Is there any applause line in our profession more tried and true than the assertion that “libraries are essential?” It comes in multiple forms, all of them familiar: “Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy;” “The library is the heart of campus;” “Libraries are rungs on the ladder of opportunity;” etc.
The problem with such statements is not that they’re wrong. Arguments supporting the idea that “libraries are essential”—whether to the academy or to society generally—vary in quality. Some of them are stronger, some are weaker. But the problem with all of them is that they pose a danger: to the degree that we, as librarians, take them seriously, they all threaten to leave us complacent about our future. What will determine our future is not whether we and our services are essential in fact, but whether we are seen by our stakeholders as more essential than the other essential programs and projects that are competing for the same resources.
To put it more simply: being essential is no guarantee of survival. Essential things are lost every day.
Consider the federal budget sequestration crisis of 2013. The sequestration proposal, with its automatic and massive budget cuts, was conceived as a kind of “nuclear option,” a budget-cutting scenario so odious that the threat of it would force all legislative parties to the negotiating table in order to avoid its implementation. Before it was implemented, many observers would have said that the things it threatened to cut were “essential”—education funding, military readiness, disaster relief—and arguably, those observers would have been correct. And yet the cuts happened anyway—not because the things that were cut turned out not to be essential after all, but because being “essential” is no guarantee of safety.
Here’s a hard truth to which I think we, in academic libraries, pay far too little attention, either because we don’t believe it’s true or because its truth is too difficult for us to consider: academic libraries, as we know them, do not have to stay in business. Here’s an even harder truth: no library should stay in business if it fails to give reasonable value in return for the huge amount of campus resources it consumes.
On every campus, the library represents an enormous institutional investment—in some cases, it is the institution’s single most expensive program. Yet, unlike many of the schools and departments into which the university sinks far less of its strictly limited resources, the library usually brings in relatively little (if any) external funding or other kinds of outside support. It takes and takes and takes, and what it gives back is intangible and difficult to assess and quantify.
Does the fact that the library’s outputs are intangible and hard to measure mean that we don’t, in fact, return good value? Absolutely not. What we do is arguably important, even “essential,” and we often make that argument articulately and persuasively. But in a higher-education environment characterized by scarce resources, we have to do more than just convince people of that.
The core problem we face is that on every campus, the number of essential programs, projects, and capital purchases far outstrips the resources available to support them. Laboratories, classrooms, water and electrical systems, scholarship programs, and faculty recruitment are all essential, and all are competing for the same pool of university resources (which includes not only money, but also space, administrative attention, and staff time). Essentialness is good at attracting dollars when dollars are available; it is not good at making dollars appear out of thin air.
Let’s consider some of the implications of that reality. Put yourself in the position of a provost or vice president who is charged with allocating $1 million across the various academic programs and infrastructural needs on her campus.
Dividing up the $1 million by simply giving 20 programs $50,000 each would be easy, and it would have the superficial appearance of fairness, but in most cases I believe it would be irresponsible.
The provost’s job is not to make sure that every program gets equal treatment, but rather to make sure that the university’s mission is being accomplished. No college or university focuses equally on every discipline; some focus more on the humanities and social sciences, others on applied sciences. Some have a stronger outreach mission, others are more dedicated to international programs. The provost’s job is to figure out how to use that $1 million to move the university forward as effectively as possible. Maybe half of it should go to the library; maybe 90 percent of it should go to scholarships.
In my experience, campus leaders tend to understand this intuitively and rarely distribute money evenly; instead, they try to distribute it in ways that mirror the mission of the university. That’s why, if the library wants not only to be called “essential” but also treated as if it’s essential, it had better be aligning itself with that mission—and doing so explicitly, visibly, and effectively.
In my next column I’ll share some ideas for doing just that, and some examples of libraries that seem to be doing it particularly well.