In academic libraries, there seems to be growing a concern about the problem of space—not only a lack of it in our library buildings, though that is a problem for many of us, but also a concern that the spaces we do have are going to be (or already are) taken over by campus entities and programs that are related only tangentially, if at all, to library services.
I’m convinced that this disquiet is valid and that it should actually be more widespread than it currently is. I have two reasons for thinking this.
First, most academic institutions spend a very large amount of money on space, capital equipment, and infrastructure for the library. Second, on most of these campuses the decision to make the library a large (and in many cases enormous) building was made at a time when the library’s extensive collection of printed materials constituted its biggest value proposition and when virtually all other library services centered on the collection itself and the campus community’s use of it: reference librarians helped students use the collection; technical services staff curated it and managed its growth; subject specialists kept it relevant and current; public service staff checked books in and out; collection maintenance staff reshelved them and kept them in order. At the time that most of our libraries were built, the central purpose of the library was to house, protect, and administer access to a big collection of physical documents.
Today, however, library programming and usage patterns have changed dramatically. In research libraries, a steep and ongoing decline in use of the circulating collection has been amply documented, as students and faculty get access to increasing amounts of scholarly information online (much of it brokered by the library, but an increasing amount available on the open web). Fewer and fewer libraries employ full-time bibliographers to shape and maintain collections, and technical services staffing is shrinking as libraries outsource routine processing tasks to vendors or consortia. Librarians who used to sit behind desks at service points spend more of their time outside the library, working in classrooms and faculty offices. In many libraries, it’s becoming difficult to justify the large amounts of floor space that are still dedicated to programs and processes of shrinking size or significance.
So my first reason for taking seriously worry over the loss of library space arises from ongoing changes in programming and usage patterns in libraries. A second reason has to do with the space crunch on our campuses generally. On most academic campuses, space is at a premium; there are not enough classrooms, not enough study spaces, not enough offices. When it comes to space on campus, osmosis is a powerful force: a library in the middle of a crowded campus can no more expect its empty or underused spaces to stay empty than a dry sponge can expect to stay dry in the middle of a bucket of water. In such an environment, the pressure on the library to make room for other services and programs will be strong and constant, and the library administrator will be continually faced with difficult political, practical, and strategic choices. Saying “no” to a potential invader can be costly in terms of political capital; saying “yes” will likely be expensive in terms of space and opportunity cost.
So what is the right response to this challenge? Should the library try to defend its borders at all costs from any incursion? Should it simply roll over and welcome anyone who shows up at the door looking for offices or service spaces?
Having dealt with this problem repeatedly over the past few years, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what works well and what doesn’t. In this column I’m going to propose three general principles that I’ve found helpful in dealing with potential incursions. In my next, I’ll propose some concrete and practical strategies based on these principles that, in my experience, are effective for working with those who do end up taking up residence in the library.
Principle 1: The library does not belong to you
When faced with a request for space in the library, it is essential that the library administrator bear in mind that the library is not an independent organization; it is a campus entity, and decisions about whether and how its space is allocated to other campus entities will ultimately be made at a level somewhere above the library. The library director who whenever faced with a request for space in the library says “no” on a knee-jerk basis will eventually find that campus administrators have lost confidence in the director’s good faith and sound judgment, and that director will be overruled. At that point, the director will have no more say over what does and doesn’t move into the library. This point leads directly to the next:
Principle 2: Say “yes” or “no” based on strategy, not defensiveness
Defensiveness arises from feelings of ownership and territoriality. Once those feelings are set aside, you will be ready to think in terms of strategy: Who is it that wants to take up residence in the library, and are there clear programmatic connections between what they do and what we do? By making room for them, will we be creating new opportunities for collaboration that improve life for everyone (and especially our students)? If so—and if the space is truly available—then “yes” may well be the right answer. If not, then further discussion is in order. This point also leads directly to the next:
Principle 3: Cooperation creates political capital
The more you say “yes,” the more the library’s reputation as a “team player” on campus will grow. And the stronger your reputation is in that regard, the more support you will have when it comes time to issue a strategic “no” to someone trying to get in. Every time you say yes, you add to your account of political capital, and every time you say no, you draw it down. If you build up your political capital by saying yes to proposals that benefit everyone anyway (even though it may sting a bit to give up space), you will then be given more latitude to say no when a proposal makes less sense—partly because you’ve shown yourself to be reasonable and cooperative but also because you’ve demonstrated sound judgment about what will be most helpful to your academic community.
I can speak to these principles from direct experience as an interim dean. During the 18 months that I spent leading a large research library, I was repeatedly approached by campus administrators looking for places to house faculty members or programs, usually on a temporary basis. I was also regularly approached by directors of programs that needed permanent space, who loved the library and believed (often correctly) that it would be a great place for them. When the space needed was temporary and space was available, I almost always said yes. As these were invariably low-cost concessions for us and because they often relieved acute pain and stress elsewhere on campus, these decisions generated significant political capital for the library, which in turn put us in an excellent position to be a bit more guarded when requests for permanent space came our way. Having demonstrated our willingness to help whenever we could, our concerns were then taken seriously (rather than as expressions of reflexive territoriality) when we raised them about programs that did not seem to be a good fit, or when we had to explain that what looked like empty space at the moment was actually programmed space that the library was going to need in the future.
Stay tuned for Part 2: How to Be a Host with the Most.