How do you react when there’s a threat of a municipal workers’ strike in your town? When it happened here I recall thinking to myself, “Who will know the difference?” If we have little or no need for the services offered by government workers then their absence has little impact on our daily existence. On the other hand, if I needed to get my car registered or obtain a business license or a building permit, not being able to do so could have a fairly profound impact on my life—and I would most certainly acknowledge the difference between my local government being open and closed. It’s like that. We take these daily, routine services for granted, and have little regard for their value until it’s not there when we need it. Would academic library users feel the same way if we suddenly weren’t there?
What happened to the website? My colleagues and I recently experienced the consequences for the community of suddenly not being there. We had no way to know how the community would react, but we learned some valuable lessons from the loss of our website. After a planned overnight power outage in our building, and despite taking the precaution of having IT staff onsite to bring the servers back up, we suffered a catastrophic failure to a key server supporting our website. At first we thought it would be a few hours or the bulk of a day, but the complexities of the situation far exceeded our initial diagnosis, and we went 10 days without our regular site.
Fortunately we have a backup site, stripped down to the bare basics, that was already in place and ready to serve during the initial downtime. After we realized it would be more than a few days until we could complete all the needed enhancements to minimize the possibility of a repeat disaster, we went to work making sure all regular URLs pointing to the regular site would push to the alternate site. Until that task was completed, our user community experienced some serious confusion and disruption to their routines for using our resources. Fortunately, they understood the situation and were supportive-but I don’t think they’ll soon forget this. I’m sure it raised some questions in their minds about our reliability and integrity if, in this day and age, we are ill equipped to keep our site up non-stop and without failure—and I agree with them.
What if it was people, not the content? One lesson we learned is that the academic library website remains a valued resource for our community users. Despite all the possibilities for alternate routes to our content that were still intact—such as resource guides with all the links, bookmarks, and shortcuts the users have made to their favorite databases, and access to content via publisher sites or Google Scholar—the community still demonstrated a reliance on the library’s home page. This does not necessarily mean that library websites are off the hook for a radical rethinking, but perhaps the library and the content are more valued than we think. But what if the content was just fine, and the people were suddenly unavailable—would the reaction be the same? I like to advance the premise that our websites need to focus on people, not just content. Academic library websites should serve as a platform to make sure the community knows there are people who make the library work and to help each staff member build relationships with community members. Is this misguided thinking? How might we know?
Try running the library without us
One way to test the premise would be to literally take away the librarians. That’s what happened when the librarians at the University of Western Ontario went on strike on September 7 (since settled). [See LJ's coverage of the strike here and here.] Strikes at academic libraries are rare, so it’s going to attract our attention. I have to think that I was not the only one who’s initial thought was: is it going to make a difference? Is our academic library user community going to react the same way most of us do to a strike of our local government workers? Given that the content of the UWO library was still available through the website—and that access to the building was not affected—exactly who would be inconvenienced enough by a strike of library staff to care much? I don’t know the answer to the question. I would venture to state that inconvenience did result, and that those affected could range from a student needing research assistance to a faculty member expecting a librarian to lead an instruction session. What I can tell you is that the absence of a librarian matters.
Just one missing librarian
One of my institution’s librarians had an accident during the summer, and owing to the nature of the injury she was unable to come back to work when the semester began, and remains out of the office. The impact is being felt by the entire research and instruction services department owing to the many requests for instruction sessions from faculty and for consultations with students—even early in the semester. The loss of just one well-connected librarian, with all those community relationship needs going unmet, has put a critical strain on our librarians. The absence of staff who process reserve requests and new materials, who fulfill interlibrary loan requests from other libraries and who meet critical subscription renewal deadlines to ensure uninterrupted access to databases all make a difference to the community—even if there is little awareness of the important contributions these staff members provide. To some extent, the problem is that academic librarians have done such an outstanding job of creating self-service research environments that it’s easy for user community members to forget who is behind the architecture that makes it all work. A striking library worker may be rare, but the news from UWO reminded us that it happens. It also should remind us that a striking librarian, perhaps the butt of a few “who’ll know the difference” jokes, is going to be missed.