A Timely Debate: Whither (or wither) Academic Libraries?

An RLG working group is writing a manifesto for academic libraries, addressing the need for change to better support research. The recent clamor over Dan Greenstein’s intentionally provocative remarks about the future of university libraries has prompted us to offer a preview of our work.

The reactions to Greenstein’s remarks certainly validate this paragraph from our current draft:

As budgets across higher education are shrinking, some in the academy are questioning the continued value of large academic libraries. At the same time, many academic libraries are providing vital and innovative services and resources in support of emerging forms of research, publishing, and information management. While some would argue that academic libraries are playing an increasingly important role in scholarly research, others fear that they are on the brink of extinction and must change radically to survive.

In an effort to rise above the debate on the current and future value of libraries, the draft suggests a set of principles to guide academic libraries in improving research support in a changing environment.

The principles drafted to date are:
–Heed the ever-changing work patterns and needs of scholars and change library practices in response.
–Design services around the parts of the research process that cause scholars the most frustration.
–Embed library services in scholars’ workflows, integrated with services provided by others.
–Redefine reference as research consultation instead of fact-finding.
–Ensure that staff training and hiring reflect the new modes of scholarly research.
–Contribute to community solutions that address common needs, so you can focus on what is unique to your institution.
–Demonstrate the value of library services to funders; while providing services that may seem invisible to scholars.
–Commit to long-term preservation of and access to datasets that researchers judge to be of lasting value.
–Promote use of alternative modes of scholarly publishing.
–Recognize that discovery will happen outside of libraries and provide the organization that makes content discoverable.

We recognize that this is not a particularly radical list, and that many academic libraries already embrace some of these principles.

Are any academic libraries embracing all of them? Are all of the principles essential to facilitating effective research? Are there significant principles we left out? Join the debate!

Ricky Erway, Senior Program Officer at OCLC Research, worked with staff from the OCLC Research Library Partnership on projects ranging from managing born digital archives to research data curation. Ricky left OCLC in 2015.

8 Comments on “A Timely Debate: Whither (or wither) Academic Libraries?”

  1. Interesting post and comments, Ricky. What I find missing in the use of the term “scholars” is students, and the critical role that libraries should play as partners with faculty in teaching undergrads, especially, to become researchers, whether in traditional humanities/sciences/social sciences/arts or in newer interdisciplinary departments and majors within academic institutions. We might mean to include undergraduate students when we say “scholars,” but if they aren’t explicitly included I fear that they frequently fall off the radar. Our role isn’t just to help them find things, either. In special collections I think they frequently get turned off because they don’t really know what they’re looking for or what to do when they find it. There is an important, and I’d argue underimagined in many institutions, role for librarians, archivists, and museum professionals to play in helping faculty to design better, more effective, hands-on assignments that engage students in the research process–especially in engaging with primary source materials and asking interesting questions of those materials, and in developing their confidence in their own analytical and critical facilities–n more fulfilling and sustainable ways than just throwing a 20-page research paper at them and telling them they “have to include primary sources.”

  2. In my own experience, and in contradiction to much of what I have read, I find that users have terrible problems finding and relating to information they find, be it on the web, in a book or anywhere else. We tell them to be skeptical, to not believe everything online, but if it’s in the library, they are supposed to believe that it’s “all right” for some reason. I don’t know what they think about that; are they supposed to put more faith into a book about U.S. politics that was published by Harvard University Press in 1953, or in a website of a right-or left-wing think tank that just appeared today? This is actually a complicated skill.

    I think almost any librarian will agree that, while it is easier to find “information” today, it has become far more complicated to find what I shall call “coherent knowledge.” I don’t know if it really is that there is more information out there in the aggregate, but it certainly is easier to look in more places, it’s also easier to access the resources when you find them, and so on.

    But this is exactly the problem: based on a casual use of Google to find the weather tomorrow or to check out the NYTimes, many users seem to conclude that it’s easy to find what they need and become completely confused when it comes to approaching the task more seriously. While they thought they were expert searchers, they find they are almost helpless, which makes the task of librarians exceedingly difficult. Often, patrons end up blaming the tools instead of admitting their own shortcomings and do not want to acknowledge their need to develop some skills.

    I think traditional librarian tasks of helping people find what they need is just as important as ever–perhaps more so because it appears that many levels of society are accessing more and more information than ever before.

    But yes, we need to change how we do what we do as well.

  3. I agree with Katherine’s comment. Often large academic research libraries have a lot of tradition and status quo behind them that makes it very difficult to make any significant changes. But every academic library has its own communities that it serves and it knows best how to serve them.

    So if you’re community has a large undergraduate population, perhaps you should focus on creating an environment where they want to learn and do research. Or if you have a very scholarly body of work coming out of your institution make sure that you have ways to preserve it and make it available.

    Tailor your services to your community. Don’t just do things because “that’s what libraries should do,” of “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

    I like the idea of “research consultation.” Librarians aren’t finding information for you (that’s what Google does). They are guiding and shaping your information experience and making it a pleasant one that you’d want to have again.

  4. Katherine-
    I agree that we need to learn how to change, but it is a bit of a chicken & egg kind of dilemma isn’t it? What good does it do if we are good at change if we have not figured out the right direction of change?

    I also think the success of many changes in academic libraries will be somewhat dependent on changes in the culture and reward systems of academia in general. Big questions around when and how libraries should lead (or at least have big influence) the change and when we should be more reactive.
    The role of traditional publishing on tenure is a big area where I think libraries can and should be players …

  5. While creating a manifesto that outlines priorities for research support is an important activity, what I worry about most these days is that academic research libraries are not well set up to “do” change. We need to learn more about and quickly implement large scale change strategies that will enable us to adjust our organizational design, including structure, culture, reward systems, training and development, etc. to be able to implement the services we are best positioned to offer.

  6. I might have read your text more carefully too Ricky as you did indicate in a couple places your work was about “research support”. I would suggest however that special collections often play critical roles in humanities research support, some of our best collections come in as a result of faculty fieldwork. I think we could do a better job of demonstrating our value to faculty in assisting with fieldwork and donor relations. On the other hand the clash between the need for faculty first publication and our ideals of open and equitable access can be problematic.

    More specific to the principles, my reaction was that –”Design services around the parts of the research process that cause scholars the most frustration.” only works if we have a services solution that actually relieves the frustration rather than adding to it. Given the wide variances in research practices and disciplinary standards it seems solutions need to be customized for particular faculty. They want personalized solutions in an environment of declining resources!

  7. I should have specified that the group was asked to come up with calls to action related to support services for the researcher workflow — not related to traditional services, like collection development, description, access, preservation….

  8. I note that one of the areas Greenstein said would survive is special collections, whereas Ricky’s principles and other comments re: Greenstein’s post don’t seem to reflect those opportunties well. Notwithstanding occasional rhetoric about integrating special collections into the fabric of AL’s, it seems that special collections are mostly implied in future of AL discussions.

    If you believe the humanities has a future at the university, Special Collections may be the most robust future we have! I believe our faculty want more primary sources to support undergraduate research assignments and graduate theses and dissertations. They want local flavor and context because it connects with students and makes curriculum more effective. Universities and academic libraries should not write off the humanities!

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