Monthly Archives: December 2008

Welcome To The Age Of New Frugality

You can feel it. We’re going through a cultural shift. Thank the economic meltdown. I’ve noticed a number of writers pointing to a trend that could impact academic librarians, but will more likely make its presence felt in the public library sector. Still, it’s a trend to which we should pay attention, and perhaps there may be ways academic libraries can make their own contribution. Call it the Age of New Frugality. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer points to a behavior shift in which Americans “are showing an enthusiasm for thriftiness not seen in decades.” In the Age of New Frugality people won’t be just spending less, they’ll be looking to make every dollar stretch as far as it can. Think clipping coupons, staycations and combining errands to save gas.

Harvard B-School professor John Quelch has another word to describe the changing consumer. He calls them Simplifiers. A Simplifier is, quite simply, a consumer who is shifting away from the accumulation of stuff and towards the acquisition of experiences. He writes that

“The economic boom of the 1990s fueled consumption and democratized access to a wider than ever spectrum of goods transforming former luxuries into “must-have” necessities…[now] they want to collect experiences, not possessions. And they give experiences rather than goods as gifts to friends and relatives. Experiences may seem ephemeral. They cannot be inventoried except in the form of “Kodak” moments; but they do not tie you down, require no maintenance, and permit variety-seeking instincts to be quickly satisfied.”

That’s a huge change. People want to simplify. Accumulating stuff is now not so attractive or important. Having a good experience, not acquiring a material object, creates meaning.

Other signs of the Age of New Frugality are already being evidenced by the increased use of public libraries. Instead of buying and collecting DVDs or books, more people are recognizing the savings in borrowing them from the local library. And in the academic sector there are numerous reports detailing the increase in online enrollments because students save gas money that way, and the larger enrollments at community colleges because their lower tuition is far more economical. Why pay more for a traditional face-to-face learning experience at a name-brand institution? Of course, there seems to be no tremendous decrease in the number of students applying to the nation’s most costly institutions. But for the majority of Americans finding ways to save money is the essence of the Age of New Frugality.

It’s great that higher education offers options that can help people get through these tough economic times with job retraining for some, a haven from a difficult job market for others, and access to free learning for everyone. But what if we could do more than that? What if we could capitalize on the shift from people investing in stuff to investing in experiences? The signposts suggest that in economic hard times what people value more than stuff is adding some intrinsic meaning to their lives; the latter is certainly more affordable. I think that creates an opportunity for librarians. To be sure, in the 21st century libraries are largely about technology. But where we excel is in bringing the human touch to high tech. Academic librarians deliver meaning by helping students and faculty to be more productive and academically successful. Being helped by a librarian is an experience – hopefully a good one. I was giving a talk about this idea of designing user experiences in academic libraries to the library staff at a large university. The concept is one that takes some time and thought to process. But one librarian spoke up and shared her experiences helping students with their research projects. In almost every case she found those students came back to her each time they had a new research project. I thought that was a great example of delivering meaning to students. I said “You are the library experience”.

It looks like we are just entering the Age of New Frugality. It’s likely to last a while – at least longer than we’d like. Let’s keep in mind that some of our students may be struggling to make ends meet while they try to come up with their tuition money, if they are able to find a lender. I can well imagine many are in need of a good experience, something to remember and something to which they can look forward. If we think about it, and give some thought to designing it, academic librarians can offer a great user experience. Our communities may need it now more than ever.

And speaking of the new frugality, our parent institutions are entering unknown economic territory, and if your library isn’t already feeling it, it probably will be soon. More on the grim outlook for higher education in a future post.

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.