Killing Fear part 1: The Problem

[the introduction]

You’re totally surprised to hear this, right? Wondering why no one told you before? But bear with me. I want to lay some groundwork about why I think some of the things I think.

So, libraries are changing. I think of it as a metamorphosis, because I think we’re the same at our core – we’re still standing with users on one side, and information on the other, and doing everything we can to bridge the gap in between, that place where investigation, synthesis, and learning happen. That in-between is just different now, is all. Who we are now isn’t alien to who we were – it’s still the same at its core — but we’re surely not the same as we were.

The thing that I suspect a bunch of you thought when I flipped to this slide, though, is that really, WE KNOW libraries are changing. Same shit, different speaker. We’ve been talking about this since the 90’s. It’s 2012, for god’s sake. And you’re right. We’ve been talking about it for ages. My entire professional career and graduate education, in fact. And we’re still talking about it. And I thnk that’s okay, because it’s still true – libraries are changing.

The thing I think needs to be a more practical part of the conversation is this:

1. Libraries have always been changing in our modern history. My long-term colleagues back home – some of them with more than 30 years in our library – have lived and worked through major changes in librarianship, and will gladly share the horror and humor of the many things they’ve worked through over the decades. Change isn’t new.

2. And we have to stop using “stuff is changing and we can’t reliably predict our future” as an excuse for why we can’t do anything. Because, see number 1, things have always been and likely always will be changing, so it’s a poor excuse to stand still and stare in befuddlement. This is it. This is our world. Welcome to it.

And the practical implication of this library metamorphosis is that, in the last decade, there have been some distinct, measurable, and dramatic shifts in what we do, and while we haven’t reached a place of stasis (and may never), we can now say “we see some big trends”, and make choices about how to respond to those even as we anticipate what comes next.

But smarter people than I have done excellent research into this, so you don’t have to just rely on my proclamations. Libraries are changing, and the Advisory Board Company’s University Leadership Council wrote a fantastic report about it.

Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Information Services

There’s a 100 page report, a 50+ slide presentation highlighting the visual representation of that report’s content, and a very usable 8 page executive summary.

This is the kind of report that you can share with not only librarians but library staff, faculty, and senior administrators. It’s readable and pithy, and a great resource.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the report, in my eyes, is the very first part of the summary: Their top lessons of transformational change in libraries. Rather than make up my own list of things that are different in the now in libraries, I’ll let external analysts speak for us.

[image source]

I suspect a lot of that makes sense in the experiences many of you have had; I know my experiences reflect much of what they discuss. That’s my world they’re talking about, a world driven by a changing information economy and ecology, and changing user expectations and needs. The challenge that I see in this is that some of our stakeholder expectations are in a totally different place from others, and equally far from our shared and recognized experiences. In short: We’re busily turning into a butterfly, to the delight of our students, and our faculty think we made a damn fine caterpillar.

Ithaka S &R, the Strategy and Research arm of the organization behind JSTOR, does annual research reports on topics of interest to libraries, research, digitization, and the information economy. Every three years they do a faculty perceptions survey, and in 2009, they identified some trends I think we need to pay attention to (particularly if there’s a 2012 edition to compare this to).

One research question asked faculty to identify whether something was an important role for libraries, or not, on a scale of “not at all” to “very”.

[image source]

Research and teaching support: those are good numbers – we like seeing more than half.
Gateway to information… really? 60%? Have they not used Google or watched a student start their research, lately? But… okay. 60% of faculty value us as a part of their information ecology, and that’s actually a very good thing.

But even more value libraries as an archive. This is a classic role of libraries, and an important one, and it should not surprise us to hear this stakeholder group engage in this kind of wishing.

But the last one there… 90% see us as buyers of information. 90%. Buyers.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t run a purchasing office. And I want more than 60% of our faculty to think it’s very important for libraries to be engaged in research and teaching support – and I want that to be a higher number than want us to archive stuff. Information literacy is our future; anyone who’s paying attention to accrediting bodies, professional organizations, and where our professional excitement is positioned knows we staked the farm on it. So 60% is not good enough.

I freely acknowledge that my reactions to this data are certainly based in my small liberal arts college experiences. However, when you contrast these expectations with the 8 statements about the changing role of libraries? Wow. Two different worlds.

Put simply, there’s a contradiction between these faculty expectations and emergent and clearly evident trends in information, libraries, and our future. This particular stakeholder group seems to want the very traditional services and roles that others are pointing out are now part of a legacy model.

So that’s a problem.


  1. I agree that 60% is not good enough. Clearly, faculty don’t understand the value that libraries can bring to teaching and research. Librarians are quick to complain that faculty “don’t get it,” but we’re not so quick to take responsibility for this knowledge gap. If we’re as serious about information literacy as we claim to be, we should start by doing everything we can to educate faculty members – we need to market our services and demonstrate our value. Some of us don’t like to use terms like “marketing,” but we need to get over it and get our message across.


  2. This is one of the best things I have read all year- I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that says so clearly that teaching and learning is our future. OF COURSE IT IS! Thank you for spelling it out. So why does no-one say that? Why does no-one support this, or worse, actively try and stop this while dumping billions of dollars into worthless navel gazing exercises that are an excuse to make us look busy while we bury our heads in the sand even further?

    We used to facilitate knowledge creation in our communities by providing access in the shape of content. In the digital age, we’re still providing access to knowledge- but if knowledge is changing to include conversation, discussion and participation then we must provide the right tools to achieve this. And that is teaching and learning.

    Thank you!


  3. It brought back to mind David Lewis’s article back in 2004 about libraries and disruptive innovation ( ) I’ve used it in a number of my presentations. He says…..

    ‘For academic libraries, these leading customers are the faculty. In the end, libraries may be serving only a small number of leading customers without any significant decline in the cost of services. This is not a sustainable position, and when this happens, library services will either collapse or need to be radically restructured’

    The Innovator’s Dilemma: Disruptive Change and Academic Libraries. David W. Lewis


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