Library As Place – For Air Conditioning Books

Here’s an interesting vision for the future of academic libraries from Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Sannier was the keynote speaker at the Campus Technology 2008 conference, and you can watch the video of his presentation, “A New American University for Next-Gen Learners” at the Campus Technology website. In his talk Sannier discusses strategies for putting in place groundbreaking plans that will serve the next generation of students. But in his vision, next-gens apparently don’t need physical libraries and the books they offer. He says:

If you were starting an educational institution right now would you build a giant air-conditioned building to house books? Is that what you would do? That’s what you did if you founded a university in the previous century. You made sure you could have as many books as you could possibly have. In fact that’s how you measure universities one to the next. How many books you got? If you were starting one today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

Later in the talk when Sannier is discussing his six ways to transform higher education he provides further advice on how to transform the academic library:

Here’s my favorite one. Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place, a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial. Enough. And let’s spend some more time making those things [Note: not sure if he means library buildings or collections] level, flat, transparent, so a single search turns up everything…Let’s just start releasing the stats…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for…

Keep listening and you’ll hear Sannier attack the traditional scholarly publishing system next. He’s with the librarians on that issue. Now, do I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying? Do I really think he advocates universities with no books and no library building? Yes, to an extent I think he’s really serious – not the part about burning down the library. If you can get past the objectionable hyperbole about the library Sannier has some messages we need to hear. As hard as it may be to believe that the top IT professional at a major research university could be so completely and utterly misinformed about the state of digitized libraries, I think Sannier really believes what he’s saying about book digitization. He also seems to have a poor understanding of how higher education works if he really believes that all 4000 U.S. colleges and universities have curriculums that are so alike that no student or faculty member will ever need any book other than the ones that Michigan and Stanford have digitized (and let’s not even get into his lack of knowledge about how Google Book Search really works or that academic libraries share their resources at cost-saving levels that would shame the gross inefficiencies of most campus IT departments).

But if I can put aside his anti-library rant for a moment, no doubt delivered to be intentionally controversial, I think he makes some good points. Academic libraries, as operated today, are increasingly unsustainable. None of us has the room or budget to meet all the just in case needs of our user community, and trying to get there is an exercise in futility. And he’s dead on when he says that we use the size of our book collections to judge who has the best library; in the age of outcomes assessment those traditional measures seem to grow more pointless. I’m actually glad that Sannier is sharing his views in public forums with his IT colleagues because it should serve as a warning to all academic librarians that the folks who control the networks and the technology may very well have it in for us. If academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.

But rather than make up your mind about Sannier and his radical vision for academic libraries based on my post, take some time and watch the video. There is no denying that he’s a dynamic speaker who will command your attention – and get you thinking about the future of higher education. Heck, you’ll probably still be in “WTF – did he really just say that” mode when he tells the audience to burn down the libraries – even after you heard it here.

12 thoughts on “Library As Place – For Air Conditioning Books”

  1. A dynamic speaker who apparently does no research about his subject (or he’d know better) and hasn’t talked to faculty (or he’d know better) hasn’t much contact with students (or he’d know better) and doesn’t keep up with trends in higher education (or he’d have a clue).

    I sure hope he’s an anomaly among IT professionals, but it does illustrate a need to take our message beyond the students and faculty and help administrators get a grip on higher education reality. Hard to make a budget case when people have such a sketchy grasp of reality.

    Then again, maybe he’s just the flip side of the nutcase who rants about how technology is destroying civilization. They can be compelling speakers too, but anyone who’s been paying attention knows they’re diving off the deep end just to make a splash.

  2. Barbara got it just right! My first thought was that we are working with faculty and students to move in the directions he is talking about (in general), but they are, in fact, often much more reluctant to make dramatic change than we are.

    Librarians have been skewered for not doing what patrons want or assuming we know what patrons want. Sannier is doing the same thing. Does he really know what is best for our patrons (on our individual campuses with their individual missions and needs)?

    As a result, the few good or provocative ideas actually get lost, in my opinion anyway, in the hyperbole which does more to generate push back than it does creative and innovative thinking.

  3. “Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? ”

    How about an OCLC World Cat analysis of what’s unique in our collections?

  4. Someone should tell him about our students who, when they find an e-book in our collections, ask if they can borrow a print copy of it from another library!

  5. When I was in library school we heard a great story. A researcher was in the library with a stack of old parchment documents, letters written during the Revolutionary War. He would lift one of these letters up to his face, sniff, and then jot something down in his notebook. After a while, the person relating the story went up to him and aksed him about this rather interesting activity. He explained that at the time, people believed vinegar to be an effective treatment against airborne diseases, and when people wrote letters from a town where a certain disease was (like TB or something), they would sprinkle their letters with vinegar. By sniffing these letters, he could tell which letters had been sprinkled with vinegar, and thus which towns had outbreaks and when. So while the actual words in the letters could be digitized, the smell of vinegar couldn’t. Had someone decided it would be a good idea to just digitize them and toss them – after all, why bother air-conditioning them when we can have facsimilies – a whole piece of history would have been lost.

  6. Does Sannier really think that all the books in the world have been digitized, or is he just dismissing literature, as well as the many subjects in which most current scholarship is still published in print book format, as irrelevant? Whatever he thinks, he isn’t much of a reader himself, or he’d be aware that most people find reading large amounts of text on a computer screen uncomfortable and inconvenient. Many of our students do not even have computers of their own.

    I’m getting weary of the technofetishist approach to education as a whole and information in particular. All that has to happen is one power outage and these guys will be literally back in the Dark Ages.

  7. Horrid to think that librarians would assume Sannier has ideas, is an IT professional, or should be taken seriously. He stepped into academia as a best-friend/unqualified hire of a president who also had slim background in any kind of scholarly life.
    Should we worry that higher education is increasingly becoming a bottom-line business, run by grubby anti-intellectuals? Should we confuse them with men of vision for a new university? No.

    Yes, Sannier is serious. Yes, he’s uninformed and gets all his ideas from “Google University” thinking. Yes, our best approach is to acknowledge more anti-scholarship cads are taking over the administrative offices of HE and we need strategies to fight back. Or all is lost and Google will align with WalMart and shut down libraries, reading, thinking, and scholarship.

  8. ASU TechProfessional has it absolutely right. Sannier, like ASU’s president, likes to make dramatic, uninformed statements–and loves the attention. But ASU’s administration has been a disaster for the university, which is facing an Enron-like future (a function of Enron-like ethical practices), because of a series of bizarre, eye-catching “experiments.” And President Crow is deeply anti-intellectual, consciously seeking non-PhD, non-university background people for his senior administration. Crow, and Sanier, and their ilk have been catastrophic for the university.

  9. I’m a pretty tech savvy person, but when I read something, I like to hold it in my hands, not scroll up and down a screen. I love the library beacuse it is hands on, as well as high tech. Sannier’s ideas for burning down the libraries are a little extreme.

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