October 13, 2009

LIbraries of the Future No More?

I attended the conference described in this article at Inside Higher Ed. It is absolutely worth reading the comments for those interested in the hard choices confronting academic libraries in today's Google era. I couldn't help but offer some thoughts in a lengthy comment that I reproduce here for those who care about the future of libraries to consider.

I attended the Ithaka conference and witnessed Vice Provost Greenstein's presentation firsthand. A few thoughts...

His presentation was provocative and frankly, I enjoy bomb throwers. It was perhaps more disturbing for that bomb throwing to come from an individual with the power to actually detonate what he throws.

With that said, libraries are changing and there are legitimate issues raised regarding the preservation of books (or other library "artifacts"), ownership of digital content, outsourcing of library-based tasks, etc. The biggest change quite simply is that unitized objects--books, CDs, etc.--have become free-floating disseminable objects that not only can float at far lower cost within the digital ether, but can potentially carry all of its metadata with it. That fundamentally changes the kinds of work librarians used to do, from cataloging and shelving to binding and ordering.

The result has been, naturally enough, a shift in what librarian staffs (from shelvers to university librarians) actually now do for a living.

The more disturbing point Greenstein raises is that of depriving libraries of dollars rather than focusing on their reallocation within library systems. This goes to the heart of the metrics universities use for measuring success and meeting the demands of both students (whose tuitions and per-head subsidizations pay many of the bills) and accreditation agencies. (Greenstein raised this point about accreditation quite explicitly.)

And this goes to the heart of what librarians would have to do to combat the trends and pressures Greenstein outlined on university budgets. In brief, librarians need to organize their efforts around the measurable value they supply to library users--specifically students and faculty--as well as the significance of that value to accreditors.

Imagine accreditors who looked not only at university department course listing and faculty CVs, but available institutional resources--both intellectual and human--within the library as part of their accreditation process. (Perhaps they already do!) Rest assured a different tune would be sung by administrators.

Greenstein was emphatic about that, implying that libraries need to do more than lobby adminstrators to maintain funding, they must lobby (yes, lobby!) students, faculty, alumni, and accreditors. What libraries will look like a decade from now is irrelevant: library jobs, resources, modes of delivery, etc., are always changing. hat matters is your ability to demonstrate your value to the funding sources of your university, no small measure for libraries that have not paid sufficient attention to this beyond usage statistics and circulation numbers.