November 22, 2017

Finding Inspiration in Higher Education |From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

I’ll get on to this week’s real topic after a brief word about the the big EDUCAUSE debate about the future of academic library buildings, which Barbara Fister wrote about in last week’s Peer to Peer Review column, and mentions again this week. She did an excellent job of putting debates about the future of library buildings, the end of reading, and the impending demise of academic librarianship into proper perspective.

Barbara accurately noted that ARL library dean Suzanne Thorin, who argued that library buildings had no future, did so primarily because these library debates (including past ones concerning information literacy, reference desks, and even Google vs. Libraries) are, by design, contrived efforts to polarize the issues so we can better understand and discuss what they mean to us—and have some fun while doing it. I recall the first “Great Library Debate” (ALA 2003) focused on the future of the academic library building (the more things change…); one team dressed up as British judges. At the great information literacy debate, at halftime a team of librarians performed the great information literacy cheer—thankfully for the first and last time ever.

Be careful what we say
Academic librarians know that Thorin and Richard Luce, while playing polar opposites, are really much more likely to represent the middle ground on this topic—that academic libraries and the books they hold are here to stay but that changes are needed to adapt academic libraries to a new generation of learners and scholars. But we should take care over how these debates are interpreted by faculty. At least two different faculty bloggers believe that Thorin is the evil library dean who really advocates that library buildings are obsolete and books have no future.

If the faculty knew what we know, they’d realize there’s no such thing as an ARL library dean who really believes library buildings are obsolete. I doubt any of them would refuse an offer of new square footage or a shiny renovation project. But with this new ironic development even some of Thorin’s own faculty think she’s anti-book because she had the temerity to create more learning and collaboration space at the Syracuse Library.

Fixing what’s broken
One thing I know for sure about academic library buildings is that they are full of things that work less well than they should. If everything at your academic library works perfectly, please come forward and tell the rest of us how you do it. From faulty photocopiers to jammed printers to bad signs and the water fountains that spew smelly, warm water, keeping a library building running in tip-top shape is no easy task.

Now take all these minor, quality of library life problems and multiply them many times and you will get a feel for what it must have been like a few years ago at Chicago State University (CSU). This Chronicle of Higher Education article profiled CSU and how it is now recovering after years of mismanagement. Despite making many surface improvements, such as better landscaping, more pleasant dorm rooms, and clean walkways, CSU now faces the more difficult challenge of improving the quality of its educational product. According to the article:

Years of mismanagement by prior administrations, meddling from the statehouse, and until very recently lackadaisical oversight by trustees have left many academic and financial scars. And while State’s travails may be more egregious than most, sadly there are many other public colleges that can trace their failings to some of the same forces. Here, priority one is the abysmal graduate rate: 16 percent for first-time full-time freshmen in 2007, a figure that ranks as one of the worst in the country even considering that fewer than 10 percent of the university’s 7,200 students fit into that category.

Accountability makes a difference
Despite this depressing scenario I still found inspiration in this article. Why? The leadership team is hardly about to give up the ship. Having achieved some success they are ready to tackle the more serious problems. There are no specifics on how they will complete the turnaround, but it is clear that it will involve making everyone accountable for identifying problems and taking responsibility for the solutions. That is the exact type of spirit we need to fix what’s broken in our libraries.

In an entertaining presentation Seth Godin identified seven reasons why things are broken, such as "It’s Not My Job" and "Broken on Purpose." What they all have in common is the absence of accountability. When we are constantly exposed, if not bombarded, by doom and gloom scenarios for academic libraries, print books, and reading, we need to occasionally be reminded that we have the power to fix what ails us. Not always, but often, the solutions are rooted in accountability. Stories like the one about CSU provide inspiration for all of us to be more accountable.

More to come
This column, From the Bell Tower (FTBT), will continue to scan the landscape of higher education to offer columns that help keep academic librarians aware of the critical issues that have this industry at its own inflection point—and when possible share stories about the institutions and people that inspire us. The better we understand the challenges our parent institutions face, the more we can do to provide the services, resources, and support that keep our colleges and universities competitive.

If you are relatively new to FTBT, I encourage you to look back at prior columns and get a sense of the higher educations themes covered over the past eight months. You can see many of the past columns at this prototype homepage for FTBT.

Many thanks for your support if you have been following FTBT since the beginning. I’d appreciate hearing from you with any suggestions or ideas for FTBT.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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