Category Archives: Top Issues

For postings related to ACRL’s “Top Issues Facing Academic Libraries” (2002).

Chance To Influence Next Generation Higher Education Administrators

I was intrigued by this new initiative created by the folks at Inside Higher Ed and the Association for the Study of Higher Education. It allows anyone to submit a 1,000 word, well-researched and documented essay on any news story published by Inside Higher Ed. While some essays must be based on a set of pre-selected stories, others can be proposed by potential authors. Because the content is targeted to faculty and graduate students in higher education administration programs, as well as current higher education administrators, this seems like an excellent opportunity for academic librarians to share their perspective on library-related news stories and essays that appear in Inside Higher Ed. Doing so could help to influence and shape how future higher education administrators perceive the academic library.

All too often when these stories appear, be they informative or controversial, librarians engage in discussion among themselves on their discussion lists and twitter feeds, or they leave insightful comments to the stories, but rarely is there any organized follow up. In the end those who need to hear what we bring to the conversation most likely never have that opportunity. This new program changes that. Take for example two recent IHE articles, one a news item on “bookless libraries” and the other an essay on “Reviving the Academic Library“. Both generated considerable discussion in the library community, but who knows what message reached the academic administrators who decide on the library budget or whether or not to commit funds to a new library facility.

What do these essays look like? If you go to the detailed information page there is an example that provides a good picture of what’s expected. In addition to the essay authors should develop a set of questions that faculty could use to lead a discussion on the topic. Academic librarians should keep this new program in mind for the next time that Inside Higher Ed publishes an article or essay that could use a balanced and authoritative response from our profession. To not do so allows authors who may have an outdated interpretation or inaccurate understanding of the mission and operation of the contemporary academic library to unduly influence the thinking of academic administrators.

Academic Librarians Are Not Salespeople – But They Should Be

Have you seen the latest set of “Provocative Statements“ from the 2009 Taiga Forum yet? The statements were released a few weeks ago, and I think there’s been little discussion about them thus far. By contrast the first set of provocative statements generated in 2006 created a great deal of discussion. So far I think only this blogger has discussed the statements, and the lack of attention strikes me as odd. Perhaps this year’s crop of statements are just a bit less controversial than the ones produced in 2006. For example, one of the most provocative of the 2006 batch stated:

there will be no more librarians as we know them. Staff may have MBAs or be computer/data scientists. All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and web services personnel. The ever increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.

Compare that to one of the 2009 provocative statements:

libraries will provide no in-person services. All services (reference, circulation, instruction, etc.) will be unmediated and supported by technology.

Keep in mind that all those statements are prefaced with “within the next 5 years”. Even looking back to 2006 it’s highly unlikely any academic librarians believed we’d all be gone by 2011. But the value of Taiga’s provocative statements isn’t their predictive value. Rather it’s in their ability to get librarians thinking about and discussing how it is possible we can even be making such suggestions, and what it is we need to do to shape our own preferred future rather than submit to the outcomes the statements suggest. I can recall several regional conferences that based some sort of activity or discussion on the 2006 statements. I doubt that will repeat for the 2009 statements. I’m not sure why. The 2009 statements are worthy of discussion, but perhaps in our current state of financial crisis academic librarians are simply fixated with budgetary issues.

So what does any of this have to do with this post’s title? Well I participated in this year’s forum (now that I”m an AUL I’m a member of the tribe), and with colleagues I helped to shape the statements. Somewhere during the discussions one of the participants said something along the lines of “Academic librarians are not good salespeople.” I can’t quite recall how that came up but it struck a chord with me because I’ve thought the same exact thing for quite a few years. Frontline librarians need to do more than just respond when the end users are looking for information. They’ve got to be out in the field spreading the word, and making the sales pitch for why the library’s resources are vitally important to the teaching and learning process.

Here’s an example. I was at a meeting last week of our Distance Learning Advisory Group. Our leader asked me to say a few words about how the Library supports online learners – and where we need to improve. As I finished one faculty member blurted out “I had no idea I could do at that with your resources.” How many times does that happen? Too many. We’re also doing LibQual+ and there are far too many comments with suggestions for what the library should be offering – that we’ve already been offering for two or more years. They don’t know it. There’s a disconnect. On the other hand we’ve got 35,000 students, over 1,000 faculty and 12 reference librarians. That’s a whole lot of sales calls for everyone. So we’ve got to figure out how to be a truly effective salesforce. Maybe this new book will give me some ideas for better marketing and promotion methods.

To tell the truth the best library salesperson I ever worked with wasn’t a librarian. At a prior job the instructional technologist who helped our faculty learn the courseware system and other learning tools was far more effective than any librarian at getting our faculty to integrate the library into their courses. He’d be telling them about all the technology tools, and then he’d slip in “Well you are going to integrate the library databases in here, right?” And from there he just did a good sales pitch and then the librarians took over and closed the deal (it’s as simple as ABC – Always Be Closing!). Maybe the next set of Taiga provocative statements will include “Within the next 5 years all librarians will work strictly on commission earning revenue everytime one of their clients searches a database, acquires an article through interlibrary loan, or requests an instruction session.” With the way our economy is going, who knows.

I hope you’ll take a look at the 2009 statements and share your thoughts. As an added bonus you can see some of the slides used for the 5-minute lightning round presentations made at the forum (each statement was presented by a forum attendee). I presented for statement #5 and the slides are there.

Adventures in Wonderland

Here’s an interesting blog post that was recently brought to my attention.  Olivia (my fellow first-year-blogger) and I were going to both make comments, because there’s lots of great stuff here that is useful both for long-time librarians and newbies like us.  Unfortunately Olivia had to bow out of this joint project, though she did provide many of the links. (Thanks, Olivia!!) And she’s promised another great post soon, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

So let’s head down the rabbit hole…

First off, here’s John Dupuis’s post at Confessions of a Science Librarian.

So he’s got 29 reports listed in the link above.  And to make it easy here are all the links to posts by our own bloggers about the same reports

1. The question they forgot to ask
2. Sudden thoughts
3. Is this new OCLC report worth it?
4. Takes more than blogs
4. Some thoughts on privacy
6. Renting keys to walled gardens
16. Real faculty in our minds alone
20. Digital scholarship reconsidered
22. Three new things
22. The more we know
22. Learning from the work
23. Waste of time
26. Digital scholarship beyond the sciences
28. Transformational times
29. Academic research a painful process

 It’s amazing to me the wealth of information available about the future of our profession.  For example: I was considering starting a library blog.  It wouldn’t be anything fancy, just a way to let students know what’s new and interesting, and maybe provide a review or two.  But in November I read the post StephenB made about the report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World. (#4, above)  It made me rethink *why* I wanted to start a library blog, and *what* I thought it would do. 


Last semester, our first semester in operation at this branch campus, I taught a lot of “intro to the library” drop-in sessions.  This semester I’m doing other things, most notably with the English and History classes, about library research.  And I proceeded to promptly hit the wall called IAKT (“I Already Know This”).  Since then I’ve read the 2008 ECAR Study, another offering by StevenB, (#23, above) and know I’m not alone!  Now I’m working on a plan to get the faculty more involved, and researching best teaching practices on the ILI-L listserv.  I might have just kept doing the “same-old, same-old” and not making any headway at all had I not seen this post and the link to this study.

So I’ve bookmarked John Dupuis’s blog post, and I plan to slowly but surely read my way through these reports and follow all the interesting rabbit trails.  Which only goes to confirm my nerdiness because I am definitely looking forward to it!

Planning For Transformational Times

Did you know that the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is currently in the process of renewing its strategic plan? I didn’t and despite regularly monitoring what’s happening at ARL this somehow evaded tracking on my radar screen. Since my own library is also currently engaged in a new planning process, I was pleased to discover an environmental scanning document produced by ARL. “Transformational Times: An Environmental Scan Prepared for the ARL Strategic Plan Review Task Force” examines themes, threats and general challenges and opportunities in three specific strategic arenas in which ARL operates. I think the limited number of arenas helps to focus this environmental scan yet still provides a good number of issue areas to which academic librarians, at all size institutions, should be paying attention.

The three strategic arenas are: (1) scholarly communication; (2) public policy that impacts research libraries; and (3) the library’s role in research, teaching and learning. The first two are no surprise here. Taking an advocacy role and helping research libraries to organize in dealing with scholarly communication and public policy are ARL’s meat and potatoes activity. I’m glad to see that ARL recognizes that the research library has a vital role to play in engaging faculty and students in learning spaces. ARL acknowledges that research libraries need to increasingly deploy services and resources into virtual and physical learning spaces. For example, the scan warns that:

Failure to respond with comprehensive, relevant, evolving, and appealing virtual domains runs the risk of alienating consumers.

How interesting that ARL describes our students, specifically undergrads, as consumers. To me that signals that ARL recognizes the importance of paying attention to consumer trends and user expectations. I find repeated references in the document to building relationships and establishing partnerships with our academic colleagues, be they faculty, instructional technologists or researchers. This is an important societal trend that needs recognition in the scan. The value of libraries could increasingly be less measured by collections and content as more emphasis is placed on the importance of establishing relationships that provide meaning. ARL picks up on a variety of ways these changes can emerge. Personally I’m interested to see that ARL predicts a more “blended” approach for academic librarians when it comes to information literacy. They believe we’ll spend less time in classrooms doing instruction and more time spent behind the scenes creating learning objects for instructors.

If you expect an ARL environmental scan to emphasize important developments in new models for scholarly publishing, shifting relationships with publishers, collaborations with internet content providers, technology innovation, copyright and intellectual property, the preservation of special collections and other research library concerns this report will satisfy your needs. But what about the challenges? There are some good ideas here, but what could foul up the works? In a word, us. ARL sees some great opportunities but believes that “as uncertainty about the future persists, library staff may tend to cling to the familiar, resisting new approaches to the way they work.” Resist change? Surely not us academic librarians? When it comes to transformational times, we want to be there.

Academic Freedom Is About The Task At Hand

You may think you learned everything you needed to know about academic freedom when you took ACRLog’s Academic Freedom Quiz. The reality is that our understanding of academic freedom will continue to evolve as higher education experts and others continue to examine the exact nature of academic freedom and how we can best intepret the principles behind its establishment. A new book about academic freedom may shed even more light on this topic by offering “a concise explanation of the history and meaning of American academic freedom, and…clarifying the fundamental functions and purposes of academic freedom in America.” While I have not yet had an opportunity to examine this book (it is available in March, 2009) I did learn a few things about it and what it has to say about academic freedom from Stanley Fish. In one of his recent columns he provides a preview of For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom.

According to the Quiz academic freedom is neither an inherent right of faculty or a protection guaranteed by a faculty contract. It is a privilege granted by individual institutions. According to Fish’s reading of the book this can be further refined. In discussing the authors’ explanation that academic freedom differs fundamentally from First Amendment speech rights Fish says:

The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

Fish goes on to state:

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

With respect to the debate concerning whether or not academic librarians need to be granted the privilege of academic freedom this sounds eminently practical. Rather than making blanket statements that academic librarians need academic freedom because faculty have it or that it makes responsible collection building possible, it is sensible to examine first what tasks academic librarians perform and then determine what are the special conditions of that task necessary for librarians to fulfill its requirements. What is unique about collection development, bibliographic instruction or any other tasks that academic librarians perform that require the “degree of latitude” offered by academic freedom.

Fish draws from the book another way of looking at this:

If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance. Those forces and influences would include trustees, parents, donors, legislatures and the general run of “public opinion,” and the device that provides the necessary protection is called academic freedom.

So let’s apply that thinking to academic librarianship. First we need to know what the mission is. Let’s say the mission is to “collect, organize and make accessible collections that support student learning and faculty research, and make the academic community aware of and skilled in the use of the library’s resources”. So exactly what forces can we identify that would subvert the academic librarian as he or she goes about fulfilling this mission. Perhaps a student or faculty member could make an effort to block the acquisition of certain materials, or that might come from an external force, such as a politically motivated organization. I might also imagine a situation in which a student or faculty member may wish to block a particular librarian’s choice of examples for use in an instruction session. What actions or conditions would keep the academic librarian from fulfilling these purposes? Your response would likely indicate where you stand on the need for academic librarians to have academic freedom.

My response is that conditions do arise that stand to hamper our ability to fulfill our mission. For example, this past summer at my library we were engaged in a project to renovate our computer commons. All the furniture was replaced by a mix of great looking wood furniture to meet the needs of individual or collaborative workers. Shortly after the furniture arrived we received a complaint from several students that one of the carrels resembled a swastika. This took us by surprise because we had a prototype on the floor for several months before we made our order and we received nothing but praise for the carrel. As we learned our library was not the first to get that reaction to what is a fairly standard configuration for computer carrels. Clearly we had a serious public relations matter on our hands, as well as serious investment in the carrels. We could hardly discard them and order replacements. What if our response was that ordering library furniture fulfilled our mission of furthering student learning, and that actions taken in pursuit of this mission were protected by academic freedom and therefore no one on campus could dictate to the library what furniture it should or should not provide. I suppose we might have prevailed. But you know that in the long run we would have lost this battle in a public relations nightmare.

My story helps to shape my perspective on the need for academic librarians to have academic freedom. First, situations that may impede academic librarians from fulfilling their mission or just day-to-day tasks are rare. The same may be said for faculty and what they do. But protections need to be in place for even rare occurrences. Second, when challenges to our performance of these tasks do arise achieving resolutions may be more a matter of working cooperatively to acheive win-win outcomes than one of standing firm on the principles of academic freedom. Third, the current intellectual freedom climate at the vast majority of academic institutions is liberal in its interpretation of the rights of librarians so that it allows them to conduct their tasks without the type of subversion or influence that academic freedom was created to protect against.

There may be any number of good reasons for academic librarians to have tenure – participation in governance, better pay, promotion and benefits, more equitable status with faculty or you might even make a case that it helps librarians to earn respect from faculty colleagues. But given how this new book frames the nature and purpose of academic freedom it could be a challenge to make a case for tenure based on the need for academic librarians to have the protection of academic freedom. I will look forward to the book and what it has to tell us about academic freedom. If academic librarians wish to make the case that they are in need and deserving of academic freedom, as a basis for tenure or otherwise, they should be able to concretely document that the nature of their work and tasks they perform requires it so that they should be able to fulfill their purpose.