Does a University Need a Library?

Times are tough in North Dakota and the University of North Dakota is feeling the pinch. Among the many institutions seeing major cutbacks this year is the library. We have no designated book budget for this year and we are cutting back on both online and print journal subscriptions. There is no doubt that most divisions on campus, faculty, and students will feel the pinch.

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At first, I was mortified that we would be deprived of such a basic resource, but to be frank the collection in my area is weak anyway. I rely on the good will of friends, interlibrary loan, and some of the typical academic trickery in getting ahold of the books and articles that I need. It is not an optimal arrangement, but it is also not something likely to change with a bit more funding this year or next. After all, robust,traditional library collections are built over decades and a year of strong or weak funding will not substantially change my scholarly work flow.

Libraries on university campuses have already undergone significant transformations in the last two decades. Coffee shops, cafes, computer labs, and meeting spaces have transformed the libraries from bastions of solitary work to the new social hubs on campus. The new library is rapid coming to replace the venerable student union as the center of student life. To achieve this, libraries have begun to marginalize their traditional function as a repository of books. Libraries have come to move more and more of their stacks off-campus to free up space and to leverage digital access as a way to give access to resources that would take decades to develop in a non-digital world.

Digital resources have come to dominate the traditional function of libraries and a larger and larger part of their budget. Librarians, scholars, and students alike have decried the growing expenses of digital (and paper!) journal subscriptions. These costs have strained the budgets of libraries, and they have had to make tough decisions and curtail access to certain databases and digital collections or eliminate them entirely. Moreover, the move toward digital resources has taxed the libraries’ traditional role of as a repository and archive. Digital documents have their own technical and legal challenges, and the shrinking budgets of many libraries make it difficult to address these new arrangement while managing the venerable function of “book house”. Finally, from the fringe of the digital publishing world come a growing flock of scholars who are intent on challenging the static notion of scholarly resources and imagine the texts of the future to be dynamic, interactive, and remotely hosted documents that are as much a service as a resources. Wikipedia is only the best-known of these dynamic documents. Even more scholars have come to recognize that some form of open access marks the future of academic knowledge communication.

If I am honest, I suspect that only a handful of academic libraries will be able to satisfactory navigate the challenges of legacy collections of physical books and journals, provide access to high-cost digital resources, and cultivate an increasingly dynamic notion of text. As a small case study, I rely on the library primarily for access to resources and less and less for curation. I rarely venture into the stacks (other than the resources housed in our small, but efficient department of special collections) and even more rarely ask for the guidance of a librarian. The library of the future might look more like our current IT department than a brick-and-mortar collection of objects.

To return, then, to the issue of cuts to library funding. Like most scholars, I am officially and publicly appalled. The university powers-that-be have underfunded the Mighty Chester Fritz Library for years allowing the once proud “largest library between Minneapolis and Seattle (on the High Line)” languish. On the other hand, extortionate policies of digital publishers, changes in how students and researchers access material, and changes in campus social patterns, have made me willing to admit privately that the library is less vital for our scholarly lives. I’m particular annoyed with the current prices for online subscriptions and recognize that these reflect the willingness of libraries to pay as well as publishers to charge. If libraries stop buying these resources, the economies will have to change.

In some ways, libraries are like fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the rumble of the internal combustion engine is a satisfying thing. (I am almost at the end of my patience for people who insist on celebrating the smell and feel of books as an excuse for keeping them around!). Fossil fuels have transformed our world in good and bad ways. They have lifted millions of people from poverty, but also destroyed our environment. The only way to reduce our dependence fossil fuels is to stop using fossil fuels. It’ll be a painful process and even the most hardened greeny will catch themselves feeling nostalgic (even if its just for the putter of a Vespa rather than the roar of the muscle car!), but we can all see the change on the horizon. 

The current economics of libraries is not sustainable and supports a part of the academic publishing industry that is rapacious and, to my mind, unethical. More importantly, perhaps, is that our traditional view of the library has changed with changes to way we access information and curate knowledge and the way in which the university campus works as a space for learning. Change is painful, especially in these difficult economic times, but we might be able to see this as an opportunity to transform the basic structure of the knowledge economy.

5 Comments

  1. “As a small case study, I rely on the library primarily for access to resources and less and less for curation. I rarely venture into the stacks (other than the resources housed in our small, but efficient department of special collections) and even more rarely ask for the guidance of a librarian.”

    This would be true of me as a small case study as well. Our library does a superb job of locating resources at far flung spots, and this is primarily how I use our library.

    Still the brick and mortar structures are spaces of meaning as much as of storage. Libraries will need to foster their function as places that provide an almost sacred academic experience steeped in tradition if they are to survive.

    Reply

  2. Very interesting Bill. Can you say who you do rely upon for curation? Do you read the acquisitions list produced by the big collectors; depend upon the catalogues of other libraries (and if so which ones); Depend upon the big bibliographical databases (and if so which ones)? Something else?

    Reply

    1. Chuck,

      I really use a diverse approach. I certainly skim the Dumbarton Oaks New Titles list each month (http://www.doaks.org/library-archives/library/new-titles) as well as the BMCR. The Journal of Roman Archaeology immense annual review volume is key to keeping a bird’s eye view of the field. Conversations with friends, blogs, and just a general dragnet of journal reviews, footnotes, and bibliography makes up the rest.

      Clearly, specialist librarians like you, will always have a place within the academic ecosystem, but at a mid-sized state school like UND there are pretty few librarians like you (except perhaps at the law school). And my model would certainly benefit larger, national universities maintaining some oversight (outside of the for profit sector) of curation and collection management.

      Bill

      Reply

  3. My thoughts turn to what a library is for, and what the functions of librarians should be. In the ‘good ol’ days’ of the 20th century and earlier, books and journals were the repository of information. Now, those means of communication and discourse are moving away from the paper medium and into the journal. It doesn’t mean that the repositories of information have gone, they’ve just moved. As scholars, we’re still communicating, still in the acts of discovery, still generating data. It’s just not stored in large bulky chunks of paper.

    I would say that libraries as institutions are just as if not more relevant than ever, because the amount of information generated has not slowed but accelerated. Someone needs to tame the madness, to curate the databases we create after we leave the planet. Certainly, there are repositories for these, but I’m concerned about long-term funding models for anything outside of federal or institutionally-supported systems.

    In my mind, libraries are far from places where books and journals are stored. They’re staffed by people (should be staffed by people) who see their jobs as curating information and providing access to that information.

    Reply

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