Creating Common Ground
By Barbara Fister
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Not too many years ago, we used the phrase “virtual library” to extend the idea of what a library is into the digital realm. Now the digital and physical library are so entangled as to be inseparable. We have grown accustomed to thinking about information as stuff that doesn’t depend on a particular format. The importance of “journal” as a category persists because scholars still think of them as a meaningful representation of a collective approach to particular types of scholarly questions, but it’s far more likely today to be online, with articles scattered throughout a disparate collection of journal content, rather than on a shelf as a chronological record of one corner of academic inquiry. The idea that students should “go to the library” to do their research is more likely to mean going to a website than through a door. (We’ve long since erased that skeuomorphic terminology “portal” that once invited library users through digital doors, and nobody seems to miss it.) We’ve gotten over our early suspicion of the web as a place where people go to find information and are finally overcoming absolutist positions about the value of Wikipedia for our students, even designating staff and volunteers as “Wikipedians in Residence” (see Wyatt, 2010, for an early adoption of this role in a cultural institution). We’ve gone from treating the evaluation of websites as a special category of instruction to seeking ways to embrace critical assessment of all sources of information, regardless of its origin or format. And in the draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education we’re encouraging one another to reach beyond students’ being able to distinguish types of sources to understanding the processes that underlie those differences. We want our students to do more than know how to find good information, but to understand where it came from and how it reflects the context within which a particular group of people constructs authority. That deeper understanding is crucial in a world in which the external features of published information are morphing and evolving into forms we can’t foresee.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Likewise, the library is morphing in ways that are complicated by contextual social and economic forces that have complicated the things libraries have traditionally done: collect, preserve, and share. The impact on collections and space will continue to be complicated for some time, in large part because of the ways current copyright law fails to balance the interests of rights holders with the public interest and because publishers whose business models depended on the sale of copies are struggling to establish new revenue streams, currently a mix of capitalizing on scarcity and capturing subsidies before publication. The significance of these contextual conditions is nothing new. Libraries previously adjusted to a boom in scholarly and scientific funding by building additions to libraries to accommodate larger collections. But these shifting contextual conditions challenge us to constantly adjust our work, our physical and digital spaces, and our relationships with our communities and with other libraries to sustain curation, preservation, and sharing in a changing environment.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The bubble of growth in twentieth-century printed collections has left academic librarians with a tricky problem. We need to have room to add printed materials to our collections (as we still do, despite a significant slowdown in printed book acquisitions). We need to make space to use library collections in new ways and to support new pedagogies of knowledge creation, while continuing to make room for the non-collection-oriented uses students value. One lesson learned in the past decade is that making collections available from students’ bedrooms and through their smartphones has not reduced many students’ inclination to identify academic work with being in a library. Additionally, in spite of advances in discovery, many library users still value physical browsing in open stacks. We need to understand and honor students’ desire to blend digital experiences with IRL (“in real life”) experiences (Beetham, 2014) and their continuing interest in print formats in some situations, regardless of what formats seem most cost-effective.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Negotiating competing needs for space requires finding common ground among conflicting ideas of what a library is. Those contesting these identities, fearful they will lose something in the struggle, sometimes scornfully refer to the other perspective using extremes: a “warehouse for old books” versus “a fancy study hall with refreshments.” These competing identities often are the iceberg-tip of other submerged forms of competition: between STEM fields and the humanities, between faculty research and student success, between administrative fiat and faculty governance, between print and digital, between the traditional and the trendy. Finding common ground that meets multiple needs and respects a whole spectrum of beliefs about what a library should be requires exploring how people use libraries in their lived experience, inventing ways to improve our discovery platforms to enable different approaches to finding information, and finding the best means of preserving the culturally significant features of a library’s identity while embracing new ways to carry out our missions. It also requires being transparent and open about the challenges we face and the reasoning for decisions that we make.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 We should not forget that people find much value in things that libraries invented but take for granted. Online catalogs weren’t playful and engaging until Amazon demonstrated that they could be. Librarians who had disposed of old-fashioned leather-and-mahogany furnishings to make way for computers were compelled, a few years later, to retrieve the decor from Barnes & Nobles, which had proven it was popular. Searching, in Roy Tennant’s famous phrase, was something only librarians cared about; everyone else liked to find (2001) – until Google made searching ubiquitous and entertaining. In a sense, though it may seem a series of missed opportunities, these appropriations are an endorsement of the value of libraries and the things people do in them – value that librarians sometimes underestimated because they seemed pragmatic, a bit dull, designed to make research easier but unlikely to excite anyone but librarians.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As we negotiate these shared and sometimes conflicting identities, we need to learn what we can about what is at stake for our communities – and for libraries collectively. Collaborating on shared print programs, for example, will help us work together to preserve our culture without each library having to make preservation decisions alone. Introducing our local constituents to what we’re trying to accomplish with such programs can ease fears about change and the possible loss of our cultural heritage. Participating in collaborative digitization efforts, such as Hathi Trust and the Digital Public Library of America, is an indication of how each library can make unique and valuable contributions to projects bigger than any one institution.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 We also need to consider how to sustain our capacity to preserve and share knowledge in an era when a large proportion of our collections is no longer legally ours. LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico are examples of what can be done, but only with the cooperation of publishers who control the rights to a vast proportion of the scholarly record. An even greater challenge is our need to figure out what role we have to play in promoting and sustaining an increasingly open access future in which the definition of “ours” extends to the entire world. Developing infrastructural support for publishing and integrating open access resources that are neither locally-owned nor licensed with our not-so-open resources will be an interesting challenge for the road ahead, but one that can take advantage of library skillsets and values.
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