What happens to academic libraries as they slide sideways into a new world of superabundant information? What happens to their colleges and universities?
The process of change is not easy. Inside Higher Ed has described recent campus conflicts regarding the future of academic libraries. Carl Straumsheim ("Clash in the Stacks") reported that several library directors at liberal arts institutions have lost their jobs. However, tensions about changing libraries are not restricted to one type of institution.
Academic libraries are undergoing a public, challenging and frequently contested transformation. The change and obsolescence of academic libraries as we know them represents an event of unprecedented magnitude in higher education. Rarely has a core institutional activity faced such formidable prospects for change.
At the same time, librarians will be unsuccessful in planning for the future on their own. They possess much expertise about libraries, but less about trends in research and curriculum. Moving forward, the process of recreating the library must be one that involves many people in many roles on campus.
The library as a collection of print books and journals is an idea that has left the building. The library -- if that is even the appropriate name for what seems to be emerging -- is no longer focused exclusively on organizing and providing access to information. The library is fast becoming a multifaceted center designed to support a wide variety student learning and faculty research activities.
Many libraries in institutions focused on undergraduate education now include spaces where students find a one-stop learning environment that incorporates writing assistance, tutoring and multimedia production, as well as institutionally unique centers focused on civic engagement, multicultural dialogue or service learning.
Many libraries in research institutions provide expertise and specialized technologies to support the work of faculty. Areas of emphasis might include data management and visualization, scholarly communication and institutional repositories, the mining of humanities texts, and geographic information systems, to name a few.
By default, much of the responsibility for adapting to a changing information environment seems to fall to library directors who forge ahead at their own risk. Straumsheim quotes Bryn I. Geffert, college librarian at Amherst, as saying that directors need a high degree of “social smarts” to navigate the rapids of change.
To my way of thinking, three smarts stand out. The first involves understanding the complex and ambiguous decision-making processes of higher education. It is no surprise that decision making in colleges and universities is frequently characterized as organized chaos. Recognizing invested stakeholders is not as easy as it would seem. This is not a top-down environment. And every institution is somewhat different.
Second, working with complexity: after 20 years of experience and research, I have come to appreciate that university processes succeed best when leaders promote interactions that permit the academic community to learn its way forward to a common understanding of what can and should happen. Complexity theory suggests that effective leaders do not predetermine the outcomes of change initiatives; they create the conditions whereby the community can engage them and take steps forward.
Third, library directors must approach library change with humility. In their efforts to create conditions for campus engagement, they are the stewards of the process, not its owners. As stewards and facilitators of the process, they don’t have the answers; they offer possibilities. While they may be experts in academic library trends, librarians and directors are not necessarily experts in how those trends fit into the institutional community, curriculum and culture.
One of the hazards of organizational change is presuming that it should take place in a certain way. The future is a collective production based on many factors. Colleges and universities are communities of people with various commitments, interests and activities that intersect with libraries and information services. What we can do is open up opportunities for discussion, collective dreaming and actions.
However, the issue of library change goes far beyond the personal attributes of library directors. Our institutions will not succeed if large-scale change relies on individuals. Sure, someone needs to lead the charge, but meaningful change doesn’t occur because of one person; it requires widespread engagement, not merely acquiescence. College and university administrators and faculty -- across disciplines -- must recognize their own interests in this change.
This leads to my central point. It will take a university community to shape a future library that meets the specific needs of learning and research at that institution. This transition is not just about libraries. It is about how colleges and universities come together to solve a collective challenge. Libraries cannot puzzle out their future alone.
The library is only as effective as its ability to understand and support the emerging information needs of its campus. Beyond organizing and providing access to information, academic libraries are now incorporating a variety of nontraditional resources, services and expertise. But what exactly will change, and how fast, is a campus conversation.
I am reminded of Harold Howe’s statement: “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” The two are connected. Libraries are changing. Education is changing. How academe responds to the transformation of libraries says a lot, not only about its view of libraries and education, but also about its capacity to address institutional change. The university’s engagement in library change might be considered a barometer of its ability to respond to other change as well.
But how can we, and our institutions, establish strategies that promote strategic responses to changes in the social and economic conditions that surround us? How can we work collaboratively and intentionally, bringing our expertise to bear, taking risks in order to do what higher education is called to do: to lead social and culture change that makes a positive difference in the world?
I’ve come to believe that the issues we face in our current institution are the same ones that we face wherever we go. Greener grass is not the issue. Working with the grass that we have is. Wendell Berry reminds us that meaningful work and life results from our commitment to place, to nurturing our communities.
At a very basic level, we must care about the institution, about the people we work with and about the library. The future of libraries, and academe generally, requires us to learn our way forward together as a community. There are no easy answers, only our commitments, our skills and patience with each other as we find our way into the future.
The future of our libraries is our own future. Higher education is at a turning point, with libraries as one of the most visible signs of change. How we choose to recreate libraries may be a reflection of how we adapt to changing and critical social, political, economic and environmental issues throughout the world.
Dane Ward is dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University.
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