Research Libraries Support Research

I’ve long thought that the concept of “library” isn’t a very coherent one. The small town (pop. 300 or so) public library that serves my grandmother and the very large research library I work in are both called libraries, and yet their staff, collections, and mission couldn’t be more different. There are also often large differences in outlook even among academic librarians. Sometimes this is a teaching versus research difference, and sometimes a service versus collections difference. Few librarians seem to move completely to one side or another, and I certainly don’t, but the tensions are undoubtedly there in the profession, and often in the same library.

I’m thinking about this because of the juxtaposition of topics I’ve encountered so far today. This morning I attended a presentation by Bernard Reilly, President of the Center for Research Libraries. He discussed a lot of the initiatives currently underway at CRL, including a number of their digitization projects. One of them involves Latin American newspapers, and as part of an effort to make the materials more useful to the libraries in the region digital copies will be made available to those libraries as well as to CRL libraries, though not freely on the Internet. My favorite quote was that this project is “built on the assumption that an Internet cafe is not a library.” Though the CRL hopes to digitize a lot of material in the coming years, I seriously doubt that everything they have will ever be digitized. I wasn’t aware until today of how much of it isn’t even cataloged yet.

To the undigitized, and possibly never digitized collections of CRL, add the archives scattered across the globe. Then the book collections that aren’t now, and may never be digitized. That’s a lot of material that will never be freely available from an Internet cafe or your laptop, or even your university should they have the money to pay for such things.

Now let us turn to a blog post at ACRLog I read just after the presentation–Library as Place–For Air Conditioning Books. In it Steven Bell comments on a presentation by Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Bell excerpts a couple of tasty quotes. Here’s part of one:

If you were starting [an educational institution] today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.

About that, I’m not sure what to say, except it wouldn’t be much of an educational institution, but more on that later.

Here’s part of another juicy one:

Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized….Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial….How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for….

Bell certainly realizes how ignorant (or perhaps deliberately provocative) Sannier is about book digitization and higher education, though he opines that maybe some IT people have it in for us librarians. Bell’s response is that If “academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.” That’s certainly a sensible approach, but there are other considerations to make about Sannier’s poorly informed presentation.

First of all, I find it difficult to take even remotely seriously. Dr. Sannier is no doubt a bright and competent man. He has a PhD in computer science, and before going to ASU worked with computer systems both in academia and private industry, according to his bio. My assertion isn’t that I don’t take him seriously as a professional, only that I can’t take him seriously as an expert on university research or teaching more broadly, that is, outside of the technological and digital portions of it. Obviously Google has not digitized all the books in the Google Book project libraries, and just as obviously the copyrighted ones they have digitized are not freely available online. Obviously also, as Bell note, curricula differ widely among educational institutions, and it’s not at all clear that even the complete collections available freely online at some of these libraries would satisfy all comers, which of course we know isn’t going to happen anyway.

I’d like to watch the entire presentation, but unfortunately right now I have a spreadsheet of 38,000 nondigitized book titles I have to go through line by line to make location decisions, plus I’m going on vacation next week, so I can barely break away to blog. Perhaps next time I have a free moment, which at this point will probably be New Year’s Day. Still, based on the excerpts as well as Bell’s reaction, neither of them are necessarily taking into account the larger mission of the research library. Bell’s response is to recommend that libraries make the case that tuition dollars are used wisely and student learning outcomes are met and they graduate. That’s all good stuff, and I think natural from a public services AUL at an urban state university.

But teaching students is but one mission of a research university, and not necessarily the most important one, if we judge by what professors get the most rewards for. The purpose of a research university is to research, to create knowledge, to contribute to the scholarly record, etc. This differs by field, naturally. In the sciences, engineering, computer science, and other areas, this may not require anything that can’t be accessed by a computer. In the humanities, area studies, and some of the social sciences, it does, and it most likely will for decades to come, if not forever. Yes, it’s possible that eventually every archive and book collection in the world will be digitized and available to researchers, even if not for free, like some of the collections coming out of the CRL are now available to research libraries. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely.

Another possibility is that enough material will be digitized that future researchers will just be content with what is digitally available and not worry about the rest. That’s pretty sloppy research, but as we know everyone, scholars included, prefer the good but easily available to the best but difficult to obtain. This could happen, but it wouldn’t negate the ideal of the research university or research library; it would just cheapen it.

It’s this perspective that makes it difficult for research libraries. Sannier rightly notes that no library is a universal library. No one has everything. That’s been the case for decades, though. The CRL, for example, was founded in 1949 to address this issue. That’s why we have cooperative agreements with other libraries. This is not even remotely a new issue. It might seem like a new issue now only if you think everything is digitized. Since most books, archives, etc., aren’t digitized, there’s nothing new being said about the issue. Just claiming it’s true doesn’t make it so.

I don’t think every institution of higher education should be a research university or every library a research library. I also don’t think that large libraries are necessary for most undergraduate education. It’s clear some fields hardly need library resources. Despite its dependence on monographs, a strong liberal arts education could probably be supported by a library of 10,000 books or so, if they were, for example, the 10,000 or so that Peter Briscoe in Reading the Map of Knowledge considers the “core.” And perhaps all those books would be digitally available to a new college today, or at least relatively soon. So, if we’re talking about starting up a new community college, or business school, or liberal arts college, this get-rid-of-the-print-books approach has at least a chance of working, though what liberal arts college would feel satisfied with a library so small I don’t know. Thomas Aquinas College, perhaps. But still, if one wanted to trim the collection to the absolute minimum necessary for a decent liberal arts college, it just might be barely possible. (That’s a lot of qualification, I know).

However, once we turn away from undergraduate education, the whole notion breaks down completely, and for any research university worth the name such a scheme is unthinkable if the library is actually designed to support any research. And the argument that no library is universal only goes so far. No library is a universal library, but it seems clear to me that the top 25 libraries or so plus places like CRL together constitute about as universal library as we are about to get. We can measure “top” anyway we please, whether it’s the number of items, amount of digital content, or financial resources. Regardless, there have to be a number of libraries that do their best to build just-in-case research collections for some fields so that we can all satisfy our otherwise insatiable just-in-time research needs.

A “research library” without print materials and climate control to protect them is an oxymoron. That might not always be the case, and I wouldn’t feel at all bad if the situation went away, but it’s here to stay for a long time to come. Print materials are still needed for research, and the purpose of a research library is to support research. I suppose some would consider me an excessive technophobe or bibliophile for saying that, but such is far from the case. I just want to protect research libraries and the universities they support from the excessive technophiles and bibliophobes that could destroy them if given a chance.

The Library: It’s Boxy but It’s Good

I’ve been reading a Time Magazine article on Starbuck’s attempt to freshen their brand: Starbucks Looks for a Fresh Jolt. There are library blogs out there that talk about marketing and branding and such, and I usually like to steer clear of business talk, but I was struck by a line from the past and current CEO of Starbucks.

From the article: “The three of us stand and look at the area by the cash register–a clutter of CDs, breath mints, chocolate-covered graham crackers, chewing gum and trail mixes. ‘There’s no story,’ Roberts says. Schultz adds, ‘We’re selling a lot, but the point is to take a step back and ask, Is it appropriate? We’ve been selling teddy bears, and we’ve been selling hundreds of thousands of them, but to what end?'”

The first thing I thought of was my own local Starbucks and the way I’ve seen it transform in the past few years from a coffeeshop into something resembling an upscale convenience store. The breath mints, the teddy bears, the special CDs–all with the Starbucks brand on them. It seems to offend some people, but I actually like Starbucks coffee, and while being only a moderate coffee drinker I’ve certainly bought my share of grande coffees over the years. What I haven’t liked is everything else. Sometimes I even get in a very un-Starbucks mood and wish the people in front of me would just order a cup of coffee instead of whatever fancy drink they ordered, not because I begrudged them their half-decaf, fruit-filled, skim mochaccino, but because I’m in a hurry and just want my straight cup of coffee. Most of the time, though, what I don’t like is being bombarded with all of the cutesy or cuddly non-coffee crap they also sell. So, I don’t go to Starbucks as often as I might.

After the brief meditation on my own Starbucks experience, which lasted less time than it took to write the previous paragraph, I thought about the many librarians trying to brand or perhaps rebrand the library. I blogged last year in Conceptual Incommensurability and Video Games criticizing attempts to turn the academic library into a social space. Libraries can open up pubs and hold square dances, but that will never make them any more popular qua libraries. The old library brand is, I suppose, Books. My library has millions of books and buys tens of thousands more every year, but Books doesn’t work well as a brand because it captures only a portion of what we do. Information is too broad. Perhaps Scholarly Research would be the best brand, because the library and its resources are central to and indispensable for scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences.

If Scholarly Research is the brand of the academic library (and I’m arguing it should be), then do we dilute our brand if we focus on other things? I think we do. Usually when I see discussions of the problem of branding, they’re talking about public libraries and trying to make the case that libraries have more than books. However, academic libraries have some of the same issue problems. Should we create blogs? Should we be on Facebook? How can we appeal to and more importantly communicate with students? Having a mission–Scholarly Research–helps answer some of these other questions. Should we have a space on Facebook? Sure, if it helps the mission, but not if it’s just to have a page up to show that we’re hep to the latest fashion. Should we blog? Definitely, if it serves the mission of scholarly research somehow. Our mission is scholarly research, and that should be central to how we brand ourselves.

Scholarly Research may sound like a humdrum or humorless mission, but it has to be the identity of the academic library. It might not appeal to 18-year-olds as much as something trendier, but the library is what it is, and the struggle of marketing is to make things popular, not to change the things into something else. We can experiment with and investigate trends and fads to see what might help us in our mission, as long as we remember the mission and don’t get caught up in frivolities that we think might make us more popular. It might be best for our image to sell scholarly research as the worthwhile endeavor we all think it is than hanker for something sexier. There’s an old Dudley Moore movie about an advertising executive who ends up in an asylum, Crazy People. One of the crazy ads he comes up with is, “Volvo: We’re Boxy But We’re Good.” We will probably be better off selling the library as what it is than trying to pretend it’s something else.

The Library: It’s Boxy but It’s Good.

The Chapel of Reason

Firestone Library (the main library at Princeton designed to be a “laboratory for the humanities and social sciences”) is supposed to be renovated over the next ten years. There have been plans floating around for years, but the money and will seem to be behind it this time. As part of the process, the architects are conducting focus groups with various constituencies. Yesterday the head of the company gave a brief report on some of the student focus groups. According to her, the student groups were very interested in having Firestone be a quiet place for study and reflection. She was surprised at this, considering the usual trend around the country to make things more noisy and communal in a lot of libraries. I wasn’t surprised at all, because I see the students working here every day and I know how they use the library. In the main reference room, a student once shushed me while I was conducting a reference interview, and I don’t speak very loudly.

The rest of the world, including our lovely campus, is getting noisier and more distracting. Between the cell phones and the televisions and the constant music blaring from just about every public space, especially coffeehouses, it’s difficult to find a place to study and reflect, to live the vita contempliva that the students are here to live, if only for a brief time. It’s no wonder so many people retreat into their iPods to escape the cacophony. The library has always been a haven from the restless energy of the rest of the world, a place to avoid the temptations of friends, to escape the crowded dorm or common room, to sit quietly reading, thinking, and writing. This doesn’t mean not having common areas or computer banks or whatever, but it does mean having a lot of space that is quiet and conducive to contemplation, ideally with wireless access. I’ve written before about the library as place, and how it shouldn’t try to compete with the entertainment centers on campus. Students need quiet places for study, places close to computers and books, but not noisy and distracting. The natural place for that is the library.

In his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig calls the university the “Church of Reason.” If extend that metaphor, the library might be considered the Chapel of Reason. The Church of Reason booms while the Rites of Reason are celebrated, but the chapel can be quieter. Catholic churches sometimes have smaller chapels attached to them for specific purposes, sometimes for contemplative activities such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Chapel of Reason is such a place. The rest of the Church of Reason has the communal activities, celebrating the common rights, worshiping together the goddess Reason. But there needs to be a Chapel of Reason as well, a still place to turn away from the hectic outer world and try to develop and understand the equally vibrant inner world of the mind, to commune solemnly and alone with the “sacred” texts, to find our company in the works of others and not in their person, and to do the long hard work of thinking, reading, and reflecting necessary to turn anyone into a scholar.

Using Our Own Services

Teaching a writing seminar this semester means I’m working two jobs, and during some weeks it feels like three. Why do I do it? Purely so I can have something to blog about.

Librarians would probably be better librarians if they occasionally used the library as a non-librarian. It’s very easy to become library-centric and to think the library is the most important institution on campus. It’s undeniably an important campus institution, but it’s not necessarily the most important one to faculty and students most of the time. The collections and services are important, but the library as a building is of secondary importance to many scholars.

Last week I had a problem with one of the library services related to my seminar, a service which is normally very reliable but which I thought had performed unsatisfactorily in this instance. After an email exchange, the problem was fixed, but I knew the person fixing the problem would rather not have done so right now, because this particular service is very busy around this point in the semester, and any extra demands interrupt the already hectic flow of work. As a fellow librarian, I sympathize; even as a fellow human being, I sympathize; but as an instructor relying upon this service to teach, I needed the problem fixed and I wasn’t going to stop until it was.

Our library has an article delivery service for faculty that many librarians think is extravagant. The service attempts to deliver electronically within 48 hours any article requested by any professor, whether it’s an ILL article or one in a journal sitting on a shelf in the library, which might mean only a short trip to the library for the professor to retrieve. Needless to say, this service is very popular and heavily used. Is it expensive? I assume so, but I’ve never seen any figures. Is it extravagant? Not to the users of the service, it isn’t. They don’t want to make even a short trip to the library if they don’t have to. Being in the library itself has no value for them. The collection has value, and if they can get to the collection without coming to the building, that’s fine by them. Librarians work in libraries. They’re in the building all day. It’s their business to be there. A lot of professors work in the library, but the library is a support to their work, not their primary work. Their business isn’t hanging out in libraries; their business is teaching and research, and the library is there to support that. If the library makes their job easier, then it’s doing a better job than if it doesn’t make their job easier. Librarians who don’t rely on the library for their scholarship or teaching and who don’t work in the library might not appreciate the usefulness of the service. The scholar’s main business is using the resources to produce scholarship, not schlepping over to the library to do some photocopying.

Our library also, as you might imagine, has a lot of electronic resources. Our pockets aren’t bottomless, and we could always use more money, but our collections budget is substantial and we subscribe to or purchase hundreds of databases and e-collections (or perhaps thousands by now, I lose count). Often these resources duplicate items we already have in print or microform, and some librarians make the argument that we shouldn’t pay to have electronic access to this material. After all, it’s just sitting here in the library, or perhaps in offsite storage. Interested scholars can just walk over to the library. Why cater to their laziness, especially if they are students? But most scholars don’t spend all day in the library, and many scholars don’t even work on campus all the time. Some have even been known to work when the library isn’t even open. Research isn’t necessarily something scholars just stop doing when they leave campus at 5pm or leave town for a few days or go on holiday. Just for my own research or teaching I know how delightful it is to be able to retrieve that article on New Year’s Day when I’m 500 miles away from the library building. I can understand not being able to afford certain electronic resources, but I don’t think it’s much of an argument to say we shouldn’t buy something just because we already have it in a different and less useful format. Only librarians who do little research or teaching would find this a compelling argument. Again, it’s the collection that’s important and supportive to research, not walking over to the library.

Most librarians probably already agree with me that the library’s job is to support research and teaching and save the time of scholars and teachers, and when they don’t agree with me I always suspect they’re thinking as librarians who don’t use libraries very much, rather than thinking as library users. Our job isn’t to make things easier for ourselves, but for the library users, and it’s easier to see that if we also, at least occasionally, are put in the place of the non-librarian library user.

Conceptual Incommensurability and Video Games

One of my long term projects is to explore the purpose of a research library. In library school I wrote, and recently revised for publication, an essay where I speculated about the end of the library, arguing that librarians should examine potential changes in libraries from a teleological perspective, that is, determine what to do now based on the end, or telos, toward which the library is heading. We’ll know what we need to do when we know what end we aim at.

Sometimes I think the discussion on the end of the library is pointless, though, because of the conceptual incommensurabilities involved. I’m not sure there can ever be any consensus on what a particular kind of library or even a specific library should be. We have conceptual incommensurability when those involved in the discussion cannot even agree on the terms of the debate. The result is that libraries move forward by responding to crises, adapting to change through ad hoc solutions that rarely serve a coherent purpose.

I just read a post by Brian Matthews about gaming in academic libraries that reminded me of one incommensurability in some discussions of service in libraries. Brian writes about a librarian who wants to purchase gaming consoles for the library, but concludes that gaming may ultimately be at odds with the purpose of academic libraries. Dorms and frat houses provide places to game, but “a stronger position for the academic library is to aspire to offer the premiere productivity and study space on campus. We should provide something that isn’t offered elsewhere and that fills a stated need.”

This seems to me like a more appropriate purpose for the academic library as place, and as a concept the purpose should also be to preserve the historical and scholarly record and make it accessible. I know there’s an effort to push video-gaming in public libraries, and a good argument out there for purchasing gaming machines and games to preserve them for future historical research. I don’t have an opinion about public library video-gaming, but I could support purchasing gaming consoles and games for preservation purposes, though I wonder if a museum rather than an library would be the appropriate place to preserve this part of popular culture.

I speak of a conceptual incommensurability because it may be difficult for two sides in a debate like this to agree on anything. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make an academic library a location for non-academic play, especially when there are so many other places on most campuses to play. Academic libraries don’t always have to be serious places, but they should be scholarly. Public libraries have some incentive to act as community centers, and that makes sense for their mission.

But college campuses are different. On my campus, there are many locations for students to gather for all sorts of purposes. The library should be the place they gather for study and scholarship. I think sometimes that librarians are guilty of thinking the library as a place is as important to the students and faculty as it obviously is to the librarians. But the students don’t consider the library as central to their being as librarians do. They know what other opportunities are available. To serve students well, the library should provide them a place to discover the joys of study and scholarship, and let the campus centers, the greek houses, the dorms, or the eating clubs provide places for socializing and gaming.

If we really wanted to attract students and make the library fun, perhaps we should use library space for pubs. To me, it seems as appropriate to open a pub in an academic library as it does to create space for video-gaming. I fear that an effort to make the library “fun” distracts from that purpose. The message it could send to students is, even the librarians think study and scholarship are dull.