David Lewis’s Library Reimagined

A new book looks at the issues libraries face and proposes six steps toward “Reimagining the Academic Library.”

July 26, 2016

Reimagining the Academic Library coverI’ve read David Lewis’s wide-angle provocations in the past, so when I picked up his new book, Reimagining the Academic Library, I expected my thoughts to be provoked. Seeing that the first chapter was titled “Disruption” and the first paragraph opened with Clayton Christensen made me think I was merely going to be irritated. Luckily, the second paragraph acknowledges the problems with Christensen’s theory and its all-too-frequently shoddy applications, so I carried on. What follows is well worth reading and discussing.

The first half of the book lays out the issues academic libraries must not ignore. These are aspects of the changes we've already seen as our libraries go from print to digital, but they go much further because the current digital regime has preserved so many of the limits of print. The changes that are coming will erase some of those limits for the better - but will also require librarians to think hard about what they do. These "six forces" as he calls them are these:

  • Technology has changed the socio-economic world around libraries, which means librarians have to think about what our purpose is. (He calls it “disruption” but I prefer not to use a word with all that Harvard Business School baggage.)
  • Knowledge being shared digitally changes how we use it in profound ways.
  • The book is changing. (Points to Lewis for taking the time to address this cultural touchstone without simply lumping it into other forms of publishing.)
  • Opening the scholarly record poses challenges that are more social than technical and individual institutions will not be able to meet those challenges by themselves.
  • The commodification of scholarly knowledge has given libraries more access to knowledge but at an unsustainable price.
  • A demographics problem: libraries are full of aging staff who can’t do the jobs we need done today and don’t reflect a diverse population; to make the changes we need to make, organizations need to tend to morale while developing new kinds of expertise.

This is followed by an intermission where we go to the bar, knock back some strong propositions, and decide that knowledge production in the future will be social. I’ll drink to that. (Seriously, this is my favorite part of the book.)

The second half of the book is about solutions, steps we can take toward a new library. Some of these are not new ideas, and some libraries are well on their way to addressing them. Some of them put a new spin on something that’s happening around us. Some raise pointed questions about solutions we have been pushing. He writes:

The first step in reimagining academic libraries is to determine the jobs we are being hired to do. As we do so we need to recognize that at the end of the day what we should be about is not saving the library. Rather, as Christensen suggests, it should be about providing a product or service that can help students and faculty to more effectively, conveniently, and affordably do a job they’ve been trying to do in their scholarly lives. If the library is to provide value, it needs to find those jobs that it can do that cannot be done more effectively than by others. Unless we find those jobs, we have no good reason to exist . . . I believe such jobs exist and that libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to do them, but most of them are different than what we have done in the past.

He details what we should be doing in the subsequent chapters, and ends with “ten things to do now” – which aren’t quick fixes, but places to start. Most of them relate to local decision-making, but he also includes ways libraries can work collectively by developing a shared responsibility for preserving print, shifting funding from local access to open access initiatives, and developing a less ad hoc way for libraries of all sizes to combine their resources to collectively serve the common good. This chapter would be a great pre-reading for a library staff retreat.

To me, one of the biggest challenges for academic librarians is how to stop thinking exclusively in local terms – how can we serve the our narrowly-defined community right now – to developing a broader vision of what we do collectively and over time to preserve, provide access to, and help generate knowledge for the greater good. So many of the decisions we make every day are short-term and short-sighted. So many of the market-based replacements for what libraries used to do are in many ways not in the public interest. Personally, I would have liked a little more analysis of the market-based assumptions that have shaped the present information environment and a little less Christensen, because if those assumptions are left in place without scrutiny they'll make collective solutions very difficult. That said, Lewis’s book is full of useful analysis, possible solutions, and lots of things to argue about.


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