What if Libraries Were Run Like a Rapacious Corporation?

Remember when Steve Coffman asked us “what if you ran your library like a bookstore?” (American Libraries, March 1, 1998.) Not just any bookstore, but a mega-chain that has its books selected centrally and doesn’t pay its floor workers much because, hey, reference services are an unnecessary extravagance anyway.

Now digital media consultant Joseph Esposito asks “what if Wal-Mart ran a library?” He predicts our days are numbered because we’re simply too expensive and inefficient.

If Wal-Mart ran a library, there would be fewer libraries, but they would be much, much larger. Wal-Mart would study the entire supply chain, from authors all the way to readers, to root out inefficiencies. If a particular vendor proved to be hard to deal with, Wal-Mart would encourage other vendors to enter the area. Wherever possible, solutions would be sought with information technology rather than high-cost First World labor . . . It is not only the cost of academic journals that is unsustainable, but also the behavior of entire institutions that are currently operating outside the demands of a globalizing society steeped in industrial processes and a stubborn, if narrow, view of accountability.

Of course, if there were fewer libraries, and those that survived were run this way, we’d stop supporting academic programs that were small or unproven, we’d avoid stocking material that wasn’t sufficiently popular, we’d outsource as many functions as we could, and (like Coffman’s bookstore model) we wouldn’t bother building collections geared to local needs. Not to worry: higher ed as we know it is doomed, anyway.

We’d also be enough of a monopoly that we could bully publishers into meeting our terms. Lest you think “hey, he’s got a point” – consider SPARC and other efforts to reinvent scholarly communication. We’re already having an effect. But Esposito would disagree: he thinks open access is a bad idea and will end up costing more than traditional publishing, redirecting the expenses from libraries to authors and their institutions.

Terminal Degree For the Academic Librarian

This was a topic of discussion last week on COLLIB-L. Someone asked what the generally-accepted terminal degree for an academic librarian was at their institutions. The consensus, along with some ACRL guidelines, certainly pointed to the M.L.S. as the terminal degree for academic librarians. Of course these degree discussions usually encompass some conversation about the Ph.D. (or Ed.D) for academic librarians. Is it something that enhances one’s career? Is it just for library deans and directors? What makes more sense, a Ph.D. in library and information science, a subject discipline, or higher education administration? A visit to the COLLIB-L archives would provide access to past discussion about the pros and cons of the doctorate for academic librarians. My own position has been that while it can be helpful if contemplating a move to the upper echelon of administration (although as Mignon Adams pointed out in last week’s discussion, of several recent hires at the largest research libraries in the Philadelphia region, the majority – three out of four – had no earned doctorate), I would advise making the extensive effort involved only if one is truly passionate about earning the degree for the sake of doing so (personal challenge, desire to learn more, seeking advanced research and writing skills, etc.), not because of some belief that it will make you more qualified for a job than other candidates.

What brought the COLLIB-L discussion to mind was this interesting blog post about the Ph.D. glut, and the economics of doctoral education in higher education. The author’s primarily economic perspective is that supply and demand principles do not seem to apply to the Ph.D. market. Even though there is a glut, there seems to be no decline in the number of programs at academic institutions or people willing to take the spots in them. Among the comments made:

The American higher education system is structured by the professorate to reward those professors who teach small classes of graduate students. So, year after year, decade after decade, the supply of Ph.D.-holding students increases, despite an academic market that does not hire most of them, and hires a minority at wages that do not compensate them for the money and time invested in earning their degrees.

While this post isn’t directly related to the COLLIB-L discussion, it strikes me as worthwhile reading for all of us whether we are thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., already have one, or will be convinced by this author that it’s just not a good idea right now. It does bring to mind two thoughts: (1) Would we have programs like the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship in Scholarly Information Resources if there wasn’t a Ph.D. glut in the humanities? My cynical side continues to believe this was a program engineered by a few large research universities to manage their own glut of humanities Ph.D. graduates. Hey, let’s just ship them off to libraries. Perhaps the program is placing these Ph.D.s who have no MLS in ways that are helping libraries. Other than my own skepticism I have no evidence that the program is hurting the profession; (2) Now that IMLS funds are fueling new scholarships (see priority #2) for Ph.D.s in LIS programs will we soon see a glut of our own Ph.D. holders? Though I’m not aware of a current or pending shortage of LIS faculty, perhaps the same wave of retirements that is supposed to open loads of jobs for new MLS holders will do the same for LIS Ph.D.s.

I’m pretty sure that this “should I get/do I need a Ph.D.” discussion thread on COLLIB-L will come up from time to time. It’s seems to be a perennial question that MLS holders ask themselves. Perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of our career insecurity and perceived lack of respect in higher education.

Professional Prize Proliferation

Ever think there are just way too many prizes and awards being handed out in the library profession. From the top of the heap (I see Library Journal just named its “Librarian of the Year“) to, well, just name it – there’s an award for just about everything in this profession (ILL, serials, book reviewing…) created by just about every association at every level – there are just so many awards and prizes being dealt out to academic and other librarians that the value of awards in an age of prize proliferation is being brought into question.

Prompting my thinking about prize proliferation is the recent discovery of the work of James English, a University of Pennsylvania English professor who speaks with some authority on the subject. His new book, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value argues that we have become a culture saturated with prizes and awards. There are over 9,000 annual awards in the film industry alone. The library profession certainly has fewer, but it does seems that every time one picks up a professional journal there are more than just a few award announcements.

While English points out a number of flaws in a world of award excess, he insists they do have some value. In a profession such as ours, that receives little recognition from the world at large, the proliferation of prizes may help us to acknowledge that we make an important contribution – one worthy of awards. Are there too many? Should we insist on the elimination of many librarian awards so that the remaining few would be quite significant and leave no doubt as to their value and meaning? I guess we might all agree with what English has to say about that matter. “There aren’t too many prizes until I’ve won more of them.”

Makeover For The Academic Library

An ACRLog post written back in November suggested that academic librarians might learn something about dealing with disruptive technologies from industries confronted with new competitors changing the nature of the service/business model. That post suggested examining how the newspaper industry was confronting the challenges of Internet competition. The January 9, 2006 issue of BusinessWeek offers a column (Jon Fine’s “The Daily Paper of Tomorrow” – no longer free online) that just happens to also use the newspaper an an example of a business that needs to be updated for competition in the 21st Century. Fine presents six suggestions for reimagining the local daily. Here I attempt to see if those suggestions might fit for a makeover of the academic library service model.

1. Steal From Google: Newspapers should identify local companies that advertise on Google – and then do whatever it takes to steal them away from Google. What do librarians need to steal away from Google – our user base. Sure, we know it’s good for our users to consult Google for certain kinds of information just like newspapers know some classifieds are better off at craigslist. But what can we makeover to bring back the users? The interfaces? Better integrating into where the students are? Most likely it’s a combination of strategies.

2. Bifurcate: Newspapers should offer a free mass market giveway paper aimed at the least committed readers and a higher priced premium edition for those wanting an elite daily paper. Libraries should explore the 20-20 strategy. Can we possibly identify the top 20% of our users and increase their use by 20% more by offering them premium services (maybe more customized research and analysis) while we offer minimal levels of service to the other 80%? Of course, we do have this ethic about equality in the delivery of services. But perhaps challenging times call for new and different measures.

3. Redeploy Mercilessly: Newspapers should explore whatever can be done for less dollars another way. Is a Saturday edition necessary? What columns won’t be missed? Is a Washington bureau needed? Does every library need to maintain a local catalog or can we redeploy this to a national provider of catalog information? Does every library need to bind copies of the same journal issues? What can we redeploy to save funds that could be spent in better ways?

4. Increase Local Coverage: Newspapers need to be the local expert because Internet competitors don’t know or report what’s important to the local community. Libraries are the local experts for their user communities. Don’t we know what many of the assignments are? Don’t we have access to the syllabi and the faculty who create the assignments? Shouldn’t we be able to leverage this knowledge to create resources customized to local needs.

5. Redesign Your Premium Product: Newspapers need to have better production values and to go for a classier look (less newspaperish). Libraries need to adopt better design values that pay attention to how resources (web site, handouts, resource guides, ) are presented to users. We’re not designers by training so we should seek out local assistance. Perhaps your institution has a design program that can lend help.

6. Use Your Readers: Newspapers need to take better advantage of user contributed content. They should identify talented content providers among users and invite them to contribute to the newspaper. Libraries should explore how students and faculty can participate at a higher level. Can we identify talented writers or researchers in our communities? Perhaps they could contribute stories about how they use library resources to write and research at higher quality levels. That content can provide the exact type of word-of-mouth promotion that will work to our strengths.

This has been a challenging exercise, and I suspect it holds up better in certain places than others. Clearly there are some ideas and practices that academic librarians should be comtemplating as we look at how different industries respond to a future where there are constant challenges from Internet competitors.

Don’t Change The Resources, Change How Users Experience Them

That idea comes from a post to a blog I regularly follow called Creating Passionate Users. This particular post seems applicable to the BIG question we academic librarians are asking ourselves and each other these days. How do we get the users to user our resources? Time and time again surveys indicate that members of our user communities either start or do all of their research with non-library Internet resources. One response to the question takes the form of “let’s be more like the competition”. If you can’t beat ’em, just be more like ’em. Others are talking about Library 2.0, and how we need to leverage new technologies to make libraries more welcoming to the users. Well this post’s message is that if we want our users to know more about our “product” (i.e. library databases) and develop more passion for it, the answer isn’t necessarily to change it, but to change how our users experience it.

The key to creating a different experience is helping users learn. The post goes on to discuss how people engage with things more passionately once they develop the ability to recognize and understand their subtleties and nuances. I could well imagine undergraduates being able to distinguish among a set of library databases, and using each for the exact sort of research for which that database was designed. Our job is to create the learning opportunties, and get faculty involved in the process of connecting librarians and their students. If the suggestion that students could develop a passion for library research sounds too outlandish, perhaps the focus needs to be on helping students learn that library resources will enable them to develop a passion for what really matters to them – their chosen subject or discipline. If nothing else, this post reinforces my own thinking about the importance of library user education in academic settings.

Where I’m having a problem though is that academic librarians have been offering libary instruction for many years, but it has resulted in only limited progress in developing students who are passionate about using the library. I’m confident that our user education efforts have achieved successful cases, those occasional students who do become truly passionate about research as a result of what they’ve learned from academic librarians. But we certainly fall short in reaching the majority. That may be because much of our current library user education tends to allow only for surface, not deep learning. What would we need to do to make sure our users really experience our information resources in a way that gets them excited about what they are learning, and eager to learn more about and use them? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that if we abandon user education because the competition doesn’t bother with it (and look at how successful they are) we’ll be depriving ourselves of at least one important strategy that can increase our relevancy to the user community.