Last week a couple of readers sent me this article from Inside Higher Education on "reviving the adademic library." In it, Johann Neeem, a history professor at Western Washington University, claims that academic libraries are abandoning their core mission to provide access to books, journals, archives, and other nifty scholarly stuff.
We are told "that across the country deans of libraries are giving up the fight and changing their mission rather than fighting to save an important academic institution. Rather than make clear why we need academic libraries, the library’s leaders are seeking instead to become vague learning environments which, when boiled down to their essence, are nothing more than computer labs with sofas and coffee."
The professor also seems to be angry that these library leaders think the library is the center of campus and have the ridiculous idea that student learning and interaction can actually occur in libraries.
"But, of course, this is not true. The classroom is where students connect, collaborate, learn, and synthesize, under the guidance of faculty who are, at the end of the day, responsible for teaching." Being one of those people who rarely let my schooling get in the way of my education, I can’t say I agree, but then again that’s just me.
I’m all for opinion writers putting forth extreme views with a goal of provoking thought and discussion, and I have to give the professor credit. To judge by the comments, he certainly seems to have struck a sensitive nerve in some librarians. This isn’t terribly difficult, as many academic librarians suffer from sensitive nerves. That’s what happens to second-class citizens.
Part of the problem with the professor’s argument is that he’s paying attention to provocative, self-proclaimed library leaders. He actually cited another IHE article reporting on a debate at Educause in which the dean of the Syracuse libraries is quoted as saying the library as a place is dead and nobody wants to use books anymore.
"Despite the objections of ‘a minority of very loud faculty members,’ Thorin said, the days of wandering through the stacks are over. ‘People,’ she told the audience, of whom many were librarians, ‘the world has changed, and so have your students, and so have your faculty!’" This "library leader" is apparently not a humanities scholar, because she thought she could move a lot of books offsite, you know, since no one used them anymore. The thing is, when she tried to do that, there was a huge protest at Syracuse and she had to back down.
He also isn’t looking at what libraries are in fact doing, including his own. Most decent academic libraries, including that of Western Washington University, are indeed providing access to the books, journals, archives, and other materials, just as they have always done. The formats and mode of access have changed, but otherwise the song remains the same.
Perhaps the professor was taken aback by another quote from the dean of the Syracuse library." “Cutting-edge scholars in the humanities are building new disciplines and online environments are are, in effect, libraries themselves; they are diffuse, collaborative, non-hierarchical, always changing.”
That might in fact be true, but most scholars in the humanities aren’t cutting edge, and the vast majority of them still use libraries for the same content they’ve used them for a long time, and that’s why libraries still do what they’ve done since the importation of the research model from German in the late nineteenth century – they buy and store books and other materials for scholars to use.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of practicing academic librarians at universities all over the country, and I’ve met very few who think that libraries aren’t there to collect stuff to support teaching and research. Some of them can’t get beyond lower-level undergraduate education, but still they think this is the purpose of the library.
Another possible issue is that the historian is ignoring the larger historical perspective, and isn’t taking a look at the evolving nature of the so-called higher education as a whole.
Once upon a time in America, there was a clearer distinction between institutions of higher education and vocational training. Students interested in a liberal education would go to university, and the rest would attend normal schools, business schools, and vocational-technical schools. For a brief couple of decades after World War II, higher education flourished, and there seemed to be people in the country who thought more Americans should be educated well. Money poured in to support the sciences and some of this trickled down into the social sciences and humanities.
In the process, former normal schools and business schools added a few traditional departments and proclaimed themselves colleges. Then they added some professional graduate programs and proclaimed themselves universities. By the 1970s, the previous distinctions had become blurred, and every "university" in a state pretended it was a research university, and that their professors were there to research and teach, just like professors at real research universities.
Then the college-age population shrank, so we had too many of these jumped up universities. Also, though politicians continue to declare that we need a healthy and educated workforce to "compete" globally, the political and economic will instead supports a trained and pliable workforce. The situation has reversed, and instead of rinky -dink teacher’s colleges and business schools proclaiming themselves universities, those same institutions today seem to think the purpose of higher "education" is to churn out degrees in education, business, nursing, and a few other vocational fields.
If vocational programs are the areas in which we are now supposedly educating our citizens, then the role of the traditional library shrinks dramatically. It’s in these fields that the students don’t go to libraries to read books. Many times they don’t even go to a campus to learn. Some of them never visit what the professor claims is the center of the university – a classroom. Some of them never even visit a virtual classroom, and their learning, such as it is, is completely asynchronous.
Thus, it’s possible that the professor’s complaint shouldn’t be against the supposedly changing nature of the academic library, as against the changing nature of academia itself. Librarians focused on supporting the work of training teachers, nurses, business people, secretaries, IT troubleshooters, and other vocation groups don’t think about libraries in the same way that librarians do who support the work of historians, literary scholars, economists, or chemists.
A few years ago a lot of librarians wanted to turn libraries into Barnes and Nobles. These days a lot of academic administrators want to turn colleges and universities into the University of Phoenix. They have to do this because they’re realizing that educating people doesn’t make money. Educating people costs money. That money used to be provided through public support, and higher education was considered a public good, just like primary and secondary education.
But as universities lose public support, they have to become vocational training centers rather than institutions of higher education. After all, desperate people will pay or take out lots of loans to pay for vocational training they are told will get them a job. Desperate people won’t do that to study history.
I’m sympathetic to this annoyed professor who thinks the academic library has betrayed him somehow. I don’t think it has, yet, which he might realize if he looked around at what libraries are actually doing rather than what some people claim will be their future.
But if he is ever betrayed, and the libraries stop supporting scholarly research and teaching, it won’t be the fault of the librarians. It’ll be the fault of people who think scholarship and teaching are unimportant if they don’t lead to practical degrees that sustain themselves economically. Libraries can’t support activities that don’t exist.
Professor Neem calls out to library leaders to save the library as a support for scholarship and teaching. I have another proposal. Professor Neem, if you and your fellow historians can save scholarship and learning at the university from the bean-counters and philistines, then the librarians will be right behind you, supporting your work all the way.