R. David Lankes
Academic libraries have been steadily migrating from warehousing artifacts to being more directly integrated into the educational missions of colleges and universities. This can be seen in the push of services to the desktop of students and faculty. This began with a massive increase in the expenditures on full-text databases. This made the artifacts of the library more accessible outside of the physical facility. This was later matched by the wide availability of digital reference services to make the librarians also accessible from the academies’ desktops (and laptops and increasingly mobile phones).
Academic libraries are also working hard to retask their physical spaces. They are moving collections offsite in favor of more meeting and commons space. This transition has been met by quite a bit of resistance from some faculty and academic disciplines, most notably the humanities.
Academic libraries are, however, well situated for their next step of evolution to conversations and new librarianship. The ideas of knowledge, conversation, and learning are far from new in this arena. Joan Bechtel said:
That these are challenging, often difficult, times for academic libraries is no news to anyone in the library world. Concern for professionalism, with its attention to accountability and responsibility, abounds. Unprecedented growth in technology provides vast new opportunities for communication, and the availability of information far outstrips most people’s capacity to digest it all. In the face of this information explosion, it is ironic that academic librarians are casting about for an appropriate myth or model for library service. . . . While critics charge that academic libraries are not sufficiently integrated into the central concerns of the college or university and that librarians have their own, independent agendas, librarians responsible for present services as well as plans for the future are uneasy.
Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that academic librarians are drifting in a vast sea of information and technological advances, searching for an appropriate course of action. Nevertheless, we appear to have lost the stabilizing rudder of confidence in who we are and what we are to do.
As a more powerful alternative to the images of librarianship already available or proposed, I suggest that we begin to think of libraries as centers for conversation and of ourselves as mediators of and participants in the conversations of the world.
This quote always startles me when I look at the date, 1986, because it feels amazingly contemporary.
The academic library used to be seen as the heart of the campus. Unfortunately, too many academics are starting to see it more like the spleen (somewhat hard to find, and they could probably get along without it). I think that the college library needs to move from the heart of the campus to the circulatory system, moving vital ideas around the different schools and departments.
Think about how well the library is situated in these days of multidisciplinary initiatives. What other part of the academy is better able to engage and interconnect the intellectual work of the faculty than the library? Imagine engaging with faculty (and students, administration, and staff) to not only provide services to their intellectual endeavors but to also connect them with other academics working on related issues. Rather than trying to simply capture and archive the intellectual output of the academy (see Issues of Institutional Repositories on page 103 and the corresponding agreement supplement), librarians need to be knitting it together—knitting it together not simply through classification or pathfinders but mediating an interdisciplinary meeting of the minds and ongoing conversations on intellectual efforts.
One example might be arranging for interdisciplinary symposia or summits between faculties. Take topics identified of mutual interest, link them to like conversations happening in the wider world (through identifying resources, conversants, etc.), and then moderate the symposia, seeking out next steps and new initiatives. The librarian acts as honest broker, a neutral ground of intellectual camps, seeking new conversations.
This will only happen if the library is constantly engaged with faculty. This can be done through becoming involved in tenure support services, attending faculty meetings, and/or being embedded in the schools. The bottom line is that, rather than trying to capture the output of research and teaching, make yourself indispensible in terms of outcomes and the process of discovery.
Bechtel, J. M. (1986). Conversation, a new paradigm for librarianship? College and Research Libraries, 47(3), 219–224.
“Library Science and the Ivy League,” Cornell Libraries, Ithaca, NY
Abstract: A discussion of the intellectual contributions libraries make to the academy.
Instruments and Data