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.
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 undergraduate library, modeled after Harvard’s Lamont Library), Library Director of a new Art Institute campus, “Data Standards Manager” for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and “Client Relationship Manager” for a popular and powerful federated search / discovery application whose technology was used by EBSCO and Gale (among the largest academic content aggregators and database vendors in the world). I have been a Systems and Digital Services Librarian for a Graduate Theological Seminary with five campuses. I am a Certified Information Professional (CIP) through AIIM. In addition to all that, I have many hours of post-graduate work in English, Philosophy, History and Art History along with courses in Computer Science, Business and MIS.
Having worked for the last 18 months as a “Project Manager / Corporate Librarian” for a telecommunications billing software and engineering company two hours commute from home, on an automation project that was rapidly coming to an end—and seeing no new projects on the horizon because the Houston office was being converted to a Data/Network Operations Center—I was eager for the chance at a stable position where I could put my technical, academic and library skills to use. I had taken that position, leaving the MFAH, for SharePoint development experience and a promised trip to Bangalore, India, neither of which panned out. The various VPs and CIO were locked into a game of thrones, and mine didn’t have the power or influence in the company to undertake the creation of a centralized contact and document management system.
The day of the job interview at the community college arrived. To my surprise, especially since I was interviewing for a technical position, I was asked to share with the search committee my “Philosophy of Librarianship.” This was one of a few questions asked during the interview, none of which had to do with anything at all technical (“technical services” in libraries entails management of cataloging and patron records, the library automation system, reporting services, the proxy server, discovery tools, electronic resources and the website).
Hmm. Ask me about my experiences 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 something technical.
But my “Philosophy of Librarianship”?
I had nothing, and whatever I thought to say in that moment I feared would come across as disingenuous. Actually, I was having a hard time even relating a philosophy to the job description. What were the possible correct responses? I feared I had simply missed something, having worked outside of libraries for a few years.
The Public Services Librarian who posed the question indignantly poked me: “What, are we librarians just circling the drain?”
As far as I was concerned, I would be there to fill a specific role involving access to electronic resources, systems, the website, servers and records. I was offering my skills to solve problems. I didn’t see how my personal librarian philosophy, whatever that might be, even related to the job.
ince that time, I have discovered that the question is not such an unusual one in the library world. Academic librarians of all types, both in public and technical services, are being asked to provide a philosophy of library practice in job interviews or as part of their performance review process. These days, they may even need to provide one to keep their jobs.
By Googling “philosophy of librarianship,” as I did when I got home that afternoon, you can pull up this page from the USC Library,1 for example, which states that one’s philosophy of librarianship can give one an advantage over others in terms of hiring and promotion:
At academic research institutions (such as ours at USC) librarians are being held accountable, more than ever before, to provide solid evidence of the quality of their work, and of their impact on the mission of both their institution and their library.
Though, in many cases, our annual reviews are summative and evaluative, at time of promotion and continuing appointment (or tenure) the expectation . . . is that we present for their review our reflective (formative) assessment of our work . . . as well as our understanding of the value and purpose of our essential role as academic librarians in a research university.
Such an assessment can be first formulated in our Statement of Philosophy of Academic Librarianship. This is a relatively new concept in the field of librarianship and it has, as its precedent, the Teaching Philosophy Statement which is a “personal mission statement” for those committed to teaching. That Statement demonstrates one’s reflective thinking about teaching. It helps communicate one’s goals as a teacher, and one’s commitment to students’ learning outcomes based on their corresponding actions and activities, in and out of the classroom (See Seldin et al., 2010).
A Statement of Philosophy of Academic Librarianship presents a capsule summary of your understanding of the value and purpose of your role as an academic librarian in a research university. . . It gains an advantage over others for promotion or for a new position.
Whenever one is asked to justify one’s value in some sort of formalized statement, it is never a good thing.It means that your value to the organization is not obvious.
And whenever this happens, no philosophy or explanation is likely to change anyone’s mind:
Nonetheless, this trend of self-justification in academic librarianship has become so pervasive, that librarians are even posting them on their personal websites.
ow that I work in an academic library again, and have for many years, I find myself thinking about philosophies of librarianship at this uncertain time when many both outside and within the library profession are proclaiming libraries, librarians, or print books (“pbooks”) to be obsolete.2
Many college and academic libraries are getting rid of print altogether 34567while 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 world8–-is 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 one from the 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 engagement with our resources, which may have had nothing to do with assignment completion or “success” as defined by any business objective measures.
Even though the building may have been designed to utilize the most up-to-date technologies, it may be more challenging within the context of these new centers to effectively deploy new technologies to put new titles in front of users, or place titles into a disciplinary context to enhance their relevance to users.
Despite their bright colors and modern, airy designs, the new library facility might also seem less inspiring to students, even as a place to study, when compared to a library with visible contents.1011
I am willing to concede that the traditional academic library, our “old library service model,” may no longer be viable in this digital age. Just as many are rethinking education, and how technology plays into it, so too, libraries have been the subject of reinvention, experimentation, virtualization–and frankly, elimination–over the last twenty years.
Many regard “booklessness”–bookless is what is called a library that goes all-digital–as forward-thinking and progressive. 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.12I’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.
t isn’t an over attachment to print format, or job security, or technophobia, as some undoubtedly think, which causes long-time librarians such as myself to question the wisdom of full-on booklessness for a college or academic library, especially at schools with programs in English literature, creative writing, art, communications, journalism, history, music, history, 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. Defending physical collections often goes against current trends to improve and modernize libraries by re-purposing stack space for sitting and collaborative work space, and to realize some progressive ideal of what a modern library ought to be, which, of course, is paperless.
While the landscape and priorities for college and university libraries are rapidly changing, there are valid reasons for academic libraries not to go fully digital at this time, reasons which I will try to explain, and which have nothing to do with anyone’s personal preference for a particular reading format.
I am not going to defend print format, though, at least not yet; but I will defend, as a business requirementfor an academic library, browseable and visible collections reflecting scholarly activity in the disciplines supported by the university. This need is independent of format, but is necessary for an academic library to be credible and successful an academic library (hence, a “business requirement”). Maintaining collections, representing the academic disciplines and contemporary culture (depending on the nature of the library and the community it serves), is essential for a library to function as a library, or at least to function as a good one. Making various items of questionable value passively available through a search engine doesn’t inspire learning or promote knowledge–even if good things may be found in the library’s digital repository. This manner of presentation in itself doesn’t promote respect for scholarship (or academic librarianship, not that this is an objective). It provides no overview of the discipline as a discipline, and it doesn’t lend itself to assessment by commonly accepted academic library standards and approaches, some of which I will discuss later on.
Support for presenting users with great collections ordered according to the priorities and topical areas of the discipline, along with active promotion of new and noteworthy titles, is what makes the user experience of an academic library good and appealing for students and scholars. Visible, browseable collections, representing what scholars and those working in the find meaningful, are essential to promoting user engagement and an optimal learning environment at a university.
The experience of collections are what make the library a library. Collections reflect what others think is important to know. It is an expression of shared culture and community. An academic library without collections makes a statement about the extent to which education, scholarship, knowledge and culture are valued. The empty library fails to inspire anything. It is not compelling.
While the relevance of library collections to libraries may sound patently obvious to those who graduated even a few years ago–why, of course, libraries have collections, you may be thinking to yourself–people can no longer expect that their academic libraries will provide them with collections. Collections, along with just about everything else library-related, are now deemed obsolete, the space we occupy so valuable that we cannot even afford to occupy it. While physical collections have gone away, our online presence has not noticeably expanded, our interfaces have not evolved, and there are no discernible collections there either. Many libraries simply buy content or resources in bulk from aggregators and publishers, provide a mechanism for federated search and authentication (the authentication piece has recently moved from the library to IT Departments). A search engine has become the library. Of course, these aggregators and publishers are reputable, but still, the outcome is not a collection, nor a library.
It all has me and many others questioning if the juice is worth the squeeze,
or if it simply takes the right person to make the lemon-aide.
Indeed, there are many facets to this whole collections issue which makes it challenging to write about. There is our method of acquisition (whether the library still does any ongoing collection development apart from licensing subscription packages) and our manner of presentation or display, for example, can users browse online as they could the stacks to get an overview of their field of study or apprehend recent publication activity in a research area. The method of acquisition the library employs and its mode of display are not completely unrelated, though, for the highly efficient workflows designed to promote rapid acquisition and immediate access to ever expanding academic content have come at a cost of good library metadata, metadata needed to design better user interfaces. Now that the metadata is coming in in tidal waves sourced from publishers, we may be stuck from here on out like being in a rip-tide, forever being a search engine of third-party content most of which may be of tangential applicability to our user community, but for which we pay a premium price.
Gone from the academic library of today are curated collections reflecting what others in the discipline, experts in the field, regard as significant and good, and gone is browsing according to the organization of the discipline. This is a very serious impediment for an academic library. With most of our collection being auto-loaded or an aggregator package, we don’t even know what we have until we search for it. Our spaces and user interfaces do not make any effort to engage users or promote resource awareness or use. It is worth mentioning that public libraries and the library systems which support them have not gone down this same path, which is why, in an already niche market, the strange bifurcation of academic and public library systems still exists.
In terms of the user experience, what many of us in the academic library world offer today in place of the experience of collections is a search portal called “discovery” which searches the records of our print holdings (if any remain) along with ebook, journal and video content. Sometimes discovery is configured to search even beyond the licensed content of the library to include resources its users might want to know about and can request for purchase or ILL.
Discovery is a very useful research tool; I use it almost every day. It allows searches of academic literature to be more comprehensive than ever, and while discovery does not search the texts themselves, indexing occurs at the book title, journal title and article title level–a significant benefit to researchers over the traditional online library catalog, which did not include entries for journal articles. Discovery retrieves relevance-ranked results which can be formed into citations and saved to citation managers. We librarians now commonly call this discovery experience of aggregated records with links to the online resource the online library.
In place of collections, discovery offers users searchable aggregations of the indexed metadata records of the content which the library is entitled to access, content which is maintained and hosted by publishers. Some publishers continuously load (and yes, sometimes unload–and then try to sell back to the library at a higher price) content from our systems as it suits them without affecting our license agreements. Authorized users can often access the same content through subject specific databases, or even by going directly to the publisher’s platform and searching there. Truly, it is a Faustian bargain we have made, for even though through discovery we afford users access to a world of knowledge, we have provided them with little incentive to learn or engage with it, or with us for that matter, for with collections gone how would spontaneous conversations ever occur? Why would anyone assume librarians know anything without our providing some demonstrable proof that we know something about their field (evidence which was once afforded by collections)? We also cannot keep up with titles in our inventories acquired on such a large scale, where with our cogent collections, we often knew about the titles from first hand experience. Familiarity with the discipline and the collection was essential. This passive interface onto third-party content, this generic search engine which has replaced the library, does not inspire knowledge or stimulate desire to learn.
Promoting resource use and “knowledge of the discipline” are no longer objectives for the academic library. To me, it doesn’t matter that we spend millions on databases if cannot create a culture of learning on campus. We cannot achieve culture by being just a search engine, any more than we could by being what critics of the traditional library called us, a book repository. Now we are a digital repository, but a repository just the same. One thing studies which compare preference for ebook vs. print format13 overlook are the people who do what I do: go to a bookstore or library where the books are organized and displayed, browse print, and then see if the book is available online to download to read it from my phone or tablet.
The impact on learning outcomes of this shift from browseable collections to search alone has not been studied much. While studying user reactions to discovery interfaces was a popular thing to do when they came out years ago, their recent prominence in the library world, and the elimination of browsing has been driven by external pressures for libraries to eliminate print and go fully digital on a larger scale, and no efficient mechanism to assign call numbers to ebooks and ejournals to facilitate virtual browsing. Another trend is that IT departments have taken over library websites, where this always managed by library technical services staff. The lack of autonomy has often created challenges marketing our content and developing content-driven websites.
What was once a research tool thought to be best suited to novices for a first dive in has become the online public access catalog for medium and large research libraries. No academic publisher today could even sell to academic libraries without contributing their metadata to the Central Discovery Index of ProQuest Ex Libris. The user experience of discovery now defines the academic library experience at most colleges and universities. We pretty much all have the same use interface and no support for browsing. 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. It 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, promoting resource use, and encouraging students to learn independently. Discovery is a good tool for providing efficient access, but in itself, it affords only a shallow or superficial level of user engagement with resources, and no understanding of a publication’s significance in a broader scholarly context. It doesn’t encourage scholarly value. Few would comprehend that the library is spending tens of thousands for access to a journal, hundreds for some ebook, just so it might be discoverable in discovery. Our users perceive value differently because they are used to thinking that what is digital is cheap or even free. Rather than enhancing the value of an item, conveying a sense of exclusivity and value, we devalue items first by making them invisible, and secondly, by presenting extremely expensive resources next to items that are practically free. There is another large issue I feel strongly about, which is that as publicly supported academic libraries have gone fully digital, their collections have become less accessible to the public whose taxes subsidize the library.
We might ultimately decide, or shrinking budgets will decide for us, that less is more, some mechanism for promoting deeper engagement with fewer resources is what leads to better learning outcomes. At least for student learning, we may quickly reach a point of diminishing returns sooner than realized if all we do is promote packaged content either through discovery or databases online.
I believe that it is particularly important at a university that a library maintain the visibility and integrity of its academic collections, even if this means holding on to print a while longer, until better user interfaces can be developed. Physical books may be optional for an academic library, but maintaining good collections are not. Consider that the meaning of an academic degree is not the number of hours spent in a classroom, but a person’s degree of knowledge, or mastery over the body of knowledge which comprises an academic discipline. But what and where is this knowledge at the university, if it is not in some way represented by authoritative and visible collections of titles, arranged according to the priorities of those working in the discipline? The experience of collections is vital to scholars, especially those entering the field.
A good library collection tells users: 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.It also allows users (and librarians) to easily grasp what the library has in an academic or topical area.
The collection itself is a scholarly work, our scholarly work as academic librarians. There is a class in Medieval History–of course, we have Paul O. Kristeller and Norman Cantor. English literature of that period? Barbara Lewlski. Every field has its Harold Blooms.We keep up with what is happening in the field and tell others who might care, for example, that Stephen Greenblatt’s new book is here. Regardless of what anyone thinks of him as a scholar, we must have his new book when it comes out (because we support English Literature), and not wait 20 years for that book to wash up in an aggregator package. We ask things like, “How come we have Richard Reich but not Thomas Sowell?” (I know that’s Economics, but more people can relate to that example than another one from English lit.) If we don’t celebrate the rock stars of academia and the intellectuals of today, who will? Libraries need a disciplinary perspective. Discovery doesn’t do that. It has the effect of diminishing value, rather than amplifying it.
The Library of Congress Classification (LCC) System was designed to arrange scholarly materials into collections of disciplinary knowledge so these resources can be meaningfully comprehended and assessed by academic users, including the librarians who are responsible for collection management. It provides a needed and invaluable context which allows scholars to comprehend the intellectual relationships between titles. Maintaining strong collections in the disciplines, not passive repositories where users might find something of value, is an important way that the library adds scholarly value and maintains its brand.
This experience of library 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 random aggregations of content whose only brief manifestation and sense of perceived value is in their usefulness or immediate relationship to a user’s search query. Providing a solid external, existential framework, the scholarly context within which an item is valued and influential, is an important part of how the library itself adds value to the items in its inventories.
Discovery systems are not capable of supporting the user experience of an academic library collection. While the academic library is rapidly eliminating its print collections in campaigns to modernize and innovate, it has no ability to support browsing collections through its web-scale discovery systems. It isn’t so much about attachment to physical books which causes some librarians to resist booklessness, but the limited user experience of the academic library online through discovery alone. It isn’t optimal for undergraduates and those trying to learn about a field or discipline. It also doesn’t turn people on to things that are new or that they would not have thought to search for.
Just like everyone else in the 21st century, I now spend most of my waking hours online, including portions of that time reading books and articles which I access though my library. I have good technical/web skills, so naturally I might be expected to welcome the library’s transition to complete booklessness. But I see the changes which have occurred within college and academic libraries as lost opportunities to develop better and more valuable library experiences and better user interfaces, for librarians to be able to facilitate user engagement with books and other cultural resources in new and innovative ways.
I believe that:
Libraries should be more dynamic, inspiring and interesting than just spaces to sit to study or complete assigned coursework.
Library websites should be more engaging than static pages featuring a search box and links to online resources. They should be dynamic and continuously updated to encourage resource use and user engagement.
Libraries should not depend on its users (collaborative model) to share their knowledge and expertise with other users in the space to allow it to function as a place for learning.
The academic library, its systems and its spaces, must be designed not just to provide passive access to library resources, but to promote and display new and significant titles in ways that enhance their scholarly value for users.
A business requirement of a library (as opposed to a repository, which is a different entity) is that it actively and effectively promote resource awareness and use.
Libraries should strive to be content-rich, interesting, intellectually stimulating and educational places about ideas and knowledge.
I’m all for the creation of beautiful environments and sun-lit social spaces. I’m all for amenities to help students succeed in school and in life, and enrichment programs to bring more people into the library. I like food, drink, and poetry slams as much as the next person. I’m ready to convert our spaces into a home away from home, like some Internet start-up company circa 2000, so students can work around the clock and never have to leave (as long as I don’t have to stay late or clean up after them). 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 in ways that are interesting, compelling and meaningful to students and to scholarly audiences?
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?14 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? Can the traditional library be defended or justified from a business perspective, and should it even be required to, given its scholarly mission?
n recent years, the traditional library has been portrayed by new library advocates as a wasteful, decaying book repository whose time has come.15Maybe 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 declined, eventually 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 (and other people) would be in the library.
At many academic libraries, the print collection had become a reliquary of intellectuals of the twentieth century, not in alignment with curricular programs or student interests. Despite ample seating, plenty of space, extended hours, and friendly librarians eager to assist, fewer students were coming into the library even to study, preferring other locales on and around campus where they could more predictably gather with peers and snack while working on assignments. 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.
No matter how available we made ourselves through email, chat services, or extended hours–and no matter how friendly and outgoing we were–few were likely to ask a librarian for help, or if they did it was just to obtain access to an article. In the meantime, our own literature proclaimed, “Reference is dead!” and of course, the Reference stacks were already long gone; the Reference desk, often accused of intimidating people, was eliminated; books were thrown out and no longer acquired in the name of modernizing the library; and finally, collections (even online) went away. We were left behind in an empty building, debating what methods to use to more effectively capture reference stats, and clinging to them like desperate people meticulously counting out nickels and dimes tossed to them by passersby–rather than concentrating our efforts on big ideas, how to increase engagement, expand services and make the library better so our value was obvious. It has perhaps been a shortcoming of my professional practice as a librarian that I never aspired just to look good on paper, I wanted to be good.
While effort to weave a finer dragnet to capture a more nuanced record of user engagement went on and on, the world was going by at a rapid pace. People came and went from the university without ever visiting the library. Their classes were taught entirely from textbooks and group projects. Outside the library, users were not even certain of the help we librarians might provide them, except to resolve an access issue or confirm that we didn’t have their textbook. To my mind, low demand wasn’t just Google’s fault or a sign of the times, however. Some of it was, but some of it was also on us.
Previously, people came to the library to browse and experience the library’s collections. Our purpose was 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 the disciplines we support and the authorities who comprise it, and showcase good things other people might want to know about. It meant stimulating demand, and being a window onto a world of scholarship and possibility which motivated and inspired students to want to learn and pursue their own path to success, not just to complete an assignment. We kept faculty apprised of new publications in their areas of interest which kept their research from fizzling out and helped them keep up to date, so students were up to date. Of course, if we do not see students or faculty and are not maintaining collections, this somewhat limits our ability to do all of the above.
Collection development, selecting and ordering books–promoting and displaying them–even sometimes reading them–to form collections which both serve and uniquely reflect our communities, and being familiar with the collection and scholarly publishing in the disciplines, were important for maintaining a good library, for keeping good relationships with the faculty, establishing our credibility as scholars, and connecting with our users. Books, formed into collections by discipline, representing the knowledge that is known on a subject, or the best of the best of scholarship in an area, formed our common bond with the scholars.
But then we got rid of books and erected newlibraries. When the academic library abandoned its commitment to maintaining authoritative collections in the disciplines–either in the library space or online–fewer faculty members would see the library and its librarians as being useful to them and as partners in the research process. Once we abandoned visible collections, including in the online space, the faculty became increasingly disengaged from the library. Students also didn’t find our bookless spaces and websites interesting or engaging.
I am not suggesting that our online offerings are not good–obviously, libraries are all different–but there is a sense that even if we were to provide access to everything that anyone at the university might want to search for through our discovery systems, we and our user interfaces are still not adding significant value to the user experience, because we are neither promoting knowledge of the discipline through resources and interfaces, nor promoting resource use in any visible way. We are activating resources, but not activating readers. There’s no new or big ideas. What we offer online is not the experience of a robust online library, one that fosters community and intellectual engagement, but rather a searchable repository of licensed publisher content. In the academic space, we must develop more engaging user interfaces to serve as our storefront and also that our systems support browsing 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 has always been conceived as acontent-rich learning environment signifying community value and investment in scholarship, which also helped stimulate demand for its resources. We stimulated a desire to learn, to read, to explore. Collections and display made students want to read and learn independently, investing in their own education and making their degrees more meaningful and relevant to them. Browsing is in large part what made it good and inviting to students and scholars. It wasn’t just about satisfying existing demand or assignment completion; it was about presenting what others in the scholarly community were reading and thinking about. It was about knowledge, and ideas, and to some extent academic fashion, good things brought to light and shared with a community.
Whether our objectives are the education of students, stimulating inquiry, promoting resource use, engaging users, raising awareness of significant and new titles in the disciplines and actively support research including at its earliest stages, our current user interfaces leave much to be desired. A search box and relevance ranking alone doesn’t convey quality or authority–what’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 assignment, but knowledge of the scholarly activity in a discipline, or obtain a broad understanding of an academic subject area. Our websites–I mention library websites in another essay–are boring, static, and fail to emphasize scholarship and ideas.
If in 2021 we are continuing to do title-by-title selection in this discovery environment, as we were all taught to do in Collection Development 101, it may also feel thankless, for through our discovery interfaces, the ebooks we are buying individually, usually at a premium price far above list price, have no way of being presented to the user as part of a visible, browseable collection, and therefore nobody sees them. The fact that they are discoverable is just not good enough. The likelihood of anyone discovering the book in its lifecycle is slim. Furthermore, when we buy an ebook, it feels as if we are not so much enhancing the library’s collection, as we are enhancing ebook platforms at our own expense, adding titles to them to make them better, and not making the user experience of the library better. If we were a retail operation, we would have a serious marketing problem on our hands.
No one knows that the book which we added to our EBSCO ebooks or ProQuest Academic Complete wasn’t already there, that we added it. No one senses that the book is valuable to anyone. And if we add a popular new title in the media, people still have to come along and search for it to discover that it is there, decreasing the odds anyone will see it. There’s no marketing, no display, no promotion, no visibility of the items we license through third parties. We have no physical or online store front.
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 by others.16 But the opposition is shrinking, growing smaller every day, with some college students who prefer the experience of traditional libraries using their public library.
When libraries go in this direction, many cannot help but notice the disappointment of users who enter the library space and do not see books, for even if they may have come to sit and complete an assignment, they also desire and benefit from the learning experience of discovering something new they didn’t think to search for. This was the experience they were hoping for or expected when they entered the library. Booklessness doesn’t draw people to it or convey library goodness, it doesn’t create community, and doesn’t place value on scholarship or knowledge, learning for learning’s sake (life-long learning), regardless of the aesthetics of the space.
We must create business and functional requirements and solutions which prioritize display, browsing, marketing and community engagement, and the user experience beyond passive access to packaged resources.
Questia: the first collectionless (and mostly librarianless) online academic library. In the context of the shift in academic libraries from collection development to resource acquisitions management, I will present the story of Questia, the first for-profit academic online library, also the first academic library which had to grapple with being commercial (publisher-driven) or scholarly in its approach to collection development.
Questia began in Houston circa 1999 and closed doors (after relocating to Chicago and being sold to Gale) in December 2020. A little over twenty years ago, I was Questia’s first and only librarian for several months one year prior to launch. I was hired on full-time contract beginning January 2, 2000, when it was still “TLG,” named for the initials of its three founders, two of whom departed that year (my personal favorite was L, and I do not remember G). I remained in a permanent position after it was branded Questia Online Library, where I was given the dubious title “Collection Manager.” I did many things for Questia–procurement and evaluation of books in the public domain, technical writing, working with programmers on a citations tool, explaining library standards and metadata (resident MARC records expert), working on the user interface, and developing a conspectus–but despite my important sounding title, actively managing its collections was not one of them. In fact, my first assignment at Questia had been to develop a collection development strategy which guaranteed a quality library collection without need for human selectors. It was made clear to me that they didn’t want to hire librarians, which is why they hired me, to come up with an automated alternative for collection development, a system to propose titles to feed rights acquisition.
When I got there, the company was small, but was already digitizing large quantities of books in the public domain driven by a contractual arrangement with a company in the Philippines, where the digitization was taking place. The company was trying to come up with its own metadata for the books they digitized, and had for some reason not seriously considered that an existing library automation system which managed print collections could be repurposed for the needs of an online digital library. I frequently brought this up with the CIO, a large man who went by the name “Krately,” who said that they were not going to go this route, they were developing their own system and metadata from scratch. It sounded insane to me. This is what programmers were doing, or expected to be doing, on his side of the office.
One afternoon I ran over to Rice Fondren Library, copied a special issue of Library Technology Reports, and provided these to the CIO. I had been trying to persuade him for some time not try to develop his own library automation system, and to impress upon him the difficulties involved just in searching, manipulating and displaying bibliographic data properly, or at least the way libraries do it, according to academic library standards. He read the detailed report of the features of the various library systems on the market, and he came away with a new appreciation of their capabilities. I showed him our arcane MARC records and explained where they came from–of course, most are freely available courtesy of the Library of Congress and other libraries–and also explained the concept of authority control. Large library systems were back-ended by Oracle, they were open platform (allowing unlimited customization), and they were web-based. Sorting by LC Classification number, a fairly difficult problem since our numbers are not strictly alphanumeric, was another challenge developers had already figured out, and therefore they readily supported browsing. I recall he was dealing not with GUI issues, but with the problem of scalability. He read something in the reports that he liked which solved his bigger problem, and things fell into place.
Intrigued by the possibility of not needing to completely reinvent the wheel when it came to developing a library system, given the importance of establishing Questia’s credibility as a “real academic library” (with the search and display capacities of a traditional library OPAC)–and also needing to launch as soon as possible to start generating revenue–he changed his mind about not going with a MARC-based system. He sent an email to the office announcing the change in direction. I drafted an RFP for a new system according to his specifications, and sent it off to Innovative Interfaces and a few other vendors he had checked off. He promised me (because I asked) a spot on his side of the office along with Oracle training during the implementation phase. Unfortunately, he resigned suddenly a few weeks later, and my much beloved boss, VP of Product Development, was laid off, immediately before the first of many rounds of drastic layoffs began. I paid for Oracle certification training for myself (just a one week bootcamp), and approached the new CIO; he was unimpressed. With Product Development gone, I was put under Marketing, where I feared that my chief value to Questia was about to become their ability to say the company “employed real librarians.”
Questia was building a subscription online academic library strong in the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, yet all who worked there, aside from programmers, were MBAs, mainly from Compaq and Minute Maid. The company continuously recruited more MBAs from far away places. I didn’t see where I, or any librarian, fit into the organizational structure of the company. I was there when there were less than 30 employees, and it rapidly ballooned to just under 300 with investor funding. I definitely enjoyed my status in the company as being the first and only resident librarian for a few months. I got to work on a variety of tasks and cross-functional teams. Having already made forays into Perl, I happily worked with their Perl programmer on the citations piece, an application to cite sources MLA and APA style by pulling data from the MARC record and digitized title page. I also recommended a great Librarian Perl programmer colleague from Rice be hired on part-time contract to work on XML crosswalks, which I knew was kind of his thing. I worked on a prototype for the new user interface. It was fun and exciting, as start-ups often are.
Initially, the founder, Troy Williams, wanted a reliable collection development system or plan to ensure quality, a workflow so people negotiating for rights with publishers could have an idea of what each title was worth from a scholarly standpoint. His source of inspiration was Harvard’s Lamont Library, which he had wanted to replicate title-by-title. He assumed, as many people might, that if Harvard had it, it had to be good. While he often referenced Harvard in public statements, I persuaded him not to actually follow this strategy because Questia would end up spending time and money to hunt down and digitize obscure titles Harvard had on its shelves but which had little scholarly value. In 2000, the manpower involved in locating and buying some old text from 1963 in a used bookstore, to have it shipped to us and then shipped to the Philippines didn’t make good business sense. Libraries were not working with us to supply the books, as they later did with Google (Google attempted to build the world’s largest online library until publishers sued them for violation of copyright).
As mentioned earlier, I was hired to develop a system which would mitigate the need for Librarians to be title selectors, but would give those in Rights and Acquisitions some idea of what a scholarly title was worth from an scholarly perspective. I was assigned to with work with an MBA to create a bibliometric machine, a weighting / ranking / scoring system that would feed the acquisitions pipeline with in-demand titles, and which conformed to Questia’s targeted Marketing disciplines. To feed the machine, I initiated a partnership with OCLC. OCLC has the holdings records of every academic library in the country. After an agreement was signed, WLN/OCLC generated an aggregated list of what twenty Troy-approved peer libraries had in their collections filtered through our conspectus to assist with retrospective collection development. We performed other analytics and filters on that list, but if all 20 had the title, it went to the top. To benchmark growth, I developed granular Conspectus Analysis for Questia’s target disciplines (Rice University had developed a Conspectus, and I got good information from their Head of Technical Services about applying it; I used the LCC Schedules in Technical Services at University of St. Thomas to perfect it), which mostly needed to be done for the harvesting project with OCLC anyway. But that whole Collection Development strategy, both retrospective and ongoing, went away fairly quickly. It wasn’t needed. The company figured out it had to sign up publishers, not pursue individual titles based on each one’s scholarly merit,which is what librarians do and have always done. With Questia, publishers didn’t want to negotiate for rights to this or that title. There were lawyers and license agreements involved on both sides, and Questia realized it wasn’t going to be able to build this online library book by book, as we do in the library world, or as we did back in 2000.
In the race to digitize, Questia had to do big deals, even if that sometimes resulted in not the best content being added to the platform. Something people outside academia may not appreciate is that there are plenty of academic titles published each year–perhaps the majority of them–which few academic libraries want to buy. Some are just low demand titles, e.g., Ancient Greek Participles, Heavy Metal and the Navajo Nation, and maybe even one day my Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship. These titles may make sense, perhaps, in a really big library collection, but no sense by themselves. At the time of launch, all sorts of oddball academic titles had been indiscriminately added to the Questia platform as part of deals with publishers eager to monetize their back-listed content. It was almost a parody of academia. Questia began acquiring rights to academic content, not doing library collection development. For this, they certainly didn’t need librarians and also did not need a Collection Development strategy or plan.
Questia signed up publishers rather than acquiring individual titles, helping publishers to monetize their content, and agreeing to take the good with the mediocre. Not only was the initial collection unappealing as a research collection (librarians complained about the quality), but any images in books, including Art History, had to be stripped out because of copyright.
Librarians complained that Questia didn’t hire librarians to do selection so it wasn’t a “real” academic library, but in the end, deals with academic publishers drove the process, not a work’s scholarly merits.
Despite the founder’s plan to offer a quality academic library to everyone willing to pay $19.95/month, Questia marketed not a quality online library, but convenience to time-strapped students. Their target audience was not aspiring scholars, but the college student who needed to crank out a research paper in one night, who didn’t know or care if he was using the best scholarly resources. Rather than go to the library, the student could use Questia to write a paper, remaining in the comfort of his dorm room, copy/pasting from the digitized texts and using citation tools to automatically format and cite his sources for him. Academic librarians were Questia’s worst critics. Librarians often attacked Questia for not hiring librarians, but they protested too much about that. I think it was more the vision of a completely commodified academic library, one which didn’t need librarians to select titles, which struck a nerve with them. It was the possibility of an online library which didn’t need librarians which they feared. I feared it too. I saw no bright future for me in that company, so I quit to take a job with another start-up where I could make more of a contribution.
Admittedly, Questia gradually improved over the years as more publishers signed on and the collection was filled in, but even eight years later, it was still dubbed a “McLibrary,”17 a fast, convenient paper writing service, and not a “real” academic library with real collections maintained by real librarians conferring with faculty.
One librarian famously asserted in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005 that an “Electronic library could never be an academic library,”18 because it was too far removed from the needs of students and faculty.
If Mr. Bell is still among us, I wonder what he thinks now about the changes that have occurred in academic libraries, where print may soon be a thing of the past, and what contributes the collection is vendor package, similar actually to the changes that have occurred in retail where product just comes into inventory (no one is selecting or ordering it).
I have related my Questia story not to share my Woodstock moment, but to make a point about libraries today and how and why have changed in recent years. Offering users access to unvetted academic publisher content, not actual curated collections selected and visibly maintained by librarians or subject experts, Questia was widely rejected by the academic library community throughout the 2000s as unscholarly. It wasn’t an actual academic library collection, critics said. It is just an aggregation of scholarly titles of questionable quality, including obscure and often inconsistent academic content. It was a digital repository and not an actual research library.
Many articles can be found online from 2001 to 2008 criticizing the Questia online library and debating if it was a “real” academic library, demonstrating that, at least philosophically and professionally, there was a sharp distinction in the minds of librarians between a good academic library collection and mere aggregations of publisher content, distinctions which, for better or for worse, eroded in the academic library world by 2020.
By December 21, 2020, when Questia closed, academic libraries were all employing modern and efficient publisher-driven acquisitions workflows that Questia and other digital libraries which emerged around that same time forged, workflows which anticipated library web-scale discovery systems of today.
Most academic libraries today have adopted the same acquisitions workflows and business efficiencies that as a profession we once eschewed as unacceptable and beneath academic library standards. Now libraries sign on publishers, carrying their entire line, and buy in aggregate, rather than selecting individual titles based on each one’s merit or scholarly value. Collection Managers in libraries have been replaced by Resource Acquisitions Managers, whose chief responsibility is to negotiate pricing with publishers and aggregators for packages containing tens of thousands of titles at a time. Web-scale academic library systems are optimized for the rapid acquisition and activation of myriad packaged resources, and not for title-by-title collection development and the evaluation of titles in relation to a discipline. There are no browseable collections (Questia could do that much), only searchable resources. Increasingly, academic librarians know little first hand about the titles acquired by the thousands, passively acquired through blanket license agreements; nor are they expected to operate on the title level. There is less and less collaboration with faculty because the budget is committed in advance to packaged, subscription content. Just as with Questia, there is little perceived need for teams of title selectors, subject experts, or scholars in the academic library space.
We are all Questia now. Discovery has forever changed serials librarianship, allowing articles in journals to be accessed in a more immediate and efficient way than years ago, when people often had to consult indexes and copy pages out of bound periodicals. Discovery represents significant improvement here with subscription content. Thanks to the cooperation of publishers, the latest journal content conveniently appears in discovery where its articles can be easily discovered–provided people think to look for the journal or article in the first place–or even know what a “journal” is (when we had print I used to bring them to my instructional classes and pass them around so students could see them). However, through discovery, we have made all content subscription content, which has helped publishers monetize their offerings and the library to be more efficient, but it has not been good for the scholarly or intellectual aspect of the library, unless the library is so big or so specialized that it can afford to buy everything. Even then, users cannot visualize their academic discipline through our user interfaces, and if our primary mandate is to support research in the disciplines, this seems a serious shortcoming.
Our modern systems have been designed to facilitate the efficient acquisition and access to publisher resources, 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 browsing if they are to continue to provide scholars with an educational, meaningful academic library experience. Likewise, our modern spaces must strive to be content-rich and intellectually stimulating.
Findability is important, but what about turning people on to content they might like or need to know about? Isn’t that a fundamental part of the function of a good library as well?
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 age 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, and as far as I could tell when I walked to these buildings to give presentations, these were places where students were spending time during the day. Music and Public Affairs were bustling (and Music had music, and they liked it that way). The Science building had lots of 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, brave souls who I imagined were pursuing art despite their parents’ warnings. Public Affairs always had interesting guest speakers and seminars. It wasn’t like there was no campus life. It was there on campus, just not in the library.
After the library stopped buying books–that had been a part of my job responsibility as Reference and Instruction Librarian–the faculty would sometimes create secret satellite libraries of donated books and materials in their respective departments. Departments also had desk copies of textbooks and other books which could be lent out to students. I observed that students spent time 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, sometimes in rooms lined with bookshelves, where they could use a printer and could collaborate with faculty who officed close by. Many colleges had their own media centers and software used by their discipline or department. One school licensed GIS software, another video editing software, another a statistics package, another a digital soundboard and television production studio. Each college maintained their own licenses and media labs, often supervised with experienced lab technicians for their own students. This kept students in their departments or colleges, not in the library.
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. If and when they came in 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 (even in this digital age, hard copies of papers were still required by some faculty members) and back down and out the door. I got more action to boost my stats when I left the desk on the first floor, where I had been officing (and the space was now empty as the stacks were gone), and relocated in a recently vacated office next to the large computer lab where people were writing papers. I provided instruction and assistance there, where speaking with one person often led to more questions by other students.
It didn’t help the cause of the library that those who entered the space didn’t see any new books, or any books at all. Books, especially current titles on display, make for more interesting and intellectually stimulating environment, and if they are attractively displayed, they serve as a marketing tool for the library, the librarians, the school, and the books themselves, because–unlike their ebook counterparts–they are at least visible, provided that people are coming into the library in the first place. Books on display in an environment which has traffic also creates competition for resources. In other words, in a busy location, people are more likely to pick up and browse books set out on display. Books on public display are also perceived to be in demand. It is just good merchandising. All one need do is set things out on a table by an entrance and people will stop to look at them, where when books are placed on a shelves on the edge of a room people are less likely to pick them up. With this sort of Neoclassical arrangement, there is a subtext that the books are there for decoration and not actual use.
If the library is configured for it, students browse print in the library but download the same book online–no need to check it out. But people may need to see the book on display and browse through it to assess its social content and meaning before deciding to invest in it.
Ebooks not only lack visibility in the space or through our websites, and cannot be browsed as part of an online collection (because they lack call numbers and modern web-scale discovery systems do not support that functionality at this time). We can do better marketing ebooks in the library through displays.
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 doing something, they are keeping up with new publications, and that the librarians just might know something about them.
Good collections boost library usage across the board, for ILL requests and reference services. Booklessness, and a lack of collection visibility, on the other hand, what many of us have been reduced to in the last ten years, 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).
Maintaining strong collections in the disciplines should be regarded as a key service we provide, however we decide to provide it. It allows our graduates to be more competitive in the workforce, and encourages them to exceed the knowledge of their professors, who may have graduated a long time ago or work in one very narrow area of specialization. It also makes the library as a space more interesting.
Collections expose users to things they might not have thought to search for on their own through our discovery portal, which is what an education is all about. That is also what fosters a good, pleasing, unique and educational user experience in an academic library setting.
Browseable collections, in print and online, are essential to libraries if the library is to be good, or if it is to be a library at all.
In theory, good college and academic libraries are not aboutsatisfying existing demand for resources–providing access to “free books”–but about actively stimulating inquiry, desire to learn, curiosity, and independent learning (beyond class assignment). To accomplish this requires that we present scholars with collections, 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, random aggregations of digital content.
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. I believe that the latter is defined as a repository, not an academic library. We should be telling people 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 they come to it.
If the collection is good, browsing is learning.
This user experience of a good library can only occur if the library is committed to maintaining visible collections in the disciplines, not just to resource discovery.
As an academic library, we ought to be able to present library collections arranged by discipline in some immediate, browseable way, so users can see all of the titles the library has on whatever topic, arranged in a logical order by discipline. How can we expect anyone to obtain an overview of a new area or learn about an unfamiliar discipline if the publications which comprise the discipline are not visible in the library or online?
y library happened to be at a university with beautiful landscaping, 150 acres of flower beds and old growth trees, a residential campus with 10 colleges, a school which emphasized its unique and diverse culture, character and history. As an HBCU, it emphasized pride in the cultural and intellectual achievements of African Americans, and aspired to create the leaders of tomorrow.
Even more reason, it seemed to me, to provide a stellar and vibrant undergraduate library experience emphasizing the cultural achievements of African Americans inside the library and online, and even more reason to provide books, beautifully and attractively displayed. Many students there had come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, given their backgrounds, the sight of the empty, bookless library, or with just with very old books on the shelves, did not strike them as being particularly modern or innovative.
How does the university create the leaders of tomorrow without exposing students to the leaders of today? Students deliberately chose to attend in person for a real college experience. I believe that the physical book had cache and signified value to them, where the ebook was regarded as cheap substitute for the real thing. The physical book conveyed value even through the ebook may cost the library many times over list price. When I taught English, I purchased and lent out copies of my own books (even though I was the Librarian). Black Athena, Blacks in Antiquity, The Story of Black, lots of others which should have been available through our library. Students at an HBCU welcomed books, and most of them believed correctly that the PWI university library down the street had books.
Years after the library stopped buying books, the plan to build a new library, funded by the State of Texas, was formally announced. Because of the necessity of drastically reducing the size of the collection and moving the remainder to the books into the new and smaller space, whatever could be back-filled into the design, the policy of not buying books was continued, at least for the near future, which made weeding decisions much more difficult. (There was no purchasing of ebooks, either.) I was less likely to weed a worn out copy of Othello, for example, if I thought it might not be replaced, and the faculty were asking me the same thing. 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. In the meantime, the library had become, since the departure of the former ED, nothing more than subscription databases, packages of resources requiring almost no ongoing maintenance. Where before we had physical collections and databases, now we had databases with very old books. I implemented discovery, and did as other libraries do, making it the OPAC to conceal that the print collection was pretty much gone or not being actively maintained.
Despite appearance of complexity, resource activation in Primo and SFX was a snap. I led the library through an upgrade to put into place functionality which would help streamline a major weeding project to reduce the collection of 300,000 books by 70%, a project which I managed in collaboration with the Cataloger and the faculty. While my title was Reference–there was no title on the books for Technical/Digital or Web at that time, although I did Reference, Instruction, Discovery and Web–I wondered what Discovery Services Librarians at other institutions did, if there was more to it than what I was doing. In all honestly, I had no trouble managing discovery (both Primo and EDS), the website (whose content I managed), doing reference (the desk I mostly staffed solo), technical support (me), usage reports (me), instruction (mostly me), LibGuides (mostly mine), weeding (mostly me), much of ILL, accreditation reviews, and other things to keep me occupied. I served on University Committees and Faculty Senate. Still, I often had to work at coming up with work to do.
Gradually, the librarians who had been there had all but retired, and their positions were left vacant and closed. The university seemed to be winding down its library staff and its print collection both through attrition. The same trends were going on everywhere in the Houston area, as far as I could tell; perhaps everywhere in the country and around the world.
I taught almost all of the library instruction classes and worked with graduate students on papers and dissertations (my favorite thing to do). The graduate students were the ones who came to see me in the library. As the professional staff diminished, I was required to work weekends and nights on rotation to provide coverage even though our resources were online and very few people were coming into the library. As more left or retired, the more shift work we had to do. If people came in, it was to use a computer to print a document, or talk to me about problems with their thesis or their advisor, or their research paper for my World Lit class.
Perhaps low traffic in the library was a sign of the times and inevitable; perhaps it was a direct consequence of our acquisitions policies, our failure to maintain interesting and attractive collections. As a librarian, it is instinctive to assume that failure to maintain good collections, to buy and promote new books, and acquiring nothing of popular interest year after year, austerity imposed in the name of progress (or the fact that we would be moving “in a few years“) made the library dull and unattractive to users. It was harder to sort cause from effect now, especially because so many were claiming, or rather proclaiming, that even at a university, today’s students and scholars don’t want or need books.
A common attitude 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” when all students really needed was Academic Search Complete to find 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 leisure reading, and the pursuit of knowledge, even just for knowledge’s sake? In librarianship, we call learning for learning’s sake “the habit of life-long learning,” and it has traditionally been a core value of the library profession, one which would seem to contradict the way we are now assessed by outcomes assessment, where the only acceptable measure of student success is greater success in the classroom (higher GPAs) or degree completion. It seemed many of our students wanted popular books to read, and these popular books do not, in the grand scheme of things, cost the library much at all, compared to the millions spent on databases and electronic resources. Could these not be justified?
Each year I continued to advocate for books, for collection development, and also for ebooks where I thought there was sufficient demand. We had a good sized budget. I ran usage reports and showed where we could easily shave $100,000 off database renewals (redundant and unused resources) and use it for new books; but after a side-mouthed promise of 100K, the Director decided to apply the funds to something else. I was disappointed, especially how the funds were spent. 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.
There went my book budget for yet another year, which was in the same budget year as the new library’s anticipated grand opening. More disconcerting to me was the Serials Librarian twice recounting the story 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, and the salesperson came back with a quote for $99,000. We paid it. More disturbing to me was the sentiment that spending money on anything electronic is better than buying anything print; that offering empty spaces–or nothing at all–would be better than offering books in the library. Or maybe it was that funds could be spent however they wanted, and no one cared what they did or how the money way spent, because no one cared about the library.
That day, the Director, who has since retired, quietly sat me down and poured out a cup of tea, and then revealed to me that, at her previous institution, she had simply thrown out all of the books and shelving, a community college (but in this same conversation she also mentioned, to her disbelief and head shaking, that they had brought them back after she retired). She had been there 30 years, retired, and then came out of retirement to my institution. In this context of her “throwing out the books,” which she apparently considered an accomplishment, she mentioned to me that there was a reader in the library where she used to be Director. I could tell from the context of her story there had been some serious friction between her and this reader. (She and I got along fine, so I was not inclined to take this story as an allegory.) I imagined her idea about the library’s being only about supporting classroom instruction and students not needing books 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 and Communications, a few of the departments who offered graduate degrees, were not involved with this decision. I will say, just to provide a completely honest accounting, that after we moved into the new space, and after I mentioned in a letter to the President that the library had not purchased any books in six years due to a lack of book budget, we did begin buying again. But the rational was to fill up empty shelves, not to develop and provide meaningful collections.
After the name of the new library was announced, I was asked by a Senator in Faculty Senate if I could explain to the difference between a “library” and a “learning center.” But it was too late.
Whether buying books again would have made a significant difference on usage patterns in our library, I do not know.
I am sympathetic to the argument that this generation of students has not grown up reading books and aren’t going to start when they get to college. I just knew my desk stats dropped off and fewer people were coming into the library, even just to complain about it, when we stopped buying them. Academic Deans vented to me that the library never filled their book requests. Faculty complained to me that the African American titles were all locked away in Special Collections. There was nothing I could do about it.
I wanted to determine in some scientific fashion how library acquisitions patterns impacted resource use, student enrollment and retention, and how collections added value, but, even if I mustered the nerve to publish my findings, I had no practical way of gathering this data or isolating the issue apart from all of the other factors afflicting the library. Also, the question is not about just retaining books in the library (holding on to books for the sake of having books in the library), or about numbers of books, data which I could easily obtain from published sources, but actively something intangible, maintaining good collections both in print and online, according to a collection development plan or strategy.
I was curious to find out how other college and academic libraries, those holdouts who hadn’t gotten rid of print and were actively maintaining collections, were faring compared to mine. I was informally following Catholic universities–my bellwether, only because of their strong intellectual tradition in the Liberal Arts and respect for authority and tradition–to see if their libraries were also getting rid of books, and if so, what they were putting in their place apart from seating. (After all, once before the Church held on to books long after everyone else in society lost the ability to read and write. . . what was the Catholic Library Association’s position on library booklessness?) 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, sending around Choice forthcoming title lists and publisher catalogs, asking them about their research and keeping an eye out for things other might like. Keeping faculty apprised about forthcoming titles and maintaining good collections was an easy and much appreciated service I previously provided, a way that I added value.
I also enjoyed engaging with students through books they might like. I taught English literature, after all. Formerly, I connected with users through books. I had always done this in previous collection management or liaison roles. It is what made me effective. That had been the best part of my job. I had chaired Collection Development committees at other libraries. I was also used to sending out announcements of new books or at least displaying this on our website.
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. Library inventories seemed to be largely on autopilot and invisible, which was as frustrating to me than the empty space we now occupied.
Increasingly, it seemed that Discovery was a like a black hole that the entire library fell 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 easily searched databases. We were not expected to be familiar with the collection, as we once were, because increasingly, there was no library collection to be familiar with. No one in the library was reading reviews and selecting titles. No one was cataloging books. No one was weeding them. Because no one inside the library knew about them or could communicate their value, no one was promoting books to students or faculty. Because they were not on display, there were no opportunities for casual and spontaneous conversation with students.
What we offered to users were just aggregations 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. Even our websites had become boring and stagnant, just a stepping stone to third-party content. Once IT took the website over, developing content-driven sites were out of the question. Our websites became static and perfunctory, not fun for scholars to browse.
This seemed to be what our administrators were also asking.
Surely professors, who are required to publish to remain their employment at a university, could adequately demonstrate to their own students how to perform basic research in their own disciplines. These days, except under rare circumstances, search doesn’t require knowledge of special syntax, Boolean operators or regular expressions. Database interfaces are user friendly. I have taught countless library instructional classes over the years, but I also knew that the professors who called me into their classrooms each semester already also knew how to do this. They just liked having me come talk to their classes as reinforcement, but I knew they didn’t actually need me to do so. They could have easily shown their students the databases needed to use to conduct research in their disciplines.
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 or just focus on electronic resources, with other librarians digging their heels in, not wanting to see their libraries destroyed by those who think throwing out books in itself represents a form of progress–especially when there is nothing to take the place of the browseable collections through our current user interfaces.
My thoughts are that it is not so much the librarians, but the library user interfaces which need to evolve, so that the library can maintain and market its collections in a more modern and professional way, and return to being a reliable source for what is good, significant and important to know in a field.
Our websites should become a destination for scholars, giving them lists of forthcoming titles in their field, articles on notable books, calls for papers, and insight into what others in the university are researching.
In addition, the trend to convert libraries into desolate work spaces and study halls, occurring in public and school libraries as well, with almost no assessment or impact studies being done, should be stopped as not meeting professional standards for academic libraries, until evidence is presented thatsuch measures have a positive impact on student outcomes. Why demand outcomes assessment of traditional libraries but nothing from modern ones? We need to have a way of displaying ebooks and ejournals in the space (other than printing out book covers and taping them to whiteboards).
Currently, books are thrown out under one library director, and brought back under another. It often feels like that passage in Ecclesiastes, people going to and fro, with nothing much changing under the sun. Whether the library has books or is bookless, our user interfaces remain the same, regardless, and have remained the same for many years.
Because of the current limitations of discovery interfaces to assemble e-resources into browseable collections online, with booklessness, necessarily comes collectionlessness. People are proposing that library collections reflecting the academic disciplines, traditional collection development strategies, can and should be replaced by more modern and efficient acquisitions workflows, the wholesale licensing of packages of electronic resources from publishers. 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.
But 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, and nothing more than that.
nitially, everyone in the library was excited and curious about this strange animal called a “new library,” and the promise of new opportunities and roles it might bring. Like the blind man and the elephant, we all had different hopes and expectations of what it would be like. The Library Director spoke about maker-spaces and green screens. The architects spoke of their experience and insight building new libraries. The IT Department spoke about a building “full of technology,” and Facilities spoke about energy efficiency and building technology. I wanted to learn more about new libraries, too, and whether people preferred them.
Naturally, I thought we would have an Opening Day collection (I had already developed one in Excel for a little over 100K, along with a new collection development policy better aligned with programs,) and a new books display area, perhaps a leisure reading collection which we had never had, but I had advocated for for seven years. I imagined we would have guest speakers and gallery space for traveling exhibits as well–these were high on my want list. I thought for certain we would start buying books again with a good-sized budget; I kept a wish list in my drawer, compiled by perusing back files of Choice and NYT Book Reviews which our Serials Librarian had put into her recycle bin when she cancelled most print subscriptions; I carted them all back to my office, along with a lot of other treasures I retrieved from her recycle bin. I also mined Books in Print online for the Opening Day collection. 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 some unique insight into collection gaps and where it needed to go to be better.
I never imagined 50 million dollars could be spent on a new library with no set aside for books to go into it. I remained optimistic that things would get better once the new library was built. I was hoping for a promotion and raise, because I had already been promised that for three consecutive years, the Director saying she was doing a reorg and she was trying to “move the needle.” Trust me, she said. Years prior I had a promotion from her which had been announced to the library staff. I was moved to a new office. I celebrated that night at Chili’s with my family. The following Saturday, I got rid of my 20 year old Pathfinder and took on a car payment at Car Max. But the new salary never came through. I contacted HR for a few weeks. They said they would investigate. I actually saw the higher salary in the official state budget book next to my name for two and half years, but I never could get paid the increased pay. Where was the money going? I wrote a letter to the President, saying I believed there had been a mistake, that I am not receiving the salary showing up by my name in the budget book. Nothing came of it–no one from the administration even contacted me–but my boss supposedly got “drug across the coals” by the Provost for promoting someone without his approval. Nonetheless, I had every reason to believe things would get better on their own after the new library was built. I started to teach in the English Department anyway, so I was making up for the difference in compensation from the lost promotion by working at night, teaching two classes. I liked the English Department there and would recommend it to anyone in Houston interested in pursuing a Master’s degree in English.
The new facility took a little less than three years from conception to completion. However, for reasons I might only speculate about now, the now tiny library staff were hardly involved in its planning, so it was a surprise when we rode over on golf carts and were allowed to enter the space for the first time. In fact, 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 needs or input, as I would have anticipated. The architects spoke to the entire library staff one day, but it was more of a sales pitch, explaining to us their design concept based on–what?–primordialcampfires, caves and watering-holes, not a formal needs assessment. When it all began I had assumed, just as with with any project, there would be a formal requirements document created that would identify and assess the library’s needs. I urged the Director to create a Requirements Document, and provided her with examples I came up with from other library construction projects. She said that she was not the Project Manager for the new library and it was up to him to create a requirements document for the new library.
She gave us the go ahead to make our comments during the public comment period, though, and so off we went on our Golem quest in search of a mysterious 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 on a table, my colleague and I went to work adding comments to the proposed plans. We plastered the blueprints with handwritten sticky notes which we had brought with us for that purpose. I added notes like Reference doesn’t have a physical collection, and doesn’t need all these stacks, but Course Reserve does have need for shelving. Reference should be called “Research Services”–not “Reference”–and we need semi-private consultation space (not behind a solid wall where no one sees us). Also, Research Services should be close to where wherever people are actually working on papers (close to the entrance there are only directional questions). The technical processing does not need to be so spacious–there is only a Cataloger and Cataloging Assistant, and (presumably) books will be coming in shelf-ready. Where is our instructional classroom/presentation room? It should seat at least 50. Where are new books displayed? Where is a secure gallery /exhibit space (since we agreed that we wanted exhibit space)? Where is secure storage? Is there a loading dock? Where is parking? These were all things I had mentioned before to the Director who had shared the preliminary plans weeks ago with the staff.
In the end, the sticky note campaign had no discernible impact, and there were things I couldn’t have anticipated just looking at blueprints, for like most people, I have no trained eye for reading them. It was all we were given to work with.
What the architects designed was a tall, narrow glass structure that was mostly hollow atrium and unusable space, a five-story glass structure located on the far end of campus, very far from the colleges of Sciences and Arts, and 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, whose students where most likely to be readers. The building’s exterior design made a striking impression–it was attractive and unique–and it had been featured in many design publications.
The new library was empty through the center of it, just a hollow atrium, much wasted space on each level built around a wooden sitting-staircase–with a large open stairwell on the another end, more unusable space for a large open staircase. Most of the building was staircases, or not built out; it was stairwells, atria, hallways, unassigned offices, offices assigned to tenants not related to the library, elevators and open restrooms. Its walls were comprised of computer-controlled electrochromic glass windows, a special reflective glass containing ionized iron capable of turning dark and dynamically blocking out the rays of the sun, each window programmable through a cloud-based application. (What was the functional use of this in that space? Why did we need to allocate millions to dynamic glass?) It was built with balconies, but for safety reasons, the doors had to remain locked. Its dark tinted glass walls, bright LED light fixtures, narrowness, odd pipes on the ceiling and persistent hum gave it a strange vibe, like being inside a fish tank or some other artificial environment. It was stagnant, unchanging, monotonous. It was cold and echoing, lacking warmth and intimacy, with the conduits, ducts, electrical and pipes left exposed, presumably to emphasize technology, but I do not know if it was to make a statement or just not finished. The sound of the blower–or whatever part of the AC system it was–was like a thousand metal bbs hitting metal or a rushing river, especially on rainy days.
I should not go on, but I will, since I believe this might help other librarians in the process of their own library renovation project. The airport-style restrooms, which occupied prime real estate on each floor, were also oddly protruding, jutting out just enough to eclipse from view the librarians’ offices and small unmanned computer labs on the other side of them. Not putting doors on public restrooms in a quiet space was a design flaw from an acoustical standpoint. The sound of flushing and hand dryers continuously reverberated throughout each small floor from restrooms on the floor and above/below, and proximity to the librarians’ offices mean during 1:1s, the toilets were flushing. Also, despite extolling the building’s energy efficiency, for some reason, nothing could be done about the cold temperature; we were threatened with termination if we used space heaters because this would only make the place colder. Foggy, drippy condensation permanently coated the gray atrium glass. On my floor, the dynamic windows were set so it looked as if a storm were perpetually approaching, even on the sunniest days. The color scheme reflected school colors: cool gray and maroon.
It was not a cheerful space, at least not for me. However, to me, the biggest drawback with the library was that it wasn’t a library. It was stagnant, lifeless, gray, impersonal, vapid, lacking academic intimacy and warmth, placing no value on intellectual life or creativity.
It certainly didn’t emphasize ideas or scholarship. It didn’t make any effort to promote resource use.
There was no Opening Day collection, just the residuals from the old library, although there was now, after seven years, at least a modest commitment to buy books, too small to make much impact.
There was no place in the library to display new books where people who entered the building might see them, and nothing to draw people into the space, despite this being the purpose, according to the architects, for the cantilevered design. There was a beautiful African American art gallery, constructed to be a permanent installation, borrowing the eye and expertise of a specialist from the Menil Collection, but no gallery space for changing exhibits or student art. There was no presentation room or commons area where people might gather together with the rest of the floors closed (during extended hours or finals). It was such an attenuated design there was little on each floor to create interest except for the windows. There was just too little library in the new library, too few books, too little common space, no display space, too much open stairs, glass and stairwells.
On the elevators, I polled reactions to the space, trying to figure out if my responses were overly critical. Was I depressed? Was I out of touch with what the new generation liked, like concrete floors in restaurants? Did they like the wooden staircases? But other people said they liked the old library better, which made me feel better and worse at the same time. For I would likely be stuck with that building after the Director retired, but, “Hey, at least I had a library job,” and I am sensitive to the fact that most librarians today don’t.
Interestingly, although we had not purchased physical books in many years, the new library was oddly outfitted with several self-check out machines and state-of-the-art security gates with all the funds allocated for technology. It was curious, like seeing the Statue of Liberty at the end of The Planet of the Apes. Was this our future or our past? They were willing to spend thousands on self-check machines out but not a dime for books?
In truth, the tall beacon of learning on the edge of campus seemed to serve no purpose at all except to provide a few group study rooms and computers on each floor, and offices for the tenants who moved into it. There was no reference / research services desk, just something called a welcome desk, upon which was mounted a self-checkout machine. Because the small computer labs were unmanned, too small to warrant even a student worker, frustrated students came to me when the printer ran out of paper or toner, or couldn’t log in, or encountered some other issue IT had to resolve. The administrative offices were effectively camouflaged behind a permanently locked utility door, quite the opposite of the double glass doors and open offices in the old building which invited people to drop in. But after the novelty of a new building wore off, even fewer people were coming into it than before, even to complain about the library or their professor, or to tell me they got a job, o r got accepted to medical school, or were going into the military. Those who came to the library simply disappeared into private and group study rooms with wheeled luggage bags in tow.
According to the American Library Association’s magazine, American Libraries, this was an award winning new library design. I pondered to myself, is this really a 21st century library?
I tried to keep an open mind for my own sanity, but it seemed to me little more than a place to sit and look out a window. It wasn’t very satisfying to work in a library without either seeing books or users.
As I have come to discover, what happened to my library is actually a fairly common occurrence, even the norm, including (an observation made by someone pursuing a doctorate in Education) the fact that the librarians are often discounted or excluded from the design process, rather than being regarded as stakeholders or subject matter experts.19 There are no post-occupancy evaluations of new libraries in library literature. New libraries continue to be built following a similar pattern, without any assessment of them as libraries, only as public spaces.
Without requirements and assessment, how are we to say that these buildings are successful or not as libraries? What is the difference between a library and a public space?
Most disappointing to me–and which we librarians can at least try to do something about–is the indifference of professional associations, ALA and ACRL, to these new libraries and related trends (“the new library movement”) to replace the library with over-engineered buildings claiming to inspire learning. Library professional magazines celebrate the construction of new library buildings as signs that libraries continue to be valued, rather than acknowledging that in the name of librarianship, libraries are being replaced by empty buildings and office space at public expense.
It is called a library to secure funding for a new building. Architects claiming great insight and expertise in building learning environments, or community participation, fill up the space with large staircases, large atria, large offices and large bathrooms, because they are given no functional requirements, and also because they lack library technology to design a truly hybrid environment which integrates our digital content into the physical space.
Large-stepped sitting staircases, or decorative staircases as a design element, in libraries have become a “thing”–a symbol of knowledge, a symbol of learning, a symbol of collaboration, a symbol of sacredness (think steps of a temple) and a symbol of achievement (ascension) rolled into one.
That my library professional association, ACRL, has abandoned prescriptive standards for libraries in favor of an approach which encourages librarians to define the library however it might please the university, even as a study space, as long as it fits into their institutional objectives (the new measure of our success)20 is not a good trend for librarians or library users. The bottom line of ACRL’s jargon-filled “standards for libraries in higher education” are that there are no standards, we must make ourselves valuable and relevant in any way we can. These aren’t standards, but practical advice.
“Collaboration Facilitator” was proposed by them as a new, pre-eminent role for librarians in the 21st century.21As a profession, if we are still a profession, I think we can do better than that.
The American Library Association has ALA accredited Master’s degrees, but there are no ALA accredited libraries.Maybe there ought to be.
If academic libraries are supposed to support “the curriculum” and “support research,” what does this really mean in the 21st century?
How does it do this? How does it do this without a focus on collections?
Accrediting agencies for universities have also become lax about the need for a library, and what an academic library is expected to do, even if it is online. Minimally prescriptive standards for collections have been replaced by the provision of adequate learning resources. In our case, while the outside of the building was attractive and looked like none other, inside, the new library was a cookie cutter of many other libraries built in the last few years: a central atrium, large open staircases, wide hallways, small work rooms serving no designated purpose, few visible public service points, little actual usable meeting or exhibit space, and no emphasis on books, reading or ideas.
Was this building even a library? Not in in my book.
It did not make any attempt to stimulate awareness of the new, encourage knowledge of the disciplines, promote intellectual inquiry, or encourage learning. It did not maintain collections in the disciplines. It provided resources though subscription databases, and that was the collection. There was no collection development policy broken out by discipline, we merely acquired what vendors provided in a large subscription packages. It did nothing to stimulate demand.
I believe that without the ability to stimulate demand for its own resources and services through the provision of attractive, organized, authoritative browseable collections, either in print or online, the library simply cannot fulfill its academic mission.
The role of the academic librarian is to create content-rich learning environments (“libraries”) that stimulate scholarship, cultivate knowledge and inspire creativity.
With new academic libraries, the more impressive the space, the more conspicuous is the absence of books, whose cost pales in comparison to the technology, empty space (for things like monumental learning staircases), and the commodified packages of aggregated content the new library typically provides.
Scholars and intellectuals, the sorts of people who are generally found on college campuses, have no interest in visiting or spending time in empty spaces. Educated people and scholars care about books, content, culture, media, and especially knowing what other educated people know and are writing / thinking about. Even if they don’t care about reading physical books per se, they care about the ideas in the books.
They want the library to turn them on to new things and new thoughts. We are supposed to be keeping them up to date.
That is the library experience people value, not empty spaces.
Whether usage would have dropped at my library regardless of efforts to revitalize the collection through an Opening Day collection featuring new books with jackets dressed up in Mylar, attractive displays and exhibits, leisure reading, sponsor a book program (so people could put their name on a book plate and feel they have achieved immortality), current materials targeted more to the interests of undergraduates, and creative ways to display ebooks in the physical space, coupled with programming–fun things like Bob Ross nights and “tell us about your research” night–is a question no one can answer, but my own opinion is “yes.”
It was at least worth a try.
I wanted to display ebooks in the space to encourage use. (I also wanted to simulcast and stream college games in the library.) Online, I wanted to showcase outstanding student work in our library’s digital repository so parents could google their child’s name and see a paper they had written at school, and this might possibly help that student land their first job after graduation. I wanted art exhibits and Research Week poster sessions to bring the place to life.
I had hoped to display student art and writing in the library space. I wanted musical performances from the Music department, video shorts from Communications, and a way to bring people together. It was an HBCU, so I definitely wanted to showcase the best black literature, authors, artists and intellectuals. I wanted to create a vibrant place for community and culture to thrive.
For a medium-sized campus library with large numbers of undergraduates and graduate students on campus, the presence of new books in the library, attractively displayed, would have contributed to the creation of a stimulating and educational learning environment.
It would have made the library more interesting and appealing to students, even as a place to study.
he trend in my field is to insist that students do not want or need books, but spaces to create media and tools for making objects (3D printers, laser cutters, and materials). There has been anecdotal evidence, which I will present in the course of this essay, that students actually want “normal” libraries with books,22 and not the innovative work / study spaces–with maker-spaces and green rooms–being built to replace them. According to Wong:
Likely in the hopes of proving that they have more to offer than a simple internet connection, many college libraries are pouring resources into interior-design updates and building renovations, or into such glitzy technology as 3D printers and green screens that is often housed in media centers or makerspaces. Yet survey data and experts suggest that students generally appreciate libraries most for their traditional offerings: a quiet place to study or collaborate, the ability to print research papers, and access to books. Many college libraries are reinventing themselves, but perhaps they’re trying to fix an institution that isn’t, in fact, broken.
However, if administrators or library leadership are convinced that college students aren’t checking out books any more (I think they want to see them in the library, browse them, and then download them to check them out), or interesting in reading them, or that a library is needed to support academic degree programs (since online degree programs do just fine), it becomes moot.
Yet, when it comes to the construction and design of new libraries, the deliberate and planned de-emphasis on collections and resource use should be concerning to everyone at a university, even the Marketing Department, because the collection that people see reflects the quality of instruction at the school. Whether the empty college library, the collectionless library, is interpreted by outsiders and prospective students as modern, forward-thinking and progressive, or whether it is judged negatively, as boring, unappealing, unintellectual, and austere–are (categorically speaking) two entirely different responses to our new bookless spaces.
My belief is that libraries, museums, and churches all share a similar sort of ethos, to preserve and present to users what is significant and good by community standards, that is, what the discipline, culture and community thinks significant and good. This is what makes a library interesting and good to explore.
Advancing the Significant and the Good.While through the years, some of my favorite students, fellow readers, expressed disappointment that there were no good books in the libraryand my favorite faculty members boasted to me of visiting larger area libraries with new books and print collections, just like one might share highlights from a trip to Europe, it appeared to administrators that no real harm was being done, either to the students or to the school, by not buying books, and condoning the suspension of all collection development activity except for the acquisition of subscription databases and a few independent newspapers and journals.
Some characterize the elimination of physical books as “progress.” Certainly, many libraries, especially community colleges in Texas, are going in this direction, replacing libraries with learning centers, and making the MLS degree optional even for the director of these spaces, or in some cases, eliminating the library director (the Academic Dean becomes the Library Director). Collections and collection development activity in libraries are becoming increasingly scarce, as are professional and good paying jobs, as acquisitions become automated and purchasing is done through blanket license agreements with publishers.
Aggregator packages of ebooks have come to play a more significant role in the academic library. Previously, aggregator ebook packages were intended to be supplement library collections, never to be the library’s collection.
Admittedly, people might not perceive the shortcomings of ProQuest Academic Ebook Central or EBSCO ebooks to be a college or a university library’s book collection quite as acutely as myself, someone who teaches English literature, reads the New York Times, listens to NPR, watched PBS and reads books. It takes someone knowledgeable about the disciplines and keeping up with scholarly publishing to know what isn’t in those packages. Front-list titles, better titles, and titles in demand are never included in aggregator ebook packages. Like a kid’s toy, the cooler stuff is always sold separately.
No one but a scholar, or scholar at heart, would notice or concern themselves with what is not there which ought to be.
Of course, the library can pay more to fill up aggregated packages with better titles, but it may or may not be worth it to them. It may not be a good value proposition, because adding titles a la cart costs a lot more per title, and there is no way to know if providing an enhanced “Academic Ebook Complete” will make a significant difference. Adding selective content to aggregated packages often feels as if we are enhancing the user experience of the vendor package, rather than enhancing the user experience of the library itself. It is a disincentive to doing collection development. Users have no idea that the titles we add didn’t just come with the package.
Aggregators employ artificial intelligence for monetizing their content, for identifying what titles that are in demand, and just like any commodity, can predict how much each title might yield in the marketplace at any given time. Better titles are strategically withheld from aggregator packages of ebooks. They know what is good, or what is in demand, what not to put into their aggregated packages, because they want motivate libraries to buy these on top of the package at a premium price. I imagine they use a tool like what the airline industry uses to assess the value of titles. (They know which texts are being used for a class. If a book becomes popular, it gets removed and salesman tries to sell the book individually to the library.)
For someone needing resources to write a paper for class, the ebook package is fine. For someone wanting to actually learn about the discipline or conduct research, it is not fine. The presentation alone, our the inability to browse and display books by call number, creates a barrier.
As mentioned above, as a consequence of reduced budgets and/or shifting priorities towards serials and then toward online databases and digital formats, and then ceasing to buy print altogether, the same books remained on the shelves year after year with no new things added to them, forming a faded, dusty repository of limited scholarly value or aesthetic appeal, a collection gone to seed.
I am inclined to visit other libraries from time to time, and I have seen this same stagnation and decline, this rise and fall of the library. This same malnourished book repository I have described–and not a vibrant library collection–became the straw man which often demonstrated that “print” was now obsolete, and students didn’t want it. Just look at the low circulation stats! Evidence that print itself, not the awful collection, was the problem, the very reason students were not coming into the library; not the old, dirty, molding and neglected stacks; or the fact that they were happier studying and working with music, food and other people around them, rather than in the deathly quiet frigid air of the library.
Low circulation of print was used as evidence to confirm, should anyone think to question it, that books at a university library were not cost effective and no longer needed to support the university’s academic programs. This same story played out, not just at my library, but at countless libraries across the country.
During this same time period, at some institutions, changes in the way that libraries are assessed also resulted in, or contributed to, the neglect for library collections, regardless of their format (ebooks too), even when the resources were being used.
Under a corrosive but surprisingly common management philosophy in higher education, one which promises greater accountability of public funds,23usage of library resourcesweredismissed as incidental, not providing sufficient evidence of learning leading to student success, at least as success was defined by the institution. Under an outcomes assessment approach, one even encouraged by ACRL (Association for College and Research Libraries) to demonstrate value, usage of library resources was deemed an “output,” not an “outcome,” and judged to be irrelevant to the mission of the library and the school.
As there is no way to draw a hard line from collection use to learning outcomes, library resources of all types might conceivably be eliminated without impacting institutional effectiveness. Only library instruction and services involving direct student engagement might count as “evidence” towards institutional assessment, but the quality of the library and its user interfaces could be fairly ignored except for what resources might be needed for program accreditation.
Buildings, Not Books:
Anti-Intellectualism and The New Academic Librarianship
fter decades of research during the 20th century extolling the educational benefits of books, libraries and reading on students–and the detrimental impact of booklessness particularly on minority and disadvantaged communities–it would be hard not to consider the “new academic librarianship”–which emphasizes “buildings, not books,”to be a kind of scam, the proverbial emperor without clothes.
Why would legislators across the country allocate hundreds of millions to erect new buildings called “libraries” with nothing inside of them, and moreover nothing meant to go inside of them in the future, or anything more for online resources? Why are proposals to build libraries without books or collections receiving such generous legislative, local and donor support?
Some institutions not only constructed prominent bookless buildings called libraries, but also moved their print holdings into doomsday-like facilities equipped with robotic storage and retrieval systems,24 as if they were storing gold bricks, weapons-grade plutonium or antidotes to smallpox, instead of old textbooks from the 60’s and 70s, and many other things which would have been weeded under good collection management practices. Unfortunately, mixed up with them (I looked at their catalog) are viable, seminal works in literature, history, philosophy and art, perhaps never again to see the light of day.
A peek inside the ARC (Automated Retrieval System) at University of Central Florida’s John Hitt Library, which, when complete, will house all of the library’s print holdings.
The automated retrieval of azoology textbook from the 1970s in a promotional video25 used to demonstrate book retrieval using the ARC. In the UCF library system and many others, books have been eliminated from the library to make room for collaborative study spaces. Interesting that this unattractive text was used to as marketing to demonstrate the benefit of this multi-million dollar system.
Paradoxically, while print books–and perhaps any book outside a textbook–are deemed as being of little value to a college education,26 and from surveys we know that such a minute part of the academic library’s acquisitions budget (if anything is allocated to them),27 at the legislative level, there still seems to be unlimited funding for technology for the manipulation, storage, retrieval, securing and tracking of print materials, such as robotic storage and retrieval systems (RSRMs) and offsite storage facilities; RFID automated material handling systems and smart gates; self-check out machines; dynamic glass and sophisticated computerized LED lighting systems to ensure that the natural light entering the building never perceptibly fluctuates (which might be distracting to readers of print, but not those on screens). Why invest so much in print technology, when libraries themselves seem to be no longer investing in it?
With many “new libraries,” as they are now called, books are eliminated from the floor, with the entirely of the stacks placed into offsite storage, or discarded, reduced to whatever can be incorporated into the design like wallpaper, set into nooks and shelving units in low traffic areas, placed in areas where one might have formerly expected to see potted plants.
There may be no books displayed or placed in prominent places in the new library. There is no assumption that people would want to see new books when they walk in the doors of a library, or would find them more interesting or valuable, say, than views of others occupying the space, or views out the window, or absolutely nothing, a deserted airport terminal. Most astonishing to me, there was also no sense that the library had an obligation to provide authoritative, visible collections, representing knowledge in the disciplines, as part of its academic mission. While new libraries are all different of course, a common theme which unites them as a new library is not the age of the facility, but an ideological emphasis on collaborative and individualized work space, over and against the intellectual spacewhich was the 20th century library, which was about literacy and knowledge through collections.
Seeking to redeem the new space, and the librarians within it, is a bizarre theory that public sitting-and-talking space–termed “collaboration”–is the new locus of library learning, the seat of intellectual exchange, rather than readers engaging with authoritative collections and scholarly resources. This new pedagogy exonerates it from having to concern itself with the practical details of how the library without visible collections, even online, will actually encourage learning and awareness of resources.
The response to booklessness and collectionlessness by new library advocates is not that “the collection is online”–because that would negate the rationale for a space in the first place. Such a response might also risk criticism that, even though the stacks are rapidly disappearing or already gone, the library’s collections really aren’t online, for libraries do not yet have the technology at their disposal which can present digital collections to its users as collections so they can be browsed.
In addition, current and more popular titles are often excluded from packages licensed to libraries.
Nor can we assess the impact of abandoning of collections as a construct for searchable digital aggregations of publisher content, where no discernible investment effort has been made them except for making them available, should someone wish to access them. While all libraries are different–students and faculty in STEM fields may not have the same needs as those in the Humanities or Social Sciences–the abandonment of visible collections is bad for business, both the business of librarianship and the business of the university.
If book learning and reading are considered irrelevant to higher education, perhaps we might question the value of all scholarship, publishing, and academic credentials, and treat them as the mere Vanities many people already believe them to be, especially as the Open Access movement increasingly shifts costs from the institution to the author in ways that seem to be becoming closer and closer to pay-to-publish schemes anyway.
By eliminating visible collections, and moreover suspending collection development activity, we are suspending disbelief in the possibility of education and academic achievement to positively impact the lives of our students.
New Library or No Library?
The Need for Business and Functional Requirements for Academic Libraries
Within librarianship, it is puzzling why so many librarians are willing to embrace the new academic library, with its various study spaces, collaborative learning staircases, and lack of emphasis on reading resources or publications, as signs of progress.28
What compels them to do so?
Is literacy even a goal of new libraries? How are new libraries to be assessed?
What makes a library a library in this Digital Age, and beyond this, what makes it a good library, as opposed to some other kind of entity or service (e.g., a building with tables and chairs, a search engine, a book repository, a computer lab, a help desk or a student center)? Since public dollars often support the construction of new libraries, should there not be some common understanding of what libraries are in the 21st century, what they are for, what they are expected to do, and what makes them good?
Of course, the academic library now provides over 95% of its resources online, but how does this new space prompt users to engage with these online resources? How does the facility promote resource awareness and use? And, if the expectation is that the library is online, what should that user experience be like to encourage learning? What should the user experience of the online library be like?
As university libraries go bookless, what defines the library as a library, or the user experience of one? What are our standards for library goodness?29 Library goodness puts into perspective that the library has valuable outcomes which are (1) unique to libraries, but which (2) are not directly measurable in terms of its outcomes.
Library goodness acknowledges that the greatest benefits of the library are immeasurable, learning objectives not defined in advance, which is not to say that they are worthless or without value, but that its value might be judged through qualitative or indirect means. The impact of a good library is not measurable, but the impact of collections on knowledge, perception, perspective, thought, learning, literacy (including cultural literacy), creativity, identity formation, experience, opinion, judgment, behavior, action, critical thinking, culture, professional competency, sense of community, inspiration, self-discovery, meaning creation and truth.
Academic library reference work is largely about exposing students and faculty to published authorities and the best of the best sources in their disciplines. A good collection compensates for the limited knowledge, time constraints and narrowly focused interests of the faculty, so students can obtain more comprehensive knowledge of their discipline and opinion of other experts than what professors provide them in the course of a semester.
It encourages students to reach their potential, success on their terms, and not be limited by his professor’s knowledge, interests, biases or ability to teach. It allows students to pursue his or her academic interests and scholastic goals while in school, even if the classes taught are not specifically offered in these things, like Big Data, Six Sigma, Natural Language Processing, or contemptus mundi.
A good library collection is a pedagogical construct which, like the classroom, provides a structured environment which encourages learning. Done right, a collection is enjoyable and meaningful for scholars to browse.
A collection presents a coherent body of knowledge, the books and publications which comprise an academic discipline at that point in time. It is a structure which inspires learning.
An academic degree signifies a level of mastery of a discipline, and disciplines are comprised of publications forming a body of knowledge, common reference points among scholars in that discipline. An academic degree means that the student has obtained a certain level of mastery over this body of knowledge. How does a university legitimately claim to provide adequate preparation of students in its degree programs if the library does not provide them with an overview of the disciplinary knowledge which students are supposed to be mastering?How well does collectionlessness (collections can be online) support academic degree programs or preparation for entry into a professional field? It is a deeply philosophical and pedagogical issue. If a library is not doing any demonstrable collection development activity, how can it be an academic library?
College libraries also generally contain leisure and co-curricular reading, because it is educational, and we want our graduates to become educated people. They present the books generally educated people might be familiar with. And it causes the students to like the library. If they like the library, they are more likely to spend time there.
The library can easily measure its facilities use, collection use, and number of instructional classes, but not very well the positive impact of the library on grades, learning, education or on research. This has always made advocacy and assessment for any sort of library very challenging.
On the Necessity of Business and Functional Requirements
for Achieving Academic Library Goodness
As much as Library and Information Science purports to be an empirical and evidence-based discipline, there is no consensus as to what our buildings, our collections (if we need them anymore), our services, or our user interfaces should be at this time, or generally what defines a good user experience of a library in the 21st century. For college and academic libraries, there are really no prescriptive, qualitative standards or business requirements for libraries, even to say:
the library, including its facilities and websites, should encourage resource awareness and use;
the library must promote literacy (including cultural andprofessional literacy);
the library by definition supports “success” as defined not just by the institution, but also by its students;
the library strives to expose students to disciplinary and professional knowledge beyond what is needed to support classroom instruction;
the library must support the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge in subject areas relevant to the mission of the school;
the library must add educational and scholarly value to the institution through the appropriate care, management, access and display of authoritative collections, either in print or online;
the library must provide some mechanism to keep students and faculty informed about new and emerging scholarly activity in their areas of interest and specialization.
These are some bullets I’ve pulled off the top of my head, just to get the ball rolling. I imagine others will have thoughts based on their own experiences.
Once the brainstorming stops, the work of developing business and functional requirements begins. In an ideal world, our faculties, our websites, or systems, our methods of assessment, and hopefully our funding, should be perfectly aligned to achieve whatever ends are determined to be the library’s mission.
Academic libraries are in need of business and functional requirements of their own, that is, existing outside of the institution, in small part because many have experienced the detrimental impact of library leadership defining the library only according to hard evidence of measurable-learning-outcomes-of-student-success-as-defined-by-their-institutions. It’s a beanbag throw at a carnival, meaning we waste a lot of time and energy throwing beanbags at a really small hole.
Outcomes-based assessment is what drives the university today, and admittedly there is little that critical thinkers, scholars, or anyone else can do about it. As others have described,[40. McClellan, E. Fletcher. “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Three Decades of Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education,” PS–Political Science & Politics, 2016, p. 88, doi:10.1017/S1049096515001298.]outcomes assessment initiatives in higher education have not always led to continuous improvement or greater accountability, but to continuous cost cutting measures for anything whose impact cannot be explicitly and measurably demonstrated to benefit “student success” as defined by the institution (mainly, degree completion). Librarians should not all rush to become “collaboration facilitators.”21 We just need stronger leadership and better advocacy in the academic library world. Accrediting agencies and library software vendors are our two big sticks.
We need library facilities and websites which are designed to encourage resource awareness and use, and we need library systems which help us to manage, promote and market our collections online. We need assessment based on library goals and objectives, with the implicit understanding that a good library with strong collections is good for the institution.
The assumption in academic librarianship has always been that students would not be adequately prepared, become educated people or professionals in their field just from classroom instruction and assignment completion alone.
The academic library represented knowledge, especially new knowledge that was valued by scholars and professionals in their disciplines, presenting additional opportunities for learning outside of the classroom. The library provided the broadest access to resources through the presentation of organized collections (support for browsing) reflecting knowledge in the disciplines, as well as search, the retrieval of items relevant to the user. Library standards were developed to support both access through search (indexes) and browsing (classification). Even where support for research was not an objective, the aim of the library was still collection use, which was thought to lead to greater knowledge and a well-rounded student, not just assignment or degree completion. Collection use justified the library and its acquisitions budget.
However, under outcomes-based assessment tools, collection usage doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count as a learning outcome, and therefore, the library’s collections and resources do not matter, either (nor its technical services staff). Learning that cannot be measured and learning that does not relate to a obtaining the degree at that school doesn’t count. In advocating that libraries commit themselves to outcomes assessment, knowing full well that collection use is not an outcome, ACRL has not done anything protect libraries from the notion that everything we do or that everything a student learns in school has to “count” is some utilitarian fashion toward degree completion or else some other measurable outcome, and everything a librarian does on the job must also count towards this narrow definition of “student success.”
Since 2011, ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education shifted away from a prescriptive model for what makes a library a good library to an outcomes-based assessment model in which the library establishes its own measurable outcomes to fit within the institution’s assessment outcomes.31 There is nothing in ACRL’s Standards to ensure quality or quantity of library collections, formulas which had been provided in library standards until 1995.32
Regional accrediting agencies like the NEASC (even in New England, where I would expect the standards to be the highest in the country)32 and SACS in south, set minimum standards to which a school must comply, including its library. All require evidence of the provision of adequate and appropriate learning / information resources to support the mission of the school.34 There is no definition of “adequacy” in terms of prescriptive measures or formulas, as there once were. Some require the library to provide tangible evidence of student learning outcomes, typically supported by evidence of library instruction and other forms of direct student engagement, which ignores the role of the collection (any format) in student learning and support for research.
This has allowed the academic library to be redefined in the following ways:
as a collaborative and private space for meeting and working (should students need a place to go);
as a service to provide instruction and research assistance (should students need help searching for relevant articles or citing sources);
a search application to discover resources and access licensed content (should students need to look for something, or access something, presumably that their professors told them to look for);
as a static repository of old books and documents (special collections);
all or any combination of the above.
How a collaborative space manages to generate measurable learning outcomes, while collections use and stack space do not, is somewhat puzzling, but the answer is there is often asserted to be a connection between “time spent studying in the library” and higher GPAs or degree completion. Prior to COVID-19, this connection between a “space” and “learning” was one which institutions could take to the bank.
None of this really has much to do with what makes an academic library a good library or even necessarily an optimal learning environment for college students or scholars. It is not indicative of what is taught in library school programs about our core values, collection management, user engagement and building community, all of which form the essence of a good academic library experience.
In academic librarianship, the extent to which a library succeeds in inspiring intellectual inquiry, independent learning (learning outside of the classroom) and cultivating knowledge, is the extent to which an academic library succeeds as a good library.
The work of librarians is to create and maintain a context-rich learning environmentconsisting of intellectual and cultural works reflecting disciplinary and cultural knowledge–presenting what others in the field think significant and good–so that meaning-creation and independent learning by its users can occur. If independent learning is our objective, the lack of technical requirements for managing and displaying collections, and limited collection visibility in our physical and online environments, are serious impediments to the success of libraries, and the success of our users to be able to benefit from the resources we are acquiring on their behalf.
If academic libraries are to be interesting and valuable to both students and scholars, and remain viable into the 21st century, they must provide compelling, unique, intellectual and personal experiences, and employ modern marketing techniques like any other online business today which have successfully transitioned from brick and mortar to online.
Our business and functional requirements for our facilities and our systems, as well as our methods of assessment, must reflect the library’s own mission, goals and objectives beyond being an empty space or a scholarly search engine.
The Academic Library as a Search Box (Resource Discovery Tool)
I believe that good libraries exist to provide opportunities for users to discover common cultural, disciplinary and professional knowledge, what others think significant and good in their respective communities.
The experience of visually navigating titles hierarchically arranged into a library collection is commonly referred to as “browsing,” but it would be a mistake to associate browsing with lack of seriousness, intensity, or value to scholars and students trying to learn about an academic area or discipline. Support for browsing collections of publications arranged by discipline, specialty, field and topic, is a fundamental part of the user experience of a good academic library. Librarianship isn’t about books as physical objects, or preference for particular reading formats, but about intellectual objects, and presenting these in a way that enhances their value to scholarly audiences. Browsing is learning.
Librarianship is curatorship, not presenting what “we” think is good, but representing to others what the communities we serve, the academic community, thinks is good or significant. Familiarity with the collection is important for conveying that goodness to potential readers and users.
At this time, libraries have no efficient mechanism for providing users with an online browsing experience to compensate for the lack of physical collections and elimination of browseable stacks, at least when it comes to ebooks and ejournals. This is because academic librarians cannot sort, arrange, order, harvest or evaluate collections of titles in their inventories without call numbers in the metadata and databases configured to sort by LC Classification. For the most part, the digital content we license in quantity from publishers and aggregators do not have call numbers, thus limiting the design of our newer systems to being efficient resource acquisitions management tools, but not good collection management tools. It is a Faustian bargain we have made.
These days, we may casually say to users that “the collection” or “the library” is online, but what most libraries offer to users is not a collection in the traditional library sense, or in any sense, anymore than what turns up in a Google Search is a “collection.”
The academic library collection is not online. The resources we license from vendors are available in abundance online, but the library’s collections, as collections, are not. This seems to be a problem on many levels, for us and for our users, who now cannot get an overview of publishing activity in their disciplines through the library. There is not only “no library in the library” in the library space, but there is no library in the library online either, at least from this librarian’s perspective.
We just provide the ability to search scholarly content, but there is no academic or disciplinary context for any of it.
What we offer is a searchable aggregation of licensed academic content, a search application, one which, for many reasons, provides insufficient visibility for ebooks35 and no support for browsing collections, either browsing or collections of digital content. In addition, resources are often simultaneously available on the publisher’s own platforms, meaning the there is no reason for the user to necessarily go to the library’s website or through the discovery portal.
From a user experience, discovery provides insufficient visibility for the tremendous amount of content large libraries acquire on behalf of their users. Despite the library’s paying vastly more for academic ebooks than their print equivalent, digital content is not all that visible through discovery unless someone looks for the item.
Students go through their programs seeing and experiencing only a small fraction of the library’s vast inventories, which remain invisible unless summoned, and even then, it is a “low flow” interface. It is a terrible design for teaching, for a library. I have a million relevant results, but my screen at most displays only ten items at a time. This is surely not an optimal way to experience a large academic library collection. Whether one is searching the Harvard Library or Haverford College, the experience is the same, ten records at a time. Last, the content discovered in discovery is often over the heads of undergraduates and lower division students, because it prioritizes specialized articles written in (from their perspective) incomprehensible academic jargon, summoned in by a keyword dragnet in response to the typically broad searches undergraduates perform to try to learn about a subject area. Compared to the collections which discovery has replaced, which could be more finely tuned for toward specific audiences, it may not really be an effective pedagogical tool. I will comment more about this below.
The library online is now a resource discovery tool which retrieves relevant items from a centralized database of the library’s licensed content, content which often cannot be assembled into a browseable library collection. I would dissuade readers from adopting the notion that discovery constitutes a “modern” interface for an academic library simply because it is “like Google.” Google and Google Scholar, while they provide some academic content, are not libraries, and libraries have unique pedagogical needs beyond merely making resources available to users in response to a search query.
Second, the library’s discovery application indexes the metadata records of what publishers offer online, and which authorized users of the library may access by virtue of the library’s license agreements with them. Quality is vested in whatever the publisher or aggregator digitizes and licenses, in their brand (and their content is branded) not in our brand, or what the academic discipline thinks significant. Third, there is no reason why resource discovery and “virtual browsing” or “collection discovery” cannot occupy the same universe. It is not an either /or. Historically, libraries offered both searching and browsing, and I see no reason why in this Digital Age, browsing book and ejournal collections cannot be achieved.
Discovery provides a searchable interface for an aggregation of the metadata records of academic resources typically licensed by the library in quantity, each package often containing tens of thousands of titles. All one need do is activate the vendor’s package in discovery, and ebook and ejournal titles (the resources that comprise the package) can be made instantly available, no cataloging required. It is like a federated search tool, except rather than going directly to the publishers’ sites and harvesting content in real time, discovery indexes a central metadata index (a Central Discovery Index) to which publishers who sell to libraries all contribute. This makes it easier for the library to manage large amounts of aggregated content it acquires from publishers. It is especially advantageous for libraries with large serials content, as it allows articles to be searched and discovered regardless of the database in which the journal is indexed.
Discovery is a wonderful research tool, but it is not a library online. As a librarian, I want to be able to see and assess my collections, for example, to retrieve all the titles (books, ebooks and ejournals) that I have in the area of 16th century English literature or fine art, and place them in a logical order–not just “discover” what items the search tool thinks relevant to a search query. I want to see my inventory, not just search it. I want to sort and assemble all my books and ebooks in some meaningful order, so I can organize them by discipline, sub discipline, topic and title. I want a shelf-list. I want users to experience them as collections, placed within their disciplinary context. I want to be able to weed my ebook collections, seeing what items have been superseded or are dated. I want to send around title lists of new books to faculty members and compare my collection to those of my peers.
Even if the library acquires millions of dollars in licensed content, the visual experience of it is the same as one with a very small collection. A library consisting of ten million volumes or ten thousand provides fundamentally the same user experience online. Through our UI, the amount of content a library may hardly be perceptible. Library interfaces typically display, at most, ten items at a time to ensure legibility on the mobile screens. On a horizontal axis, such as a laptop, one may see only three or four items at a time:
View of the library catalog from a 14″ laptop. Because of the inability to view more than just a few results at a time in response to a query, even where the user is told there may be thousands of relevant results, much of the library’s entitlements lack visibility.
This design is intended to be mobile friendly, but most people sitting down to do library research are doing it though a laptop or desktop computer. As our collections have gone online, this standard interface, which was fine for locating the call number of a book on a shelf, is disproportionately small relative to the amount of content we would like to put in front of the user as a digital library.
Also, when users perform searches in discovery, substituting a synonym or slight changes to the query can produce very different results, making the user feel as if his research is always incomplete. While bibliographic and authority control in discovery is complex topic which warrants a separate article, search engines are semantically dependent, while retrieval through a classification scheme is not. It’s not an either/or but a both/and. I will speak more about discovery interfaces below, and one alternative to classification for the organization of bibliographic data.
As the physical collection is rapidly disappearing, we must address the limitations of our user interfaces and fact that our online catalogs and discovery tools are being asked “to be” the online library, a purpose for which they were not designed, and a function which they are not equipped to fulfill.
For the online library to be successful as a library, new user interfaces must be developed which support virtual browsing, online marketing, and greater collection visibility as a collection which reflects scholarly values and value.
Dissenting Voices. As Sherlen and McAllister write, it is easy to ignore the voices of librarians at conferences, and at the university, who disagree with visionary schemes to eliminate books and convert the library into little more than media labs and group study spaces.16
If the strategic direction of university libraries is guided to a great degree by the goals and priorities of their directors, then an examination of those values is warranted. It is important to assure a university library—under the direction of the library director’s leadership—continues to properly align with the mission to serve the university’s research and curricular needs. But a trend in current library leadership values and priorities can arguably become disconnected from the library’s traditional service mission to university research. This trend is exemplified by the popularity among university library administrators to direct their libraries to repurpose budget funds and floor space away from traditional book and other tangible collections toward new services such as digital project services, local e-publishing, expanded media labs, and group project facilities (Blumenthal 2005; Gladden 2018).
It is common for architects design new library buildings without placing any importance on physical collections, nor offer any solution for how to employ new technologies to increase user engagement or awareness of the library’s online resources and support browsing within the physical space.
What seems to me a chief business requirement for a good library, to encourage resource use, is not even necessarily a design consideration for new academic libraries. But just like any retail operation, we must be able to effectively market and merchandise our resources.The physical and online library should both constitute content-rich learning environments respectively, not empty spaces.
Support for collections. The library’s collection, as much as the classroom, is a pedagogical construct which encourages knowledge in and of the disciplines. Its objective is to enrich the learning and the intellectual life of its users, not just by providing access to needed resources, but by presenting to users a coherent body of knowledge and turning them on to what is significant and good.
It is not a passive book repository or an aggregation of resources, but an effort to provide a snapshot of what the discipline and other educated people regard as significant and good. It reflects community standards for significance and goodness.
The collection seeks to expose and scholars students to new and significant titles, ideas, authors and topics that they might not otherwise know about or think to look for. It has both a marketing and a pedagogical function. The college library collection reinforces learning in the classroom and often makes classroom learning (the education he is receiving at the school) more valuable and meaningful. Ideally, collections encourage students to go beyond the classroom to obtain knowledge on their own, becoming more competitive in the workforce or pursue applications for the knowledge they have acquired in the classroom.
Good collections, visibly displayed, also honor and value the publications in them. They demonstrate care for the student and consideration for the scholar, and also for the scholarly enterprise. The art and science of situating and presenting cultural objects within their most appropriate social, intellectual and historical context within a collection, is what also makes academic titles more valuable and interesting to students and scholarly audiences to browse and explore.
Today, the curated collection is likely to be negatively portrayed as construct of traditional librarianship, where librarians were the gatekeepers of knowledge who limited access, rather than affording it through professional judgement, knowledge about books, and responsible allocation of the budget. Naysayers will say that: “The library collection is built on speculation. It is created and shaped by people who often know their disciplines quite well, but are unable to guess with real precision the exact needs of the library’s specific patrons.”37
This negative depiction has only arisen in recent years, in light of alternative modes of acquisition for electronic resources encouraged by vendors, where librarians license tremendously large packages of resources in bulk from aggregators or publishers. I also understand that the idea of collections and a librarian as a curator of content is often treated derisively in the age of text search, relevance-ranking, Big Deals and PDA. Many in my own field assert that the idea of a curated collection is obsolete. Why do we need anyone to curate content for users in the 21st century?
Unless librarians can qualitatively assess (as collections) the enormous packages of content we are buying from vendors, we are not exercising proper control over them, not intellectual control nor good fiscal control. We should at least be able to do this one thing: place all titles in order according to a library classification scheme so we can spot duplication, superseded titles, out-of-scope titles, gaps, and evaluate usage by subject area. We should be able to say with confidence, “Here are all of the titles we have in the field of x.”
Maintaining strong, quality collections, in anticipation of use, was regarded as a pre-eminent service librarians provided to their user communities, and the way libraries demonstrated responsibility and accountability for their budgets. Rather than being done away with, the need for collection management tools are more important than ever precisely because acquisitions is automated. If the collection management tools are not available, we may end up paying a lot of money for open source content, things are dated, foreign imprints, obscure things which have nothing to do with our curriculum, dated titles and things of poor value. We may be buying the same titles from multiple vendors. Collection management tools must also be there so items that are of greatest value to our user community can be displayed on our websites. We must provide users with a way of browsing our collections by discipline.
Books presented not in any particular order in a library context, dated and superseded titles, for example, signifies a lack of care with regard to the collection, lack of care for the user, and/or lack of knowledge about the discipline and lack of care for how institutional resources are being allocated. Ad hoc collections of random academic content, or collections presented in no particular order, a volume 2 without a volume 1, demonstrate a similar kind of neglect, lack of care for the collections, a disregard for scholarship, and lack of concern for the user. Having no way to organize our content by subject and discipline is bad for our business. Being able to retrieve and sort by classification number is what I consider to be a fundamental business requirement or libraries. It forms the basis for collections and collection evaluation.
A collection means that users can predict with some degree of accuracy what will be in the library when they need it and to keep them up to date with new things. However, as the library’s budget is not unlimited, it would certainly be better to acquire what experts in the field think is good and significant at least as its core (libraries would always be able to buy what patrons wanted throughout the year) rather than allow vendors or those not knowledgeable about their field–basically uneducated people–to drive the acquisitions process for higher education. We don’t let students teach classes because they lack credentials. Why allow uneducated people, who come to the university to obtain an education, perform acquisitions for the academic library?
Library collections consist of the items that the discipline or generally educated people think significant, presented in their most appropriate context, so they make sense to other educated users. Visibly curated collections of titles, at least titles arranged by discipline, placed into their most meaningful context, are our ideal. Collections and collection management are needed to provide good service and ensure accountability. Collections are knowledge in the disciplines visualized, an important part of libraries’ ability to add value and encourage learning.
Classification is the key to be able to analyze and assess a collection, so it is significant when this functionality is dropped, missing, or no longer supported by the vendor of a library system, saying it is no longer needed.
As our print collections have disappeared, our user interfaces have remained item retrieval tools, not able to offer the user experience of browsing a library collection online. Discovery systems, the library’s current UI, and its workflows, provide no support for browsing electronic collections by classification.
This alone is enough reason some libraries might want to hold on to print a little longer, at least until our systems have evolved to be able to present brosweable ebook collections online.
Good collections, visibly displayed, kept current and focused on student and faculty interests, help the library and the school create a sense of community and value surrounding academic achievement, the work of scholars and knowledge, and it is this same sense of value and appreciation for scholarship which keeps students enrolled in the university’s own academic programs.
Support for collaboration. While libraries should and do support collaborative learning, as they have always done, I am not convinced that collaboration is more valuable or significant than the sort of learning librarians have traditionally sought to encourage through engagement with significant titles and good collections. Our method of collaborating with students and faculty involved, on some level, cultivating a shared appreciation for the intellectual and cultural works which occupied the library space. The collection, comprised of publications in the disciplines, was what established common ground for collaboration.
The collaborative learning spaces rapidly replacing our physical collections, built in anticipation of students and researchers gathering together to collaborate on research and exchange knowledge with each other, is really not founded in library pedagogy. Librarians want to encourage literacy, reading and consulting authoritative sources, not students consulting with their peers. Maybe collaborative learning works better in Denmark,38 to tackle real world problems, but not so much at American universities.
While we should probably take whatever we can get at this point, there seems to be confusion of groups of students chatting, eating pizzas until late in the night, with “scholarly collaboration” in the library space. In my younger days, I spent hours in college bars in Madison, WI, with fellow grad students trying to solve the world’s problems, and not much came out of that either, but good times and fond memories.
Of course, students want to study with classmates and peers around them, especially working late into the night when other places are closed. I am happy for them. Those who do so may be more successful academically and less lonely, and therefore more likely to stay in school. This is a very good thing.
Butgood libraries are also a good thing for students, and being a “space” has nothing to do with the library per se. Students could just as easily be anywhere–a student center, café, bar or in the dorms–and have the exact same learning outcomes as in the “new library.”
It would be a stretch to characterize the sort of learning that takes place in study groups as something new andinnovative, or a demonstration of support for “scholarly collaboration” or “intellectual exchanges,” as some new library advocates do, even positing the librarian’s pre-eminent role in the 21st century as some kind of “Collaboration Facilitator.”39 The collaboration which is imagined to be occurring in the space of the library which has replaced the stacks is pretty much limited to group coursework, study and assignment completion, not the sort of deep engagement with scholarly sources and intellectual works–or just good books–which librarians want to encourage.
Support for creative ideation. Students attending a college or university want to belong to something larger, to forge personal, academic and professional identities. Provided it is good, the library can and should be an important part of creating that identity as well as their discovery of new possibilities and interests which they didn’t know they had. It is this positive vision of a successful future self, and reinforcement for a sense of value for the knowledge they are acquiring in classes, is in large part what keeps students in school.
Ideally, the library provides students not just with just what is needed to complete a degree. Apart from supporting research, a library should present to students what they need to be successful in their field or discipline, and also help them to become educated, interesting, creative and engaged people. The library doesn’t simply support success as merely defined by degree completion, but presents students with myriad individualized pathways to success in life beyond the degree.
A good academic library supports not only student success as defined by the institution, but also as defined by the student.
It should turn them on to things they would never think to look for, and reinforce goals beyond their degree to motivate independent learning. It should be a window onto the world.
Funding co-curricular resources which appeal to student interests is an small investment the college or university can make which can play a significant role in keeping students engaged in school. Once upon a time, I began taking computer programming courses at the community college. I didn’t care about the enterprise anything, the focus of these courses. I cared about developing digital libraries and natural language interfaces. My outlet was the academic library, mainly the Rice Fondren Library, where I could access many good books and journals on topics relevant to my academic interests. It also let me feel that on some level I was part of a larger community, albeit invisible, and even if only vicariously skirting along the outer edges of it and looking in.
Whatever the particular demographic, a good library will speak to the hopes, dreams and personal aspirations of a wide variety students in ways that their textbooks and course curricula do not. It is a place not just for completing coursework, but for what I call, “creative ideation.”
This is good for the university’s bottom line and for campus life.
Browsing / Collections as Business Requirements for Academic Libraries
The libraries I remember were vibrant, interesting and hopeful places which featured works whichother people found interesting and good (which is in part what made them interesting and good to me as places to browse and explore). Browsing a good library collection let me know:
what was newly published in my field
what was valued by others in my field
the larger disciplinary context for a work
related items in my area of interest
historic trends in the discipline over time
an overview of what was available in a discipline, field, specialty or topic
interests that I didn’t know I had, things I would never have thought to search for, or even consider.
The library was formally committed to showcasing what was significant and good.
Today, academic library systems, or our user interfaces, do not do any of these things, or at least not very well.
For example, where I used to be able to use my system to generate new title lists to share with faculty or put into an RSS feed–and put this out to my website–this is now no longer possible. Even if we have good content, we cannot market it effectively because–shocking for a library system–we have no way of placing electronic titles acquired through packages into a meaningful and pleasing order.
Physical collections of titles, with titles selected individually according to their merits, are gone or going away, replaced with searchable aggregations of academic content, scholarly resources licensed in bulk from vendors whose business is the commodification, packaging and licensing of digitized publisher content to academic libraries. Usually this content cannot even be reassembled into a library collection because it is not cataloged according to library standards. The academic library’s leading system developer is also a “content aggregator.” Through these interfaces, which all large and medium-sized academic libraries use, there is nothing to replace the user experience of browsing the stacks. There is also no way to for librarians to assess the quality of the collection, because on some fundamental level, library collections no longer even exist. Classification/call numbers, which formed the backbone of academic library collections, are gone or going away.
Within our most sophisticated and advanced library systems, there is surprisingly little support for managing, assessing or presenting our digital or hybrid collections as collections to our users. It is not possible even to generate a shelf-list of ebooks and ejournals in a call number range. Alma, the leading system, merely treats the 050 field merely like an alphanumeric field.
Library systems are adept at ingesting publisher provided metadata, but the industry has not made support for browsing by LC Classification or virtual browsing a priority, despite the fact that numerous studies suggest that browsing collections offers a uniquely defining experience (that is, the experience is unique to libraries)which ismeaningful to scholars and library users supporting research and learning about a field.
Browsing is especially important in the early stages of research, especially stimulating it in the first place. Providing some reliable mechanism for browsing library collections online–virtual browsing–is to my mind essential for providing good library services, and even more so now that the physical collections are disappearing. Although written in 2012, Lynema’s “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources” provides an excellent overview of experimental user interfaces which leverage virtual browsing, including images of browsing interfaces which are no longer around. 40
It isn’t necessarily the print format or the physical book that is significant for academic librarianship–I’m not hung up on the book format–but the presentation of visiblecollections which reflect the scholarly activity in the disciplines, and the proper placement of publications into their broader social, intellectual and historical context, according to library industry best practices and standards.
Visibility is an important attribute of value. What has value is visible, and what is visible is more highly valued, and more likely to be valued by others.
The ability to browse visible collections, and all of the benefits of this in terms of enhancing scholarly value, creating a sense of community around scholarship, and promoting engagement with resources, is a core business requirement of any good library, whether physical or digital. Print books may be optional for some academic libraries, but highly visible and visibly maintained collections are not.
While wandering through the stacks and browsing is what people report liking most about their experience of the academic library, browsing collections of ebooks and ejournals online–a virtual stacks–is not supported by any modern library system today. What offer is a Web service called “discovery” which searches a centralized index of normalized metadata records of the books and articles to which the institution is entitled based on ownership or license agreements, generally including large aggregations of stuff. Based on a user’s query, it returns relevance-ranked results. Both the bibliographic records (MARC records) and the linking mechanisms to sources are now maintained by vendors. The advantages to the library are scalability, being able to acquire large aggregations of content by activating them in discovery, and, in theory, no need for cataloging. It supports newer, more efficient models of acquisition and resource management. Today, one librarian can effectively do what used to require the coordinated efforts of many. In less than 15 minutes, a library can acquire and make available (to authorized users) 130,000 academic ebooks provided by an aggregator. Discovery has been a game changer, especially for libraries which have a lot of buying power.
Discovery is also particularly advantageous for journal articles and serial content which must be continuously updated. There is no need for a Serials Librarian. Once books are eliminated, there will be no need for Circulation, either. However, due to the inability for discovery systems to assemble ebooks and ejournals into a shelf-list by classification/call number, they do not support browsing or presentation as a library collection. The capacity to browse books online, create new book lists by call number, or develop marketing tools to promote titles is therefore limited.
Rather than assuming discovery is simply a more modern and intuitive experience for users, we might ask how well do discovery interfaces support the library’s “business requirements.”
How well does discovery (search engine) alone encourage user engagement and resource use?
What impact does collectionlessness and booklessness, in both our physical and virtual spaces, have on perception of the library, its librarians, scholarship or the behavior of users?
How might visible, browseable collections of ebooks be offered online and in our physical spaces, even through tokens or books which stay in place in the library, but can be download to be read (virtual fulfillment)? ‘
What are the advantages and unique opportunities to the user of being able to browse collections?
How might providing visible collections and increasing collection visibility assist the library with marketing efforts?
How does discovery impact the perceived value of the items in our care?
How do we properly assess the value of library collections within institutional assessment plans?
The End of the Library in the 21st Century?
What was written above is just a prelude to a regrettably large book, aimed at a very small and shrinking audience of like-minded librarians who may feel they have little power to change anything. Its intentions originally were noble, to establish common standards for academic libraries which would attempt to alter the downward trajectory academic libraries appear to be on, the devolution of the library into bland learning centers and a diffusion of licensed digital content reserved only for the currently enrolled (formerly, academic libraries felt they had a mission to support scholarship and life-long learning as a core value, not just degree completion).
My big idea was to write a book, speak at conferences and start a movement. But doubts began to creep into my mind, mainly because I never could get even one single librarian colleague fired up about this cause.
Was it because I lived through a Golden Age of librarianship of which they had no knowledge? Was it because I went to better schools where I was exposed to good libraries through my formative years? Was it because I am a reader and they are not; a scholar (interested in academic topics) and they are not; a teacher, and they are not.
Why is it so many of my own colleagues think destroying the library in the name of librarianship is a good idea?
Librarianship is fundamentally about collections, and through these new spaces and systems, collections do not exist. Collections can be in print or online, or both, but they must be visibly represented, perceived and experienced as a collection, as the titles relevant to, or comprising, a discipline or a body of knowledge.
Visible collections, representing community standards for what is significant and good, are what defines the library as a good library. Retrieval is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a library to be a library. Google Scholar retrieves scholarly articles and citations, but it is not an academic library.
As a starting point, we must insist that library management systems, vendors and publishers support collection browsing and display according to traditional library metadata and standards. We must know what we are buying in these packages, and the only way to know is through a shelflist. We also need new and unique user interfaces that encourage engagement, and systems which support virtual fulfillment. The only way to really effect change is through a set of external standards, the establishment of business and functional requirements for libraries. Libraries require business and functional requirements, just like any other business. We are a business unit of the larger organization. As such, we should have business requirements of our own.
The first section of this book, such as it is, does a deeper dive into current library technology, mainly academic library systems, and specifically our discovery systems, to function as a digital library in the 21st century. I will explore ebook metadata and the user interface, as well as exploring other user interfaces beyond discovery. I believe the user experience of ebooks and their management as a collection, and not as a “resource,” is an important but often overlooked perspective in library literature, perhaps my unique contribution to the debate surrounding library booklessness and digital librarianship.
Examining the library’s online experience is especially important now that institutions, whether or not their library is completely on board with it, are aggressively seeking to eliminate their print holdings, or have already done so.
Given that the library has acquired access to relevant resources, is access alone delivered through a search engine sufficient to meet the academic and educational objectives of a library? Can we be successful creating and sustaining educated, knowledgeable, communities of scholars by providing relevantresources,but not organizedcollections?
A library collection today doesn’t need to be in print, but it does need sufficient visibility as a collection.
A collection is special type of scholarly communication about scholarly communication.As a form of communication, it must be visible or perceptible as a collection to convey meaning and value.
A collection must have intentionality. That is, the items in it must appear to be selectively chosen for a specific purpose or audience based on shared or common values–and their parts must have a meaningfulrelationship to one other, forming a whole. Good library collections have a rationality, predictability and pleasing consistency to them which allows its users to anticipate with some accuracy what is and will be in the collection (good collections are often said to anticipate use). If people stop being able to expect good things will be in the library, they will stop coming to the library. Collections also must have a purpose, which in the case of academic research libraries is to reflect the publications and scholarly activity which comprises the disciplines. All of this is like Collection Development 101, but it is also common sense merchandising to be able to put good things in front of users, things they are going to like. Just like stores have merchandise which reflects its brand, college and academic libraries have collections which reflect scholarly activity and interests at the school.
What tools, technologies and strategies are in place for the academic library to present the library’s entitlements and holdings as collections to scholarly audiences today? Do libraries still offer the experience of a collection, or are collections themselves, in any format, now considered obsolete, as some librarians have asserted?4142 Is the provision of relevant resources sufficient to meet the goals and objectives of the college and the university library? What are our library professional standards for an academic library online, and can librarians even have any standards, given consolidation in the library software industry, seemingly irreversible changes to acquisitions workflows, and the fact that librarians are exercising less control over their systems, their collections, their metadata, and their user interfaces than ever before?
In this first section, I discuss the limitations of our most widely used academic library system from both a traditional (collections-based) library approach and a modern marketing perspective. I emphasize the continuedrelevance of library collections in the Digital Age.
The second section is meant to focus on new models of assessment in academic libraries, with special attention given to the “outcomes assessment movement” and institutional assessment plans. Institutional assessment are commonly based upon a business objective model, a management practice borrowed from the business world and applied to education in the 1980’s to ensure greater accountability in education.43 Where library-centric objectives like “collections use,” “independent learning,” and “support for scholarly research” fall into this model is unclear. The first one, collections use, has been dismissed in library literature as being a mere output, not an outcome,44 and the latter two, or anything similar to them, are not measurable. The issue is not just an intellectual or philosophical one–what one considers to be an “outcome” vs. an “output.” At many institutions, budgetary appropriations are tied to specific objectives which must be be assigned either to some measurable scholastic outcome (for example, higher GPAs) or business outcomes (impact on enrollment, retention, and completion). This often puts the academic library in a very difficult position.
In trying to acquiesce, to manage by objectives and align the library operationally to the goals and objectives of the classroom or the parent institution, which our professional association advises in place of standards,45 it is tempting to simply sacrifice the library’s own intangible goals and ideals to achieve greater cost-savings to the university (If the impact of library resources cannot be objectively measured, why even have a library?)—or else to emphasize instructional support (library instructional classes) while ignoring content in order to gather evidence of our value.
Perhaps we might want to question if an outcomes assessment model is necessarily a fitting or an appropriate one for a library to begin with, or an institution of higher education for that matter. Are we seriously going to suggest that the only acceptable form of learning or knowledge in higher education is that which has predefined answers or performance indicators (Can provide demonstrated evidence of learning), or known outcomes? What kind of learning are we to assess from library use? Isn’t the purpose of an academic library to encourage independent learning outside of classroom assignments, and support for the creation of knowledge that is not yet known? How can independent learning be assessed if not through resource use?
What one expects a college and academic library to be and how we justify ourselves in the Digital Age, whether the library exists merely as a study hall and a service for students to retrieve needed resources to complete assigned coursework–a “learning resource center”–or whether, as was traditionally the case, the library is conceptualized to have a mission and purpose of its own which extends beyond the classroom and the degree, e.g., to support independent learning, to stimulate intellectual inquiry, to support the student’s own definition of success (that is, whether or not it is tied to a specific class learning objective or degree requirement), to facilitate the acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge, to support research and inculcate the habit of life-long learning among its graduates–and other immeasurable learning objectives–are now in question.
Because of the widespread adoption of business objective / outcomes assessment models, and through it, the downgrading of the academic library into less ambitious and remedial learning resource centers, it is worth asking if in the 21st century, librarians in such environments remain committed to the idea or ideal of learning beyond the classroom, and if so, do administrators at the university, Provosts and Academic Deans, acknowledge and support this mission? It is also worth asking if, for the sake of public accountability, it is ethical to expect taxpayers to fund the construction of multi-million dollar buildings on campus which are called libraries, but which have no collections and a book budget which is arbitrary, disconnected from a plan other than to provide people with free books.
In the 21st century, what does it mean for the university library to “support” scholarly research, and how is the library’s support for research demonstrated and assessed apart from resource use? In an academic setting, does our function as librarians begin and end with the acquisition and activation of resources in discovery systems, or is there an obligation on the part of librarians to market their collections, to stimulate demand for resources, andto create environments whose purpose is to promote engagement with library resources?
Within the context of assessment, I offer inspiring library mission statements, and explore whether the academic library can and should establish its own library-centric goals and objectives apart from their parent institution, pursue its own definition of student success and library goodness, a strategy which flies in the face of advice by the professional association of academic and college librarians, ACRL, who shifted their position in 201145 asserting that libraries should simply adopt the goals and objectives of other departments and their parent institutions in order to demonstrate their value. What is at risk is not just the fate of the academic library or its librarians: while the impact of the library on the business objectives of the university may not be capable of measure, the impact of the library on the business objectives of the university are nonetheless very real.
The last section more closely examines the physical environment and rhetoric of the new academic library. The architecture of the new academic library has a pattern language all its own, often involving an emphasis on negative space and natural light (even if it is filtered through computerized glass walls to prevent glare, and modulated by computerized LED light strips to compensate for cloud cover), modern design, over-sized seating, grand facades, collaborative and private work spaces, big-stepped sitting staircases, and tall glass windows. Unlike libraries of old, which encouraged academic intimacy, these new structures are designed on a grand, open scale. If there are books, they are often placed into low shelving units (out of sight and where they are less likely to be used), so as not to interrupt the view of other users in the space or views of the outside world. There may be little inside of these new and newly renovated facilities, but the building or space is impressive, even if the purpose of its design seems mostly symbolic. The new librarianship advocates that iconic architecture and innovative spaces which inspire learning and better than engagement with books. It is a new illiteracy. Where libraries emphasized knowledge, endless possibility and ideas, the new space is about productivity, a public office.
Within the new librarianship, there is a discernible emphasis both on visual appearance of the facility, and orality, the intellectual exchanges resulting from open concept designs and collaboration in our newly transformed spaces; but the learning outcomes of these new designs are not documented, at least not in library literature. There are almost no post-occupancy evaluations of new academic libraries. For the sake of public accountability of the university and job security of its employees there would probably only be positive evidence presented, not a critical evaluation. The lack of standards or requirements, combined with lack of post-occupancy assessment allows for new buildings to continue to be built which have absolutely nothing to do with library learning or effectiveness of the facility as a library. They are spaces ripe for repurposing.
I will discuss what has been proposed as the pre-eminent role of the 21st century librarian, a “collaboration facilitator,” within these new empty spaces, and other notions about modern learning environments rooted in oral culture–all of which have seemingly arisen in response to library booklessness, and the need to justify both new library building projects, and to a lesser extent librarians, at a time when books and collections in any format are going away. While architects emphasize openness, screens, technology, automation and empty space, these designs might also be construed and boring, impersonal, monotonous, stagnant, institutional, cold and stressful. The design most conducive to reflection, and associated with it, is one of intimacy: dens, cozy spaces, soft surfaces, organic materials, a varied color palette, variety within the space (capacity for exhibit and display), clerestory windows (for the placement of interesting things at eye level while bringing in light).
As I have already mentioned, the move to eliminate print collections at universities, and vocal proclamations of print’s imminent demise are not well-coordinated with available technologies to present library collections (as collections) virtually, to effectively promote resource awareness and use, or increase an appreciation for them as shared intellectual and cultural objects which have value.
Indeed, in this age of Amazon, decision-makers, and even my fellow librarians, may be unaware of the limitations of modern library systems when it comes to collection management and display of electronic resources, which increasingly come and go from our inventories like the countless sea shells rolling in the tides.
Virtual classrooms and online libraries:
Do libraries have an educational pedagogy?
With the COVID-19 pandemic, students experienced surprising difficulty learning in online classrooms when their schools closed. Night after night, the news featured children expressing profound sadness that their school was closed, because online learning was too hard for them. They said that they just couldn’t learn online. My own child exclaimed, “Mom, online learning is crap!” Parents were at a loss. Given the ability for modern school-aged children to spend hours in front of a screen playing Minecraft and Pokemon, why should the online classroom have proved so daunting?
Perhaps learning would have been better through a more immersive virtual reality platform like Second Life, which many colleges experimented with years ago, with interest peaking in 2009. Around that time, several colleges, including even a few in Texas (it wasn’t just a California thing) built out entire virtual campuses, classrooms and even libraries online,47484950 and advocates extolled VR’s potential educational benefits.
Second Life still exists, but I don’t know who goes there these days. To my knowledge, there have been no revivals of Second Life classrooms in the wake of COVID-19. Some libraries apparently continue to live on in some capacity in Second Life, complete with card catalog, reference desk, reference librarian avatar and visible stacks–artifacts which, ironically, may not exist in the physical realm of their libraries anymore. An example of a Second Life library (albeit public) can be seen here:
Curiously, the effort to build virtual libraries online, complete with browseable stacks, has never been a goal for mainstream library system developers, even though this virtual library experience is what many ten years ago predicted the future of online libraries would be.51 The project is continuously taken up by universities. [ 34. Lynema, Emily, et. al. “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources.” Library Trends, 2012, Vol.61 (1), p. 218-233. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34605/61.1.lynema.pdf?sequence=2] and abandoned.
It is likely that the trend in academia toward the development of virtual campuses, and by association, their libraries, was curtailed by iPhones, the need to design responsive, lightweight platforms for viewing on mobile devises and smaller screens, rather than on immersive virtual worlds. Perhaps it just struck everyone as immature, like building a university in Minecraft and expecting people to take it seriously. (Also, when virtual libraries peaked twelve years ago, the ebook market was not nearly as mature as today.)
Where it was not possible years years ago, today it might be possible to build out virtual libraries with readable ebooks, or make something like this replica of J.P. Morgan’s library functional, not just a Second Life mesh:
The JP Morgan Library in the VL platform, Second Life. This is just a skin or mesh, but other library additions in Second Life allow real books and archival boxes to be opened and viewed.
Or create one’s own library (with the extension pack):
A book display made by someone in Second Life in 2010, with books that can be opened and read. A Virtual Reality feature which allows students or professors to make their own libraries or bookshelves for others to explore might be a very popular add on to a library automation system at a university.
While these early efforts to graphically recreate the physical stacks in virtual environments using video game technology may appear to trivialize the research process–it does rather remind one of Minecraft–the importance of serendipitous browsing and discovery to research, as one could the physical stacks, particularly at the early stages of the research process, has been somewhat documented,52 as is the perception among librarians for the perceived need to create a better platform for browsing in an academic environment, now that accessible collections are rapidly disappearing from libraries.53
As Cook writes, “It is incumbent upon librarians to take seriously the role of serendipity in the early part of the information search process, and what may be lost as a corollary result of the ongoing shift away from physical research materials to online research.”54While universities are experimenting with Oculus systems (requires a headset) and VR technology to enhance the study of archaeology an architecture, Cook concludes that while “physical collections are quickly disappearing to make room for collaborative learning spaces . . . the books-on-a-virtual-shelf conceptions of virtual reality have not yet been realized.”55
All of this talk about classrooms and collections in VR may sound pie-in-the-sky, which at this point it is. However, as educators, academic librarians might consider that if an online classroom through the university’s learning management platforms fails to sufficiently engage students, why should we expect that the online library modeled upon a search engine, our current heuristic model, should succeed in educating students, encouraging research, or inspiring people to learn?
If learning online poses such challenges, why expect providing passive access to ever expanding digital content (especially much academic content that is not geared to undergraduates) will sufficiently engage students and scholars, especially when these same resources are often accessible to authorized users other ways, for example, by going directly to the publisher’s platform, or through Google Scholar?
Even now, scholars can often experience a better, richer, more personalized and more comprehensive search experience by going directly to the publishers’ own platforms where their documents reside. On some level, academic publishers are competing with the library for the same users. Indeed, scholars tend to consult just a few publishers and platforms regularly, and if they can get to full-text, they prefer to go directly to them rather than indirectly, through the library’s discovery layer.
One study claims that even librarians tend to avoid discovery in preference for subject specific databases (publisher’s platform), unless they are searching interdisciplinary areas or areas with which they are unfamiliar.56
Although it is easy to search and retrieve content through a search engine, at large universities, discovery tends to submerge students into a sea of esoteric, peer-reviewed scholarly articles in response to their customarily overly broad queries.
What comes up in discovery is often irrelevant and incomprehensible, say, to a first year nursing student needing to write a five-page paper on diabetes. I know, we all tell students a little white lie, that the peer-reviewed article is the gold standard, a source of good and credible information, that it is better than Wikipedia and information they can obtain by Googling; but we all know this is not true, not even in the sciences. Unfortunately, the sola scriptura of the peer-reviewed article is very often written in opposition to the magisterium of received doctrine–knowledge represented by books in collections, contained within less volatile and more readable publishing formats. It is the nature of scholarly publishing that progress is made by reacting against conventional wisdom and the status quo, but these students may not have the perspective to differentiate possibility from truth.
In healthcare, consumer-oriented websites often contain “better” information for students, standard protocols and orthodox opinion, rather than scholarly articles intended for researchers describing statistically significant findings, which can be less than .01%, from experiments with mouse models and tissue cultures in Petri dishes, or with limited populations. Seasoned scholars, because they have already acquired the disciplinary knowledge needed to be information literate, take these articles with a grain of salt. They also know negative findings have not a snowball’s chance in hell for being published, so investigators may spin their findings, within ethical limits, to argue a positive outcome even if it is .01 (or would that be .001?). It is a negative finding, not a positive one. In scientific writing, there is nuance and there is bias. We tell students peer-reviewed sources are unbiased and objective, but scholarship will never be unbiased as long as people must do it to keep their positions or their funding from drying up.
In the Humanities and Social Sciences, books, not articles, are the most important vehicle for scholarly communication. Books are often aimed at generally educated readers with background material provided, where articles are written for specialized scholarly audiences, experts presumed to be already familiar with a topic.
Books reflect sustained intellectual effort, depth and focus, usually providing the scaffolding or conceptual framework necessary for a subjective opinion to form into objective fact. The old library, our cogent book collections, were better suited for broad searches and the undergraduate experience, and through their durable cloth formats and consummate placement in a good collection, they communicated that they were objects of value worth investing time into. These are the titles valued by those in the discipline or in contemporary society.
Even though we tend to think of relevance-ranking as returning results most relevant to the user, information retrieval through a library discovery service is also a more impersonal experience lacking social context or disciplinary framework. This disciplinary framework establishes a work’s value as authoritative within a particular context or framework. This information is meaningful to scholars, for what is authoritative in one field is not in another.
With our current user interfaces, it is also not clear that anyone selected the items turning up in discovery, knows anything about them, or has invested in them. They appear when needed, summoned by a search query, and disappear when they are no longer needed. If they are only relevant to the user, they might not seem very important to know about.
On the other hand, with print collections in our traditional library space, we could put a book in a student’s hand and say, “You really need to read this. It is right up your alley! Let me know what you think.” Or, “Doctor so-and-so, I immediately thought of you when I saw the review of this book! Let me know if you want me to order it.” With our print collections, it was easier to keep faculty up to date about forthcoming publications, and for our systems to support collection development activity. Academic intimacy in the library was fostered by visible signs of readership and use (date stamps, pencil marginalia), the fact that there was a discernible intellectual relationship between one work and another, and that collections in the library reflected the values and interests of a community of scholars at that particular institution.
Those who decry the old library as a passive book repository, and complain about the amount of money spent to “warehouse a book” on the shelves each year,15might be surprised at the cost academic libraries incur to for pay for annual or perpetual access, along with hosting fees and other indirect costs, for often obscure titles no one at their institution will likely access–not even necessarily because no one would be interested in them (there is that), but because they sufficient visibility. No one will think to look for them in the first place.
There is also the issue of quantity over quality. Large aggregator packages to which all academic libraries subscribe have been described as “churning constants”58(I think of them as chum buckets because they typically “chum” our collections with an abundance of cheap content no one would otherwise have acquired) for content that doesn’t move in print or cannot be monetized any other way, often cheaply obtained by the aggregator from the publisher, including many titles that are dated, and out-of-scope, foreign imprints; books on narrow topics which may never have been singled out for purchase by anyone in the library or its faculty under our former, more stringent collection development guidelines. This is not to say there isn’t some good stuff in them, because there is; but its purpose is to monetize content for the aggregator, not to be a good library collection. Choice Outstanding Academic titles for libraries and New York Times bestsellers are not included in these packages until many years go by.
Many libraries buy, as they must, individual ebook titles on top of aggregations to entice users with more fresher, more relevant or more popular (trade) titles to their users, but the terms of doing so title-by-title are often egregiousness. These are not Amazon Kindle ebooks, cheaper than print. These ebooks titles, licensed only to libraries by a handful (or sometimes one) vendor, cost hundreds or even thousands each, often 10 times list price, or more. The prices for academic ebooks are now ridiculously expensive, and getting higher each year. The economist who wrote the article explaining how much it costs libraries to warehouse a book on the shelf each year59 was trying to sell ebooks to libraries. I’d rather have the same book on my shelf for $4.20 for five years than have to pay for it many times over at $150–what the article didn’t tell relate. Even more problematic for the library, is that on an ebook platform, users have no idea that a particular book was selected by a librarian, or comes recommended by a faculty member, or is considered significant or is valued by anyone else. Whatever individual titles we purchase and add to the platform only makes the platform seem better, and doesn’t add to the library’s perceived value.
Title-by-title acquisition of ebooks feels like throwing the proverbial starfish back into the ocean.60 We have no way of presenting “our titles” to users, our select items. Users come upon the items we laboriously purchased mixed up with a bunch of other aggregator stuff. And then there is the junk purchased in perpetuity which was great at the time, but turned into an albatross. Even with the knowledge that no one would would want to access a Excel VBA Programming for Dummies 2009 in perpetuity, the library may have been forced to license it that way.
The old book repository which represented waste and decay is no better or cheaper in digital format. It is just less visible to everyone, including even to librarians, in an environment where collections are invisible and might be argued to no longer even exist.
Visualizing collections.The point of the academic library is not to provide access to needed resources to support classroom instruction (learning resource model), but to stimulate intellectual inquiry and independent learning. The extent to which it does these things is what makes it a good library.
However, our most advanced and sophisticated academic library system, with all of its analytical and data visualization capabilities, its Oracle Business Intelligence, are not configured for the collection-based management, assessment or display of e-resource collections. The system’s main purpose seems to be resource management, facilitating the efficient acquisition and access to a mix of aggregated and selective vendor packages of academic content which live (and are simultaneously accessible to authorized users) on publisher and aggregator websites, not collection management. Our major system developer, ProQuest Ex Libris, is a content aggregator, and through this system, the academic library is but a smaller content aggregator. Due to the limitations of our current online environment, booklessness has become nearly synonymous with collectionlessness, where libraries no longer seek to provide ways to present authoritative, quality collections to users so that publications might be meaningfully browsed or experienced as collections. What we offer instead is a kind of scholarly search engine.
While the acquisitions strategies vary from institution to institution, with some offering PDA and others doing more traditional title-by-title collection development (opposite ends of the spectrum), increasingly libraries mostly offer searchable aggregations, not curated collections reflecting what experts in the field think important to know. Most in my field see this as progress.42 Obviously, I do not.
The library’s discovery tool allows those with institutional affiliation a convenient way to search the library’s owned and subscription content. With single-sign on and other methods of authentication, students and faculty can conveniently access library-licensed content through the library’s discovery interface. They may also access subscription content through Google Scholar, or by going directly to the publishers’ websites. E-resources do not need to be “cataloged” because the vendor and publisher assume responsibility for access through our discovery systems through the provision of KBART files and MARC records.
In the modern library, scholarly content has been made more accessible than ever before, but there is a downside: access alone is limited in its ability to encourage use or convey value.A search engine is neither an effective pedagogical tool nor a good marketing tool.
Human beings assign greater value to what is valued by others, which was part of the excitement of the old library. The traditional library was a construct which conveyed value for scholarship and the scholarly enterprise in ways that the modern library experience does not. It didn’t sit back and wait for the user to have an information need. It emphasized in an objective fashion what other people, experts in the discipline, regarded as important to know, not just what is most relevant to a query, summoned up in the moment just to complete a certain task. It existed outside of the user’s experience in some existential and meaningful way. They didn’t need to come to it with knowledge and still come way with a good experience.
Visible collections help to emphasize the value of the items in them and help to make users aware of them. They are an invaluable educational and marketing tool. It isn’t that libraries are obsolete, but I fear we are on the verge of making them so by not sufficiently appreciating and capitalizing on what made libraries good and pleasing to students and scholars in the first place.
Browseable Collections vs. Searchable Aggregations. One important issue to me, perhaps the most important one, in the debate about print vs. digital formats, is that the technology is not yet available to afford users with a really great online library experience, particularlywhen it comes to ebooks or browsing digital collections.
Through the academic library systems we have available to us, ebooks cannot be ordered into virtual stacks for browsing.62Our systems and their interfaces are fine for what librarians call “discovery,” that is, for item retrieval, especially for known item retrieval, and also for locating whatever physical books and journal titles may remain on our shelves, but, rather astonishingly, they do not support collection browsing.
Rather than moving towards a better, richer, more immersive and enjoyable user interface to compensate for the lack of visibility of physical collections in libraries (resulting from the shift to e-preferred collecting policies, robotic or remote storage schemes for print materials, and new library designs which place books out of view), as one might expect or assume in this time, our current academic library systems are built around what is commonly referred to as discovery, a cloud-based application which searches vendor- and library- supplied metadata records for everything–articles, books, ebooks, videos–to which the library is entitled, and then some; but which at this point, displays only ten results at a time.
Web-scale, indexed-based library discovery systems, or “discovery” for short, is the technology behind the library’s all-encompassing everything search. This technology is not a new development or innovation; it has been around since about 2006, available as a subscription search service which co-existed with the traditional library catalog. Gradually, it came to replace the traditional OPAC, the online public-access catalog, which had been used mainly for locating call numbers of titles of print books and journals so they could be located on the shelves of the library. Discovery interfaces now often come bundled with library management systems. Academic publishers have contributed to the success of discovery. It helps them to license large subscription packages of ejournals and ebooks to libraries year after year. It helps publishers to monetize their content, and it helps librarians keep their content, especially serial content, up to date.
Despite the obvious advantages of discovery, its seeming ability to search across so many publisher platforms–it is searching a central discovery index of metadata records, not real time searching thousands of ebooks, articles and documents–it is worth raising the question why search alone should have come to absolutely define the user experience of a modern academic library, rather than offering users a more immersive, immediate, visually pleasing and unique experience of browsing library collections. Where did our stacks go? Browsing the stacks has defined the library for hundreds of years, and was a prominent part of early efforts to create virtual libraries. The stacks are what made us good, not the catalog (which most people disliked).
Think about this: what commercially viable online storefront would survive as a static web page with a search box featuring, at most, ten items at a time, while telling the user that thousands of potentially relevant items are in its inventory?
Our inventories are not comprehensive, yet we don’t seem to offer selective collections, either. We offer searchable aggregations of academic content which cannot be organized into collections so they might be meaningfully browsed. Our websites and user interfaces do nothing to place items into their scholarly context, where they might be more highly valued by audiences seeking to obtain an overview of their field and what is in the library. They would probably like to know what other scholars are viewing. Of course, libraries don’t incentivize demand for items like retailers with pop up balloons, “Someone at x university has just downloaded a chapter of this book!” or, “102 of your peers have read this article!” The least we could do as academic librarians is present titles to users in ways that are attractive, logical, organized, and visible to increase the odds that they will find something to like.
Through the latest technology available to us, library collections for all practical purposes no longer exist, and it is no wonder users may feel that their searches though discovery are incomplete (I discuss user and librarian attitudes toward discovery below); classification provided a reliable way to browse, at least at the title (book and journal) level. The latest academic library systems do not support collection browsing, the visual presentation of ebooks and ejournals organized in a logical arrangement according to classification or some other external framework.
The most frustrating aspect to me is knowing that the problem is not resulting from any technological limitation. Library book browse tools and apps have been around for a long time. Nor does it represent a philosophical shift in my profession, that mere discovery or usage (use-based analysis) alone is sufficient to ensure quality or demonstrate scholarly value.
The most recent and commonly referenced textbooks on collection development in academic libraries, for example, Peggy Johnson’s primer, Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management, still widely used in library collection development classes, explains collection-based approaches in libraries and their history. Any mention that there is now no way to meaningfully apply these approaches outlined in her book to e-resources in our current environment comes at page 290, in a cryptic statement:
Although e-resources always should be considered when the collection is being analyzed, many of the analytical methods described in this chapter cannot be applied easily to these formats.63
The problem, which she does not go into, is lack of metadata. Unlike their print counterparts, ebooks and ejournals are not assigned call numbers since they live online, not in a shelf location. Without classification, ebooks and ejournals cannot be placed into a meaningful scholarly context for them to be evaluated or valued as we did our print collections.
Without classification, there is also systematic mechanism for making new additions to the collection known to users who might be interested in receiving notifications of new titles in their areas of interest. As it is, vendors add new titles, delete others, all through an API, but it is up to the library user to come along and periodically conduct a search to see what new items have been added to our inventories.
What library discovery systems discover are the citations generated from the metadata records of third-party content available to the library through its license agreements with publishers: libraries license the package, the publisher provides a file of our entitlements to our library system vendor, and items become discoverable in our systems.
I believe that scholars want to know more than what publications are relevant to their search query. They also want to be made aware of the latest trends and publications are in a particular discipline, and where an item fits into a broader scholarly conversation. Scholars want to keep up, and they want the library to help them stay current. They want to be made aware of things they did not know about or think to search for. If the library is merely a conduit to publisher content, it is not living up to its potential as an academic library. The library should support all stages of research, including stimulating it.
An online academic library must also support the acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge through the presentation and display of titles as collections.It must in all ways strive to be a content-rich learning environment which celebrates and inspires academic achievement, knowledge, research and authorship.
Knowledge in Context. It is only recently, with the widespread adoption of discovery systems and the advent of bookless libraries, that classification has been assumed by library system developers to no longer be needed.
Why a classification scheme might still be needed for direct retrieval, or to organize a library’s ebooks and ejournals so they can be effectively and meaningfully browsed when, after all, our systems provide a seemingly more intuitive way to find books and articles through text search, does appear to require some explanation. Since electronic resources do not need to live in a single shelf location, why bother to classify them or assign call numbers to them?
Classification might seem rather pointless, as people have told me after I complained. After all, not one is likely to look for a book by typing in a call number, as they might, say, an ISBN number. Agreed, users are not likely to search by class or call number. But users might enjoy the opportunity to visually navigate a selective collection of books and journals online which are organized by classification, that is, by their discipline or field of interest, and they might enjoy viewing lists of new titles organized by classification, so like topics and titles fall together. They might want to see all that we have on a topic or subject area that is semantically independent. How are we to manage our collections without classification?
Scholars might enjoy being able to browse items to the left and right of a virtual bookshelf to see what else the library has which might be of interest to them. All of this was made possible in our OPACS by classification.
In Western philosophy, logic, classification and knowledge are interrelated. Knowledge involves categorization of the known.
Classification and knowledge are inextricably linked. In the Western mind, at least going back to Aristotle’s Categories, things can only be known, analyzed or fully understood only if they can be classified. Classification has served as the basis for the logical arrangement and meaningful organization of knowledge, but especially of scholarly books in libraries, so that like topics collocate and items within a collection can be properly contextualized and evaluated within the scholarly context where it is most valued. While the LC Classification system (LCC) is not an “ontology,” and has certain limitations and peculiarities (having been developed 100 years ago), classification is necessary for an academic library to properly manage its collections and support browsing in academic disciplines.
There is a consensus that academic libraries cannot provide quality collections to its users without reliance upon an appropriate classification system.64A library does not offer meaningful collections to the user without classification, and cannot itself evaluate and assess its own collections without use of it. A library should provide not just access to content, but context, and that disciplinary context is provided by classification. It should seek to provide users with a unique form of visual navigation and systematic display called “browsing,” which is not a casual activity or noncommittal attitude as the word might suggest. Browsing in the library and scholarly sense is describes navigational functionality, a reliable way to visually navigate and apprehend collections of bibliographic data, and is not indicative of attitude or level of seriousness of the user toward his subject.
Currently, our systems provide librarians with no ability to generate and display new ebook title lists, no ability to facilitate online browsing (virtual stacks) or present users with the experience of academic librarycollections as such.
If the purpose of the academic library is to support intellectual inquiry and scholarship, it certainly must support search. That goes without saying. But it should also support collection browsing, engagement with library collections as collections, and encourage resource use through contextualization. Marketing resources, not just passive access, should be the primary objective of our systems and our user interfaces. Offering passive access to vast aggregations of digital content is not an ideal pedagogical or business model for a library because it does not encourage resource use or user engagement. It does not promote library use. It does not represent bodies of knowledge.
One modest advancement would be to expect that library user interfaces support browsing of ebooks and e-journals by classification, where items can be precisely and most meaningfully situated into their most appropriate disciplinary context, and presented by classification for users to browse.
Another advancement would be a mechanism for displaying new books and significant publications in their respective fields of study, that is, browseable collection highlights. This functionality would also be dependent on classification, or the assignment of call numbers, to the bibliographic record.
Browsing is Learning. Browsing in academic libraries has historically been facilitated by use of the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system, or reliance on some other classification scheme which reflects the way the library’s users would logically expect to find materials arranged in the collection.
An LC Classification number is part of the full descriptive bibliographic record for academic book, ebook and serial titles, regardless of the number by which a library might choose to shelve it. The number in the 050 of the MARC bibliographic record reflects one cataloger’s understanding of the most appropriate, logical placement for a work, considered in its entirely, based on its intellectual content. Where subject headings can highlight different aspects of the work, including specific chapters, the classification number alone describes what the work as a whole is about.
LC Classification helps to define the value of the a scholarly work in context, according to its discipline and place within a hierarchical knowledge tree, where it stands in intellectual relationship to other items around it. Scholarly works are perceived to be more valuable as part of a broader scholarly conversation rather than in isolation. According to cataloging practice, academic library books and journals are cataloged in the specific sub-classes and divisions where they are considered most relevant to users, and also considering who is the scholarly audience for which the work is written. Scholars want to see a publication presented in its scholarly context.
If a library book, scholars want to be able to browse to the left and right on a shelf to see what other books are there on the topic.
While some may not grasp the importance of classification and browsing for supporting scholarly research, browsing is indeed an important information-seeking behavior among scholars, every bit as important as search. Understanding the context in which a scholarly work is written is an important part of understanding the text.
Browsing also helps to stimulate and inspire new research so scholars do not continuously go down the same pathways and eventually have their research interests fizzle out. Browsing helps to stimulates intellectual inquiry and the newcomers to a field or area learn more about it. It is fundamental to the learning experience libraries provide. Browsing is a form of learning and engagement with resources which we should encourage. It is what defines a library as a library.
Academic libraries online must support browsing of ebooks and ejournals. While tools such as Browzine have stepped in to fill that need, to enable the browsing of ejournals by discipline, nothing like this yet exists for ebooks.
Browzine is a popular Web service available to libraries which allows their journals to be browsed alphabetically by title within subject areas though a graphic interface. It also provides thumbnail images of journal covers. Why is browsing not part of a modern library automation systems?
The problem of classification of ebooks and other digital content so that they can be effectively browsed online is a vital problem. I believe if libraries are to survive into the 21st century, we offer an experience that is more exuberant and valuable to students and scholars than “information retrieval.”
Is Library Classification Vestigial? It remains to be seen if LCC will continue to be used for the presentation and arrangement of ebook and serial titles in new bookless libraries, or if it will even survive into the second half of the 21st century.
Understandably, there is a feeling that, with the disappearance of print, classification is no longer needed because e-resources do not need to live in one location on a shelf. Where the LC classification/ call number in the 050 was at one time extremely helpful to catalogers when it came to assigning local call numbers to the holdings record for physical books–the locally assigned call number is placed into a different field, not part of the bibliographic record as is the 050–now it may appear that it serves no function and can be disregarded. The old title-by-title cataloging workflow does not even exist so much in libraries anymore, and especially not for ebooks or for the library’s online resources.
Interesting to me is that this particular change, unlike those that occurred to metadata in previous years–like Dublin Core, or METS and MODS–is not the outcome of a library standards committee convening and making a determination that we don’t need to follow our metadata standards anymore, or that our bibliographiccataloging standards for books do not apply to ebooks. Ideally, by library professional standards, we ought to be cataloging our ebooks as thoroughly as books, but workflows vary significantly from library to library, with many deciding that vendor discovery records, while admittedly not good, are good enough.
I also understand the feelings of indifference when it comes to cataloging ebooks. It is easy to sweep bad or incomplete metadata under the rug. First, few see it, after all, and only librarians know, or have the ability to know, if the metadata is bad, and what is not showing up in a query when someone conducts a search. It is sort of an honor system that we try to make things the best they can be.
Second, although over the years we have carefully cataloged our libraries book by book, there was so never so much interest in the library’s print collection as when the books were being thrown out (I have overseen the weeding of over 270,0000 books at my former institution, a five-story comprehensive academic research library which was eventually replaced with a five-story student learning center). All we had to do was set out a discards cart, and people came out of nowhere, flocked to the books and carried them off, like seagulls to a bag of Cheetos. For many of us, the old library is gone and not coming back. Do we really need to start cataloging ebooks when vendors are willing to provide us with an easy alternative? Wasn’t that the selling point of the new system, that we wouldn’t need to catalog our ebooks? The will to catalog ebooks (or, more realistically, to develop workflows for enriching vendor-supplied metadata) is weak, understandably so, when many of these books are not even ours–we are just leasing them for a limited time period. Some we buy in perpetuity, but most we license for a while and then they disappear.
Perhaps there is no point in trying to tame the tiger of ebook metadata.65 Vendor titles seem to slip in and out of our inventories without affecting our license agreements or customer satisfaction. People rarely seem to miss what isn’t showing up when they perform a search, even if we think it ought to be there.
From Booklessness to Collectionlessness.In traditional academic librarianship, the collection was equated with the library, and was practically a philosophical topic in its own right. Traditional collection management presupposed that the library’s product was not just information (or its transfer to the user), but disciplinary knowledge, embodied in collections of books and journals, organized by discipline.
While methods for assessing the scholarly value of both the individual titles, sub-collections and the collection as a whole varied, the starting point for assessment generally began with a shelf-list report of books and journals arranged by classification. These might be sometimes be mapped to specific disciplines, called a conspectus, or a collection map. The report could include other aspects: cost, publication date, usage, format. It could be used to evaluate how funds were being allocated, or which subject areas were being most heavily used. The methods for evaluating collections varied from institution to institution, sometimes depending on the capacity of technical services to create such reports. Sometimes they even involved granular comparisons with peer libraries. Histograms could be performed to assess collection age in specific areas or disciplines, as the books in different disciplines age at different rates.
For a collection to be a strategically planned collection, items have to stand in a logical relationship to other items in it, and reflect publishing in the discipline. There are general guidelines librarians follow, for example: We don’t have volume 2 without volume 1. We do not have the minor works without the major ones. We do not have works about x without having the works by x. We don’t keep many years of superseded titles or dated materials. We do not buy in an ad hoc manner–year after year buying nothing in a discipline and acquiring only because of an upcoming accreditation review. If we have Marcuse, we have Adorno and Habermas. The collection should be balanced. We try to maintain a consistent scope so users will be able to anticipate what will be in the collection and come to expect good things will be there. We do not add irrelevant titles to the collection just because they are cheap, donated or free.
At least, those were the old rules and conventions under which the physical library operated. With discovery and our electronic collections, such as they are, we do not appear to worry so much about quality. It is what it is. We are a repository, not a collection. We buy or license large packages of scholarly content, and beyond that, let users decide for themselves what is good and relevant to them. Many libraries are deciding to no longer offer collections to users in any format, merely packages of aggregated content. New academic library systems have been designed to manage the acquisition and user access to large packages of ebooks and journal content offered by publishers and aggregators, in which we license the good with the so-so. We are often chumming our repositories with questionable junk, but the approach now is that more is more. Let the user determine what is good to him.
Modern library systems are not built to help librarians to manage or evaluate collections of titles using traditional assessment techniques, tools and approaches that we were taught to apply to print collections. Discovery systems, our modern library management systems, are not designed to help librarians to evaluate online collections, create digital displays, encourage user engagement, or promote resource use using digital marketing techniques. We can certainly evaluate the usage of a publisher platform, a package or a portfolio, but without call numbers it is impossible to evaluate the quality or scholarly value of our collections.
As mentioned above, the metadata for ebooks and ejournals now placed directly into library systems by vendors are often lacking LC Classification, which provided a disciplinary context for an academic title. While some vendors, for example Taylor & Francis, have successfully partnered with OCLC to provide enriched metadata to their academic subscribers, others are loading into our Community Zones records that are not descriptive, which some have referred to as “discovery records.”
It’s Called “Descriptive Cataloging” for a Reason. The objective of descriptive cataloging is to accurately describe the intellectual contents and scholarly significance of a work, both the work as a whole and its component parts, so the work is able to be discovered by scholars through the record the cataloger creates.
There are many arcane rules to follow in creating good MARC records, and every so often new rules and new fields come down the pipe. In addition to accurately transcribing bibliographic data and following odd rules for capitalization and punctuation, catalogers create access points through use of a classification system and subject headings. Here familiarity, with the subject matter and the discipline is extremely helpful. Of course, one must first read (or effectively skim) the book, and then assign metadata to it.
MARC bibliographic records now go into our systems without much notice, sometimes hundreds or thousands at a time. In our system, I have to go out of my way to view them, which I do from time to time when I want something to do. Ever since the 1990s, when vendors began providing shelf-ready books with cataloging records which could be uploaded into our systems, catalogers have been complaining about them. But it was never like this, never what I am seeing now coming into our discovery systems, and I cannot help but be concerned when I see them.
I have received promises that the records will eventually be automatically updated, but there is no timetable for doing so. My colleagues on library lists do not know either. Oddly, there is nothing about MARC records or KBART files in our license agreements with publishers. I have a feeling that with the transition to digital formats, vendor supplied metadata for ebooks and ejournals will continue to erode, especially as publishers are told by vendors of library systems that LC classification and other library-centric values are now merely optional.66
During the COVID-19 crisis, when library conferences were cancelled, a cabal of publishers and aggregators (there were a few librarians) gathered to try to define the minimal standards for ebook bibliographic metadata in the form of a new NISO standard, “E-book Bibliographic Metadata in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization” 67, as if libraries hadn’t already defined this for ebooks through their MARC standard. I didn’t find out about it until a few days after the 45 day public comment period closed, after which time I began to send emails with my comments. That publishers and aggregators are seeking to define the minimal standards for the metadata for ebooks doesn’t sit well with me, for librarians and their MARC records are on the tail end of this metadata supply chain.
As most librarians know, years ago the Library of Congress took it upon themselves to prepare a MARC record for every not-yet-released book sent to them by publishers. This resulted in the image of a card catalog card or its values being represented on the verso of the title page, the copyright page, for most books a library might be interested in acquiring. It also resulted in a librarian-created MARC record, at least a skeletal one, for every library book, complete with LC classification and LC subject headings, which other libraries were free to copy or download into their system though a standard protocol (Z39.50).
CIP information of the verso of the title page. Publishers partnered with the Library of Congress to provide metadata, including LC subject headings and classification numbers, to libraries. LC is not eager to extend its cataloging program to ebooks.
Unfortunately, the LC CIP program is not being extended to ebooks unless there is a print equivalent published at the same time.68 In other words, it is reserved for print books. Therefore, publishers do not have a reliable mechanism of obtaining library classification and subject headings for their ebooks unless they hire their own catalogers or else contract with a third-party cataloging service, which some do.
Despite the lack of classification numbers and subject headings in much of our vendor-supplied metadata records–on my to-do list is a formal study of my library’s ebook metadata–the will to catalog ebooks and the staffing to perform the task in libraries today is often lacking, especially with the common belief, promoted by library system vendors, that discovery systems have made cataloging unnecessary. Libraries may purchase ebooks by the hundreds or thousands in a package. These titles magically appear in discovery, and even if their metadata isn’t good, it is often good enough for someone who looks for a specific title. Without subject headings and other enhancements to the record, items may not be all that discoverable, but they usually can usually be found with sufficient effort.
Cataloging ebooks, or at least editing, enhancing and providing LC classification / call numbers (and subject headings) to potentially thousands of vendor discovery records, may feel like a thankless chore and an unwise use of resources in today’s libraries. This is especially true for ebooks, which are perceived to have a more limited lifespan than print. The fact that they are now acquired in bulk also has something to do with it. It is likely that no one inside the library hand-picked these titles, they do not live on university servers, and often seem to fluidly enter and exit from our library systems as it serves the needs of publishers and aggregators rather than the faculty or librarians, creating further disincentives to invest in them, to treat them as anything but the commodities they have now become.
This is not to say that discovery systems do not also provide great advantages to us and to our users. As I mentioned above, library holdings can be immediately updated by the vendor and publications made instantaneously accessible to our users. Who would want to catalog those books? Our systems are scalable: we can activate three items as easily as 30,0000 in discovery by activating a publisher package. Article content, which was not visible in our former catalogs, have become a primary focus of the discovery experience, which is extremely advantageous for STEM fields, where the peer-reviewed journal article is the primary format for scholarly communication. It had become an indispensable tool to make immediately accessible large quantities of continuously updating serial content.
Until a few years ago, most academic research libraries offered a catalog for monographic (that is, book) titles and print journals, and a standalone discovery tool for their searching their databases. Now that print is being eliminated or not maintained by many libraries, replacing the traditional catalog with discovery makes the collection appear richer and up to date. Prioritizing digital content and discovery has significantly impacted library workflows by making them more efficient.
Increasingly, however, no one inside the library routinely familiarizes themselves with the ebook titles that are passively acquired by the library through these blanket publisher agreements. No one has selected them. No one has cataloged or physically processed them. No one knows they are there, or notices when they depart.
They enter and exit the collection on quiet cat feet.
As part of a regular workflow in the library, no one routinely sees ebooks, or their metadata, except to make sure items in the collection are active in discovery.
We have no mechanism for actually displaying new titles through an automated feed, so we or our users can see them.
There is no way to display or arrange our ebooks as collections to be browsedor evaluated as collections.
The essence of a good library is not passive access to resources in the event someone should think to look for them, but in encouraging resource awareness and use, and creating dynamic environments which cultivate interest in books, reading and research.
To sustain user engagement, we must be able to market the items in our inventories as belonging to a quality collection.
The hallmark of a good library is not defined by access to items which can be found on our site–they can be found by Googling too–but inspiring our users to learn more, to explore and to grow through engagement with collections because they represent a body of knowledge worth investing in.
New Uses for the 050 field. So far I have spoken in generality about the limitations of new system designs and vendor supplied metadata. It is surely a chicken and egg situation. The fact library systems emphasize discovery and not collections or browsing means that publishers have no incentive to provide an LC Classification number as part of the metadata it provides to libraries. Metadata costs them money. They want to sell books, not catalog them.
I have argued for the need for classification numbers to support browsing, for without being able to organize our collections by classification, we lose the ability to create online a unique library experience and add value to the items in our care. LC classification reflects the disciplines. Without that, there is no scholarly context. Browsing publications by classification is unique to libraries. You cannot do it through Google Scholar. You cannot do it at a publisher website. It is uniquely a “library” thing, and absolutely necessary for collection management. When people reflect back about what they liked about their academic library experience from their college days, it was browsing the library’s collections. Browsing quality collections, consisting of publications which others in the field think significant and important to know, is a fundamental part of the library experience and how we encourage independent learning. It absolutely and uniquely defines the user experience of an academic library collection. We must be able to replicate this experience online.
Discovery records for academic ebooks, cataloging loaded into our systems by vendors, often lack LC Classification numbers. Even those from some of the best academic publishers, with the most robust metadata, lack 050 fields or valid LC call numbers put into them, and therefore, as far as I can tell, there is no source for LC classification to support a book browsing tool or to facilitate collection browsing.
Even the best academic publishers, with the richest metadata, cannot fathom the Library of Congress Classification system well enough to provide libraries with a well formed LC call number in the MARC record. Springer consistently places broad class numbers into its ebook records, which would undermine efforts to develop online browse tools which feature collections of library ebooks.
Example of a skeletal MARC record for a new ebook, with no 050 field at all, nor any LC subject headings. Discovery records such as this are being placed into our systems in large numbers through large deals with vendors. Without enhancing the records, many of our newer ebooks may be undiscoverable though discovery.
It is important to note that this field can be either assigned a value by the Library of Congress or by any library who wishes to assign a valid LC call number to it, as long as the proper indicator is chosen.
The Library of Congress recognizes the function of the 050 field to support collection evaluation and browsing applications.69 As I will discuss below, slightly more attention is being paid to the 050 now because of the desire on the part of some librarians to harvest and organize ebooks by classification, and to perform collection assessment by discipline. In addition, OCLC has recently launched an experimental tool called “Classify” which might help facilitate the rapid assignment of classification numbers to ebooks to facilitate bookshelf browsing.70 As far back as 2004, Frank and Paynter experimented with an application for automatically assigning LC classification numbers to the contents of a specialized digital library based on LC subject headings of the items in the collection.71 It remains to be seen if virtual bookshelf browsing will become as important feature of OCLC’s library system, WMS, which could give it a competitive advantage over Ex Libris’ Alma when it comes to winning librarians’ favor.
A few libraries and developers have tried–indeed, even Google (Google Books) has tried–to develop a virtual library which supported browsing by classification.72Vendor-supplied ebook discovery records are widely recognized as being not up to library cataloging standards for books, but, due to the dynamic nature of ebooks, many smaller libraries have come to depend on them rather than laboriously editing, enriching and/or batch-loading them, as many larger academic libraries do.73
Library Interfaces without Classification?There is an alternative to classification for the organization of bibliographic citation data in discovery tools which does not require an external schema or taxonomy, or for classification to be part of the metadata record itself.
Fifteen years ago, there was a fully developed library discovery tool called “Grokker” which could search and index hundreds of sources and databases at a time, return results, place them into metadata fields, form these into citations, dynamically cluster and label these (even allowing for disambiguation) and permit users to zoom in to clusters of bibliographic citation data linked to its source. Each circle represented a clustering category created on the fly, with the size of the circle reflecting the number of results. Grokker was based on a federated search model combined with with a semantic-clustering engine. Rather than going to a centralized index of publisher provided metadata, as Primo does, Grokker went directly to publisher platforms through connectors (APIs) to conduct real time searches of the documents and return results to the application for processing.
The simple circular interface Groxis, Inc. developed is now gone. The company closed in 2009 after signing an exclusive agreement with Gale, a competitor to EBSCO and ProQuest, which turned out to be not a good business move. Its underlying technology of dynamically clustering bibliographic citation data is still around,74 and people are still conducting research on building better semantic clustering engines for bibliographic citation data.75
Grokker ca. 2007 employed an intuitive visual navigation system based on semantic clustering which combined searching and browsing. The size of the zoomable circles clued researchers in to the number of search results retrieved in a category.
Semantic clustering to dynamically organize / cluster citation results better seems to be one way library discovery interfaces might improve, and in some intuitive way combine browsing with searching. Using of a clustering engine does not rule out the possibility of applying an external taxonomy or subject classification system to citation results, but one is not needed for categories and labels to be generated.
The Limitations of Discovery as a Library User Interface. While Grokker and semantic clustering search applications are able to combine searching with browsing to some extent, and therefore offer a richer and more intuitive search experience, they still do not convey that there is a collection; it is discovery with a twist. We are still limited by the fundamental drawback of discovery as a library user interface, that it is dependent upon people to pull things out of it, and does little to place items into a larger disciplinary framework.
Good libraries are about the presentation of good collections, actively presenting what is good or significant, and perhaps even accounting for why an item is good and/or significant. Through discovery alone, there is insufficient collection visibility or strategies to promote user engagement with quality collections. Indeed, there really is no such thing as a library collection in discovery, only aggregations of content of unclear value to anyone even in the scholarly universe.
Libraries should be thinking beyond discovery, and an important part of this is how to make library collections visible again.
I do understand the logic and practicality of not assigning LC classification / numbers to items that do not live in a particular shelf location. Indeed, while some publishers manage to do a great job, it also perhaps seems unreasonable to expect that academic publishers, from whom we may license tens of thousands of books at a time, to provide libraries with catalog records pre-populated with library-centric metadata (LC classification, LC subject headings) to make their ebook content more discoverable in our systems, especially if our library system vendor is not actively encouraging these standards,76 and especially when, on some level, publishers are competing with the library to be a research destination; and when they themselves do not use anything like a MARC record to facilitate discovery on their own platforms.
Whether vendors assume responsibility for the MARC record is an interesting question, probably one of the most interesting ones which has arisen with new systems designed for vendors to load records into our systems. Can we legitimately complain to the publisher that the library cataloging records they are placing into to our Community Zone of our automation system are lacking good metadata? My feeling is that is that if Taylor & Francis can do it, so can Springer and Elsevier and other international publishers.
Either work it our with OCLC or hire catalogers, many of whom would be grateful for a gig job which they can do from home.
Beyond discovery interfaces.The library can facilitate a unique and valuable experience to scholars only if it maintains good metadata and if it supports collection browsing. In the library world, browsing is the visual presentation of ebook and ejournal titles by subject classification, so they can be presented and experienced by users as an academic library collection according to academic library professional standards.
The elimination of book browsing from our interfaces, and lack of support for classification of ebooks and ejournals (which supports browsing), not only influences perception of value of items in our collections, but also makes our collections less capable of being evaluated, managed and assessed by librarians according to our own standards. It also makes our discovery service less able to be assessed, that is, for librarians to determine what is not showing up which should when someone conducts a keyword or subject search. It makes the library less meaningful and valuable to scholars who want to be able to browse publications in an area, and makes it harder to promote what we have in our collections to users.
It contradicts numerous studies supporting that faculty prefer browsing, at least to see or visually navigate collections to obtain an overview of a field, discover new books added to the collection, and discern trends over time in a field or specialty. As one scholar writes over concern of his library going to robotic retrieval and closed stacks, browsing collections is critical to research:
Being able to browse the library shelves is a critically important part of my research as an academic. I often find vitally useful resources by tracking down one book through the catalogue and then looking at the surrounding shelves to find related topics. I am very concerned that an automated retrieval system will prevent me from finding such important research materials. If there is to be an automated retrieval system, could there at least be a photographic representation of the surrounding books on the shelf so that the shelves could be “virtually” scanned by eye? (Robins 2008)77
Even if, when surveyed, faculty do not express preference for a particular reading format—a common question asked in surveys by librarians when determining how much space and the library’s budget to dedicate to print in new facilities–their response, one way or another, does not mean these scholars do not wish to be able to browse library collections online.
Sentiments such the one expressed above by faculty in the quote above motivated the Macquarie University Library to develop a virtual browse tool for print books, when in 2012, when they went to closed stacks (as a result of implementation of a robotic storage and retrieval system). However, they encountered difficulties continuing to use this tool after moving to a new automation system, Alma/Primo.78
In May 2013, Harvard’s Library Innovation Lab launched a visual stacks browse tool prototype for their Hollis catalog, called StackLife, which featured a dynamically assembled vertical bookshelf generated from bibliographic and circulation information fed into it by their library system, which included print and electronic resources. Users could click on the book to get to the record or the resource. With this new visualization tool, which was a prototype, the spine measurements and page numbers generated a book icon proportional to the description in the bibliographic record. The book icon cover could appear in one of 10 shades of blue, corresponding to the number of times a book had circulated. While the project was abandoned after the Harvard Library went with a new automation system, interest in developing a browse tool for the academic library space is evident.
The University of Minnesota also made use of a collection browse tool which was part of a former system, but abandoned it after the tool was no longer supported.79 There have been many efforts to build a virtual library which would support shelf browsing, including by Google.
Alma / Primo VE, widely regarded as the most powerful library system on the market today, comes with a little known Collection Discovery feature which allows librarians to create user-defined collections, and manually populate these with titles, but for reasons I have already mentioned, the application cannot place titles in order by classification.(They are in MMS/system designated number order.) Shown below is a collection of new books on “Allergy & Immunology,” but books on AIDs, food allergies, and asthma are mixed up. In addition, the bibliographic data which appears on the tile does not include author or publication date, making it of less value to scholars compared to the information on the spine of a library book.
“Collection Discovery” is a feature of Alma/Primo which allows titles of books, ebooks and ejournals to be manually added to user defined collections for virtual browsing, but the books in these collections cannot be ordered by classification, and tiles do not display (even on mouse-over) basic bibliographic data scholars expect to see, for example, author and date of publication.
As much as librarians are eager to display new ebooks to users so that they might have greater visibility and use, no librarian wants to present books to users in random order, and with incomplete citation information. I’m hoping that this feature of Alma/Primo VE is just a start of something good. As publishers, aggregators and library system designers are trying to forge new metadata standards for ebooks to make it easier for them to monetize and auto-populate our collections with their content, we must respond with some library-centric standards of our own.
Clearly, there is a strong desire and demand for academic users to be able to browse collections of ebooks online, as this has project been taken up by several universities in over the years.80 Support for LC classification and collection browsing is a perfectly reasonable expectation for academic libraries, even if it remains to be seen how LC classification numbers might be systematically assigned by publishers to the discovery records they are placing into our systems.
Putting Books Before People: The True Meaning of a Patron-Centered Library
s print collections dwindle in the drive for libraries to innovate and modernize, no new interfaces or library standards for discovery metadata have emerged to support visually browsing a library’s online or hybrid collections, or to assist librarians perform collection-based assessment for their ebook collections. We cannot easily put new books in front of users through our systems. We have no store front, only a search box.
Alma libraries have the capacity to harness Oracle Business Intelligence and Data Analytics, but wait, what?–it cannot be used to produce a simple shelf list of print and ebooks combined?81
The 050 field, the Library of Congress Classification / Call number, could be used to support a virtual browse interface, as several have suggested,79 too often this field is incorrectly populated or omitted altogether by publishers and vendors in the MARC records they provide to libraries. Few libraries have the staffing to manually provide LCC numbers to the records of the thousands of ebooks they obtain from vendors, a reality which left one librarian to conclude that, if we are to support browsing, we must lobby MARC record vendors to make them aware of the importance of including call numbers.83
So far I have discussed that the technology available to libraries to support booklessness leaves much to be desired. Through the technology we have, our collections are not only invisible, but they cannot be meaningfully be browsed like a library collection, making them less useful to scholars, especially to those in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Collection visibilityis an important quality for a collection to have. “Collection visibility and visible collections” could be my mantra, followed by my more sarcastic “putting books before users.” Our current systems do not have any way of making collections visible, or the items in them visible without first being invoked by the user, which impedes learning. It is not a good model for students who come to the library without knowing anything, which is why they are enrolled at a university.
The academic library must put books before people to be effective. It must maintain visible collections and collection visibility.
Do students prefer bookless libraries? What we know from the limited studies84 that students do not care very much for bookless libraries, and when given a choice, such as in a major metropolitan area like Houston, with several universities in close proximity, students will sometimes choose to go to libraries which maintain larger print collections. In my library orientation class, after explaining all of the fabulous things students have access to through the library, including ILL, I tell them that by virtue of their being enrolled at an institution of higher education in Texas, that they are entitled to check books out from any state supported school or public library, should they wish to do so. All they need is a TexShare card. A surprising number of students line up to get the card, even though I make it clear that they only need to obtain one if they wish to check out books from the other library. Many professors in graduate Research Methods classes at my university require students to visit other libraries, and they recommend students request the card.
Granted, larger libraries might offer other attractions and amenities beyond their print collections, such as other electronic databases, cafes, relaxed food and drink policies, longer hours, and perhaps more people around. An Indian student who felt homesick at our campus (an HBCU) went to the library at the university down the street, where she ran into people from her own country, which made her happy. We do not even know to what extent other libraries are used by our students, how and with what frequency, whether the presence of current print collections makes libraries more intellectually stimulating and appealing to students as places to study.
We do know that often it is the pursuit of a single book–perhaps an assigned textbook–which initially sends them to other library in the first place, and sometimes they want to go back to check out books, that is, asking for a new TexShare card when a new semester begins.
TexShare cards, which extend borrowing privileges of students enrolled in a Texas public institution of higher education to other libraries in the state, can anecdotally help the library track where students are going. It is none of our business why they are using the other library or what they are doing there, because it is an entitlement. Because students can decide if they want to order books through ILL or go in person to the other library to obtain a book, we know students can be surprisingly eager to venture forth to unfamiliar campus libraries in pursuit of a book. I hope that they want to see what else the other library has which might be of interest to them, which is why they choose to go in person, TexShare card in hand, rather than requesting the book through our ILL services. But realistically, they also might not trust our ILL services to produce the needed book in their desired time frame.
Along the same lines as why students prefer one library over another, if students have a choice of where to attend college, to what extent does a library with physical collections (or not) factor into their decision of where they go to school? By that same token, do prospective students evaluate the library’s website and databases online to form an opinion about the quality of education at that school before applying there?
What is it prospective students are hoping to see when they are herded through the library by tour guides? Are they looking for other people? Are they looking for computers? Are they looking for interesting books on display? Are they looking at the size of our collections? The friendliness of the librarians? Collaborative learning spaces? Are they interested in seeing the library at all, or just taking the requisite tour all around campus?
Yes, absolutely students want the convenience of databases to get their assignments and coursework done, but I think, they also want a library with visible collections to experience, especially one with books which appeal to them and reflect their interests, personality, tastes and identity.
They want access to see and browse through books that are current, even if they might prefer to download a copy to take it with them to read (what I call “virtual fulfillment”). They want to experience the books that other educated people in their field know about. They may want contemporary nonfiction and leisure reading, even if they don’t have time. I believe that student preference for books or visible collections might even ultimately impact the business objectives of the school, but studies of this nature–whether the quality or mode of the academic library influences enrollment and retention–are non-existent.
When people think positively about their experience of college libraries, it is the pleasurable experience of wandering through the stacks coming upon something unexpected, but deeply meaningful, which comes to mind. This is called serendipitous browsing, but chances are, as accidental as it may seem to the user, in some way a quality collection (and therefore a librarian) was behind it.
Years ago, librarians were taught that the experience of curated collections was essential to the academic experience, how we supported intellectual inquiry and added value to the university. I still believe a good collection should be thought of as a pre-eminent service libraries provide to their user communities.
Perhaps because it is just a bit gratuitous in this digital age, physical collections might also demonstrate greater respect or care for the academic disciplines we support, greater respect for scholarship, and greater care for the student. Curated, cared for, collections create new avenues for discovery and a motivation to learn. They represent a body of knowledge. Done right, collections are enjoyable and meaningful for scholars to browse, where random aggregations and ad hoc accumulations, in any format, connote the opposite. Lack of knowledge, lack of care, and ignorance of the discipline. If we want to build communities of readers and scholars, we need for collections to be visible, not just searchable.
As many of our institutions are rapidly moving toward booklessness, large packages of ebook and ejournal content are comprising more of our collections. Some of the largest aggregator packages are often comprised of academic titles which are no longer in demand–back-list titles–whose content is sold in bulk to an aggregator, who packages and hosts the content, and sells access to libraries as packages. While there may be good things in them, publishers will tactically withhold their better titles, current titles, seminal works and critical editions to encourage academic libraries to pay for these titles individually.
Even if we laboriously add better titles to the EBSCO or ProQuest ebook platform, we end up, like the Bre’r Rabbit, knocking ourselves out only to enhance the user experience of our vendor’s ebook platform, but not necessarily improving perceptions of the library. Users do not know which titles librarians have selectively added to the EBSCO or ProQuest ebook platforms.
If their experience is a positive one, they will think well of the platform, but not necessarily any better of the library.
A searchable aggregation of resources is not the same thing, or a substitute for, a good library collection. Presenting users with visible, curated collections and emphasizing what is good are our best marketing strategies, for both print and online.
Discovery alone fails to cultivate a culture of learning on a college campus and diminishes our value, as well as the value of the items that are in these aggregations we are calling a collection, but isn’t, anymore than what Google Scholar searches can be experienced as a library collection.
A good library collection is what makes the library the heart of the university, what makes it interesting, and what supports a sense of community, what stimulates reading, conversation and collaboration with the faculty. Resources are our common bond with faculty and students. By placing quality, appealing and relevant collections in front of users in a way that can be easily seen, visually navigated and browsed, users are more likely to find something they like, something meaningful, something significant, something interesting, and oftentimes, something completely unexpected.
Maintaining browseable collections which reflect scholarly activity in the disciplines is an important way academic libraries and its librarians stimulate intellectual inquiry and inspire research. To continue to do so into the 21st century, we must decide either to hold on to print for a while longer, at least until the point at which our vendors provide user interfaces and metadata which fully support and promote the user experience of academic library collections.
Improving Collection Visibility in Library User Interfaces
ith bookless libraries, the collection may be visible only through what librarians refer to as “discovery,” a search engine, which is to say, it isn’t visible as a collection at all. I believe the lack of visibility of collections is a serious problem facing all academic libraries at this time, especially as more libraries go fully digital. If we cannot see or visualize the collection, we cannot effectively manage it. If users cannot see the collection, they will not benefit from the learning opportunities and stimulation that a good collection provides. If the collection cannot be made visible as a collection, we cannot work collaboratively with faculty to make the collection better. Most of all, though, a collection that is out of sight is out of mind. It does not motivate or inspire. Rather than showcasing the work of scholars, it diminishes it.
While some have speculated that research libraries today have no need to support browsing or even collections in the traditional sense–and that conspectus(which I will discuss below), collections and browsing have been made obsolete through a combination of search, “big deals” and PDA,42–to me it is not a good thing, or a sign of progress, that the user experience of the academic library in the 21st century has been reduced only to search, and what is being searched is looking less and less like an academic library collection, and more like, well, random aggregations of academic content which cannot even be reassembled into a meaningful collections for browsing or assessment.
Discovery, the library’s indexed-based search application, which searches metadata of the library’s owned and subscribed content, is truly a wonderful thing.
But realistically, as an interface, it has not made libraries more attractive or valuable to scholars or regular users. In fact, the opposite may be true. Today users often prefer to bypass the library’s discovery interface or website (depending on the method of authentication supported by the library) to go directly to the specialized databases and journals we license on their behalf. Once users figure out the platform or database where their journal or preferred content actually lives, and that they can get to full-text through single sign on (authentication on the site itself), we lose them, which means to me that our discovery interfaces are not compelling or a good value proposition. It isn’t that they are too hard to use, or professors do not know how to search them, but as a search engine, we offer limited value.
Sure, we can track and claim this usage activity on the publishers’ websites “for the library,” but we should not ignore the reality that on publisher and aggregator platforms, researchers are often afforded a more attractive search experience. There, users have greater confidence that their search has been exhaustive, thorough and current. Through search alone, libraries are not competitive with publishers and we are not giving users a compelling reason to come to the library or to use the library’s website.
Indeed, numerous studies over the years have revealed that neither librarians nor its users even like or trust discovery interfaces, and for many reasons not having to do with the need for more library instruction, prefer to go directly to the publisher’s platform to conduct research.56 Another place they prefer to go is to Google Scholar, where they can search citations from university repositories, open access repositories, academic publisher platforms, as well as the library’s subscribed content–and then link to full-text that way.
It is time that library system user interfaces presented users with a unique and inviting library experience, and not just a generic search experience for aggregated content, for we will never be competitive against publishers (or Google Scholar) in the area of search if this is all we offer. This means we need to support browsing, affording users the opportunity to visually navigate and engage with good collections. We need to make collections visible again. And it can be more than just access to resources. In an online environment, we should strive to make usage by scholars visible to other scholars (how many times others have downloaded the title) because in academia, just as outside it, use by others compels interest; people naturally want to read what other people are reading so they are not left behind. We need better user interfaces which support collection browsing, engagement, and analysis.
Our purpose as academic librarians is to maintain and promote quality collections which reflect scholarly communication in the disciplines, not just to provide seamless access to subscribed content. Tools for better collection management and collection development, along with collection browsing online, should be requirements for library systems today. Through our user interfaces, we could be orienting users to their disciplines as well as promoting new publications in the disciplines.
The same metadata which supports patron browsing is also a prerequisite for librarians to properly evaluate and assess the quality of the collection. Indeed, a standard approach to collection management in academic librarianship since the 1980s has been through a collection conspectus, which begins by mapping the collections by LC classification / call number ranges to the disciplines supported by the institution.
The conspectus is recognized as a standard tool for describing, assessing and evaluating academic library collections, even around the world.87 Many collection development policies at universities have been based on a conspectus approach. The Library of Congress still uses a conspectus approach, and it is still recommended by IFLA. OCLC currently owns the last version of the RLG/WLN Conspectus, which they call “CES,” but it is not too difficult to create them from scratch using the LCC schedule to make one’s own collection map.
Without something like a conspectus, or a collection map, as some refer to it,88 it is hard–impossible–to do strategic collection development in a large academic library. Today, libraries can run usage reports to evaluate journals usage, platform usage, ebooks usage, and database usage. But we cannot evaluate the quality or depth or usage of our collections as collections, by discipline, division and subject. We cannot evaluate the intellectual contents of our collections, or report use by subject, institutional disciplines or specialties (which in the conspectus is defined by call number ranges). Sadly, libraries cannot even easily or reliably generate a simple list of books and ebooks combined, let alone do analysis by classification, as we used to be able to do. We cannot perform a histogram on our collections as we used to be able to do, to visualize the age of our publications in targeted call number ranges. The rise of discovery has made it easier to acquire and make available digital resources and journal content, but harder to assess the quality of our monograph collections.
Some libraries are going to great lengths to develop their own collection maps, either applying traditional conspectus divisions as their starting point89 or simply trying to generate a shelf list of both print and ebooks by classification and then adding visualizations to answer questions about the collection, such as usage by subject area.79 An outcome of Johnson and Traill’s efforts at the University of Minnesota was an integrated browse tool for both ebooks and print resources, which was not previously possible because of missing LC classification data in the 050 fields of the MARC bibliographic record.
With the shift from print to e-resources, and the restructuring of systems away from the traditional bibliographic approaches, our systems no longer support the analytical approaches librarians commonly applied to collections to evaluate them.
Using the most advanced system available to academic libraries, I can run analytics to evaluate usage of a vendor package of aggregated academic titles of ebooks, for example, but I cannot tell which specific call number ranges are being requested more frequently, identify superseded titles, identify subject areas which are most heavily uses, identify assess gaps in the collection, compare my library’s collections with peers, or systematically compare them against “outstanding titles” lists.
Making collections visible as collections should be a priority for library system developers and our user interfaces, especially as libraries are becoming fully digital and the collection is currently not visible any other way.
At this point, many academic library interfaces have become mere record retrieval tools, more specifically, a searchable index of the metadata of third-party (publisher and aggregator) content to which the library is entitled, with some of our own (mainly print, sometimes ebook) records added into the mix. Publishers place a file of the library’s entitlements into a central discovery index where they become immediately accessible to users upon activation. With the growing trend toward booklessness, users experience the totality of the academic library’s often vast holdings and entitlements through the narrow window of the library’s discovery interface.
Indeed, students are likely to encounter this same user interface at almost every medium to large academic library in the US:
Results display page of Alma, the most widely used academic library system software in the world. Even as libraries move towards fully digital collections, discovery is all it does, 10 results at a time. The result is that library collections lack sufficientvisibility and intentionality (no one knows if the book was deliberately selected for inclusion or if is was part of a vendor package). Lack of intentionality and collection visibility are two unfortunate side-effects of going fully digital.
Granted, there is a magic to its ability to search across so many different sources, publishers and media types in one fell swoop, which is precisely what it was designed to do. It is convenient for us and for our users. When we purchase an ebook, it can be made instantly available in discovery without needing to catalog it. A record, albeit often perfunctory and substandard by library cataloging standards, is placed by the publisher into our systems upon activation of the resource.
Through discovery, librarians can acquire and immediately make available very large packages of aggregated content, ebooks and e-journals, without having to catalog all of these resources. Selection and deselection, additions and deletions, are now handled automatically by the vendor, offering certain advantages (namely, scalability), especially those libraries with a lot of buying power.
The downside of discovery, particularly when the print collection is all but eliminated, is that it is just a search tool, not actually an online library.
Discovery doesn’t do anything to establish the library as a unique experience, to stimulate inquiry or resource use, to promote books or reading, or to place books and journals into their appropriate scholarly or intellectual context.
It also doesn’t expose people to new ideas, to unthought thoughts, to the things they would not otherwise go looking for, or might not know how to even search for.
The ebooks in the bookless library cannot be browsed in the way print collections could, in call number order. What we offer now falls short of both professional library standards of the presentation and organization of bibliographic materials, as well as industry standards for e-commerce to market products online. A bookseller or publisher would never use search alone as its user interface with customers, and it would not limit users to a view of ten items at a time, but would present 50 or 80 items in order to increase the likelihood users might find something they like.
Another limitation with our user interfaces, which also impacts our success, is that it is incumbent upon our users to periodically come along and perform searches to discover what new items have been added to them, for we have no systematic way to extract and promote new titles in the disciplines to highlight them.
Showcasing what is new, topical and current is another business requirement libraries have in order to remain relevant to our users.
Another challenge with ebooks within the new discovery paradigm has to do with the metadata being placed into our systems. Vendor-provided MARC records for ebooks often lack library-centric metadata, specifically LC classification and LC subject headings. As publishers and aggregators are looking to streamline their own workflows, they are attempting to define the minimal metadata for ebooks91to a few data elements which fall far short of the national standards for descriptive cataloging for books which libraries adhere to, the MARC 21 bibliographic format.92Of course, libraries are free to enhance and load their own cataloging records, but even then, if they go to the trouble of adding classification to the 050 fields of ebook records as some have done,79 our systems still do not support browsing by classification.
Another issue with booklessness is the high cost of academic ebook titles compared to print. For libraries, academic ebook titles are much more expensive than list price for print, some reported to be up to 150 times list price for simultaneous multi-user access.94 Small and mid-sized campus libraries, if they select titles individually or are keen to provide their users with in-demand (front list) titles, are not likely to realize any cost savings by going fully digital. Our pricing tends to be supersized, as we often pay for unlimited access, in perpetuity, whether we want it that way or not. The cost for an academic library to warehouse a book59 on a shelf is really trivial compared to licensing and hosting fees for an ebook. With a small library budget, I can acquire so much more in print, often with considerable discounts, than by going with the electronic version of the same. Another problem is publisher embargoes, the fact that the ebook is sometimes unavailable to be licensed by libraries until weeks after it appears in print.
Studies by librarians on the value of ebooks compared to print, especially for smaller campus libraries, have not corroborated assumptions that ebooks actually save the library money. Yet, decision-makers outside of the library often believe the university will save money by cheaper book prices and also no longer needing to warehouse books on its shelves.
Ebooks cannot be shared among institutions like print, and, as with much of our digital content, they are not accessible to those who are not currently enrolled in a course or affiliated with the university. If the mission of the academic research library is to support life-long learning, as is often stated, why should the holdings of the academic library be inaccessible to alumni? Why should doctors, after graduating from medical school, no longer have access to a good academic library? If our mission is to support scholarship, why not continue to provide access to ebooks and ejournals to scholars outside of the university? The simple answer is that if we did so, we would be in violation of our license agreements with vendors. But we never had these restrictions before, when we were predominantly print collections. When we bought the book or journal subscription, we owned it: “fair use” and copyright laws governed our policies, not vendor license agreements.
With print, academic libraries provided public access to books and journals. We provided access to all scholars who came into the library, regardless of enrollment status or institutional affiliation. Public access to academic library collections was never an issue before our collections went digital.
Academic librarians always served students who attended other schools, people who needed to do research for a project for their jobs, journalists, grant writers, artists, museum professionals, high school students, writers and independent researchers, lawyers, business people and entrepreneurs. (Outsiders were never beating down our doors, and it was kind of exciting to assist someone with a real world project for a change.) In the transition to becoming fully digital, many academic libraries have been forced, because of vendor license agreements and single sign on protocols, to restrict access only to those with current institutional affiliation. Our facilities may be open to the public, but our resources are not.
Finally, another challenge with the policy of booklessness at this time is that students who attend on campus, those who desire to have the full college experience instead of the convenience of an online degree, still expect to see books and current titles in their campus libraries. They feel that the library with books provides them with a higher level of service, a more vibrant and meaningful experience than online access alone.
To prospective students and their parents, a visible physical collection is perceived to have higher value and signify greater investment by the university than an invisible online collection. Good physical collections convey greater personal investment and expertise by the staff. When there is a physical library, students and faculty believe that the library staff are knowledgeable about the collection. However, they do not have the same high opinion of librarians once the collection goes online, even if librarians are reading reviews and continuing to do title-by-title selection just as before, adding our contributions on top of packages.
When touring campus, people judge the library, its librarians, and faculty–indeed, the entire institution–by the collections they can see. Of course, students want and need electronic databases for paper writing, research and assignment completion, but they also want a library with new (and old) books. They want to see and experience the books that other educated people know about and value. They believe, as do their parents, that this is a valuable part of their college experience and education to which they are entitled. It is what makes the library interesting and good, and the university seem a less lonely place, even if many use it simply as a place to study. Other students will take advantage of the additional learning experiences the library affords. Students feel as if they are part of something larger when they study surrounded by books, because it means they are standing in a tradition of those who have achieved success and recognition in their field of study, and this in itself is motivating.
Even if books are not strictly needed for the successful completion of assigned coursework, students derive educational benefit, better knowledge of their disciplines or profession, intellectual stimulation, a historical perspective, and enjoyment from being able to browse library collections. Books reflect the culture and the character of the place, the spirit of the age (and former ages), and the interests of faculty and student body. Seeing books on display raises students’ awareness of the world around them, deepens their understanding of their discipline, allows them to discover who they are, and stimulates intellectual curiosity. It is an essential part of their college experience.
The library with books prominently and centrally displayed, with collections maintained over time, also creates a sense of continuity and community on campus in ways the bookless library does not.
Print collections also allows librarians the opportunity to casually engage with students about their academic interests and intellectual pursuits, where initiating conversation with students gazing at screens–even to ask, “Do you need assistance?”– feels a bit invasive. A library with physical books and maintained collections creates a sense of value around scholarship, while electronic texts are experienced as ephemeral and inconsequential, or at least perceived to be that way by students. And to a large extent, they are correct, for who outside a university setting can even access that academic ebook?
To Prensky’s point, libraries really cannot be forced to evolve beyond the limitations of the software that is available to them. Taking print away won’t force libraries, their systems, or their users, to evolve faster, or necessarily make the online experience any better or more engaging for our users. Evolution requires that our profession return to the development of standards for its systems and its metadata, and envision what a fully-developed digital libraryonlineshould look like.
Library designers and architectural firms who claim to be engineering the 21st century library experience might give some thought as to how digital collections might be meaningfully integrated into the physical space to create a modern library that is more than just a building with open seating areas. At the same time, library software product developers might consider how a library online can be more than just a search box with list ranked results.
In both the physical library space and the virtual one, we want to provide users with a browseable collection of new and significant titles, prominently displayed, to encourage engagement with our resources.
Library collections serve an important educational role and are central to the user experience of a good library. Discovery is about finding information, but library collections are really about about knowledge. Collections reflect the library’s commitment to the academic disciplines, to scholarly communication, to education and to knowledge. Whether in print or online, collections are the essence of a good library.
For libraries to be libraries, they must be content-rich learning environments, where items are not only visible without needing to be invoked by a user’s query, but also stand in relation to other items in collection, developed and maintained by scholars (or scholars at heart) over time. Collections are an important part of the library’s aesthetic appeal, the primary way librarians inspire learning at the university.
Beautiful redesign of the Haverford College Lutnick Library, PA.
Is the “New Academic Library” the Emperor’s New Clothes?
n library professional literature today, all aspects of the traditional service model are being questioned, including the value of physical books in the academic library space, the value of reference and instructional services (or maintaining the reference desk as a distinct and separate service point from circulation), and most recently, the value of maintaining collections. Opinions among librarians vary widely on all of these aspects of our practice, but the overarching question really is what should be the user experience of an academic library in the 21st century? Is it a search box and an empty space, or something more vibrant to students and engaging to scholars?
In recent years, there has been a very peculiar philosophy of librarianship emanating from both ACRL, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the dean of a large library school,96 perhaps the largest library school in the country, a philosophy which I will call library as facility, where the library is conceived as a new kind of innovative public work and social space, with the librarian acting a collaborationfacilitator.21 The new library, as it is sometimes called, was supposed to increase learning opportunities through shared access to work spaces, technology, materials, tools and people–anything but books, it often seems. Work spaces, maker spaces, and computer labs do not perpetuate and sustain a cultureof learning and education at a university.
The traditionalcollection-centric service library modelaccomplished some important things that their new library, despite its emphasis on innovation, technology, socializing and 21st century learning, isn’t able to do very effectively, if at all.
Many of these things are what people liked about the library, and what made the library good as a destination, attractive and useful to educated people, scholars and aspiring professionals–even as a place to congregate, collaborate and socialize, which the new library purports, without any evidence, to do better than the old.
The library, provided it was good, represented the current state of culture of educated people and the current state of the disciplines supported by the institution. It actively showcased new and significant publications, and helped users keep up with trends, which were important ways the library added value to the university. It represented the contributions of intellectuals and scholars across place and time, something one cannot get from Google. By going to an academic library, students and scholars felt as if they were experiencing something meaningful, learning what other scholars in their field deemed important and meaningful, inspiring their own research and intellectual inquiry, taking greater control over their education and their lives, as well as connecting with others through shared texts and common cultural reference points. It was an ideal learning environment.
The old library certainly didn’t need to have everything to be good. No one ever expected that of the library, and if it retained everything, we know that this would not result in an optimal user experience. However, if people could see an abundance of good things in the collection, they would come to trust it, and assume items with which they were not familiar were also good, or something they just might want to know about.
These are important ways in which libraries encouraged independent learning, intellectual curiosity, scholarship, and the pursuit of knowledge and fulfilled its educational mission. This is the aesthetic of the academic library, the essence of “library goodness,”98and the user experience we should still be striving to cultivate.
New academic libraries being built across the country and around the world at this time are based on different service models and assessment plans, and often on ambiguous concepts (e.g., collaborative learning spaces, active learning centers, student learning environments), which seek to justify, through some new pedagogy, the provision of little more than the provision of tables, chairs, seating arrangements, study rooms and empty space in the place that the traditional library once occupied.
As more of the collection is online, academic libraries are being converted into student centers, and public libraries are being converted into public office spaces, all in the name (when it comes to obtaining funding for them) of building a better library.
Yet, new library buildings are often designed without any emphasis on collections, books or reading in any format. American Libraries, a magazine of the American Library Association, often features these new facilities as modern libraries, and as evidence of continued investment, innovation and support for libraries–but in fact, the opposite may likely be true. Generic structures such as this new library may be built with re-purposing in mind:
Many new academic libraries, such as this one at TSU in Houston completed in 2019, are designed without placing emphasis on books or reading. The assumption of this atrium design is that books are no longer central to the mission of the library.
It is not my purpose to argue for the legitimacy of a traditional library service model widely lambasted in my profession as dated and “nostalgic,” but to say that we librarians should strive in all ways simply to bring what was good about the old library into the 21st century, to construct an immersive and vibrant user experience grounded in user engagement with quality content.
I believe that without visual emphasis on books, scholarly publications, and collections, new libraries cannot function as libraries, any more than a museum can function, or create value for its users, without an emphasis on cultural and aesthetic objects. Libraries and museums are both fundamentally experiential, and regular users go their to browse, to find something they like, or find intellectually or aesthetically stimulating.
Within a library setting, emphasis on titles and resources conveys a sense of value and commitment to scholarship, a common culture, the absence of which sends a message which has nothing to do with innovation, technology, or anything positive. It represents ignorance and deprivation, especially because it is called a library, and people come to it expecting to be turned on to new things in that space, but are likely to find nothing there.
Libraries should place popular and interesting titles in high traffic areas to encourage browsing and user engagement with them.
They should strive to creatively merchandise publications, make users aware of them, promote them, and create conversation around them. They should try to instill the habit of reading outside of class assignments. They should convey value and respect for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just for assignment completion. Librarians who are knowledgeable about the collections–who themselves read for pleasure or knowledge–encourage reading in students.
If there are physical collections, virtual fulfillment may represent an important avenue for libraries to explore. People still enjoy browsing print, but may not wish to carry books around to read them or be obligated to return them. With virtual fulfillment, users can browse print in the library but download an electronic copy to with to take them to read. Like in the days of the monastic libraries, physical books might not go far from the shelves (they were sometimes chained to the shelves back then). We should also try different ways of representing ebooks and eresources in the physical library space and even beyond the walls of the library.
Modifications to our discovery tools and websites to make the library’s online collections more prominent and easy to browse is another area ripe for development. There have been projects at universities and Google to develop virtual bookshelf apps to recreate the experience of wandering through the stacks.72 Unfortunately, these initiatives have been short-lived, perhaps because increasingly, ebooks are not afforded call numbers and quality metadata like their print counterparts,100 making it harder to order them on a virtual bookshelf.
Just as museums are about cultural and aesthetic objects, libraries are about intellectual objects, primarily in the form of texts. Libraries must showcase and celebrate them.
For the user experience of the library to be good, and for librarians to be valued as professionals, we must make a determined return to content–including digital content–within our physical spaces, and also develop rich, content-centric websites to enhance our online presence, with personalization and many of the features one would expect to find in commercial websites.
oday, funding for the construction of new libraries is often allocated entirely to the building and building technology. There is often nothing inside of them but tables, chairs, sofas, study rooms and empty spaces. Books are either not visible, or else appear to serve a purely decorative function, sometimes referred to as “academic wallpaper.” They are there, but are no longer being maintained or funded.
With new library renovation projects, is not uncommon for millions to be allocated to energy efficient smart window and lighting control systems, robotic storage and retrieval systems, remote storage facilities to house a worthless collection while the new library stands vacant, RFID systems, retro modern-styled furnishings, with an abundance of empty space left over serving no discernible purpose.
Who cares about robotic storage and retrieval technology and self-check out machines when the library is not investing in books anymore, and hasn’t in years?
Despite the investment in technology as in itself a kind of design objective, there is often little discussion about the user experience of the library beyond providing quiet places to sit to get work done, or learning objectives of the space beyond assistance with assignment completion.
Library professional magazines routinely feature these new bookless spaces as innovative libraries, as examples of “new libraries.” Indeed, historic Carnegie libraries are being gutted and converted into open, empty public work spaces, their books often put into remote storage. In a college and academic environment, the elimination of books in the name of 21st century learning, progress, and improved librarianship, should not be regarded uncritically by our own profession. It is not proven that, all things being equal, bookless libraries offer superior learning outcomes when compared with our former content rich, collection-centered facility which emphasized books, ideas, research and publications.
I understand the need for libraries to be digital today. STEM libraries in particular, where journals comprise the collection, may significantly benefit from being fully digital. In addition, libraries with a strictly vocational (skills-based) orientation, where people need access to technical manuals and reference materials are fine online. Students and faculty need access to scholarly databases, which get more expensive with each passing year.
But let’s not be eager to redeem these empty spaces which are replacing the traditional college and research library, often at tremendous taxpayer expense, by simply imagining them to be functioning as some sort of new learning commons, or worse, some a primordial learning environment suited for the preferences of the 21st century learner.101 For even if as a culture we have slipped into a period of secondary orality, why should the library make it a priority to contribute to illiteracy? And if the space were designed for knowledge transmission like in the old days before books (a.k.a, the Dark Ages), the faculty are still not going to be the rhapsodes or storytellers for our imaginary campfires and watering-holes. Older generations of scholars are not eagerly waiting on our collaborative staircases to share knowledge with passersby. Indeed, our spare, light-infused learning environments have little appeal to scholars. We cannot feed their creativity or inspire their literary production through the provision of vacuous spaces, tables and chairs.
Libraries are about creating community by showcasing cultural and intellectual achievement: what is current, significant, new and compelling in the disciplines and in culture. They are about what is good. Libraries add value to the academic community by placing intellectual objects, usually in the form of texts, into broader public view.
To this end, a library really needs three things to be successful:
the right titles,
the ability to place these titles into meaningful relationship with other titles, into a collection,
the capacity to place its collections into public view.
Librarians who are intimately familiar with, or at least know something about the collection, are a plus.
A library must display and promote publications, contextualize them, and create meaning around them.This is the primary way academic librarians support reading, research, education, community, intellectual inquiry and knowledge in the 21st century.
New Models of Librarianship. There are many proposed library service models out there to address the phenomenon of collectionlessness in the new academic library. The deans of library schools, such as Danuta Nitecki, are particularly adept at re-purposing the library and librarians through schemes which try to reassure everyone that the library, and librarians, aren’t going away any time soon, despite evidence to the contrary. Library as venue, where success is measured by facilities use, is her latest rendition of a library where collections do not matter.96
It is foolish to think that after eliminating all of the books, that we can turn around and assess our value as library professionals simply by documenting facilities use. Everyone knows how many students are using the space to study or complete group work has little to do with the efforts of librarians. Students can study with wi-fi all over a college campus, and often prefer to do so where there are food services and other students around them. Every academic building on a college campus today has seating, tables, lounges, vending machines and students at the tables set out for them to study. No one is counting heads at these various locations to determine how many students are studying in the Communications or Education building, or at the student center. Why is it meaningful if it occurs in the library?
Another proposed scheme for asserting and assessing our value without collections is serving as some kind of “collaboration facilitator,”21 but what are the measurable outcomes for facilitating collaboration among faculty members and students? What magic wand do we have for getting faculty to collaborate with each other?
Libraries are content-rich learning environments which encourage resource use and independent learning.
Good libraries encourage browsing, intellectual inquiry and exchange of ideas, and the feeling of community, much better than the generalized, bland and often empty learning centers now called libraries, where knowledge transmission is often theoretically moored, not in authoritative collections, publications, or even online resources, but in orality, in the nobodaddy ofcollaboration, which architects and library designers (even our own library professional associations) are keen on advancing as the pre-eminent learning modality of the 21st century library.
he trend for new library construction projects to downplay the library part of the library goes back at least to 2003, in what began as fascinating study by a doctoral student in Education to assess institutional priorities motivating the construction and design of new academic libraries.19
The conclusion, derived from a survey of 53 new academic libraries (85 surveyed), is that in most instances, the needs of the academic library and its operations were not considered or thought important in the new library planning process.105 In many instances, funds were allocated to “sophisticated light and window control systems for both energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.”106 Building size was also considered an important factor independent from collections107 or library operations.
According to this study, while there were acknowledgements that students were now using different formats, but there were no new service plans or funds set aside for deploying new technology to enhance the user experience of online library resources, to raise awareness of digital resources by those in the physical library space, to improve the collection itself, or how they might be displayed to add interest or promote resource use.
Why not, for example, use technology funds for a new automation system and enhancements to the catalog and website?
Why not devise tools to promote online resources in the physical environment?
Why not devise tools to promote new ebook titles online?
Why not use technology and visualization tools to track and display to other users what researchers are doing in real time and where they are going online?
Why are so many new library design firms fixated on strategies to manage physical inventory through costly solutions (RFID technology, robotic storage and retrieval systems, smart gates, self-check out machines), when everyone acknowledges that circulation is at an all time low, and less than 5% of library budgets are going to print?
Why declare the physical collection to be obsolete, but at the same time deploy costly robotic technology for storing, managing and preserving the physical book? How does the new multi-million dollar library function any better than the old in terms of learning outcomes?
Despite much speculation about how the new people-centric, socially-oriented empty spaces will add value to students and to colleges and universities, there is no evidence that a building alone, or a building that is just an empty space, no matter how nice, how architecturally innovative or spacious, will result a better education, improved scholarship, increased professional development, better retention, higher enrollment, support meaningful intellectual exchanges, or offer anymeasurable educational or learning outcomes.
It isn’t that I am insensitive to the need to replace worn out facilities, to provide beautiful study or work spaces to students, or for librarians to evolve and adapt to new roles in the Digital Age. It just seems that the millions going into a new library building construction projects are a lost opportunity for genuine innovation to improve library services. I care about the user experience of the library itself, not the user experience of an iconic space.
We know from many years of study with low income students and families throughout the course of the 20th century that impoverished learning environments do not inspire learning. How is it that a library that is not focused on its resources, on the importance of its own scholarly content, in any way capable of encouraging others to attribute value to it, or to the scholarly activity they represent? How is a library that is primarily a work space attractive to faculty or aspiring scholars?
No genuine philosophy of librarianship can be founded upon the mere provision of study spaces, seating and natural light. At a university, the focus on intellectual inquiry and creativity is what makes it good and attractive to scholars.
Library architecture and infrastructure, including our websites and automation systems, must serve a legitimate 21st century librarianship, without which architects and educators–jumping on the bandwagon of the “new library movement“–will continue to create multi-story structures of open staircases, lounge areas, balconies and study rooms, glass and LED lighting, without sufficient consideration given to the educational, intellectual and humanistic purpose of an academic library, our processes, and our need to actively promote resources to those who come into our spaces.
Some new libraries often use staircases, landings and catwalks as design elements to emphasize vertical lines and transparency, while putting books out of sight.
Dignitas or Vanitas? The hidden meaning of the stacks.
In the Digital Age, where so much is competing for our users’ attention, academic libraries must seek new ways to offer a stimulating and vibrant learning experiencefor scholars, which means a concerted focus on content, especially new content, to put intellectual inquiry and new ideas front and center to our communities.
With the move to becoming fully digital, new academic libraries have gone not towards vibrancy and the world of ideas, but sadly, towards solipsism, all “about” the experience of their engineered architectural spaces and views of outside windows, or else about the intellectual exchanges imagined to be going on inside of them–especially on large-stepped learning staircases, which have become popular with architectural designers for the last several years.108Light-infused big-stepped learning staircases coupled with empty space lend an unprecedented prominence to the façade of new library buildings, while collections inside them have all but disappeared. They are no longer about publications and ideas, but about their glass windows, over-sized staircases, led lights, furnishings and whiteboards. Yet we do not know if the learning center model is any more popular with our users, if it is any more effective at encouraging learning than the old library full of books, which always seemed to have plenty of seating for those who wanted to sit and study or do work.
Holding on to old and worn books just to be academic wallpaper–the Disney theme park model–is not the answer, or my answer, although some have proposed that we do precisely that, including the green banker’s lamps.109
Within academic libraries with large historical holdings, the unkempt stacks which have not been replenished with anything new for many years, may have already come to resemble a medieval Vanitas painting: a pall of dust may have settled over everything, cloth spines deteriorated to the point where the majority of them are unreadable from age, wear, and decades of radiation from fluorescent lighting. (Still, I marvel at a critical edition of Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology and Crito in Greek from 1924. Who at my university continued to check this book out into the 1980s and 1990s?) Everything is in a state of ruinous decay.
The sad plight of the works of those who devoted themselves to scholarship, and the seeming lack of care for library collections over the course of decades, will no doubt cause some to question the viability of their own scholarly pursuits and speculate whether it is all a vanity; or else, on the other hand, if the collection is good and cared for, to consider, as Classical philosophers say, that intellectual achievements are timeless and enduring, and that one’s education will be valued by others long into the future.
Whatever one’s declared major or metaphysical leanings, the question might be looked upon, as all things might, from a strictly business perspective in the modern university: in an academic setting, the care and condition of the library’s collection symbolizes purpose and dignity (dignitas, respect and esteem, as opposed to vanitas, a “vanity” or folly), respect for knowledge and scholarship. The quality and condition of the collection speaks wonders to answering this gut-wrenching question which our students are undoubtedly asking themselves each and every day: Is it all worth it?
I believe a university should care very much about how their current and prospective students are determining to answer this question for themselves.
Vanitas or dignitas? At a campus library, how users view the collection can impact enrollment and retention.
e can easily speculate about architects’ and administrators’ motivations for building spacious new libraries that are not libraries, or have little library left inside of them. I understand their motivations perfectly well. More puzzling to me is why my fellow librarians and especially our library professional associations are celebrating the conversion of their libraries into desolate work and office spaces.
Contrary to the stereotype,”110111 the ones resisting are not the old, nostalgic and techno-phobic librarians who are stuck in their ways. Mid-career librarians and scholars alike, particularly those in the Humanities and Social Sciences, will undoubtedly feel confused by the rapid degradation of the academic and college library into little more than lounges, stairs, atria, balconies, catwalks, private and group study rooms, empty office spaces, and glass walls, all in the name of learning.
Not so long ago, academic librarians fought against a perception by administrators that the library was nothing more than a study hall, a place to get coursework done. Now, librarians may feel very much between a rock (“book warehouse”) and a hard place (“work space”), even blindsided by the frankly cringe-worthy messaging emanating from our own institutions and municipalities that the elimination of the stacks, or placing them out of sight, constitutes some form of progress, and our students will be able to learn better now that the books are gone.
I am not wedded to the stacks or book format. Just like everyone else, I do most of my reading online. It is not only convenient, but I can make the fonts bigger and read in dim light if I so choose. But to me, progress for a 21st century library would be replacing the stacks with something better, something which would help us market our content better, to help us become a modern library, and not just a modern space.
Truly, I love the idea of the public library as a vibrant community center, with cooking and art classes, music lessons, café, with performances of live bands on its rooftop. I’d like to drop my kids off to spend an afternoon doing something productive, even if they are not reading. I’d like an indoor multistory play structure / obstacle course in the middle of the children’s area such as they have at some malls (I guess I have reached that grandmotherly age where I enjoy sitting and watching other people’s kids playing.) I want Bob Ross painting classes and leisure learning. I want exhibits by local artists and children’s art on display. But just as with academic libraries, public libraries are also likely to be made over into some kind of horrible, vacuous bookless business center.
Indeed, the trend to turn the public library into office / business / work space, paralleling trends in academic libraries, is occurring in public libraries everywhere. This is one architect’s vision 112 for one of the oldest libraries in the country, the Free Library of Philadelphia:
The Free Library of Philadelphia appears to be free of books now.
This might have been a meaningful project for the architect, and undoubtedly lucrative for the storage solution provider, but why would anyone bother to enter the building or spend time this place? (Why convert a historical building to mid-century modern design?)
What makes it successful, or not, as a library?
Closer to home, in my own suburban community, League City, TX, library planners insist, based on the studies they have conducted, that what people really want and expect from their library are not books or resources, but private study rooms and public work spaces.113 Who are these people? Why is it the residents of League City have so much work to do? The finding that citizens need more work space is used as justification for the construction of much bigger, empty facilities at taxpayer expense, and with little more (and often less) for the collections inside of them or offered online.
The unimaginative and uncultured vision for new libraries, both public and academic, being advanced by new library planners, architects and self-appointed design consultants, is seemingly the same everywhere: innovativespaces for people to get their work done. At the end of the day, the new library is envisioned as a public office space. There will no doubt be social gatherings and events as well, but ultimately it is just a boring business center, not a library, which is about creativity and ideas.
Where before the collection allowed people to feel grounded in the space and gave them a reason for being there (even if all they wanted was a computer or place to sit), inside the new library there is no connection between the library and the scholar, or the library and its community, except for pedestrian views out large glass windows, which does nothing to establish a unique sense of place.
No doubt, many new academic libraries may offer a certain kind of anesthetized appeal as buildings, but from what I have seen in library publications, many do not offer to users the intellectual stimulation, the academic intimacy, the inducements to learn, or the aesthetic experience of a good college or academic library.
Our library professional magazines devote special issues to these spare, supposedly innovative facilities, proclaiming them to be beautiful and modern, but I don’t see what is to be gained by “converting historical Carnegie libraries into modern vacant structures.“114Isn’t it time to assess if vacant spaces are really meeting the needs of students and scholars?
Granted, every library is different and we all might not see things the same way. But the 21st century academic library should not be conceptualized as vacuous spaces, illuminated stairwells and open seating arrangements, with success measured by body counts. If the collection is online, we need a way in the physical space to emphasize our online collections.
Nor should it be envisioned as assemblages of primitive learning environments, “caves, a campfires, and watering holes,”101 from a time people were illiterate (the “Dark Ages”,) and therefore had to get information from other people, instead of books and authoritative sources. It shouldn’t be envisioned as a chat room or public lounge where the users are on display (“Users are seated in the middle, because they are the focus, not books. . . “), with rooms off to the side available to rent by the hour.
Academic libraries should foster engagement and awareness of the most significant cultural and scholarly resources today. That is our mission, to help create and sustain educated people.
The new 21st century library should make an effort to harness new technology to do what the traditional library did, only better. It should be a content-rich learning environment, a Times Square, a marketplace for ideas.
The library should be a vibrant and stimulating attraction, full of distractions and temptation to read, learn and explore, one that strives to actively and imaginatively engage users in significant and interesting resources from the moment patrons walk in the door or land on our websites. It should speak to users like an oracle, fostering serendipity, meaning creation, knowledge and insight. It should stimulate the mind and the senses. It should awaken creativity and curiosity.
At minimum, it should convey the value of scholarship and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just to pass a test or complete a task.
The modern library done right in the Netherlands, called LocHal. New books are attractively displayed in an inmate space which encourages browsing, but there are still plenty of options for socializing, gathering and public programming. The collaborative staircase does not replace the collection, but balances it; the regular steps are proportioned wider than the bleacher stairs, creating a more inviting appearance than large block steps which create an obstacle. Books are visible on the ground floor where librarians can provide assistance and readers advisory, putting books in readers’ hands.
For the last 15 years, there has been a vigorous re-imagining of libraries as conference centers, social study spaces and tutoring / learning centers, with a determined shift away from collection-oriented interiors and assessment plans toward what is conceived by architects, college presidents and some library futurists to supposedly more socially-oriented, service-oriented and consumer-driven designs.116New libraries, supposedly developed around new service models and priorities, are popping up everywhere, showcased in library literature as beautiful and innovative. But are they really? More to the point, are they really libraries, or are they the emperor’s new clothes? How successful are they as libraries and by what measure do we evaluate their success?
We might take a step back from philosophies and ask what categorically defines libraries as a libraries–as good and beautiful libraries–from a professional library standpoint, and are these new facilities better than the traditional library for supporting higher education and learning? How do new college and university libraries actively support publishing, research and scholarship? How do they support student success, not just as defined by the student and the scholar? How does it support intellectual inquiry?
As libraries are shorn of print, paper–even “free speech” areas–publications, collections and outward signs of intellectual life, there has been a concomitant ratcheting up of pressure for librarians to gather evidence, based on measurable outcomes, to demonstrate their continued relevance to the university, and specifically to “student success,” however that might be defined (at this time, 2020, there is no consensus). We must forget about “life-long learning” because that’s not a measurable objective. “Knowledge” or “inspiration” isn’t measurable either. Usage stats? No good, that’s on output, not an outcome.
Staring into a dark abyss of institutional assessment plans, with their nagging insistence on tying all library goals in some measurable way to classroom learning or institutional outcomes, goals that are not library-centric (that is, measures having anything to do with the library’s being a good library), librarians face a profound challenge: The college and academic research library was never fundamentally “about” instructional support for classroom learning, and even less about the business objectives of the university. Indeed, the harder we work to tie the library to the remedial learning objectives of the classroom, the more redundant and irrelevant we become. In terms of demonstrating value to those who fund us, however, it seems we can only be about “student success” as defined by the institution (retention, throughput, higher GPAs), not about scholarship, publishing, learning for learning’s sake, orsuccess as defined by the student or scholar.
The academic library was always, theoretically speaking, more ambitious than mere classroom learning or assignment completion. They have always been more about learning outside of the classroom than inside of it. We are about support for the acquisition (and creation) of disciplinary and professional knowledge. We serve the academic disciplines and the purpose of furthering intellectual inquiry. We serve the individual’s own definition of success, helping him or her achieve his creative, intellectual and career potential.
A corollary of this is that as library professionals and educators, an important part of our job function is to actually stimulate demand for resources, not to passively make them available to those who might wish to access them. That is not being a good library, or affording users an optimal library experience.
Mechanisms for stimulating demand–formarketing resources and content–must be a key part of the design of the 21st century library, a part of the architectural solution or plan. It must promote resource use of print and online resources (there is absolutely no reason we should need to print out and tape up covers of ebooks in a brand new library–there should be a plan for ebook promotion baked into the design of the building). But a prerequisite of this is maintaining a good collection with the technological infrastructure in place to provide a 21st century library experience.
Influenced by a common perception that everything students want or need can be found online, many within the library field are ready to proclaim that we are no longer about publications, reading, titles or collections in any format, but about teaching information literacy classes so students can identify truth from fake news (I’m not sure I can do that. I’ve been Foxed quite a few times. . . ), or help students with their class assignments. This certainly sounds practical and very meaningful, a way to directly add value and justify ourselves in some way that aligns with university assessment plans.
Librarians can certainly support classroom instruction by showing students how to perform research, identify authoritative sources, and cite sources for papers. Indeed, we have always done so.
However, it may not be clear to university administrators or the faculty that it is the responsibility of librarians to perform this function, or that they are vitally needed to perform this task. If I were a Provost or Dean, I would assume that any faculty member qualified to teach college-level courses, and who are presumably spending all their spare time outside of the classroom writing papers for publication, should also be able to show students how to perform basic research in their disciplines and demonstrate whatever tasks and skills are needed to complete their own course assignments.
The solution to making ourselves relevant is not to declare collections obsolete or make support for classroom instruction our exclusive mission, but to more effectively leverage new technologies and designs to promote engagement with content, specifically with collections, both in print and online, in order to create and sustain the next generation of readers, writers, scholars and leaders. We need to build and sustain content-rich and dynamic learning environments which reflect scholarly communication in the disciplines.
We should seek to preserve and amplify what made the library good for scholars, and explore truly innovative ways to market physical and virtual content to both physical and virtual users. That should be the primary objective of new library spaces, along with greater integration of the physical and virtual resources to support community engagement with our content. As a profession, it is vital that we renew our commitment to the disciplines, and to the provision of quality content within a disciplinary framework. We need a clear sense of what the user experience of a modern library should be, and what our business and technological requirements are to achieve this, rather than depending on architects and design firms to define what a library is and what it will be in the future.
It is the communal browsing experience, the shared cultural referents, and disciplinary knowledge which we want to encourage and preserve. That is what makes the library a library, or at least, what makes it a good one.
Liberty University Library has completed a beautiful redesign with a good balance between the social and the intellectual, the modern and the traditional, space and content.
hen new libraries are discussed, whether public or academic, there is one universal theme: elimination of stack space to make room for collaborative study spaces.
Booklessness, or the appearance of it (books may be stowed away in low traffic areas or moved off site), is often spun as a peculiar benefit of the 21st century library, in itself signifying progress and innovation. There has been very limited discussion about the value of collections to our academic missions, but a shift from collection-centric assessment models to outcomes-based models has also, for obvious reasons, tended to negate the value of collections and those who work to maintain them.
On a conceptual level, I think it important to ask:
What does the new library have to offer to faculty and students who are interested in orienting themselves and succeeding within their academic disciplines?
How do new libraries effectively promote innovation or awareness of new or significant publications in the disciplines or encourage use of these resources?
How do they encourage learning?
How do they browsing for new ideas to encourage inquiry and research?
How does a bookless library reflect upon the university?
With this shift away from publications and collection use, there has also been a new emphasis on librarian initiated-interaction (e.g., poking students who come within eye-shot to see if they need help, greeting people as they walk through the doors; more aggressively selling ourselves and our “services”; and assiduously documenting these efforts and casual encounters as “evidence” of our value).
There is also a questionable trend to count in our assessment frameworks the utilization of our spaces by students for any conceivable purpose,117 whether for study, reading, creating, conversing, snacking, meditating, socializing or sleeping. Why is facilities use a measure of our success?
New libraries are being built without consideration for the most important function of the academic library within a university: raising awareness of new and significant publications (in all formats, print and digital) within the disciplines, and encouraging user engagement with them.
For example, we buy thousands of ebooks, but have no effective or efficient mechanism for promoting them in the modern or traditional library space. This seems like a design flaw to me. If our collection is predominantly online, why can there be no way to promote e-resources in the physical space? If more than 95% of academic library acquisitions budgets are for online materials,118 why should there be no evidence of this in the physical library facility? There is so much discussion about data visualization right now, yet there is no way to visualize the library’s collection in our physical spaces?
The same sort of criticism would be leveled at an art museum which places insufficient focus on the art in its collections. Expecting people to learn about new and significant titles on their own by pulling them out of your catalogs and databases or discovery layer is not an effective libraryservice model.
Libraries have the same or similar aesthetic purpose as museums, to cultivate awareness and appreciation for intellectual and cultural artifacts.
In order to do so, it needs just a bit of darkness and mystery, a feeling of transcendence of time and place, not glass walls where dust motes float in the air and the mundane world is ever present.
Scaled to the Book. The architect of the Cornell Art Library, Wolfgang Tschapeller, wanted to devise a way to emphasize vertical lines and openness along with creating more intimate spaces for books. While not filling me with warmth and and a sense of intimacy, the book grotto is a place I’d like to explore. There is no focus on new books or “marketing” or resources in the space.
Having vs. Doing, Literacy vs. Information Literacy,
and other False Dichotomies in Library Literature
hile these new facilities are still called libraries, and librarians work there at least for the time being, it not clear to librarians that new libraries are serving in that capacity well, or at all–or what library professional assessment standards, if any, ought to be applied to them.119
Around the world, a similar trend to convert libraries into social spaces is occurring, most notably in public libraries, which are being transformed into stunning community centers “with books thrown in,” as one BBC reporter cheerfully describes.120 We have yet to know how these library spaces are faring, their impact on their communities, their impact on librarians, if the renovation has succeeded in attracting new users while maintaining the old, and most importantly, their impact on learning. So many articles and press releases bear curious statements like, “With the new building, we decided to put people first,” referencing that expanded seating arrangements have replaced the stacks.
Well, what did they think they were they doing before? Putting books first? It does sound catchy: The library, where we put books before people. . .
In addition to creating buildings for gathering together, campus and community leaders alike are eager to build new libraries not full of books, but full of technology.121 Just as books were once thought indispensable to the scholarly enterprise, technology is now presumed to be a similar sort of intrinsic good. In the public discourse surrounding new libraries, “technology” is often used euphemistically, as code for “not books,” rather than something specific that everyone wants (it is hard to get people to agree on what technology is needed beyond wi-fi, larger screens for communal viewing and a place to recharge). Nonetheless, engaging with technology and others in the library space is thought to have educational benefit in higher education, and appear to occupy a status that books once held.
The often repeated sentiment in library literature now, that “We all know that today, having doesn’t matter, it’s doing that counts. . .”, stated by the President of the American Library Association,122 presents a dangerously false dichotomy, one that too often underscores a troubling reality that the impact of our collections on learning cannot be meaningfully evaluated or factored into the outcomes-based assessment models in wide use today.
Having a collection, one that is current, topical, interesting, selective and browseable, is an important service which libraries and librarians provide to their communities. Academic librarians cannot provide good library services without a means of offering visible, meaningful collections that stimulate, support and inspire research. Without doing, we cannot have, and without having, we cannot do.
Having quality collections is fundamental to a good user experience of a library. Collections do not need to be physical, but they need to be visible, browseable, and perceived by others to constitute an actual collection, cultivated with intentionality and care–not passively acquired, random aggregations of third party content. The library must strive to be more than a costly academic search engine.
There is an error in thinking that now that we librarians should now be wholly unconcerned about “having,” or about resources, that we can or should simply shift gears and be about doing. I would venture to say that to users, our having resources is what matters most to them, and if they had to choose between access to a librarian or access to resources, they would hands down pick the latter. By focusing on having, we convey “these texts have value.”
Most people who go, or went to a library with regularity, did so to ascertain what is new or relevant to their interests or field. If they could not do that, users did not return to the library. We must take what was good about the old library and move that into the virtual library space.
Maintaining quality collections–having–is a core function of libraries, along with stimulating demand for resources, which it cannot do well without collection accessibility, high resource visibility, a marketing plan, and staff who read, specifically who keep up with the scholarly literature in the disciplines.
That colleges and universities are building “new libraries” without investing in library resources should not be a cause for celebration by ALA and ACRL, and should not be treated as a kind of progress.
So please, my fellow librarians, stop saying “having” doesn’t matter in the 21st century–it matters to our users and should matter a great deal to us.
New Library (Nieuwe Bibliotheek) in the Netherlands, which based its design on patrons surveys, is a departure from pragmatic American new library “work space” models. Dutch models promote learning, leisure, hanging out and socializing, not bring your office work there. Dutch audiences prefer an intimate bookstore merchandising model where books are displayed with jackets on face-out. There is a stylish cafe which looks like a place you’d go on a date.
ith the advent of “new libraries,” the once lively debate over formats (print vs. digital) has been overshadowed by more fundamental questions about the need for libraries, or librarians, to maintain robust collections in any format,123124 and moreover, how this need might be persuasively demonstrated to those who fund us.
While the leadership of our two pre-eminent library professional associations, ACRL and ALA, have long embraced booklessness–as a profession we’ve supposedly been about information since the late 1980s, and twenty years later, the library science degree at top-tier library schools morphed into “Master’s in Information Science” (no library in their name)–the sudden disappearance of open stacks over the last few years, and rapid conversion of many college and university libraries into bookless study / learning centers, collaboration centers, tutoring centers, media centers, and maker-spaces, etc., is making it harder for library directors to justify their acquisitions budgets and professional staffing levels.
Within library literature, those who defend books now risk being castigated as technophobic, unwilling to adapt to change, nostalgic or “sclerotic.”110111
While scholars and intellectuals are still writing and reading books, guests routinely appear on talk shows and in the media to discuss their books–and publications are still the basis for tenure at a university–within the library profession, even reading has become something of a liability. In a publication devoted to books, Publisher’s Weekly, in an article written by a librarian127 there is implication that librarians who like to read are not tech-savvy or not sufficiently customer service-oriented.
Why would someone who reads not be technically inclined?
How can you as a librarian provide good library service if you yourself do not read?
Why seek to stigmatize readers and reading in the first place?
Common advice for candidates for library jobs is if asked why you decided to become a librarian, never mention that you love books and reading.
Today, you can be all about instruction/teaching, information literacy or “helping people,” but not about reading or liking books.
Which begs the question: Should librarians know nothing more than how to pull things out of databases? How can one be about information literacy but not actual literacy?
I believe that reading, learning, publishing and ideas should be celebrated in the college and academic library space. The space should be a celebration of books, thought and ideas.
Therefore, we shouldn’t be hiding books out of sight, acting as if they are a source of embarrassment, treating them as decorative wallpaper–gluing, shellacking them and tacking them to the wall like molted snake skins, or putting them into inaccessible wall niches–or making assumptions that the stacks are somehow getting in the way of students’ ability to learn, no longer relevant to our academic missions because now, we are all about technology, work spaces and collaboration.
We are supposed to be encouraging respect for publications, writing and scholars, not denigrating them. We should not prioritize empty space or views out the window over resources, as if “nothing” has more value than the “something” we provide, whatever that something might be.
The impact of library acquisition patterns on use.Even as millions are spent on online resources per institution, investment in print now comprises less than 5.8% of academic library acquisitions budgets, according to a recent study byIthaka S+R.128 The Ithaka study uses acquisitions data harvested from library automation systems over a period of three years, 2014-7. The percent of ebooks purchased individually (title-by-title selection) was less than 1% of the budget. The decline in both print and title-by-title selection practices are not really news, but what this large-scale study, generously funded by the Mellon Foundation with the support of OCLC WMS and ProQuest Ex Libris, reveals is the sheer difficulty of gathering data to study library acquisition patterns in the first place, let alone assessing the impact these trends are having on user behavior.
In the annual academic library survey conducted by ACRL (ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey), print books are lumped in with all other one-time purchases, which may include individually selected ebooks, videos, and anything else not part of a subscription package. The ACRL survey attempts to capture detailed statistics on academic library services for all sizes of library, and it has captured this same information over the course of years to allow for identification of trends over time. However, it does not ask about percent of budget spent on print, percent devoted to books in all formats, percent obtained through DDA/PDA programs, etc., or provide detailed information about acquisition patterns to allow for an investigation into how changes in acquisition patterns have impacted library usage, student behavior, perceptions of the library, learning outcomes, or the library profession as such (something ACRL’s membership would certainly care about). Through ACRL’s metrics, one cannot make any correlation, say, between declining print purchases and reduced foot traffic in the library.
I am not attached to any particular format, but rather to the objective of maintaining stimulating, current, and visible collections which support browsing for ideas, current scholarship, creativity and independent learning. I would like some way to integrate ebooks with print books in the stacks, and raise awareness of ebooks in the physical space.
Regardless of their format,collections, titles, reading and publications must remain central to our academic mission and messaging, and to the user experience of the library.
By becoming an even bigger computer lab or study hall with more meeting and study rooms, by our focusing on connecting people with each otherrather than encouraging people to engage with books, ideas and current scholarship, we may not actually be creating environments conducive to learning, despite what architects have to say about the matter. (Many libraries had ample seating and study rooms before converting the library into a monument to learning.)
I believe that booklessness, and the premise of the “new librarianship,” that we are just about collaboration or technology or our services or our work spaces, but not about collections, are hurting students and faculty in ways that have not been fully realized.
It is also taking away from scholarship as a focus of the library and the librarian-facilitated conversations that new libraries are supposed to be encouraging.
The Value of Collections. To date, no large-scale study has been conducted which seeks to determine the relative value of maintaining physical collections in a predominantly digital environment, although this conclusion has been alluded to in a few recent studies.129
Another related question, one completely independent of formats, is the continued value of title-by-title selection in an online environment, where it has become easy to allow patron-driven and vendor-driven models to determine what we offer. Does it make a difference who does selection? What acquisition model makes the library the most successful?
When a greater percentage of titles are selected individually by selectors and faculty, do users benefit? How does the institution benefit? Aside from offering better, more focused collections of titles thought to be significant or relevant, when librarians (and faculty) are more actively involved with title selection, are they not better equipped to encourage use by students? Are they more satisfied with the library if they can be involved with collection development?
Is there a difference in usage or the user experience of the library where there is more collection development activity, as opposed to the library’s functioning as a passive gateway to subscribed content?130
There are significant costs for college and university libraries to fully divest themselves of print. On a title-by-title basis, pbooks are still more cost effective for smaller campus libraries (see below, The real cost of ebooks ), and most books published today are not available in ebook format to be licensed by a library–at least, not for a few months or years after their print debuts. Those books available to be purchased by a library in ebook format represent a very small percent of book publications. Therefore, without print titles, our collections cannot remain current. We also have a difficult time promoting or raising awareness of ebooks in the library space.
Our often misunderstood job as academic librarians and educators is not to satisfy demand for resources, but to stimulate it!
Libraries play a significant role not just in meeting needs or answering questions, but in creating them in the first place, stimulating demand for their own resources.
Our collections should inspire wonder, curiosity, investigation, reaction and research. We cannot accomplish this without high collection visibility and a discernible commitment to maintaining quality content.
Whether public or academic, our patrons don’t necessarily know what they want when they come into the library or come to our websites. Rather than looking for something in particular, they come to the library to browse, looking for something to like, something interesting, something that jumps out at them, something meaningful to them, to see what is new, or explore their chosen career.
This is the aesthetic experience that a good library provides. Our websites should cultivate the same aesthetic, putting our content out in front to invite exploration of the invisible world of intellectual endeavor, scholarly pursuit and creativity.
A good library collection is like a living thing, the substrate of intellectual life at the university, a colorful coral reef that the whole academic community feeds upon to nurture ideas, learning, knowledge creation and intellectual development. New books are the blooms. Primarily through its collections, the library serves as a visually and intellectually stimulating place for scholars and aspiring scholars to visit to gather ideas and explore. Good collections take years to develop. Kill off the reef and the fish are going elsewhere! Choose wisely for your library and your university.
he centripetal pull of new academic libraries away from content and collection activity in the disciplines to “collaboration” and student support seems to beg the question: Can college libraries simply subscribe to online databases and be done with it?
No need for librarians to be title selectors, as vendors (and patron-driven acquisitions programs) will select and manage ebooks and ejournals for us. No need for catalogers either, for Web-based discovery services are replacing the catalog and catalogers. That isn’t exactly true, but there is a perception that there is no need to bother editing and enhancing bibliographic records anymore because the vendor will do it all for us. Ex Libris, the largest academic library system and content aggregator, is positioning itself to sell universities a complete cloud-based library solution, an academic library in the cloud. What will be the response from my fellow librarians then, I wonder? Arguing that it doesn’t meet our standards then will be a little too late.
The thought now seems to be that without acquisitions, collection management and technical services consuming so much of our space and energy, the academic library and its librarians can be liberated, transformed into something better and more useful to students. Library professionals in technical services will be freed up to do “more important things,” like instructing people how to use the discovery tool.
At the same time, the focus of the new academic library/learning center is no longer on the provision of quality collections, engaging content, or ideas, or fostering communities of readers, but on seating arrangements to support individualized learning and study styles, innovative and inspiring architectural spaces, and offering various support services in partnership with other entities on campus.131 Space is allocated to group work with large screens (for collective viewing), video conferencing and the latest technology for brainstorming and motion capture (capturing the body language and hand gestures of participants). In other instances, there are only chairs and tables with outlets, for all library resources are available online.
At some large universities libraries, like at the University of Chicago’s Mansueto library,
or North Carolina State University’s Hunt library,
or Temple University’s Charles Library:
and countless others under construction or renovation at this time,132133 books are not visible to patrons when they walk through the doors or in most places in the library.
Unlike traditional college or university libraries, in these new 21st century libraries / learning centers there may be no inducements for students to read–in any format, in print or online.
There is no emphasis on interesting content, new books to encourage casual reading or awareness of the world of ideas and scholarship. There is nothing to stimulate meaning creation or intellectual engagement. There may be no perceptible collection development activity of any kind.
If research activity is going on, it is not perceptible to others–and it could be, through real-time data visualization of where scholars are going and what they are doing online (while respecting privacy, of course). There is no thought to building online communities, or how to bridge the gap between the online and physical library experience.
It is merely a comfortable, communal place for students to study their textbook and get assignments done. If there are print books, they are often treated as vestigial, placed out of view (away from high traffic areas), moved off to quiet study rooms, scattered around conversation areas to create atmosphere, or placed into low shelving units to not block sight lines to other people or disrupt the view of the outside world. Books may not hit one’s gaze as in traditional libraries, where the books located at eye level circulated more frequently.
The design concept for many new libraries is to achieve a feeling oftransparency and openness, and to promote collaboration, rather than academic intimacy. Indeed, within the grand scale, open context and vastness of these new facilities, if there are publications, they may seem small and unimportant, niceties to complement the space, not thought an essentialpart of the user experience.
Is there any effective way for librarians to demonstrate that quality collections make a difference to the university’s business objectives of attracting, retaining and educating students–to student success–or are collections now deemed to be inconsequential and capable of being summarily replaced–as our library professional library associations seem to assuring us–by our “doing” more, the provision of more information literacy classes, and helping people to make connections with each other?
Down(sized) and Out(sourced) in the Digital Age:
From Academic Research Libraries to “Learning Centers”
There is a peculiar rhetoric surrounding new academic library architecture which seeks to justify an enormous outlay for the creation of cavernous facilities, often with high ceilings and monumental staircases, glass walls and natural light, robotic storage and retrieval (RSRMs) and “smart” windows which can calculate the angle of the sun, the seasons, and position of the moon and stars, but nothing additional for the collections housed inside of them or anything more for resources offered online.
The rational, or assumption, seems to be that an inspirational building with computers is what drives learning in the 21st century. The building may be smart and technologically advanced, but what about its users? How are they “progressing”?
According to the Vice Provost and Director of NCSU Libraries, when planning the new Hunt Library, “Our goal was to make a difference in the education and research of students, and something that made them want to become lifelong learners, so we decided on an iconic building.”134This statement, along with recent trends to create bookless libraries, raises some interesting questions:
How can a building alone inspire “life-long learning”?
How can a building alone stimulate creativity, learning and intellectual curiosity?
How can a building without visible publications encourage publication?
How can a building without visible books encourage reading, especially among college students?
How are “new university libraries” designed by architectural firms to primarily facilitate interaction with other people (collaboration), rather than to encourage engagement with library resources (collections), impacting library collection development strategies, acquisitions budgets, staffing levels and usage of resources?
These newly designed spaces, continuously showcased at library conferences and in library magazines, may be innovative from an architectural standpoint, but are they innovative or functional as libraries?
How well do they support our academic missions?
When planning the $170 million Charles Library at Temple University, a fantastic building which would serve as a collaboration space, “a place where intersections between all of the students and faculty and other folks who chance to be on this campus can occur.”135
No doubt, aesthetics is a very important part of the user experience of an academic library. Not only does it makes the library more enjoyable to users, and encourages them to stay, but it also symbolizes the value placed on scholarship and learning by the institution.
Without a comparable commitment to the provision of quality content and effective online strategies for promoting awareness of content, a building is just an empty gesture.
The aesthetics of openness and transparency, and talk of collaboration of those who happen to walk through the door, is really the aesthetics of nothingness, and in many ways represents the very opposite of what a good library should be: a content-rich learning environment, where people are inspired to pursue meaning and knowledge creation on their own terms.
he emphasis of the new academic library is impressive architectural space and awe-inspiring technology, providing spaces for study, interaction with technology, the creation of digital media, social learning and above all, collaboration. In new libraries, collaboration is ostensibly the focus, while the stacks are drastically reduced or eliminated, pushed to the margins, and placed into less public, less visible and less accessible locations.
In a presentation given at my library, an architect from a prominent design firm explained to librarians the “new academic library” concept. According to him, the library is essentially comprised of three learning environments: the campfire (where the older generation, the faculty, pass knowledge down to the younger generation through stories), the watering hole (where people from different disciplines come together to socialize and share knowledge, or figure out what to do with the knowledge they got from the campfire the night before), and the cave (study rooms). I later discovered this came from an often quoted book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments by David Thornburg.
Architects and new library advocates place emphasis on collaboration deriving from group study rooms, communal seating areas and chance encounters of students and faculty with each other in a common space on campus, a space everyone likes to visit because of its beautiful architecture and amenities (tables, computers, couches, whiteboards, study rooms and large screens), not necessarily, or even essentially, because of the library’s resources.
Enabling conversation, facilitating social introductions, and promoting discussion are all folded into idea of librarians as collaboration facilitators, but how we are to do this if scholars are not coming into our spaces? Indeed, facilitating collaboration is regarded by as a pre-eminent 21st century role for librarians by those in leadership of ACRL (Association for College and Research Libraries). In the conclusion of their report on the value of academic libraries in the 21st century, Brown and Malenfant emphasize our role as “campus connectors,” specifically within the outcomes assessment movement:
The higher education assessment movement provides a unique opportunity for library leadership. Academic librarians can serve as connectors and integrators, promoting a unified approach to assessment. As a neutral and well-regarded place on campus, the academic library can help break down traditional institutional silos and foster increased communication across the institutional community. Librarians can bring together people from a wide variety of constituencies for focused conversations and spark communities of action that advance institutional mission.21
Despite the authors’ insistence on libraries adopting an outcomes assessment framework, they themselves fail to explain how our new role as “connectors and integraters” can be meaningfully assessed according to the very outcomes framework they advocate.
The impact of collaboration, or rather collaborative learning, which theoretically occurs in these newly renovated spaces, is frankly no more measurable or significant than the impact of collections, and from an assessment standpoint, cannot be differentiated from other forms of socializing. The impact of both, or each, is as immeasurable as the other.
Even if hi-tech collaborative learning or knowledge-sharing could be meaningfully captured and differentiated from mere socializing, the library still cannot lay claim to it any more than it can, or could, the learning or research which occurred from utilization of the print collection.
If collection usage (usage stats, circulation stats) is now trivialized as having no clear or demonstrable connection with student success (that is, “success” as defined by our parent institutions, not by the users themselves), and provision of quality content is thought to have no meaningful impact on student learning or the university’s business objectives–student enrollment, retention, persistence, graduation rates–surely collaboration cannot be a preferable substitute. Collaboration has no measurable outcomes which can be used to substantiate our value, which is a good thing because we do not know how to facilitate it anyway.
Truly, I love the emphasis on community creation and socializing in these new spaces. Having more people in the library, even if all they want is a cup of coffee, a comfy couch, wi-fi and a study place is not a bad thing. But whatever happened to our profession’s commitment to scholarship, research and publishing?
t was hypothesized twenty five years ago, when people first began speculating about the 21st century library, that in the future, only top-tier schools would continue to afford their students with access to print collections, and that there would be a widening gap between library “haves” and “have nots.” This not was because of the popularity of ebooks among users, but due to the skyrocketing cost of serials and electronic resources cannibalizing what remained of the print book budget.
I cannot say for sure what is happening at newly renovated academic libraries across the country--I wish ACRL would tell us that in their annual member survey questions–but it does appear from library literature and websites that there has been a seismic shift, even in the largest and most well-funded libraries, from emphasis on collections, new publications or content–including digital resources–toward remaking the library a kind of study hall offering customized learning environments (noisy, quiet, public, private, semi-private, low tables, high tables, sitting up or reclining, bright light or dim), and coffee bars, with various student support services tacked on.
Libraries have become the new student centers, paid for by State legislators in the name of building a better library, but they offer no meaningful scholastic purpose over the old library. Libraries even at our most elite and competitive institutions are making their collaborative and creative work spaces top-level menu items on their websites, touting their furniture on wheels, tables, couches and available study spaces, rather than focusing on their collections and scholarly content.
Ten years ago, academic libraries would never have thought to devote prime real estate on their websites to promoting their comfortable couches, study spaces, workstations or assortment of tables.
Representing the library as a study hall or computing lab was considered precisely the wrong message to send to university administrators and faculty to maintain a healthy acquisitions budget (and respect for what we do).
Space, computers, support services and furnishings appear to be the most important features of Harvard’s main undergraduate library:
Research Help at Harvard’s famous Lamont Library is available only between the hours of noon and 5pm, while media help can be had from 9am until 10pm.
Some older librarians may recall that from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the Harvard Lamont Library generated core bibliographies of what undergraduate libraries ought to have in their collections, called Books for College Libraries. Now they are featuring movable furniture, whiteboards and armchairs.
Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, a Gothic Revival building with 16 floors of stacks and 4 million volumes, lets students know on its home page that it offers the following amenities (under “What’s Available”):
Individual Study Rooms
Group Study Rooms
Chalk Board/White Board
Eli Express Delivery Location
One would think that one of the oldest libraries in the country with over 4 million books would have more interesting things to highlight than its natural light, tables and scanner.
The focus on collaborative or group study spaces in libraries parallel broader educational trends which emphasize a greater degree of peer interaction, project-based learning, and providing real world work experience in the classroom. I do not mean to discount the numerous studies which show that students who study and interact with peers in college are happier, have a more positive outlook, and earn higher grades. It is only natural that students would want to study together, and the library is a logical place for this. But the library should aspire to be more.
Aside from being a place for collaboration and group study, the new university library is also typically envisioned as a learning laboratory where people from different disciplines gather together to tinker in maker-spaces and solve real world problems using 3D printers, laser cutters, and digital production studios. No one has called my library or come in asking for this technology. They have come in asking for books, though.
While collaborative and more traditional text-based and individualized approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive modes of knowledge acquisition and learning, and can certainly co-exist in a library setting along with beautiful architecture, it nonetheless strikes me that the consistent focus in librarianship on dialogue, collaboration and consensus-–oral modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission–over content, text-based and more individualized forms of learning, hearken back to a time before printing, books and libraries.
If you thought libraries were unexciting places to be before, taking the books away and replacing them with more computers, more tables and chairs, seating on wheels, glass-walled study rooms, vacant space, engineered surfaces and whiteboards, are surely not likely to make them more interesting places to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful architecture. I like coffee. I like computers and technology–I was a developer and systems librarian back in the day, when things were much harder. I love a good debate, and collaboration with others, especially others who know more than me. Who doesn’t like comfortable chairs? I just don’t believe that innovative architecture, cafes, computer labs, collaboration or comfortable seating can form a solid foundation for academic librarianship at a university, whose mission is to create well-rounded, educated people.
I believe our primary obligation as academic librarians is to provide our communities with stimulating, active learning environments, both in print and online, that are content-rich, authoritative, and inspiring, and which encourage students to go beyond classroom instruction to become self-sufficient independent learners, professionals and scholars.
alk is cheap?Well not anymore. Now, it requires video conferencing technology with hand-gesture recognition and brain-storming apps.137Indeed, when people speak about library renovation projects, collaborative learning and videoconferencing spaces are often emphasized. It all sounds very promising.
But in an almost Orwellian fashion, we must get rid of books and paper, even the bulletin boards (“free speech areas”), in order to promote more modern, technically advanced and carefully monitored forms of expression which do not involve reading or writing.
From a traditional librarian standpoint, much of this may make no sense. No one has come into my library asking for these things in recent years, but they have asked books–especially “book” books. No one has called about 3D printers or laser cutters either. They have asked for popular (leisure reading) books, which sadly, we do not have. We observe that people are more engaged in sticky note walls, the rebellion of the handwritten, than on slick graphics or modern spaces. We observe that when books are set out, people stop to look at them, even if they came in for some other reason. These things attract us because they are evidence of the human.
Let’s talk about collaboration. Realistically, how are we librarians to get people inside the library to collaborate? And once they do, if they do, how does this fulfill our educational mission as academic librarians? At the end of the day, are we not left with little more than empty spaces consisting of tables, chairs, computers and staircases?
Admittedly, fewer people today are reading books, and reading is not looked upon as the sign of social status it once was. In fact, the opposite may be the case: reading books may be a signal to others that one’s time is not in demand by anyone, therefore conveying a negative stigma. Despite its undeniable educational benefit, reading books is no longer viewed by the rest of society as productive activity. University administrators associate research with grants and activity in laboratories, not libraries.
Indeed, reading is often contrasted with productively working, interacting with others, or engaging in real-world problem-solving tasks. Even at a university, there is often limited capacity for people to make a connection between reading and academic success. Perhaps no one in the world has tried to escape the negative stigma of reading more than librarians, who have fruitlessly tried to divorce themselves from reading for years to align themselves with information services since the 1980s. Despite MLIS degrees being peppered with Computer Science classes, Data Management, Data Visualization, Digitization, Web Design, and whatever else happens to be trending at the time, once we graduate we become the people who sit around reading books all day while waiting for someone to ask us a question.
Practical, project-based, collaborative and hands-on, career-relevant learning at the university are now seen as superior ways to prepare students for the workforce of tomorrow, while book-learning, reading, or traditional lecture format are rejected as outmoded pedagogical methods. In Education, text and lecture based formats are eschewed for collaborative activity and group work to allow less prepared students to succeed in the classroom.
Public libraries are also be vulnerable to a similar stigma with regard to reading. Sociologists have suggested that in today’s economy, busyness and overwork are status symbols, not leisure, enjoying cultural activities or reading books138 which may account for why the general public, when surveyed, express great interest in turning their public libraries into work spaces even when they do not necessarily have any real work to do.
Libraries should strive to create a social context within which intellectual inquiry, reading and creativity are nurtured. This is the community we must try to build and support. That is our vocation.
In its defense, print still has many things going for it over ebooks, superior readability and visibility chief among its virtues–provided that you have a centrally located, accessible campus library. Print books can be more cost-effective for smaller campus libraries because the pricing does not include multi-user licensing or hosting in perpetuity on a third party platform which no one knows will be around in ten years.
Most importantly, though, is that “reading matter” placed front and center signifies to others that reading matters.
The presence of reading material in the library space signifies its worth and value. Ideally, one could browse the book in the library, but be able to download it to take it with you.
The Content-Rich Library in the Age of Amazon.
Dear ACRL: What are our professional standards for an online academic research library in the 21st century?
Administrators often speak about the library’s going online or beingonline as a selling point, especially for marketing its graduate programs. But what does it really mean for a university library “to be” online in the Digital Age? How do we effectively market our collections to turn people to things they might like or want to know about?
Given the consolidation of library automation system software vendors, can we librarians even propose standardsfor our online catalogs and discovery tools, or must we now simply accept whatever is given to us by our vendors? Given our current infrastructure, and our niche status, how might new standards and applications for online libraries be developed and implemented?
Bookshelf browsing, virtual newsstands (like Browzine), and other visual navigation applications to facilitate an enjoyable, intuitive browsing experience are overdue as enhancements to the front end of academic library management systems, as is personalization, the ability to present users with new content that is of interest to them when they come to the library’s site.
Certainly, the common limitation of ten results to a page, when the system often boasts so many relevant items, is tedious for users to navigate. As mentioned above, there are alternatives to ranked search engine lists, such as those which cluster results, provide for disambiguation, and visual navigation for a more intuitive search experience.
Libraries might also benefit from what e-commerce already has to woo customers, presenting things they might like, and we also must be able to represent online an actual library collection as such, rather than simply presenting ways to conveniently parse though indexed metadata of third-party aggregated content so someone can find it, should they want to. That does not lend meaning and value to our content, or our profession.
The user experienceof a good collection–both in print or online–promotes creativity and independent learning, precisely the same sort of open-ended and unstructured creative exploration people are trying to facilitate though maker-spaces and more collaborative modes of instruction. We need to afford users a better user experience of the library online so that it can be more closely tied to education, not in terms of classroom learning objectives, but it in terms of disciplinary knowledge. We also must be able to effectively operate, in terms of presentation, on the level of titles and publications, not mere packages and aggregations.
Many challenges are now before us. Within the field of higher education, much emphasis has been placed on real world learning and team-based projects as opposed to book learning and essay writing. Project-based learning, collaborative learning, active learning and other alternatives to traditional text-based learning are advanced by many universities as providing better preparation for the jobs of tomorrow.There is a downside to this hands-on approach no one mentions, that learning this way is inefficient.
With reading, or “text-based learning,” students don’t spend time reinventing the wheel, rediscovering in labs the knowledge that is already known. The laws of gravity have already been discovered, we don’t need to spend the whole semester tinkering with model rockets to rediscover gravity. We don’t need to repeat the experiment, for it has been done enough times. Let’s read about it from an authoritative source and move on.
As a society, seem to be returning to a kind of primitivism and literalism associated with backwards and oral cultures, where people actually can’t learn unless they see it and experience it for themselves. For various reasons many have guessed at, people are losing the will and the ability to read.139This phenomenon has been dubbed “secondary orality,” a return to orality by post-literate societies.
Investment in maker-spaces, media rooms and active learning labs in the new academic library space, in addition to the creation of collaboration spaces fostered by open floor plans, vaulted ceilings and light-filled atria, glass walls and technology (larger screens for shared viewing, special software apps, 3-D printers) are expensive, as is the expertise of architectural firms claiming to have special insight into getting people to collaborate and learn in these modern times.
But after the facility is built and the dust has settled, what then? Where are the impact studies by libraries who have fully transitioned to the new concept? Is it progress or regression? Is it the Enlightenment or a new Dark Ages? Does it produce literate people or promote ignorance?
From what I have been able to ascertain so far based on anecdotal evidence, is that no one in my discipline seems to know how to get people to collaborate, mentor and share knowledge once the old spaces are renovated or new facilities are built140, or how to differentiate collaborative learning from other less important forms of social interaction in order to arrive at measurable outcomes for our assessment plans.
And, most importantly to me, it is not engagement with technology or with other people that academic librarians or academicians wish to foster, but engagement with scholarly and culturally significant books and articles, engagement with publications and the ideas found in them.We librarians and faculty want students to make connections, not so much with other people in the library space, or with us for that matter, but with the scholarly resources and authorities vital to their discipline and to important books reflecting the world around them.
Of course, if more people are coming in, for whatever reason, even just to sit on our comfy couches, they are more likely to talk to a librarian who can then clue them in to all that which great content we have which may not be apparent to them.
Nonetheless, I would love to see showcased in library literature new library architecture and software applications designed specifically around the concept of promoting discovery and engagement with library resources, with our content, both in print and online formats, rather with other people in open seating arrangements–with nothing to offer to the intellect, nothing to nurture the soul, nothing to inspire research, nothing to raise awareness of new publications, nothing to encourage leisure reading or instill life-long learning, and nothing to inspire scholarship.
Without the capacity to present our users with a rich selection of materials that are of interest and relevant to them when they walk through our doors–without the ability to create content-rich learning environments–the physical library becomes a barren wasteland with furniture for studying or texting and hanging out, but nothing of substance to encourage intellectual curiosity, learning outside the classroom, or participation in a broader cultural conversation of educated people.
Despite protests by library users and faculty when initiatives to eliminate print are implemented or proposed, and even after similar projects are deemed failures and the books are brought back–for example with the Cushing Academy’s celebrated bookless library141142–this trend of getting rid of print, placing books out of sight, into underground storage lockers, into compact shelving, into low traffic areas, or incorporating them as meaningless abstractions into a comprehensive design scheme continues to trend upward in buildings called libraries.
ooklessness–or rather, lack of commitment to collections–as well as changes in how libraries are evaluated through their institutional assessment plans, has blurred the distinction between a library and an LRC (learning resource center) or LC (learning center), as the case may be. Because college library booklessness has become acceptable, fashionable–equated with progress–all forms of bookless learning (innovation labs, maker spaces, news rooms, learning commons, information commons, media centers and “active learning labs”) are becoming more common in libraries on college campuses, replacing a large portion of the library or cutting significantly into its budget.
I would say replacing a large portion of the traditional library, but despite the enthusiastic participation of library directors in creating these promising new spaces (which open right before they retire), I’m not sure others in the college and university administration regard media labs, maker-spaces, and smart classrooms as belonging to the library. Librarians who resist these trends with skepticism or scholarly research, risk criticism on many fronts, by administrators looking for ways to save money, by those wishing to be regarded by others as forward-thinking, by an insecure older generation fearing to appear obsolete, and most of all, by architectural design firms who are eager for commissions to design unique and expensive buildings called libraries, but which in no way promote resource use or library learning.
Architectural rendering of a new modern library (can’t find the source, most unlibrarian-like of me!). This is a typical design, where books and resources are not visible in the entrance way or on the first floor. It is harder to promote content or cultivate readers in this sort of modern library space.
Library Journal, American Libraries and other library publications routinely showcase the new academic library architecture without ever mentioning the impact these vacuous facilities are having on acquisitions budgets, professional staffing levels and usage of resources.After new libraries are erected or renovated, and the ribbons are cut, the library appears to be reduced to promoting its (empty) spaces, their furniture on wheels, and the same instructional services as before.
I think it is great that libraries are striving to become more social places. I really do. Libraries were never really the stultifying study halls or book warehouses some new library advocates make them out to be.
Students have always been able to study and socialize in libraries, and relaxed food and drink policies have been the norm for most libraries since I graduated from library school in 1990. Many libraries were built with cafes in them. There is nothing 21st century about the combination of coffee, books, and people, or comfortable seating. Drinks allow for minute mental breaks which are needed to sustain prolonged focus.
What is new, especially in library literature, is the perception that physical books are impeding student success, the advancement of the library profession, requiring too much staff, standing in the way of the library’s becoming popular with students and/or risking turning the library into a “book warehouse.” This is a very dark current that runs throughout academic library literature today, along with reminders that this generation of students never grew up reading books, so they are not likely to start when they go off to college.
Younger university administrators also are less likely to be champions of the library, believing that books are not needed in any format for students to be successful in their degree plans. In their minds, the success of online degree programs have largely proved the irrelevance of the physical library and print collections to the mission of the university. All students require are their textbooks and access to Blackboard, and the library is only something to be concerned with when it comes time for accreditation review.
With the way student- or academic success is defined, according to the business objectives of the university, it is difficult for library directors to get a strong toe hold. Many within a university administration do not understand or appreciate the extent to which a well-stocked, well-maintained library is a key marketing tool for the university, and that books contribute to the operation of the university as such. The library is the ultimate resource for demonstrating student-centeredness and care, precisely because many of the books in the library are there to support have the students’ own definition of success, not because they must be used to be successful in degree programs.
Because it is just a bit gratuitous, good library collection is the ultimate reflection of genuine student-centeredness on a college campus.
Nevertheless, for the first time in academic library history, books represents a burden that we librarians need to be liberated from.
Books represent an albatross around our necks and our students’ necks. The rationale is, “Get rid of print,” and we librarians will be freed up to do more important things–like helping students (as if we’ve always not done both, thank you very much). Get rid of the books, and people will want to come to the library once again. Get rid of books, and our students will be forced to embrace new technologies and be better prepared to enter the workforce.
Even though new titles are rarely available to libraries in digital format for many months after their print debut, the book is viewed as an outdated product 143 that many library directors and administrators are eager to distance themselves from for a variety of reason, some valid and some not.
Dividing lines are drawn over the role and importance of print books and the need to maintain collections, with professional staff often reluctant to say what they really think about plans to go completely digital. Those who resist risk being typecast as resistant to change, obsolete or technophobic. An example of this can be found in Lura Sanborn’s (2013) article “Bookless library?”:
Are there going to be growing pains and resistance? Sure. In fact, absolutely. A body at rest wants to stay at rest. There will be those embedded in print that wish to stay in print. Internally, there will be those who throw their hands up in the air and declare it is all too much, too complicated, and too difficult to simply keep up. What was shiny and astounding three years ago looks ridiculously musty at this point. Keeping up with and making the best decisions possible regarding digital text is hard, and there will be those who refuse to embrace the new. This is predictable behavior. Fifteen years ago, working as a student assistant at a busy university reference desk, I, and everybody on staff, knew “that professor” who never got over the movement from the card catalog to the OPAC. He would always call the reference desk when in need of a book, refusing-on some principle important in his mind-to learn to use the OPAC.
Evolution takes time. We can stick with what we have, or we can move to make it better. Case in point: iOS 7 is much more sophisticated and pleasing than the initial OS X. Should Apple not have evolved in order to keep a population afraid of the learning curve within their comfort zone? To compare, so too have advancements been made to many of the digital text interfaces available to libraries. And much like with Apple, the interface, quantity, and search capabilities just keep getting better.
Despite the strong movement forward, some still find the concept of a digital library uncomfortable. When the director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Medical Library announced last year that the library was going online only and closing its physical doors, the Johns Hopkins constituency shrieked and formed a committee (Nichols 2013). However, the transition has since moved along and from the outside looks both inevitable and wonderfully enviable (Michael 2013). Instruction librarians are in a discrete space, while the emphasis of the collection is on digital holdings. This model speaks to the essential, core functions of an academic library: collection and instruction. 144
Librarians may feel pressured to reiterate exaggerated claims about “the cost to warehouse a book on the shelf” each year–about $4.20–taken from a very impressive analysis done by economist Paul N. Courant, who was on the board of several large scale book digitization ventures59 when published that study (2010), and concluded:
Finally, we note that the argument in favor of moving toward digital versions of books and sharing both electronic and print collections is further enhanced when we recognize that university libraries tend to be located on prime real estate, and that there are uses of central campus stack space—for classrooms, study, offices, and enhanced library services, among others—that would be far more valuable than using that space to store materials most of which are used rarely, provided that access to the materials in aggregate could still be provided reliably. 146
His figure of $4.20 per annum per book has been repeated so often at library conferences and in Power Point slides, even in Newsweek,147 it has become a factoid,148, a perfect example of what happens when articles are mined for information and not read critically for bias. He was selling digitization services, after all.
The real cost of ebooks for academic libraries.It is often assumed by college administrators and non-librarians, mainly based on their own experiences with Amazon and Kindle, that academic ebooks are significantly cheaper than print books. This is a common misconception. It is absolutely intuitive that they would be. While they typically are for consumers, they are not for academic libraries, unless they are titles that are no longer in demand (called “backlist” titles).
Vendors charge institutions more for an academic ebook, even for single use. The cost of purchasing a recent (published in the last 3 years) academic title through a typical library vendor like EBSCO is 1/3 to 2/3 higher than the cost of the same book in print for single simultaneous use.
Take a look at this taken randomly selected title from EBSCO’s Collection Manager tool. Natural Gas Processing: Technology and Engineering is $146 for the print book paying full list price (librarians usually get a 20% discount for print books through their book jobber). The same ebook is priced at $177.60, $222.00 (for 3 simultaneous users) and $266 for unlimited use.
The markup on new academic ebooks varies, but the cost for a front list title is always more than the list price for the print version, even for nontechnical titles. This observation is confirmed by the e-book price index in the librarian’s bible of statistical data and book prices, Bowker’s Library and Book Trade Almanac. It states (2016) that:
In the academic market, it has always been assumed that e-books are more expensive than their print counterparts. Users might be surprised to find that the cheaper versions of e-books, available to consumers through such channels as Amazon and the Apple Store, are not available to libraries at similar prices, if at all. . . .
The high price for e-books is not that surprising as most pricing models for academic ebooks generally add a high percentage to the list price for the purchase of e-books. Multi-user licenses are an even larger percentage. In most situations, even-single user academic e-book titles are more expensive than their print counterparts.” 149
One explanation for the higher costs for institutions is that the vendor is providing hosting in perpetuity for the ebook–even if we do not want access to the book in perpetuity, we often must buy it that way. When libraries buy books, unless they are extremely large research libraries (and even then), they never buy with the idea in mind of having a book forever. Suddenly the cost of maintaining a book on the shelves doesn’t seem so bad.
Another factor is scalability, that many users could potentially access the book at the same time. This a great benefit for large academic institutions, but smaller and medium-sized libraries cannot benefit as much from economies of scale.
Ebooks usually do not represent a significant cost savings over print unless the library is buying a package of oddball academic titles, UK imprints, dated titles, or things that the publisher can’t move in print any longer, in which case the book is valued at less than list price for print. What goes into a content aggregator’s ebook package is based not on careful vetting by librarians but blanket publisher agreements. They are commodities, like soybeans. The success of the aggregator depends on negotiations with traditional print publishers to digitize, aggregate and monetize their back-stock, called “backlist” titles. These aggregations are not “collections” in a librarian’s sense of the word. They are merely chum-buckets of aggregated content no longer able to monetized in print by the publisher. Not there is not anything good in them, but they do not represent the current state of the discipline, nor do they pretend to.
However, only those already familiar with a discipline, educated people, may appreciate the difference in quality between a package of academic ebook titles and an actual library collection. If the priority is providing relevant ebooks so students can complete a writing assignment, aggregates of ebooks are fine. If the priority is doing research in a discipline, they miss the mark.
Most academic libraries already buy large ebook packages, but deliberately excluded from these subscription packages are front list titles, newer titles and titles in demand, which the vendor hopes to sell to the library individually at a higher price. Better titles get added to the online platform at a premium cost to the library.
More concerning to me is that there is a psycho-social aspect of ebooks which discourages users from actually reading them. Since no personal investment appears to have been made in selecting the titles, and no great expense appears to have been made by the university to acquire them–since everyone outside the library believes ebooks to be dirt cheap anyway–why should our students place any value on them? Why would they want to read them? To them, ebooks appear to be items called up and used when needed to write a paper or complete an assignment, and then are to be forgotten about. Ebooks are merely commodities. There is no sense of permanence or influence, that these titles mean anything to anyone. They are not intended to be “read” read, or remembered, or valued, they are not real, just something to be mined for quotes and citations.
No one honestly expects others to have read or heard of an ebook they come across in an academic ebook collection, but I believe the same is not the case with print books in an authoritative, up-to-date library collection. Print books are still seen as more “legit” in the eyes of young users, and they are correct: if it’s on the shelves in the library, at least a few other people think the book is worthwhile.
Students, like administrators, also think of print books as being more costly and believe ebooks to be “cheap.” It would never occur to a student that the ebook they click and scroll through, just as they do free internet resources and free books on Google Books, may have actually cost the library $250 or more, sometimes even hundreds or thousands of dollars (in the case of reference books).
I can envision a library where print books are beautifully displayed, face out, covers glossed in mylar, placed in visible locations so people can see and browse through them, but with a “download the ebook” sticker on them. Virtual fulfillment might be the way forward.
Tangible Outcomes from Intangible Goods:
Assessing the Value of the Academic Library
Philosophies of librarianship are part of a larger trend of libraries requiring librarians to re-invent and market themselves to demonstrate their value at a time when the institution of the library, and its relationship to the rest of the university, is under increased scrutiny. The challenge is a difficult one.
Historically, administrations questioned whether their library was good, and perhaps how we librarians knew it was good, not whether a library was needed.
No one was requiring personal philosophies of librarianship or annual self-justifications to keep one’s job, either (they don’t where I work, but at some university libraries they do each year). They were expecting the library to come up with metrics and measures which tied to library-centric goals–library goodness–not to have to continuously justify the existence of the library itself through support for business or institutional objectives.
The decline in the perceived relevance of college and academic libraries (and with this, librarians) can be accounted for in many ways. The most obvious cause is an increased reliance by administrators and scholars alike on information resources found on the Internet. These days, neither the physical library nor the library’s website is the first place people begin their research. I myself often begin with Google Scholar (mine is set to link into my library’s databases, but still. . .), and I think most of my colleagues do, too. Often the library is utilized to gain access to the full-text of an article found online through Google Scholar.
Rather than checking our catalogs and online resources first, researchers find books they might like on Amazon and Google Books, or on publisher platforms, and then check to see if the library has them. People come to the library and the library’s website not as a starting point for research, but as a last resort to obtain a known item they learned about some place else.
One reason for this, I think, is that our websites are not intuitive and our catalogs are not interesting for students and scholars to browse. As I see it, a modern library is a content provider like Amazon and Netflix, but, for various reasons, our catalogs and user interfaces have not evolved into the kind of intuitive, content-rich environments that might allow us to compete for our users’ attention with commercial entities whose websites people actually enjoy visiting and browsing.150
The library profession has become dependent on vendors even for much of our professional development, our content, our systems and our web services. There has been so much industry consolidation, we don’t have much choice. We must deal with products and tools which do not integrate well with each other by design, because our vendors are in competition with each other. EBSCO won’t provide metadata to ProQuest’s Primo Central and ProQuest doesn’t allow EBSCO to automatically harvest catalog data to support EBSCO’s Discovery tool, EDS.
We permit, even promote, branding (EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Gale-Cengage, etc.) instead of white labeling. We take it for granted that patrons will be driven away from the library’s website off to various third-party commercial platforms for doing research. We inadvertently end up with multiple (vendor-created) pseudo-home pages, as vendors–Credo Reference, SpringShare LibGuides, ProQuest and EBSCO–encourage the library to customize a landing page with their search own box on it. We are often forced to try to muster excitement for content labeled with strange acronyms (StatRef! GVRL, JSTOR, SFX. . . ) and our users suffer from platform fatigue.
In the commercial world, content-heavy sites utilize technologies for marketing online content and the 21st century library should be no exception. Online libraries needs to support personalization, presenting content that users might like when to they come to our websites.
Especially now, when Amazon and Google have raised the bar for shopping and search, our professional energies feel misplaced teaching students how to navigate the library’s antiquated catalogs and unintuitive websites as part of Information Literacy programs. We often emphasize techniques like using “Boolean search operators” and truncation as part of the IL curriculum–techniques already obsolete by modern search technology–rather than concentrating our efforts on developing more interesting, intuitive and innovative user interfaces, or focusing on interesting titles–the publications themselves, not just the techniques needed to locate them.
Libraries are in the process of becoming that which they previosuly hoped to avoid, being a “repository,” through ineffective marketing and poor designs which communicate that our own collections do not matter, despite what our users say and surveys show. I firmly believe that, even in this age of Google, scholarly content is what matters most to our users in the university,and this should be emphasized in the design of our facilities, our websites, and our assessment models.
Legitimization, Outcomes Assessment, and the New Grand Narrative in Librarianship151
One of the most influential trends over the last 30 years in academic librarianship has been to devise new ways to assess library quality and effectiveness, and not just in-and-of-itself (i.e., “Is the library good?“), but within the context of the goals, objectives, and business management methods (“Quality Assessment”) employed by their parent institutions to evaluate institutionaleffectiveness, sometimes referred to as the “Institutional Effectiveness Plan” or “Quality Assessment Plan.”152
One person aptly referred to this phenomenon as the “outcomes assessment movement.” 153
This approach has also become a relatively new (since 2011) best practice, or standard, for academic librarians, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL Standards in Libraries in Higher Education), the professional association for college and academic librarians. By the standard committee’s own admission, the 2011 standard 154 represents a shift in the way libraries are to think about assessment, in terms of methodology (must be “outcomes-based”) and emphasis (prioritizing the achievement of institutional and departmental instructional objectives, instead of those internal to the library):
These Standards differ from previous versions by articulating expectations for library contributions to institutional effectiveness. These Standards differ structurally by providing a comprehensive framework using an outcomes-based approach, with evidence collected in ways most appropriate for each institution.155
The bottom line is that ACRL’s new Standard is not a standard at all, but an imperative that we must align ourselves with our institutions and apply their assessment model to the library.
According to ACRL, we are to adopt the goals, objectives and outcomes of our respective institutions, including other departments and even student affairs as our own to facilitate greater partnerships across institutional boundaries, and establish our relevance accordingly.156 And we are to demonstrate our effectiveness by measurable and verifiable (evidence) assessment outcomes tied to the goals of the institution.
Let’s consider regional institutional accreditation guidelines as a library standard, since ACRL SLHE asks us to use these when formulating library outcomes. If these guidelines mention anything about libraries, they are meant to be baseline or minimum standards, not something libraries can use to achieve academic excellence, or even “goodness.” For example, SACS doesn’t say all that much about libraries except we are to offer qualified staff, library instruction and access to “adequate” and “sufficient” resources and collections:
CR 2.9 The institution, through ownership or formal arrangements or agreements, provides and supports student and faculty access and user privileges to adequate library collections and services and to other learning/information resources consistent with the degrees offered. Collections, resources, and services are sufficient to support all its educational, research, and public service programs. (Learning resources and services)
Would you go to a professional who boasts of providing merely adequate services? Institutional accreditation standards are not library standards for achieving excellence, goodness or quality. They are baseline, what earns you a “D.”
Also, because accreditation standards are intended to be minimum standards, if the word “library” is dropped and replaced by “learning and information resources,” as has already happened in several places in SACS,157 it is surely with the understanding that small colleges with limited enrollments, or online colleges, or vocational schools, can still obtain institutional accreditation for their programs even if they lack full-fledged libraries.
The wording of regional accreditation guidelines is not intended to be a checkered flag for universities to divest themselves of their libraries, or to downgrade them into less costly Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), which require neither a library collection nor professional librarians to operate or maintain.158Nor is it intended to encourage the provision of merely adequate resources by the library–whatever might be construed as the defensible minimum needed to pass an accreditation review–even though, again, such brinksmanship might be lauded by an administration in terms of cost reduction, maximizing return on investment, and the achievement of institutional objectives. In most cases, academic libraries cannot simply “adopt institutional objectives as their own” without significantly compromising quality.
Without any qualitative standards for collections for academic libraries emanating from ALA/ACRL, how can library administrators make a compelling case to their administration that their libraries are not being adequately funded, specifically, that they are not able to provide adequate resources to function as a library should?
If libraries are not encouraged to have their own goals and objectives for excellence, their own standards for goodness or quality, how can they prevent existing library budgets from being cannibalized for institutional objectives that have little or nothing to do with the academic mission of the library?
The Rube Goldberg Machine: Managerialism in the Academic Library
any faculty members have decried the rise of “managerialism”159 or an increasing corporate orientation in the university.160161162 The best definition of managerialism I have come across is “an exaggerated belief by professional managers in the value of the management concepts and methods they use, regardless of the unique values, culture and methodology of the organizations they manage”; the notion, for example, “that the same principles, values and methodology can be applied to managing a university, a hospital, a TV station, a car factory, a chain of coffee shops or an army.”163 Some have argued that corporate culture threatens to undermine or erode the humanistic and intellectual ideals of the university.
There is tension between the business orientation and academic one at any university, although people in higher education have come to recognize that both perspectives are needed for the institution to thrive. The latter values deep thinking, scholarship, and knowledge as virtues in themselves–knowledge for knowledge’s sake–even if doesn’t lead to a specific outcome, aside from a more educated human being.
This is a sometimes referred to as a humanistic model because it supports the pursuit of knowledge to allow a person to reach his or her full potential, but not necessarily because it leads to a specific, predefined student learning outcome.
It does not ask, “Why do you want to know that?” “How is that related to your degree plan?”
At a university, academic librarians support student success, not just as defined by the university, but also as defined by the student, helping him achieve his educational goals and research objectives regardless of whether or not it is needed for a particular class assignment.
We support the student’s acquisition of disciplinary and professional knowledge, and therefore offer significant titles on a regular and timely basis, even if we cannot tell if this is helping students complete their degree pans. We also serve the faculty, whose research and publishing activity usually does not directly serve the business interests of university either.
We also have an obligation to maintain a quality library in anticipation of use, in a perpetual state of readiness, rather than acquiring only that which is guaranteed to be used for a class, which is another way our acquisition strategies might not conform to a strict business model.
Publishing in peer-reviewed journals typically has little impact on enrollment, retention and graduation rates,the most pressing concerns for the college or university administration. (Research adds prestige to the university, but it has virtually no impact on undergraduate enrollment.) The more humanistic and academic goals of the college and academic research library (scholarship, life-long learning, etc.) and the more pragmatic goals of the institution might not line up very well.
The library will always be a cost center, never able to justify itself financially though a measurable impact on GPAs and retention rates. In fact, operating within a strictly institutional or business framework, where the library’s goals have become one with that of their administration, the most successful and effective library manager could conceivably be one who spends as little as possible on library resources, but still manages to skate through an accreditation review. Sounds awful but I’m sure it happens.
Thisisn’t good for students or faculty, or for libraries or librarians–who will surely have difficulty “partnering with faculty” (one of the stated goals of the new ACRL standard) if the materials that they and their students expect to find in the library are never there, if users are routinely compelled to use other libraries to access significant or core titles in their disciplines, or forced to buy the books they want or need to support their research interests out of pocket.
Over time, if collections are not maintained, demand for the library’s services will drop off, and suspicions by decision makers that the library or books or librarians are no longer needed will be confirmed by low circulation statistics. This will happen not because of changing times, or because of Google, but because the library will have been diminished by not buying anything new, by not being able to promote its resources effectively, and by deploying assessment tools that measure the wrong outputs or outcomes for an academic research or college library.
The new ACRL standard was intended to promote greater collaboration and to advance our roles as partners educating students and contributing to their success.164 However, real collaboration is a two way street: partnering is more than just our teaching information literacy courses or co-piloting courses taught by others when they can’t make it to class that day (you all know who I’m talking about).
Librarians have traditionally been recognized as partners in the educational process through the quality content and resources we provide. Yet, we lack a standard set of outcomes through which to evaluate the impact of collections (both print and online, leisure and scholarly) on student learning. This does not mean that collections are not a worthwhile, but that the assessment tools and standards available to us cannot assess their impact.
More than ever, libraries need prescriptive standards of quality to to keep us from becoming redundant, competing with, or being absorbed by, other departments and entities on campus who are also focused on “student success,” our budgets and spaces re-appropriated for initiatives that have little or nothing to do with the library. From this perspective, rewriting our mission statements in order to adopt the goals and objectives of other departments and even “student affairs,” as ACRL recommends (as a way of promoting “greater collaboration”), seems like very poor advice.
Measuring the tangible impact of an intangible good. The business strategy of aligning with institutional goals and objectives, specifically institutional quality assessment plans, is particularly problematic for academic research libraries for the reason that the impact of their collections on users cannot be assessed through any objective measures that can be tied back to “student success,” as defined by the university’s quality assessment/enhancement plans.165
Years before the publication of the new ACRL standard, a similar approach was discussed in an often cited article by Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996):
Few libraries exist in a vacuum, accountable only to themselves. There is this always a larger context for assessing library quality, that is what and how well does the library contribute to the overall goals of the parent consistencies? The major objective for academic libraries, especially in an environment of increasing academic pressure, structural change, and technological innovation, must be to align themselves with the structures of higher education and the criteria by which these institutions are judged.166
Pritchard goes on to say, however, that despite higher education managers adopting the business methods of quality management, and the “micro-evaluation of libraries have given countless opportunities for detailed studies . . .”
. . . still lacking are agreed upon and objective ways to measure and incorporate library value into such processes as academic accreditation, educational assessment, and ratings of graduate programs.167
Today, academic librarians are still struggling to find ways to demonstrate their library’s relevance to their respective institutions, which usually translates into contriving ways to demonstrate our value within the context of institutional Quality Assessment plans.
By making institutional outcomes our exclusive focus, it is easy for academic librarians to forget who we are, and why most of us got our degrees in Library Science–which I doubt was to “teach Information Literacy,” “support the curriculum” or to “improve institutional outcomes,” or any of the other objectives found in librarian philosophies and in newly minted mission statements.168 Not that these are not worthwhile objectives, but they are too narrow, and they miss the point of the library.
Many of us academic librarians had hoped to enrich the lives of others, quite likely as ours have been enriched, through the experience of a great library, a library we ourselves enjoyed going to because, well, it was interesting, and made us feel connected to a larger community of scholars who were passionate about the same things we were, or with a brighter future for ourselves which we identified with. It provided a kind of personal transcendence. Great libraries are great because they have great collections which afford users with a great experience of self-directed learning to help them reach their potential in life.
This experience is what I call “the aesthetic.”
The aesthetic is the value-add which cannot be measured, the subjective experience of self-actualization and self-determination fostered by a great library collection. It is the thought that “this book was put here for me to find” by someone who knows or cares.
Of course, “greatness” is subjective and not measurable (there are surveys, of course, and usage stats), an aesthetic judgment, which are to be avoided when it comes to all types of quality assessment planning. It is the library sublime. The aesthetic is experiential. This poses quite a philosophical dilemma for libraries. Aesthetic judgments, judgments about quality cannot be completely rationalized or measured.
As the philosopher Kant maintained, they are beyond reason. This doesn’t mean aesthetic judgments are irrational, but that rational modes of analysis can carry us only so far. In addition, libraries are compelled to maintain collections in a state of readiness, in anticipation of use; the sum of the whole–a collection–is greater than its parts, another challenge for evaluation.
Just because objective assessment of the impact of collections on our users cannot be assessed, does not mean that it should be ignored or is no longer a worthwhile goal for libraries to pursue.
he managerial art of objectifying what is inherently subjective and experiential, through inputs, outputs, outcomes, performance indicators, benchmarks, feedback, usage stats, metrics, documentary evidence and analyses, and then folding this meaningfully and compellingly to institutional goals and objectives, and last, into our own budgetary justifications in ways college and university administrators will ultimately appreciate, is the challenge now laid at our feet.
Libraries have always attempted to measure themselves and their services to evaluate their effectiveness, impact on users, or “goodness.” This is nothing new. Some have even criticized the discipline for its seemingly unbridled enthusiasm for measurement, for being “confounded from the outset” by false “certainties of empiricism” stemming from the fact it regards itself as a science, and takes as its domain information.169I have worked in libraries which felt like a continuous time-motion study.
For many reasons both theoretical and practical–whether stemming from professional orientation, need for greater accountability, or job insecurity–librarians already do tend to place great emphasis on empirical data, inputs (budgets, size of collections) and outputs (circulation, reference questions answered, usage stats), ratios (percent of budget spent to support certain programs, numbers of books per student per major) and performance measures which, regrettably, cannot ever be meaningfully tied to useroutcomes, and which therefore “do not assist managers in providing a true picture of libraries to the lives of our users. . . “170
For many academic libraries, and particularly those in Southern states,171 “Quality Assessment” has presented new and interesting measurement challenges, tantamount to devising Rube Goldberg Machine that will, at the end of the day, reveal and heighten our impact on the much larger machinery of institutional outcomes assessment.
There is certainly a lot that could be written about Quality Assessment planning with regard to libraries, such as, how do we assess our assessment plans to know that they are good? Has the practice of assessing the academic library’s value through the rubric of institutional effectiveness been good for academic libraries and those who use them? Has this practice resulted in improved library services? How has it changed us, for better or for worse?
Rube Goldberg was a master of imagining complicated mechanical processes to perform the most mundane tasks, which could otherwise be performed with just a slight bit of human effort and common sense, for example, here a self-opening umbrella:
Cartoon by Rube Goldberg, famous for devising complex mechanical solutions to perform mundane tasks you wouldn’t want or need a machine to do in the first place.
I do not mean to suggest that there is an easy and obvious solution to the problem of assessment or accountability in libraries–or that one should not rely upon all available tools and reports to make informed decisions–or that objectivity is not worth striving for.
That’s a given for any library manager. We routinely compare ourselves, statistically-speaking, to our peers, and then try to figure out what they are doing better than us so we might improve. Strategic planning is an excellent tool for bench-marking growth. Setting and pursuing goals is vital to continuous improvement–who would not agree with that?
However, as the title of my philosophy statement suggests, I believe good libraries are about a very special kind of aesthetic user experience whose impact or value or information contentcannot be measured in ways that would ever rationally justify them (libraries are intangible goods after all) from a “business objective” perspective.There is no cost/benefit analysis that will justify the expense of an academic research library. Therefore, I am especially mistrustful of reliance upon overly rationalized processes and externally imposed business measures like QA when it comes to library management, but most especially when they threaten to change the priorities of the academic library to value only that which can be counted, measured or valued by “the plan.”
If the library’s budget must be tied only to measurable, institutional outcomes of “student success”(graduation rate, retention, enrollment, persistence, employment rate, transfer rate, and other business objectives of the institution) or “student learning success” (how well they students do on an information literacy test), this will change the priorities of the academic library into something that is not recognizable as an academic library.
The sort of accountability required by institutional quality assessment plans inevitably entails both measurement and outcomes, but the library profession has never been able to successfully arrive at meaningful measures linked to outcomes.172
And it isn’t for a lack of effort or focus on the problem, which are further exacerbated by a failure to recognize or accept that academic libraries are about the subjective experience of users- I call it “the aesthetic”–including browsing, familiarizing oneself with a discipline, reading for enjoyment (often because users find it interesting/significant/relevant), seeing what is new, reacting to the works and ideas of others, and, perhaps most cherished by users, “serendipitous discovery.”173
We librarians deal for the most part in the realm of private experience, in intangible goods, but we are expected to deliver, or provide an accounting of, our tangible value so university administrators can see a return on investment.174If we do have measurable user or student outcomes, they are often contrived for the sake of satisfying our QA plan, and usually involve those charged with Public Service and teaching Information Literacy courses, because there is evidence of student engagement.
By what mechanism is the library evaluated, in terms of its impact, other than this limited intervention, or Reference stats? We cannot lay any claim to research and publications by the faculty, even though our resources and access services support them.
The quality assessment standards imposed on academic research libraries today are often missing the finer points of the academic research library, and really the purpose of higher education, which is to encourage learning and research that is not necessarily part of “the curriculum”–at least not yet–and to empower students to be independent learners.
We want them to feel as if they are standing on the shores of a vast ocean of knowledge and human experience, and that they are free to go in any direction they choose, to learn on their own. However, one unintended consequence of the imposition of QA on libraries at some institutions has been a reallocation of the library budget away from library resources, the collection–whose impact on students or outcomes cannot be effectively assessed or measured–toward instructional services, such as information literacy programs, tutoring, writing labs, and basic computer skills classes, and a variety of student support services which lend themselves to outcomes assessment more easily, especially in the short-term.
Within the context of the institutional QA, libraries don’t get much credit for having resources, or even use of resources–only demonstrating tangible results (higher GPAs), and these “results” must occur within the time constraints of the plan.
Library assessment though the institutional QA Plan will make the library’s budget look fat, as its resources can’t be meaningfully tied to specific measurable learning outcomes.
Another issue fundamental to our identity as academic librarians is a commitment to students and faculty, specifically to the individual’s pursuit of knowledge. By adopting as our highest aspirations institutional goals as defined by external IE/QA plans (plans shaped exclusively by goals and objectives for institutional accreditation, rather than library standards), as ACRL has now advised175, we are moving away from a holistic model of librarianship, in which the user defines his success, towards one that is narrow, passive, unambitious and not actually user-centered, but institutional: we merely “support the curriculum” with “adequate resources” rather than (more idealistically) helping our students obtain disciplinary knowledge, our faculty keep up with trends in their field.
While this latter role is perhaps more pertinent to academic libraries supporting graduate research, there are corollaries at the community or junior college level, where librarians support, or have traditionally supported, the co-curricular and extra-curricular, self-directed interests of our students: leisure reading, current events, bestsellers, graphic novels, biographies, life skills and “how to’s” for young adults transitioning into adulthood and into a professional workforce.
These may not be directly, meaningfully or demonstrably tied to the curriculum, but they make the library attractive and valuable to students, and habituates them to independent learning. It also exposes them to other points of view and ways of thinking, and enhances their educational experience, and has an impact on their lives, even if we cannot prove with any certainty that it does.
One would assume that promoting self-directed and independent learning at all levels–from leisure reading for college students to original research for publication for upper division and graduate students–would be fundamental to the core values of lifelong learning and academic achievement, principles we are supposed to be instilling in students.176But even the seemingly straightforward concept of lifelong learning has been co-opted by what Elmborg alludes to as a “neoliberalist” agenda, as opposed to the more idealistic values traditionally upheld by the library profession:
Life-long Learning is enshrined in the consciousness of librarians through the ALA’s Core Values. However, bundled in this phrase are two concepts that exist in great and probably irresolvable tension: there is the ‘hothouse flower’ of idealistic values, the vision of the ‘people’s university,’ critical consciousness, and critical practice; and there is the ‘weed’ of progressive administration, narrow and unambitious in terms of its impact on individuals but able to construct an inescapable domain of discourse that places all value within the context of economic development and the assessment of data-driven outcomes.
From the administrative point of view, lifelong learning is most easily translated into a task-driven, programmatic initiative that can be easily assessed and measured for short-term success. From the pedagogical point of view, lifelong learning is translated through great effort into the problem-posing, one-on-one exploration whose outcomes are fuzzy and may not be measurable for years to come. It might be naïve to suggest that libraries should defy the spirit of the age, denounce neoliberalism, and make a pure stand for social justice and democratic pedagogy. However, it seems equally unwise to embrace a neoliberal worldview that is openly hostile to almost everything that libraries profess to represent in their core values.177
While I cannot speak to the “neoliberal” vs. “social justice” perspectives Elmborg raises–I see the dichotomy more as a top-down business/managerial/quality management perspective vs. more scholarly / humanistic / user-centered approach–it does seem pretty clear no matter how you express it, librarians as well as our professional associations like ACRL are embracing certain philosophies, strategies or best practices that may be detrimental to the success or survival of libraries in the long term.
Beyond the Curriculum? Academic librarians are, presumably, scholars committed to scholarship and the principle of academic freedom. We help students pursue knowledge and achieve their chosen educational and learning objectives–whether it leads to a degree or not.
We support scholarship and disciplinary knowledge as ends in themselves, as their own rewards, not because they lead, necessarily or measurably, to a degree, or to “student success” within a certain prescribed time period (e.g., within the boundaries of a Quality Enhancement Plan).
We librarians are glad that you used or accessed the item, but we don’t investigate in any formal way the extent to which you benefited from it, the extent to which it changed you, how it improved you, how it helped you write a better paper, or even if you found the item useful.
Along the same lines, if you request an article from us to get from another library, we don’t ask you to prove that you need it for a degree program or to complete an assignment before we request it.
We do not discourage you from visiting other libraries in order to hold you captive to just what we have if we know that there is a collection nearby which might better serve your research interests. We do not withhold that knowledge, or keep you ignorant just to increase our own stats. We are not a “business.” We don’t view other libraries as our competitors.
We do not say, “Why do you want to know that? That has nothing to do with your major.” Or, “You’ll have to get permission from your professor before we process your ILL request.” We support a more individualized definition of student success than course or degree completion.
Now, my own theory of library usage–which has to be at the heart of any philosophy of librarianship–is that people who value and use academic libraries, our constituents, do so because they benefit from immediate access to relevant, significant or interesting content, especially within the context of a meaningful and carefully considered collection.
To our constituents, academic libraries are not primarily “about” the services provided by librarians, or information, at least not in an obvious way. They are about collections. They are about books, regardless of format. They are about publications. They are about media. They are about content.
When people look forward to going to library they are not imagining helpful librarians.
No, they are thinking about interesting books and collections which they hope and expect to find there; things they like and find meaningful to them. Library services are always secondary to collections, to the extent that services exist to support and promote use of resources and publications. Collections do not exist to support librarians’ services. Getting assistance from a librarian always was a very small reason people went to a library, public or academic.
I am not ready to declare collections to be dead or obsolete just because “the library can’t buy everything,” because large portions of it may exist in a different format, or because resources can’t be linked to assessment outcomes.
I am not ready to use library services as the sole indicator of quality for an academic library, or even the primary mode by which we academic librarians demonstrate our impact on students–even if evidence of direct student engagement may be the easiest way to justify ourselves.
The academic library is not primarily about inputs and outputs, users “getting answers to specific questions” or “satisfying specific information needs”–the latter are good things, of course, but despite the empirical information model which has often permeated our professional thinking about library operations–is not a correct model for any type of library, public or academic.
To scholars and regular library users, libraries are about the preservation of knowledge, sharing knowledge, facilitating the discovery of knowledge, and providing support for the creation of new knowledge through the quality of its collections.
The academic library is fundamentally a collection of research that inspires research.
To the extent that it does this well, it is successful as an academic research library.
Why Academic Libraries Still Matter in the Age of Google
I am asked this awkward question not infrequently in graduate Research Methods classes.I know this can be my cue to promote myself and my services, and say, “Librarians are your greatest resource, and that is why libraries still matter!” But I do not believe this to be true. I am helpful, to be sure, but I am not their greatest library resource. If I were, the library would be spending over a million dollars on me and not on EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, Elsevier and SAGE databases.
Anyway, the entire library shouldn’t revolve around “me” or my services (some days it seems like it does, but I know it doesn’t). I want people to benefit from and enjoy the library itself, without me. Thankfully, many people use the library regularly without ever needing to consult with a librarian, because if they did, that would be frustrating both to them and to me. Even back in the day before Google, which I am old enough to remember, few who used the library ever needed to consult with librarians. This may come as a shock to some but it is true. Using the card catalog, most users managed to navigate to the resources they were seeking without our help, and most came in to browse and stimulate their own creativity and interests, not necessarily to find answers to pre-existing questions. They were pursuing knowledge of a subject area or inspiration, something to like, not answers. They come to wander and stimulate their own creativity.
When I speak to students, I am merely the messenger. I try to represent good published authorities and the peer-reviewed word. I represent resources which impart disciplinary knowledge. That is what the academic library as a whole ideally does better than Google and Google Scholar.
In a university library, students, aspiring scholars, and newcomers to a field of study benefit from familiarizing themselves with what books, journals, publications and publishers others regard as influential, significant or authoritative in a field of study, as opposed to say, what rises to the top of a Google query, a content aggregator’s database, or even our library’s discovery tool.
I really don’t care if we can retrieve 10,000 titles on “health administration” from our databases if we don’t have–or are incapable of making students aware of–the most significant, authoritative and relevant sources in their field of study.
Awareness of authorities and trends in a discipline defines a person as a professional. Libraries have a vital role to play in this aspect of a student’s professional education, but only if we are able to present selective, quality collections as such.
Through a well maintained collection, catalog and web presence, students and scholars benefit by seeing what is new and interesting in their field of study, because doing so inspires their own creativity, research, teaching, and the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge. The kind of disciplinary knowledge obtained through a good academic library collection is a very important part of an aspiring professional or scholar’s education; it should never be limited just to what is taught in classes, or prescribed by a curriculum.
The curriculum is the minimum requirement, not the upper limit, of what students can or should strive to learn when they attend an institution of higher education.
The library is a vital part of the education of our students. Apart from providing the student with disciplinary knowledge, including that which may fall outside of scope the courses taught at that particular college or university, the library allows students the opportunity to apply their newly obtained curricular knowledge in ways that are personally meaningful to them.
Librarians are increasingly asked by QA plans to define themselves, their roles and their collections narrowly, in terms of measurable targets of student impact, in terms of what they do (services), not in terms of what they have (collections), even though what many of us do, or believe we should be doing–in addition to helping students of course, is creating and sustaining an exceptionally good college and academic research library collection.
Most surprisingly, we are even prompted by our own professional standards to redefine ourselves in terms of “institutional, departmental and student affairs outcomes. . . . student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success” (ACRL, SLHE, 2011, 1.1-1.6)–the university’s business objectives, as opposed to something more idealistic and perhaps less demonstrable within the plan’s reporting period: support for independent learning, knowledge, scholarship and the intellectual life of the university campus.
So then, after rewriting our library mission statements to express alignment with institutional objectives, as ACRL SLHE suggests we do, it is still not clear how we are to develop the recommended metrics and performance indicators to demonstrate contributions to “student recruitment, retention, time to degree and academic success,” without fundamentally altering the library to become something which is not an academic library, but something more along the lines of a tutoring center.
You can’t embrace the mission, goals and objectives of departments outside the library and just assume this will be good for the library or its constituents, or the university as a whole.
It would have been preferable to me had ACRL also succeeded in making the “library” part of the library less expendable through its various publications and roadshows teaching librarians how to make a case for themselves.
I mentioned earlier a trend in the literature of library assessment of marginalizing the role and value of collections, or proclaiming them to be irrelevant to the success or quality of the library. Although we try to carve out new roles, in most instances, computer labs, tutoring, student affairs and online learning are handled by other entities on campus. The only thing that makes the library unique, relevant and effective to our users are our collections, our scholarly content, and the provision of support services related to these.
A number of articles in library literature discussing service-oriented assessment techniques for measuring quality also justify the services-only approach by arguing that libraries cannot continue to grow their collections, and therefore must focus on expanding services to justify their value.
Many of these articles use an epigram from Danuta A. Nitecki (“Changing the Concept and Measure of Service Quality in Academic Libraries.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3, 1996), “The measure of quality based solely on collections has become obsolete.” Danuta sets up a straw man to exaggerate service-orientation, for if you go back and read the article no librarian ever equated library quality with “size of holdings”–we all know better than to do that.
But the very idea that services can be completely disassociated from the collection and evaluated as autonomous business units presents us with a false dichotomy (collections v. services, having vs. doing). For one thing, there is interconnection between “library collections” and “library services” which cannot be glossed over.
Obviously, if your collection is inadequate, your users must resort to interlibrary loan for items which probably ought to be in your circulating collection. ILL service may be heavily used, responsive and popular with your patrons, but you are still providing users with poor service if they must resort to borrowing materials that should be in the library in the first place.
In information literacy classes, we teach students how to evaluate resources, with currency being a factor. A dated or poorly maintained collection reflects poorly on our own instructional objectives and professional competence.
The number of questions received at the service desk should not be confused with, or used to justify, the “value” of library services. A high number of questions relative to resource use are often signs of unresolved problems and poor customer service, not evidence of value.
Another motive for minimizing collections in favor of services within library quality assessment plans is the difficulty evaluating the impact of collections on students (in terms of measurable results which contribute to their “success”), whereas with library instruction, a some kind of test is possible to show that students 1. have attended, and 2. learned something. There is evidence of student impact. The emphasis now is to move away from passive support through resources to direct engagement with students to be able to better document how the library is directly contributing to student success.
However, student success is more often than not a euphemism describing the extent to which a student is progressing in his degree plan, not a measure of a student’s learning, extra- or co-curricular goals and activities, or his academic or professional growth outside of graded classwork. It is not a holistic view of the student, his success, or his education.
In reality, the library profession–and historically, our professional commitment to “access”–has always supported a more holistic view of students and their education than the college or university administration: Libraries and librarians help students achieve their educational, intellectual and personal goals. We help them achieve success on their terms. If they want to read a book, we try to get it for them. We do not judge and refuse service if we think it is not part of a class assignment. And this is a good thing for a university.
We can’t pretend to know what the future holds in terms of career opportunities for our students. Nurturing the passions and interests of our students may ultimately be what leads to their success in life–not necessarily their practical Nursing, Health Administration or Respiratory Therapy degrees.Perhaps they will prepare themselves in a career or a field of study not yet established. I recall a time when there were no degrees in Computer Science, and all programmers were self-taught through whatever books and resources were available.
We talk about promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. There is no better place to cultivate that spirit than the library, where there is real freedom to pursue individualized learning, knowledge and ideas.
The research library should not set as its highest objective “support for the curriculum”–the minimum needed for students to complete assignments–but should express as overarching commitment to disciplinary knowledge and academic achievement.
Now, many believe that the application of similar sorts of “quality assessment/quality management” techniques to K-12 education, with performance indicators, outcomes, standards, testing, tracking and recording for the sake of reporting back into a system, has not resulted in improved educational outcomes in the classroom, because the curriculum and methods of instruction have been changed in order to meet the requirements of the assessment tools.
Assessing the impact of the library through some kind of matrix or rubric, where the only thing of value is what can be measured (what many university assessment plans require), is an impossible task for a library, but external pressures for greater accountability will ultimately transform it to become a remedial support or learning center,rather than a place people enjoy visiting, where they see themselves and their interests affirmed, nurtured and supported though a library’s investment in books.
We say that “Libraries transform lives,” but proving that is another story. Libraries offer intangible goods, very much like knowledge and education–well, before education was redefined as a collection of discrete and measurable tasks tied to standardized test learning objectives so it could be “assessed.“
Yes, we have usage stats, but one never really knows the full impact of the library, its programs and its collections on users, especially on students. This is obviously a big and troubling problem for a library when it comes to evidence-based assessment methods. Here are some questions to ponder:
Some students may choose to attend schools with a larger or nicer library, but we will never know whether the size or quality of the library factored into student recruitment. Did they choose that school because it offered a better library?
Some people may be motivated to change majors or go on to graduate school, some may develop a passion few people outside the ivory tower think about–like medieval semiotics, or “Is there really a Catholic literature of the South?” But we will never know the role of the library in terms of nurturing this passion, contributing (or not) to student success or “retention.”
One day, in a school library, a biography of Hamilton crosses a student’s path; years later, a Broadway musical is born. All the library may have to show in its assessment plan was that on that day a book circulated.
We can’t assess the impact of a library without assessing the impact of the collection on users, a task on par with measuring the subtle gravitational waves from the Big Bang or something out of Chaos theory. Collecting data demonstrating the impact of the library’s collection on students, especially according to “measurable targets,” is difficult, perhaps impossible.
In fact, academic libraries have never been able to arrive at standardized measures and metrics to determine if a library is “good.” We simply benchmark ourselves against peer libraries, comparing their usage stats to ours, and try to figure out their secret sauce.
We must now demonstrate through evidence that we contribute to the business goals of the university through a Rube Goldberg Machine of Quality Assessment planning. When we hit upon just the right metrics and measures, it will be bound to attract enormous crowds at ALA conferences curious to see how it all works.
Library Assessment Plans are often a Rube Goldberg Machine
Let’s resist the temptation to teach to the test, to so eagerly re-establish the roles and priorities of the academic library and its librarians based only on what is achievable through evidence, performance indicators and outputs, and what can and cannot be measured within the context of what is, essentially, a business model–whose relevance to education, teaching, research and scholarship has never been proven, and has already been placed into question by many (citations forthcoming).
Let’s not adopt as our goals and objectives those of other departments and other entities within the university to create redundancy, in an effort to more closely “align ourselves with them,” as ACRL SLHE advises, without at least considering the impact this may have on the our own customers and constituents, considering whether we are meeting the needs of the scholarly community we serve.
And let’s not be fearful of mission statements that are bold and visionary, making reference to things that cannot be quantified, such as “knowledge” and “creativity.”
Let us begin with the premise that libraries are intangible goods, offering intangible benefits to our community of users, rather than starting out with a management principle that if it can’t be measured, counted or assessed, then it is not a worth pursuing or has little value.
Consider that many goals in life are worth striving for, even if they are widely held to be unachievable: objectivity, beauty, wisdom, insight, truth and knowledge, to name a few.
Without consideration for the aesthetic and subjective element, libraries become boring, prosaic and perfunctory, a collection of what will be sure to be utilized in the course of a semester (or whatever time period is determined by “the plan”)–a collection of Norton anthologies, textbooks, courseware, test prep study guides, and a standard set of online databases required for accreditation.
The pleasure of coming upon something new and unexpected but deeply meaningful to the user, the subjective human element to collections which defy a vendor’s institutional profile, or just sharing with a fellow reader, are what makes a good library good to present and future scholars.
Good library collections are (just a bit) gratuitous.The problem with managing the academic library strictly according to the numbers–similar to the problem of “teaching to the test” in education–is that the library will fail to be a good library if ALL it does is pursue and measure only tangible outcomes.
We can and should gather stats on usage and solicit input from our users, and yes, we should compare ourselves to peers to try to continuously improve, but we (and the professional organizations who represent us) should recognize and proclaim the fact that the library’s impact on students and scholars cannot be ever accurately measured, reduced to data points or KPIs, or translated to a dollar value that would ever justify our cost.
It is an intangible, but intangible does not make it inconsequential.
A university library that is well-managed, stimulating and up-to-date facilitates learning and helps students grow independently, as self-directed scholars. It inspires research, which brings prestige to the university. It is what makes the university a university. It also attracts students, especially graduate students. But try as we might, libraries cannot be concretely or tangibly mapped to higher enrollments, student achievement, increased retention, improved graduation rates, the focus of most university strategic or quality assessment plans.
The Library as a Place for Inspiration and Exploratory Discovery: An Aesthetic Philosophy of Librarianship Explained
The most frequent, positive, and meaningful experience of academic libraries is through the user’s experience of a content-rich environment (i.e., a “library”) where independent learning, discovery, exploration, knowledge creation, sense-making and insight are likely to occur.
Although some librarians prefer to rationalize, intellectualize and objectify their own practice or contribution in terms of information services–responding to reference questions or providing instruction–scholars and regular library users most often think about the library is personal discovery.
What people experience and value about academic libraries are primarily their own responses to a collection of works which they perceive to be relevant and interesting to them. Academic libraries are, in essence, collections of research that inspire research. If there is no discernible collection (but simply an aggregation of content) and it does not inspire people. It does not inspire research. It is human nature to care about what others care about, which is why curation adds value and intellectual interest to a library.
As much as some librarians may rationalize user behavior in terms of information-seeking and problem-solving–as if researchers are trying to be efficient, like mice running through a maze to get a piece of cheese–I believe that good libraries, those that people want to use, are inherently “aesthetic” in Kantian sense: if they are good libraries, they are places of insight, revelation, transcendence (time/place/culture) and self-discovery. If they are good libraries, people want to use them and are really in no hurry to get to the exit. It is the librarian’s duty to facilitate this experience called “scholarly research” or discovery, which is often deliberately inefficient and enjoyable to the person doing it–unless they must consult with a librarian to gain access to something they want, in which case they are already frustrated.
How John Leinhard (Engines of our Ingenuity, Episode No. 1089) describes the value of art museums applies just as well to how people experience a good library: They allow us to enter into a “liminal state” of mind where we are opened up to new ideas and possibilities:
We all live in need of ideas. We all have problems to solve. At some point, most of us realize that, when our problems need creative solutions, they cannot be attacked with purely methodical tools. Method takes us down familiar roads. Creativity means seeing the shrubbery-shrouded side roads that we ignore by habit.
The hardest thing in the world is to leave the highway and float above the land. Music, theater, sculpture — they all cut us loose from the road of method and common sense.
The so-called creative leap isn’t a leap in the dark — without antecedents or stimulus. Rather, it happens when we find a liminal state, on the very edge of awareness, where ideas arrive without order or hierarchy. In that mental world, cowpaths are as important as freeways. And one way to find that creative state is to give ourselves over to art.
Inside the museum, we lay aside our shopping lists of needs to be met. Art serves us when we leave our supermarket lives to wander the woods, eating the unexpected nuts, berries, and wild fruit.
The information model made popular twenty-five years ago, when library studies morphed into information science, was a very convenient but limited model of what a library is and should be.
According to that model, people come to the library to satisfy information needs–or get assistance fulfilling requirements for assignments–rather than seeking a kind of self-directed experience “wandering through the woods and tasting the unexpected berries.”
When taken literally, this pragmatic philosophy of librarianship–which defines patron motivation to satisfying some immediate need, and the role of the librarian to satisfying that need–has had repercussions in how libraries are managed, designed and funded today, such as a singular focus on doing while discounting the importance of having, e.g., the right titles, an exceptional collection, displayed in ways that are appealing to users.
No amount of “doing” on the part of librarians can compensate for not having, because “having” is a core function of a library.
Patrons don’t come to the library primarily for our services. That is merely a legitimizing myth of our profession. Even before the Internet, a time which I remember, people used the library without asking for assistance. They come for resources relevant to their interests, and to keep up with what’s new in their field of study.
It should be our mission as academic librarians to create that special place where people feel stimulated, inspired, supported, and encouraged to go beyond the curriculum to become whoever and whatever they want to be in life. Libraries help people realize their potential.
Even a small library with a small budget should strive to immerse students in a world of ideas.
One of the best academic library mission statements for a college library I have come across is this:
Today, if one conducted a national survey of ACRL mission statements, many would mention Information, Information Literacy and Information Services, “empowering students in the Information Age,” but few would mention collections or knowledge, more durable goods than the commodity of information.
Building Content-Rich Environments. Manyenrolled in academic programs today would rather browse for books on Amazon and Google Books than in the library catalog. They would rather search for articles and information on Google (and Google Scholar) than in the library’s electronic databases. Libraries must afford a better, more interesting, content-rich online browsing experience.
For starters, what if the library’s home page looked more like this, emphasizing our content:
and less like this, emphasizing the librarian and library services:
Make sites more about the content that our users might want or find appealing, less about us librarians and our services. Make it a site that appeals to scholars and scholarship.
Ideally, the library’s mission statement, and the goals and objectives stemming from it, should embrace strategies for actively acquiring and promoting resources, and for using technology to put materials before our users’ eyes, because that is an important part of what a library does–not providing access to materials if and when they are requested. We have an obligation to our users to maintain a library in anticipation of use, and to provide them with a quality collection.
At the college level, the library should expose students to core titles and authorities in their chosen field, to disciplinary knowledge, to key publications, not merely to information in the abstract.
By providing access to everything “on demand” but acquiring nothing, we are essentially abnegating our roles as librarians and as educators, and creating a bland environment that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor conducive to learning. Offering a quality collection is one of the most important ways librarians add value to their user communities.
Putting the Library back into Librarianship.
Librarians may not be able to compete with Google or Amazon, but there are things we can do to make our libraries a lot more appealing to our constituents:
Encourage browsing.Put books where users will see them. I believe that good libraries actively promote awareness of the significant titles in a discipline and knowledge of recent trends. This is a core function of libraries, not optional. You can’t sit back and subscribe to ebook Central and be done with it. Browsing the shelves and the online catalog of a good college library helps students learn about a particular discipline in ways that retrieving a random assortment of books documents in response to a query can’t.
Make the library stimulating to the senses and the intellect. Good libraries have never been merely a repository for books, any more than a museum is a repository of artifacts. Just as with museums, aesthetics is vital to our success–especially now that there are so many other places for users to find and access information. By aesthetics, I am not referring merely to the attractiveness of the walls or the furniture, but to the subjective user experience of the library as a whole, including how interesting, useful and significant the library collections are or appear to be when patrons walk through the doors or land on the library’s home page. By all means though, if your users like music, play music. Serve coffee. Make it smell good. Make the library a destination.
Stop treating all questions as “information requests.” If stats are up at the Reference desk merely because signs were taken down and never replaced, or because people can’t locate what they are looking for on the shelves (stacks and collection is not maintained), or don’t know where to go to search the catalog or how to search it when they get there, or because the printer is broken, well, it all may look very good on paper (we’re responding to all these questions!) but the reality may be something very different.
Stop using “Information Literacy” classes to compensate for poor user interfaces and antiquated systems. Rather than concentrating effort and energy on Information Literacy to teach students how to navigate our antiquated and unintuitive systems, we should be conducting usability studies of our website and library and working towards making them more user-friendly to begin with. No one needs a class to know how to search Amazon or Google. Why should the library’s website be any different?
READ. Turn your users on to new things they might like. Librarians should never stop reading, never stop growing. You are the voice of the collection: familiarize yourself with it! Read, recommend, reach out. Learn what your faculty might be interested in, keep them apprised of new publications in their discipline.
Invest in New User Interfaces. Libraries must start paying as much attention to the architecture of their websites as they do to the architecture of their buildings. 21st century libraries don’t have 20th century websites, static pages of text and hyperlinks. Our websites are often an ad hoc assemblage of various competing vendor-branded resources, platforms, interfaces, tools (e.g., SFX, “classic” catalog, LibGuides, “Literati by Credo Reference,” EBSCO Host, STATRef! and JSTOR ) and proprietary applications that don’t work well together, causing needless confusion among our users.
Focus on Content. Create libraries physical and virtual that are content rich environments, fun for patrons to explore.
Putting the Library back into Librarianship means offering intuitive, content-rich websites and facilities (“libraries”) that people actually enjoy coming to, to see what’s new in their areas of interest, or to learn more about a field of study or discipline.
Information Literacy and Instruction.A large study of California college library mission statements in 2006 “Thinking Boldly!”178 concluded that many library mission statements have replaced “building strong collections” with “teaching information literacy.”
Reference and other types of Public Service librarians have always taught students, and always performed instruction, formally in classes and informally at the desk. This is nothing new or innovative, except that over the years the name has changed from “Bibliographic Instruction” to “Information Literacy” to “Library Learning” and these days we sometimes teach people about the use and evaluation of Internet sources. However, never before has teaching received such intensive focus by our professional associations and literature.
Many Philosophies of Librarianship today place exclusive emphasis on teaching, specifically teaching Information Literacy.
This is a pretty typical PoL:
I acknowledge that libraries as an institution have a broader purpose, but in every library, librarians exist to teach people how to access and use information. Our role as educators and teachers is what makes us unique. In short, I see the heart and soul of libraries in information literacy.– Kim, “Our Philosophies of Librarianship,” In the Library With The Lead Pipe. Oct. 17, 2012. 179University libraries who can afford it are hiring “Information Literacy Librarians” and “First-year Experience Instruction Librarians” to teach Freshmen the basics of how to find, evaluate and use information.
The emphasis on Information Literacy in the library profession can be attributed to many things: more good information available on the Internet, sense that books are going away, the decline of Reference services, and even a shift in emphasis in running libraries and universities as businesses, or according to a business objective model, where the only thing that matters is what can be demonstrated to have had an impact on student achievement (student success as defined by the institution).
This sounds really good in principle, but we have no means of demonstrating the value and impact of our collections within this framework, because usage stats and circulation have never been able to be correlated with outcomes in any meaningful way. A business objective model is synonymous with undermining the value of the collection and everything the library stands for, independent learning, whose impact on student success cannot be meaningfully measured through this assessment model.
Librarians must be able to demonstrate their relevance to the university or college in light of assessment plans and a common perception that everything–at least, everything that their students might need to complete assignments–is online. Library directors are under pressure to demonstrate the library’s impact on students in terms of measurable results, which places more emphasis on instructional services.
What is most interesting to me is how now so many older librarians (since I am one, I can speak freely) express utter disdain toward the traditional library and print, arguing that it costs x amount of money to “warehouse” each title/year “just in case” someone needs it. This warehouse/repository straw man is often exaggerated to serve the purpose of ebook salesmen and people who have no use for books of any kind.
Once treated with a kind of reverence as works, books have now become dusty, unclean and obsolete, a whole lot of trouble to keep on the shelves, and not worth the expense. They say that online and on demand is what the library should be in the 21st century. Books are a thing of the past, with only 0-13% of the academic library budget now going to them.
One can easily anticipate a time in the near future when only the largest schools will afford their students with the rich intellectual experience of what we used to call a library:
while others will offer a web page with links to databases and be done with it.
Bookless libraries: progress or decline?
o one seems to have given much thought either to the visceral appeal, effectiveness or impact on student learning of a library without physical books, or more importantly, whether user experience of an online library provides comparable educational, motivational or psychological benefit to its users. We know that users often assign great personal meaning, often spiritual value, to their happenstance discoveries in the stacks, which they sometimes value more highly than what is retrieved systematically.
At this time, modern, very spacious minimalist libraries without physical books are in fashion, and those libraries that have books are drastically reducing their numbers and placing them on the periphery, into storage, or completely out of sight, making it more difficult for patrons to discover them, undermining the browsing experience, and reducing the learning and research opportunities which come about through browsing.
The University of Chicago’s Mansueto library, pictured below, stores books out of view (books are stored in an underground bunker, retrieved by robotic pages), a return to a time when the call number was actually used to call for the book.
The new Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. Books are stored in an underground bunker, retrieved through an automated system.
This is not an isolated case. “How to re-purpose empty or underutilized space in your library” (since collections are shrinking and books will be gone) could be the subtitle of most professional conferences on the 21st century library. Now that print books are going away, research libraries are resembling waiting areas, such as airports or hotel lobbies, or modern open concept workplaces.
At the Mansueto Library, which serves as the primary research library at the University of Chicago for students in the sciences and the humanities, there are no works on display to celebrate scholarship, to stimulate interest when users walk through the door, to encourage independent learning, or help students and faculty keep up with trends in their field.
From this traditional librarian’s perspective, the Mansueto presents intellectually sterile environment, the antithesis of what a good library should be. Honestly, wouldn’t you rather be here, in a beautiful space with the weight of tradition at your back, without all that sunlight glare on your laptop, and still have access to the same online databases?
Woodbury University Library, in Burbank, CA.”Dedicated to enriching the life of the community through the expansion of knowledge and creativity.” What a wonderful mission statement.
Unfortunately, the highly acclaimed multi-million dollar glass facility (nicknamed “the blister”) named after billionaire donor Joe Mansueto (the founder of the Morningstar news agency), is what many in our own profession also believe a modern library should be: rational, efficient, impersonal and technological, glass and steel.
It also symbolizes a logical trajectory of the library profession from a focus on works and collections created and maintained by and for people–humanistic values–to “information in the abstract.” While ideas and works transcend time and place, information (like news) is inherently transient and continuously updated, it has no lasting value, so there is no need to preserve it for the future.
It is also the embodiment of a philosophy of librarianship encouraged by the library profession over the last 25 years which:
regards information services and libraries as interchangeable
definesservicesnarrowly and in a reactionary way, merely responding to the information needs of students and faculty
stresses the function of librarians as existing apart from creating and maintaining exceptional academic and college libraries
fails to recognize that good libraries are conceptually much more about ideas and publications than information in the abstract.
After encountering so many philosophies of librarianship and academic library mission statements which offer nothing more than “teaching information literacy” and/or “providing information and resources to support the curriculum,” I realize I do have a philosophy of librarianship which has to do with my commitment to creating and maintaining an exceptionally good academic library.
y philosophy of librarianship began in 1987, about the time when library science graduate programs across the country were either closing down (most famous was the closure of the library program at Columbia University, which at the time of its decision proclaimed the MLS to be merely a vocational degree not worthy of being at a research institution), or else reinventing themselves as schools of Information Science–taking the “L-word” out of their names and course descriptions–and adding basic programming, SQL and DOS to the curriculum.
Over the years, “iSchools,” the new library schools, would continue to add more information theory and technical computing courses to the traditional library school curriculum, including object-oriented programming, data mining, data management, Information Retrieval, web development, “Ontologies and the Semantic Web,” digital asset management and health informatics, digitization and data visualization.But no matter how technical, relevant or cutting edge the MLIS curriculum, employers continued to associate the Master’s in Library and Information Science with traditional reference work, filing, or something anachronistic and entirely useless to the business enterprise.
After completing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science in 1990, I returned to graduate school and took courses in the burgeoning discipline of Information Science, and also MIS (Management Information Systems) in the School of Business. I returned again, this time to the community college, in the late 90’s and early 00’s to study computer programming, web development and database management, which were what my cohorts in iSchools were learning. I was already programming in Perl and managed large library systems running on top of Unix.
When I first enrolled in Library School in 1987, my interests were traditional: rare books and manuscripts (RBMS), along with antiquarian prints, Reformation history, Christian Humanism, medieval scholasticism, Neo-Latin, 18th century philosophy, 19th century Romanticism, English literature, art and art history, illustrated books, history of printing, descriptive bibliography and cataloging.
In the late 1980’s and early 90’s I’d already studied a few years of Latin and Ancient Greek, was in graduate school, and was a part-time book scout for used and out-of-print book dealers. I subscribed to AB Bookman and tried to fulfill requests. I scoured library book and estate sales. I liked to see what books were in demand. I had been following the book and print market for a long time (an interest which began when my father took me an occult book store in New York City called Samuel Weiser’s), and was eagerly attending antiquarian book shows in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco when I could. Of course, I collected books. Any new city I visited, I looked forward to visiting the used and out-of-print bookstores. I loved Lexington Avenue in Chicago and visiting the Graham Arader galleries (always enjoyed visiting the one in Houston).
In the 80’s, the art market was booming, and with it, demand for antiquarian books and prints. I loved the library, prints and printing, and most of all, the intellectual history that went along with them.
I went on to study more Latin at the graduate level and eventually migrated over to Medieval and Reformation History, thinking I could put my Latin to use. I gravitated to Church history, medieval scholasticism and philosophy. I often hung out with seminary students whom I met in Classics Departments who wondered if they had a calling, which was pretty fascinating. I questioned “what if” I had been male, would I have made different choices. I loved anything British and Classical (reading the Classics and Middle Ages through the eyes of Victorian scholars). I discovered at big state schools that my academic interests were, by most people’s standards, “conservative”; but I was not actually aware of that until I was confronted with “Herstory,” and what passed as “critical” theory. I did not want to set out to blur the distinction between the sacred and the profane. I didn’t care to study anorexic saints or Lesbian nuns. It isn’t that I was religious or dogmatic, but I wanted to pursue truth, or at least something I could believe in, not someone’s political agenda.
Not wanting to learn how to “subvert patriarchy” or divine women’s voices from the language of male denigration and misogyny–the focus of graduate seminars in Medieval History. English Departments were preoccupied with feminism, deconstruction and post-structuralism, not literature, or explaining why something was good. I decided to invest my time and resources into a library degree with a focus on Special Collections and Library Automation, mainly with the idea of becoming a Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections, or something where I could work with Latin and primary sources, and perhaps, over time, defend the historical record that others seemed to be working so hard to subvert.
Librarianship for me and many other academic dropouts may have been a career of last resort, but it just seemed like a more intellectually honest profession and better aligned with my scholarly interests, and I was always in the rare book room anyway, where as far as I was concerned, much of the real scholarship in the Humanities was being done.
In Library School at the end of the 80s, I took my “Introduction to Information Services” class where we were discussing the role of libraries in society and their importance for delivering quality information to people. Libraries schools back then were keenly interested in re-defining traditional library work in terms of information access and delivery. Whatever the type of library, we were taught that the output of library services, whether public, academic or corporate, was information. Most librarians accept this as a plank of MLIS program, for it is a bridge that connects librarianship with something theoretical, relevant and modern.
It was troubling to me at the time that the fundamental logic, or philosophy, of library services at seemed to hang on a self-validating, circular premise:
People go to the library to get information, to satisfy an information need–even if the need may not ever be fully or consciously realized by the library user.
The rational was that if people come to the library, they have must an “information need,” even if it was unconscious. According to my instructor, it was up to the librarian to translate their ill-defined, poorly articulated, and unconscious information needs into questions that could be answered quickly and efficiently using the library’s resources, which constituted a reference transaction.
As a life-long user of libraries myself, I was never comfortable with this anti-intellectual and inaccurate assessment of libraries or its users.
Because here’s the thing:
If the library is a good one, people are motivated to come to it, not simply to obtain information in response to a question or an information need.
If the library is a good one, people come to be stimulated (and to stimulate their own creativity), to explore possibilities, and to stay connected with scholarship, and even to have the opportunity to discover new things, very often inefficiently and serendipitously, by the act of browsing.
If the library is a good one, people will enjoy browsing and seeing what’s new in areas that interest them.
If the library is a good one, books and journals are placed before the user in a way that is immediate, aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally gratifying.
But only if the library is a good one.
Good libraries are not, fundamentally, about getting information the answers to pre-formed questions, but about stimulating new questions, raising new possibilities, and presenting new ideasto the user.
Libraries should invite its users to explore and to grow.
Library assessment models based on the transactional service model does not capture the way academics, educated people and life-long learners actually use libraries, that is,not to find answers to pre-defined questions, but to stimulate scholarly activity and their own creativity.
If the college or university library fails to deliver that kind of experience to its users, it fails as a library–regardless of how many Info Lit classes are being taught, for example, how much relevant information can be pulled out of databases in a response to a question, or how many transactions there are at the service desk.
Unfortunately, what passes as libraries today may meet accreditation requirements, provide abundant access to information on virtually any topic, provide ample resources to complete assignments–but if this is ALL they do, they will fail to inspire a culture of learning across a college campus.
The Importance of the Library as Place (and its Website as a Destination)
My philosophy of librarianship is to maintain a special place, a “library,” where people are delighted and inspired by what they find there.
I believe that outside of a corporate setting, the physicality of the library is still important, because done right, it is affirming to individuals, and especially to students who may be struggling to get through school, and to seasoned researchers who may feel that no one cares about their passionate concerns in life except for the handful of scholars working in their same area. The academic library represents an ideal. It is the sanctum sanctorum which needs to exist apart from the mundane world.
It is sanctuary of intellectual and artistic endeavor, and it keeps students from becoming overly distracted by the mundane world–which too often tells students that what they are doing (pursuing that degree) is a waste of time and money, that they should be out there making money, pursuing short-term goals offering more immediate rewards. The physicality, permanence, commitment and material expense of books in collections, including the prominent space they occupy within the building, signifies respect (dignitas) for works so much more than anything conjured up out of a database in response to a user’s query. It signifies that other peoplecare about academic pursuits. The illusion of permanence of a collection often forms an intellectual anchor into reality.
Good libraries improve retention and encourage academic success. At my institution, I am amazed and impressed that students burdened with multiple jobs and small children and financial hardship and limited support systems, along with limited job prospects and mounting debt, can stay positive and focused on their studies.
I do not think administrators fully grasp the ameliorating effect that this glorified study hall of books, a palace to scholarship, a place unlike an office space or any other building “in the real world,” can have on students, particularly on at risk and disadvantaged students. The traditional library reinforces the values which keep students in school. It shows respect for students and for the scholarly enterprise.
Far from being an anachronism, the library symbolizes in a tangible way opportunity and possibility and a better life. It also helps them connect with someone associated with the university when everyone else on campus has gone home (It’s 3am during finals week, but we’ve left the light on for you. . .).
The library not only allows people to connect with others in their field of study, past and present, but it affirms the value of scholarship: people wrote the books, people published them, people selected them and continue to care for them, each step along the way conferring value on the work in the same way a frame and layers of matting confers value and importance to a work of art.
Well-furnished libraries, with collections that appear to be grown and maintained by others with care, confer value, respect and dignity upon the academic endeavor and the people who were and are part of that process.
Bad libraries, on the other hand, convey that academic studies are a waste of time and money. Stacks full of dated materials, no books or new books, overly restrictive circulation policies, limited seating areas, empty and underutilized space, negative signage, broken computers and equipment never repaired, an ineffective and poorly maintained website, run-down facilities, “dead zones” and all other signs of benign neglect, serve to reinforce a student’s and faculty member’s sense of ambivalence and low self-worth as scholars.
While good libraries function as a hub or commons, reinforcing academic interests and pursuits and stimulating new research, mediocre libraries feel stagnant and lifeless, and drive students away–not just from the library, but from the university.
The library is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the academic quality of the institution.
Good Libraries offer meaningful collections. A second tenant of my philosophy of librarianship is that library services are not primarily about providing access to information, but rather about providing access to good collections (knowledge) built with deliberation and care (these collections can be physical or virtual or a logical combination of the two).
Our users experience and judge the quality of the library by its collections, not by the discrete bits of information which can be pulled out of the chapter of an ebook or journal article on demand in response to a question. They judge it by whether the library has in its collections the key titles in their field of research, and if the library stays on top of scholarly trends in their field.
Above all else, libraries should be interesting places. Do patrons see titles of new books and on the covers of journals which stimulate curiosity and interest? Does the library provide services to make it easy for scholars to keep up with issues and ideas? Is the library a stimulating place for users to browse?
So long as librarians continue to espouse an impoverished model of librarianship–where what we have to offer is “access on demand” to various “information resources”–or about some sort of customer service / collaboration facilitator–a library’s value to a school will continue to be put into question.
Soon libraries will be entirely virtualized and outsourced to our discovery vendors, who will also be quite willing to provide our students with unlimited access to information, 24/7 chat, and Information Literacy courses on demand.
Libraries are about creating and maintaining unique content-rich learning environments, both in person and online, where people can expect to experience “library goodness.”
Kolowich, Steve. “Bookless Libraries? Technology leaders and librarians consider how the digital age changes the physical space and role of one of higher education’s oldest institutions.” Inside Higher Ed. Nov. 6, 2009. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/11/06/library. ↩
Abadi, Mark. “A Major US College Is Moving Almost All of Its Library Books off Campus, and It Represents a Major Change in How Young People Learn.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 18 Jan. 2019, www.businessinsider.com/georgia-tech-library-books-2019-1. ↩
Prensky, Marc. “In the 21st-Century University, Let’s Ban (Paper) Books.” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 13, 2011 ↩
Kelly Marie Wilson, R. Hooper, J. Simpson and J. Slay, “Comparing Print and eBook Usage to Meet Patron Needs,” Collection Management, 46:2, 2021, 91-106, DOI: 10.1080/01462679.2020.1833802 https://doi.org/10.1080/01462679.2020.1833802 ↩
I owe the idea of using the term “brand” in the context of booklessness to a blog post by Christian Laursen, “Why Do they Come? Library as a Place and Brand. The Library Lab: Libraries, Leaning and Lego. https://christianlauersen.net/2017/10/17/why-do-they-come/ ↩
Scherlen, Allan & Alex D. McAllister, “Voices Versus Visions: A Commentary on Academic Library Collections and New Directions,” Collection Management, 44:2-4, 2019, 389-395, DOI: 10.1080/01462679.2018.1547999 ↩
Badke, William B. “Questia.com: Implications of the New McLibrary.” Internet Reference Services Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000, pp. 61–71, doi:10.1300/J136v05n03_09. ↩
Bell, Steven J. “Electronic Libraries Can’t Be Academic.” The Chronicle of higher education 52.6 (2005): B.14– https://www.chronicle.com/article/electronic-libraries-cant-be-academic/ ↩
Stewart, Christopher. The Academic Library Building in the Digital Age: A Study of New Library Construction and Planning, Design, and use of New Library Space, University of Pennsylvania, Ann Arbor, 2009. ProQuest, http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=https://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2084/docview/304980905?accountid=7093. ↩
“Standards for Libraries in Higher Education,” American Library Association, August 29, 2006. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries ↩
Wong, Alia. “College Students Just Want Normal Libraries.” The Atlantic. Oct. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/10/college-students-dont-want-fancy-libraries/599455/↩
McClellan, E. Fletcher. “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Three Decades of Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education,” PS–Political Science & Politics, 2016, p. 88, doi:10.1017/S1049096515001298.↩
Closed robotic storage and retrieval systems have been built at the University of Chicago, North Carolina State University, University of Missouri Kansas City, Georgia Southern University and most recently at the University of Central Florida. ↩
Prensky, Marc. “In the 21st-Century University, Let’s Ban (Paper) Books.”Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 13, 2011 ↩
Daniel, Katherine, et al. “Library Acquisition Patterns.” Ithaka S+R. Ithaka S+R. 29 January 2019. Web. 8 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310937 ↩
Allan Scherlen & Alex D. McAllister (2019) “Voices Versus Visions: A Commentary on Academic Library Collections and New Directions,” Collection Management, 44:2-4, 389-395, DOI: 10.1080/01462679.2018.1547999 ↩
The concept of library goodness goes back to a landmark article by R. H. Orr, “Measuring the goodness of library services: A general framework for considering quantitative measures.” Journal of Documentation, 29(3), 1973, 315-332. ↩
“Standards for Libraries in Higher Education”, American Library Association, August 29, 2006. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries↩
Nelson, William Neal, et.al. “A Library Compliance Strategy for Regional Accreditation Standards: Using ACRL Higher Education Standards with NEASC Standards.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, March 2012, pp. 46-79, https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2011.624941↩
Nelson, William Neal, et.al. “A Library Compliance Strategy for Regional Accreditation Standards: Using ACRL Higher Education Standards with NEASC Standards.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, March 2012, pp. 46-79, https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2011.624941↩
Walters, William H. “E-books in Academic Libraries: Challenges for Discovery and Access,” Serials Review, 39:2, 2013, 97-104, DOI: 10.1080/00987913.2013.10765501 ↩
Scherlen, Allan & Alex D. McAllister, “Voices Versus Visions: A Commentary on Academic Library Collections and New Directions,” Collection Management, 44:2-4, 2019, 389-395, DOI: 10.1080/01462679.2018.1547999 ↩
Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), p. 212. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211↩
On the subject of bookless libraries and learning labs in Denmark, I have enjoyed Christian Lauersen’s blog, The Library Lab: Libraries, Leaning and Lego, especially “Is a Library Without Books Still a Library?” and “Why do they come?” https://christianlauersen.net/2017/07/07/is-a-library-without-books-still-a-library/ ↩
Association of College and Research Libraries. “Connect, Collaborate, and Communicate: A Report from the Value of Academic Libraries Summits.” Prepared by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012, p. 16. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/value/val_summit.pdf ↩
Lynema, Emily, et. al. “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources.” Library Trends, 2012, Vol.61 (1), p.218-233. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34605/61.1.lynema.pdf?sequence=2 ↩
Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), pp. 211–215. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211↩
Schmidt, Janine Developing a Library Collection Today: Revisiting “Collection Evaluation, the Conspectus and Chimeras in Library Cooperation,” Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47:4, 2016, 190-195, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1250598 ↩
McClellan, E. Fletcher. “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Three Decades of Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education,” PS–Political Science & Politics, 2016, p. 88, doi:10.1017/S1049096515001298.↩
Dugan, Robert E., and Peter Hernon. “Outcomes Assessment: Not Synonymous with Inputs and Outputs.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 28.6 (2002): 376-380; also Peggy Johnson. Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management. Vol. Fourth edition, ALA Editions, 2018, p. 284↩
See my section Legitimation ff., and also ACRL SLHE, Introduction, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries ↩
See my section Legitimation ff., and also ACRL SLHE, Introduction, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/standardslibraries ↩
John T. Gantt & J. Randal Woodland, “Libraries in Second Life: Linking Collections, Clients, and Communities in a Virtual World,” Journal of Web Librarianship, 7:2, 2013. 123-141, DOI: 10.1080/19322909.2013.780883. ↩
Press release for Texas State University’s virtual campus launched in 2009 https://www.txstate.edu/news/news_releases/news_archive/2009/04/SecondLife042909.html ↩
Schultz, Author Ryan. “The Rise and Fall of Library Use of Second Life: What Happened to All the Libraries That Used to Be in Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds?” Ryan Schultz, 13 Oct. 2018, ryanschultz.com/2018/08/13/the-rise-and-fall-of-library-use-of-second-life-what-happened-to-all-the-libraries-that-used-to-be-in-second-life-and-other-virtual-worlds. ↩
Dougherty, William C. ” Virtualization and Libraries: The Future is Now (or Virtualization: Whither Libraries or Libraries Wither?)” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35: 3, 2009, pp. 274-276, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2009.03.006. ↩
Cook, Matt. “Virtual Serendipity: Preserving Embodied Browsing Activity in the 21st Century Research Library,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44: 1, 2018, pp. 145-149, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2017.09.003. ↩
Cook, Matt.“Virtual Serendipity: Preserving Embodied Browsing Activity in the 21st Century Research Library,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44: 1, 2018, pp. 145-149, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2017.09.003. ↩
Cook, Matt. ” Virtual Serendipity: Preserving Embodied Browsing Activity in the 21st Century Research Library,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44: 1, 2018, p. 146, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2017.09.003. ↩
Cook, Matt. “Virtual Serendipity: Preserving Embodied Browsing Activity in the 21st Century Research Library,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44: 1, 2018, p. 149, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2009.03.006. ↩
This is a reference to a story called “The Star Thrower.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_Thrower ↩
Schmidt, Janine Developing a Library Collection Today: Revisiting “Collection Evaluation, the Conspectus and Chimeras in Library Cooperation,” Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47:4, 2016, 190-195, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1250598 ↩
I am mainly thinking of Alma Primo and OCLC WMS, but Marshall Breeding confirmed in an email that no academic library system he knows of supports ebook browsing. ↩
Peggy Johnson. Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management. Vol. Fourth edition, ALA Editions, 2018, p. 290. ↩
Chan, Lois Mai. Cataloging and Classification: An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2007, pp. 309-310. Chan states that “In addition to shelving and display, classification is used as a tool for collection management, e.g., facilitating the creation of a specialized branch libraries and the generation of discipline-specific holdings lists. In online public access catalogs (OPACS), classification also serves a direct retrieval function because class numbers can be used as access points to MARC records.” Chan also mentions that seven functions of classification in libraries, identified by ALCTS, as location, browsing, hierarchical movement, retrieval, identification, limiting/ partitioning and profiling. ↩
Frederick, Donna E. Managing Ebook Metadata in Academic Libraries : Taming the Tiger. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Chandos Publishing, 2017. ↩
E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf ↩
LOC E-books CIP Program, https://www.loc.gov/publish/cip/ebooks/ ↩
Email correspondence with Janis Young, Senior Cataloging Policy Specialist at the Library of Congress, 9/1/20. ↩
Burton Fiona and Kattau, Maureen. “Building in the ‘e’: creating the virtual bookshelf.” VALA2012 proceedings, Melbourne, Feb. 16, 2012, p. 3 https://research-management.mq.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/17160948/mq-17841-Publisher+version+%28open+access%29.pdf. ↩
Burton Fiona and Kattau, Maureen. “Building in the ‘e’: creating the virtual bookshelf.” VALA2012 proceedings, Melbourne, Feb. 16, 2012, p. 3 https://research-management.mq.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/17160948/mq-17841-Publisher+version+%28open+access%29.pdf. ↩
Johnson, Michael and Traill, Stacie. “Classify All the Things: Enhancing LC Classification Data for Better Collection Assessment and Management”. In: ELUNA 2018 Annual Meeting, May 1-4, 2018, Spokane, Washington. ↩
Lynema, Emily, et. al. “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources.” Library Trends, 2012, Vol.61 (1), p.218-233. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34605/61.1.lynema.pdf?sequence=2↩
Databases must be configured to sort by LC classification rather than alphanumerically but this is not a big deal. Our systems do have the ability to generate a shelf list of print books by call number, but not ebooks, because they lack local call numbers; and the alternative field which has the Library of Congress classification number has not been configured for LC classification searching and sorting. ↩
Johnson, Michael and Traill, Stacie. “Classify All the Things: Enhancing LC Classification Data for Better Collection Assessment and Management”. In: ELUNA 2018 Annual Meeting, May 1-4, 2018, Spokane, Washington. ↩
Burton Fiona and Kattau, Maureen. “Building in the ‘e’: creating the virtual bookshelf.” VALA2012 proceedings, Melbourne, Feb. 16, 2012, p. 9 https://research-management.mq.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/17160948/mq-17841-Publisher+version+%28open+access%29.pdf. ↩
Wilders, Coen. “Predicting the Role of Library Bookshelves in 2025.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 43, Sept. 2017, pp. 384–391. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2017.06.019. ↩
Schmidt, Janine Developing a Library Collection Today: Revisiting “Collection Evaluation, the Conspectus and Chimeras in Library Cooperation,” Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47:4, 2016, 190-195, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1250598 ↩
Coleman, Jim. “The RLG Conspectus. A History of Its Development and Influence and a Prognosis for Its Future.” The Acquisitions Librarian. Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 25-43. ↩
According to Peggy Johnson, Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management, a conspectus is a “comprehensive collection analysis tool intended to provide a summary of collecting intensities arranged by subjects, classification scheme, or a combination of both. The Conspectus is a subject hierarchy, arranged into divisions that are divided into categories, which are, in turn, divided into subjects. Subjects provided the greatest detail.” p. 292. She omits a critical part, that is based on the Library of Congress Classification, and second, that Collection Mapping is part of a Conspectus. I have used a modification of the WLN Conspectus to benchmark collection development for a large digital library. ↩
Karen Harker, Janette Klein, and Laurel Crawford, “Multiplying by Division: Mapping the Collection at University of North Texas Libraries” (2015). Proceedings of the Charleston Library Conference. http://dx.doi.org/10.5703/1288284316279 ; Harker, Karen; Klein, Janette & Crawford, Laurel. Multiplying by Division: Mapping the Collection at University of North Texas Libraries, presentation, August 7, 2015; (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc802011/: accessed November 23, 2020), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu ↩
Johnson, Michael and Traill, Stacie. “Classify All the Things: Enhancing LC Classification Data for Better Collection Assessment and Management”. In: ELUNA 2018 Annual Meeting, May 1-4, 2018, Spokane, Washington. ↩
E-book Bibliographic Metadata Requirements in the Sale, Publication, Discovery, Delivery, and Preservation Supply Chain A Recommended Practice of the National Information Standards Organization, NISO RP-29-202X, Available for Public Comment: June 18-August 2, 2020, https://groups.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/23850/NISO_RP-29-202X_E-Book_Metadata_Draft_for_Public_Comment.pdf. ↩
Johnson, Michael and Traill, Stacie. “Classify All the Things: Enhancing LC Classification Data for Better Collection Assessment and Management”. In: ELUNA 2018 Annual Meeting, May 1-4, 2018, Spokane, Washington. ↩
Bailey, Timothy P., Amanda L. Scott, and Rickey D. Best. “Cost Differentials between E-Books and Print in Academic Libraries.” College & Research Libraries. Jan. 2015, p. 8. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16398/17844 ↩
Nitecki, Danuta A. “Space Assessment as a Venue for Defining the Academic Library.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 81, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657446. ↩
The concept of library goodness goes back to a landmark article by R. H. Orr, Measuring the goodness of library services: A general framework for considering quantitative measures. Journal of Documentation, 29(3), 315-332. ↩
Lynema, Emily, et. al., “Virtual Browse: Designing User-Oriented Services for Discovery of Related Resources,” Library Trends, vol. 61, no. 1, 2012, p. 218-233https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/34605/61.1.lynema.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y ↩
Since the 1970s, the Library of Congress has provided publishers and librarians with free cataloging for all print books prior to publication. These records include an LCCN call number and typically three LC subject headings. They will do this for ebooks only if there is a print equivalent. https://www.loc.gov/publish/cip/ebooks/ ↩
Reference to the popular book, Thornburg, David. From the Campfire to the Holodeck : Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/tsu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1426516, p. x ↩
Nitecki, Danuta A. “Space Assessment as a Venue for Defining the Academic Library.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 81, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657446. ↩
Stewart, Christopher. The Academic Library Building in the Digital Age: A Study of New Library Construction and Planning, Design, and use of New Library Space, University of Pennsylvania, Ann Arbor, 2009. ProQuest, http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=https://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2084/docview/304980905?accountid=7093. ↩
Morris, Keiko. “How Stairways Promote Collaboration-as Well as Having a Walk-On Role.” Wall Street Journal Online. 13 May 2015, www.wsj.com/articles/office-stairs-with-more-than-a-walk-on-role-1431511202. Accessed 19 Mar. 2020.↩
Cohen, Dan. “The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 28 May 2019, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/05/college-students-arent-checking-out-books/590305/. ↩
Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), pp. 211–215. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211↩
Sanborn, Lura. “Bookless library? I raise you the building.” eContent Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, p. 6+ Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1490685978?accountid=7093 ↩
Reference to the popular book, Thornburg, David. From the Campfire to the Holodeck : Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/tsu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1426516, p. x ↩
Moss, Michael. “The Library in the Digital Age.” Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Profession, edited by David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands. London, Facet Publishing, 2008, pp. 72-3 ↩
Nitecki, Danuta A. “Space Assessment as a Venue for Defining the Academic Library.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 81, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657446. ↩
Daniel, Katherine, et al. “Library Acquisition Patterns.” Ithaka S+R. Ithaka S+R. 29 January 2019. Web. 8 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310937 ↩
Nitecki, Danuta A. “Space Assessment as a Venue for Defining the Academic Library.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 81, no. 1, 2011, pp. 27–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657446. ↩
Dowdy, Clare. “Culture – Nine Stunning Contemporary Libraries.” BBC, BBC, 20 Mar. 2019, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190305-nine-stunning-contemporary-libraries. ↩
For example, in October 2015, the President of the American Library Association said as the opening statement of her editorial in American Libraries, “At ALA, we know that the future relevance of libraries and library professionals will depend on what we do for people rather than what we have for people.” Feldman, Sari. “The Future of the MLIS.” American Libraries, Nov.-Dec. 2015, p. 5 ↩
Anderson, R. (2011). Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials: The Journal of the Serials Community, 24(3), 211–215. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211↩
A good library collection in this context does not necessarily entail ownership, persistence, or format, but rather that items are deliberately selected based on their value according to objective criteria which would allow for transparency, predictability and consistency.
What this means is that users should have a pretty good feel for what items are and will be included in the collection based on the other items that are there, and librarians should be knowledgeable about the collection, not just know how to summon relevant resources forth from databases when called upon to do so. Collections present users with knowledge of the publication activity and authorities in their discipline. Good library collections have an intentional feel to them: they are not ad hoc accumulations of materials, or passive aggregations of academic content. ↩
Anderson, R., 2011. Collections 2021: the future of the library collection is not a collection. Serials, 24(3), pp. 211–215. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/24211↩
Sanborn, Lura. “Bookless library? I raise you the building.” eContent Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, p. 6+ Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1490685978?accountid=7093 ↩
Daniel, Katherine, et al. “Library Acquisition Patterns.” Ithaka S+R. Ithaka S+R. 29 January 2019. Web. 8 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310937 ↩
Wilders, Coen. “Predicting the Role of Library Bookshelves in 2025.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 43, Sept. 2017, pp. 384–391. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2017.06.019. ↩
There are several studies comparing usage of DDA with library selected materials, but I am not really referring to that so much. This is a very impressive study, though: Walker, Kevin W. and Michael A. Arthur. “Judging the Need for and Value of DDA in an Academic Research Library Setting.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, JAI, 31 July 2018, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0099133318301745. In there, effort is made to evaluate DDA vs. traditionally selected titles based on a number of criteria, and the conclusion is that DDA titles provide greater ROI than traditionally selected titles; however, one question I have is whether the faculty and graduate students who once collaborated with librarians on acquisitions are utilizing DDA instead. ↩
Sullivan, “Rebecca M. Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries,” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 2010, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608, p. 135 “. . . innovative partnerships” such as “writing and academic support centers, teaching and learning centers, disability coordinators, diversity centers, service learning initiatives, undergraduate advising programs, and digital centers.” ↩
Ellis, Lindsay. “Texas University Libraries Renovate to Keep Student Interest.” HoustonChronicle.com, Houston Chronicle, 13 Jan. 2018, www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Texas-university-libraries-renovate-to-keep-12462643.php ↩
Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, Anat Keinan, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 44, Issue 1, June 2017, Pages 118–138, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw076↩
Crain, Caleb. “Twilight of the Books.” The New Yorker, 16 December 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/twilight-of-the-books ↩
See Sullivan, Rebecca M. “Common Knowledge: Learning Spaces in Academic Libraries,” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 17:2-3, 2010, 130-148, DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2010.481608 ↩
Sanborn, Lura. “Bookless library? I raise you the building.” eContent Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, p. 6+ Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1490685978?accountid=7093↩
I quoted from the pdf, but it originally appeared here in print: Courant, Paul N. and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen, “On the Cost of Keeping a Book”, The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship. CLIR Pub#147. June 2010, p. 102 ↩
an assumption or speculation that is reported and repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. ↩
Barr, Catherine, and Karen Adams. Bowker annual library and book trade almanac. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2016. 360. Print. ↩
Lately, vendors of Library Management Systems have been concentrating on improving back-end functionality, workflows and analytics more so than enhancing the front-end user search experience, which has been hampered by inconsistent metadata and API restrictions by publishers. Publishers have more financial incentive to work with Amazon than they do with library vendors. ↩
The idea of the “Grand Narrative” was introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which he critiqued all forms of institutional and ideological forms of knowledge. Social scientists have used this concept to refer to an underlying ideological belief which provides societal legitimization to certain forms of knowledge over others. Historically, the value of libraries was tied to larger legitimizing values—for example, democracy (the need for an informed citizenry), or a European model of higher education where students are expected to function as independent scholars and investigators, taking greater responsibility for their own education (therefore needing access to a research library) as they move up the ladder of higher education, rather than continuing along as passive consumers of instruction. ↩
According to Welsh and Metcalf, “The term ‘institutional effectiveness,’ promulgated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is interchangeable with a number of monikers for continuous improvement processes, such as ‘quality assurance’ and ‘quality enhancement.’ The specific initiatives included under these rubrics typically encompass activities such as student outcomes assessment, academic program review, strategic planning, performance scorecards, performance bench-marking, and quality measurement, each of which has numerous manifestations in academia. Despite variations in terminology, colleges and universities accredited by any one of the six regional accrediting agencies must demonstrate that they have designed and implemented acceptable processes of institutional effectiveness.” Welsh, John F., and Jeff Metcalf. “Faculty and Administrative Support for Institutional Effectiveness Activities: A Bridge across the Chasm?” The Journal of Higher Education 74.4 (2003): 445-68. Web. ↩
Lindauer, B. G. “Defining and Measuring the Library’s Impact on Campuswide Outcomes.” College & Research Libraries, 59(6), 1998, 546-570. ↩
ACRL SLHE, Section 1.1 says: The library defines and measures outcomes in the context of institutional mission. 1.2 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with institutional, departmental, and student affairs outcomes. 1.3 The library develops outcomes that are aligned with accreditation guidelines for the institution. 1.4 The library develops and maintains a body of evidence that demonstrates its impact in convincing ways. 1.5 The library articulates how it contributes to student learning, collects evidence, documents successes, shares results, and makes improvements. 1.6 The library contributes to student recruitment, retention, time to degree, and academic success. 1.7 The library communicates with the campus community to highlight its value in the educational mission and in institutional effectiveness. ↩
Hernon, Peter, and Robert E. Dugan. Outcomes Assessment in Your Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002, p. 11 ↩
LRCs provide remedial tutoring, curriculum resources (textbooks, study guides, and sufficient resources for student research papers), instructional media, collaborative study spaces, and computers. Their purpose is to assist students with the completion of course assignments and the mastery of specific concepts and skills–the achievement of “student learning objectives” tied to the curriculum. They are often associated with remedial, vocational and technical training, or the first year experience. See for example, Notre Dame’s LRC: http://firstyear.nd.edu/fys-resources/the-learning-resource-center/.Compared to libraries, it is much easier for LRCs to demonstrate student “impact” with a lot less overhead. Although both libraries and LRCs provide resources to students, they have very different missions. Cost effectiveness and close alignment with institutional objectives are reasons why LRCs are encroaching upon, or altogether replacing, the academic research library at schools which serve large populations of academically unprepared students. ↩
Berg, Maggie, and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2016. Print. ↩
Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2011. Print. ↩
Gerber, Larry G. The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University. Baltimore: John Hopkins U Press, 2014. Print. ↩
From https://notnumber.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/a-definition-of-managerialism/ ↩
The ACRL standards committee was guided by the idea that if we adopted the roles and missions of the institution and other business units, it would serve to “advancing and sustaining their role as partners in educating students.” ↩
For three years, my university experimented with incorporating formal information literacy instruction into the freshman experience, including the administration of pre- and post SAILs tests; but the impact of these efforts could not be correlated to improved completion rates or higher GPAs. It was my observation that showing students how to use the library’s catalog and electronic databases–“library instruction”–was more impactful than the prescribed information literacy curriculum, which exposed students to the concept of Boolean searching, broadening and narrowing topics, using concept maps, avoiding plagiarism, and evaluating information sources found on the Internet. Demonstrating how to use the library to conduct research using our electronic databases was the primary thing students and faculty wanted. ↩
Sarah M. Pritchard, “Determining Quality in Academic Libraries.” Library Trends, 44.3 (1996), 573 ↩
Libraries are advised to rewrite their mission statements to reflect and conform with the mission statements of their parent institutions, and set goals accordingly. ↩
Rowena Cullen, “Measure for measure: a post-modern critique of performance measurement in libraries and information services.” Proceedings of the IATUL Conferences. Paper 10. http://doc s.lib.purdue.edu/iatul/1998/papers/10 ↩
Crawford, Gregory A. Developing a Measure of Library Goodness. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 11:3 (2016): 117, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/23875 ↩
SACS, the accrediting agency for many southern colleges and schools, pioneered these techniques, and also developed more rigorous assessment and rule-based approaches than other institutional accrediting bodies. See Welsh and Metcalf. ↩
Dugan, Robert E., and Peter Hernon. “Outcomes Assessment: Not Synonymous with Inputs and Outputs.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 28.6 (2002): 376-380. ↩
Carr, Patrick L. “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery.” College & Research Libraries 76.6 (2015): 831-842. ↩
ACRL, SLHE, Introduction, “Accreditation language, trends, and contexts also inform the Standards. Academic library directors surveyed by the standards task force in spring 2010 stressed the importance of relating library standards to accreditation criteria. Accreditation agency library reviewers were asked by the task force to identify characteristics of library strength and weakness within the context of institutional accreditation. The task force also reviewed guidelines from each regional accrediting agency and extracted concepts and specific language (i.e., outcomes-based language, and terminology such as “sufficient” and “effective”). Trends in the accreditation process affecting libraries include an emphasis on using assessment results for continuous improvement; full library integration into the academic endeavor; a move away from a separate library standard within the overall accreditation standard; a focus on outcomes and bench-marking; recognition of information literacy as the catalyst for the library’s educational role; the library’s support of all student learning outcomes, not just those overtly library-related; an alignment of library and institutional missions; and a need for multiple forms of assessment and documentation.” ↩
Elmborg, James. “Tending The Garden of Learning: Lifelong Learning as Core Library Value.” Library Trends 64.3 (2016): 533-555 ↩