September 20, 2014

From Philosophy to Practice | Peer to Peer Review

In my last column, I outlined part of the intellectual history behind research universities and academic libraries, and argued that the goal of higher education is the “free scientific investigation of every subject in the light of human reason” and that academic libraries “support a scholarly mission to create better human beings and a better society through the creation of knowledge in all areas.” That is my brief attempt to come up with a philosophy of academic librarianship.

That is why we do what we do, but it is still abstract. How do we get from that philosophy to our practice?

If this is a rationale for scholarly research and academic libraries, then some things become clear. First, no library is an island. Individual libraries do serve their academic institutions, but not just their academic institutions. They serve a greater social good, the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This means that academic libraries have to look toward a greater goal than just supplying their own institutions with information. They must look more broadly, because research is never merely local—it’s an international enterprise.

There are possibly objections to that argument. One is the practical view that librarians typically have enough do just thinking about their own collections and services. Another objection might be driven by funding sources or budget considerations. If I work at a state university, for example, I have a duty first to the institution and then possibly to the citizens of the state, not to a broader international research agenda that will supposedly improve society. I understand those objections, but I don’t think they refute my argument. I also don’t think we act on those beliefs.

I began by approaching the subject from the most abstract perspective, showing glimpses of the philosophical arguments of some German philosophers from a couple hundred years ago and their disproportionate effect on American higher education. We can test this hypothesis, though. If the goal of higher education was at least national in scope instead of confined to single institutions, and if both institutions of higher education and academic libraries supported these broader goals, what would we expect to find?

Cooperation, mutual support, and the provision of free resources to the public: that’s what we’d expect to find. We would expect scholars and librarians from different institutions to cooperate with each other in projects that extend far beyond their own institutional boundaries. Furthermore, we would expect that cooperation to extend to mutual support of the work that goes on at other institutions. We would also find libraries making materials available to the public. And that is mostly what we find.

Scholars and researchers routinely collaborate with other scholars at other institutions, although more in the sciences and social sciences than the humanities.  However, even in the humanities the networks of sharing are based more on the discipline than the institution. We find this cooperation among librarians as well, through building research tools, forming standards, or participating in professional activities outside the scope of our normal jobs.

The mutual support is even more extensive in academic libraries. Consider just a few examples. LibGuides has institutionalized a long tendency for librarians to create and share research guides among themselves. Interlibrary loan is an even better example, since librarians have developed such a robust national system of sharing resources. Finally, consortia and cooperative collection development pool library resources together for mutual benefit. No academic library could possibly supply all the resources necessary for its own scholarly community, and fortunately no library has to do so.

In addition, academic libraries are among the leaders for providing freely accessible digitized collections of historical resources. There is a significant amount of textual and visual material available online because academic libraries are digitizing their special collections, sometimes through grants but often at their own expense. As with cooperation and mutual support, this is exactly the kind of thing we would expect academic libraries to be doing for the betterment of society.

Thus, whether we approach the topic deductively from abstract philosophical premises or inductively from the actual practice of librarians, we can conclude that our goals are broader than merely the support of our own local institution. We are engaged in an enormous effort to support the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

However, it’s not enormous enough. Overall, academic libraries have done wonders to support the creation of knowledge and its dissemination within the confines of academia. The dissemination of that knowledge outside academia has proven more difficult to achieve. This is the area where academic libraries have to most work to do if indeed the creation and dissemination of knowledge can possibly create better human beings and a better society.

Partly, this gap in our services is from a relative lack of demand and partly because public libraries supply so much material to everyone for free, but academic libraries in general have significantly more resources than public libraries, especially when you consider their ILL networks.

State university libraries often have some form of public access, but that access is always restricted. For example, the main public research university in my state allows anyone who can make it to one of the university libraries to browse available print and digital resources, but everything else is restricted. The library offers state residents the ability to purchase guest borrowing privileges, but services “such as remote access to most databases, interlibrary loan, [and] recalls” is unavailable. Thus, as long as you visit the main library in the middle of the state and the material you need happens to be on the shelves and not charged out by one of the tens of thousands of students or faculty, then you’re fine. I assume most state university libraries have similar restrictions. My private university library offers similar privileges for a cost.

One solution for the problem of restricted access is more open-access scholarly resources available online. If the philosophy of academic libraries is to promote the creation and dissemination of knowledge throughout society, you would expect academic librarians to be advocating for that sort of thing. And we are.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

Share