The Challenge of the Small College Library

In this week’s podcast, I’d like to talk to you about college libraries – by the way, not public libraries, libraries intended to serve just the community at large – I’m specifically talking about college libraries and in keeping with this podcast, I’m typically talking about small college libraries, not necessarily the libraries at large research universities.

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Even though I will mention some issues that are germane to those, I’ll tell you right up front, I will be saying some negative things about libraries and so I think it might be a good idea for me to just do establish my credentials so that you don’t think I’m just some library-hater. Most importantly, my wife is a librarian. She’s going to hear a draft of this podcast long before it’s aired in the interest of marital harmony, and as you can imagine, I’m not daring to say anything that I think is overstatement or unfair to the profession because I had suffered terribly for that. The town where I live, independence, Kansas is home to a library that just a few years ago was named the best small library in America. I live someplace that deeply cares about its libraries. We have absolutely excellent school libraries, community libraries, and there’s very strong support for the library in the community. I’m personally a donor to both my local library and to the college library here. My wife and I are both donors to the School of Library Science at the University of Iowa. I volunteer at the local library and of course I use the library as does the rest of my family. The main library here in independence is just about a block and a half from my house. I’m there all the time. And so I feel as if I’m close to the library; I feel as if the library is not sort of a foreign thing for me. Obviously, I use the college library frequently and I’m very appreciative of librarians and the hard work that they do. And I’m not just saying that because I’m married to one. I know that librarians work very hard and a lot of people don’t really understand what it is that they do.

So what kinds of problems do libraries face now? Well, actually I’d probably begin with something I just mentioned, which is that a lot of people don’t understand what libraries do and they don’t understand what librarians do and if people do not understand what you do, it’s very hard for them to be supportive of it. I think another problem obviously is that the traditional conception of a library as a book repository no longer has wide appeal. The vast majority of books in the college library in the town I live in are never taken off the shelves and the collection is we did all the time and gets smaller and smaller and smaller, primarily due to disuse. I was at another community college library just last week and I asked the librarian, this was on a Thursday has anyone taken out a book this week? And she said, no, I understand that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I think that’s pretty interesting when you could have a college library with thousands and thousands of books and there’s not one person who’s taken advantage of taking just one of those books out of the library.

Now, of course, virtually every library is a source for internet access. And especially in the cases of community libraries. This is a very important function, but I’m not really, as I said, I’m not really talking about community libraries. It does serve of course, functioning college libraries. Many students may not have their own computers. There, there are things that they need to access them, the internet that are very cumbersome to access on a, on a smartphone. And so the library can serve a very useful purpose. The catch is, is that that’s not inherently a function of the library. You could provide internet access in lots of other ways that don’t require a vast space with thousands of books and trained librarians and so forth. It’s true that libraries do provide internet access, but obviously there are other ways to provide that access.

Libraries do provide a quiet place to study for students; there’s no doubt they do this. The catch is that’s a very expensive way to provide a quiet place to study. The argument is against this conception of libraries is really the same as it is for internet access; that is, if you think about what’s going on around you in a library, simply to provide a quiet place to study, it suddenly seems as if it’s a very elaborate setting. I will point out that in the case of both internet access and a quiet place to study, this rationale is typically used as a way an argument for preserving libraries, but never to build them. People will say that the library is very important because it provides internet access or provides a quiet place for the students to study (both true), but no one ever says, “We need a place for internet access, and we also need a quiet room for people to study. Let’s build a library.”

Another issue for libraries is that they provide other services such as entertainment, meeting spaces, instructional space, and although these things obviously have value, none of them are, once again, inherent to the library – they’re provided by the library because the library is already there, and it’s conducive to those. For example, if it provides entertainment, say it loans out DVDs, well, because the library already loans out books, it’s set up to allow people to borrow DVDs. And because of the library, which has tables and quiet spaces, it’s the kind of place where you could have a nice meeting for the same reasons. If you have a library that has a place where you can talk to students and not disturb everyone else in the library, it’s actually ideal as an instructional space.

But once again, all of these things are just things that people use the library for because it’s there, but they wouldn’t necessarily build a library for those purposes. These are all issues that libraries are struggling with and libraries and schools know that there’s a problem. They know that they are struggling for relevance – they talk about this all the time. If you go to a library conference, you’re always going to see workshops on techniques and ideas for making the library relevant. (Notice that if you went to an IT conference, you would not see such workshops.) Another symptom that you can see that flags you that libraries and schools know there’s a problem is that typically the metrics that they use to justify their existence are based on inputs like traffic, not necessarily on value added. So, for example, take the simplest possible case: if a library says X number of people came through the library, and so a lot of people are using this facility. But that library has worked very hard to allow people to use it as a group study space, as an instructional space, as a quiet space; that is, they have all sorts of ways of bringing people in to use the computers for internet access and so forth. Or if teachers, for example, give their students assignments that require them to use the library, it’s not really clear how much of this is something that’s occurring organically versus something that’s being artificially generated and measured. And it’s certainly not necessarily measuring any value added.

You can see other ways in which librarians, libraries and schools all know there’s a problem. If you pick up any trade publications and higher education, you’ll read stories about librarians unionizing. You’ll always see librarians fretting online or writing articles about whether or not they’re libraries remaining relevant. You certainly don’t see schools building new libraries unless there’s a very specific donor project involved. You will not see schools building libraries with their own money.

Finally, the libraries that exist are shrinking. Hard data is tough to come by on this, but I surveyed 20 libraries regarding the amount of space devoted to the library and I found that out of 20, 16 have reduced the total amount of space devoted to traditional library services. This shrinkage occurs in a couple of different ways. Sometimes a part of the library is absorbing another function of the college. For example, we have a community college relatively near us that moved their bookstore into the library itself. And so now right there in the middle of the library there are no walls separating the bookstore from the library functions. Right there in the middle of the library, you can also buy sweatshirts and tee shirts and all that kind of stuff. By coincidence, my own previous school, Independence Community College, actually trimmed off a part of the library, about 20%, in order to move their bookstore to the building where the library was located. And so our library became smaller because of that. We were actually comfortable doing that because we had done some studies to determine the square footage per student that we really needed to have and we were still above the average. So we were comfortable taking away that space in order to provide the benefit of the bookstore being accessible. But once again, the library did get smaller. I’m unable to find examples of the library getting bigger in cases where the school itself is not getting bigger; where the school basically just says we want a bigger library.

Why are there still academic libraries? There are some very important reasons why they still exist and some of them are very well known and some of them are much less widely known. And actually I’m going to begin with one that is much less widely known because I think that it’s actually one of the most important factors in the preservation of libraries as we know them today, at least at the college level. These are the regional accreditors. On the regional level, are seven main regional accreditors in the United States that accredit colleges. Without their accreditation, a school cannot receive federal financial aid, which means that for most colleges (and certainly all public colleges), you don’t have a prayer of operating your school without federal financial aid for your students. So you’re going to need to be accredited. There are lots of other reasons why a school would want accreditation (accreditation is an important part of a peer review process), but it’s important to understand that no matter how important accreditation is, it also is the financial lifeblood of most schools. The seven accrediting bodies cover different parts of the country, and they all have different standards that could apply to libraries. And those standards actually vary a lot. Some are very specific to libraries, some are more generic.

Let me just talk about a little of those. The Higher Learning Commission, which accredits a huge number of colleges throughout the Northern central States, has no specific section about libraries. But they do mention libraries in one standard, teaching and learning. And so it would appear as if perhaps libraries are not important for them. However in just a moment, I’m going to describe why that’s not at all the case. Then there’s the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. There’s no specific section in their standards for libraries either. But they do mention libraries in four different standards that they have. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges also have no specific standards for libraries, but they do mention libraries in two of their standards. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, specifically in section two, is dedicated to library and information sources. They also mentioned libraries in another standard. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges dedicates a section and a subsection of their standards to the library and other learning resources and mention libraries elsewhere as well. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges has no specific section on libraries, but it does mention both libraries and information literacy. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the Western association of Schools and Colleges covers the Pacific States of California and Hawaii. They have a section, a standard dedicated to library and learning support services.

So you can see that each one of them typically has something that relates to libraries. However, it’s far more significant than that. And the reason why is because at most colleges, the libraries provide a wide range of services, which means that if you tamper with those services, the accreditors can come to the conclusion that you are offering less of those services, whether they are library specific or not, and they can sanction you for that.

You might think, wait, would that really happen? Of course that happens, because when you trim back programs at the school, there are always people who are attached to those programs. Those people are typically not happy that the program has been either reduced, deactivated, or moved. And so they’re the first people who will complain to the accreditors that the school has lost its commitment to X, whatever service it was that you were offering (and may still be offering but at a reduced level or elsewhere at the college). And so there’s always someone who’s going to bring it up to the accreditors and once they begin to look at it, if you cannot justify your actions to a skeptical audience, the accreditors are going to sanction you for that. So what you have are some accreditation standards that out-and-out require a standard for the library. And the fact is that if you don’t have a library, you are going to have a very hard time meeting that standard. (I’m saying that jokingly, I think it’s almost impossible.)

 Even more common than that is that there are all sorts of others academic standards or student life standards that basically, once you tamper with library services, once you alter them in some way, you are subject to criticism. These criticisms are not based on whether you have an adequate library, but whether or not you’re providing an adequate information literacy component for your students, or whether or not they have adequate study space or whether or not there’s adequate entertainment outlets for them. These are additional ways in which the library helps a school meet accreditation standards. And if those things are altered, the school may be found to have not met those accreditation standards.

Another reason that’s connected to that why there are still academic libraries is because academic libraries do serve the purposes that I outlined earlier. They are a repository for books that people wouldn’t be able to have in any other way. They do provide internet access for people who don’t necessarily have it. They do provide a quiet place to study. They do provide other services like entertainment and meeting space and instructional space, and so there’s no question that if you think that your school doesn’t need a library, you’ve still got to admit that most of the functions of the library have value, and you’re probably going to need to find another way to provide those services even in the absence of a library.

Most academic libraries also serve the public. This is something that is certainly emphasized by schools and by the libraries themselves, but most academic libraries and certainly the academic libraries that are at public institutions are typically available or open to the public. That doesn’t mean that all of the services that are available at the library are available to the public – it typically means that the public can go in, can use the facilities, and can avail themselves of some of what the library has to offer. In the same way the library also serves the access mission of most public institutions, public institutions with an access mission are institutions that attempt to provide educational access regardless of the ability of the public to pay for that access, and that that’s a value that they’re committed to. And the library is one of the ways to do that because the fact is if you are of modest means financially, you may not be able to afford, say, a subscription to the local newspaper, but you can go to the library and you can read that local newspaper because the library subscribes to it. If you may not have internet access, but the fact is you can go to the library and you have internet access. And so libraries in this sense have a leveling effect by providing access to certain services that people may have a hard time affording otherwise.

A final function that I’ll mention, which is very much unappreciated by the public, is the issue of professional curation. Librarians curate the information in their library. In the case of the library, the librarian is curating the items in the library by selecting and organizing and looking after the items in a specific collection in the library. Or more generally, they’re selecting, organizing and presenting content generally in the library, for example, the entire collection of books, they are both adding to and subtracting from that collection based on knowledge they have of trends or of the tastes of their readers. They have information that the rest of us don’t have. And so they pick and choose in that collection. They curate the collection based on that expertise. The most common way this surfaces is in a special collection that a library is responsible for, for example, a donated collection of papers and writings or works by a famous person or a person who is important in some other way. But the librarian is also curating the entire collection at the library and they’re also curating collections that people may be in fact very fond of, and make great use of. For example, the most popular collection of work that’s at the Independence Community College library is the DVD collection. And the librarians actually have to spend a great deal of time thinking about, what do we not want in this collection? What do we want? What’s not being watched? What do people want us to acquire? And it requires a great deal of their time.

A hundred years ago, information itself was hard to come by. If I wanted to do research, I had to have an encyclopedia. Nowadays the issue is quite different; information is very, very easy to come by. What librarians do is they curate that information. They make the information more accessible to us. They may help us find it in a form that’s more understandable for us. They actually help us make use of the information in a way that saves us time and effort and enhances our understanding of that information. Curation is one of just many of the valuable tasks that librarians do, but I find it’s one of the least understood or appreciated by the general public.

So what needs to happen? Do we need to close all academic libraries? Of course not. I think there are really two midterm projects that the higher education community needs to work on immediately.

The first is that accreditors need to think differently about libraries. I understand that one of the purposes of accreditation is to preserve the way in which Americans do higher education, a way that is the often the envy of the world. But if you look carefully at the standards for libraries contained in the accreditors standards, what you’ll find is two things. First, a conception of libraries that I think is for the most part antiquated, and the second is an explicit need for libraries regardless of the outcomes they’re producing, which really just paralyzes colleges when they want to innovate or experiment. Second is that higher education needs to have a conversation about libraries. I was going to say that it needs to be led by librarians, but the more I think about that, the more I think it can’t just be librarians, the lone voice in the wilderness. It needs to be a collaborative effort between librarians and other natural partners that they have on the campuses.

What is this conversation they need to have? Denise Troll, a distinguished fellow at the digital library Federation, and an assistant university librarian at Carnegie Mellon, wrote in 2001: “If we’re not diligent, the speed of change will inhibit, if not paralyze, attempts to make sense of what’s happening in libraries and intervene for the good of our constituencies.” What she’s describing in that sentence is exactly what has come to pass. Change has not slowed down; it has sped up. And ultimately it has truly interfered with the ability of the constituencies of the libraries to understand what the library does and what it could do.

That’s a national conversation. It may be that the single greatest obstacle the library faces is nostalgia. When my wife Karen and I gave a gift to the local public library, they allowed us to attach a message to the gift. And we chose a quote from Carla Hayden, who was a librarian of Congress and the president of the American Library Association: “Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy where information is free and equally available to everyone.” That quote certainly resonates with me, but I wonder how much of that quote is describing libraries 50 years ago versus libraries today. It certainly never was “everyone” – perhaps it applied to one group of people 50 years ago and a different group of people today. Perhaps the information that’s available is different 50 years ago than it is today. I’m not sure. But I do know that things have changed, and my emotional attachment is to the libraries that I grew up with. Many people who feel strongly about libraries that I’ve talked to seem to feel the same way. That is something that we have to free ourselves from if we are to make academic libraries the vibrant intellectual places that they were 50 years ago.