Experience vs. Reality

Last week I was at the ARLIS/NA Midstates Chapter fall meeting, graciously hosted by Chapter president Rebecca Price and the University of Michigan Libraries. In a panel discussion, Ray Silverman (director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan) and Jennifer Gustafson (Practicum Coordinator for the School of Library & Information Science at Wayne State University) talked about the relationship between the digital and the real and its impact on museums as well as libraries.

Museums, they said, are getting away from the object and moving towards the experience, and they discussed The Henry Ford (no longer the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) as an example. There, a $32 admission fee provides access to a range of experiences, from riding in a Model T to playing historic baseball.

Libraries, however, are also moving this direction. A great divestiture of physical collections is underway in the wake of our shift to the electronic and in preparation for – what? Several librarians at the conference discussed the wholesale de-accessioning of visual resources collections, something that has been underway for years now. Tony White, director of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University, talked about the demise of the branch library and how he fears his library (now that it has absorbed the Visual Resources Center) may not be freestanding for much longer. Price brought up the de-duping proposal being discussed by the CICs: it begins with journals, but ends, we imagine, with thinner and more mobile physical collections, cooperatively owned, and research libraries whose floors of stacks have been transformed into flexible learning commons designed to hold the experiences of different audiences – first-year students, graduate students, faculty.

This is not only going on in the ARL libraries of the world – in my own mid-sized academic library we recently closed a branch (our science library) and have undertaken, along with other Ohio academic libraries, a massive deduping project, beginning with journals.

And what about roles? Silverman pointed out that as museums shift to providing experiences, curators actually become more like librarians, who have traditionally been less focused on collecting objects (though collect we do) and more on helping people. And White predicts that librarians’ roles as collection specialists will become a thing of the past as consolidated collections require less distributed expertise. Several weeks ago I blogged about this very future for electronic resources, though the reality on the ground right now makes it seem rather distant.

Ironically, Silverman predicted a “re-discovery of the real” – that the object itself will become more important than it’s ever been. But “the books are going,” as Price said. For libraries, what form will that object take when the books are gone? Will we create experiences with our special collections? Prize the digital object instead of the physical? Remember, for many, libraries’ brand is still books, and some people still want them, just like some museum-goers still want art. It would be awful to re-discover this reality only after the books are gone.

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

2 thoughts on “Experience vs. Reality

  1. I really like the idea of more flexible learning spaces in academic libraries — we are certainly feeling the crunch in the library where I work, with the rapidly increasing enrollment we’ve seen over the past few years. But lately I’ve found myself wondering whether our cooperative borrowing agreements might actually be pushing many of our students *away* from using books. Faculty, graduate students and advanced undergrads who have experience with research likely plan far enough ahead to request books from off-campus storage or another institution. But many students don’t realize that books from other locations might be useful in their research, and by the time they come to the library it’s too late for them to expand their search beyond our walls. I wonder what will happen with our students’ research if it’s true that “the books are going?”

  2. It’s also not easy to tell from the average catalog record whether a book will actually be useful for an undergrad project. Yet books are often more accessible than scholarly articles, which tend to be less likely to frame an issue in its context and assume you are already au fait.

    A good, current, well-managed book collection that enables students who are not expert to discover both key works and new books on topics of interest is important to many fields in which books remain a major form for conveying knowledge.

    It makes sense to weed collections and/or to store some materials if there’s no space, but it’s rarely an “either/or” situation. As a sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity stated: what do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review.

    I think we sometimes are eager to follow trends and try to take our users with us, kicking and screaming, when talking to our users is important – honestly, without deferring to evidence-free reasoning (like “but you can’t store books, I have to browse” – “when were you last in the library browsing?” “Uh … 1987?”) We also need to realize that if we have multiple constituents – undgrads, grads, faculty, other researchers – we can’t base our decisions on one group only, even if they are the people we see face to face most often.

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