11 Responses for my 1 Colleague at Dartmouth College

More than a month ago, Joshua Kim asked eleven questions of his colleagues at ACRL 2017 (Association of College and Research Libraries, Baltimore, March 22-25).  I simply cannot keep up the pace of writing and work that apparently characterizes Dr. Kim (I ask, as does Barbara Fister: "how does he do it?").  I don't have answers — but at an embarrassing long delay, here are my responses to his eleven questions:

Question 1: What is keeping academic librarians up at night?

Allergy to book mold?  Seriously: the mis-match between 1) the transformations of libraries and librarians now in process, 2) unrealistic expectations, both within and outside academe, about the transformation of higher education by digital technology, and 3) available financial resources.  There is barely enough money to fund our members' needs day-to-day, much less the future needs of members who will bring very high, very different expectations to their education and research.  Training and re-training librarians, even younger, newer ones, will also be not only a significant expense, but an unavoidable one if they are to remain relevant and aligned with their institutional mission.

Question 2: What will the academic library look like in 2025?

Libraries will still living in a both-and world: some members will continue to want printed books, but will use them differently than the recent past (2015).  Some printed books will explicitly engage digital resources as supplements and complements.  Some members will never want to see or open a printed book.  Some members will be working far more with data sets and non-textual (or ostensibly non-textual) information visualizations.  Libraries will have fewer printed books on site, more workspaces (and more different kinds), less reader or member privacy, and more commercialization by monetized information organizations.  Members will still want a physical library space to be a place to get and stay "on task."  Some members will never interact physically with a library, or personally with librarians, but will use library services every day through the information configurations that librarians will tend and troubleshoot.

Question 3: How is the academic librarian profession changing?

Already there is far more emphasis upon communication, instructional, and design skills than ten years ago (even than five years ago).   Technical, back-office skills are rapidly changing from the provision and editing of information to aligning interactive and interoperable information systems.  Library leadership is especially challenged to visualize what could be, might be, or will be, to our stakeholders, and figure out how to achieve all that, and yet negotiate present-day campus political, financial, and legal arrangements that often reflect patterns and processes that are already obsolete.

Question 4: What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional transformation?

Preface: If universities are like the proverbial elephant as regarded by the visually impaired, libraries are very well-positioned (almost uniquely) to see a great deal of the elephant. The daily life of a library interacts with faculty who are teaching and doing research right now, academic leadership, policy and planning, campus operations of all kinds, public safety and security, university financial offices, alumni/ae relationships, enrollment retention, student recruitment, faculty recruitment, information technology, instructional design, construction and facilities management, and sometimes even the food service.  As a library director, I have almost all of those people on speed-dial.

To answer this question: libraries are almost uniquely well-positioned to act as change agents by partnering with a wide variety of interests to achieve a cumulative social, educational, intellectual impact on campus beyond the abilities or purview of any one campus organization.  This requires vision, street smarts, and an ability to listen.  It requires seeing that library priorities are not always the institution's priorities, but when different they need to come into some kind of symbiosis.

Question 5: How do academic librarians think about learning innovation?

It's a broad term.  Librarians would love to collaborate with instructional designers, faculty members, and others to create pathways for learning that transcend previous classroom, lab, and practice settings.   Organizations, consultants, and academic specialists will all be part of that –but many academic librarians I know are increasingly suspicious of the corporate interests in the phrase "learning innovation."  The innovations to learning in higher education that will be most productive are those that will not be packaged and sold by corporate interests, but will be far more local, ad-hoc, and malleable by teachers and learners themselves.  When I view a video purporting to be about Learning Innovation, and the head of Thomas Friedman talks, then I begin to wonder whose interests are really going to be served.

Question 6:  What is the role of the academic library in leading institutional efforts [that will] drive progress in the iron triangle of costs, access, and quality?

Academic librarians have a lot of experience with the trade-offs of costs, access limitations, and quality (both of information per se, and of presentation and interface).  Part of my daily life is putting budget numbers and academic ways-and-means together.  I believe the academic library's role can be incubator, initiator, and assessor of costs for access and quality of outcomes but that role is not guaranteed.  I believe that academic librarians will also want to challenge the oft-encountered (perhaps dominant) idea that instructional quality is simply a cost that limits institutional net income.  The recent ACE paper Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes, and Institutional Finances (.pdf) points at research that needs to be done, and assumptions that should be interrogated.

Question 7: What does the academic library leadership pipeline look like?

I heard some real concerns at ACRL about how the field will mentor future leaders who will need the financial, political, academic, and social skills necessary to lead a complicated organization on a complicated campus (physical or digital).  The relative slow-down in professional movement, promotion, and retirements in the years after 2009, coupled with either outright downsizing or less (immediately) drastic holds on hiring, have produced a situation where there is not a sufficient number of opportunities for rising leaders to learn their craft.  The profession is greying, and I cannot blame recent college graduates who bypass library and information science programs in favor of fields in which they will be able to pay off their substantial student debts more readily.  Yet we really need those people, and we need creative, competent new professionals of every age who will contribute their perspectives and learn how business actually gets done in many institutions.

Question 8:  How is the academic library addressing challenges around diversity and inclusion?

This was also a major theme of the ACRL conference, and built up to the simply fabulous closing keynote by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.  These challenges play differently in contexts: large academic library systems can pursue strategies and mentorships that may not be practical for much smaller libraries –where challenges and real needs for diversity of perspectives, persons, and inclusions of all kinds of persons are still very much present and felt.  I think this is a real opportunity for ACRL: to lead a multi-sided approach with library and information schools, foundations and grantors, large and small academic libraries, national, state, and regional library associations (in particular with library technology, and leadership & management divisions), and academic administrative organizations (AAC&U, ACAD, and HERC), for a cumulative impact on the profession, the libraries, and the universities.  I think that the professional leadership education offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is also a vital and viable venue to put together the efforts of many organizations.

Question 9:  What are the big arguments and debates within the academic library discipline?

I find so many that I will inevitably leave some out of even a very long list.  But here's my short list:

  • Privacy, user security, and trust: maintaining the academic library digital and physical space as a non-commercial zone of exception, as much as possible; and the way that user's searches and downloads can become monetized data points for commercial services that offer a false equivalent to a real library–and whether librarians can really do anything about that, or respond to it usefully;
  • Evolving understandings or interpretations of the Information Literacy Framework: what it brings in, leaves out, interrogates, and strengthens, and the sometimes yawning gap between the aspirations of the Framework and the sometimes frightening realities of many young students' lack of curiosity and joy;
  • The persistent tensions between "resilience" as a good term for a kind of creative flexibility in the face of adversity, and "resilience" as a substitution of a personal response for a solution to a structural problem.  I heard one speaker use the work and then immediately apologize for it after a standing-room-only presentation called Resilience, Grit and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Risiliency (.pdf)

Other attendees are welcome to point out all the good fights I missed.

Question 10:  How is the relationship between academic libraries and centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) evolving?

I'm not sure there is a consensus, since there are so many variables in academic contexts. I know of one case where a beautifully renovated CTL in fact combined about 10 other services formerly located elsewhere in a large university.  That set of new partnerships has required so much team-building and re-negotiation that librarians in the same building have not had as much contact as they previously anticipated (this may be changing recently).  Where the CTL and librarian partners have sufficient contact and are not completely frustrated by funding limitations (or non-existence), I have heard that enormously fruitful partnerships evolving.  Open Educational Resources, Open Textbooks, and so many other hot topics really call for multi-sided collaborations.  My favorite anecdote is of an information technologist with a strong secondary background in instructional design who exclaimed, "Wow, there's a lot of information technology in the library!"  I believe that many libraries, especially on undergraduate-oriented campuses, were attempting to be centers for teaching and learning before the phrase was invented, and in those places where turf is not a source of conflict, creative partnerships are forming.

The recent Ithaka S+R survey of library directors found that "while [many] library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of the faculty members for the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2015 recognized these contributions." (pages 3-4) I suspect that both Centers for Teaching and Learning and academic libraries face a common challenge to communicate what they can (and do) contribute to faculty who are genuinely skeptical or worried about maintaining their turf.

Question 11:  What questions should I be asking about the changing academic library?

The fact that you are asking any questions is remarkable for many academic librarians, who have so often felt marginalized (for reasons good and bad) by campus technology and technologists in the past couple of decades.  You don't take anything for granted.

I can only really respond by suggesting the question that I'm asking as I lead my organization through a process of listening, thinking and planning together: what is our core mission in plain language?  What is our value proposition for our institution?  How do we show that we are doing that?  How does our mission and value proposition align with our institution's proclaimed commitments and priorities?

In this process I have spoken with many people on my campus, and (following advice from a mentor) I asked each of them simply:  "What is your job?  What difference does your office make here?  What's your biggest challenge?"  Their responses were amazing, and almost all of them pointed in one direction: "how do we communicate to a skeptical world what an amazing difference real learning can make in a student's life?"  To the extent that our library can respond to that question with grace and authenticity, we can also state our value proposition and our mission, and our alignment with our university.

Even with all the challenges, controversies, and constraints, this is the best time ever to be an academic librarian.