Public Knowledge and the Role of Academic Libraries
By Barbara Fister
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Most academic libraries exist as a palimpsest of past and present. The public investments made in higher education and the advancement of knowledge following World War II created what many think of as the traditional and timeless academic library: a vast collection of printed volumes housed in buildings that were expanded over the decades to absorb more. The value of a library was measured in volumes. Caverns of book-filled stacks were the training ground for many of our scholars, particularly In the humanities and in some of the social sciences, and those scholars continue to have their worth measured by how many books they publish, preferably from a distinguished university press. (The “tenure book” seems still an entrenched expectation in many disciplines, and on some campuses one is not enough.) In other fields, journal articles are coin of the realm, and the growth in journal publishing has matched the expectations that scientists and scholars will publish their results to advance both public knowledge and their careers, with a growing emphasis on careers.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Bound up in academic publishing are the values assigned to the quantity of publications and the prestige of the publisher. Twenty years ago physicist John Ziman (1996) warned that the fundamental values underlying science were endangered when “academic science,” which provided society with impartial and rigorous knowledge in exchange for public support, was being replaced by an environment within which problems would be set by funders and the record of their discoveries would be transformed into intellectual property rather than widely-shared public knowledge. To a large extent, his predictions have come true. As public funding for research at the local level has dwindled, federal funding agencies play an increasingly important role in deciding which problems will be tackled. These funding decisions are often political. In 2013, politicians in the U.S. Congress cut funding for social science research from the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), singling out political science research which, they felt, should not be supported unless it directly advanced the economic or security interests of the nation (Mole, 2013). More recently a bill has been introduced in Congress that would give legislators greater control over NSF funding, including the power to eliminate funding for all social science research and for climate research (Basken, 2014).
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The number of publications each scholar and scientist is expected to produce to demonstrate professional competence today seems subject to runaway inflation, in part because the employment secured by such industriousness is increasingly precarious. This precarity has increased publication expectations for faculty just as budget cuts have made it harder for libraries to provide access to their published scholarship.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Over the past three decades, academic librarians have adapted to the growth in published scholarship and to the decreasing financial support available to them by developing robust protocols for sharing catalog records and materials, embracing access to licensed digital information over ownership, developing shared print models to ensure the preservation of print materials while reducing duplication and storage costs, participating in mass digitization projects, and pioneering the preservation of digitized scholarship through LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Throughout these efforts to adjust library collections and preservation activities to the shift toward digital publishing, librarians have also promoted a shift from subscriptions as a business model to open access, a long-term project that has made slow progress but which has accelerated recently. This support takes the form of establishing and populating institutional repositories, supporting publishing activities in the form of journals, conference proceedings, and other publications, providing funding for appropriate author-side article processing fees, making open access publications discoverable alongside proprietary information, and helping faculty authors understand and exercise their rights in the complex world of copyright and intellectual property.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As librarians continue their efforts to make knowledge accessible now and for future learners and researchers, they will have to acquire new skills to participate in and shape a newly-emerging knowledge environment. They will have to negotiate the disposition of print collections to ensure their current usefulness and future preservation through collaboration (Dempsey et al., 2013; Malpas & Lavoie, 2014). They will have to continue to license access to selected digital materials produced by commercial and scholarly publishers. They will have to provide leadership and in-the-trenches support for emerging open access publishing opportunities and adapt to emerging forms of publication. Librarians will be called upon to manage public data repositories and support the creation and preservation of digital projects in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. Making all of these forms of knowledge discoverable will be a major challenge for the future, as will helping students and faculty navigate such a complex multi-layered system.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Librarians’ instructional function, which is increasingly important to academic library directors (Long & Schonfeld, 2013), will require a significant rethinking of what it means to be information literate and why this form of learning matters. Librarians will have to serve the immediate and pressing need to help students succeed academically by helping students find and use library resources to complete course assignments efficiently. But librarians will have to go beyond mere information consumerism (Pawley, 2003) to prepare students for a world in which they will produce and share knowledge themselves. The emerging Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014) challenges librarian-educators to help students transition from low-level consumerist engagement with sources to a more advanced grasp of how knowledge is created and what role they play in making meaning.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Academic library collections currently are a mix of physical materials, licensed materials, and locally-produced digital content. The emergence of open publishing practices will add a new layer to the library palimpsest, which will require the adoption of a number of new roles and the adaptation of librarians’ skills and values to new platforms and scholarly practices. Despite the added complexity, these emerging identities promise greater access to knowledge beyond institutional walls, benefitting students, faculty, alumni, and the citizenry at large, offering librarians a chance to put their values to work as they dismantle their walled gardens and collaborate for a more open, accessible, and public-facing library.
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