Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries


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11 issues facing academic libraries right now.

A friend asked me if I had any thoughts on the top issues facing academic libraries right now, for a class she’s teaching for first year LIS students. It turns out — no surprise — I do have thoughts about that! I sat down and built a list off the top of my head. With some fleshed out explanation, here’s my list.

A couple of notes:

  • I tried to think ‘whole library’. I did not include on this list “The impact of the new ACRL Information Literacy standards/ integration of threshold concepts”. I know that will have a huge impact, but only on a specific sector of academic librarianship, and I felt the teaching pressures were already represented.
  • Context: I am an instruction and outreach librarian, with liaison responsibilities in the social sciences. I am tech & geek friendly, but probably wouldn’t be called techy or geeky. I’ve never worked anywhere but public services. I’ve been in academic libraries for over 10 years, and have worked (always in a tenure track position) in four academic libraries.

Also, I bet this a really idiosyncratic list. So I really want to know: What’s on your list? What are the big challenges you see coming at academic libraries? Please share!

In no particular order, 11 issues and challenges facing academic libraries right now:
  1. MOOCs and the rise of online education.  In particular, there are a swarm of licensing issues in relation to MOOCs, and issues related to preparedness of librarians to be effective with online pedagogy in relation to online education. Some universities have staffed effectively for embedding librarians in course-integrated online ed, but I don’t think that’s the norm. Also, Online Ed tends to be designed to accommodate students who work, so bankers hours aren’t useful for online students; librarians tend not to be available when students enrolled in online degree courses do their work, so how to accommodate that? This is both a philosophical as well as a logistical question.
  2. Class size/ budget cuts on universities leading to very high faculty::student ratios. This translates directly to fewer research assignments, which raises questions of the necessity for better liaison skills, more confidence organizationally and individually in being willing and able to talk effectively to profs about creating information literate assignments that maximize professorial time. In short — if students don’t do research papers, who needs to spend money on research librarians? How do we tell our stories/make our cases for the importance of UG programs which integrate these skills?
  3. We have not as a profession moved the professorate or ourselves away from the ineffective one-shot info lit session. Lots of ramifications and opportunities — how to do curriculum mapping and info lit scaffolding (politically, personally, professionally — hordes of skills not necessarily addressed in LIS programs)? Relationship building with faculty, lots of liaison skills needed here. Which LIS programs do not teach (if you were taught how to be a liaison on library school, please let me know. I want to know!) . This item, like others, ties in to #10: Leadership Issues. Given for how long this has been a known issue and concern, and with so much data to back it up, I question the structure, nature, training, abilities etc. of library leadership in individual libraries, as well as the organizations that lead us. How have libraries utterly failed to position themselves, universally, as educators with greater things to offer than the one shot?? This is leadership, because this is funding, and advocacy, and institutional influence. Addressing this issue would change the shape of university libraries– imagine what a library would look like if it was staffed adequately to teach credit classes in every major, as well as introductory library research classes.
  4. Big Deal comes home to roost. Money is tight. We’ve invested in too many journal packages/aggregator access to back away, we allow the vendors to select our materials and the cost, and we’ve invested enormous staff time and org money into Discovery services which allow use to find the content we’ve bought in journal packages. We are no longer even in a position to cut to save money anymore, we can only amputate. Not a good situation. “Vendors set too many terms and we don’t have the skills to combat them” is perhaps a better umbrella for this one.
  5. The rise of data-based Social Sciences & Humanities-based research. Libraries are completely unprepared for supporting this. We don’t even have the language to talk about it, and lack a framework for understanding what our role is in supporting data-oriented social scientists and their students.  This is cresting (will crest? I suspect it will break unmistakably on my campus by Fall 2015) at a time when the Sciences are more privileged than ever and social sciences underfunded because they don’t shake the grant trees. The consumption and analysis of social sciences research data raises issues of IRs; of statistical literacy in library staff; of funding the purchasing (or not) whole new categories of things in these very tight times; of access issues and our philosophical commitment to them, since data sets and data set collections are not shareable. Big data, digital humanities, are we anywhere near able to support these areas as librarians/libraries?
  6. Budgets. They suck. And states continue to back away from supporting campuses, so the situation isn’t likely to improve soon. How to do less with less and not lose what you’ve got is a terrible place to be
  7.  Ebooks. I see huge issues wrapped up in ebooks: we are at the mercy of largely and fundamentally non-negotiable licenses; how do we address patron privacy when ebook downloads and access log ins involve any number of vendors and we aren’t actually in license with all but the ebook vendor? There are huge issues across the digital divide: when ebooks can;t be downloaded, users need to have both internet access and appropriate devices in order to read them. (remember when you were in college and split the landline with the roommates, and there was no $100 internet bill? These are significant expenses for college students). In addition, ebooks introduce huge and ignored implications for library’s abilities to share collections with each other — licenses won’t allow for it. Additionally, we know, pedagogically, students don’t read ebooks. They search and snag — so what are the implications for development of long term sustained thinking? Perhaps not a library issue, but ours insofar as we do shape life in the academy to some degree in this area.
  8. Patron privacy. We give it away left and right (this comes back to vendor control, but not solely).  Do we even read the licenses for privacy? Are we at all prepared to understand the privacy implications of an app-based world? When every app on the device has access to everything a user does on their mobile device, are we able to protect patron privacy any more? Beyond the (in)ability to code it into place, we as an aggregate of people lack the awareness of who is in our digital foodchains, and thus who might have in-the-moment access to patron library-search data. I won’t even address the issues around interest in that chain.
  9. Reliance upon ineffectual and/or over-priced vendor products that approximate our needs but never fill them. This challenge is significantly amplified when paired with lack of web applications developers on library staffs.  We spend a lot of money on poor products, and we can’t afford the folks who could improve the user experience, all around. Libraries cannot afford the high cost of code monkeys in the modern market, but they are essential — and would ideally also have a library -borne understanding of the work.
  10. Libraries need strong leadership, and need to develop it across the whole bench, from the newest librarians onward. Instead we still see folks promoted to management for being good librarians, without necessarily being good administrators, managers, or leaders. Harvard Leadership Institute can’t do it all, it must be internalized.
  11. Change aversion/change management. I call any library group of more than 5 folks who have worked together for over 15 years “a wall”.  Often excellent and innovative colleagues individually, put in a room together, they magically become an impenetrable object of “why we do things this way”.  Young librarians and new librarians (2 often distinct groups) are seen as not having paid their dues until they lose their shiny new eyes and toe the company line — even though they are almost always hired to bring new ideas in. Libraries need the energy, the perspective, and the forward motion. LIS programs aren’t teaching “how to influence entrenched colleagues” and new librarians break under the disillusionment and pain. And Management isn’t prepared/trained/able to punch through those walls.
I did not include issues surrounding tenure on this list. I feel strongly that public services librarians are educators and should be tenure stream faculty members. I feel they should also be tenure stream faculty members– with all the teaching and research and service obligations and support, just as the rest of campus will recognize and respect. Being faculty on a campus where no other faculty knows or groks that librarians are faculty isn’t doing it right. That said, I’ve noted that on small campuses librarians are able to do much of the important educative work without being faculty. It seems to be a big campus issue?
Please — what’s on your list? What did you think was missing?
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