Alchemical Thoughts

Article Note: On Strategies for Academic Libraries

Posted on: March 26, 2008

For some stupid reason, Blogger is refusing to publish the draft for this note. It has published other posts, but for some reason, the text of this one keeps choking, even when I just copy it to a new post and try it that way. Anyhow, I am tired of trying to get Blogger to work, so here goes. Note to self: I really need to leave Blogger one of these days. Anyways, here is the post.

Citation for the article:

Lewis, David W. "A Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century." College and Research Libraries 68.5 (September 2007): 418-434.

Read via WilsonWeb.

This article is clearly geared to large campuses, but there is an idea or two here worth looking at for those of us in the smaller trenches. However, and this is my humble opinion, the author seems a bit too ready to give up on the library in favor of some infotopia concept. Then again, as of late, if one looks at the library literature as well as a good number of the library blogs, it seems the doomed library articles are the popular stuff these days. Having said that, as I mentioned, there are a few things worth considering.

"Academic libraries must find and articulate their roles in the current and future information ecology. If we cannot or will not do this, our campuses will invest in other priorities, and the library will slowly but surely atrophy and become a little used museum of the book" (419).

For me at least, this is a rationale for the current marketing plan I am drafting for our library. We clearly add value to the campus community, but we need to do a much better job of pointing that out to the community. We especially need to get the attention of the administrators who in the end are the ones who hold the purse strings. I will go on and say that seeing a library slowly atrophy into that little used book museum is not a pretty sight.

Lewis lists five assumptions and then five items to his strategies. In brief, here are the five strategies then that Lewis proposes (see page 420)

  1. "complete the migration from print to electronic collections.
  2. "retire legacy collections.
  3. "redevelop the library as the primary informal learning space on the campus."
  4. "reposition library and information tools, resources, and expertise so that they are embedded into the teaching, learning, and research enterprises."
  5. "migrate the focus of collections from purchasing materials to curating content.

As usual, I tend to have a question or two when someone makes a set of assumptions or puts out a sweeping plan. For example, when it comes to discussing the increased use of online journals and the resulting decrease in library use (because you can get them in your office, for instance), we get to the part where tools like SFX can link journal articles from one database to another. The whole "it may not be on Academic Search Premier, but it might be on Lexis, and the SFX takes you there" line. As usual, it sounds nice in theory, and a resolver like SFX has often been a lifesaver. But as usual, there are complications, one of them being the issue of embargoes where it turns out the article you want is not there thanks to some publisher restriction. The point of this? Maybe the whole idea of migrating everything to an electronic collection is not that great, at least not initially. Can we get to a point where more can be accessible online? Sure we can, but as long as publishers don't play nice (and I don't consider teasing me with a citation only to hide it in an embargo as playing nice), it is not all going to go online. More importantly, are there really that many savings, which is Lewis's argument for this strategy. Just a passing thought.

As for government documents, which Lewis sees as parallel to e-books, I just wonder about issues in Gov Docs. In particular, the concern that many of those online documents can be easily changed, or they can just simply disappear at the whim of a government agency.

As for the whole idea of retiring the legacy collection, keep in mind this would be applicable to a large research library with the goal of having a large collection, a lot of which would be for historical purposes. This would likely be a lot different for a teaching campus where the collection is primarily to support the undergraduates and their curriculum. At least, that was a thought running in my mind as I read that part of the article.

On the part about redeveloping the library space, which is Lewis's third strategy. I was not in agreement with some of it. Some notes:

  • "The aim is to create comfortable, lively, and active spaces where students can interact with each other, with information and with technology and where support for the use of library resources and technology can be found" (423).
  • "What is needed is a new mix of different kinds of spaces and work environments that can accommodate different uses and possess different ambiances. Library space will need to be shared with a variety of partners, and it is likely that the distinction between the library and other informal campus space will blur" (423). I can still live with most of this, so to speak. Yes, we will be looking forward to forming partnerships and sharing some space. A writing center, other services, certainly would fit in this mission. However, it is the next statement on Lewis's list that I find problematic.
  • "The redevelopment of library space should be an attractive philanthropic opportunity and will likely be funded in large part with external funds. In the longer term, it may be possible for some space to be returned to the campus for nonlibrary uses" (423). No, it's not the philanthropy part I have a problem with. It's the returning space to the campus idea. In our case at least, considering the campus has mostly raided the library space, and not exactly to our interest or that of our students, I think it is the campus that owes us space. The fact that, for instance, a good number of rooms are currently used for meetings that could be held in other buildings while we languish without an adequate library instruction room is simply shameful (there, I said it, and if my director reads this, then so be it). This returning space idea may be nice and trendy, but it certainly is not practical when it comes at the space of raiding and gutting your facility to the detriment of students. And I am not talking just instructional space: student study rooms, alteration of spaces for some of those nicer informal learning areas that Lewis argues for, etc. could be happening if the campus had the decency to return our space to us. Just another passing thought.

A few other musings:

  • "Undergraduates live on the Web. They begin, and often finish, their research with Google, and mostly use the library as a place to study. This is a sadly-accepted truth among librarians, but we all like to think that faculty and graduate students are different" (424). Of course, a lot of us know this is not true in regards to faculty and graduate students. Faculty avoid the library like the plague if they can ("just show me how to get the journals in my office and leave me alone" syndrome) and graduate students pretty much start learning the bad habits of their faculty mentors, though for now, they do tend to still use the library.
  • Here is something that made me think: this is why the students learn less and plagiarize more. It's the "good enough" mentality.Lewis is discussing what some studies he points to reveal: ". . .if the library chooses to stand alone, it will be bypassed. Alternative information sources may not be as extensive or as authoritative as those housed in or subscribed to by the library, but they are good enough and they fit easily and seamlessly into the lives that our students, and increasingly our faculty, live" (424). It's that idea of settling for less which can be troublesome.
  • Instruction will likely change, and that is the nature of it: it is dynamic and evolves to meet needs, but you still have to teach some basics. Lewis writes:
    • ""While the tool-based approach of much of the traditional library instruction activities will probably become less important, new topics such as evaluating the authority of resources, academic integrity, and intellectual property have entered the library's domain" (424). I would not discount the so-called traditional library instruction activities just yet.
    • "There are obvious opportunities to place librarians in centers for teaching and learning and to involve them formally in undergraduate research programs" (424). This is pretty obvious and straightforward.
    • "Blogs aimed at individual courses or department audiences should be explored, as should a library presence in social spaces like MySpace or Facebook" (424). The first part of that sentence I can certainly agree with. The second part about the social spaces is definitely debatable. See here, here, and here.
  • Lewis advocates for flexibility in staffing and in staff. Basically, you need a good organizational culture that is willing to experiment and learn, hire the right people with the right skills, invest in staff development, and be committed to organizational development (430).
  • These two strategies, in general, caught my attention:
    • "Begin with simple projects that meet the needs of undemanding users and then move up market to provide services to more demanding users. In practice, this means beginning with services to students and only moving to faculty services when some expertise has developed. This is contrary to the approach academic libraries usually employ" (431). It may seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense to start small and work your way up. Doing this allows you to develop your experience and expertise as you move on up.
    • "Don't ask users what they want; rather, watch what they do with the tools you provide" (431). This should be self-explanatory. Cut down on the surveys and actually look at what is happening in your library. To do so, you may have to leave your desk and pace your library once in a while.

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