Colleagues

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, eighteen months ago I moved into a new role as the head of my library’s instruction department, and now I directly supervise nine faculty librarians. I spend markedly less time talking with students and much more time in meetings, and am still figuring out a few things. Some parts are fun and some parts aren’t, but I’m fortunate to be surrounded by smart, supportive, and engaged colleagues in my department, without whom things would be much, much more difficult.

I’m posting this now because as I’ve made this transition, the conversations I have with other people in the profession have become very different. I spent about a year effectively “cleaning out” the last of my information literacy-related research projects, and now I find myself spending a lot more time talking to and hearing from people who are managing. Understandably, a lot of these conversations are on back-channels, but I want to write something from the perspective of a manager who is actively trying to improve the working conditions of their employees. I also want to be clear that I am still learning how complicated and taxing that is.

Apologies in advance for how narrow this post is in its scope, but what can I say? I’m a one-shot librarian managing a one-shot department, so I’m writing about one-shots and the discord they can sow.

The long and short of it is this: The one-shot model puts undue stress on library faculty and I want to try to fix it.

By “undue stress,” I mean that one-shot librarians largely operate in a space that has been structured to cause anxiety, self-doubt, and burnout. I don’t know who benefits in the current system, but I sure as hell have suffered it over the past decade, and I know I’m not alone. To that end, I spend a lot of my work time these days trying to get at the root of how we’ve ended up in this situation, and how to get out, and I have a few ideas.

The main reason we’re here, I think, is tied to the origins of academic librarianship as a service profession (and the accompanying misconceptions around that work). We are told that, historically, we were on campus to house books and support the “real” faculty (by which I mean faculty who conduct research and teach credit-bearing courses), and while our duties shifted and we took on new and more-involved responsibilities (including research and teaching), the perception of what we do and who we are didn’t keep up with the changes. At this point instruction librarians do nearly all of the same work as other faculty on campus, as well as some more specialized stuff, and yet we’re still expected to defer to the expertise of others.

This outdated perception has very real consequences. It’s left us in a place where librarians have been conditioned to assume that other faculty know exactly what they’re doing, and it’s up to us to “catch up.” So we get additional graduate degrees to establish subject expertise, we engage in professional development activities to improve our pedagogy, and we learn new research methods and publish articles to demonstrate our credibility.

Yet after all of this, I still get the sense whenever I’m in a crowd of instruction librarians that we’re somehow “behind.” There’s a collective feeling that we still don’t know enough, or have enough experience, to question other faculty. This leads to a blame game, with folks hanging this perceived deficit on their MLIS program, their institution’s lack of professional development funding, their inexperience with teaching credit-bearing courses, their lack of a Ph.D., or myriad other possibilities.

But this deficit is bogus. When it comes to what to discuss in a classroom, I know of no other discipline that spends as much time discussing pedagogy as information literacy librarians, and that includes faculty in education departments. We have multiple annual conferences to discuss library instruction exclusively, and even at larger meetups, like ACRL, the program is full of sessions dedicated to teaching. This is on top of the ever-growing body of research literature and professional documents dedicated to library instruction, all of which goes back decades, to say nothing of informal networks for learning that exist in online and in-person communities.

Meanwhile, few graduate programs in any discipline offer courses that address pedagogy or instructional design, and despite increased awareness of the role of effective teaching in higher education, many graduate programs continue to put a heavy emphasis on research, rather than pedagogy. This has been a lingering problem that hurts both faculty and students, but I appreciate work like An Urgency of Teachers that is beginning to address these issues.

Still, the status quo is one in which “the real faculty” know what’s best and the librarians are expected to accommodate their demands. This often leads to suboptimal, and occasionally abusive, interactions with colleagues on campus, where we’re told at the last minute to change our class prep. Where we’re interrupted in the middle of teaching to talk about a non sequitur. Where the extent of faculty engagement in planning a session is to ask that we “work our librarian magic.” And I know that these slights are felt even more acutely by library workers whose identities have not historically been welcomed by the academy.

While I wish that I could ascribe these conditions to some calcified biases of yesteryear, I have seen them perpetuated recently. Perhaps the most glaring example was when I was forwarded an email from a member of my department. This person has multiple graduate degrees and several years of teaching experience, but a second-semester grad student had rejected their lesson plan and informed them that “students just need to see the databases.” Please note, my issue isn’t with that second-semester grad student who had minimal experience—it’s with their faculty adviser or other members of their department who had communicated to them that “the library works for you, you know more than them.”

And instead of questioning why we’ve been treated this way, I’ve seen how instruction librarians have internalized it into a collective professional anxiety.

I want this to stop.

So the phrase I’ve repeated to myself and people in my department a few hundred times over the last eighteen months is this: “Is this how colleagues treat each other?” Whenever we have an instructor ghost us on email, fail to show up for class, interrupt us to question our judgement in the middle of a session, we ask ourselves: “Is this how colleagues treat each other?” Thinking about the answer to that question has helped me make a lot of decisions as a department head.

You might be wondering what I mean by “how colleagues treat each other.” Here’s an example:

In our current paradigm, biology majors need literature searching skills, so biology faculty contact the library and tell the librarians what to teach. We take their directions, put together a database demo, teach the session, and hope that the professor is happy and the students maybe learn a thing or two. 

The thing is, though, biology majors also need chemistry skills. But the biology faculty aren’t calling the chemists to tell them what or how to teach. They’re not interrupting them in their labs or lectures and saying “I wish you did it this way instead. Just do it my way.” Instead, they defer to the expertise of their colleagues in another discipline and then contextualize those concepts for their own setting. The same goes with writing, math, and basically all of general education, and while it’s far from perfect, it is a functioning model. It’s a given that course instructors rely on other instructors to convey content and help students succeed. 

Outside of library instruction, though, I know of no other relationship in which faculty in one discipline are routinely told what to do by faculty in other disciplines. We aren’t trusted to be professionals, or experts, or (in some cases) even competent. I have now seen or heard direct accounts of faculty members who thought it appropriate to yell at library instructors, make fun of their voices or verbal tics, throw papers, storm out of classrooms, and call for terminations because they didn’t like the search examples that were used in class.

This is not how colleagues treat each other. 

I’ll tell you, I saw some heinous stuff happen when I was personally teaching 100 one-shots a year, but now that I’m running a department that teaches closer to 500? It’s been stunning.

So here’s what I’m doing about it: I’m taking incremental steps to reframe our power dynamic on campus. It isn’t all that flashy or innovative, but in consultation with my department we’ve been updating our scheduling processes, exerting our expertise, and spending a ton of time engaged in professional development. We’re now insisting on seeing syllabi and course assignments at least two weeks before a session takes place. We’re setting firm dates on when we’ll work with a class within a semester (no more visits in the first two or last four weeks of the term). We’re setting limits on how many sessions we can teach in a week.

And maybe the most impactful thing is that we’re telling people “no.” We’re telling people who think they can ridicule a librarian in-class “we won’t work with you anymore.” We’re telling faculty who want a session in week 15 because “I’m out of content but I figured visiting the library is a no brainer” that we’re not in the “no brainer” business.

Honestly, can you imagine a physics instructor contacting the philosophy department in week 15 to ask for a guest presentation about the Allegory of the Cave because “it couldn’t hurt to learn about this”? By that same logic, we could argue “everybody has a limbic system,” yet we’re not asking neuroscientists to give a guest lecture to our FYE seminar before drop-add is even over.

Why is it like this? Why was it ever like this?

Anyway, I want to wrap this up by saying that my department works with hundreds of classes and instructors each semester, and the vast majority are positive, collegial, respectful, and productive. We have some excellent instructors on my campus, and we certainly have some excellent instructors in my department. I’m writing this because I’m fairly certain that library instructors all over the country have been forced to put up with some really obnoxious people, and outside of conference happy hours and Twitter DM’s, we almost never talk about it.

I think we, all of us teaching in higher education, need to talk about this. Like that Inside Higher Ed article about the guy with over 700 books checked out yelling at library staff? Yeah, he works at every single university in the U.S. Anybody who has ever worked circ in an academic library knows that guy, much in the way that everyone who has taught a one-shot knows the instructor who holds one-on-one conferences with students while we’re trying to lead a group discussion. And while the faculty outside of the library might chalk it up to “some people are jerks,” it seems to me that librarians have often absorbed this kind of behavior into our professional identity.

Time to make some changes to this structure, I think. We’re colleagues too.

Austerity Forever

My university is cutting its budget. This fall we didn’t meet enrollment goals (off by 344 students) and are consequently making reductions across departments. I’ve attended several meetings on campus to hear from administrators, and while the situation is far from dire, I learned a couple of weeks ago that the specific dollar amount reductions for the current fiscal year have been set.

As I tweeted about at the start of the semester, we knew this was coming, and nationwide we can expect this sort of thing to go on… forever? There continue to be stories about declining fertility rates in the U.S., and so long as university funding is contingent on enrollment (rather than supported by state funding), we can assume that we’re moving into a phase where we cut budgets every year.

Of course I’m concerned about these cuts. I’ve seen how budget shortfalls can destroy programs, burnout faculty, and force students to pay still more in tuition and fees. But I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve seen this sort of thing everywhere I’ve worked. Going back to Florida in 2008, when the housing market dropped and state support to higher education cratered, every institution for which I’ve worked has had to make substantial, painful cuts. We’ve cancelled subscriptions, slashed acquisitions budgets, frozen salaries, eliminated student hourly positions, lost vacant lines, and been told to “do more with less.”

My last university went so far as to provide buyouts for early retirements, then proceeded to eliminate vacancies and eventually laid people off. I was on the university’s budget board when those cuts happened, which was both educational and, frankly, demoralizing. I understood why things were happening and how we had gotten there, but also saw that there were no easy solutions. It was the origin of my interest in higher education funding models.

The funny (and by funny, I mean sad) part is that amidst those cuts, I launched a national job search in the spring of 2014 and endured a pretty rough rejection from a private liberal arts school. My thinking at the time was “I need to go work at a private school that doesn’t rely on state funding.” Earlier this year, however, I learned that, had I gotten that job, I would have been faced with a similar round of budget cuts and layoffs. Again, it would seem that there are no easy solutions.

I mention all of this because there are doomsday predictions being thrown around regarding the year 2025, and what it will mean for higher education funding. I’ve reviewed the numbers (I find the WICHE statistics to be very helpful) and agree with the conventional wisdom that, absent substantial state support, we’re moving into a wave of austerity, especially at regional institutions like mine. But honestly, it’s been austere for as long as I can remember? I’ve worked full time in academic libraries since the summer of 2006, and we’ve always talked about not having enough resources to do our work adequately. Perhaps there was some nebulous time a few decades ago when every academic library had a 40 person reference department that sat around having money fights all day(?), but it hasn’t been that case for a really, really long time.

Here’s a game I used to play when visiting other academic libraries: I would walk through their bound periodicals and see what year each run of a journal stopped. You could see the budget cut years play out in a visceral way, as an eighty year run of a journal came to an abrupt end in 2002. There were similar years at different libraries I visited, usually corresponding with recessions and declines in state support for higher education, and it was helpful to see that so many libraries had faced similar issues. Of course most academic libraries have dumped their print runs, or otherwise moved them offsite, so we can’t play this kind of game anymore. Still, it’s enough evidence for me to know that we’ve been cutting for a couple of decades.

What’s different now, though, is that there is a new generation of department heads and managers coming up for whom it’s always been a budget cut year. My colleagues and I, by and large, have never assumed that budgets would bounce back. We’ve always worked in libraries where we knew that we needed to repair the stapler’s spring, or clean the photocopier’s roller, or (re)tape the dictionary’s spine, because we couldn’t count on the money to buy replacements. We’ve spent time practicing our elevator pitch so we can talk about the good work happening in the library at a moment’s notice. We’ve spent a decade struggling to find ways to quantify things that are inherently not quantifiable so that we can send “the numbers” to the budget office when they start to make cuts, hoping that they would see our “value.”

The biggest lesson for me, and the one I’m most hopeful is shared by my colleagues in middle management, is that we need to take care of the people in our departments. I’m not saying that people and staplers are the same (really, I’m not), but the underlying sentiment is similar in that we have to be careful with our resources. If salaries will be frozen and positions will be eliminated, we need to reject the idea of “doing more with less.” We instead will, quite plainly, “do less.” And in the process of doing less, we must be thoughtful about where we will expend our limited resources. We can certainly take on new responsibilities, but we need to be careful about what we commit to doing, because each new initiative will mean ending an old one. Which is fine! It’s part of doing the work. But it’s something we have been hesitant to acknowledge for too long.

I’m fairly certain that in order to do this work well, managers need to create more space to be thoughtful (as recently noted by Lawrie Phipps), which is how I’ve been spending the last several months. As the head of a library instruction department, I’ve been soliciting feedback and establishing procedures that will reduce the number of one-shot instruction sessions we teach in a way that (fingers crossed) doesn’t completely frustrate the campus. It started a year ago with a few small changes here and there, and is now ramping up to include limits on when we teach in the semester and how many sessions we can lead in any given week. These changes are not monumental or particularly innovative, but I think this kind of work is what will allow us to be more thoughtful about what we do (and do not) want to be working on.

The drag for me is that this sentiment is very rarely shared by campus and library administrators. As I mentioned a few months ago, the impulse for the past two decades has been to build our way out of enrollment declines. New dorms, new recreation centers, and, yes, new libraries were seen as an effective way to encourage enrollment and move forward.

But as enrollments fall into a steeper decline, the thing that keeps me up at night is the thought that our administrators haven’t heard the news, and somehow think that the solutions of the past two decades will still apply now. So they’ll borrow private money against inflated enrollment projections in order to finance new construction, then repeat the rhetoric of “we’re all sharing the pain” as they layoff faculty and staff to payback their lenders. I’ve seen this movie before, and it sucks.

Where I find hope in all of this is knowing that there is a new wave of administrators coming. People who have spent the past decades not just “making tough decisions,” but rather the people who have seen in very stark terms the ramifications of those decisions. I don’t think we’ll necessarily make better choices when we’re faced with still new kinds of hardships, but I’m confident we won’t rely on rhetoric that calls for “innovative visionaries who can efficiently pivot resources to actualize student achievement in the 21st century.”

Instead, I think we’ll probably be a lot more careful. We won’t commit to things we can’t support, and we’ll know that budgeting decisions are indeed strategic decisions. We’ll know that every new thing we build this year is two things we won’t be able to repair next year, so make damn sure we really need to build this thing.

Goodness, I hope we’re more careful.

I should close by mentioning that this is the first thing I’ve posted in nearly two years. I moved into my new role 18 months ago, and I haven’t been sure how to write about it. That said, I have learned a lot about people, organizations, libraries, and priorities in this time, and I’m hopeful that sharing some of those lessons will help others. There’s a lot that I’m not comfortable writing about at this point, but I’m still going to try to write more.

Stay tuned.

Legacy Systems

A few days ago I published a blog post about faculty reactions to some of the decisions that library workers are making. You don’t necessarily have to read that to understand this, but it might give some more context.

The library at my previous institution was built in the late 1960s, during a higher education construction bonanza that aligned with the baby boomers going to college. As was the case with many academic libraries, there was funding for the initial construction, as well as a generous budget to buy books and build the collections inside. After a few years that money had all been spent, and by the mid-1970s the library’s acquisitions budget was greatly reduced, designed to (hopefully) maintain a collection, rather than build a new one from scratch.

When I arrived at that library in 2011, the building had just been remodeled (I remember the smell of paint during my on-campus interview). And while the facilities were new and wonderful, the print collection wasn’t in great shape. The arrangement of items was good–no crowding, plenty of room for growth, everything appeared to be in call number order–but the books themselves were getting worn out after several decades of use. To walk through the collection, you would often think “these books are old.”

In some cases the age didn’t matter. I usually browsed in history or literature, and it wasn’t a big deal if our copy of Slaughterhouse Five had seen its fair share of action. But when you got to the social sciences, it was a different story. Staring at a shelf of books about addiction treatment that were written primarily in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s didn’t fill me with confidence, and that sentiment was shared by the faculty. We knew we needed to do something.

Because that library was well managed, the strategic plan that was created to coincide with the renovation included a benchmark to move the median date of publication of items in the collection up from (I think?) the late 1970s to the late 1980s. In other words, we wanted our books to be around ten years newer than what was currently on the shelf. To that end, over the next few years those of use who were selecting books did our best to acquire the newest editions of anything we thought the campus could use, as well as discarded some of those items whose age made them problematic. All pretty standard collection development work for an academic library, honestly.

After a few years we ran a report using the dates of publication that are included in the metadata of anything that’s been properly cataloged, and found that while we had made some progress, the collection was still older than we wanted it to be. As the librarians sat around a conference table, I remember us acknowledging very frankly that we just didn’t have the money to buy enough new books to meet the benchmark, nor could we discard enough of our legacy collection and still function as a library. In other words, we had to have something on the shelf if we were to fulfill our mission.

So we didn’t meet our goal. We kept a lot of older books and life went on.

I wanted to mention this story because it demonstrates a few things that I alluded to in my last post, as well as connects it with some of the comments and criticisms I’ve received in the last few days.

I think the glaring thing here is the neoliberal context in which that library, and many, many other libraries, are operating. We’re short on space, short on money, and still expected to do the same work, if not more. And this kind of austerity is felt throughout the academy, which sparks false divisions and infighting, to which I contributed with my last post. (Many thanks to Ian Beilin, Rachel Fleming, and Sam Popowich for reading and responding to what I wrote.) As a faculty member and a humanist myself I should have known better, and I have heard what people are saying.

There is another aspect to this situation I want to address though, and it’s something I only alluded to in my earlier post when I wrote:

“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.”

I didn’t expand on that point in the initial post because I was already refuting a lot of other arguments, and I didn’t want to dilute this one. I also knew I was writing that with a healthy dose of snark and making sweeping generalizations, and this next point requires a lot more nuance. So here goes…

Legacy print collections in academic libraries are problematic in that they do not reflect the people who rely on them. Instead, they represent racist and patriarchal systems that have dominated the U.S., including its higher education system, for way too long. To browse the stacks of an academic library is to look at books that are overwhelmingly–overwhelmingly–written by white men, about white men, for white men. Maybe approaching any old shelf in a library and finding something that’s interesting and relevant to you really is serendipitous, but it’s serendipity operating within a closed system that was informed by privileged structures that kept a lot of books out of our collections, and a lot of views out of our academies. That same level of serendipity is not experienced by those researchers who are investigating the countless communities whose stories have been erased, as their books were never on the shelf in the first place.

To be clear right now, I’m not saying folks arguing in favor of serendipitous discovery are racists. What I am saying is that print library collections, like most of American society, reflect racist legacies, and I want us to do something about it.

For starters, we need to own that lots of us share the blame in this. Librarianship, like most of higher education, is overwhelmingly white, as are the publishers that provide us with our books, as are the authors who write them, as am I. This is a component of scholarly communication that we’re going to be grappling with for a really, really long time, and putting it out in the open is a pitifully small step on a very long and important path.

If you, like me, think this is a problem we need to address, great. If you reject my premise that a print collection can reflect societal injustice, I would encourage you to consider that the Library of Congress Classification System assigns three subclasses–DE, DF, and DG–to cover the history of Greece and Rome. Meanwhile, LC uses two subclasses–DS and DT–to cover the history of Asia and Africa. As in the entire continents. Greece and Rome come in at around 70 million people but have more prominence in LC that roughly three-fourths of the planet’s entire population.

In other words, there are some bogus views baked into our classification schemas, and our classification schemas often inform what our libraries acquire. (Thinking specially about LCSH-based approval plans, but I know there are other examples.)

So what comes next? If we can accept that some bad stuff went down in the past, how can we correct it moving forward? For that I’ll return to the example I started with. In that case we had a legacy collection that we wanted to update, and we had reliable metadata (the date of publication) attached to each record, allowing for us to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go.

But for a lot of reasons I hope I don’t need to explain, library workers resist assigning author identities as metadata. I remember talking with colleagues at the #critlib meeting in Baltimore last year about the Citation Practices Challenge, and the possibility of somehow making books written by people of color more findable. We chatted about assigning race and ethnicity to each item in our collections, then immediately realized how quickly that could be turned against us. (This is a prime example of Nice White People needing to consider contexts beyond our own, by the way.)

So how can we reach our goal of making our collections better reflect our users? Not to be reductive, but my perspective is that we’ve got two options: Bring in more new stuff and get rid of some of the old stuff.

First, the new stuff. There are initiatives like We Need Diverse Books that seek to highlight authors from marginalized communities, get them published, and get their books into the hands of library users. It’s a great initiative, but it’s only the beginning. We’re going to need a lot of subject expertise and collaboration with faculty throughout our institutions, as well as people who have been kept out, to identify the lacunae in our collections and correct historical oversights. Libraries are also going to need a lot of resources to acquire, catalog, shelf, and house those materials. Some of this work is underway, but we’ve got miles to go.

But we can’t kid ourselves. Even with an unlimited acquisitions and staffing budget, we can’t undo centuries of erasure. We can’t put books on the shelves if they never got published. These stories were told, but they weren’t always preserved, and we’re worse off for having lost them. (Shoutout to the preservationists in the room who are trying to remedy these issues going forward.) With that in mind, how can we get closer to a semblance of equity in our collections, and shed these legacy systems? I think the answer to that has to involve the second option, which is getting rid of some of the old stuff. And as I’ve learned over the years, and was reminded this week, this is where it gets rough…

Look, I love print books. I love browsing. I mentioned Reader’s Guide and microfilm in the last post because I still use those things. I am one of the faculty members I was describing who is largely set in their old ways. But I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I have benefited from legacy systems that made sure white men like me had a good time at the library. Again, I am not calling anyone anything, but I am saying that the collections I grew up using have some serious issues, and some of these items need to be discarded.

Some of these decisions will be easy, but most won’t. Institutionally we’re going to have to really dig in and discuss what views we want our shelves to present, and that’s going to cause a lot of people to feel attacked (which I’m fairly certain happened with my earlier post), and I’m hoping to help organize our efforts in a way to reduce that sentiment. But I’m also not comfortable working in a library that has 20,000 items related to Shakespeare and fewer than 500 dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, for instance. We’re likely never going to find enough new books in print to offset these disparities, so some things, frankly, will have to go away if we want the composition of our collections to represent our users.

Until now academic librarians and higher education folks have talked about discarding books primarily as a means of making space for something else–new books, a cafe, whatever. I’m not sure that I’ve read or heard anything about an academic library deselecting print volumes in the name of creating a more equitable collection, but I think that has to be where we go next. To clarify, it is imperative to support authors and publishers from marginalized communities as well. We have to acquire more materials from these communities and honor the experiences we’ve been ignoring. But that’s only half of it, and relocating and/or discarding print has to be on the table.

And I lied, there’s a third part of this. We need to realize that more people have more access to the means necessary to create and disseminate information than ever before. At the same time, higher education has been slow to keep up, and continues to value the same formats that have been in play for a couple of centuries. This holdover impairs our ability to move beyond these legacies, insomuch as I don’t think that academic monographic publishing is in a position to suddenly bounce back and start publishing hundreds of thousands of books addressing marginalized communities. No, we need to revisit our collection development policies and our assignments’ source requirements to figure out how to get more perspectives included.

Which is why, for better or for worse, I think our future is online. I’m willing to bet print will stick around, and goodness willing won’t be quite so white on the shelf, but we need to think about the next steps. I’m not a technological solutionist, and I don’t think the internet is equitable by design (if you do, please allow Safiya Noble to change your mind), but I’ve studied information systems enough to know which way the wind’s blowing.

Moving forward, it’s going to be incumbent upon lots of us–librarians, faculty, researchers–to cooperate and discuss what comes next. It’ll involve lots of tough conversations and decisions, but I also want us to be guided by what will do right by the students who rely on our instruction and collections, not by vague notions of what we thought a library was supposed to be. If we’re really going to fulfill our mission, we need to let some legacy systems go.

Amber

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.

Who is in Charge?

Shortly after the Presidential election in November 2016, the Washington Office of the American Library Association issued a press release indicating that the association was “ready to work with President-elect Trump.” Almost immediately after it was released, ALA members took to social media to voice their frustrations with the statement, organizing around the hashtag #NotMyALA. You can review the tweets for yourself, but the general sentiment was that a number of Trump’s statements and positions were grossly misaligned with ALA’s core values, and if our organization was going to support the White House, we’d just as soon quit ALA than be complicit with this administration.

To their credit, ALA heard those frustrations and took action. Within a couple of weeks they rescinded the press release and then-ALA President Julie Todaro issued a message to members along with a supplementary Q & A document. I know that at least a few people opted to leave the association after those events, but I appreciated that the ALA administration responded to member concerns and did something about it.

This past fall, after waffling for a few weeks, I opted to renew my ALA membership. I’ve stayed active in the association, and continue to value what I’ve learned from other members, so I wasn’t quite ready to let it go. Still, for me, #NotMyALA brought to light how the ALA Washington Office operates independently from the larger ALA organization. (Rory Litwin wrote a blog explaining aspects of its governance that I found helpful during that very confusing time in 2016.) And in the statements from Todaro and other members of the ALA administration, I got the sense that things would change–that there would be more interaction between ALA members and the lobbyists representing libraries in D.C.

Evidently that didn’t happen.

Last week the Washington Office announced that the 2018 recipients of the James Madison Award were two members of Congress: Mike Quigley and Darrell Issa. The subsequent reaction on Twitter was again swift, with several library workers expressing their frustration with the selection of Issa, who, among other things, opposes Net Neutrality. This led to ALA President Jim Neal tweeting that the selection was not made by a member committee, and that he was recommending that the Washington Office consult with ALA members in the future. The Washington Office then updated their press release to state that they had consulted ALA members in the home states of these Congressmen.

Somehow, we’re here again, with our lobbying office expressing support for a politician whose views often run counter to the mission of libraries as expressed in our Code of Ethics. I can only assume that we’ll see the timeline play out in a similar fashion, with the award either being rescinded, or a new awards committee formed, followed by a statement that “No, ALA doesn’t think we should abolish sanctuary states.”

But the thing I’ve really been wondering is this: Who is in charge of our professional association? I’ve been a dues-paying member of ALA for a decade now, but it’s not clear to me who at ALA can I call to protest this award? Who can I call to tell them to stop using the phrase “fake news” on our promotional materials? Or making light of college student food insecurity? Who can I call to tell them that Melvil Dewey’s racist face shouldn’t be attached to a podcast? Seriously, who is in charge? Because the last two ALA Presidents have had to walk back actions from the Washington Office, so I’m guessing this goes beyond who we elect to represent us.

Which brings me to the other issue roiling ALA: the search for a new Executive Director, and the debate over whether this person should have a library degree. Lots of people have weighed in on this, and I (clearly) don’t understand the inner workings of the association enough to offer a strong public opinion as our members vote on the matter. That caveat stated, here’s what I’m thinking…

The Washington Office didn’t do anything wrong. The charge on their website makes it quite clear that their job is to “represent libraries on Capitol Hill.” They lobby for money and policies that benefit libraries (especially funding IMLS), which I acknowledge has to involve working with members of both major parties in Congress, as well as the White House. Recognizing a prominent Republican like Issa with an award is probably a good move, in that it shows pragmatism in the face of the current political reality.

I know a lot of librarians will likely disagree with that assessment, and are furious with Issa receiving this award. A number of people expressing their frustration on Twitter made reference to “librarianship’s values.” Thing is, the Washington Office doesn’t work for librarians, it works for libraries. I understand I’m wading into a synecdochic swamp here, but I think there’s a distinction to be made. The Washington Office, and the Executive Director who will oversee it, are charged with representing libraries, not librarians. Sometimes our values as librarians and the needs of our libraries are in alignment, but as this year’s Madison Award demonstrates, sometimes they’re not.

And right now we’re debating whether or not the Executive Director should be a librarian. I fully recognize that an MLIS degree does not automatically imbue someone with a deep commitment to patron privacy and intellectual freedom and desire to be open and inclusive. Likewise, there are leaders in our profession doing excellent work who don’t have a library degree. (There are several examples, but right now I’ll point to MIT Library Director and generally excellent person Chris Bourg.)

But in the discussions around what credentials or experience the next ALA Executive Director should have, I’ve read or heard comments along the lines of “We just need someone with strong leadership experience, who cares if they have a degree?” And while I mostly agree with that sentiment, I wince when I think about what’s happened to administration in higher education, where retired politicians with no teaching or research experience have been named university presidents.

Would we be okay with that within ALA? Should we seek out a three term Senator or a Governor who just hit their term limit to run our organization? They’d probably do a better job of getting IMLS funded in the next Federal Budget, but I’m not sure they would be prepared to tell law enforcement “no” when they come asking for circ records. But as ALA is structured right now, their job is only that first part. In other words, “Yeah, treating people with dignity and calling out appalling behavior is a nice idea, but we’re going to need some money from the administration, so let’s not antagonize the Justice Department right now.”

I don’t care that much about the degree requirement for the Executive Director. But I do care about having a professional association that represents the professionals first and the institutions that employ us second. I want to know that the people who are in charge believe at least some of the same things that I do. The last week has reminded me that we still don’t have that.

Yet.