Thursday, September 24, 2009

Future of Academic Libraries?

Librarians reacted "coolly" to a presentation by Daniel Greenstein, Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Programs at the University of California. The presentation was part of a meeting on sustainable scholarship sponsored by the Ithaka group. Greenstein's presentation was the subject of an article in Inside Higher Ed. According to Greenstein, the "university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas." He believes that outsourcing some library functions is the answer to universities whose budgets have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Cataloging, for instance, could be shared among universities or "contracted out to providers such as Google." Collections could shrink as libraries share repositories of print and digital materials, which will save space and money. Ultimately, as "individual libraries' archives and services shrink ... so will their staffs."

I can understand why the audience's reaction was cool. Greenstein's presentation completely missed what libraries are actually about these days. He seems to think librarians are presiding over book museums, when in fact a majority of our time is spent teaching students how to use resources in all formats, proactively supporting faculty scholarship, creating user guides, getting involved with and supporting educational technology, and generally anticipating and meeting the needs of our communities. Outsourcing cataloging really bothers me, in particular the notion of outsourcing cataloging to Google given their track record with metadata. Furthermore, I have worked with cataloging provided by vendors, and rarely is it up to the standards that we have set for our library. Outsourcing sounds like a great idea to administrators until they realize how much control over the process they have lost. It can also be more expensive than anticipated. I think that Greenstein does not understand that libraries today should be judged by the quality of the services they offer, and that is dependent to a great degree on the quality of the staff.


Betsy McKenzie said...

Great post, Marie. This is so typical of the very disturbing comments you hear so often from deans and central administrators who think they can save money on libraries by centralizing functions or pare things to the bone. And they reveal such a lack of understanding about what libraries are really doing these days. It also reveals some screaming needs in our standards, doesn't it? If we want non-librarians to understand what libraries are about, don't we need standards that measure them?

We have just been discussing among the academic librarians, how we would want our libraries ranked or evaluated. And the question is very difficult because we have trouble coming to any agreement on a standard measure among the librarians who are participating, for instance, for the services we supply to our law schools. Should we be looking at the number of reference questions answered? How should that be defined? Should we be counting the number of classes taught by the librarians? Some schools don't let the librarians teach. So how do you compare schools on that basis? How about other things to measure and compare? Every item somebody suggests raises issues because they are not standard at all schools. Libraries are so keyed to the law school they support that it becomes very difficult to create a standard for services, and yet services are where libraries now live.

Marie S. Newman said...

It all comes down to the needs of the particular law school, and, as you say, that doesn't lend itself to easy measurement.