Several years ago–I’m not sure exactly when–I came up with a joke to describe university faculty. I had just had a particularly frustrating conversation about some collection development decisions, and said to a co-worker “it’s almost like faculty are suspended in amber the day they defend their dissertation, and refuse to engage with new ways of locating information.” By that I meant that whatever approach they used to complete this very difficult and very rewarding research project is the approach that they’d repeat from that point on. If they used Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature in the seventies, they’ll talk about how unrivaled its indexing is. If they used microfilm in the eighties, they’ll talk about the context provided by reviewing day after day of news before you find the story that you need. If they used Google Scholar in the oughts, they’ll talk about the efficiency of a single search box platform.
And by and large, I get it. All of us have our own information seeking behaviors, and my approach to this has always been “if it’s working for you, then it works.” I don’t subscribe to the view that there are “right” and “wrong” ways of doing research, and spend a lot of time talking with researchers about their own processes because, frankly, I get a kick out of that sort of thing. It’s made me a better teacher, a better researcher, and a better librarian.
Where I do have some concerns is when that individualized information seeking behavior is projected onto students, departments, and whole institutions, like it did last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which published an article about Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, and their plan to move a large portion of their print collection into remote storage. As has become the trope with articles like this one, the story centered on interviews with humanities faculty who are lamenting the loss of “serendipity” when browsing the stacks. The concern that books are being tossed in favor of group study rooms and coffee shops. The assertion that the library is “their laboratory,” and to alter its contents jeopardizes their ability to conduct research.
The concerns in the article might be compelling if I hadn’t essentially read the same arguments a month ago, in that case describing changes at the University of Houston. And who are we kidding? A classics professor said “the library is our laboratory” during a faculty senate meeting at Florida State a decade ago, right around the time I was participating in the removal of a few hundred thousand books, journals, and government documents to make room for a classroom and a cafe.
My point is that despite the doomsday tone that’s floating around, libraries have been moving collections and discarding stuff for a long time now, and the world has continued to spin. And I feel like I’ve got enough on the ball now to refute most of what I’ve been hearing and reading, so here goes. These aren’t exact quotes from any one individual, but rather distillations of arguments I’ve been privy to during my dozen years in academic libraries.
- “A reduction in books is a reduction in research potential.”
This idea features prominently in these articles and other arguments from faculty. It’s quantification, right? It’s the idea that more is better and less is worse. So let’s pull on that thread a bit and ask this: If more information yields better research, why are so many of the faculty who “love books” the same people who ban the use of websites when assigning research projects to students? Likewise, the librarians who make this argument tend to be the ones who deride web-scale discovery systems because they yield too many results (“drinking from a firehose”). But you can’t have it both ways–you can’t say more books is good, but the ubiquity of online information is a bad thing. Unless of course you’re into gatekeeping and upholding past models of information seeking that you yourself benefitted from, which isn’t a good look.
- “The library is our laboratory.”
Sure. In lieu of a spectroscope or a chromatograph, humanists use a library card. Great! But have you been in a chemistry lab lately? Because (spoilers) they discarded all of their old equipment last year. Just like they did five years ago. And ten years ago. The means of discovery are evolving in every discipline, and while the foundations remain the same, researchers continue to develop new methodologies. And I’m not knocking the humanities in toto, just the folks who lament that copy 2 of Shakespeare’s Concordance is being moved to the sub-basement. It’s online folks. We can show you how to access it. It’s going to be okay.
- “Moving the books off-site delays my ability to access them.”
Yes, it does. But I honestly didn’t think that speed of access was as much of a concern for humanists who spend years preparing a monograph. I mean, I understand the annoyance, but most academic libraries I’ve worked with can retrieve something from remote storage within a day or so, and advances like RAPID ILL and statewide shared catalogs can get just about anything else within two or three days. And if speed really is a concern, why aren’t these researchers supporting the acquisition of eBooks over print? Those items would be available in a matter of seconds, rather than having to walk across campus to pull the book off of the shelf, but the “I need a big print collection” crowd has largely remained hesitant to embrace online materials.
- “I love the serendipity of browsing the stacks and discovering books.”
It’s not “serendipity” that put those books there and you’re not “discovering” them. There’s a lot of nerve on display when faculty question librarians and lament the decisions we make, but maybe the most galling is the repeated insistence that the forces of fate have connected them with these books. It’s not the heavens smiling on you when you browse the stacks and find a relevant item, it’s the labor of a bibliographer, a cataloger, and a shelver. This stuff ends up where it does because people are doing the work of putting it there. And oh yeah, another part of making it “discoverable” is removing all of the stuff that’s no longer relevant. Librarians call it “weeding” for a reason.
- “You’re getting rid of the books to make room for X thing, and I don’t think X thing is useful.”
Almost without fail, the thing for which libraries need to make room is a place where students can collaborate. Cafes, group study rooms, classrooms, you name it. Just about every academic library renovation in the U.S. for the last decade has involved building these spaces, and if you’ve been in a library lately, you’ll know how popular they are. So why target them? I think part of this stems from the humanities’ continued emphasis on individual accomplishment over collaborative assignments. I know I’m painting with a broad brush, but I tend to see just about every discipline on my campus requiring group work with the exception of the humanities, where assignments still involve a lone student connecting with a text and exploring it in sacred communion with the author. I mean I get it, but as I was reminded in a pedagogy meeting last year, “Life is Group Work.”
- “I want students to appreciate the way research used to be done.”
This one comes up a lot when faculty require students to use arcane formats. As an instruction librarian I encounter this at least once a semester, typically when a professor insists on students using print journals or a reference book, and they want a library session showing students how to find these things. I’ll concede that there is a benefit to understanding the history of scholarly communication, though there are a few thousand other aspects of information literacy that I think are of more benefit to students. And honestly, this feels less like instruction and more like hazing. “I had to do it, and now so do you!” is not constructive. It’s amber.
- “There’s just something about a room full of books.”
No, there isn’t. Look, I’m sure this is going to annoy some librarians and other book-loving academic types, but here it is: It’s not about the room and it’s about not the books. It’s that being in a room full of books today reminds you of the first time you stood in a room full of books back then. It reminds you of who you used to be. It reminds you of being a novice researcher in your tender years of undergrad, long before you ever met an associate dean or got unhelpful comments from reviewer #2. It’s not about the information, it’s about you. And that’s fine, I guess, just don’t mandate your nostalgia onto my profession. We’re overrun with nostalgics as is.
I wanted to write this out because, frankly, I’ve had it with faculty outside the library taking our work for granted, then telling us how to do our jobs. It’s not lost on me that most of the humanists quoted in these articles are men, and most of my profession is women. It’s not lost on me that they were fine with library workers selecting the materials, paying for them, cataloging them, shelving them, circulating them, and teaching classes on how to use them, but when we thoughtfully decide to relocate or remove some of them, they’re suddenly up in arms demanding that we collaborate more. It’s not lost on me that most of their arguments center on nostalgizing a method of information seeking that has systematically excluded more people than it included.
The other reason I wanted to write this out is to remind myself that, for a time, I was one of these people. I was at the front of the line talking about the travesty of discarding or relocating print collections. I spent a year on a now-abandoned research project looking at Merleau-Ponty’s “tactile phenomenology” and its implications for collection development. But after being in this line of work for a while I’ve learned a few things, and maybe the most important is this: It’s not about having access to information, and it’s not about knowing how to locate information. The point is to use that information to do something. I’m pretty tired of arguments that privilege “discovery” without ever talking about what comes next. I’m pretty tired of information literacy models that end with “find the source and cite it.”
The whole point of libraries, of information, is to connect with other people. I’ll take a crowded group study room to a range of books any day, and I have zero time for fetishizing print at the expense of student engagement. Some of our users might be stuck in amber, but that doesn’t mean our organizations need to be, and it’s okay for library-types to push back when we encounter these narratives. Sometimes we really do know what we’re doing.
Update 6/15/2018: I’ve written another post as a follow-up to some of the issues raised here, as well as raising some other concerns I have.