Category Archives: Top Issues

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

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.

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?

Responding Creatively In Times Of Crisis

Academic libraries are subject to challenging and turbulent times. State legislatures can unexpectedly decimate higher education budgets that result in calls for libraries to drastically reduce spending. The appearance of a radically new disruptive technology can suddenly make the academic library look sadly out-of-date and potentially obsolete. New information providers offering easy, free access to desirable content can forever transform the information seeking behavior of undergraduates. How can academic librarians learn to react creatively to such challenges? How can they abruptly shift course to new directions in ways that sustain what academic libraries do best while staying relevant to the user community?

Right now is the time to learn some valuable lessons in how to respond to real and severe threats to the livelihood of one’s core business. My suggestion is to closely follow what is happening in the airline industry. While there are some industries with which libraries share similar situations, such as newspapers or travel agencies (all mediate information to end users in an Internet Age of gather-it-yourself news and data), the airline industry is not one of them. Airlines have experienced enormous competitive pressures the last few years, but the rapidly escalating cost of gas has hit all the companies like a hard punch to the gut. And perhaps no airlines have felt the impact more than the bargain carriers.

The damage is so severe that several airlines have already declared bankruptcy, and several low-budget airlines (think JetBlue and Southwest) are facing real crisis situations. That’s where their creative survival methods are worth studying. I discovered some of their strategies in a NYT article about the impact of high fuel costs on budget airlines. Southwest, for example is looking to differentiate itself in other ways beyond low fares:

Southwest says it is trying to set itself apart on the issue of fees, if not fares. Major airlines are piling on new fees, like the $15 charge that American, United and US Airways charge some passengers to check a bag. Southwest still allows passengers to bring two free bags, and its marketing slogan is now “Freedom from fees.” Mr. Ridley, the Southwest executive, calls the fees other carriers are charging “airline heroin” because of the dangerous addiction they can become for raising revenue.

What we can learn from the budget airlines is that no matter what happens it remains critical to stay focused on desired outcomes (for Southwest – low fees at all times) and those things that one’s organization does best. For academic libraries that may be helping students achieve academic success. Or it may be providing free access to high quality information resources. Or we can focus attention on subject specialists and the relationships they build with faculty and students. Whatever we may choose to do in response to a crisis, planning ahead is probably the best bet. The question is, can we avoid getting fixated on today’s immediate problem in order to develop ideas for future ways in which libraries can creatively respond to a crisis?

If you’ve got a good example of how your library devised a creative response to a crisis, please use the comments area to share it.

Feeling Lost In A World Of Search Zombies

Maybe I’m getting more removed from mainstream search. I know that some aspects of online searching can be complex, and depending on the uniqueness of some disciplinary databases (think about using financial screening tools in NetAdvantage or ValueLine Research Center) search can reach the extremes of complexity. But I would never have thought to associate the word “complex” with three basic search functions: formulating a search question; evaluating the results; and revising the search strategy. True, these basic skils are hardly intuitive for college students, but it certainly seems within their ability to learn – and I know that many have. So I was surprised to read this in a recent Jakob Nielsen column:

How difficult is it to perform a search on Google? I’m not talking about the challenge of formulating a good query, interpreting the results, or revising your search strategy to reap better results. Those are all very complicated research skills, and few people excel at them.

Complicated research skills? If you take away those basic skills what is left to a search? Have we created a generation of search zombies who listlessly tap away at the keyboard with no strategy at all just hoping they’ll find some information, and then mindlessly settle for whatever their first Google page yields? On the positive side, this suggests to me that librarians are among the few professionals who do excel at these tasks. While it’s great to know we have an increasingly rare skill , I’d feel much better if, as a profession, we were making greater progress in helping more people to develop these basic search skills, or getting more recognition for what we can do.

This leaves me with two thoughts. First, if excellence in navigating the complexity of search (and mind you that Nielsen isn’t talking about library databases – he’s just referring to search engines) is a rarified skill, why the heck can’t we leverage our expertise to raise our profile in society. You would think that the ability to cut through the web wasteland would be a prized skill that people would seek out. Second, if everyone other than librarians lack these skills, then the state of searching and the public’s research ability must be far worse than we might have imagined. Perhaps the “good enough” (or is it now “barely good enough”) mentality has finally turned the masses into search zombies. What’s the cure for that?

Kindle Is A Failed Concept Says Jobs

There was lots of excitement generated by yesterday’s Macworld 2008 presentation by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Bet you can’t wait to get your hands on a MacBook Air. In an interview with some New York Times technology columnists after his presentation (the columnists called it “his performance”), Jobs had something interesting to say about other technology gadgets. The one comment I thought of most interest to our profession had to do with Amazon’s Kindle device for reading e-books. Jobs doesn’t have a problem with the technology, he just thinks it’s a pretty bad idea – and not because people don’t like to read e-books, they just don’t read much at all anymore. From the article:

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

When the Kindle first appeared there was a fair amount of discussion among librarians about how the device might be used to encourage reading. Jobs is pretty savvy about technology and consumer trends, and just the fact that he doesn’t see it going anywhere because people don’t read should be a cause for concern. Now perhaps his observation only concerns whether it can be a huge hit with consumers, rather than a niche product that will catch on with the 60% of people who do still read with some regularity. Perhaps the ultimate fate of books and reading will depend to some degree on academic librarians and things we might be able to do, perhaps working collaboratively with faculty, to encourage more reading and develop lifelong readers.

Then again, maybe Jobs would be satisfied if we all just watched television shows and movies on his company’s gadgets.