Do Open Academic Libraries Need Academic Librarians
I started the day by doing a quick dive into an open course on education futures. Open courses are nothing new. MIT began offering them some time ago, and a number of institutions have followed suit. This one caught my attention because it was being offered by two education gurus in a totally independent setting. I was curious about the curriculum and the platforms they were using to offer the course (a combination of elluminate for live sessions, drupal for the website and discussion board, blogs, etc). It looks pretty interesting, and what’s of greater interest is how easy it is becoming for anyone with access to open technologies to create a course and open it up to the world. Of course, such courses offer no credit, lead to no degrees, and have no accreditation – but that’s not the point. If you want to join a learning community and expose yourself to new ideas, the open course is a perfect way to do it. If people want to create something and share it with others, the tools to do so are now available – and I think we’ll be seeing many more examples of the open movement in unexpected ways.
What about an open academic library? That’s not “open” as in “our library is open from 8 am to 10 pm today”, but rather the library isn’t open, so the users decide to create their own library and open it others who want what the library offers when the library is closed. That sounds sort of messed up, but that’s exactly what is happening at the California State University, Los Angeles, where budget cuts have forced the academic library to close several hours earlier than in the past. According to this Los Angeles Times article, when budget cuts forced the library to begin closing at 8 pm, the students felt left out in the cold. They needed a communal space for quite study, computer access, photocopiers, and those other amenities (e.g., printers) the academic library offers – and they wanted it at least until midnight. So these enterprising students created an open library by bringing their own chairs and tables, jerry-rigging some electrical power, and they were in business – and they set it up right outside the library and appear to be attracting some crowds.
The actions of the students sends a powerful message to the campus administrators. Academic libraries are sacred campus space that provides students with the facilities and amenities they need for learning. On the other hand it does raise the question of what our role is in supporting student success. If the students can create their own open library without academic librarians, what does that say about our added value? Many academic libraries already offer 24-hour study spaces that are either unstaffed or staffed only by student workers or security personnel. Academic librarians need not always be physically present to make an impact on student learning. And you can make the case that while the students are contributing the physical elements of the library, the academic librarians designed the online research environment that the students may use at their open library. There’s clearly more to the library than chairs, tables, and computers. And while the article doesn’t comment on it, there may be CSU, LA librarians available via chat or text message to help students at the open library. Librarians or library school students could volunteer to stop by the open library and offer their services.
The open academic library at CSU, LA is more about, as one student is quoted in the article, “resistance” to an administrative decision to close early. I suspect it isn’t the start of a trend. But there’s no question that the field of higher education is ripe for open initiatives, and with respect to the academic library – at least for its most basic physical study functions (books? media? students could bring their own and share them I suppose) going “open” is a distinct possibility. I think we would certainly want to support an open academic library. If MIT can continue to function as an “admissions” only, tuition-based university at the same time it offers an entirely open campus, then it seems the traditional academic library and its open counterpart could certainly co-exist.