Reviving the Academic Library

Instead of trying to turn themselves into something they're not -- a center of fundamental learning -- campus libraries should focus on their traditional core mission of supporting education and research, writes Johann Neem.

November 19, 2009

The academic library is threatened.

On its face, the challenge facing libraries is simple: declining funding. At a time when universities and colleges are pressed for funds, developing archival, book, journal, and electronic collections costs money. Libraries thus face the same challenge faced by other academic units -- the humanities, the social sciences, the classroom in general -- that rely upon rather than generate revenue.

The difference is that across the country deans of libraries are giving up the fight and changing their mission rather than fighting to save an important academic institution. Rather than make clear why we need academic libraries, the library’s leaders are seeking instead to become vague learning environments which, when boiled down to their essence, are nothing more than computer labs with sofas and coffee.

Declining funding is not the only problem, however. Equally important is the emergence of professional fields that seek to transform academic support institutions into ends in themselves. Across universities, positions once held by academics have been taken over by professions increasingly bound to autonomous fields such as student affairs, higher education administration, and library sciences. The result is that academic support units are beholden to those fields rather than the core purposes of the academy.

There is a paradox here. In each of these fields their defenders claim to be putting students first. In fact, they are undermining student learning by removing the emphasis on the classroom. The argument for transforming the library, for example, is that it will better promote student learning even if that means abandoning its core purpose.

The emergence of the field of library sciences combined with declining funding has created the perfect storm. Deans of libraries realize that unless they can claim to be the center of the university, a site of fundamental student learning, an end in itself, declining funding threatens their very existence. They draw on the field of library sciences to suggest that the library must be transformed. According to Richard E. Luce, director of university libraries at Emory University, the library exists not as an archive of human knowledge but “as a place [for students] to connect, collaborate, learn, and really synthesize all four of those roles together. How do you do that without bricks and mortar?”

But, of course, this is not true. The classroom is where students connect, collaborate, learn, and synthesize, under the guidance of faculty who are, at the end of the day, responsible for teaching. Students can continue the process over a cup of coffee in the local college coffee shop, in the common room of their dorms, or when they run into each other in the computer lab or library. The library exists as a means: to support the members of the classroom, the students and faculty.

What libraries need to do, and what faculty need to do, is to revive the academic library’s traditional mission.

The core purposes of the academy are to teach and to produce new knowledge. Books, journals, music and electronic access to online information sources remain vital for undergraduate students writing research papers or seeking further knowledge. Graduate student and faculty research depends on the depth and breadth of a library’s holdings. In the case of public universities, moreover, library holdings are important for citizens seeking to educate themselves.

The library is a means to an end: enabling students and faculty to access archives. This does not denigrate the library's importance. In fact, it reminds us how important libraries are to the academy and, more generally, to a democratic society.

No matter how much rhetoric librarians offer, if they abandon their core mission, they not only insult the dignity of the history of libraries but offer no reason for the library's continued existence. After all, the other services can be provided cheaper and better by student unions, residential halls, athletic centers, computer labs and coffee shops.


Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University and author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard University Press).


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