October 1, 2014

Haves and Have-Nots in Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

In higher education, I started at the top. As a frontline reference librarian at the Lippincott Library of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, I had a great business librarianship learning experience. As one of the premier business school libraries in the country, it offered students a dizzying array of electronic resources-and still does. It has to, because students attending the Wharton school, especially at the MBA or doctoral level, expect the best in technology, library resources, and other support services. So do faculty researchers.

To some extent, the libraries at these top-tier institutions, while collaborating and sharing information, engage in a bit of competition to have the ultimate stockpile of sophisticated research tools and information technology—and it’s satisfying when you gain an edge on the school at the top of the heap.

Developing a reputation as a leading-edge library delivers a competitive advantage as well. Database and technology vendors will often beat a path to the door to get their products in play—often at significant discounts. The irony is that the most well-resourced libraries may end up paying much less than the trailing-edge folks who subscribe with the rest of the pack.

Shifting to have-not status
When I left the University of Pennsylvania to serve as the director at a small, tuition-driven institution with virtually no endowment, it was a straight shot down to the third tier of higher-ed rankings. I found it a significant challenge, and strangely rewarding, to figure out how to get even the most basic tools for our library using tightly constrained resources.

I recall talking to a vendor rep who was a good friend during my time at Penn. I asked if I could subscribe to their great business database with the same deal we were getting at Lippincott. But suddenly that deal was no longer available—I’d have to pay a significantly higher amount. Go figure.

Acquiring something only the big guys had could have been a real victory. My current institution has a dizzying array of electronic resources, and it is rewarding to be able to offer it to our community. Still, we occasionally have a faculty member question why we have yet to acquire an incredibly expensive, specialized disciplinary database they have at the top-ranked school.

Greener grass
As we become comfortable in our library jobs, especially if it happens to be at a well-resourced institution, we may rarely think about those colleges and universities that are far less well-off than our own. I’m not suggesting anyone should feel guilty about working at one of the “haves,” but consider stopping to think about the have-nots before you complain about those new resources your library will need to forego this year. Librarians who work at those struggling institutions frequently ponder how much better their libraries would be if they could afford the amenities found at top-ranked universities.

When I came across this article, it got me thinking about this ongoing divide. Reading about the excitement and enthusiasm at the business school at the University of North Texas when it acquired 12 Bloomberg terminals, the first thought to enter my mind was: “They’re just getting some Bloombergs now?”

Taking things for granted
Most business schools, and sometimes their libraries, have had these terminals for ages. My own institution’s business school has had them for years, and one was added to the library just about a year ago. Bloomberg terminals are almost a necessity at a B-school for providing students with access to the financial research tools they’ll encounter in the business world. In reflecting on my reaction, I realized I took for granted that every business program would automatically have them. I just assumed everyone was a “have,” but clearly, in American higher education, this is still far from the case.

Stories like this one—or about institutions that may close due to financial exigency or a sudden loss of even a small number of students—remind us that we should never take for granted that every college student is getting an equal education.

Higher education’s inequity challenge
I’m not naïve enough to expect we’ll ever see true equity in higher education. This is America. The same inequity infiltrates our entire education system from pre-K through 12, and those who can afford the best for their children will do whatever is necessary to get it. That’s the American way.

But what if your library is a have-not? Do you wring your hands in angst over your dilemma, and say, “If only we had the resources that College X has, then we’d be a great library,” or “If only we were in Ohio, then we’d have all those OhioLink resources.” Of course you don’t despair in this way—well, I hope you don’t. But what do you do?

No excuses
I recall a question I asked George Keller, the renowned higher-education expert, with whom I took several courses. In a discussion about higher-education finance and budgets, I asked Mr. Keller what you do in situations where your budget resources are greatly constrained—do you simply accept the fact and resign yourself to the reality that your institution or library is mediocre? “Well,” answered Mr. Keller, “you do the best you are capable of doing—that’s what your students and faculty expect. You’re the expert, and it’s your job to make it happen.”

I get what Mr. Keller meant. He was telling us that have-not status is never an excuse to “satisfice” or maintain the status quo. Great higher-education leaders, no matter what their resources, find ways to continually move their organizations forward—even if it means working twice as hard and being twice as creative as the haves. For Mr. Keller, a ship adrift was no better than one sinking.

Mr. Keller always had a wonderful anecdote about some college or university that always helped him make his point. I think he’d like the story about the University of North Texas and their Bloomberg terminals. Have or have-not, what is the story you’d like others to share about your library?

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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