Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.

2 thoughts on “Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic”

  1. I work in a public library, and we have the same problem. I think it comes down to managing expectations and being up front about our limitations. There’s a lot of pressure to be heroic, and I think there’s a subconscious inclination to cover up the difficulties of the profession. Thanks for posting this; it was really thought provoking.

  2. Great essay. And yes, to many, it all seemed like it was magic. The other problem, though, is that when people don’t see all the hard work that goes into vetting, curating, collecting, and making information accessible, as well as the programming in complex databases and systems, they tend to assume it’s MUCH easier than it is. Yet when they type words into Google and get something – anything – back, they don’t seem to assume that the back-end programming that goes into Google is easy. Librarians have made it all seem so easy for so long that we have done ourselves a disservice. Many times over the last decade or so, I have heard higher education administrators muse aloud along the lines of “What do we need libraries for anymore, when we have Google?” Few administrators are that foolish – but there are some. The few who take a look at some of the complexities behind the scenes are astonished. I’m not suggesting we make it harder – heavens no, we have enough issues with our discovery layers, etc., as it is. But I agree completely – library work is complex, and we need to share the narrative of complexity.

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