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From Cost-Center to Profit-Center: Academic Libraries and the Corporatization of Higher Ed
February 2, 2011 - 8:45pm

From the archives - this post was originally published at on 2010.02.17.

In library school, we librarians in training absorb the mantra that special libraries must prove their value every day because they do not ostensibly increase profits. (“Special libraries” reside in federal agencies, corporations, museums, nonprofits, and other organizations outside the categories academic, public, and school.) They are the first to go in a crisis, or, to forestall the shut-down, the librarian must transform her unit from a cost center to a profit center. As a library student I should have predicted the same fate would befall the academic library.

Observing a couple of trends in the corporatization of the university and of scholarship makes it easy to imagine where academic libraries may be headed in the years to come.

They will clamor, and are clamoring, for endowments and donors. Though libraries have been kowtowing to donors forever, the University’s declining generosity toward its libraries–ask most any librarian–has made raising funds for collections and other necessary purchases a requirement, and is compelling all librarians to become fundraisers of a sort on top of their regular duties. If libraries fail at this task, their collections, buildings, and programs will suffer–they are suffering right now–but it will be their own failure, not the University’s. We constantly argue that student and faculty scholarship and “success” depend upon a great research library, but this argument holds no water when many faculty do not foreground it in faculty senates and negotiations with the administration, perhaps because their situation mirrors our own. Raise your own money, don’t come asking for handouts, administrations insist, which creates academics and librarians forced to stake out territories and fiercely protect them.

And if libraries succeed at passing the hat? The more money libraries raise, the more university administrations will leave them out in the cold to fend for themselves, and they will turn projects like digitizing materials into for-profit schemes that have little or nothing to do with what students and faculty need, but rather will respond to the market, and probably poorly. After all, librarians are not professional fundraisers, but they are even less savvy entrepreneurs.

Academic libraries will cater to distance education programs and move to almost exclusively online content. The trend in higher education that perhaps disturbs me the most (though, as in all out-of-control market economies, there are so many disturbing trends from which to choose) is distance education. The arguments around it bear repeating (and I hope this blog will address the issue at some point), but not here. Let’s just say that libraries will be pushed more and more to support these cash-cow programs. Administrative types will encourage a focus on distance learning, which means that students on campus will get fewer resources–from in-person research help to print and digital collections for campus-based academic programs. With limited funding, academic libraries will be forced by administrations to push their resources toward lucrative, professional programs online for continuing vocational education rather than scholarly work in the disciplines. Is that bad? I guess it depends on your notion of higher education. It certainly won’t enrich scholarship on campus, and would fuel the trend toward the library as mall, a response to declining turnstile counts in physical libraries on college campuses.

These sketchy “predictions” are cynical, reductive, and hyperbolic. I hope. Partial renderings from a pessimistic bibliographer.

I do know this, though: Academic libraries and librarians are desperate to stay relevant and be valued, and fairly powerless to do so on their own terms–in fact, almost all librarians share this plight. We are marginal figures in the university landscape–mostly women in a feminized, poorly paid profession, mostly untenured so without the attendant (supposed) intellectual freedom, without a voice in campus governance, and mostly viewed as cultural caregivers rather than colleagues or mentors. And some of us are willing, even happy, to absorb the values of the larger corporate institution by serving the big money programs while serving scones to undergrads, and some of us are not. Maybe we just haven’t figured out how best to resist.

Washington, DC, in the USA

Cathy Eisenhower is a poet-librarian and is author of clearing without reversal (Edge 2008) and would with and (Roof 2009). She translates the work of Argentine poet Diana Bellessi and has published essays in Writing against the Curriculum: Anti-Disciplinarity in the Writingand Cultural Studies Classroom and the forthcoming Critical Pedagogy and Library Instruction.


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