April 19, 2018

Being Essential Is Not Enough, Part 2 | Peer to Peer Review

Rick AndersonIn my last column, I discussed the importance of aligning library strategies and programs to institutional priorities, and I promised, in this next column, to share ideas on how to do that and some examples of libraries that seem to me to be doing it particularly well.

I’m going to start with the latter and I’ll begin by bragging about my own boss. When it came time to submit this year’s budget request documentation, our dean and university librarian, Alberta Comer, did not simply write a letter describing all the wonderful and worthwhile things the library does, followed by a request for additional support. Instead, she worked with her leadership team to create a two-part document: the first section outlined the library’s significant achievements over the past year, and the second explained what we want to do in the coming year. Importantly, each of those sections was organized according to the University of Utah’s explicitly expressed programmatic priorities. Thus, the message our vice president received was not “Here are all the reasons why you ought to give the library more money.” Instead, it was “Here are some of the most important ways in which the library is moving the university towards its goals, and here are ways in which we could do that even better if we had more resources to work with.”

The result was clear success. Although we certainly didn’t get everything we asked for, the new allocation of recurring and one-time funds we did receive represented a disproportionately large share of what was available for distribution across campus. Takeaway lesson: Map your library’s programs and services to the mission of the university and you will be seen as an essential strategic partner, not just another piece of costly infrastructure. (Thanks to Yale University Librarian Susan Gibbons for beautifully articulating this point when I visited her library earlier this year.)

Speaking of Yale, another great example of this kind of alignment comes from that university’s Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, which has not only created course modules that are designed specifically to help the medical school achieve the goals of its Graduate Medical Education program, but has also created (in multiple versions) courses in evidence-based practice for the nursing school and, according to the library’s interim director, John Gallagher, is currently creating a program to help medical faculty and researchers comply with the National Institutes of Health’s Open Access policies. This last point suggests a second takeaway lesson:  Solving a problem that already exists for your faculty (such as compliance with a mandate) is more likely to generate support for the library than trying to convince the faculty that they have a problem.

A third library organization that shines in this regard is the one at North Carolina State University. Seeing that its university was adopting a program of faculty cluster hiring in support of its overarching goal to “enhance interdisciplinary scholarship to address the grand challenges of society,” associate dean Greg Raschke reports that the library system “is aligning its efforts across a spectrum of areas to foster the success of the clusters.” These efforts include adapting existing collection-analysis tools to ensure that they map to the interdisciplinary clusters, offering dedicated collaboration space for use by faculty working in those clusters, reaching out to the clusters with targeted information about existing technology offerings in the libraries, and “providing dedicated subject specialists for each faculty cluster to work across the life-cycle of their research to offer guidance and connections to services such as visualization, GIS support, copyright guidance, bibliometric analysis, research data management, research funding tools, and collections.” Takeaway lesson: Sometimes aligning your library with institutional goals and programs means creating new services, and sometimes it means adapting old ones. Since our host institutions are always changing, it always means responding quickly and nimbly to new programs and priority shifts.

What can each of us do at our own institutions? Here are a few general guidelines:

  • Listen to your president and your provost. And not just for obvious points of connection between what your campus leaders say and what the library traditionally does (student success, research impact, etc.). Listen also for areas of emphasis that you might not think of as relevant to the library. If the president says that one of her chief areas of concern is improving the six-year graduation rate, don’t dismiss that as having nothing to do with the library—ask yourself what the library might do differently (or what it might already be doing) that could have an impact on that goal, even if the goal doesn’t seem to be connected directly to library services.
  • Monitor your university’s public pronouncements, press releases, tweets, etc. and see what is said most often. It’s not just what your campus leaders and spokespersons say, but how often and in how many contexts they say it that will tip you off to a particularly important or emerging area of institutional focus. If words and phrases like “applied research,” “diversity,” “international,” “sustainability,” “commercial partnerships,” or “community impact” are repeatedly appearing in your university’s public pronouncements, speeches, and press releases, you’re getting a message. This is especially key for public colleges and universities, where everything that’s said publicly is said with the keen understanding that lawmakers and other fiscal officers are listening. Ask yourself what your institution says when it knows the people who hold the purse strings are listening—then ask yourself how your library can help the institution make its case.
  • Become intimately familiar with your institution’s strategic plan and its mission and vision statements. These documents describe the programmatic skeleton that underlies everything your university is doing. If the library is doing things that don’t help further the goals and strategies laid out in them, ask yourself why—and unless the answers you come up with are unusually compelling and can be defended (with a straight face) in conversation with your provost or vice president, seriously consider discontinuing them. If your library is doing things that actively undermine those goals and strategies, stop doing those things immediately. As you consider establishing new programs or practices in your library, ask yourself from the very beginning how those new programs or practices will help further the strategic mission of your institution.
  • Watch the curriculum, and don’t confuse equality with fairness. This is something that all academic libraries understand in principle, but we sometimes struggle with it in practice because its application is painful: no library that aligns itself to institutional priorities will end up serving all programs and all academic disciplines equally. This is true because no college or university places an equal strategic emphasis on every discipline and program. What this means is that our budgets and programmatic support should not be distributed equally across disciplines, but should reflect the curricular and strategic emphases of our host institutions. And since academic institutions rarely come right out and say “we care more about physics than we do about astronomy,” this means your monitoring of institutional communications for strategic hints will have to be sensitive to nuance and informed by an awareness of how other campus resources are distributed.

I invite comments from readers who have other good examples of library-to-campus alignment to share, or other ideas about what each of us can do in our own libraries to strengthen the strategic bond between our libraries and our host institutions.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Jon Ostler says:

    Well said!

  2. Thank you for articulating these views and ideas that are critical to the viability of academic libraries, Rick. They fit well with and support the work of the ALA ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Committee. We have much information on the Committee web site (http://www.acrl.ala.org/value/), which includes a blog and a valueography/bibliography (http://acrl.ala.org/valueography/) that may be useful to others.