Everyone agrees: libraries are critical institutions. Librarians certainly feel that way, but so do the general population and even (mostly) politicians—especially if asked publicly. In fact, a person of normal intelligence is no more likely to disagree publicly with the statement “libraries are critical institutions” than to answer “no” when an ALA-sponsored pollster asks “Do you love books?” (Headline: 99% of Americans Still Love Books, ALA Informs Grateful Nation.)
But since I’m kind of a fussbudget, I can’t help wanting to drill down into that sentiment a bit. What do we mean when we say that libraries are “critical,” particularly when we’re talking about academic and research libraries? Maybe another way of asking the question would be to say, “If academic libraries disappeared tomorrow, what would the negative impact look like?,” but I’m not sure that’s a manageable question. Here’s how I’d like to look at the issue instead:
I think there are two basic perspectives from which to defend the idea that academic libraries are critically important:
- Global. This perspective focuses on the library’s impact in the world outside of its host institution and finds the library critical to maintaining an intellectually free and democratic society. From this perspective, the library’s primary value lies in its role as an agent of intellectual freedom and democracy; its instrumental value to a particular host institution is secondary. From this perspective, while colleges and universities have the fundamental purpose of providing education and producing scholarship, one of their essential subsidiary duties to the larger world is that of keeping their libraries strong—not only for the good of locally affiliated students and faculty but also (and maybe more important) for the good of the larger intellectual community and society as a whole. It would then follow that academic institutions have an obligation to look beyond their own immediate scholarly needs when making decisions about funding and other kinds of institutional support for their libraries. From this perspective, the institution fulfills a significant part of its social mission by supporting its library, and the library fulfills only part of its mission by supporting the local needs of the institution. This view, in other words, tends to focus on the institution as a support structure for the library.
- Local. From this perspective, the library is critical in that it furthers the educational and research goals of its host institution. While academic libraries (in the aggregate) may play a significant role in promoting the public good by helping to foster an environment of intellectual openness, facilitating access to information resources, and promoting information literacy in the wider world, the local perspective sees that role as subsidiary to the library’s fundamental purpose, which is to make possible the scholarly work of the students and researchers affiliated with its host institution—a fact that must be taken into account at all times when making decisions about library programs and priorities. Where a choice has to be made between them, the immediate needs of the host institution take precedence over “making the world a better place.” From this perspective, the library is, first and foremost, a support system for the host institution.
What’s the right balance between these two perspectives?
First of all, it’s important that the library director have a very clear understanding of what the institution expects and needs. Regardless of what the library director may believe or wish, the academic library is in fact a part of the college or university (not vice versa). A wise provost or vice president will draw on the library director’s experience and perspective to help determine her expectations of the library—but that determination will ultimately come from her. A provost who fails to provide such direction is not doing her job, and a library director who fails to understand and follow that direction is doing his job incorrectly. (In this sense, the relationship between a provost and library director is very much like that between a library director and an associate or assistant director.)
Second, the library director needs to understand clearly the difference between mutual conflict and mutual exclusivity. Putting one perspective or one aspect of the library’s mission first may require an incremental sacrifice of one for the other, but almost never does it have to mean eliminating one aspect entirely. This is a dynamic we deal with all the time in libraries. When managing our collections, for example, we always pay for access with control and we always pay for control with access: the more of one we implement, the less we have of the other. But we continue to offer access even as we impose control. The same can be true of our conflicting but not mutually exclusive roles as an academic support system and as agents of general social benefit—as long as the balance we strike accords with that desired by the institutions of which we are a part. In other words, effective library leadership is not a matter of choosing between the global and the local perspective, strictly speaking. But a librarian or library leader who harbors some blend of these two views must, at some point, decide which will take precedence, since they can and do come into conflict with each other.
In one of my early Peer to Peer Review columns, I proposed a working definition of “authentic librarianship” as follows: authentic librarianship is motivated by concern for the success of the library’s patrons in their particular tasks; concern for the long-term intellectual welfare of the library’s patrons; desire to further the goals of the library’s sponsoring institution. Looking at those elements again, I’m struck by the degree to which they describe a local focus more than a global one. And the more I think about that, the more I stand by it.