How Many Books? In What Formats?

This post comes from a guest poster, Scarlet Galvan. Scarlet is the Collection Strategist Librarian at Grand Valley State University. 

A blogger for Inside Higher Ed recently published a plea for a more nuanced understanding of IPEDS data on academic libraries. Like that blogger, I also wish data about academic libraries offered more detail about their work and position as necessary infrastructure. I remember the failure to meet each other as colleagues has collective outcomes.

IPEDS is not designed to capture data about academic libraries accurately. This is a problem because of how familiar IPEDS data is to the rest of higher education, how our colleagues across the university will reach for this data with trust and certainty. Tools like IPEDS flatten complexity, offering a rather facile view into deeply complicated systems. There are many qualifiers. ACRL’s 2015 alignment with a portion of IPEDS questions to streamline reporting means how we conceptualize the work of other institutions faces similar constraints. 

After skimming IPEDS data, the blogger’s suggestion, “…maybe academic libraries can avoid layoffs in lean budget times by cutting down on the roughly 40 percent of spending that goes to materials and services” comes down to individual approaches. I can only reflect on my experiences and note the marked difference in organizational capacity when leaders view challenges as opportunities as opposed to choosing what is comfortable.

Even when reducing a collections budget like this is an option, it’s not a decision that comes from a place of strength and would destabilize our teaching, learning, and research missions. That said, subscription-based resources make up the majority of collections expenditures in academic libraries. These carry a yearly inflation rate of 5-7% or more, though a growing number of library workers are working to recalibrate these contract terms. It’s cheaper to keep people. Most university employees do not receive similar increases to their salary and benefits each year. Still, an actionable response is to better understand how our university budgets work in order to clearly see them for what they are: articulated values.   

Statistics describing the collection shift continuously as the way we define those things evolves along with scholarly communications ecosystems. IPEDS could offer a snapshot at best. Meanwhile, content providers engage in decades-long campaigns to consolidate and monopolize research infrastructure, impact metrics, search algorithms, mining user data, and even hiring processes.

What metrics might be used instead? What questions could we ask for a richer understanding of the impact of libraries and library workers in higher education? These things are much harder to get at than numerical totals in broad categories like budget allocations and collection totals. For example, we might consider what percentage of research output is Open Access, measure institutional investments toward open infrastructures, acknowledge and document the expertise to make archival collections findable, build research data management plans, measure student outcomes based on faculty authored and adopted open publications, or capture the incentives we offer for such work for accreditation, tenure, and promotion. Until different metrics can be included, we’re left to specific definitions of value and indigent questions. “How many books? In what format?”

Additional Reading: 

Lamdan, S. (2022). Data Cartels: The Companies that Control and Monopolize Our Information. Stanford University Press.

Wilson, M., & Cronk, L. (2022). The NERL Playbook. Commonplace.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition: Elsevier’s Acquisition of Interfolio: Risks and Responses.

Saying Good-Bye in Slow-Motion: Keeping a Student-Centered Focus Amidst Great Change

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Joe, Owensboro Campus Librarian at Western Kentucky University.

I will be leaving my students at the end of this semester. That’s the first time I’ve written that out (though by the time this is published, everyone will know.) I will be moving on to a new position, at a new university, in a new state. It will be a good move for me, personally and professionally, but it was not my choice.

I would have happily stayed at my current position, but budget cuts forced the elimination of not only my position, but many others at the university. I was lucky. I had a year to look for a new position, and I didn’t need the whole year. Others were not so lucky. Still others have left my campus (a small, regional campus which is part of the larger university system) of their own accord. Some of the best people we have ever had are gone.

For my part, at the time of this writing, I have almost exactly three months left in which I will be working. (I’ll start my new position in January.) How do I continue to serve my students in this climate? It has already required an immense amount of flexibility on my part. I’ve had to forge new relationships with new hires (some of whom will only be temporary.) Treating them as permanent employees, at least for now, is the only way to go forward. I’ve also expanded what it means to me to be a librarian. I’ve unleashed my research skills on career searches for soon to be graduates and used my critical thinking and analysis to troubleshoot IT problems for faculty. I even helped someone retrieve the contents from the hard drive of their dead laptop yesterday. (It was my student worker, and I repeated 1,000 times that I WAS NOT LIABLE if things went pear-shaped. Everything worked out and we retrieved the family photos he thought were lost.)

Going forward, I will need to have that same flexibility.

It isn’t a new or unique situation. I know for a fact I’m not the only one doing this – there is at the very least another librarian at a campus about 90 miles from mine doing the exact same thing for the exact same university and there are librarians across the country doing the same thing for other reasons: a colleague’s extended illness, a retirement or sudden death, staff who have quit unexpectedly or couldn’t be replaced on schedule. I’ve been in a few of those situations, too.

The question then becomes: how do I do this from a mental and emotional standpoint? For that, I rely on the student-centered approach I’ve always taken to librarianship. My students may not always feel like they need me, but I know their lives will be better when they have the critical thinking and research skills that make up information literacy, and their lives will also be better when they know how to find (and land!) appropriate jobs that reflect their education and when their professors can use technology to teach their classes.

What does that mean for my workload? That means continuing to organize presentations, displays, contests, and anything else that will continue engaging my students. There are some I do every year, and I am grateful to my past self for keeping good records of those events so that I can replicate them even as I am making arrangements to sign contracts, pack my house, and eventually move away. It also means trying to keep my tenuous hold on the relationships I have built with faculty who allow me to come into their classroom and use some of their precious time to teach their students about information literacy, while being unable to tell them with certainty what will happen to the library when I am gone.

I hope my students will remember me when I move on to my new position, because I will remember them. They are what has motivated me these last few months, knowing that my job was coming to an end. I also hope that in the midst of budget cuts, staff turnover, never ending assessment, repeated requests for justification, and all the other things that can make being a librarian unpleasant, my fellow librarians will also look to their students for motivation and inspiration.

Have you faced morale problems in your library recently? Were they things in your control or out of it? How did you cope with them? Share your experiences in the comments – it’s always nice to know you’re not alone!