Academic libraries and survival

academic libraries, libraries in society 3 Comments

The Chinese American Librarians Association invited me to participate in the 2008 Sino-US Forum for Library Practice in Kunming, China.  Its co-sponsors are the Library and Information Committee for Academic Libraries of Yunnan Province and the library of Kunming University of Science and Technology.

Among the speakers from China, all of them directors of university libraries, the survival of the academic library has been a recurrent theme.  Mass digitization projects—both those well known in the US such as Google’s and the Internet Archives’ Million Books project—as well as significant projects in China have prompted questions about the viability of libraries that are known for their extensive print collections complemented by access to online databases, many offering a wide range of full-text content.

Again and again they cited the need for libraries to digitize the unique and special items in their special collections as a way to demonstrate the distinct contribution each can make.  They didn’t address issues about the library’s survival once these collections are digitized and as widely available as the contents of the Million Books project.  They also cited copyright restrictions as limitations on the usefulness of digitized book collections.

One library director outlined her strategy for assuring that her university will value the library’s contribution.  Dr. Jinhau Shen, chief librarian at Tongji University in Shanghai described a unique outreach program.  As China continues to industrialize and its own people become a larger and larger market for its products, information becomes more important to emerging industries such as automobile manufacturing.  Tongji University’s library has initiated discussions with local auto manufacturers to learn what sort of business, engineering, and scientific information they need.  It has developed partnerships to provide that information.  This library has found a void and filled it.  It demonstrates its value by providing needed information to an industry that is very important to the nation’s future.   It expects to have competitors in the future, but also thinks that its experience as a pioneer will give it a competitive advantage for some time to come.

I commend Dr. Jinhau Shen and her staff for their innovation and strategic thinking.  It has identified an underserved, perhaps even unserved, community and has developed services that will contribute to the community’s success.  I don’t advise every US academic library to imitate this example of providing information services to a local industry.  But we do need to act in the same spirit.  Dr. Shen’s presentation made me wonder who are the underserved or unserved in my library’s community?  Perhaps they are individuals within the groups we strive to serve, especially faculty and students?  How do we identify those individuals and how do we reach them?  This isn’t a new question nor one we have ignored.  But it is proving difficult to answer.  Yet answer it we must.


academic libraries 13 Comments

I am writing this at Dulles airport. In about 45 minutes boarding will begin for my non-stop flight to Beijing. From there I will travel to Kunming and join a small group of members of the Chinese American Library Association for CALA’s 21st Century Librarian Seminar. It will be held at Kunming University of Science and Technology in Kunming in Yunnan Province. On Thursday I will present a paper on “Challenges for Academic Libraries in the Networked World.”

After the seminar concludes my wife and I will take another ten days or so to tour some of China’s highlights–the terra-cotta army in Xian, the panda reserve near Chengdu, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City in Beijing, and more.

I thank CALA for inviting me to participate in the seminar.

A college student’s vision for the academic library

academic libraries 1 Comment

My daughter, a junior in college, sent me this IM exchange she and a friend had recently:

chiquitachik: how are you?
funnyblonde: good
funnyblonde: you
chiquitachik: good
funnyblonde: goodo!
funnyblonde: how was your day?
funnyblonde: eventful?
chiquitachik: not really
funnyblonde: yeah me neither
funnyblonde: the library was boring
chiquitachik: libraries usually are
funnyblonde: yeah such a shame
funnyblonde: they should put a circus in it
chiquitachik: HAHAHAHA
funnyblonde: that [would] make me want to go a lot more

My daughter’s comment: “I just thought you might want to know what your college constituency is looking for in the libraries of the future.”Shopping malls have installed merry-go-rounds to draw in customers. But I don’t foresee circuses in academic libraries. Is there, however, something we can learn from the circus suggestion? A circus appeals to multiple senses. Libraries may have aesthetically pleasing architecture and interior spaces and even the aroma of fresh coffee. But academic libraries primarily appeal to and cater to the intellect. In a world in which college students multitask and are accustomed to environments rich in visual and auditory stimuli, what can we learn from the circus suggestion? Information is packaged in a variety of media–ink on paper, online databases, Web sites, audio files, video, etc. Yet faculty assign students to produce papers (a term pregnant with connotations as well as denotations). We can’t offer students circuses, but many academic libraries offer students and faculty multimedia creation and editing capabilities. Students are able take information in various media and use it to produce recombinant multi-media “papers” that can convey their message with greater immediacy than the purely cerebral traditional undergraduate research paper. Yet these are a glaring exception.

Perhaps it is the hold print/online journals have on scholarly communication and the tenure process that blinds most faculty to the possibilities of multimedia “papers,” both in student work and their own work. The rise of institutional repositories offers a place where we can provide access to such student works. Over time will technology-savvy younger faculty change tenure criteria to recognize the validity and value of students’ multimedia creations? The cynical (perhaps realistic) answer to that question is, not until after they earn tenure. Yet some determined and pioneering graduate students have produced multimedia dissertations despite institutional skittishness about fair use issues and faculty reluctance to accord these the same respect as purely textual dissertations. How can librarians help faculty see the opportunities for learning that alternative assignments offer, from undergraduates through doctoral students? What is happening at your institutions?