Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

An indecent proposal

During my (now) extended recovery from my concussion, I’ve finally been able to start reading The Economist again.  Between an initial refrain from all reading and not taking the train into work (another long story), I haven’t been able to keep up with the dense and frequent issues. The latest issue (6/28-7/04) however, features Higher Education on the cover. Needless to say, this interested me greatly.

Now, one of the things I admire the publication for is its foundation on reason. While the ideas expressed are centered on a liberal economic view point, they are tempered with a realistic understanding of the limits of laissez faire capitalism. The writers base their ideas and opinions on reason and logic eschewing emotional appeals (I also like to British language, such as “higgeldy-piggeldy”). While I may squirms with some of their assertions I respect their arguments.

So it was with this respect that I read the Leader section on the state of higher education, primarily in Europe and North America (). Although their prediction of universities going the way of newspapers seems more of a stretch, they do make a case for substantial changes over the next decades. The key changes the editor predicted includes:

  • Lower revenues, from governments and from competition
  • More online and few in-person students
  • Greater focus on job training
  • Older students
  • Greater competition
  • More global focus

Now, the arguments against these prognostics are out of scope for this post. Instead, I will presume that these are the “the shadows of the things that Will be,” and not the “shadows of things that May be, only” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol), and consider how libraries could respond. The changes with the greatest impact on libraries, as I see it, would be:

  • Severe drop in funding
  • Greater emphasis on online learning
  • Greater focus on job skills

Before listing what I think libraries should decrease, I’ll suggest what I think libraries should increase. If there are going to be more online students, it stands to reason the library would need to increase online resources. The counterarguments to this include limited quality monographs online and difficulty reading online. Both of these issues are likely to change over time – greater percentage of monographs going directly to online and more comfort with reading online. A subset of this last argument is the limited access to older monographs. Libraries should be supporting digital efforts such as HathiTrust and collaboration with university presses to extend the access of back files.

But libraries shouldn’t be solely focused on online availability of journals and books. There are a number of other kinds of resources libraries should extend online access, notably on a/v and primary materials. Libraries are making greater strides in the latter than the former, due primarily to the fact that libraries already have the copyright issues on the primary materials in their own collections. Streaming audiovisual has been more difficult due to higher costs (and greater expenses) of publishers.

Regarding high cost of resources, the natural laws of the marketplace indicate that as institutions of higher education decrease their funding, so will libraries, and thus so will prices. If libraries have upwards of 30% lower funds, there is no way they can afford to pay the same amounts for the same resources. They will have to function with fewer resources. Unless the publishers can find new customers who are willing to pay the fees, there will be no other option besides lowering fees. Now, this is likely to have other effects (e.g. further control of publications, decrease in outlets for researchers to publish, etc.), but that is again beyond the scope of this article which is how libraries could respond to the key changes to higher education predicted in The Economist article.

In addition to streaming, libraries will be wise to increase their collections with quality Open Access resources. This is a likely outcome of the changes to publishing alluded to above. This may or may not benefit from further library involvement. But it could help fill gaps left from large-scale cancellations and elimination of paid-for resources.

Other ways of serving more online students and faculty include increasing online video tutorials on using the e-resources and information literacy.  These are best kept short and sweet, with more ubiquitous access (e.g. Help button from all resources). Finally, libraries would likely benefit from increasing their online accessibility. True this kind of program has had mixed success, but the data (e.g. Pew Studies) suggest that such easy, mobile access is becoming more expected. If libraries expect to fulfill their roles in tracking information literacy skills to students and work with faculty to support research (see latest ITHAKA survey of library deans and directors), greater online access would be key.  Finally, libraries should increase collaborations with other institutions – public and academic. A known effect of competition is consolidation. The environment will no longer be able to support libraries as islands of resources, nor should we be. The ability to network and support each other has never been greater, but for some reason, has never appeared weaker.  This formulates the core of the indecent proposal.

Which leads to what I think libraries should be doing less of – while a quick answer would be less reference and other “broad” library services, I beg to differ. Traditional library services can be modified to fit any environment. The method and details may change, but not the service.

What I do think needs to change is the idea of collections and services that are unique to each library.  Just as each library does not need its own printing press, each library does not need its own unique website. Indeed, we could be more successful in training students to find and evaluate resources by standardizing library web sites, terminology and training resources. We have already started down with road with Springshare’s LibGuides, which has been widely adopted by academic and public libraries.  These guides provide standardized features that result in a look and feel that varies little from library to library.

If libraries will be expected to lose up to 30% of our funding, that will inevitably result in cuts to staff, as well as resources. How can we fulfill our roles as educators, resource selectors and conservators with fewer staff? Reference training could also be more standardized. With standardized web sites, librarians could share their training, materials and resources more freely. Indeed, greater reliance on the vendors of resources to provide quality resources and materials would be helpful as well.

Indeed, even collections need not be unique, at least as unique as they currently are. Every university, indeed even community colleges, teach the same basic courses. Variations in rigor and faculty preferences aside, students at most institutions could learn equally well with the same core set of resources, at least for the first two years. Libraries could collaborate in the development of a core collection of resources that are shared. Physical materials would be stored locally with minimal inventory and delivery costs. Online resources could be discounted for multi-user, rental collections. After all these resources are not meant for independent research, and long term collections are of limited value to the lower level undergraduate student.

The reduction in expense on these common resources could preserve the funding of resources useful for research; again, presuming publishers are forced to reduce prices. Libraries could continue to pursue consortial purchasing, this time though, aligning with institutions with similar research interest. Given the nature of online research, there is no reason a university in North Texas could not collaborate with institutions in other parts of the state or even the country, at least not logically (maybe legally, though).

While I disagree with the basic philosophy of treating education like a business, I do believe that there are certain marketplace pressures that will have an effect on libraries. And we librarians will not succeed in forcing them back, but we should instead respond in such a manner so that we will retain our roles, providing the traditional services.




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This entry was posted on July 14, 2014 by in Academic Libraries, Intriguing Ideas.

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