Is Lifelong Learning an Academic Library Core Value?

Articulating “core values” has been touted by many conference speakers as a magic bedrocky goodness that will shield us from all sorts of scary nasty change that is getting up and roiling all our stuff.

One problem is you have to figure out what your core values are.

My library is up to the core values step in our strategic planning process. At our first meeting I attempted to participate by honestly and openly voicing my views (duh, rookie mistake!), but I think that just prolonged the meeting and earned me dirty looks from my colleagues. At our second meeting I tried the “just keep your big mouth shut” strategy and hoped that it would all soon be over. Of course that didn’t last long, especially when we got up to the part about considering “lifelong learning” as an academic library core value.

Who could be against lifelong learning you say? I’m not against it at all, but is it really a core academic library value? Is a list of core values a laundry list of all the things you are for and want to promote and encourage? Is it really one of our core values to provide services to our students and other adults throughout their entire lives?

Maybe I’m taking “core” too seriously, but I’d argue that our core values strictly speaking have more to do with meeting the information needs that arise from the current classes at our institution. If some lifelong learning needs get met because of that, fantastic!, but lets not overreach and call it a core value. If you asked a history professor if they wanted to instill a love of history such that their students read history throughout their lives, I’m sure they’d say yes. But would they say it’s a core part of what they do? Lifelong learning is a good, no doubt, but it’s something additional. A cherry on top.

My colleagues disagreed with me and contended that supporting lifelong learning is a core academic library value. They said something about we promote the disposition to engage in lifelong learning. I’m not really so sure what that means either. I suggested that perhaps what lifelong learning has to do with libraries is that libraries support independent learning, and for that libraries are useful. So I got the word “independent” added in front of our core value of lifelong learning.

This is what often happens when you write core values by committee. Eventually everyone adds their own words and you have a fairly long list of overly broad and not very readable “core” values that don’t offer too much guidance when really tough decisions have to be made. Then they get put in a drawer and no one ever looks at them again.

This one, however, might actually have some relevance to our collections and services. Like providing database access to alumni (or pushing hard for open access), creating a leisure reading collection, or offering information literacy classes on consumer, health, or political information.

The world would be a better place if there were more lifelong learners and if they had easy access to high quality information. What role should academic libraries play in bringing about such a world?

Core Values Must Come First

In the past few weeks I attend two equally thought provoking presentations. Although the content was radically different, as were the presenters, – one a library science professor and the other a business faculty member and corporate consultant – there was a common theme in each talk that resonated strongly with me. Both talks, in a way, were about a subject much on the minds of academic librarians these days. How do we adapt to a radically transforming information landscape in which our very relevance is put to the test?

The first of the two was David Lankes, Associate Professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. I heard him present at the Connecticut Library Association where he spoke about the “library as conversation”. Lankes urged the audience to keep asking ourselves two essential questions: why are we doing this and why does it matter to the people for who we do it? The answers, it was suggested, would emerge from a fundamental understanding of our core values, from which we could then develop innovative resources and services to better serve our communities. Lankes’ advice to the audience: “Be the wave machine, not the wave”.

The other presenter was William Gribbons, Professor of Information Design and Corporate Communications at Bentley College, but also a consultant to dozens of corporations. I heard him give a talk about user experience at a professional development program at the Rutgers University Library. Gribbons made a strong case that academic libraries could no longer win over students and faculty with links to e-resources alone. When all information providers look the same, only by differentiating the library could progress be made. According to Gribbons a unique user experience is carefully designed and constructed, but whatever that experience is it should be shaped by the organization’s core values.

While neither speaker actually defined what a core value is or how one discovers it, I think Lankes came close by instructing the attendees to work at understanding what business their library is in. He thought the business of libraries was knowledge creation. I like to think it is learning and promoting academic success. There are other possibilities but I believe all of them must be based on creating relationships with our users from which they will obtain meaning. When we understand the business we are in and how that translates to creating meaning for our users those core values will emerge.

So where do we begin? Exploring and articulating a library’s core values, as you’d expect, involves some soul searching, both individually and collectively, and collegial conversations – among staff and with the user community. But these two rather different speakers pointed to much the same thing: core values must come first. Having a sound, basic and fundamental understanding of those values will drive efforts to develop a plan for innovation or provide a better user experience that will guide us through disruptive technology change, hyper-competitive information environments and the many other challenges that are sure to confront academic librarians.