Public Funding (sic) of Higher Ed

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for us here in New Jersey: flooding, government shutdown, and now the inevitable budget cuts to higher education. The Rutgers librarians I’ve seen recently look like they’ve been head-butted in the sternum, and the other state colleges and universities didn’t fare too well either. I had lunch with some (really tough) commmunity college librarians yesterday and when I asked them about the budget cuts they said, “budget cuts? yeah we’re used to it.”

And that’s the problem. States all over the country have been underfunding public higher education for the past 20 years, continuing to move in the direction of a privatized model by raising tuition. It’s said that higher education is no longer considered a public good. More and more college presidents are calling for a national debate on the subject. F. King Alexander wrote recently in the Chronicle$ about how the current system actually contains disincentives for the states to fund higher ed:

States, of course, vary in their ability to maximize federal revenues through grant, loan, and tuition-tax-credit programs. However, those states that have, in fact, shifted the burden of financing higher education to students by substantially increasing tuition and fees in lieu of tax support — like Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — are able to draw relatively greater direct student-aid subsidies from the federal government. In contrast, states that have struggled to keep tuition low through higher taxes and greater public support — like California, Kentucky, New Mexico, and North Carolina — find themselves disproportionately disadvantaged in receipt of federal dollars for student-aid grants and subsidized loans.

In 2002, higher education funding was on an ACRL list of top issues facing academic libraries. Looks like we may have to make a permanent slot for that one.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Choosing Where To Be Simple Or Complex

I’ve ranted in the past about my annoyance with those who spout platitudes about library web sites needing to be more like Google or Amazon – although those two sites couldn’t be more different. Why do we need to be more like those web sites? Well if people like those web sites, goes the rationale, then people will like our web site better if it’s more like those sites. Part of the rationale of developing a library web site that is more like Google or Amazon gets back to the simplicity factor. If it’s simple people are more likely to use it – and find what they need quickly. But it may not be as cut and dry as choosing between simple and complex. That’s why I liked what Gerry McGovern had to say about this issue. He says that not everything on a web site can be simple, so it’s up to the web managers to decide what basic items to make simple, one-click resources, and which may take some additional clicks. Like Don Norman, McGovern points out that Google is simple for searching ordinary web pages, but not so simple if you want other features or types of information they offer. McGovern concludes that making a web site simple is not easy work because not everything can be simple. Decisions need to be made about what will require more complexity. Rather than being fixated on coming up with academic library web sites that mimic Google, Amazon, or any other commercial site, consider a library web site that is a reflection of local needs. Where does your community need simplicity, and where can they cope with more complexity? Figure that out and let it serve as a guide to your web site’s development.

Educating The Creativity Right Out Of Students

Education is our business, so it behooves us to pay attention to what experts have to say about the education industry at any level. Higher education and K-12 are inextricably woven together. I recently came across this video of an education visionary giving a talk that I thought was worth sharing. In this 18 minute presentation, Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and a leading expert on innovation and human resources, focuses on how education stifles creativity. The presentation was made at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, which is an annual event where leading thinkers and doers gather for inspiration. Here are a few of the things he had to say:

“Creativity is as important as literacy.”
“If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original.”
“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
“Nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years, yet we’re trying to educate people for that world.”

Since we don’t know what that world will be like, perhaps the best we can do is foster creativity and innovation that will enable today’s students to adapt to and succeed in a new environment. I’m going to make more of a personal commitment to encourage students to be creative in my library instruction sessions. It won’t change their overall college experience and it will mean taking more risks in the classroom for me, but I’ll feel like I’m making a small contribution to their future.

Dark Days Of Education

When it comes to education visionaries, Chris Dede is certainly no slacker. The learning technologies expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education takes on what he sees as some current failures of the United States education system in this 8-minute video interview(scroll down and click on Dede’s photo). It’s quite a contrast to Robinson’s presentation. Dede acknowledges that education has to be more than preparation for the workplace, but he discusses the strong links between business and education in those countries that are developing high quality education systems. His main problem with the current education climate, which he refers to as “the dark ages in education”, is that unlike other professions higher education has failed to educate the public about what teaching and learning methods will work best to prepare students for a 21st century global economy. He believes that most citizens are stuck in the 1950s when it comes to visualizing what should be happening in classrooms. Dede’s commentary reminds me of a course in which the instructor asked “What is the purpose of education?” It was clear that for most societies the answer is to build a stronger economy than competitor countries. We might like to think that education has more noble goals, such as liberating individual creativity, but Dede makes the point that most parents want an education system that gives their children more economic opportunity than they had for themselves. Dede’s concern is that in these dark days the US government is moving away from the investment needed to create schools that will give students the necessary skills to achieve economic success in a flattened global economy. Given the ongoing funding challenges faced by the vast majority of higher education institutions (just read about what’s happening in New Jersey right now) it may be quite some time before we emerge from the current dark age of education.

Gotten Any Complaints About Your OPAC Lately?

The discussions about the OPAC and all that ails it go on unabated. I will acknowledge that the tone of the conversation has shifted from mere complaining to a greater focus on ways to improve the OPAC. For example, see Eric Morgan’s discussion of the next generation catalog posted at LITABlog. Given all the discussion about why the OPAC needs to improve you would think that academic libraries are besieged with complaints about the library catalog. Somehow I doubt that this profession’s concerns about the OPAC are shared by library users. As evidence of that I turn to the recent OCLC “College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” report. When the respondents were asked “If you could provide one piece of advice to your library what would it be?” a mere 2% of the respondents suggested improvements to the local library online catalog (see page 4-6). They were much more focused on improving collections and computing facilities in the library. So if 98% of library patrons (Ok, I know it’s statistically inappropriate to extrapolate this finding from a small sample to all academic libraries) have no real concerns about the OPAC, why is there such a fuss being made about fixing something that the users don’t even think is broken? On a day-to-day basis in your library do you see patrons having massive search failures with the OPAC? Are they demanding enhancements? I recall that when I worked at the University of Pennsylvania the greatest patron reaction to the debut of our then new web-based Voyager OPAC was a mass call for the return of the telnet-based catalog. The new OPAC was simpler by far, but patrons perceived no problems with the telnet system which did just what they needed. I agree that we should always be working to improve our systems and make research a more satisfying experience for our user communities. We shouldn’t only give attention to problems when users get vocal about them, but should work proactively to consistently improve our libraries. But reports like the OCLC study suggest that our patrons are more concerned about “quality of life” factors such as having working photocopiers, good customer service and up-to-date book collections than they are about their library’s catalog system. Are we focusing our priorities in the right places? I think I’ll remain content to wait for my ILS vendor to tweak our OPAC while we direct our attention to getting students to use the library’s resources and services.

See You At the Baltimore Acquarium

I recently learned that the Baltimore National Acquarium will be the venue for the Saturday night social event held at the ACRL 13th National Conference in Baltimore. The conference goers will have the whole Acquarium to themselves that night, and it should be a great opportunity to see the exhibits without needing to fight the crowds. I love Acquariums and Baltimore’s is certainly one of the best you’ll find anywhere. I hope to see you there.

Remember That ACRL Membership Survey – Part One

During May 2006 ACRL conducted a membership survey. A marketing firm was hired to do the survey work. ACRLog obtained a copy of the initial report that summarizes the survey results, and we can share some of the data and findings. The survey was sent to 10,032 members and 3,332 completed it (a 37% return rate). The goal of the survey was to evaluate member satisfaction, and determine what the members most value about their involvement in ACRL. Since the report is somewhat long it will be reported in multiple posts.

The questions ACRL was looking for answers to included:

  • Are members and leaders satisfied with current programming?
  • How important are advocacy, library and personal issues to members?
  • Do leaders’ perceptions differ from those of “rank and file” members?
  • Have perceptions of ACRL membership changed over the past three years?
  • Here are some of the demographic highlights from the survey:

  • The ACRL membership still lacks diversity but there is improvement. While the membership was 93% Caucasian in 1993 it is now 86% Caucasian. The next largest ethnic background is African American at 5%.
  • ACRL is still dominated by women members. In 2006 the association was 75% female and 25% male. That’s far less balanced than in 1989 when it was 60% female and 40% male.
  • We’ve been told ours is an aging profession and the numbers back that up. Of the respondents 66% are over 46. That only 15% are under 34 (and just 1% under 25) indicates we clearly need to recruit younger individuals to academic librarianship. With only 4% of respondents over 65 ACRL is not likely to see a large number of members retiring in the next year or two, but beyond that the large number over 46 will mean significant retirements over the next 20 years. Who will replace those members?
  • ACRL is mostly made up of library deans and directors and department/unit heads. These two job titles account for nearly 40% of all respondents. Most likely it’s a reflection of the aging nature of the profession as ACRL members tend to move into senior administrative positions as they age. Public service librarian accounts for 18%. How do we get more front-line practitioners and folks from technical services units to join ACRL?
  • Over the years the respondents’ type of institution has remained relatively stable. Universities lead the pack, followed by comprehensives and then four-year colleges.
  • Another relatively stable area is membership tenure. It doesn’t change much from year to year. It is worth noting that that 45% of ACRL members have belonged less than five years. ACRL may be attracting more nextgen librarians, but a clear strategy for retaining these relatively new members is needed. Forty respondents said they were not going to renew their ACRL membership. About half of those were retiring, but the other half cited “cost” as the reason for quitting ACRL.

    In the next report – more on member satisfaction and participation.

    Wikipedia in the News

    Many news outlets picked up with apparent glee a story that (gasp!) Wikipedia had a number of facts wrong about Ken Lay’s death. Most accounts had a fingerwagging tone, (see! Wikipedia is not to be trusted!) but reader comments pointed out correctly that news networks often make similar mistakes and take longer to correct them.

    For a more in-depth examination of Wikipedia, Rory Litwin of Library Juice points to this article by Roy Rosenzweig, Professor of History and New Media at George Mason. Rosenzweig’s piece discusses the differences between professional historians and amateur wikipedists, Wikipedia’s obsession with Neutral Point of View (NPOV), and compares Wikipedia to Microsoft’s Encarta and the American National Biography Online. Rosenzweig points out that it’s not only accuracy that is problematic for Wikipedia (a problem for all encyclopedias), but poor writing and lack of scholarly subtlety and nuance. Yet he also points out the strengths of Wikipedia–it’s free and available to everyone, unlike the subscription products in our libraries. He raises the good question, why aren’t scholarly projects like American National Biography Online freely available? He’s amazed that Wikipedia can get so many volunteers to work on entries, and contends contributors have varied motivations for doing so, including self-education and self-improvement.

    He asks if professional historians should be more involved in Wikipedia to improve its accuracy and writing quality and concludes that they should be, without being naive about questions about how such activity would count for tenure and promotion. What about librarians? Should we get more involved in improving the quality of Wikipedia?

    The Future is . . . SNARB?

    Margaret Landesman, in an op-ed piece for the Charleston Advisor, imagines the possible result of several trends – coming up with a product that merges publishing, libraries, and bookstore functions into a powerful course management system that is as responsive to users as the most 2.0 systems can be.

    SNARB provides textbooks, curricular materials (course packs, lab notebooks), and assigned readings in the format(s) of your choice. SNARB also provides added choices for the identification and delivery of research materials–whether it is three peer-reviewed articles, suggested articles for a term paper bibliography, or a literature search as you begin work on an advanced degree.

    Of course, in order to get the most out of SNARB, you need to let it track all of your searches, your purchases, and your e-mail. But by giving up your privacy, you get so much customized service!

    Apart from privacy issues, SNARB has the potential to disrupt the institutions it is enhancing.

    Like librarians, publishers are unsure about SNARB’s effects on their future. Unlike librarians, if they guess wrong, we often hear they have left “to pursue other interests.” This is why publishers are more nervous than librarians. You would be, too.

    Landesman introduces her futuristic view by saying “I wanted to write something provocative and a bit funny, thinking about the shrinking differences between libraries and bookstores; and about what happens for good and ill as we are able to search across greater and greater aggregations from disparate parts of our lives.” In one imaginative piece, she gathers together possible answers for many of the questions we’re facing – answers that don’t resolve all the issues.

    For example, students will recieve a “text allowance,” but when that runs out will have to pay for any additional information. Though this is one way to approach textbook costs, another one is to legislate publisher and faculty behavior. Several states are passing laws to discourage “bundling” and encourage used textbook sales, as this Chronicle article, “New Laws on the Books” describes.

    By the way, what does SNARB stand for? “We have no clue. You ought to be able to think of something.” Hey, user-defined acronyms are the next 2.0 trend.