Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Time to Say Goodbye, Updated

This article reflects my own personal views, and not those of my library or university. Permission is given to pass it along.

Time to Say Goodbye

Updated with Comments

April 3, 2009

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 back office where tiny team of functionaries try to "broker" digital information for the campus--a virtual captive of the major commercial information vendors.

We all know the statistics. We know that we are consistently falling behind the rising cost of academic information, with no relief in sight, and little sympathy from provosts who are agonizing over campus-wide budget cuts.

Impending doom has a way of sharpening the senses. We have delayed making hard decisions for the past ten years, and it is only now--when we are in really difficult circumstances, when everyone can see that the old formulas are not working--that we may be able to marshal our forces and re-conceptualize the enterprise.

Somebody needs to blow the whistle on the current game. If we keep trying to play within the traditional rules and boundaries, we are goners. Time to say goodbye to the old library. Goodbye to our buildings, to our bookstacks, to our sense of self-worth through sheer bulk.

Passing Lane Principles:

We are losing the race, and badly. Therefore we need a “passing lane” strategy that jumps our library off the track, out of the stadium, and into a new incarnation.

I am going to share ideas about giving up and letting go—but also about picking up and setting out. Just an outline at this stage. But this will be enough to start a discussion and will in time lead to another iteration of this article.

Get out of Real Estate

Close as many libraries as you can.

Get out of the Study Hall business.

Your remaining facilities should be recast as "learning labs" or "learning environments."

Downsize or eliminate your high-density-storage facilities.

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

Convert your storage facility into a regional storage facility that is self-funding, or

Pay another institution to store any books that you absolutely have to own, and

Pay this institution to loan you books as you need them from their combined holdings, or

Have this institution scan any book that you need and produce your own POD copy, and give it to the patron to keep (you really don't want it back).

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

Keep only what is heavily used

Use "scan on demand" ILL services wherever possible

Use print on demand

Use in-house or nearby print-on-demand service for quick production.

Re-deploy your people

Get your people out of supervising the study hall, standing-behind-a-service-desk, giving directions to the nearest bathroom.

Retrain Librarians as “Informationists” or "Informaticians" or whatever new term breaks them out of the old mold. Your new librarians will be full members of academic research teams, or will "team" with individual scholars, including undergraduates. Many on your staff will have to become data curators, if not database creators.

Focus on the delivery of digital resources, services and tools

Continue and strengthen your role as Information Broker for the entire University

Emphasize training patrons in information-finding skills.

Emphasize digital self-help.

Emphasize collaborative tool-development with faculty

Emphasize collaborative resource-building, and resource-sharing with other Research Libraries

Emphasize physical and digital preservation of assets.

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).

If you have unique collections,

If you are treating them like museum pieces, then spin off a museum, or transfer them to a museum.

Otherwise, treat these collections as invaluable assets for teaching and research that can be touched, analyzed, worked with. This may become some of your most important work.

You can see where I am going. A stronger embrace of the digital. Letting go of the physical., in contrast to the local bookstore. Google, in contrast to the reference desk. Going in the opposite direction of the U. Chicago Library system.

There is nothing new in what I am proposing. Every idea has been proposed or at least floated by some of our most weighty colleagues. Most of these ideas are supported in the new CLIR publication, No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century.

The CLIR document provides the starting point for developing a game-changing strategy. Every academic library administrator should read this report, and have this knowledge in common as we move forward.


Send them to:


Added April 3, 2009

My article seems to have struck a nerve. It has been circulated widely, and I have heard kudos from many corners.

As I said, there is nothing new in what I am saying, or in what I have proposed in outline form. These ideas have been circulating within the academic library community, most recently in the CLIR study, cited above, but also in the Taiga forum. See:

However, it may be that something short and blunt is needed right now, so I am not going to expand the article above. I suggest that it be used as a provocative discussion-starter, and therefore ask my colleagues to keep passing it on.

In addition to compliments, I would also appreciate emails that suggest additions to my argument, and additions or amendments to my suggested “steps.”

I would also appreciate criticism and push-back. So if you disagree with my thesis, please write and share your thoughts!

Comments Thus Far:

The first comment that I want to share may in fact be a criticism, using heavy sarcasm. I wasn't sure.

Perfesser Corson-Finnerty,

I reckon that was some fine reasoning on your part, as usual. Are we saying that, a young [Cath'lick] traditional Liberal Arts institution like ours in this age could actually get away without an actual Library. (Our student FTE is 397 or so!) We have yet to get into any Digitization projects (no staff for it!), and we are just started to get into electronic resources (primarily with the indispensible help of the VIVA Consortium). We would never come close to affording any of it, without 'em! Though we are getting better!

Staffing is meager, I (qua director) am one of 2 MLS professionals -- with development, tech services [Cataloging, ILL, circ] duties, occasional Ref Services duties, etc. It can mind-numbing sometimes, but getting to know the students (& their information needs) on a personal level is "priceless"! Folks in the Administration building would love to hear some of what you're saying... So I'm hesitating to share it with 'em! Though I probably will, b/c you are right: it is the way things are going. And sometimes I feel like I may be (in spite of my relatively young age) obsoleting myself!

Thank you for your erudite and thoughtful presentations.

Cordially, XXX

ME: thanks for your note. i would say, in response to your question about whether a small college, or any college, "needs" a library -- the answer is "maybe."

I believe that 99.99% of our conversations about "the role of the library" begin with the library and then try to justify its existence. I would prefer--at least as a thought exercise--to start with this question: what are the information needs of my college/university? Are they being met? By whom or by what unit(s)? Are they *not* being met, or only partially met? Then what do we need to do to meet these needs? If you then end up creating one office to meet university information needs, that office will be the new "library." That's why I like the notion of "reincarnation."



Second Comment:

Thanks for the ALADN posting today. I'm new to this position (6 mos) and new to higher ed development in general, so your comments today were very interesting to me, and certainly were consistent with other messages we've been hearing lately. I have two clarification questions for you: Can you please define as best you can what people mean by "learning labs" and "learning environments" and contrast that against the "study hall" phenomenon you refer to. Also, how might such "learning environments" relate to the "learning commons" and cafe-type environments that are being implemented lately? I guess I'm asking how do you know when your learning environment is not a study hall? What does that look like?

As an aside, I have to mention that my mind reels with the similarities between the issues you are discussing and those of my former field, the newspaper business. The struggle for relevancy in the face of the exponential expansion of digital information -- it's just eerily familiar.

Thanks, XXX2

ME: thanks for your note. i will take the easy comment first: yes, like newspapers. like book publishing. like the music industry. we are all getting clobbered by disruptive technologies. This is a *good* thing for the public, but very hard on traditional institutions, including the library. Interestingly, some of the disruptive technology can play to our advantage: print-on-demand, for example. I attach a link to my article about micro-publishing and libraries that you will find of interest, given your background.

as for learning environments, that is a harder thing to describe. Let me take a short raincheck on this, and get back to you. In the meantime, look at our Weigle Information Commons site. This is becoming a national model for a multi-media learning lab in an academic library. But I need to be able to describe it, not just point you to their website. And we have other things in the works. I'll chew on this.

See also the NY Times article on our work with special collections:


Third Comment:

Dear Adam,

Thank you for sharing this. I agree wholeheartedly with your statements!

Dr. XXX3, Dean of Library Services
[ At a Northeastern University]

Comment 4:

Thank you, thank you and thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Best regards, XXX4, Development Director for the Library

[A state university in the West]

Comment 5:

Hi Adam,

I found your blog article extremely interesting. I think you really hit all the nails on the head, and I especially liked the “Re-deploy your people” and the “Focus on delivery of digital resources...”

I’m curious to find out what kind of response you’re getting from your colleagues...:-)

XXX5, CEO of Library Digital Services Company

Comment 6:


Thank you for the note. I had read your piece, which is enjoying widespread cover on the internet, and in fact sent a copy to my Board and staff. I hope your article is provoking some good, innovative thinking, as it should.

XXX6, Head of Library Consortium

Comment 7:

[The Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) comprises the libraries serving accredited US and Canadian medical schools]

Not quite a trend document but something to think about...
In my professional career Adam Corson-Finnerty has been one of the
bright lights.  He is not a library director but a library fund-raiser.
I met him through the Academic Library Advancement and Development
Network (ALADN) - one of the most helpful group of people I have ever
Met  Anyway, Adam writes on any number of topics but I think his best

efforts are on the future of libraries. If you read his essay below
you will hear a little of what many of us have been saying. What he
is proposing will not happen overnight but I do believe that any library
that depends on collections and walls to define itself is doomed
to failure. Link to
the CLIR document at the end of his essay.  Some interesting thoughts
there.  Let me know what you think.
M.J. Tooey, MLS, AHIP
Executive Director
Health Sciences and Human Services Library
University of Maryland Baltimore

Comment 8:

Dear Adam,

I was forwarded your article 'Time to Say Goodby' by an American colleague and was wondering if I could circulate it amongst academic librarians over here in the UK via the LIS-Infoliteracy mailing list as I think what you say should be discussed across this side of the pond.

I look forward to hearing from you




frumpy said...

hi. frankly i think taiga forum is a scam. it's sponsored by consultants and commercial entities pushing their own agenda--not the agenda of what higher education should be about. --ralph papakhian

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