April 19, 2018

Could Some Healthy Paranoia Have Helped? | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Contemplating the loss of the library at Arizona’s Coconino Community College

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

In the overall scheme of things in the higher education industry, this story would hardly register a blip, but it certainly caught my attention and I shared the story with readers of Kept Up Academic Librarian. I think it speaks volumes about the challenges we face as academic librarians. In case you missed it, Arizona’s Coconino Community College (CCC) decided to close its library. We hear about public libraries choosing to close some branches and school districts shuttering libraries too, but the closing of an academic library—not just a branch unit but the entire facility—is still quite rare. It’s not all bad news, but it should give us all pause to consider what could become more commonplace in higher education’s new normal.

Here’s what happened
CCC has a small academic library. Its Lone Tree campus library occupies only 700 square feet and serves 2800 students. Still, it employed professional librarians and offered all the services you’d typically expect from an academic library. As with many higher education institutions, CCC is experiencing budget challenges and is looking to cut costs wherever it can. The administrators came up with a way to save approximately $70,000: just outsource library services to another college. It’s being called a merger, but it’s certainly not one of equals.

CCC basically asked North Arizona University’s (NAU) Cline Library to deliver library resources and services to its faculty and students. The CCC Library would simply cease to exist. According to the article “CCC will lay off its library assistants and retain one person, who will be a part-librarian and research guide, part-liaison with NAU. Student support services, such as career and academic advising, tutoring and placement testing, will fill the former library space.” It’s not as if the CCC students will suddenly have no library service, but to my way of thinking this "merger" certainly diminishes the local, personalized service only an institution-centered library can offer.

The administrators put a good spin on the change, relating it to a partnership between the two institutions. "The impetus wasn’t necessarily cuts first," CCC president Leah Bornstein said. "It was, ‘What’s our next project, what makes some sense, how can we get our students commingled in a way that makes some sense?’” Uh, maybe the CCC students could have commingled by taking a course at NAU? Bornstein also pointed out that most of what the library offered was virtual anyway. It appears, once again, we librarians are victims of our own success.

Did they see it coming?
In 1996 Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel Corp., wrote a book with a memorable title, Only the Paranoid Survive. The book’s message is that organizations can do all the right things and still meet their demise if they fail to pay attention to the signs of impending doom. In the case of his microchip industry, staying in business meant being paranoid about potential competitors and disruptive technology. By keeping one eye ahead and one behind, Intel is still around to this day. Jim Collins offers similar advice in his book How the Mighty Fall, which chronicles the slow decline to obsolescence of many large corporations.

If a little library can meet its demise so can big ones. This column is in no way intended to question or critique the actions of the staff of the CCC library, always easy for a Monday morning quarterback, but I wonder if there was any complacency there. Were there warning signs that were ignored? Are any of us immune to the whims of academic administrators who will ultimately decide to rid their institutions of the so-called library black hole once and for all? What would you do?

Time for some healthy paranoia
Perhaps I’m blowing what happened out of proportion. We are talking about a library that only occupied 700 square feet. Heck, that’s a few administrative offices and a conference room at an ARL. But we should be less concerned about the size and more perturbed about the principle of the thing. You know, that “heart of the institution” thing. What message does it send when the academic library, even a small one, is considered expendable?

You might argue that the CCC students will hardly notice the difference since they’ve still got a library to serve them. And I’m sure the librarians at NAU will do their best to serve the CCC students, though I doubt they’ll be getting more librarians to help with that. Yet there’s something special about students having their own library and librarians. It allows for relationships and local services that just might not happen if you feel like an outsider.

But here’s why we might want to adopt that bit of healthy paranoia: There’s a good chance that when word of this gets around the academic administrator circles, it’s going to look pretty savvy. Consider what NAU president John Haeger said: "With higher education budgets continuing to be squeezed, this has the potential to serve as a model for other institutions seeking creative solutions to shrinking budgets." It sure does. 

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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