The future of academic libraries should not be about navel gazing

Posted: 2011-05-18 in Cataloguing, Collection Development, Libraries
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Yesterday a co-worker and I drove out to McMaster University at Burlington to attend the Library Journal sponsored symposium, The Future of the Academic Library. Given the volume of discussion within my university, as well as in the blogosphere, regarding the changes at the McMaster University Library that have taken place in the last few years (downsized staff, hiring changes, voluntary/involuntary early retirements, elimination of all technical services through outsourcing, elimination of reference desks through the merger of public service points, the creation of post-doc fellowship positions to carry through new library media and digital projects, unionization of the remaining librarians, etc.), I will admit that I was expecting to be intellectually stimulated, if not provoked, by new thoughts, new projections for the future, new directions to take within the academy.

I certainly was provoked at certain points, but sadly, not by anything new that had not been already said or written about before. Here’s a quick (and highly condensed) run-through of the major points made at the symposium. [My personal take will be marked in square brackets.]

Libraries need to work harder at understanding how students need, use, and look for information. Stop inundating them with uninteresting news about workshops or the library; instead, engage them when they need the research help, and show them how to get what they need as efficiently as possible. [Should not be a surprise. At this stage, if we haven't figured this out already, then I think we really need help as a profession.]

Faculty want librarians to be more involved in the research process. However, note that some faculty also have problems with librarians being involved in classroom teaching. [Not new. Librarians want to be involved in the research process too! At least the librarians I encounter and work with, as well as myself, do. As for staking out territories, I think that anyone working in any profession, in any organization, will run up against situations where there will be people who are protective of what they perceive to be their baby, and theirs alone. Surely not unique to academic libraries. Let’s focus on working with the faculty who do and desire to collaborate on research, and not angst over the one or two who don’t.]

Cut out redundant, inefficient library operations. Stop resisting outsourcing. [No sensible person can possibly argue against the elimination of redundancy. The question, though, is what value system the organization goes by to identify and measure redundancy, and the level of trust and respect there is between the administration and those being scrutinized as potential candidates for cost-cutting or outsourcing. When people's livelihoods are at stake, I really do think that institutions that care about their reputation as an employer need to rethink their choice of terminology. People are not jobs in a deck of cards, to be shuffled and organized at will.]

Be mutable, to allow for the development of, and experimentation with, “maverick” strategies. ["Maverick" was exactly the term used by the presenter who mentioned this particular point--James Neal, Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University. Images of the 2008 U.S. presidential race/the Cain-and-Palin ticket aside, I think that "maverick" moves are only possible as an organizational structure becomes flatter and more flexible. I'm all for flexibility, as long as ultimately, someone takes responsibility for outcomes.]

Libraries are perpetuating a “lie of coordination.” [Another James Neal expression. I can't say that I was enthusiastic about this assertion at all, especially when he elaborated on this in the context of cooperative cataloguing and cooperative collection development "not working". True, when the ideas of cooperative cataloguing and cooperative collection development first came about, the idea was that lots of local institutions would contribute to the overall system, therefore benefiting all participants. Perhaps cooperative cataloguing has not reduced the overall workload of the cataloguer, but that's because the volume of material requiring metadata has increased exponentially, the type of material requiring metadata have also increased in volume and complexity, and overall, material requiring metadata has far outstripped what anyone can possibly get through copy records. As for cooperation among collection development librarians not working, look no further than the fact that balancing local needs against the needs of another library in the same library system, let alone one that's miles away, will never be easy. Just look at consortia put together to negotiate deals from major publishers: not every member defines fairness and equitable cost-sharing in the same way, and that's because each member is different from the other in terms of budget size, FTEs, history, and negotiating power. And yet, few major library systems have the power to go at negotiations alone.]

Ignorance is bliss because it allows for experimentation and risk taking. [From the presentation given by Michael Ridley, Chief Librarian at the University of Guelph. Now really, how can anyone argue against the notion of experimentation and trying new things?]

Post-doctoral fellowships allow libraries to experiment with new projects and methods of teaching. [I cannot argue against the benefits of hiring people who hold fresh perspectives and exude enthusiasm for the role that they play in introducing new ideas, new material, new services. I don’t think any reasonable person could either. However, one thing that was strangely lacking in all of this was there were no mentions of the kinds of collaboration that did take place. As one of the post-doc fellows was eager to point out, most of what he achieved in his position was achieved through teamwork; so tell us what this teamwork was, who made up these teams, and what expertise each member was able to bring to the table. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any kind of discussion on this point, other than simply the re-iteration that the post-doc fellows brought new perspectives and subject expertise to the library at which they worked.]

Leave the rights issue to the lawyers. [Seemingly sensible, on the surface, but if academic libraries can't express to their lawyers what they need, and why the legal advice is being sought, it seems to me that academic libraries are shirking their duty to represent the views and best interests of their users. It's kind of like a government that chooses not to legislate on a particular issue, but leaving it up to the courts to decide on the matter. Controversial, right?]

Collection development should not be the librarian’s role. Patron-driven acquisition is the model for the future. [I have a huge problem with this, even though it’s hardly new. There have been libraries that have experimented with PDA and written or presented on the experience. But the fact is that with PDA models, the library is also shirking its responsibility to provide a robust, well-rounded collection of resources; it is simply leaving it up to the most pressing of needs, and not planning ahead or taking the risk to anticipate what resource needs might arise in the future. It’s showing a lack of confidence in one’s own subject expertise and experience. Users focus on their immediate needs, and that’s not their fault, and that’s not a problem. Collection librarians take the big picture outlook, and build collections thoughtfully because they are trustees of a public resource, much the way that galleries collect art, and natural history museums collect specimens. If library collections really were meant to be built based on what users want and need at the moment, then libraries might as well go one step further and get rid of the idea of collecting entirely; just let users buy their own stuff, print-on-demand, at the cheapest rate available. Don’t suggest that the strength of collections lie only in unique local holdings. Special collections are strengths and points of local pride, but collections were first put together in libraries because it meant finances could be pooled together to benefit many users at once–a benefit that couldn’t be realized if individuals were to collect resources on their own. So, I say, stop pretending that library collections are all about special collections, if libraries are to keep collections at all.]

MLIS education needs to change. There is a disconnect between what libraries need, and the graduates that library schools are producing. Employers just have larger and larger volumes of library school grads to sift through, and few are qualified to fill new, non-traditional positions. [This is exactly why the school I work at has undergone a major curriculum change within the last two years, in order to produce the very sort of graduate who has both the practical skill set, aptitude and curiosity for new knowledge, and the intellectual strength to critically assess the information realm in all its guises. But as for employers needing to sift through more and more applicants--I don't know how that can be an unenviable position. Have employers not always had to make selections judiciously, and not take a degree on paper for granted? Just as few of us would simply take a manufacturer at its word when shopping for a new device, without testing out the device, surely we don't make hiring decisions based on a CV and a cover letter alone.]

Stop trying to defend the traditional way of doing things; embrace change, transform, take risks, experiment, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. [Pep rally, anyone? In some ways, this message is a case of preaching to the choir. Those who took the time and effort to go to a whole-day conference on future directions of the academic library were probably already those who weren't resistant to change.]

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