Does a University Need a Library: A Response to a Response

Yesterday, I had rare good fortune. A blogger responded to my blog post. Now, I will admit that this blogger, Prof. Jack Weinstein, is a member my local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Academic Bloggers, Podcasters, and Self Promoters, but a response is a response

His post is rather straightforward. He argues that a university needs a library because “without one, it is not a university at all”, and states that scholars need access to currently library materials to fulfill their responsibilities as researchers and to engooden humanity. (I’ll overlook his concern for local issues such as the Exceptional (in a good way!) UND platform and the like. These are largely red herrings.)

It’s clear that the point I was trying to make was misunderstood. 

First, for some of us on campus the library is no longer our source of current research material. Through tricks and travel, we have developed creative strategies to gain access to the materials that we need for our research. Our strategies do expend social capital and involve compromises, but there is ample room for reciprocity because many of us find ourselves in the same boat. 

Next, no amount of funding will likely change this. Libraries are built over decades of sustained funding. The Mighty Chester Fritz Library has been slowly strangled for most of the late 20th and early 21st century. Without resources, it has not been able to adapt to the research needs of new scholars on campus, new fields and sub-disciplines, and even new directions in teaching. An increase in funding for this year or the next is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Third, while I’m in favor of funding the library (actually, I would fund almost everything), I recognize that during dire economic times, some sacrifices have to be made. Moreover, funding the library has distinct disadvantages at this present moment. As Prof. Weinstein’s link showed, even such elite institutions as Harvard are feeling the growing burden of “mega greedy” academic publishers. One way to send a shot across the bow of these groups is to stop buying their journals and shift to open access solutions. Right now, a percentage of our library funding contributes to a exploitative and exclusionist system that does as much to limit access to scholarly work as it does to facilitate it. If Prof. Weinstein’s concern is over access the real evil lies not with cutting library funding, but with price gouging of academic publishers. At a moment where the flow of information is less expensive than ever before, the cost of academic journals continues to increase (as do these corporation’s profit margins).

This prompted me to make an argument comparing funding a library to the use of fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are available and funding exists, we will continue to use them. The alternatives seem difficult, unfamiliar, and restrictive. As Prof. Weinstein might argue, ambulances and school buses (and the North Dakota economy) run on fossil fuels and any effort to curtail access to them is tantamount of telling sick orphans to drag their own debilitated bodies to the hospital. (Ok, perhaps, I have overstated my point… but whatever…). But we know there are better alternatives even if they are painful. 

The cuts to the library are disappointing and unfortunate, but I just can’t agree that a university needs a library in a traditional sense of being a “book house”. In fact, with the exception of the brilliant interlibrary loan department and a handful of journal subscriptions, I manage to keep my admittedly modest research agenda moving forward and I suspect many of my colleagues could say the same thing. (I expect that funding cuts to the library here will accompany a relaxing of teaching and research expectations. After all, tough times require compromises all the way around.) I can see the library continuing to function in the future as a gathering place, access point for information, and an archive. 

I think that my experiences speak to the future of academic libraries. Funding will continue to decline and this coincides with a change in the landscape of academic publishing. Open access will continue to expand and scholarly access to pay resources will become more personalized and less institutionalized. (In other words, with diminishing institutional resources, academic publishers have already begun to recognize that scholarly materials tend to circulate rapidly and efficiently through social networks (e.g. academia.edu) that cross institutional barriers.) 

Maybe to rephrase the question a bit in light of Prof. Weinstein’s critiques: Do universities need libraries? I still say no.

Instead, I’d argue that that students and researchers need access to scholarly materials. Looking ahead, libraries will play a role in this process but they do not represent the only avenue. 

8 Comments

  1. When I was a graduate student and young scholar, I got significant benefit from walking the stacks and flipping through books I didn’t know I was looking for. (Yes, those were midwestern universities, one can tell, as I ended that sentence with a preposition). I don’t do that anymore, even though I live down the road from a major University library. That is, in part I think, because I find such things on the Internet these days via book reviews, blogs, on-line catalogs and the power of Google Books.

    But I am old, yet not yet so jaded that I don’t know I might be fooling myself on this issue. Can folks who are closer to today’s fine graduate students talk to us a bit about how they explore in and out of the library?

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  2. Bill, I’m not sure that Jack Weinstein misunderstood your initial post. You seem to be saying (at least in part) that since UND’s library is never going to be Harvard’s — or as good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the library of a midwestern Public Ivy like Michigan or Ohio State’s — they might as well move forward unburdened by normative expectations of what a University library should look like.

    But Jack’s point, as least as I understood it, was that UND can’t abandon that goal, because of the very nature of the institution. That seems like a reasonable statement to me. I agree that things are changing with respect to libraries, but I think that Jack’s night that we need them to do the kind of research that our institutions expect and indeed require of us. As you know I’m currently writing a research grant and to do that I’ve gone to the library at least 4 separate times, each time returning with a stack of books that won’t fit in my bag and I have to carry around in my arms like an idiot. And each time I’ve picked up books that I happened to see on the shelf. I mostly do research online, I suppose, but I still find proximity to a major library a real necessity. (See what you did? You made me sound like an academic elitist… maybe I am one…)

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  3. Dimitri (and Jack),

    My only issue is that Jack seems to conflate a library as a repository of books with access to scholarly resources. My argument is that our library is not very good at the former and could be cutting edge in the latter. Of course, my argument is far more speculative and forward looking, but it is hardly radical these days to say that the system of academic publishing is broken. Since no amount of handwringing or outrage is likely to restore funding to UND’s library much less ensure sustained funding necessary for it to be a major academic research center, a positive course of actions is to abandon its traditional function as a “book house” and position it as a future facing access point for scholarly resources. It could become part of the solution.

    Or we could just bemoan our fate and talk about how great books smell.

    Bill

    Reply

    1. “it is hardly radical these days to say that the system of academic publishing is broken” — as opposed to the good old days when academic publishing wasn’t broken and everything was great?

      I thought that Jack was saying that cutting the budget of the library would gut the library’s ability to provide access to scholarly resources as much (or more so) than its ability to buy nice-smelling books.

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  4. I must admit I have not located a book or journal in the library for a few years. I also have not walked across my office to take one of my own journals off the shelf. This is my new reality. I purchase nearly all books I use through Amazon for the Kindle. I cannot wait for the library to purchase them even if this would be possible. I read journals online (via the library access). No doubt costs of academic resources have increased greatly and I know of no way to distribute the funds we are provided to purchase these diminishing resources fairly. Increasing the breadth of our holdings just to have hard copy resources seems ill advised to me. Perhaps we should refuse (as some have) to publish in journals that do not allow authors to offer their content at no content to anyone with Internet access.

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  5. I just want to react to your (possible straw man?) of the traditional library as a “book-house.” Academic libraries I’ve worked at have lots of books, and are still buying lots of books, but if you look at their mission statements, they’re all about “connecting people and information” – i.e. facilitating access to scholarly materials, in whatever format those materials happen to be. You say that’s what they should be doing, instead of buying books, but that IS what they’re doing. Librarians are teaching students to do research (you do this in your classes, but lots of faculty members outsource this job to ‘library instruction’ librarians, or just assume the students know how to do research and they come to the library desperate.) Librarians are creating and/or managing the code that lets you search Google Scholar or L’Annee Philologique and get access to an article through the digital subscription service (that librarians are signing contracts about, and managing the technology of). Libraries are even publishing open-access journals!

    Now, are libraries out in front pushing changes in scholarly publishing as much as they should be? I doubt it; the profession has traditionally rewarded conservative personalities, and as a result tends to be more reactive than pro-active. (I would argue that libraries are doing more to create change in scholarly publishing than the average faculty member, many of whom are still not very aware these issues in my experience.) But libraries sure as heck are not just book-houses. They are an integral part of the intellectual life of a campus, partners with faculty in the educational mission of the university.

    They can’t do that with no funding, and they can’t do that with no core collections, whether those be print or digital. Students don’t operate on a ILL time-frame; the paper is usually due tomorrow.

    Reply

    1. Phoebe,

      Just to clarify, my references to the library as a “book house” was both a straw person(?) and a direct reference to our university’s cut to the materials (i.e. books and journals) budget of the library. I think I was trying to say that handwringing over this disappointing cut is a bit misplaced. The services that you describe are absolutely the core functions of the library of the future (and I do have the special collections folks present to my class on archival research strategies and practices … which as you might suspect are not my forte!).

      Thanks for your comments!

      Bill

      Reply

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