February 16, 2018

The Trouble With Trends | Peer to Peer Review

I was chatting with friends some time ago about a document that had come out from ACRL on the top ten trends in libraries. And most of us thought “whoa, most of those ten things are not going to be happening at my library, not because we’re backward but because those are really research library issues, not things all academic libraries will be doing.” Most of the ten trends are about collections, preservation, and digital access. Those are important to those of us in smaller libraries, but student learning is much more front and center. (The role of libraries in learning is only mentioned in passing as one of the “growth areas where new skill sets are needed” and as something libraries do that can be used to prove our value, not as something that is itself going to be more important.)

The other issue with the big-picture trends was that they seemed more aspirational than descriptive. A lot of big libraries may think these new things would be cool to try, but as an add-on to things they traditionally do, handed off to one or two new sacrificial hires. Either that, or they see these trends as catastrophes speeding toward us. That’s the anxious impulse that leads to the dystopian message on a lot of PowerPoint slides at library conferences: “change – or die.”

I wondered what the view looks like from the ground. Are there neat things happening that are not represented in the trends document? Does the definition of “neat things” look really different in smaller libraries? I threw together a small and totally unscientific Google poll distributed via Collib-L and Twitter that asked these questions:

  • Was there something new you did or started to do in the last year that really made a difference in your work?
  • What is something new you want to tackle in the next year or two – and why?
  • What is the single biggest challenge or opportunity your library faces right now?

The answers were . . . well, a little depressing. But also in a curious way inspiring.

Not new, but improved

I say depressing because so many of the new things people are working very hard at are not really new at all. Responding librarians launched a liaison program to strengthen collection development and instruction relationships; developed a policy and process for weeding the collection; created instructional videos; started a chat reference service; collaborated with student affairs to start a learning commons in the library; assigned personal librarians to incoming students; remodeled a part of the library; started a textbook reserves program; implemented LibGuides or a discovery service; started an open access journal; put on a variety of fun and intellectually rich programs. And so on.

None of these would show up in a “top trends” list because they have already been widely talked about or are tasks that have always been needed, but are devilishly hard to accomplish (weeding, anyone?) At first, it made me sad that librarians have to work so hard to make a little progress. Yet, as I read the list I realized how these not-so-new “new things” probably make an enormous difference to the community those libraries serve. The students at a library where a renovation has created a pleasant new learning space are probably far more excited about that improvement than they ever would be whether the library’s website works on a smartphone. That textbook reserves program may mean more than the most expansive of patron-driven acquisitions programs.

Let’s have the bad news

In one case, a discouraged respondent said “No support for doing anything new . . . there is lots of valuable stuff we could be doing, but we can’t get support to try anything that isn’t already established or guaranteed not to fail. There is no room to take any risks at all.” That’s depressing.

And a librarian at a small four-year college, responding to the second question, wrote that she would like to have a budget. The library’s funding and staff had both been halved since the 1980s and the remaining two librarians were struggling simply to get a website created for the library and a proxy server for off-campus access. She ended her extremely modest wish list with “I do have the reputation of being negative and demanding” and added in a final comment, “The sad thing is I don’t think my library is much different than any number of small, private college libraries.”

That’s even more depressing, but an important reminder that our increasingly unequal society is mirrored in our libraries.

This is where the big-picture aspirational documents really miss the lived experience of so many of our colleagues. Some library organizations make change hard, and for some libraries, mere survival takes every ounce of effort.

Now for the good news

But I don’t want to suggest librarians are despairing or lack imagination. For the most part, respondents seemed quite positive about the things they were doing to make their libraries better. They had plenty of ideas about what they hope to do in the next year or two. They were excited about what they can accomplish and they want to make a difference. The obstacles and opportunities they face simply don’t always fit the futuristic trends narrative. “We have amazing, helpful people” on respondent wrote. “How do we factor that into our value proposition?” Another, who had an impressive list of new accomplishments, ended on an exasperated note: “I am tired of doing more with less and have reached the point of doing less with less. It’s time for administrations to stop paying lip service to the value of the library and to start actually supporting it again.”

Diminished funding was a recurring theme. “Undervalued -> underfunded -> understaffed and hemorrhaging more good staff…”  is how one put it. Others reported that they had already made deep cuts and were having to make more, that funds decreased as enrollments grew, that there wasn’t enough staff to carry through their ideas. The second most common concern was that libraries have to work hard to stay relevant and that though students and faculty were positive about the library, it was a tough sell to higher administration. “Lately it feels like we are constantly being asked to justify our existence,” one wrote. That is, actually, the first of ACRL’s ten trends, but this librarian questions why it has to be.

Doing new things can, itself, take a toll. “There has been a lot of restructuring in the last three years,” one librarian wrote, “and there is a bit of change fatigue.” But for other librarians, trying to nourish change in a resistant environment was exhausting.

The never-ending questions

In the end, though, what I take away from my little experiment is that there are a lot of new things happening in libraries. Those things take a lot of effort – not because of lack of vision, but because there are only so many librarians and they have a lot to do. (Or, as one friend put it recently, “it’s the second week of classes. I just put out the fire in my hair. That’s exciting.”) But I also get the sense that librarians are creative and interested in improving their libraries in small but significant ways. Sure budget cuts or cautiousness or inertia can slow things down, but new efforts still spring up, like weeds in untended vacant lots. I find that inspiring.

In some ways this reminds me of what happens when faculty get together and talk shop. Sure there are big trends in higher education, big scary, challenging trends, but conversation tends to turn to more immediate things, like “how can I do a better job of helping my multilingual students improve their writing skills? What can I do to help the students in my intro course  get their heads around difficult concepts? Why did that assignment that seemed so good flop so badly? How can I ignite my students’ imagination?” These are the kinds of questions I hear even the most experienced and gifted college teachers ask themselves, and I’ve heard the same questions for 25 years. You’d think they would know the answers by now, but they don’t – and they don’t mind. It reminds me that inquiring and dedicated faculty are constantly learning, constantly curious about how to make things better. Just like librarians.

Big trends come and go, but some important work is never done – and never, ever gets boring.

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

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  1. Yes, but that stuff isn’t SEXY. Or NEW. In the larger society, that’s what’s so important. Unfortunately it leads to a lot of wasted time, resources, and morale.

  2. Sherry Rhodes says:

    I think Joneser hit the nail on the head. It’s a shame that American society as a whole & higher education administration in particular to this topic has become so enamoured of the glitzy surface of the “new” without considering whether the underlying substance has any “there” there.