Why the Academic Library Should Lead Higher Ed Change

Experience, relationships, and presence.

March 12, 2014

The challenge that we face in higher education is how do we change while simultaneously preserving our most closely held values.

How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?

How do we increase quality while increasing access?

How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

The academic library, and academic librarians, may be in the best position to answer these questions.   


1. Experience in Change Management:

Academic libraries have been at the leading edge of technologically driven change for many years. Library services, from what I can see, have had to change at a faster rate than other academic services. Where teaching has changed mostly at the margins (so far), academic libraries have had to pivot from a regime of information scarcity (the card catalog, subscriptions, collections, etc.) to one of information abundance (Google).  

From purchasing journals to licensing databases.  

From housing books to providing collaborative work spaces.

Has any part of the modern university changed more in the past 20 years than the library?

2. A Strong Set of Campus Relationships:

Change in higher ed cannot come from the top down. Authority is too diffuse. Traditions of autonomy too strong.  

Change, at least at traditional not-for-profit institutions, will be the result of many individual decisions and many undirected actions.   

Academic librarians are in a terrific position to catalyze change as they enjoy strong and durable relationships with many campus stakeholders. Librarians work with faculty and administrators. They serve on committees throughout the institution. The academic library will have a seat at the leadership table.   

Academic librarians also work closely with students, and are therefore in a good position to understand their practices and wants.

All of these relationships (many of which are years long in the making) give the academic library the sort of influence and reach that few other areas of the university can match.  This may be more of a soft power, but it is the sort of power to lead change that may be particularly effective in the context of higher education. 

3.  A Physical Presence:

The final reason that I think academic librarians may be well positioned to lead institutional change is the academic library (or libraries) itself. The building. The space.   

The academic library is the most often the physical heart of the campus (it least this is true at my institution). It is the space where students congregate to study and collaborate.   

This physical space is changing, from a repository of books and journals to a place of gathering and solitude, connections and contemplation.

The very solidity of the physical building(s) provides the academic library some latitude in providing leadership for institutional change. Experiments can be tried in the library. We can see the results of change. Witness the benefits first hand.

Are academic libraries reaching beyond their traditional responsibilities to be at the forefront of institutional change?

What sort of thought leadership about changes in higher education are emerging from academic librarians?


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