compact shelving, shellacked into wall decorations, and tossed into dumpsters because they do not fit into the new design. 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 against the walls. These libraries often feel cold, impersonal and pointless. There is no thought given to visual display or encouraging intellectual life. Why would an educated person wish to spend time there?

The space is stagnant, lifeless and unchanging, with every floor looking the same and the experience always the same whenever people come to the library. Library-as-building never changes.

This bookless space is dubbed a “modern” library, and they are now ubiquitous on college campuses. Despite its stated intentions to be a hub of learning, the campus bookstore (often a branch of Barnes and Noble) and student center may be a more inviting, intellectually stimulating and interesting space for people to congregate and explore new ideas and trends.

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. It is a place of last resort for those who have no other place to go, rather than for people whose time is valuable and valued. What architects often do is conduct an observational analysis as to how the old library is currently being used and build to suit that, rather than designing something truly innovative which no one has ever seen before that would serve scholars and the goals of the library. 

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? Why not several? 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? I am ready to create an intellectually stimulating experience.

What is most troubling to me about new academic library designs is that there is no commitment to literacy, learning, education, knowledge, media, the scholarly community, culture or collections.

Finally, by following some sad outcomes assessment model recommended by ACRL,54 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,” which very much reminds me of that I’m your human search engine mug people brought back from ALA years ago. (I wouldn’t mind so much having a Collaboration Facilitator mug.)

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 of a collection (not use of a building). 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 or enhance perceived value.

However, it just so happens that books, art and other unique cultural objects typically require even greater social and intellectual contextualization 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 interfaces 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 as a space, on the light and seating, and not on improving library user interfaces or the educational experience it is to deliver. There is no emphasis in the design of these new spaces on literacy or on scholarly communication or scholarly engagement. 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 by library professionals. 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 were required to spend an entire semester in library school in a course entitled “Collection Development.” From what I heard asking coworkers who are pursuing an MLIS, they still are.

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), various 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 (it is needed for accreditation), even though today, ironically, they may lack collections. The CDP cannot be just pie in the sky, but should state how it plans 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 acquires new things at the time titles are released and so the collection does not incur 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. 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.

Collection development is bibliography, knowing what are the core titles in the field.

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.

Many years ago, academic libraries were informally defined as a collections of research which inspire 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 known as a discovery layer, 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 (the history of an idea or thought); they possess a quality know as narrative value. Large collections could convey both 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 and the lack of academic rigor it conveys is something which should be of concern to a university. The collection represented care over time by the college or university library naturally made students believe that their education was something lasting and also worth investing in, increasing what education administrators call “academic commitment.” The 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. Without collections to ground instruction, the institution may appear to be adrift. How to you teach English literature or art history without collections?

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. 

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, 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.55

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).56

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, and 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 attrition, 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 ardently committed.

They are upset, legitimately so, about lack of access stemming from lack of visibility of resources in visible collections.

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. They were correct.

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.56 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.

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 or acting in bad faith 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 differentiate 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 Questia 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, my own colleagues.

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 and boost credibility 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 very 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 replicate online. He realized that the library which had developed collections over many 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 and destructive to the book. 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 where labor was cheaper. Books were unbound and destroyed in the scanning process. Metadata had to be manually created for the parts inside of the book. 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 to partner with Google—Google was also not successful at creating an online academic library. The mighty had Google failed at that.

An even greater obstacle than technology, 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. Publishers put a stop to Google’s efforts to create the world’s largest library online, just as they are now attacking the Internet Public Library. 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 on Questia’s platform, which in those days, often wasn’t their better content.

Furthermore, many art, architecture and art history books when online without images due to copyright restrictions. The image which appears in a printed book cannot be reproduced online without securing permission from the artist or the creator of the image.

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. To placate librarians, their main customers, 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 between 2000 and 2005 about Questia for trying to pass itself off as a real library, Questia became the exact prototype for the modern, collectionless academic library, which is exactly where we are 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); 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 content, our access points and our display, we are moving closer to becoming a commercial product, to being fully commodified, like any big box retail store acquiring product lines. What we have in “inventory” is there because of a license agreement with the publisher and not because we have selected the title.

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. In the State of Texas, TexShare makes it easy for libraries to subscribe to a few low cost 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 browsable 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 browsable 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?

One obstacle that I encountered in attempting to answer this question is that the old library with collections has already become almost 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 years ago; 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, knowledge and literacy. Ease of access has replaced the necessity to know. 

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; plus an equally dubious emphasis on the random people occupying the space. 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, is 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.”17

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 New 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,59 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” (a.k.a., 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 kind of 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 brought about by the Protestant charge of sola scriptura, and the availability of Bibles in the vernacular (It would be stupid to urge Christians read scripture for themselves if it were not widely available, or available only to the very wealthy), 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.60 

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 destruction of print titles and historical collections, 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” is what a modern library is. It has actually meant denying access to outsiders, those without institutional affiliation, even where we never did so before. 

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 apply the same 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 to the institution, no one needs to see. The garbage, the waste, is not visible to anyone. The face that $300 went towards some ebook  along the lines of “The Body Rituals of the Naciremas” is not considered a problem only because 1. no one is likely to know that these titles are in the repository unless they specifically go looking for them, and 2. only an educated person is going to know or care about what is missing. In some cases, to obtain access to a few desired publications, the library must acquire the whole package, no harm done. 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 in a collection, because no one knows they are there, no one sees them, and anyway, they were part of a package of resources, a collection.

But no one sees the good things, either. 

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, although I may be for saying so; offering users an empty space and calling it a “library” just may well be, like the Emperor’s New Clothes. If there is such a thing as a sin for librarians, this has to be 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 recently visited many libraries in the Houston area, towing my reluctant eldest child around to various campuses to get him excited about college. Naturally, as a librarian, perhaps also as a concerned parent, I evaluate the school by its library, not because I expect my own kid to use it, but 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 focused on academics nor student-centered. I don’t mind seeing lots of extracurricular stuff as well. . .  Studio Ghibli, graphic novels, and things of interest to Gen Z. But current titles must be on display. They can even be covers of ebooks with a “download now” sign, but I want to see some titles.

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 to 10 percent who do are the ones who often go on to do great things in life, and to me, these students are definitely worth the investment, which really isn’t all that much compared to the exorbitant cost for institutional licenses for ebooks that no one is likely to read, either.

Please do not talk to me about the “cost of warehousing a print book on the shelf.” People often do not understand that academic ebooks are priced many times higher than the print version to begin with, and we often have to license it over and over again each year, often paying for the same content many times over. We may be paying hundreds each year for a $20 to $40 book, which we get at a tremendous discount when we buy in print through our book jobber.

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 own content, about what is significant and good, 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 in there. (That is just gross; but this concept of others in the library as a potential collaborative resource has been misappropriated by architects and applied to students as if they were high tech office workers.) 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 might as well be sitting in AutoNation Toyota, and there they give me free coffee.

I know, the academic library is online now.

Therefore, the logic goes, 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, 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. 

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.61 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 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. Feed my head.

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,62 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—modelling our spaces on prehistoric time periods, as primordial “campfires, caves and watering-holes,”63 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 making library resources visible to students to encourage literacy and engagement.

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, 80s, 90s, 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 (the latter half of the twentieth century, for example) 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 in a way that is engaging and relevant to them?

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 (most of which we would never have acquired under normal 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. The library is largely an illusion, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it were good, 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 is it 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.64 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.”24 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. I don’t want to be on the tail end of anything.

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 browsable 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.25 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.67 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. Library collections 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. The collection was an is unique as an intellectual experience. Nothing has come to replace it, not even online.

I write because I think there may be opportunity to develop something new.

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.68

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.69 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 small 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, managed by another department, one which is driven more by the need for security than providing access, tends to emphasize what is stable over time, commercially-branded products or our interior spaces, or generic Pexels images, 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 much at all. 

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, which is short-sighted. 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.

Browsable, 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 seeing. The dregs stay on the bottom, out of site.

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. The library is online, but the library may have little 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. 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.” Is it just me? It sometimes 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 or read the assignment. 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? Is it the librarianship of scholars and intellectuals, or is it being made to appeal to some common denominator who would never be likely to ever use a library?

Scholars aren’t coming to these new spaces, for we have given them no reason to come. In some instances, the library now looks like an adult day hab center, with puzzles and board games, but no newspapers or anything to read in them. What the library has is a mystery, the facility gives no clues. 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 also 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.

Now, they go elsewhere, to a university which validates their interests and values.

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. 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, 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, awareness or intellectual 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 publications.

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, one library, 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,70 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.

Of course, since he wrote The Enduring Library, books have all but disappeared from many libraries, along with reference librarians and catalogers, government document librarians, and just about everyone else. The library did not endure, but was all but taken over by vendors. 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 the 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. I believe this is mission-critical. We must create libraries which reflect scholarly values and community. 

To achieve library goodness, I believe academic libraries need online store fronts which place emphasis on good titles in good collections (not “relevant resources”), the ability to present titles as collections representing a more global perspective. 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, capable of presenting the new in context. We do not need to be limited to one modality. 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). We should have interactive digital displays, the same technology used in museums and trade shows. We should have cable TV. The library must be content-rich, a window to the world; not a literal window. The building must be functional as a library, not a metaphor for one.

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. We need designs which emphasize reading and intellectual culture.

We need mission statements focused on literacy, culture, knowledge and education. We should focus on titles as titles, as collections of what is significant and good and important to know, not just on the passive mechanism of eresource discovery. 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 federated 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 must take browsing seriously as a form of learning and build spaces which encourage that activity in the library. 

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, browsable, maintained collections allow researchers to 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.

A bookstore, part of the Zhongshuge chain of bookstores in China, considered by many to be libraries even though they are retail spaces. All use mirrors to create interesting optical illusions with books and to create an intimate timeless space removed from the concerns of the world.

 

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,70 and again in 2015, The Enduring Library Revisited,72 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 dominate the market. 

Today, everything from our content to our metadata to our access model to our user interfaces are impacted by commodification and commoditization by our vendors.

For the most part, a modern library system is just an inventory management system populated with content by large aggregators and publishers. Academic libraries are on the receiving end of the publisher-aggregator supply chain,24 passively acquiring most or all of what they 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; and then eventually, just an annual subscription to one vendor who provides their comprehensive “research solution” in cloud which is accessible only to those who have paid tuition or are institutionally-affiliated.

The commodification of library services by content aggregators and large publishers for whom the library is its only market (the price 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 the stock of a big box retail store 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 vendor 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? Not I. Using institutional credentials, researchers can access thousands of scholarly resources in one fell swoop 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.

But there are downsides. 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, experts in the field, think important to know. The intellectual and scholarly framework is gone. It reflects not necessarily what is good, what is best, what is significant, what others think good and important to know, but what an aggregator has thought profitable to monetize and make available to its customers for a flat fee.

Whether a Catholic library or HBCU, the user experience of the modern digital library is generic and increasingly all the same: EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale databases typically form the library core, complemented by JSTOR, SAGE and Science Direct. There is a high probability that no one in the library is selecting titles individually for that school. If no one is selecting them, no one knows about them, and no one in the library can advocate for them or promote 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?74 What is a modern library, and what constitutes a good one, seems important for us 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,”75 not evidence of learning outcomes. Proof that we support student success often means subordinating the needs of the library to the ELOs of the classroom, a “learning center” model. 

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

Encouraging learning for learning’s sake seems to support independent learning seems to almost contradict 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 with integrity as a library with necessary autonomy and funding. Outcomes assessment is just used to cut costs, not to improve education or educational outcomes. A learning center is not better than a library. A library is academically rigorous with its own standards for goodness, a learning center merely strives in some ill-defined way to support student success, however that is defined. 

A good library encourages students to pursue their own curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular research interests to go beyond classroom instruction at that school 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 what purports to be “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 which are often anachronistically superimposed on texts to arrive at some predictable conclusion. Finding alternative points of view in the scholarly literature can be validating to students.

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.76 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,77 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 them in the library. (Previously, when she cataloged print books, she would strip the jackets and display these in the library.) It was beautiful, but then, 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”78), 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”77 with other learning spaces on campus, even eliminated to the extent that accrediting agencies will allow.

Another example of the swap is where a library is funded by a State legislature to be a “new library,” but the school and the architect design something meant to house multiple tenants as part of some new library design concept, which is a form of misrepresentation or graft of public funds. An example of this can be found here. If the State allocated 50 million for a library, that does not mean for you to build something or multiple tenants and call it a next generation “library.” One architect writes in a blog post on the future of library: 

An interesting trend has been unfolding in academic libraries. The library has been welcoming new neighbors. Specifically, programs that support student and faculty success such as math emporiums, writing centers, academic enrichment programs, and excellence-in-teaching centers, are now being given prominent real estate within the library. Before examining the opportunities and challenges of these synergies, it is important to place it in the larger context of the academic library’s evolution and the significant moment this trend represents. Namely, that the arrival of new neighbors within the library heralds the emergence of the third generation of academic library design.80

Another example 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.”81 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”), and somehow if a librarian is attached to books they are obviously introverts and not people-oriented. People I know who read are the most people-oriented people you’d ever meet. They have a natural curiosity about humans and the human condition, which is why they read.

Even though the institution may be down on the traditional library, 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, their intellectual hub of learning, looks like. This advertisement for Alvin Community College which appeared in a newcomer’s guide to Houston82 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 83 after its library went almost entirely online:

I realize that these images are merely convenient for someone designing a school’s webpages or in the Marketing Department to grab and use to get their job done. It may also be intended to serve as a visual metaphor, not to be understood literally as “this is the 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 really do create a more student-centered environment than those without them (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 formats (the lecture is 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, some predefined learning objective or demonstrable “skill”; the educational benefit derived from sustained engagement with texts in any format is questioned. In modern educational theory, where there is a perversion of Bloom’s taxonomy, 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.” This is supposedly according to Bloom. But Bloom’s taxonomy was supposed to be a way for students to demonstrate knowledge once acquired, not a way for them to acquire it. Bloom never said that students shouldn’t be asked to read or attend to lectures, how he is sometimes interpreted today.

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, when studying biology, for example, 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 (if very lucky) in a perfectly clear drop of pond water. I did that for a Science Fair project with my son (fifth grade), using the microscope in the biology lab at a district high school. I got the idea from a kid’s Dover book, A World in a Drop of Water. We sampled many water sources in my area: pond, bayou, bay, brackish, ocean and tap. It was a wonderful peek into an unseen world, and kind of creepy also, especially witnessing a didinium gorging itself on a hapless paramecium. Reading the book really filled in the gaps and trained our eyes with what to look for, since on a slide many organisms look like a thin outline. Experiential learning is great, but it has the drawback of being inefficient and limiting the type of learning as well as the content that can be achieved within the time constraints of the classroom.

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 text on gravity, and then move on to some other aspect of physics? A civilization that cannot perpetuate knowledge through texts is doomed to rediscover knowledge that is already known, endlessly re-inventing the wheel.

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.84

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. I say to myself, 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 lack clarity. For one reason, I cannot remember half of what I read, and I sometimes teach English Literature. What we study fades away. 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.85 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, browsable 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. I don’t care so much how it is done, but that it is done.

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 others 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, credibility and value to the article. 

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

Questia: The First Academic Undergraduate Library Online (2000-2021)

wenty years ago, after Questia introduced one of the first online academic libraries, it was dubbed a McLibrary.86 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 mere academic content aggregator was not the vision their founder originally had for the platform (I do not even think content aggregators existed back then) even though that is what it became. 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 inspiring 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, 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 the Rice Fondren Library to fulfill ILL requests for me, even though I did not attend school there (Rice has been my go to library forever). 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 have been collecting since I was 14, when I discovered Samuel Weiser’s occult bookshop on a trip to NY and purchased some out of print titles on the “Holy Kabbala” and ceremonial magic by A.E. Waite—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. And they offered me more money as well.

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, as it turned out, 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 help 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 long while, 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 of librarians than I did. For me, it was then 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 there, 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 and its metadata were so complicated.

I passed around my tattered copy of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules and the largest binder ever made containing the MARC bibliographic format , emphasizing that these standards allowed for system interoperability and best of all, free metadata. 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. The cataloging rules and MARC records blew their minds. I explained aspects of the bibliographic record to programmers, and LC classification and subject headings. 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. I had also learned the rudiments of the Perl programming language, which I had already been familiar with prior to arriving at Questia, since all of the leading library systems ran on Perl. This digital 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 in those days hardly ever went home, working from 7am until late at night. 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 developing a library system from scratch, especially by an outsider to the library profession, seemed ludicrous, 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 (with open platform systems, you buy it, but you possess the source code and ability to change it). 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. 

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 often has 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 suck. 

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 in him 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 which resonated with him. 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 have been NetLibrary.

About a month later, he unexpectedly resigned. There was much speculation as to why he had departed so suddenly. Layoffs followed the next month, blindsiding everyone. It was rumored to be 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 from contract labor 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!” Most annoyingly, they began to recruit bright-eyed librarians from top universities, who vacated great jobs (jobs which I would love to have had, except I never finished that second Master’s degree . . . ), who upon arrival asked me, “What are we supposed to be doing?” What was I supposed to say, that you were hired to give credibility to the service?

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, 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. An academic library without librarians or collections was quite simply beyond my comprehension. 

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. Indeed, 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, but they changed their minds). 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. 

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 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 from lack of a quality collections, which library critics always equated 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.87 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 being bought by 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. 

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, a commodified commodity.

Despite Questia’s cool reception by academic librarians who argued Questia wasn’t a real library because it didn’t have real collections, academic libraries today have almost all adopted the same or similar acquisitions model. 

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

t isn’t an 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, by all accounts, is paperless

The new library in the cloud, and the empty spaces it leaves behind, does not encourage learning and engagement in the way that a traditional library did, or at all. From an educational standpoint, it is, to my mind, ineffectiveand not necessarily because its content is delivered digitally. It is because our interfaces are not designed to be digital libraries. They were designed to be search tools. 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. This is not a library by academic library standards. 

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 learning 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, browsable collections reflecting scholarly activity in the disciplines supported by the university. 

Libraries should be about intellectual and cultural objects, not about their 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, browsable collections organized according to the priorities of the disciplines and their communities. 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, your own students who may be among them.

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 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 browsable 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 overview of what is there. 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 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 resource discovery systems. The metadata isn’t there to make that happen.

Discovery systems used by academic libraries for search are not capable of adequately supporting the user experience of an academic library collection. They are merely like Google, 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:

  • A business requirement of a library is that it actively and effectively promotes resource awareness and use.
  • Libraries should be dynamic, inspiring and interesting than spaces to sit to study or complete assigned coursework.
  • Library websites should be engaging, not static pages featuring a search box and links to online resources
  • Libraries should not depend on its users (collaborative model) to share their knowledge to function as a place for learning.
  • 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?88

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.89 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 are 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, that we were all about “doing,” not having. 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 graduate. 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 and faculty 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!”25 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.91

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, therefore 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. 

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. The design does not promote engagement. Imagine we were selling resources, not just providing access to them. What would we do differently? How successful would we be?

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 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, browsable 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.92 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 campus in abundance, 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. When I weeded, the faculty were there to cart the books back to their department. One day, I discovered English graduate students sitting on the floor leafing through them in the student lounge. The faculty believed books were still valuable to students, even if the library and administration did not. Departments also had desk copies of textbooks and other books which could be lent out to students. It was also common for faculty to lend personal copies of books 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 (lined with discarded library books) 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 their 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 except perhaps after hours, after the librarians had gone home.

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, yet this became the rationale for a new library. What we lacked were good current collections, which was certainly not my choice. In my first year or two, I did collection development, but the Director who hired me and who believed in the value of books 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, disintegrating under fluorescent lights. It was also unnerving because no one else was up there, and this made people feel uncomfortable. Even staff some members didn’t venture to certain floors without a buddy.

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 was suspect. The small campus bookstore was flat out 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 find out 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. 

Browsable 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, browsable 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 did not strike them as being particularly modern or innovative

Most of the 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, at least not by me. I tried.

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 HBCU library. Even I couldn’t buy books for the library, for about eight years. I operated like any other Adjunct today, scanning my own stuff and putting it on Blackboard, as most faculty do these days. Adjuncts are hired to teach classes at the 11th hour. They don’t have time to explore the library.

Years after the library stopped buying books, the plan to build a new library funded by the State of Texas was formally announced. We were receiving 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! I represented the Humanities and Social Sciences when I said, we should be maintaining our commitment to collections, not stopping just because of a building.

There was no thought about the large gap in the collection or that students would come and go without having access to current titles. The collection had been allowed to languish for years, no money for books. Closer to the truth was that the collection was seen as completely irrelevant to library services and to the university. We were all about instruction now, 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.

Surely, we were going to be buying books again. What else was going to fill up the space?

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 mental 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. They were real luxury items then. I scoured used bookstores for them.

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 caterpillars of dust and soot. 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 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 gave away The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Jewish Encyclopedia (from 1901!) and magnificent Encyclopedia Britannicas, including the famous eleventh edition from 1911, with contributions made by all of the leading intellectuals of the day. I wanted them, but I wanted more that other people enjoy them. I also weeded the Humanities, but 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 (I had to read Homer in the original, so the Loeb classics were a souvenir of my own past); and quite a few specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias to help to rebuild civilization when it collapses, and many more precious books I had absolutely no use for, but just appreciated. Someone’s life work was that Anglo Saxon dictionary. . . or Proto-Indo European trees. Turns out, wool, birch trees and bees go way back to the beginning of civilization. In hindsight, I should have scooped up more Loeb classics when I had the chance; but someone in the future might need a interlinear translation of a Latin or Greek writer.

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. In my mind’s eye, I had created scopes, 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 toss a completely worn out copy of Othello, for example, if I thought it might not be replaced. I was over confident it would be.

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 we were discarding created a bottleneck in cataloging.

I helped the library get past that by obtaining guidelines for depreciation of library books from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and another guideline published by the University of Texas. In the meantime, the old library had become a composite of subscription databases, packages of resources requiring almost no ongoing maintenance. What little there was to do with the databases was my job, too. 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 an ELUNA conference and learned from that a later version of our ancient Voyager system had features to help with global changes and deletions through its Pick and Scan module. We upgraded. 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 in my current role. 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 FTE.

Graduate students came to see me to discuss their research, and I soon realized my chief value was assisting students with theses, dissertations and papers. They were grateful to have my help, especially the international students. 

Over the years working in the library and being the only librarian on the floor, I had witnessed the steady decline in foot traffic which coincided with the moratorium on book buying. I had seen the drop in desk stats. I no longer needed any student assistants at the desk; my boss, who had decided we were not going to buy books, and who maintained this stance for many years, asked me why I thought the traffic in the library dropped.

I told her what I had told her many time before, that the heaviest users of the library were readers, and readers (in my liaison areas) were no longer being served by her policy of booklessness. Our humanities students and faculty (and others) are not using the library any more because our collection development policies are not aligned with their needs. 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, you need to change your collection development practices.

Admittedly, it was harder to sort cause from effect now, especially because since that rule of thumb, times had changed, degrees had changed, and so many were claiming, or rather proclaiming, that even at a university, today’s students and scholars don’t want or need books—not just physical books, but any books at all. It was not necessary for the library to offer reading materials any more, thought the Director, who believed that 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 CRAAP 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? 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. About 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 these funds 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, filled up an Excel spreadsheet with titles, ISBN and price. But the Director suddenly decided, swayed by another librarian, to commit the funds to purchasing yet 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 and then there was no money when someone requested something. We had no current titles. We do not get them through EBSCO ebooks. When the faculty made requests, the answer was always, “We have no money.” If a faculty member published a book, we made them donate a copy of their book to the library. It made no sense. 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! They needed collections. We had JSTOR, which is great, but people in literature need literature. Students in Journalism, Public Affairs, Sociology and Communication needed contemporary authors. 

That day, the Director, who has since retired, quietly sat me down and slowly poured out a cup of tea. 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” at my institution.

She regarded getting rid of books as some kind of accomplishment she could use to her advantage in her claim to be moving the library forward. In this context of her “throwing out the books,” she mentioned to me that where she used to work, there was a reader in the library. 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 (only one in her old library, apparently. . . .), 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 the objective, her objective, was simply to eliminate print.

“Eliminating print,” the more the better, was apparently what the university administration understood her plan to be.

They wouldn’t understand weeding the collection and buying books again. (As in, why did you just throw out 250,000 books if you were going to start buying them?) All of this time, I thought I was weeding a collection to make the collection better, not with the goal of getting rid of books. 

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. There was no vote. It was not brought up with the faculty. I was close to the Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences faculty because I also taught classes. They were not happy with the library. They couldn’t count on us. 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, and hurt the reputation of the library.

This was not some “emotional attachment to print” on my part, but my attachment to being a good library.

I tried not to care, and it wasn’t just about keeping old things.

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. I tried not to care, but it wasn’t in my nature not to care.

After weeding over 75% of the collection, we moved to the new space and opened the new library 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 convenient parking. When we opened, librarians were assigned to tour people through “the space,” which is what it was—a space, not so much a library.

Why are we giving tours of “a space”? What was the point? (Why was I having to “explain” the windows?) There was to be a special grand opening just for the faculty, but it was called off. They would not be interested in, or significantly appreciate, the innovative spaces or sustainable building design or programmable window panes. They would think it ludicrous. 

For those who came in to see the new library, no one seemed concerned or surprised that there were no new books. No one asked me, “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 taking their jobs, compensation and post-tenure review, seemed to notice or care that we were still buying nothing. No one said anything. Not a word.

Well, someone did, actually, one person, a doctoral student, also a friend of mine, who emailed the President asking why the new library had no new books. He had copied an email I sent to him discussing the situation, and used that as the basis for the complaint. 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 and had no ability to do so “because” the library lost its jobber (B&T) years ago. . . 

But why shouldn’t the President know that the new library was not able to buy new books?

After that, because the President contacted the Provost, and the Provost contacted the Library Director, she was supposedly “drug across the carpet”—but for what exactly I do not know—for not buying books? I thought she thought booklessness was what the administration wanted.

For a collection to be of value to scholars, a collection must have critical mass. You cannot just stop acquiring for years and then begin again, like turning on and off a water hose. A consistent approach over an extended period is what makes a collection valuable. Plus the modern, minimalist design of the space, 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.

With its bright lights and rubberized and flooring, it it had the atmosphere and charm of a 24 hour gym. Months later, COVID hit, enrollments plummeted, my classes were cancelled, furloughs were threatened, and I headed off to another library undergoing renovation and reform.

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 and if 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 barren libraries which just subscribed to databases and were done for the year. It became something of an obsession of mine. 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 of EBSCO and PRoQuest ebooks, 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 browsable 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 (and at other universities) are researching. We need a rich store front.

Because of the current limitations of discovery interfaces to assemble e-resources into browsable 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 expertise 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 and possibly my own career trajectory.

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 we would have a classroom for instruction. 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, book-wise, 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 of the bins 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 creative use of metaphor and British accents, I might have thought to ask, “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, clarify and sediment the library’s needs, what the library was expected to do, furthermore classifying these needs as essential, desired, or just nice to have. I urged the Director to create a Business 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. She knew, and she knew I knew she knew.

We were kept in the dark. The way we librarians 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. (Residents of the surrounding neighborhood would not be granted access to the digital library, either.) They never conferred with the librarians in any formal way. They also did not engage with the faculty. My Chair in English had heard nothing. Weeks later, during the public comment period and at my request, the Director gave us the go ahead to make our comments, and so off we went on our Golem quest 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 the media viewing room? Where are the public service points? 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 also didn’t get many of the things she wanted.

In the end, the sticky-note campaign had no discernible impact on the design of the new library.

It was too late for changes to be made, too costly. The “programming stage” had ended even before they gathered input from the public or from the librarians who worked there. The building was completed way ahead of schedule.

What was erected was a very narrow building that was mostly hollow atrium and unusable space, a five-story angular 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, a startling waste of space, with open flooring on each level centered around a hard wooden bleacher sitting (collaborative learning) staircase, the building’s centerpiece, the exact same staircase (same materials, everything) which I had seen at UH:

The same collaborative learning staircase is now everywhere in educational settings. I am not convinced they are a good use of the space, since no one likes to sit or stand on them.

There was no public or student parking around it, just 24 hour reserved parking. 

The structure had been designed to be as tall 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 by anyone. The building was comprised of open stairwells, atria, and wide hallways, large unassigned offices (curiously designated as “staff workrooms”), offices assigned to tenants, elevators and enormous 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 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. Why do want to explain the windows? Why would anyone think to ask about them? In that building, why would I want to be able to dynamically darken a single 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 unfiltered LED light strips (which appeared to suck the color from things under it), narrowness, hard surfaces, exposed conduits and persistent loud hum gave it a strange vibe, like being on the inside of a fish tank or 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. Someone finally turned the vacuum cleaner off. 

On my floor, the electrochromic smart windows were set to a gray so it looked as if a storm were perpetually approaching. I would go outside and realize that, wow, it was actually a beautiful day outside, just not inside the library. 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 toward me, the only staff person around to vent to. Frustrated students inevitably found their way to my office to complain, where I would call OIT and also volunteer to print their papers using my printer if they sent it to me by email (I was not allowed to stick their unclean flash drives into my USB port).

On each floor, the view of the librarians’ offices were completely 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 even several floors above her office. One day, I was on the phone in my office and a toilet flushed. “Oh, you can you hear that? I am sorry, I office next to the restrooms.” 

The fact that they would put open airport restrooms in the middle of each floor suggested that maybe Moody Nolan really didn’t know how to design 21st century learning environments after all.

  • View outside of Special Collections.
  • First floor, not much to see.
  • Fourth floor, pretty empty.
  • Atrium around a staircase. There are no instructional classrooms which seat more than 24.