Thursday, May 28, 2009

Save the Library?

Save the Library?

Part 1

The March of Dimes was created to raise money to cure polio. Many of us remember putting those little coins into slots in cardboard cards, which once filled, were sent to the March of Dimes to help other children avoid this deadly disease.

In 1955 Dr. Jonas Salk created a vaccine against polio. Polio was cured. The March of Dimes had achieved its goal, and therefore had no further reason to exist. But the organization did not “lay itself down.” Instead, it transformed itself into a fundraising organization to improve the health of babies by “preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.”

This illustrates a very important principle in the life of non-profit organizations: once brought to life, they don’t want to die.

Thus it is with academic libraries. We are currently threatened by the revolutionary change from a world of information scarcity to one of information overload, yet academic libraries refuse to die.

So do public libraries for that matter. Therefore they have adapted by transforming themselves into multi-purpose community centers.

Visit your local library and see what I mean. Young mothers bring their children in for movie night; aged veterans come to hear lectures on World War II; the local high school a cappella group is giving a concert; and you can have your attic treasures assessed during the antiques fair. Plus you can borrow books; and DVDs, audiobooks on CD, and e-books; get tutored in English as a second language, surf the Web, and perhaps even get a cappuccino. The result: public libraries have doubled their traffic in the past 11 years.

The current recession has provided the icing on the cake. We have rediscovered that public libraries help poor people. And people who are pinching pennies. And people who are looking for jobs. Homeless people go there to sleep, and latchkey children find safe haven after school is out.

Academic libraries have also been adapting, but because so much of our adaptation is digital and our resources are delivered outside our buildings, we are in danger of becoming invisible. One might say that we are threatened with “extinction” due to our very success.

As I said in Chapter 1:

Academic Libraries are looking at a death spiral. We are caught in a financial squeeze where we can only do “less with less.” This trend has been developing over the past few decades, and if we keep playing it out, our library will end up as nothing more than a small office where tiny team of functionaries try to "broker" digital information for the campus--a virtual captive of the major commercial information vendors.

Too often, discussions about “the future of the library” are grounded in the assumption—stated or unstated—that we must “Save the Library.” I believe this is the wrong place to start.

The place to start is with this question: what are the information needs and information opportunities of the 21st century academic research university?

Which leads to the second question: what should the university do to meet these needs, and to take advantage of these opportunities?

Let me say at the outset that no one knows the answer to these questions. The librarians don’t know. The faculty doesn’t know. The Administration doesn’t know. The students don’t know. And the technorati and digerati don’t know either. No one knows; but together we might figure it out.

Recently, I had the bracing experience of learning about a new assignment for Yale’s Meg Bellinger. Meg was until recently AUL for Integrated Library Systems and Technical Services. In September, 2008, Meg was named Director of the newly created Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure (ODAI).

ODAI… will guide collaboration among the schools, libraries, museums and other campus units that are developing strategies and systems for digitization and digital asset management. She will also coordinate the development of a University-wide digital information management strategy.

ODAI will be looking at the entire information landscape at Yale—everything that comes in, everything that goes out. Keep in mind this one sentence: her office “will coordinate the development of a University-wide digital information management strategy.”

In other words—my words—she is going to reinvent the library. That’s pretty cool. Whatever you call it, and currently the term “Digital Yale” is being tested, a new information regime will in effect be the “library” of the 21st century.

Of course, it could happen that ODAI will issue its report, fanfares will be heard, news stories will be written, the academy will be abuzz, and then nothing will happen. Nothing. Zero. The report will go to where most radical university restructuring documents go: to the land of lost proposals and missed opportunities.

That would not be cool. ODAI has my prayers.

[For the Press Release, see:]

Part 2—The Phone Rings…

So here’s the scenario. The phone rings, and the Chief Academic Officer says to the Library Director: “Listen, I just got a call from an academic think tank. They asked me what the Information Strategy is for our campus. Help me out here. What is the information strategy for our University?”

Do we have the answer?

Most of the time we act as though we do have the answer, and it’s very simple: Just give the library system more money and we will take care of it. Preferably 8% more each year, for all the years to come, because information is expensive and our patrons want it all.

This is decidedly not the answer. And besides, it was a trick question.

The Chief Academic Officer should already know the answer to this question. Along with the President, it is her or his duty to guide the destiny of the university—which is in essence an information enterprise.

But here is the real answer: No one knows what the information strategy should be for the university—yet it is the most critical question that could possibly be asked, right now, by the entire academy. And the person who should be taking the lead in shaping the answer is the Provost or Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Most University leaders are not asking themselves this question—nor are they asking their library director. This is why the ODAI study at Yale, cited above, is so critically important. Yale is asking the right question, at the right time, and at the right level—the very top level. This should be happening at every college and university in the land.

Let’s make a quick list of how this question touches upon the university’s mission:

· We are responsible for imparting information to the very people who will be running our information-dependent institutions

· We are responsible for teaching these people information-finding, information assessment, and information-utilization skills

· We are responsible for basic research in every field of inquiry; indeed, the government is giving us billions of dollars to do this, with a dollop from foundations and corporations

· We are the primary keepers of society’s information assets, and if we have substantial museums under our wing, this is even more true (a cultural artifact is also an information asset)

· Our community of faculty, students, researchers, librarians, and staff constitutes the largest body of people in this society whose primary purpose is to think about everything, and in a selfless way, and to share our thinking with the rest of the society for the benefit of all humankind. We sometimes refer to this as Our Mission.

So. Should our chief academic officer be thinking about the information strategy for the university? The answer is obvious.

Part 3--Who Ya Gonna Call?

In our last thrilling episode, the provost was dangling from a cliff. He had been asked what the information strategy was for his campus, and he didn’t know the answer. To whom should he place a quick call to get some fresh rhetoric with which to cover his derriere? Or, as they say in the movies: Who Ya Gonna Call?

Well, it should be the library. We have been thinking about this for decades. Academic librarians believe that it is Job One to study, adapt, and attempt to meet campus information needs, and we have plenty of white papers and proposals that reflect this thinking. But everyone seems to have forgotten our number. Or they pat us on the back and tell us we are doing a good job—when we know that our situation is deteriorating fast. Or they expect a silk purse information on a sow’s ear budget, then 92.5% of a sow’s ear, then perhaps only the tail and the whistle.

As a result, we are busy cutting ourselves. When I say cutting ourselves, I don’t mean cutting back on monographs; I don’t mean leaving positions unfilled; I don’t mean cancelling programs, though we are currently doing all of that. I mean cutting ourselves the way that teenage girls cut themselves.

Taiga Has a Meltdown

The Taiga Forum is a gathering of library administrators at the AUL level. For anyone reading this who is not a librarian, I can explain that this stands for Associate University Librarian. Most large libraries have several AULs, and indeed, it has come to stand for “senior library administrator,” of which even I, when I served as Library Development Director, was considered a part.

In 2006 the first Taiga Forum was held in Chicago. Heady topics were discussed, multiple crises were addressed. In the end, a very dramatic statement was issued—the “Fifteen Provocative Statements”—which ricocheted around the Internet. The statements could be seen as a rallying call to the academic library community. Some of the statements had a revolutionary quality, and painted a lively techno-future for academic libraries. For example, “academic computing and libraries will have merged. The library will be a partner in the Learning and Research Support Services Infrastructure.”

But the future ain’t what it used to be. The fourth Taiga Forum was held in Denver in early 2009. I wasn’t able to attend, but all of us in the library community were there in spirit—or were at least curious about what would come out.

Taiga 4 issued a revised set of ten “provocative” statements. Their document reads like a suicide note:

February 20, 2009

All statements are prefaced by “Within the next 5 years…”

1. ... all librarians will be expected to take personal responsibility for their own professional development; each of us will evolve or die. Budget pressures will force administrators to confront the "psychological shadow" cast by tenure and pseudo-tenure that has inhibited them from performing meaningful evaluations and taking necessary personnel actions. Librarians who do not produce will be reassigned or fired. –

2. ... collection development as we now know it will cease to exist as selection of library materials will be entirely patron-initiated. Ownership of materials will be limited to what is actively used. The only collection development activities involving librarians will becompetition over special collections and archives.

3. ... Google will meet virtually all information needs for both students and researchers. Publishers will use Google as a portal to an increasing array of content and services that disintermediate libraries. All bibliographic data, excepting what libraries create for local special collections, will be produced and consumed at the network level. [Strikeout in the original document]

4. ... knowledge management will be identified as a critical need on campus and will bedefined much more broadly than libraries have defined it. The front door for allinformation inquiries will be at the university level. Libraries will have a small information service role.

5. ... libraries will have given up on the "outreach librarian" model after faculty persistently show no interest in it. Successful libraries will have identified shared goals with teaching faculty and adapted themselves to work at the intersection of librarianship, information technology and instructional technology.

6. ... libraries will provide no in-person services. All services (reference, circulation, instruction, etc.) will be unmediated and supported by technology.

7. ... libraries will have abandoned the hybrid model to focus exclusively on electronic collections, with limited investments in managing shared print archives. Local unique collections will be funded only by donor contributions.

8. ... library buildings will no longer house collections and will become campus community centers that function as part of the student services sector. Campus business offices will manage license and acquisition of digital content. These changes will lead campus administrators to align libraries with the administrative rather than the academic side of the organization.

9. ... the library community will insist on a better return on investment for membership organizations (e.g., CRL, DLF, CNI, SPARC, ARL, ALA). All collaboration of significance will be centered around either individual entrepreneurial libraries (e.g., HathiTrust, OLE), or regional consortia.

10. ... 20% of the ARL library directors will have retired. University administrators will see that librarians do not have the skills they need and will hire leaders from other parts of the academy, leading both to a realignment of the library within the university and to the decline of the library profession.


I have to confess that many of us do not know what to make of this statement. It is beyond “provocative.” It is an SOS. It’s as though our colleagues got into a room together, shared their symptoms, and realized that they were dying.

Now I wonder why? Let me see…. The last time I checked:

· Our collective average student gate-count was continuing to go down

· Book-borrowing was continuing to go down

· Walk-up, face-to-face reference questions are way, way, way down

· Faculty in the hard sciences say they don’t need us

· Many of our students will say when asked, that they “don’t use the library,” even though they, and our faculty, and our researchers use our digital assets in huge gulps and constantly want more.

· Academic library budget allocations are flat, or being cut, or perhaps just keeping up with CPI but not with the Academic inflation rate, and certainly not with the scholarly materials inflation rate. Simply put, this means that each year we are able to “buy less with less.”

· Electronic resources are costing us more and more each year. The average rate of cost increase is 8%. Soon, very soon, the cost of these resources will exceed our entire acquisitions budget. Run it out several more years and the cost will exceed the entire library budget.

· In order to afford these licenses, we are constantly cutting back on scholarly monograph purchases. The average sales figure for an academic book has plummeted from 900 copies (mostly to academic libraries) to less than 300 (mostly to academic libraries). This is killing our university presses.

· Many of the coolest new information developments are happening outside the libraries.

· There are people on campus doing something called “informatics.” They don’t work for the library.

And so on and so forth.

Gloom and Doom

Sorry to paint such a gloomy picture of the academic library. I am not saying something we don’t already know. To put it into a nutshell: most academic libraries most of the time get little respect, scant attention, and not enough money to even keep doing what we have been doing. On top of this, we have a pretty good idea of what the information revolution is doing—and will do—to the entire university enterprise. But nobody wants to hear what we have to say.

And on top of that, we are being raped by the largest information aggregators, whose quasi-monopoly over the top academic resources allows them to dictate their price. Every year they abuse us; every year we have comply with their unreasonable demands. The absurdity is that they are selling us our own stuff! Our faculty and our researchers created the content in the first place!

The result: anger, depression, frustration, withdrawal, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, suicidal thoughts and gestures. It’s all there in the 2009 Taiga statement.

This process has been going on for years. It did not arise as a result of the recent economic downturn, though this has certainly made things worse.

And yet, ironically, the recession may be one of the best things that has happened to us in decades.

Part 4--When the going gets tough…..

…the tough get going.

The first time I heard this phrase, I couldn’t quite figure out what was being said. The biographer of Joseph Kennedy says that the scion of the Kennedy clan used to give this advice to his children when things got difficult. Don’t give up, he was saying, gear up and do something!

Academic librarians need to take the same advice. For years we have been feeling that times have been hard for the libraries. Well, now the going is getting really tough: cutbacks in allocations, hiring freezes, and layoffs at even the tippy-top of the ivory tower. Yale, Stanford, Harvard—all pulling in their belts. Yikes!

Managing in Hard Times

When Depression-force winds are blowing, it is natural to seek shelter and hunker down until the storm has passed. This is true whether you are a business, a university, or a university library. As a result we see examples everywhere of cost-cutting, belt-tightening, and the blunt instrument of across-the-board reductions.

The library world is abuzz with tales of woe: engineering library closed, digital scanning program abandoned and staff laid off, deeper cuts in scholarly monograph purchasing, journals cancelled, travel banned, salaries cut, new projects put on the shelf.

What will we find when we emerge from our root cellar in 2-4 years? Perhaps that our entire house has blown away!

There is a contrary line of thought. It goes like this: When the economy gets really, really bad, this is the perfect time to re-think and re-organize your entire enterprise. Forget incrementalism—the death by a thousand cuts—take a radical look at everything you do, every job description, department, service, physical operation, strategic and tactical assumption, and reinvent your business. You may just emerge stronger, lighter, better—and ready for new opportunities and challenges.

Within every organization there is resistance to change. Individuals want to hold on to their jobs, managers want to hold on to their department, senior administrators want to keep their mandates and their budget and their physical turf and their overall plan for the future. There is thus a strong “conservative” drive, and if cuts are going to happen, they should happen elsewhere in the enterprise.

This is even true in the library world, despite the fact that librarians tend toward the saintly, self-effacing, non-ego-driven end of the academic scale.

But when the entire enterprise is threatened, this kind of thinking has to be put aside. We must hang together, and stop hanging separately.

Libraries and Change

Academic libraries have been among the most adaptive, far-seeing units on campus. We were quick to migrate from paper-based inventory control (the card catalog) to computerized systems. Imbued with a “let’s get it in case our scholars need it” mentality, we purchased information in new formats—microfilm and microfiche, CD/ROM, VHS, CD, DVD, networked database, Internet portal, streaming audio and video services, and so on.

We encouraged faculty to experiment with these new tools, and we ran thousands of training sessions for our students, grad students, junior faculty (and offered individual training to senior faculty who might feel embarrassed to be seen among the unknowing). We created computing labs, learning labs, learning environments. We even relaxed our food policy and opened cafes!

We have become the “information broker” for the entire campus. We gave true meaning to the phrase “one university,” when others were barely paying lip service. When we purchased database licenses for our scholars, we insisted that this information be accessible to all of our scholars, across the range of disciplines. Thus business databases were not restricted just to business students; chemistry just for chemists, and so on.

We formed alliances with other libraries to share cataloging duties, and constructed a world catalog of our resources. We established joint purchasing consortia. We streamlined interlibrary loan, so that our scholars could get books faster and cheaper. We perfected digital document delivery. We scanned and mounted readings and multi-media content on courseware websites.

And during the past 15 years we have navigated the demands and fears of the faculty—our most demanding (and powerful) clients. We had to satisfy the faculty member who said that he had never learned to use a computer and didn’t intend to start at his age; the faculty member who demanded that a certain journal always be available, in paper, down the hall at her departmental library where she could walk down and scan its table of contents to keep up with her field, and now the faculty member who claims that he “never uses the library,” even though we are spending millions of dollars to supply him with access to thousands of e-journals.

Needless to say, being a “hybrid” library—one that straddles the paper-based world and the electronic world—has been expensive and awkward. But we have done it!

But now, as I said in Chapter 1, it is time to say goodbye. Goodbye to the “old” library and hello to the new, electronic, “minimalist footprint” library.

Even so, the embrace of the digital library won’t save the library.

Part 5—The Library is Dead…

University Presidents and University Provosts have often eyeballed the library as a place where one might save an occasional buck. If you work for a State University, then you know that State Legislators entertain similar fantasies.

We sometimes worry that these leaders “don’t get it” when it comes to the impact of computerization on our libraries. Well, they get it!

What they get is this:

· The marginal cost for creating one additional copy of any digital work is effectively zero dollars and zero cents;

· The cost for distributing a digital work to one person or ten million people is trivial;

· Books are rapidly being digitized;

· Journals are being digitized;

· Students, faculty, and researchers increasingly get their information from the digital library in preference to the physical library;

· Students, faculty and researchers increasingly share their new knowledge via the Internet that is, by digital distribution;

· The cost of hardware, software, middleware, and digital storage appears to be in constant decline;

Ø Therefore: Perhaps the library-as-we-know-it can be dismantled, maybe even abolished.

Ø Therefore: We can save money.

Ø Therefore: When my Library Director tells me that she needs MORE money to keep the library running, and to serve the needs of students, faculty, and researchers, she must be (a) hopelessly out of date, or (b) featherbedding, or (c) a terrible manager.

Academic librarians have been fighting a rear-guard action against this kind of technophoria for the past 15 years. I won’t go into chapter and verse, but among the sobering points we have made are:

1. Digital information is not cheap. In fact, the companies that control this information enjoy a virtual monopoly and are gouging us at the rate of 8% per year.

2. Digitization is not cheap. A high-quality scan of a 300-page book will cost at least $60, and we are talking about at least 30,000,000 titles out there—and in all languages in all the world, over 100,000,000. Do the math. We’re talking $6 billion, and that doesn’t count storage.

3. Digitization is not preservation. In fact, the most reliable format for preserving the information contained in a book is…a book! No lasting digital format or preservation medium has been identified, and even if it were, the cost of regular migration and adaptation of data will far exceed the initial cost of scanning and storage.

4. Enormous quantities of new information are being generated, and our scholars want it all. Think of the genomic library; the National Virtual Observatory; ArtStor, and on and on.

The net result of this “conversation” seems to be mutual frustration. Administrators and legislators are convinced that all this high-tech stuff should be saving them money, and librarians feel unheard, unappreciated, and unsupported.

On the library side, we will have to admit that the march of new technology is indeed bringing us ever closer to the Great Library in the Sky. That is, to having all scholarly information available in digital form, and accessible via the Internet. We also have to admit that we didn’t expect Google to come along and make a successful business out of searching for information. And that Google would get so fabulously rich in the process that it would scan 7 million books without worrying about the cost and be willing to spend hundreds of millions more to get everything.

I will discuss the serious flaws in the Google Books program, in a later chapter. Even so, we do need to recognize that the old library is dying, and a new information regime is taking over. As the French would proclaim, when the old king was placed in the grave while the new one stood alongside: Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!

Yo! Time to Roll!

The Microsoft spellchecker tells me that “Yo!” is not a word, even though Rocky Balboa brought it from Philly to the world in 1976. Yo! means “Hey you!” It means Stop and pay attention!

And “Time to Roll” means that it’s time to get moving, get the wheels turning, and unleash the power of our crack brigade of hot-eyed librarians.

In Part 4 I argued that this was not the time to hunker down and wait for the economic storms to blow over. I believe that now is the time to transform the library. This will not be easy. It won’t be fun. Re-birth is probably as painful as birth itself, and we will have to do some screaming to clear our lungs and get attention.

Our first objective is to get ourselves properly positioned. Here goes:

Seize the High Ground: Academic libraries have to stop arguing with those who are espousing the wonders of technology. We have to take the lead in proclaiming the death of the old forms, and the advent of new forms and fantastic new possibilities. We need to press for the development of a university-wide “Information Strategy,” and if the Provost or President won’t lead the effort, then we need to lead it, and inform them what it should be and where they should be making strategic investments. Enough of this “After you, my dear Alphonse,” stuff.

Cyberinfrastructure, cyberinfrastructure, cyberinfrastructure! Get used to saying it, explaining it, advocating it. We humans are busy creating a global information cyberinfrastructure. When it comes to scholarship, the research university is on the forefront of this development, and the academic library should be the core unit for interpreting, developing, and guiding this massive construction program. (Any librarian who doesn’t know what I am talking about needs to do some homework. Start at these two places: 1. 2. )

Take Back Academic Publishing. The academy needs to take back scholarly publishing. We have allowed commercial vendors to create monopolies over many of our critical journals, and we need to take them back. This in a “no quarter” situation. We should stop begging for a slowdown in price gouging. Elsevier and the like need to be driven out of this business. It is our business. (For bulletins from the battlefront, see: and )

Stop Trying to be Harvard. Let’s admit it. We all want to be Harvard. Rich, famous, world-leading. It is the ultimate Academic Brand. For academic librarians, Harvard—and maybe Yale and Princeton—are at the pinnacle of the profession. They can buy whatever they want, and keep it all! Their librarian-to-student ratio is stunning. They lunch with faculty and share tidbits of erudition. How cool is that?

Funny thing: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can’t afford to be themselves any longer. Like trust-fund babies, they have been living off their endowments for decades. Now times are tough. Perhaps there will be greater willingness to “hang together.”

Let Go of our Books. Research libraries have always believed that they should hold on to any book that has the least shred of academic value. We have rightly prided ourselves on this commitment to preservation and scholarly access. But we really don’t all have to keep everything. We really don’t each have to pay millions of dollars each year to each maintain low-use book storage facilities.

New scanning and print-on-demand capacities allow us to dramatically consolidate our holdings. Perhaps ten regional preservation and access libraries are needed for all of North America—certainly not 130! If the University of Chicago wants to be one of the ten, then all props to Chicago! We should establish a system for paying Chicago, and Harvard, and the other eight, to keep books on behalf of us all. If we want to see the book itself, to study it as an artifact, then there can be circulating copies, or we can travel to what will in effect become “museums of the book” and wallow to our heart’s and mind’s content. Those who simply want the text, drawings, illustrations—the content—will do fine with a high-quality online version, or a high-quality print-on-demand version.


So enough with the grand principals. What, exactly, can an academic library do, right now, in these tough times, to get itself into fighting trim? In Chapter 1 I gave a quick outline of what steps should be considered:

· Get out of Real Estate

· Get in to or get out of the Book Storage Business.

· Get out of the book-buying business—only buy books when they are requested.

· Re-deploy your people

· Focus on the delivery of digital resources, services and tools

· If you have unique collections, treat these collections as invaluable assets for teaching and research that can be touched, analyzed, worked with.

All well and good, but what’s a particular library system on a particular campus to do?

An Action Plan

Here is one bold action plan. If you don’t like it, make up your own:

· Declare to the campus and the world that the next four years is a time of radical “re-tooling.”

· Ask the Provost and Deans for a guarantee of steady-state funding for this period (even if we close their library facility)

· Continue to provide and enhance digital services.

· Have the Library Director lead a team that meets with each Dean and key faculty leaders to develop a new model for information service. The hallmarks of this service will be:

o Minimal footprint

o Digital delivery of resources and services

o Virtual customer support

o Flexible staff who are constantly re-training, constantly in dialogue with faculty, embedded in the research and teaching process

· Focus professional staff on digital services, training, planning, and re-tooling.

· Re-deploy staff to develop new-model information-partnerships with the schools.

· Reduce the number of staff, dramatically raise pay, recruit talented people who are ready to become information partners with faculty.

· Reduce or eliminate storage facility.

· Get out of the “study hall” business

· Reduce stack areas.

· Close all libraries except those that are specifically endorsed and supported as “crossroads libraries.”

· Recast your “main library” and your “crossroads libraries” as Learning Labs.


This is a bet-the-company gamble. You say to the Administration: Keep funding us while we work with you to completely re-think information services for your faculty, researchers, and students. After four years, we will either have a new "information service" that you and your people believe in, or you get your money back in year 5 and figure it out yourself.

In addition, the Library Director and the Provost and the President should all undertake a major offensive to re-capture the field of scholarly communication:

· Work with the Federal Government (NIH, NSF, NEH), other academic institutions, and the soon-to-be launched Book Rights Registry to re-capture and re-conceive scholarly "publishing" (i.e., scholarly communication).

· Promote the SPARC agenda

· Embrace, advocate,and support Sustainable Open Access initiatives.

· Partner with others to develop a new non-profit scholarly publishing entity that can serve as an alternative to Elsevier and its ilk (see Chapter 12)

In Sum: Time to Say Goodbye. And Hello.

La Bibliotheque est mort. Vive La Bibliotheque!