There’s an interesting post at Jenica Rogers’ Attempting Elegance blog entitled Killing Fear part 1: The Problem, in which the problem seems to be that “there’s a contradiction between these faculty expectations and emergent and clearly evident trends in information, libraries, and our future. This particular stakeholder group seems to want the very traditional services and roles that others are pointing out are now part of a legacy model.” The “faculty expectations” are that the most important role libraries play is to purchase and archive stuff, with research support, teaching support, and being gateways to information being strong but distant goals. The “clearly evident” trend is that “Information literacy is our future; anyone who’s paying attention to accrediting bodies, professional organizations, and where our professional excitement is positioned knows we staked the farm on it.” So the problem is that there’s a contradiction between how faculty view, and presumably use, libraries, and how we believe they should view and use libraries. I agree that there’s a contradiction between how faculty view libraries and how some librarians believe faculty should view libraries, but that’s a different contradiction than presented in the blog post, and it’s not a problem with reality so much as with the expectations of some librarians.
We can look at this contradiction and its alleged problem in a couple of different ways. First, there’s the issue of librarian expectations versus faculty reality. Second, there’s the differences between libraries designed to support teaching and libraries designed to support research.
For the first, believing that it’s wrong for faculty to believe that the chief, but far from only, function of libraries is to buy and archive stuff is to misunderstand the role of the library in the life of the professional researcher. By the time people have finished their PhDs and gotten jobs at colleges and universities that require research and publication for tenure, they hardly need librarians to teach them how to do research, which is why they rarely ask for research help, and almost never within their fields of expertise. They don’t need “information literacy,” they need stuff. It would be a little arrogant to claim that librarians know better than researching and publishing faculty how they should be using the library. The proof is in the publication. Librarians treating faculty as if they had the same needs as undergraduate researchers is an inappropriate strategy for understanding what libraries are for. The question is, if faculty perceptions of the library are discordant with the perceptions of librarians, why would it make sense to assume the faculty are wrong? Libraries are there to serve researchers, not the other way around. If our professional organizations and our professional excitement aren’t about supporting faculty research, then perhaps we’re excited about the wrong things.
Second, there’s a question of the size of the library and the institution it serves. In bigger libraries, the amount of stuff available is more important than in smaller libraries, and that benefits everyone. One conclusion of a study she quotes says that collection size is rapidly losing importance. Well, maybe for a lot of libraries, but certainly not for all. Rogers explains her perspective: “I freely acknowledge that my reactions to this data are certainly based in my small liberal arts college experiences.” I understand that perspective. I worked for two years as a reference librarians and subject liaison for a small liberal arts college. Compared to a large research library, we didn’t have much stuff, so the stuff didn’t matter much. When faculty wanted really expensive material for research, we had to send them elsewhere. However, I spent several years as a student, instructor, and library GA at a huge research library, and having lots of stuff mattered. I’ve now worked for over ten years as a subject selector for a another large research library, and from that perspective I also have to say that collection size matters.
Since I can’t find the information online, I assume our acquisitions budget isn’t public. [Correction: a friend sent me the link to the info at ARL (tab eexp1 of the spreadsheet), which should have been the first place I looked. Princeton spent close to $23 million in whatever year is being measured. By rough count it looks like there are about 60 libraries on the list with eight-figure acquisitions budgets in the ARL. That's a lot of money to spend.] We buy a lot of stuff, and it’s not just ebooks and ejournals. In addition to the digital collections, which probably account for most of the current scholarly journal collections, we still collect over 100,000 physical items each year.
Some might argue that all that stuff can’t possibly get used, that we’re collecting on the “just in case” not “just in time” philosophy. There are a couple of responses to that. First, if your library’s mission is purely to support the current curriculum, then “just in time” makes sense. That’s great teaching support, but it’s not great research support because there are some things that can’t be gotten “just in time.” After a certain point, they’re gone. If a library didn’t collect and archive them, you won’t get them. That might not be true in some distant future if everything is digitized, available, and affordable, but it’s true now. In the humanities and social sciences, researchers need collections. The way the current higher education system works creates a cruel irony for many faculty at smaller institutions. They’re still expected to do research, but their libraries aren’t funded accordingly. ILL and visiting larger research libraries can help mitigate that problem, but it’s still a problem that surprises some professors as they move from the R1 university where they completed their PhD to a small college.
However, and here’s the second response, even though they’re not adequately funded to support advanced research, there is a system of academic libraries to rely upon. Research libraries are never collecting just for their own institutions, which is why the stuff they buy helps serve all researchers, including ones at other research universities. The stuff my library buys helps researchers at lots of other institutions, and vice versa. My library lends a lot of items to other libraries, but the faculty and students here also request a lot of items. While services are important, so it stuff. We don’t need to ask faculty whether collections matter, because they’ve spoken in the survey quoted in the blog post. They speak in the amount of material they borrow from their library or request from other libraries. So collections might not be of central importance in your library, but they’re important to your faculty. Fortunately, collectively, we do a pretty good job of supplying them, too.