By Barbara Fister
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The amount of change academic librarians have effected in their institutions over the past 75 years is astonishing. The more recent pace of change since the Web became a conduit for sharing information has been dizzying. The effort to redefine libraries as an essential part of our scholarly and educational cultures has been ongoing, and the tension between the old and the new has been constant. Yet, in spite of jeremiads about the necessity of change and the threat of irrelevance, in spite of brutal budget cuts and the difficult balancing act of taking on new roles while staff lines are eliminated, academic libraries continue to be essential to institutions of higher learning.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What is it that makes academic libraries an enduring part of higher education in an era when information is abundant and consumer mechanisms have made it easier than ever for individuals to discover and acquire it? (Anderson, 2013). It’s not just inertia or nostalgia. Though libraries have changed greatly, they continue to provide access to curated information and an institutional common ground where students can learn to find information, analyze it, and practice the skills and dispositions that will enable them to create and share their own understanding. Regardless of whether they compose that meaning on a typewriter, a computer, a digital multimedia platform, or in some format we can’t foresee, the fundamental challenges of making meaning remain the same, just as the fundamental purpose and character of the library as a social and cultural institution endures.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What makes the library durable isn’t the content of its collections (though they matter) or the technologies that make that content discoverable, or the services and programs librarians provide to make the library a site of learning and discovery. Rather, it’s a set of values that provide us with a sense of purpose and a common foundation for our actions. These values, described in a variety of policy statements developed by the American Library Association (2004), have been collected into a single list. In aggregate they describe cultural and intellectual principles that ACRL members will recognize as the foundation of their daily practice.
- ¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0
- Education and Lifelong Learning
- Intellectual Freedom
- The Public Good
- Social Responsibility
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Some of these values can come into conflict with others. The public good may be given less consideration than service to our institution when budgets are tight. Access to more information right now through annual licenses or by purchasing an article for the personal use of a patron may trump our interest in preserving that information for the future. Education and lifelong learning may seem hindered if privacy concerns inhibit the use of predictive analytics. It’s not always easy to align these values when they are embedded in social and economic structures that put them in competition.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 One could argue that the realpolitik of demonstrating our value to our parent institution in an age of austerity is in tension with libraries collectively serving the public good (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2010). This mirrors the conflict over the purpose of higher education. Is it an overpriced government-subsidized personal investment in a brand-name credential? A production line for a well-prepared workforce? An incubator for transferable scientific and technological innovation? Or is it critical social infrastructure for democracy? That last option is difficult to measure and politically unpalatable. If making tuition more affordable again required reversing tax cuts, legislators would face the wrath of well-financed opposition. It’s much easier to let wealthy philanthropists or market forces decide what’s good for the country than to reform our taxation system. Likewise, the compromises we make in order to serve our institutional mission are far easier than holding out for values that require a longer view and a more inclusive vision of who we serve. As we navigate a succession of budgetary whirlpools, we may lose our sense of direction.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Yet a counter-argument could be made that libraries are in an unusually strong position to offer a valuable alternative to the privatization of public institutions and the commodification of knowledge. Libraries as social institutions have an unusually positive public image (Zickuhr, Rainie, Purcell, & Duggan, 2013). They present a model of cooperative sharing and public service that is traditional yet radical, given the dominant presumption that the action of markets drives human behavior. The idea of a library takes the “neo” out of both conservative and liberal, asserting the value of the commons, the importance of diversity, and the wisdom of offering intellectual freedom to all.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Academic libraries have a powerful platform from which to advocate for our values, but not just for the sake of libraries and not just for the sake of our user communities. The values we hold are of immense importance to a world in which knowledge has been transformed into intellectual property, the Web has been turned into a shopping platform, and social interaction online is used to collect and monetize our lives, with the unfortunate consequence of hastening what a former NSA official described as a “turnkey totalitarian state” (Bamford, 2012). As the invisible infrastructure of our technological future is taking shape, society needs library values more than ever.