November 23, 2017

Repairing the Post-Ownership Library | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

We need to act collectively to fix the problem we made when we chose access

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

Since one the many hats I’m wearing at the moment includes directing our faculty development program, I get a regular chance to step back and look at the big picture with colleagues from departments across campus. This past Tuesday, a group of about 30 faculty at my college participated in an audio conference in which Randy Bass, professor of English and director of the Visible Knowledge Project at Georgetown University, talked about preparing for the “post-course era.” And that got me thinking about what libraries should be in the post-ownership era.

He contended that what we know about effective educational practices (and we know a lot) is not aligned with what we actually do. High impact practices include many forms of learning that happen outside the classroom—yet the course remains the coin of the realm. Once students accumulate a given number of a certain combination of courses, they are educated; faculty work is measured in the currency of courses. When we discover a form of learning outside the classroom that leads to improved outcomes, we try to fit it in, but the course remains the essential—quite often the only—unit of measure. When push comes to shove, resources go first to sustaining courses. As Bass pointed out, this makes no sense. Our values are out of alignment with our practices. We can’t continue to do “everything plus.”

Everything, minus the important stuff
Does that ring true? Academic librarians want to reform scholarly communication processes, set up institutional repositories, and educate faculty about the fragility of our knowledge ecosystem so they can make informed choices. We want not only to show students how the library works, but help them become information literate, able to use information critically for the rest of their lives. Our standards have recognized the importance of outcomes, not just inputs, when we assess our worth to institutions. We know what’s important, but we support those important things only in so far as they don’t interfere with business as usual.

Heaven forbid that we would reallocate significant amounts of time and money from acquiring and managing access to information toward practices that would actually liberate knowledge for all.

Our values say people should have access to information. Our practices support that access in ways that we know are dysfunctional and limiting. We try to do “everything plus,” but some things are sacrosanct, so the solutions are underfunded, regardless of what we believe are best practices and what practices are quite thoroughly broken.

Such solutions are doomed to slow starvation from the moment they are born. We value access to information, but we only assign value to information that costs money. This is nuts!

Values in practice
One of the things Bass suggested was that institutions should conduct an audit of what we “count” as teaching. If student/faculty research matters, it has to count toward the way we calculate workloads. If civic engagement or community research matters, it can’t be treated as just something we do if we have the time. We’re somewhat better at recognizing that scholarship comes in multiple forms: books, articles, conference presentations, creative work, and the like. No doubt we could be more imaginative about defining scholarship more broadly, but we don’t expect it to come in the same units for every discipline and at every point in a scholar’s development. Yet when it comes to teaching, the unit of measure is the course. Tough luck that so many of the most effective kinds of learning don’t come in courses.

What would it look like if we tried to align library values with library practices? What if we examined where our time and money go and used our values as a rubric? Along one axis we would have things like:

  • offer convenient access to a wide body of information
  • provide conditions and materials for high-impact learning
  • preserve culture and ideas
  • promote the creation of new knowledge

And we’d assign points according to how well we’re doing in all of these categories.

As things stand now, our total score would be lousy. Oh, we’d score pretty high on “information access.” But what percentage of our budget goes to access to materials that nobody uses? Surely it’s much more than half of our acquisitions budgets. Most of the full text in our databases is unused, yet we pay for it all, year after year, because access is good.

What percentage of our instructional time is spent training first year students on how to access what’s in the library when all they need are a few sources for a dress rehearsal paper? How much of our physical and virtual space is devoted to providing access points that are incredibly confusing no matter what we do while adding amenities to spaces where students study for their tests? How much of the new knowledge created with our support is really new and how much is merely product to be used as proof for tenure and promotion? 

How much time and money do we spend on core values other than access? Not much.

We need to talk
One of the variables that has really put the classroom paradigm to the test is what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” Knowledge doesn’t flow in one direction, like a product that is purchased and consumed—and it never has. Now we can see it happening before our eyes in real time thanks to the read/write web, but it’s not new. Even before the Internet was invented, Michael Oakeshott described knowledge as a conversation that has gone on for centuries.

Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.

But traditional teaching practices—even when they include active learning and discussion—struggle to invite students to join the conversation within the confines of a course. We tend to assume that students are not ready for serious work until they’ve been exposed to a lot of information first. Alison Gopnik pointed out that if we taught kids to play baseball the way we teach biology, they’d have to go to grad school before they were allowed to actually play a game.

Bass would agree. He told us we need to flip the equation: let practice lead to knowledge. “We put too much faith in inputs,” he argued, even though the only thing that really matters in teaching is what students actually learn. If they aren’t learning, we tinker with the syllabus rather than undertake real change. Participatory culture is showing us ways in which the conversation can happen—but it’s not going to happen if it is only squeezed in outside the framework of courses.

Limited access
Libraries face the same challenge. In the past couple of decades we argued about access versus ownership and voted for access. Now we’re in a pickle because we didn’t actually end ownership, we simply signed it over to publishers. We’re spending just as much or more for stuff we don’t need, and the pay-per-view solution is only a temporary fix for a problem that dwarfs mere access.

We need to solve the ownership problem by doing away with ownership. We need open access.  

I’m discovering as I write this that liberation bibliography does sound a little Marxist. The only way libraries and scholars can make access work, so that we can pay attention to the rest of our core values, is if we own the means of production. But we have other political models available that are more familiar and less threatening, as I’ve said here before:

Michael Polanyi, a philosopher of science, described the working of the scientific community in political and economic terms. He believed it operated as a "republic of science." Each of its citizens participates equally in a common purpose. Authority is built through a network of trust. No one person or authority decides what is true; it’s decided by the shared expertise of the group, all of whom are working their particular part of a vast puzzle. The only way it works, though, is if they can share what they figure out.  

We have a republic only if we can keep it. If we continue to pour our resources into renting access and into training students on how to pass courses using temporarily access to information that will not be available to them when they graduate, we won’t keep our republic. We need to work with university presses, scholarly societies, and our faculty to change the system—and that takes more than spare time and petty cash.

As Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel laureate in economics, wrote with coauthor Charlotte Hess, “collective action and new institutional design play as large a part in the shaping of scholarly information as do legal restrictions and market forces.”

It’s in our hands. Let’s take a deep breath and act collectively to redesign the system.  

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books this year.

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Repairing the Post-Ownership Library | Peer to Peer Review


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