April 19, 2018

Can’t Keep It All: Learning from Budget Cuts Peer to Peer Review

Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review I’ve spent some time working in faculty development and assessment of student learning on my campus and have seen up close how seismic the shift in emphasis from research to teaching to learning can be. I’m sensing the same tremors when it comes to libraries and how they determine priorities. At an undergraduate institution like mine, having a big collection isn’t sufficient, and neither is teaching students how to use it. Having a direct impact on student learning is what matters.

Back to basic budgeting

We had hoped this year to talk to a pilot group of departments about how to embed information literacy more intentionally into their curricula. Instead, thanks to a budget shortfall, we’re talking to them about money—with rising costs and a budget that isn’t keeping up, we have to set priorities for next year. We provided each department with an overview of the budget situation and lists of what we’ve been getting for their department, including what each journal and database costs and how much it’s being used. We’re asking each department: What’s more important to you? These journals? Your book allocation? The databases we subscribe to? Because we can’t keep them all.

The challenge we face, while dispiriting, actually gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves some necessary questions as well: How do library resources contribute to your program? What kind of learning does the library support? How can we be sure that the things we’re providing are actually playing a role in our students’ education?

Reverse osmosis: learning-centered collection development

These  questions are hardly new. Ten years ago, we created an assessment plan focused on student learning outcomes and have been using it ever since to guide our instruction program. It has also informed the shape of our collection, since all of the librarians, as liaisons to departments, are involved in both collection development and instruction for those disciplines.

But for some faculty, the current collaborative budget review is eye-opening. Many are just beginning to see that the journal that seems so essential is actually getting very little use. Others are seeing just how many thousands of dollars we have to pay for databases that they need to be active scholars in their fields—but which aren’t used by their students because nobody has asked them to do the kind of research that requires database use. What has been obvious to us for years is finally dawning on many of the faculty. Having resources doesn’t mean students will learn from them by osmosis.

When I started working with our faculty development program at Gustavus, I was struck that faculty—even highly curious teachers who pay attention to what their students are learning and where they’re getting stuck—would assume that if you wanted to change a course, you spiffed up the syllabus or assigned new readings. Very infrequently would they start from more basic questions, such as: What do I want my students to know and be able to do when this course is over? And how will I know if it worked?

Facing the facts

I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu all over again now as we look at how our limited budget can make the biggest impact. English faculty are facing the fact that students won’t use a print journal, however prestigious, if they can complete their assignments using articles found in JSTOR. Faculty in Chemistry are happy to see that an expensive journal they lobbied for is getting a lot of use—but are also realizing that some of the less frequently used journals could probably go. Faculty in Classics are thinking about how their students use databases and whether they should start involving them in research earlier.

We may not have had a chance to hold our discussions about embedding information literacy in the curriculum this year, but in a roundabout way, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller