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Steven Bell wrote a great piece called What Academic Librarians Can Learn from Retail’s Meltdown.  

It is always fun when ideas and trends also catch the interest of a colleague, and that independently you both try to make sense of what you both are seeing.  That was the case with Steven’s article, as I only caught his thinking after I had written something similar in Classroom Utilization, Online Learning and Retail Store Closings.  

Steven asks a provocative question in his piece:

"What would an online first operation look like for an academic library?"

I’m sure that my colleagues in the academic library world talk about Steven’s question all the time. Not being in the academic library world, I don’t really know how the academic library community is answering Steven’s question.

Having the benefits of ignorance, I thought I’d take a crack at how I’d answer Steven’s query: What would an online-first operation look like for an academic library?

1 - Single-Mindedly Prioritize the Academic Librarians:

The most valuable resource of the academic library are the academic librarians. As information has become ever more ubiquitous, the value of skilled and experienced information specialists has only increased. The role of the academic librarian has become even more critical in the core higher ed work of teaching and research. 

This academic librarian collaboration is relational in nature - one that takes the development of mutual understanding and trust. Could building an online-first academic library be an opportunity to put the relationship between academic librarians and their stakeholders as the number one goal?  The goal that the organization will articulate, measure, and seek to continuously advance?

The advantage of an online-first academic library is that it could be designed at every instance around the relationship between the academic librarian an the academic library stakeholders. It may be that where the online-first academic library ends up is designing and occupying amazing physical spaces - spaces to complement whatever online platforms and tools that are used. These physical spaces, however, would be designed specifically for supporting the visibility, accessibility, and collaboration potential with academic librarians.

Is it weird to say that academic libraries should be designed around academic librarians? Is that maybe already the case? Or would academic librarians say that their institutions should be designed around students, scholars, and scholarship?   

My argument would be that the best way to advance the goals of students, scholars, and scholarship would be to clear away anything that interferes with relationships with academic librarians. Could an online-first academic library be an opportunity to engage in a disciplined experiment around that model?

I know that academic libraries have many priorities, many goals, and many objectives. I'm just saying that a new online-first academic library could put the relational objective above all others.

2 - Start With Online Education:

A second area to start with an online-first academic library is to scale up what is already being done in many places. That is to build on the role that academic librarians play in online educational programs.

At my institution, academic librarians are key members of our traditional low-residency and open online programs. Our academic librarians work with faculty, instructional designers, and media educators on developing and teaching our traditional and open online courses. Academic librarians are particularly critical in developing the resources that are used in the courses, as online learning involves a range of curricular assets (from text to media).

My understanding is that academic librarians work closely with online learning teams at many institutions. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to set-up a S.W.A.T. team of online learning only academic librarians.  To carve out a separate academic library group - one that could have its own culture and identity and norms - that would work only on blended, low-residency, and online education projects.

We have libraries for disciplines (business and engineering, health sciences, music, physical sciences, special collections, art) - why not for one online learning?

Okay…Steven’s question inspired a couple of thoughts on my end.

Would it be possible that colleagues with greater knowledge, expertise, and experience to also provide some thoughts?

How would you design an online-first academic library?


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