Clash in the Stacks

Library directors at liberal arts institutions are losing their jobs as they clash with faculty and administrators over the future of the academic library.

December 10, 2014
Barnard College
Lehman Hall

Several library directors at liberal arts institutions have lost their jobs as they clash with faculty and administrators over how much -- and how fast -- the academic library should change.

None of the dismissals, resignations or retirements are identical. Some have resulted from arguments over funding; others from debates about decision-making processes or ongoing personal strife. One common trend, however, is that several of the library directors who have left their jobs in recent years have done so after long-term disputes with other groups on campus about how the academic library should change to better serve students and faculty.

The disputes highlight the growing pains of institutions and their members suddenly challenged to redefine themselves after centuries of serving as gateways and gatekeepers to knowledge.

“For the entire history of libraries as we know them -- 2,000 or 3,000 years -- we have lived in a world of information scarcity," said Terrence J. Metz, university librarian at Hamline University. "What’s happened in the last two decades is that’s been turned completely on its head. Now we’re living in a world of superabundance."

As their reasons for departing are different, so too are the factors current and former library directors said triggered the disagreements. In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, the library directors pointed to the shift from print to digital library materials, which they said is raising questions about who on campus is best-prepared to manage access to the wealth of information available through the internet. The financial fallout of the recent economic crisis has only inflamed that conversation.

“To my mind, all of this hubbub is probably exacerbated by the fact that libraries are trying to figure out what they are and what their future is and what their role is,” said Bryn I. Geffert, college librarian at Amherst College. “Every time you have a body of people going through this kind of existential crisis, conflict is inherent. As you’re trying to redefine an institution, you know there are going to be different opinions on how that redefinition should happen.”

The most recent case, Barnard College, presents a symbolic example of the shift from print to digital. There, the Lehman Hall library is about to be demolished to make way for an estimated $150 million Teaching and Learning Center. The new building means the library’s physical collection will shrink by tens of thousands of books.

Last month, the debate about the new space intensified when Lisa R. Norberg, dean of the Barnard Library and academic information services, resigned. In an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, faculty members were quick to jump to Norberg’s defense, saying the administration “hobbled” and “disrespected” her.

Norberg did not respond to a request for comment, but her case resembles others in the liberal arts library community. As recently as this September, Patricia A. Tully, the Caleb T. Winchester university librarian at Wesleyan University, was fired after less than five years on the job. Tully and Ruth S. Weissman, Wesleyan’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, had for more than a year argued about how the library could work with administrators, faculty members and IT staffers.

“We just seemed to have different ideas about the role of the libraries,” Tully said then.

Other library directors have made less publicized moves, stepping down in silent protest as their roles are shifted farther down the university chain of command. Others yet have experienced the opposite, receiving support from their administrations to rethink the role of the library only to be met with opposition from faculty and other librarians. In addition to those named in this story, Inside Higher Ed interviewed three other former library directors.

“These are top-quality, innovative, forward-thinking people,” Metz said of Norberg, Tully and colleagues at other liberal arts institutions who have left or been asked to leave. “There must be other visions that they’re running up against that have a different definition of success.”

The problems those library directors ran into show the "social smarts" needed to guide libraries through the transition, Geffert said. In other words, it’s not simply a question about whether or not libraries should change, but also what amount of change different groups on campus find appropriate.

“Librarians just have so many different constituencies they have to satisfy -- students, faculty, administrators, alumni, trustees,” Geffert said. “My sense is often when things go wrong, it’s because the incumbent has not been successful in finding approaches or solutions that satisfied all those different constituencies.”

Urgency to Change

Generally speaking, library directors say shrinking budgets present a greater challenge than do disagreements with administrators and faculty members. In the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2013, released this March, almost 90 percent of survey respondents named financial constraints the primary obstacle facing their institutions.

But budget concerns sometimes accelerate the urgency to change. With less funding allocated for acquisitions, libraries have a difficult time justifying expanding their physical collections. For some, the solution has been electronic book and journal subscriptions -- even though those subscriptions often come with restrictions on how titles can be accessed and shared. Moving to a subscription model also means libraries license, not own, the content they make available to users.

Tully described that development as libraries shifting from managing content to managing access, creating a “sense that it doesn’t have to be managed” -- that the content simply needs to be opened up, rendering librarians superfluous.

“My sense is that administrators look at libraries as something that is easy to cut or easy to subsume under an IT department, because it feels as though when library materials become electronic, they are best managed by, say, an IT department instead of being managed by the library,” Tully said.

Other institutions have created positions that combine IT and library director duties, but those efforts haven’t always been successful. At two such institutions, senior administrators introduced the idea, but after faculty members and staffers grew concerned that the directors were emphasizing digital work over books, both lost their jobs. Some of those involved discussed these developments on condition they not be identified.

"There was a perception that ... I was fixing IT at the expense of the library,” one of the library directors said. “I think you’re even more vulnerable if you’re leading a merged organization.”

Tully suggested librarians not be defensive about the changes facing libraries, saying the internet as a resource opens new opportunities rather than threatening librarians.

“Print books and journals are not what define what a library is,” Tully said. “It’s content. Changing the format doesn’t change the fact that you have to manage the content. It becomes more of a necessity to have people there who are experts and who pay attention to how that environment is changing.”

That idea is at least gaining some popularity among other library directors who see the future of the profession as serving not necessarily as gatekeepers, but as coaches and consultants to teach others to sort through the information and use it effectively.

“There will be some institutions that decide that they don’t need libraries -- that they don’t need librarians,” Tully said. “However, all the functions that now occur in libraries are going to continue to need to occur somewhere. The IT department or whoever is going to take those on, and then slowly they’re going to be hiring people who have library expertise, library backgrounds in order to do those things.... I think it’s a matter of breaking free of the library being some irrelevant, old-fashioned thing that used to be important but isn’t anymore. The way we get information has changed, but our need for information and our need for guides to that information continues.”


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