Monthly Archives: August 2008

Guest Post: Loyola University Prepares for Hurricane Gustav

Today is a half day, yet I’m not taking vacation time or sick leave for the remainder of the work day. The library is closing at noon, not for lack of business on Friday afternoons or a professional workshop that everyone’s attending, but because we have to leave town. Reel in the imagination–we are not gun-slinging outlaw librarians being chased out by a pitchfork-yielding mob. We are running from Gustav, whose name to me evokes Oktoberfest, Bavarian chocolate, and a possible distant relation to Heidi Klum, but who is in reality a storm that has set the Louisiana coast in his sights exactly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Yesterday, the university decided to take preventative measures: cancel classes beginning today and send all of the students to safer locations, whether that be home or to a university in a safer area…just in case. Immediately, the library became a frantic place, full of students and faculty all clambering to make final arrangements before evacuating. Most of the problems related to getting Blackboard accounts and e-reserves up to date so that everyone could continue studies from remote locations.

Just as with Katrina, Gustav threatens at the end of the first week of classes, so some students find themselves having to continue studies in a class they have not yet attended. However, as I tried to help them situate their class schedules, I felt that I needed to be something more to them. So many were freshman, from somewhere other than this hurricane ravaged and threatened city. I wanted to hug them and tell them “thank you” for taking a chance on this place and that I was so sorry that this had to happen on their first week here when they had barely unpacked their things and set up their dorm rooms.

I can now only hope that like before Katrina, this storm will threaten and turn away from us–save us from the destruction that it would surely bring to this fragile city because we deserve more time to rebuild and more time to prove to those young students that they made a good and ultimately rewarding decision to spend their college days in New Orleans. For now, though, it’s time to go and wait on Gustav to make his decision.

Beth West
Interim Public Services Librarian
Loyola University
New Orleans, LA

A Different Approach To College Rankings

It’s rankings time again. Just last week U.S. News & World Report released their Best Colleges 2009 rankings. If academic librarians think about college rankings at all I suspect that most take a peak simply to reassure themselves that their institution is still highly ranked, to see if it has inched ahead of that long-time competing institution or, heaven forbid, in hopes that it no longer languishes among the dregs of the third-tier institutions. Academic librarians hardly live vicariously through their institution’s ranking. After all, it mostly doesn’t impact on our work. But I expect there is probably a wee bit of smugness or sadness attached to that institutional ranking. While many professionals throughout the higher education industry think we’d all be better off if there were no college rankings, they are immensely popular with prospective students and their parents. Rankings are here to stay.

But if the U.S. News & World Report rankings leave a sour taste in our mouths – we know they’re bad for us yet we can’t live without them – why not take a different approach. Well, Forbes magazine decided to do just that. Created in cooperation with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity these new rankings focus on the quality of the education institutions provide, and how much their students achieve. Called America’s Best Colleges 2008 the rankings include 569 institutions, just a fraction of this country’s 4,000 or so colleges and universities. The Forbes methodology is quite different. It is based on the rankings of 7 million student evaluations of courses and instructors as recorded on the Web site (25%). Another 25% depends on how many of the school’s alumni, adjusted for enrollment, are listed among the notable people in Who’s Who in America. The other half of the ranking is based equally on three factors: the average amount of student debt at graduation held by those who borrowed; the percentage of students graduating in four years; and the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes. It seems like a rather strange methodology and the results reflect that. A large research university that is always in the U.S. News & World Report top ten is in the 60s on the Forbes list. Some small institutions were ranked quite highly.

Do an Internet search on college rankings and you will turn up an abundance of ranking lists, everything from best values to best party schools. One of the more interesting ones is the Washington Monthly’s College Guide which is an alternate ranking to the nation’s colleges and universities. It asks the question of whether colleges are making good use of our tax dollars? Are they producing graduates who can keep our nation competitive in a changing world? This ranking is better for a prospective student interested in a good liberal arts education. No matter which rankings you and your colleagues look forward to, keep in mind a point made by the folks at Forbes.

Admittedly, there is an inherent absurdity in ranking colleges and universities with mock precision from first to 569th. The sort of student who will thrive at Williams might drown at Caltech, to say nothing of West Point. And it is possible to get a “Harvard” education at the University of Minnesota, just as it possible to get a “University of Minnesota” education at Harvard. When choosing a school, it is important to match the student to the school.

So enjoy the rankings – they can be fun – but just don’t take them too seriously.

Update – for additional commentary on the Forbes Rankings see this and this at Inside Higher Education. The former is a defense of the rankings by Richard Vedder who worked with Forbes to create them, and the latter ridicules the Forbes Rankings for using RateMyProfessor as a data source.

The Question They Forgot To Ask

Make no mistake that the newly released Ithaka Report titled “Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education” is essential reading for all academic librarians – and it’s chock full of easy-to-grasp charts – so you won’t get bogged down in reams of text in getting the important messages. But as I read the document I thought that an important role of the academic library in the digital transformation was overlooked.

The 2006 faculty study marks the third triennial research effort in this series, so one of the valuable aspects of the report is that we can look back to see how faculty attitudes toward the library are changing. For example, faculty are asked to rate the importance of the library’s role on three dimensions: gateway; archive; buyer. Then we can see that between 2003 and 2006 faculty believe the library’s role as gateway has diminished, but that its role as archive and buyer has risen. The report also breaks out faculty responses by discipline so we can understand that humanities, social science and science faculty rate the library rather differently. As you might expect, the humanists value the library for its gateway role far more than the scientists.

But why are we only considering the role of the academic library as gateway, archive and buyer? I would argue this report needs to add a new dimension for faculty to consider – the academic library’s role as learning center and instruction partner. Where this study seems dated to me is that it focuses on the acadmic library’s traditional role as collector, organizer and gateway provider. I don’t find any information in the report (perhaps I missed it) about the institutions surveyed. Were they just surveying faculty at research universities or does this represent a wider representation of academic institutions? The authors, Ross Housewright and Roger Schonfeld, accurately conclude that “the profile and relevance of the library is in decline. There are a number of possible futures for the academic library, and strategic thought and change is needed to ensure that we move into a world in which the library continues to play an important role in the intellectual life of the campus.” That’s a great observation and we need to start asking faculty the right questions because as the authors point out “A deep understanding of faculty needs is critical to developing programs and services that will be valued…”. The question we should be asking – the point we should be raising – is how faculty rate the importance of the library as partner in achieving student learning outcomes.

Now it is true that this study focuses on the “digital transformation” and by its very nature that means a shift from paper to electronic content. But I would argue that an equally essential part of the academic library’s digital transformation is the shift from the gateway role to the teaching and learning role in a much more aggressive way that integrates the library into the digital learning environment that has become many faculty’s preferred method of delivering their educational content. Hybrid and online learning environments are only going to expand exponentially in this century, and the importance of the library as judged by faculty is only likely to diminish further if academic librarians fail to position themselves prominently in these learning spaces. I do suspect that if faculty were asked to rate the importance of the library as instructional partner, that many would rate it less important than the other categories; many faculty still regard academic librarians as the administrative staff that support their research by buying the books and journals and making it all accessible. I think that attidtude is shifting, but we no doubt have a long way to go. That’s why asking the question is a good first step in helping us to track our progress.

So my suggestion for whoever develops the 2009 faculty study is to add a new library role beyond gateway, archive and buyer. Those are important but perhaps a throwback to the library’s traditional past. We need to look ahead to a future where the academic library is as much valued for its role as educator and instructional partner (perhaps “instructional partner” is the simplest way to define this role for the sake of the survey) as for its collections and providing access to them. If we want to avoid a futher decline in the profile and relevance of the academic library, I advocate that the major change needed to ensure our important role in the intellectual life of the campus is the one that transitions us to a fully integrated partner in the teaching and learning process – in both physical and virutal classroom spaces. I have made a personal commitment to that change through my work at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. What are you doing to create this change?

Library As Place – For Air Conditioning Books

Here’s an interesting vision for the future of academic libraries from Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Sannier was the keynote speaker at the Campus Technology 2008 conference, and you can watch the video of his presentation, “A New American University for Next-Gen Learners” at the Campus Technology website. In his talk Sannier discusses strategies for putting in place groundbreaking plans that will serve the next generation of students. But in his vision, next-gens apparently don’t need physical libraries and the books they offer. He says:

If you were starting an educational institution right now would you build a giant air-conditioned building to house books? Is that what you would do? That’s what you did if you founded a university in the previous century. You made sure you could have as many books as you could possibly have. In fact that’s how you measure universities one to the next. How many books you got? If you were starting one today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

Later in the talk when Sannier is discussing his six ways to transform higher education he provides further advice on how to transform the academic library:

Here’s my favorite one. Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place, a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial. Enough. And let’s spend some more time making those things [Note: not sure if he means library buildings or collections] level, flat, transparent, so a single search turns up everything…Let’s just start releasing the stats…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for…

Keep listening and you’ll hear Sannier attack the traditional scholarly publishing system next. He’s with the librarians on that issue. Now, do I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying? Do I really think he advocates universities with no books and no library building? Yes, to an extent I think he’s really serious – not the part about burning down the library. If you can get past the objectionable hyperbole about the library Sannier has some messages we need to hear. As hard as it may be to believe that the top IT professional at a major research university could be so completely and utterly misinformed about the state of digitized libraries, I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying about book digitization. He also seems to have a poor understanding of how higher education works if he really believes that all 4000 U.S. colleges and universities have curriculums that are so alike that no student or faculty member will ever need any book other than the ones that Michigan and Stanford have digitized (and let’s not even get into his lack of knowledge about how Google Book Search really works or that academic libraries share their resources at cost-saving levels that would shame the gross inefficiencies of most campus IT departments).

But if I can put aside his anti-library rant for a moment, no doubt delivered to be intentionally controversial, I think he makes some good points. Academic libraries, as operated today, are increasingly unsustainable. None of us has the room or budget to meet all the just in case needs of our user community, and trying to get there is an exercise in futility. And he’s dead on when he says that we use the size of our book collections to judge who has the best library; in the age of outcomes assessment those traditional measures seem to grow more pointless. I’m actually glad that Sannier is sharing his views in public forums with his IT colleagues because it should serve as a warning to all academic librarians that the folks who control the networks and the technology may very well have it in for us. If academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.

But rather than make up your mind about Sannier and his radical vision for academic libraries based on my post, take some time and watch the video. There is no denying that he’s a dynamic speaker who will command your attention – and get you thinking about the future of higher education. Heck, you’ll probably still be in “WTF – did he really just say that” mode when he tells the audience to burn down the libraries – even after you heard it here.