Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Blame the Philistines, not the Librarians

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.




  1. Well said, AL.

  2. I’m currently a Library and Information Science student at Syracuse University, and while I like your blog, I feel the need to defend my school and my library.

    While Dean Thorin has been quoted regarding “library as a place is dead and nobody wants to use books anymore,” those quotes are taken completely out of context. She had been asked to take an extreme point of view, and does not actually believe that. I spoke with her a few days ago, and she compared today’s situation to when she started as the dean and people were calling for a cafe to be put in the library. Now that there is one, people are asking why an academic library has a cafe and are calling for it to be removed, despite the fact that it brings in more revenue than the rest of the on-campus cafes (Not that the library sees any of that revenue). But in other words – you can’t please everyone. No matter what she and the rest of the administration decide, someone is going to be unhappy.

    As to why so many humanities books were slated to be moved offsite, that’s because unlike other disciplines, the library has kept more of those books. In fields like the hard sciences, those books get weeded when they become outdated. Moving the books offsite might not be as good as keeping them onsite, but they would still be in the collection, and could always be moved back onsite at a later date.

    While the evolving shape of an academic library is a part of the decision, a larger part is influenced by budget and space restrictions. The library’s collection is currently at 98% capacity, and avoiding weeding a ton of books means offsite storage. Also, the student protest wasn’t so much about the fact that the books were being moved offsite, though that was certainly an aspect of it, but more about the fact that the storage facility is a four hour drive away. It was chosen because it has been estimated to cost a third of the cost of the local options, and the library simply can’t afford the more expensive choices. But all the plans have been put on hold while things are being discussed further.

    I know that this wasn’t the main purpose of your post, but I felt the need to try to clarify things a little. Thank you for your time.

  3. Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian says:

    To the point and quite true.

    Many years ago I recall discussing the issues of academic communication and journals with a library school professor who stated that it was really only undergraduates who ever read (or photocopied and stuffed into their knapsack, anyway) any published articles. Graduate students and professors depended upon pre-publication copies, conferences and other informal communication channels to keep up with their fields. Publication was just to satisfy tenure requirements.

  4. Elderlibrarian says:

    What is this?!! My dear old Syracuse is moving books 4 hours away- where might that be within the Artic circle in Canada? What about their wonderful rare book collection?

  5. A story before bedtime says:

    Every other industry in the world has changed dramatically over the course of the last 150 years since the first functional steam engine. I find it surprising that so many people are trying to resist change even now. I remember watching a movie about the cavalry horses that the Army was getting rid of after WWI because of the advent of tanks, motorcycles and jeeps. It was quite a sappy “don’t kill the horses” flick. I kept wondering why they didn’t just sell them.

    Perhaps, one day when it is our turn, the Army will round all of us up, too, and then proceed to dispose of us in the quickest manner they see fit…

  6. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    Yes, I think that universities teaching things that should be vocational has done a lot to reduce the amount of actual research that goes on at institutions of higher learning. But I also think that every student should be doing at least one intense research project into some area of their studies at some point. Students, even in actual research-oriented programs, are not being taught how to do research and are not being REQUIRED to do real research. Heck, I teach freshmen at University of Phoenix, and I require them to write a real research paper with primay sources (cos if I don’t teach ’em, no one’s gunna). Students need to have that intense experience ONCE, in my opinion, even if they’re going to go down a vocational track after they leave my class. In the real world, you never know when you’re going to need to research something thoroughly, even if it’s just a disease you’ve been diagnosed with. I’d rather they know what a primary source is, and go to the NEJM, instead of a Sun article on the disease for their information. I guess what I’m saying is… I don’t care what TYPE of school a student is at (research, vocationally-oriented, etc), I think they should be doing at least one research paper, and they should be using their library. It’s giving them the skills to help themselves later in life. Give a man a fish and all that.

  7. Spot on on most points.

    But it’s not philistines who orchestrated the phenomenon – that makes it seem unintentional. Why would people suddenly start considering abstract higher education to be worthless? As you inferred, it’s bad for business to have a population full of scholars. It’s also bad for politicians because the more well-educated people are, the likelier they are to be actively critical. Disdain for and devaluation of higher ed. is positively correlated with (and in my opinion orchestrated by) the rise of the corporation as policy-maker via the federal government. Perhaps a public philistinism has resulted from the choice, but the public deserves not primary blame.

    Joke is on America because the service economy is worthless (witness the declining profits and the raising rates of poverty in America), and employees who think abstractly are, in fact, profitable for employer as well as employee.

  8. ChickenLittle says:

    Tell me what “Research” is anyways?? Really all academic libraries provide is already “published” information of what other scholars have found out about a particular topic. All published information does is provide scholars a “baseline” of data so that they don’t re-create the wheel or give them ideas on how to do (or not do) their own research. for example, the history professor in question in this article, does his research come from the library or original documents and manuscripts? If he’s a professor of any merit, he works with original documentation. So that raises the question….is a library even necessary for “original research”? I would argue that it isn’t.

  9. Post postmodern Librarian says:

    Chickenlittle libraries exist to store the research done by those before us. Without out that we can not stand on the shoulders. They also with special collection contain primary data. We are a public library but carry most of the city budgets for public viewing. Another type of information stored is methodology related, definitions, etc. Things that explain and inform your research. You may need to know the difference between Positivism and Marxism or how to use an electron microscope. Yes you must do original research but the library informs you every step of the way.

  10. Hey, Chicken Little. Do you know what original documents and primary sources are? For literary scholars, they’re the fresking books in the library. For history of science and history of medicien scholars, they’re the outdated books in the library. And for historians, they’re chiefly the holdings in special collections departments in–guess what–libraries. So I would argue that you are talking through your hat.

  11. And clearly I am so outraged that I have forgotten how to spell. Yes, I note my errors. Please note yours.

  12. ChickenLittle says:

    “Special collections”….of course they are needed for primary research, but do we really need the onslaught of published materials for professors to accomplish this research? Especially when someone here has already identified, the vast majority of new and developing information comes via conferences and informal channels (i.e. twitter, facebook). It makes me wonder the value of journal publications in the methodology or research other than for University tenure.

  13. Yeps, because my history professor in college would have let me cite Twitter or Facebook in a scholarly paper. Augh no!

  14. Fancy Nancy says:

    “A few years ago a lot of librarians wanted to turn libraries into Barnes and Noble”.

    If only that had been a passing whim.
    My public library is in the process of being transformed into a pseudo-B&N. Our transformation from Dewey to “neighborhoods” is almost complete, and coffee will be available shortly. On some levels I don’t feel I work in a library anymore.

  15. I find it hard to believe that scholars, even in the humanities, are non-hierarchical.

  16. Post postmodern Librarian says:

    Define developing information? Can you cite me some open Facebook sites that have the level of journal information in them? I am all for web journals so I would be truly interested if not skeptical about Facebook. I dont want to bother with Twitter 140 characters isnt enough to equal that level. I ll give Facebook a shot

  17. let me guess, chickenlittle uses Wikipedia as the peniultimate source for anything.
    I have professors at work who will FAIL someone who uses wikipedia or google or bing in a paper.
    Just because the internet has information doesn’t mean it’s right. Can you evaluate a webpage for accuracy or currentcy? Can you use a database like Wilson Web or ProQuest Theses or Dissertations? Do you know how to find medical terms for a layman? How about encoding a finding aid for archival collections?
    Can you fix a copier that someone jammed an ID card in? Or explain MLA citations to someone?
    That’s what academic librarians do. And more.

  18. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    My students are told explicitly that Wikipedia and user-generated content sites (eHow, Associated Content, etc) will not be accepted as sources. I also explain in great detail why they need sources that have an editorial process and fact-checking involved at every level. Inevitably one or two use Wikipedia as a source every term, but that’s usually laziness, especially since I tell them when I see their rough draft what’s wrong with their sources and they don’t bother to correct the problem (even though they have two weeks to find new sources). I use Wikipedia all the time. Heck, I use it at conferences if a presenter mentions something that I don’t know about just to get some very quick background and context. Heck, I use it to read synopses of book series just to see if they’re worth reading/buying, or to make sure I have pety and pathetic details right before engaging in diatribes about 20 year old episodes of Doctor Who on the internet. however, the cost of being wrong in a flame war is MUCH lower than being wrong say… on an operating table because you used Wikipedia as your source.

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