Friday, July 6, 2012

Redefining the Academic Library

Hmmm, I think that I've been tracking all the right blogs and reading all the right news related to library & information science, and there's still stuff that slips under the radar.  It's interesting the tracks information takes before reaching any one reader.  I imagine that if one were to visualize it, it would look like fractals.  Anyhow, I just now learned of the report from the University Leadership Council, Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Information Services. Released late last year, I must have missed the initial blog postings about it while I was shifting jobs back into librarianship.  It had the usual run, including mentions on Stephen's Lighthouse, LIS Trends, and Current Cites.  Interestingly, I could not find it on the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed (is there a bias against the Education Advisory Board?).

Regardless, the title piqued my curiosity when I found it rather indirectly - a posting in LISNews about a series of blog postings in Attempted Elegance (Killing Fear) that form an essay regarding the recommendations of this report.  Sort of like a friend told two friends who told two friends...and so on and so on...

This report is intriguing, summarizing the information from various resources, many of which I was already aware of (e.g. "Value of Academic Libraries", the Taiga Forum, ITHAKA, etc.).  What this report provides is the distillation of this information into a cohesive strategy that libraries could take to ensure that they remain relevant. Essentially, this report elegantly supports Ranganathan's Fifth Law of Library Science: The Library is a Growing Organism.  An organism must grow in order to survive; and growth does not necessarily mean growth in size, but also evolution or ability to adapt.

Now, the authors admit that "(p)rognosticators have been warning of the disruptive capacity of computers, networks, and other information technologies for at least three decades, and predictions of the library's demise can be found as far back as the 1960's."  The authors believe that this time, there are four key drivers of change in libraries that are "converging and pushing more academic libraries toward a fundamentally different approach."  (Note: while the report is focused on academic libraries, these drivers apply to all libraries.)  These key drivers are:
  • Unsustainable costs (particularly of serials)
  • Viable alternatives to patrons (I would argue the level of viability, particularly for sources of scholarly information)
  • Declining usage (hmmm, maybe of circulation and basic reference services, but not of online resources and in-depth reference services)
  • New patron demands
As you can see, I have some questions about these drivers, but I understand the jist of their argument.  When asked with which sources our users (faculty or students) start their research, the most common answer is Google.  That makes sense; even librarians start with Google.  But that does not mean that the library is no longer viable.  Articles from non-OA journals are still the primary source of scholarly communication, all of which require money to access the content, at least within the first 6 months to a year.  Few scholars can afford personal subscriptions to all of their journals, nor all of their books (especially in the humanities & social sciences).  I do not deny the growing trend in non-traditional scholarly communication, but perhaps our end users are still not truly aware of the extent of resources that continue to be provided by the library.

I'm also skeptical of the claim of declining usage.  Foot traffic in most libraries has actually grown, and when you measure online usage of library-provided resources, then there is no evidence of declining usage.  Print circulation, in-house use of print materials, and basic reference services have, indeed, decreased quite noticeably.  We should take into account, however, the impact that our actions have had and will have on these trends.  For instance, by providing fewer books on the shelves for browsing and advertising the use of electronic books, should we not expect that circulation of print will decline further?

From the research, the report a list of 30 "lessons learned" organized around four themes:

  • Leveraging digital collections
  • Rethinking the scholarly publishing model
  • Repurposing library space
  • Redeploying library staff
These are not new ideas, but these lessons summarized as such provide some good talking points that librarians and library administrators can use to plan their strategic objectives and make their case for "redefining the academic library."  Another useful tool is the checklist, based on lessons learned, for "understanding your current practice."  This is, essentially, a list of practical and concrete steps that address the issues in the report. While there would be no guarantee that implementing all 39 recommendations would make your library relevant to your institution, it would be interesting to see if there is a relationship between these changes and indicators of relevancy (e.g. funding levels, overall usage, integration of the library throughout the institution).  

What do others think about this report?  Is it merely another one of its ilk that is read by administrators, touted in this year's strategic planning session, and then tossed in the file cabinet never to be read again?  Does it accurately represent the research on the future of academic libraries?  Is it unjustly biased against traditional libraries and print materials?  Is it useful?

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