Let’s Get On The Right Train Right Now

After an EDUCAUSE session last week a colleague asked if I’d read the column in the latest issue of EDUCAUSE Review (n-d ’05) that “slammed” libraries. Fortunately I was at the one place where finding a copy of ER is not a problem. Paul Gandel’s piece, “Libraries: Standing at the wrong platform waiting for the wrong train” doesn’t quite slam academic libraries, but he does take them to task on two counts: hastening their own marginalization and failure to innovate. It’s a good read, and it’s important for authors to send a call to arms when change is imperative. But when it comes to spotting trends it seems Gandel is late arriving at the train station. Pointing out that academic libraries are suffering from a case of diminishing relevance and innovation is nothing new. Bell and Shank have written in depth about marginalization issues and authors as diverse as Coffman, Tennant, Pace, and others criticized librarians and our system vendors for lacking innovative.(note – registrations required to view some links)

Gandel wouldn’t be the first author to make points made previously by others, and sometimes there is no harm in reminding us we need to do better. He is also writing for a different audience – our IT colleagues. Where I do find fault with his article is that it identifies problems but offers no solutions. Granted, this is just a two-page article, but surely there can be a better balance between what’s wrong and how we fix it. Lack of innovation? Has Gandel walked through the poster sessions at an ACRL conference? Has he joined or visited an online learning community where academic librarians are exploring cutting edge ideas? If he had I think that instead of implying that Amazon and Google offer models we should adopt, he’d be identifying solutions that promote better user education programs and the integration of library resources and services into those places where learning occurs. Yes, we absolutely must rethink our policies and procedures for digital environments. There’s no question we must offer systems that balance ease of use and sophisticated algorithms that yield high quality results.

To truly avoid, as Gandel puts it, “being rendered obsolete in an increasingly digital world” we all need to work hard at putting ourselves and resources where the learning is happening. If we do that it should help our faculty and students to make better use of our collections and reference services – two areas that Gandel finds particularly problematic. I agree with Gandel that our old “just put it out there and hope they find it” model of librarianship needs improvement. But there are many librarians that are advocating change as well as libraries that are innovating so they can avoid being marginalized. I encourage Gandel to discover them. When he does I hope he uses his space in ER to share this information with his IT audience. He should encourage them to work with the campus library to make sure it is technologically well equipped to support the library’s effort to achieve relevance and sustainability in the digital landscape.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Get On The Right Train Right Now”

  1. Steven, an interesting thread related to this has developed around a previous post – especially Lorcan Dempsey’s comments. He points toward uses of popular tools “out there” that, if libraries work at it, will include what’s “in here.”

    I also found a comment on this at Free Range Librarian thanks to Alec at Librarians at the Gate that struck me. Yes, if libraries charge $7.50 for an interlibrary loan, they are in a real sense pricing themselves out of the business.

    In some ways it’s ironic that a librarian is finding fault with his own community for being stodgy in the pages of a journal that published an article by historian Edward Ayers a year ago in which he said “Librarians have been the real heroes of the digital revolution in higher education. They are the ones who have seen the farthest, done the most, accepted the hardest challenges, and demonstrated most clearly the benefits of digital information. In the process, they have turned their own field upside down and have revolutionized their professional training. It is testimony to their success that we take their achievement—and their information-management systems—for granted.” He thinks we’ve done a better job than most at bridging IT and academic cultures.

  2. Like Steve, I was fascinated by Gandel’s completely missing the revolution in practice represented by information literacy instruction. His choice of “the past 30 years” as his marker would have matched beautifully with the ILI movement in libraries and with his assertion that librarians must clearly articulate their professional role on campus in an environment that has left some traditional services (e.g., ready reference) fundamentally altered.

    I mean, seriously, instruction statistics in my library are up 83% since 1998, and instruction doesn’t even make it as one of Gandel’s 3 “core areas of library service”?

    Talk about missing the boat . . .

  3. As someone who works with Paul Gandel at Syracuse, and enjoys working with him, I’d like to add however another arena which I think Paul missed entirely, and that’s “library as civic space”. From about 4pm till 2am each and every day of the school year, our library at Syracuse is just jam packed. It’s where students come, work, study, complete homework, hang out, do the group thing, use multimedia, sleep, eat and pursue intellectual discovery. Indeed, for international students it is literally their home away from home. In fact, the university here sees the Library in a very literal sense as the campus “shelter from a storm”. Paul suggests libraries are irrelevant or we’re missing some choo-choo? Not here. After sundown every seat is taken! Peter McDonald, AUL for Collections, Syracuse University Library.

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