A great column in defence of libraries

The Globe and Mail published a great column online by Ian Brown on Friday, called “Don’t discard the librarians”. (The column was also published in Saturday’s print edition.) In the opinion piece, the author begins by outlining recent challenges against the library as an institution. These events include the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board’s decision to cut its school libraries, the University of Denver Library’s decision to move 80% of its collection into storage, and a verbal public statement made by the McMaster University Chief Librarian that he would be hiring only IT staff and post-doctoral fellows in lieu of librarians in the foreseeable future. Not having been part of these communities, I don’t know all the details behind these decisions; I can only hope that the local administrators were doing what they felt, at the time, to be the best solution for their institution.

Ian Brown goes on to write about his visits to various branches of the Toronto Public Library, and his interviews with librarians at the University of Toronto Libraries (my home system!). More importantly, he talks to a random user of the library. I thought the latter conversation yielded one of the most moving arguments in favour of keeping libraries:

On my way home from the library I encountered a young woman about to graduate high school (social niceties of high-school life prevented her from letting me use her name), who loves to do her homework in the newly renovated Gerstein science library at the University of Toronto because she loves to be surrounded “by other people who love school work” – a lovely, lonely longing that found solace in a library. Why is that deemed a luxury by digital boosters who insist on a shrunken, depopulated data hub? Information is abstract, but the mind is ultimately physical, human (Brown, 2011).

It was also good to see Ian Brown include facts that those who work outside of libraries don’t always know. Subscriptions for online resources, the ones that Google can’t provide for free, are extremely expensive (over tens of thousands of dollars for some titles), and require huge budgets and good systems in place to maintain. Even if an institution can afford to buy or subscribe to a good collection of digital material, users still need to learn how to navigate through them–how to assess and choose the most appropriate resources for any given context. Teaching people how to do all this, as he points out, has always been the librarian’s domain, and this role is very much still needed as the universe of information expands.

The column is eloquently written, and ironically brings me back to a refrain that I hear a lot nowadays–that an academic library that wants to remain relevant must stop trying to protect “the institution” and, by corollary, redundant, antiquated traditions. While I appreciate the concern over irrelevance, I don’t think we will reach that point so long as we continue to prove through words and actions the reasons for preserving our places of learning; our collections, be they print, online, or some other format not yet prototyped; the people, who keep the operations running smoothly; and defending the public’s right to access learning and acquire knowledge. Certainly, streamlining practices in the name of progress cannot be done in one fell swoop (or even a few swoops). At the heart of progress, we have to think about who we are serving, and what society stands to lose when the future scholars, entrepreneurs, and leader we educate no longer know how to assess information for credibility and authoritativeness. What kind of thoughtful, democratic society would we then be nurturing?

One thing that is probably not so evident from Ian Brown’s column is that librarians don’t work in isolation from other professionals. My co-workers are a mix of librarians, library technicians, and IT staff. Cliché-ed as this sounds, we bring different perspectives to meetings, contribute unique strengths and skill sets to projects, and collaborate in the teaching experience, whether as guest lecturers, course associates, presenters, or behind-the-scenes assistance.

At the library that I work, my co-workers and I try very hard to create a space that is welcoming for students with a variety of study needs, from those who require a more social atmosphere, to those who want to study individually while sitting in groups, and those who need absolute quiet. We also try hard to be physically around, to get to know the students and faculty who pass through our doors, and to support them as much as we can through their research and classroom activities. We are always listening for user feedback, not only because we want to know what we might be doing wrong so that we can correct our ways, but because we also want to know what we are doing right so that we can do more of it. Specific comments change from year to year, but certain themes resurface perennially. For instance, one theme that has cropped up again and again is that our students appreciate us because we make time to show them how things are done (or can be done better), we listen, and we care about their success. They also appreciate the physical space because they know it is their space, and they know that everything that we have put in there have been put in for them.

For further reading, please check out:

Brown, I. (2011). Don’t discard the librarians. The Globe and Mail, Friday, May 20, 2011 online edition. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/kHkRuy.

The future of academic libraries should not be about navel gazing

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 like 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 pools 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.]