Sunday, June 2, 2013

Three on the changing roles of academic libraries

From John Dupuis' recent list of articles demonstrating angst in academic libraries and in academia in general, there were three items that particularly interesting to me.  The first two are from Bibliographic Wilderness (Jonathan Rochkind, cataloging librarian at Johns Hopkins U).  In Academic Libraries at Risk, he focuses on the recently-released ITHAKA survey of faculty attitudes towards libraries, particularly the statements regarding redirecting money away from libraries (because scholarly information is available online) and the decreasing role of libraries and librarians.  His concerns are both the rates of those who agreed with these statements, but more importantly, the increasing trend over the six years of surveys.  The rates of agreement with these statements has increased steadily from 4-8% in 2006 to 18-20% in 2012.  He asks, appropriately enough, "What do you think those numbers will look like in 2015 when they run the survey again?"  This decline came despite nearly a decade of increased marketing and advertising efforts of many academic libraries.  From this springboard, he insists that to survive, librarians must change the services we provide to reflect what "our host institutions need today, not what they needed 20 years ago" (emphasis original).  While interesting, the comments to his post offer more insight into how other librarians react to this information.  Barbara Fister brought up the problem of the reducing "power of the purse" by full-time faculty, who have been increasingly replaced by adjunct faculty.  Thus, the attitudes of the faculty matter less.  But that doesn't necessarily bode well for libraries.  Jacob Berg shared his concern about the decreased voice of students in the future of libraries.  Alan Zuckerman was concerned about making too many changes to quickly, particularly when more than 80% of the faculty did not agree with these statements.  Is 20% a high enough rate to base changes on?  But Jonathan responded that, while he thought it was, his main question was regarding the increasing trend.

In a closely related posting, One scenario for the death of the academic library, Jonathan refers to a paper posted by Eric Hellman in the comments to the above-mentioned article.  Open Access, library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce, by Andrew Odlyzko, 2013, discusses how libraries have the opportunity to change the future demise of academic libraries by increasing their role in Open Access scholarly publishing.  This is timely, given that the UNT Libraries hosted the Fourth Annual Open Access Symposium.  Invited speakers included several librarians involved in this very pursuit.  But that's a side issue...of interest to me was how library budgets, as a proportion of university budgets, have been decreasing over decades (Scholarly Kitchen, Inside Higher Ed), which reinforces the changing attitudes of faculty revealed in the ITHAKA survey.
Jonathan notes that this decrease in relative spending is accompanied by a corresponding increase in relative spending on collections (notably serials) (he refers to Odlyzko's Figure 5, reproduced below):
Figure 5: Fraction of library budgets devoted to all acquisitions and to purchases of serials
Although not the first, both Odlyzko and Rochkind suggest that the libraries' role in both academia and public may be reduced to being simply or solely a buying agent of information resources.  While Odlyzko argues that libraries should retain their viability by inserting themselves prominently in the Open Access scholarly communications, Rochkind expands on this idea by suggesting that librarians highlight their role as "disinterested advisors" providing "provide services with transparency, impartiality, assertive protection of user privacy, and a professional ethical responsibility to act always in the interests of our patrons, never sacrificing them to our own business interests."

The final piece from Dupuis' list that intrugued me was the posting from McGill University's blog about a "consultation session" called by the Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook about the effects of a $1.8 million (Canadian) cut in the library's budget.  The plan is to close one library and merge it with another.  Essentially, the reason for this is that the money saved will come largely from cuts to support staff, so there will not be enough people to staff both libraries.  Since these two libraries have rather low rates of usage (as measured by visits per population served), it made sense to merge them.  However, the chief complaint was the inconvenience of the location of the merged library to the primary users of the closed library (medical students).  Interestingly, the Dean's proposed solution to this problem (delivery of materials) itself was in jeopardy due to the same issue: reduction of support staff.

I am surprised that the solutions to this problem that were raised were largely work-arounds: retaining a core set of textbooks at the closed location; having volunteers or librarians performing the duties of the support staff (thank goodness for unions!); book delivery.  No mention was made of efforts to obtaining access to digital versions of the core texts (whatever that might require).  I am also disappointed that the chief complaint is physical access to materials; there was, apparently, no discussion on the loss of access to librarians.

The Dean was criticized for the abruptness of the planning of these consultation sessions, as well as the apparent "lack of sincerity and transparency."  One of the affected faculty alleged that the Dean had "ended a meeting of the Advisory Committee by saying, 'My library, my decision.'"  On her behalf, Colleen Cook informed those attending that the planning is rushed because the cuts went into effect in May and had to be implemented before September 1st.  And, in the end, it is her decision, although it is expected that she take the concerns and ideas that she solicited into consideration.

What is happening at McGill is happening at many, many academic and public libraries.  Economics is about making choices -- the university administration made their choices (reducing funding the library), and the library administration made their choices (cutting staff, and thus closing a library).  These choices may or may not stand up to the test of time...

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