An Academic Library Story

A counter-narrative to the Clash in the Stacks.

December 10, 2014
Carl Straumsheim’s 12/10 article Clash in the Stacksand the comments that followed, should be read and discussed on every campus.  
How is the role of your academic library changing in response to the range of competitive, cost, funding, demographic, and technological pressures that every postsecondary institution now faces?  Where is your academic library providing leadership in how your college or university is evolving to meet a shifting set of demands and challenges?  
In reading Straumsheim’s piece, I was struck by both how familiar and how foreign the story of Clash in the Stacks is to what I have observed.  Familiar, because the question of how the academic library evolves in an era of information abundance, elevated demands for services, and constrained budgets is one that I often hear discussed at my institution.  Foreign, because the academic library story that I witness each day is one of success, partnership, and leadership.  
There is a big danger in making any conclusions based solely on what we see.  Anecdote is not evidence.  Personal experiences do not describe trends.  I’m very curious if my observations of my academic library track with what you have observed.  It would also be terrific if you know of research on the challenges of the academic library.  For now, I’ll describe what I see - and I hope that you will do the same.
I am not a librarian, and I do not work for the academic library that I’m about to describe.  Therefore, I may get some of the language and terms wrong.  And I’m sure I’ll miss much of what should be noted.  It is a little scary to write about an organization that you don’t work for.  Hopefully, any mistakes will be corrected, and this post will encourage further conversation and clarification:
Culture:  I’m an amateur student of organizational culture.  Organizational culture, in my eyes, is not the most important thing - it is the only thing.  It is for this reason that I am continually amazed by the health of the organizational culture that I witness at my academic library.  This is a culture that values service, that values diversity, that values professionalism, and more than anything, values people.  My hypothesis is that the reason that everyone who interacts with our librarians and library staff are treated so well is because the people who work for the Library are treated well.  There is a strong ethos that it is the people, the library professionals, that form the true value of all the services that the Library offers.  Does your academic library also share a strong culture of service and respect?
Leaders:  It is impossible to overstate the importance of having in place a stable, respected, knowledgeable, collegial, and accessible leadership team.  The leadership team at my academic library has not been static, as new librarians have come in during well-ordered successions due to retirements.  But the core academic library leadership group has remained remarkably stable.  Our Dean of Libraries, the Associate Librarians, the Library Directors, and the Library Department Heads form a productive and vibrant leadership group.  Our Dean of Libraries is enormously revered and respected across the institution, and is a strong and steady voice for the centrality of the academic library in all areas of scholarship and learning amongst his colleagues in the top leadership at the College.  Does your institution also enjoy strong, accessible, respected, and stable leadership in your academic library?  
Diversity:  There is no doubt that respect for diversity, in all its manifestations, is a deeply held core value in my academic library.  Here, however, I’m thinking of a diversity of types of academic libraries on campus.  We have a main library, and 6 (by my count) specialized libraries.  A biomedical library.  A business and engineering library.  A physical sciences library.  A music library.  A special collections library.  And an art library.  Each of these libraries has a different vibe and a unique feel.  While each of these libraries clearly share the larger cultural and service orientation as the main library, they all go about their missions in different ways.  In some Libraries more of an emphasis seems to be on long-term consultations and partnerships between subject-specialist librarians and faculty.  In other Libraries there always seems to be lots of action with librarians working with students, participating in classes, and actively shaping the curriculum.  They physical layout and prominence of collaborative spaces, digital resources, and books and journals also differs across the various campus Libraries. This diversity seems like it works very well as natural laboratories to try out new ideas, new physical arrangements, and new types of services.   Is this sort of academic library diversity something that you also have on your campus?
People:  In thinking about my academic library, I keep coming back to the culture of respect and caring that I see in the organization.  My hypothesis here is that this culture is what largely explains the recruitment and retention of such high quality librarians and library staff.  My sense is that the academic library at my institution is a place where people with other professional options choose to stay.  The librarians in the library at my institution are ridiculously well qualified.  If I were to make any suggestion to the Library leadership, it would be to be less modest about the quality of your people.  Highlight them and their professional contributions prominently on your web pages.   The caliber of the librarians and library staff at my institution is truly remarkable.  These are mission driven people.  Devoted to both the mission of the larger institution, and to the individual success of our students and faculty.  They are scholars and gifted educators who are also experts in information management.  Both the words academic and librarian need to be emphasized when talking about the library professionals at my institution. Is this also the case at your institution?  Do some of the most accomplished, talented, hard working, respected, connected, and collegial academics at your school also happen to work for your academic library?
Place:  I have this theory that as goes the academic library, so will go the academic institution.  If your institution is producing a commodity then you will be in for a future of only struggle.  If your institution is instead about mission, and people are the center of this mission, then you will be okay.  Naive?  Perhaps.  At my institution, the heart of the academic experience runs through our academic libraries.  The libraries are where you find the students.  They are studying in groups or alone.  The libraries are where the students go to find librarians to help them with their classes and projects.  The libraries are where the faculty go to consult with librarians on course readings, class assignments, and class projects.  Our libraries house and host our academic computing units and our instructional designers.  Our teaching and learning center (what we call our Center for the Advancement of Learning) is housed in the most beautiful wing of our central library.  Our library spaces have evolved to accommodate more collaborative work and more informal learning.  More of our student services have migrated to our libraries. Our librarians are constantly accessible to our students and faculty.  Is your academic library where the intellectual (and increasingly social learning) action is happening on campus?  Is your academic library the most beautiful, accessible and inviting building (or set of buildings) on your campus?
These observations are all those from an outsider.  My glasses may be a bit rose colored.  Every organization has its challenges. Pushing change in the context of a stable culture, particularly one that values inclusiveness and support of the people, is a challenge in every circumstance.  From what I can see, however, the academic library that I see each day is the healthiest and most respected organization on my campus.   A Crisis in the Stacks simply does not describe the academic library that I am observing.  
What are you seeing at the academic library on your campus?


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