This is part two of LJ’s series of excerpts from Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library (Scarecrow), edited by Joseph Janes. The essays are reprinted as part of the run-up to LJ’s virtual event, The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries, to be held on October 16.
From Joseph Janes, editor of Library 2020:
I love looking at old pictures of libraries. I’m always fascinated by what was going on inside, how it was arranged, what the people looked like and what they were doing, the kinds of tools and gizmos and furnishings they had.
For many years, I’ve used in talks pictures of libraries from the early 20th century: people reading at sturdy tables, bookshelf-lined walls, the occasional forbidding-looking librarian (yes, with a bun) overseeing her domain. These pictures are generally pretty familiar; slap a laptop on one of those tables, and it might not look all that different from what you could see today. Which is, at once, charming and a little scary. I’m all for tradition, but if we were in health care, would we find wistful appeal in the prospect of working in an operating room circa 1913?
“Transformation.” The word is so pervasive these days, it’s a cliché. We’re so inured to it—even tired of it—that it’s becoming background noise, and perhaps some of us don’t hear it anymore. As we all know, accomplishing real transformation is easier said than done. This is the theme taken up by Mary Ann Mavrinac in her essay for Library 2020, which LJ excerpts here. She is the vice provost and dean of River Campus Libraries at the University of Rochester, NY; I met her when teaching a few summers ago at the University of Toronto, when she was running the splendid library at its campus in Mississauga.
Transformation implies doing new things or at least doing old things in a new way. If resources are static, or shrinking, as is so often the case…well, you do the math. The wherewithal in terms of time, money, and, most important, people has got to come from somewhere, which then almost inevitably means giving things up. That’s hard for us, partially because as institutions we’re in this for the long haul, so there are many things we do because we’ve always done them, and there’s been a lot invested in doing them. Stopping or radically changing a practice, operation, or service that’s been going on since the Year One not only can feel uncomfortable and wrong, it also can feel a little like a betrayal of the people who went before, who spent their time and energy making these things happen.
I completely understand that. On behalf of our ancestors, in the interest of the stronger, more robust, and vital institution they would want, I forgive you. Go on, ditch the thing five people use each year, or the process nobody can remember the reason for. It’s OK.
Mavrinac offers lots of constructive examples and perceptive object lessons here. She also pulls no punches—this is honest, frank, and stark. As you read, ask yourself a couple of honest and frank questions. Which one of these places do you want to be part of? Which one do you think you will be part of? And how will they help move your institution toward the image you prefer?
The library in 2020 will be a tale of two academic research libraries: one flourishing in the best of times and one languishing in the worst of times.
In this work of fiction, in 2012, our two research libraries were both situated in tier-one research institutions established over 175 years ago, steeped in tradition yet vying for the attention of students who are increasingly opting for an online, global education over a residential university experience. Both libraries are housed in iconic spaces traditionally defined by the depth and scale of their collections. Deep traditions add weight to the challenges of transforming these libraries to meet the needs of 21st-century researchers and learners. Adding to this challenge are the complexities and elusiveness of achieving transformational change.
The library looked ahead to 2020 and then looked back to 2005. How had teaching changed? How had research changed? How had technology, content, publishing, and social platforms changed? How had academic research libraries changed? Were they keeping pace within the broader environment? Within the university?
The library in the best of times believed it had fallen behind. It decided to pursue a new future by 2020. Over several years, it methodically went about the complex task of achieving transformational change.
The library in the best of times
In the best of times, the library in 2020 is a physical and virtual collaborative hub sustained by an immensely talented staff driving innovation and in perpetual learning mode. The library’s culture is steeped in collaboration from its core principles to its daily actions. The tag line for the library is “The Power of C”—collaboration! The library’s very being is imbued with a collaborative state of mind.
What does this mean for the library? Starting from its foundational principles, the work of the library is collaborative, team based, and project focused. The library realized years ago that a sustainable, enriching future required a complete retooling of its entire operations. It had to look at its values, culture, structure, operations, processes, reward systems, and vision, realizing that life as a traditional academic research library was no longer viable, much less interesting.
There was no perceived major external threat that precipitated this change for the library. There was no magic bullet that would ensure an enriching future. There was no pot of money to dip into to pave the way or to ease the pain. It was a combination of great leadership, intense foundational work, trust, teamwork, risk-taking, innovation, and learning, all of which were critical to the achievement of an enriching and sustainable future in the academy.
Why did the library have the courage to aspire to a new future state? In a word, it was trust. The library’s organization had evolved to a model of shared leadership. The organization embraced the higher order values of integrity, openness, diversity, equality, fairness, and the pursuit of happiness. Values-based leadership and values-based decision-making engendered trust among organizational members. Moreover, the organization placed learning and its inherent mistakes and failures as a central organizational asset and established capacity building as a strategic priority.
During the years leading up to 2020, all library staff were expected to contribute to this new collaborative reality. In so doing, all were provided opportunities to learn new skills, take risks, and drive innovative collaborative initiatives.
But before this could happen, the library had to turn inward to align basic organizational processes with this new reality of collaboration. How could the library be a collaborative engine for its community when it did not collaborate internally, when departmental cultures continued to define the organizational psyche, and when traditional roles comprised the organization’s fabric? How would new needs be met, new roles be filled, and new projects be driven if organizational processes continued along traditional, functional lines?
The library embarked upon a complete review of its basic operations. It decided which operations must be retained and performed locally, which must be shared with collaborative partners regionally, nationally, or internationally, which must cease, and which could be performed by another business unit, on campus or otherwise.
This was difficult, time-consuming, and emotionally draining work, but the goal was lofty: free up and reallocate resources to embrace new roles for a sustainable future. This painstaking work occurred over several years. Some staff faced with the elimination of their work function felt the pain of their identity and value erased by a future that was unknown. But the library placed a high value on the health and well-being of its employees, investing heavily in a variety of support systems to assist with the emotional elements of transitioning to a new role. Moreover, it invested in learning and development, as it placed learning as a central organizational asset. Capacity building meant that the hearts and minds of all organizational members were included in developing the library that would flourish. Notwithstanding, a few people opted to leave or to retire as the nature of work was changing in ways that were not in accordance with their interests and talent.
The library faced numerous other tasks and challenges: What would faculty think when collections were no longer acquired and inventoried in a traditional manner or kept on-site “just in case”? How would the library reach the best of times when faculty might collectively forestall collaborative solutions to collection building, solutions that would mean off-site regional print repositories, primarily digital collections, and a very small on-site print collection that was mainly unique, rare, and special? How would the library defend itself when the very nature of a research library would be called into question if it were no longer defined by its collections?
In the spirit of openness, the library demonstrated exemplary leadership in working with its faculty to identify a variety of options to meet their many and varied research needs while at the same time making the case for a new, more enriching, and sustainable future. Using evidence, it established its core mission of underpinning the teaching, learning, and research mission of the academy. It developed an advocacy strategy that equipped all library staff with the means and the messages that were in alignment with the library’s collaborative future. And it proved itself indispensable by illustrating the integral value of expert tools, products, content, and spaces, as well as expediting and enriching the research, teaching, and learning of faculty and students.
Library staff had expertise that was in demand, and it had a modus that was valued: collaboration. Resources were readily shared with the library because it was willingly sharing its resources, adding value to the academy. The library as place continued to dominate as the symbolic center of knowledge at the campus.
Increasingly, as virtual reality blurred “actual” reality, the library was an important touchstone of “knowledge” in an otherwise fluid environment. Through its doors, the library—physically and virtually—was an agora, a gathering space for collaborative activities, experiential learning, research activity, and, when needed, solitude. Research hubs and stations peppered open spaces; niche and intimate spaces were tucked away in relation to programmatic focus. Immersive environments, multisurface computing, and intelligent design and content provided experiential opportunities for creative expression, sense making, and knowledge creation. Spaces for sanctuary and reflection were sought amid an increasingly chaotic world where private “public” space was a rarity. The combination of spaces, technology, expertise, and content was a potent elixir when integrated into the teaching, learning, and research activities of the academy.
The academic research library was flourishing. Many staff work areas were in the open, where faculty and students could see and engage with them. These impromptu exchanges were stimulating and rewarding and often led to opportunities for the library. Other staff worked within research hubs or as part of teams in different areas of the university; still others were part of virtual collaborative hubs comprised of international research teams or in support of global learning in an online environment.
Special collections moved to an area of prominence, no longer behind closed doors. Unique books and manuscripts were of immense interest, a catalyst for research, integration into the curriculum, student internships, and user-driven content. The semantic web enabled relational connection of born digital and digitized collections throughout the world, spawning a renaissance in humanistic research, paralleling the massive collaborative research effort in the sciences. The library supported this with a vibrant digital scholarship and publishing program. But unlike the sciences, the content was provided by, primarily, libraries, museums, and archives. The library’s focus on collaborative collecting and acquiring digital collections provided the means to obtain more specialized, unique, and rare collections that supplied the content and data for research and teaching and to curate and steward born digital materials.
No longer was faculty concerned about the library’s perceived inattention to collection building. The library was increasingly viewed as an indispensable partner in the academy. As a partner, the library automatically became a collaborator for research opportunities, grant funding, and technology-transfer initiatives. The result: the library had other sources of funding beyond its operating budget. The library used its discretionary funds to drive innovation, transform its virtual and physical spaces, and invest in its staff. The library was vibrant, energized, and a magnet for opportunity. Such is the power of collaboration!
The library in the worst of times
By contrast, the library in the worst of times was convinced that the changes it had made were enough. In not making a choice to change how it fundamentally operated, it made a choice that resulted in a slow but steady decline.
The library in the worst of times occasionally made superficial changes or piloted programs that provided a jolt of creative energy but nothing marked or fundamental. Over the years, there were several one-off collaborations, but these were mainly initiated by a few library staff who understood the importance of collaboration in support of the academic mission.
At times, the decline was imperceptible, leading staff to believe that all was well. But others increasingly viewed the library as retrograde, seeing it as an easy mark to offset university budgetary pressures. As such, resources became scarce as operating budgets were incrementally reduced.
Scarce resources spawned suspicion among library departments, as each closed ranks to hoard what resources each had. Rumor was rampant. Which area would be cut next? Will it be me who loses my job? Jealousy, envy, gossip, and assumptions undermined the health of the library as morale plummeted.
Staff continued to build collections “just in case” from their offices. Traditional services such as reference and circulation were cosmetically changed, such as the provision of research consultations and chat reference a few hours per day. Librarians continued to believe that they were the experts in research and reference. While musing, “If only students would ask,” these librarians ignored the technologies and applications used matter-of-factly by students throughout their grade-school and secondary-school years.
This is not to say that the library wasn’t busy. The physical library was extremely crowded and hectic, as students choosing a residential university experience needed a place to study and hang out. Campus administrators viewed this activity with increasing skepticism, seeing the academic library as a glorified study hall—and an expensive one at that!
Metrics indicated that circulation of materials continued to decline, yet the library continued to ask for more space for its collections. On campus, space was a finite resource. Other campus units demanded more square footage for undergraduate research opportunities, experiential learning, and collaborative group activities. Many eyed the library as a logical future home. Library staff were unnerved by this, arguing that students needed a place to study and that collections, as central to the research needs of faculty, needed space to grow.
The library’s virtual spaces were perfunctory, offering a passive web presence that provided informational items such as hours of service, lists of subject librarians, lists of subject guides, and descriptions of services. Library staff dabbled in social media but did not weave it into the fabric of their communications, as they believed it was not scholarly or professional.
In 2020, the library in the worst of times realized it was too late when campus administration gave notice that the library would close, with essential services outsourced; that the physical space would be used for other academic purposes; and that digital resources would be obtained by other means. Like a dying patient who realizes, too late, that the life they led contributed to their imminent passing, library staff realized they had played it so safe that it put the research library at risk. In spite of several warnings, it failed to transform itself. And now it would close, ending a 182-year history.
A tale of two libraries: It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.
Joseph Janes is Associate Professor and Chair of the MLIS Program at the University of Washington Information School, Seattle, and creator of “Documents That Changed the World,” a podcast series available on iTunes. Mary Ann Mavrinac is Vice Provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, NY