When “Library” Is Not an Action but an Old Building – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

 I have heard reports of the demise of libraries and librarians since I first entered library school over thirteen years ago. I tend to not pay much attention to them, but in the last few months a couple articles followed by personal experiences have caused me a bit of concern. The first was Rick Anderson’s guest editorial in the Journal of Academic Librarianship (July 2011, 37:4) where he argued that we have valuable services, but students and faculty don’t really care. Second, was the blog post by Mike Shatzkin (http://www.idealog.com/blog/it-will-be-hard-to-find-a-public-library-15-years-from-now) where he argues that big picture trends are going to push libraries and librarians out of existance. I do not necessarily buy his entire argument, but after that I was shocked to read that there are one third less librarians today than there were in 1990 (An analysis using 120 years of census data by Sydney Beveridge, Susan Weber and Andrew A. Beveridge, http://blog.oup.com/2011/06/librarian-census/). I was astounded by this. But, the icing on the cake was the conversations I had with a few friends.

The first conversation was with my former roommate’s father-in-law. We were in Oak Park (Illinois) celebrating the third birthday of my roommate’s son. It was a warm July day, and the father-in-law and I were hiding in the shade with cold drinks. He is a researcher at a medical school at a major research university in the Chicago-area. Even though he and I are in very different parts of higher education, we always enjoy talking shop—budgets, grants, students, publications, research—always interesting conversation.

Naturally, our conversation turned to libraries, and I have to say I was a bit surprised when he asked, “So, will there even be a need for libraries in the future?” He asked it in a way that assumed there would not be. My shock must have shown, because he fumbled a bit and tried to say something reassuring.

I asked him if he used his library, and he said to me that he couldn’t remember the last time he had actually been in a library on campus. I asked him if he had used the library’s website. He said, “Oh, yeah. All the time. I search it constantly. Probably once a week at least.” For him, it seemed that the building was something different than the website, which were both something different from librarians.

To answer his question, I assured him that libraries were stronger than ever, virtually and physically. I told him that the articles he accesses in his office did not just magically appear out of the ether, but that there were people who had to make tough decisions about what to purchase. I also promised him that there were absolutely librarians on his campus who were dying to give him more help than he could possibly imagine. One phone call, one email, one visit and he would find the best research partners imaginable. I told him that he just needed to take the Pepsi challenge and give his librarians a call. He chuckled at this, and I am sure that he has not contacted anyone from his campus libraries.

I have thought much about this conversation over the last month. I have played it back in my head.  I am struck by the apparent disconnect in his mind between physical space, website, and library services. To me, these things are all critically intertwined into an essential service at the heart of the academic machine. To him, these are loosely connected entities, most of which he did not need since he had the convenience of the PC in his office. He did admit to me that he preferred to research in his office as opposed to home because “things just seemed to run smoother on the campus network.”

A few weeks later, my family went camping with some friends. Two of whom are researchers. One is an economist fighting his way through the tenure process at a major research university in the St. Louis-area, and the other is an atmospheric chemist who is an independent contractor that works closely with several university researchers. I asked them about their library use. They both agreed that the information they access regularly is not available for free on the web and that libraries were absolutely vital to their work. In fact, the chemist sheepishly admitted to me that he gets campus log in information from friends so that he can still get to expensive databases for free. However, they both agreed that they hadn’t spoken with a librarian (besides me) since they first entered graduate school. They assumed that librarians were on campus to work with undergraduates. I told then that was only part of our work.

Now, I am sure that libraries are not going to close up shop anytime soon, but I do think that there is cause for concern by those of us who hope to work in this profession for the coming decades. This concern was captured by Rick Anderson in his editorial when he said, “Eventually the term ‘library’ becomes an honorific attached to a building, rather than a meaningful designation for what happens inside it” (p. 290) For us, we offer services that we believe complement each other and provide a range of support for researchers. But, our patrons do not necessarily see it this way. As Anderson also said, “Value that is not valued is not valuable” (p. 289). Obviously, it is on our shoulders to continue to advocate and reinvent libraries to better serve our users. But, frankly, that’s what I feel like I’ve been doing for the last decade.

(By the way, you can read Gary Price’s response to Mike Shtzkin here, http://infodocket.com/2011/04/07/the-globe-and-mail-mike-shatzkin-in-montreal-libraries-dont-make-sense-anymore/.)


Troy A. Swanson is Teaching &Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

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8 thoughts on “When “Library” Is Not an Action but an Old Building – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson”

  1. Two things about this post stand out to me. The first is your surprise that library patrons don’t equate the library website with the library building or the librarians working inside. For regular Web users, the physical artifacts of institutions — the library building, the university classroom, the printed New York Times — are increasingly rarely used. Ask a college student at any level of study.

    The second is that you apparently know so little about the patrons of your library or libraries in general. Perhaps the biggest change librarians need to make — and are starting to make — is to think less about all the things we offer patrons and think more about what patrons need and want. We forget that value is not defined by librarians’ traditional standards or by objective criteria, but by the subjective views of the people who would use our services and fund our institutions.

  2. Michael – I believe Dr. Swanson has a great grasp of the expectations and paradigms of his library’s users as well as library users in general. His research surrounding building student community with blogs points toward the possibility for engaging pour user effectively with social media. His dissertation is a fascinating read – grounded in theory and sound methodology.

    What Troy describes here is a thought process guided by some influential recent posts and articles.

  3. I think one problem with “advocating” and “reinventing” library services is that no matter what one or several libraries do, libraries are still not a franchise with top-down administration like say, Starbucks. They have a clear service offering and a consistent brand. Library services core offerings do need to be reinvented and articulated, but trying to shed centuries-old associations takes a unified front. We cannot depend solely on the hope that people will recognize our value. Advocate? Well, yes. But we need to do more. We need to sell it. It needs to be an aggressive sell that relies on marketing research, not just “perception” research. So many companies sell trivial products and services successfully–why can’t we?

  4. I’d like to invite Dr. Swanson to participate in our Reimagine Ed August 2011 Design Challenge which relates to some of the themes in his post–now that you’ve identified some of the challenges and problems, how do you address it? How do you go about disrupting those perceptions in a real and authentic way? How do we make library a verb and more than an old building? Share how you’d take on this challenge at http://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/enchantment-the-reimagine-ed-august-design-challenge/.

    Buffy Hamilton

  5. The INFOdocket link doesn’t work.

    I can’t help but wonder if the scenario that is described at the academic level isn’t at least somewhat different at the school level, although the pounding that librarian positions are getting in the current economic stress may make this a reality sooner than later.

    Are librarians going to be reduced to the man behind the curtain? “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

  6. The library building and the library website are just tools — as librarians we are still struggling conceptually with the fact that the building is a much less important tool in the digital age than it used to be. At my university we’re working hard to reconfigure the building space so that it’s a comfortable, congenial space for students to study, socialize, work in groups and find quiet solitary spaces, but it simply does not need to play the central role it did a couple of decades ago and the better job we can do of making it unnecessary for the faculty to come to the building the better.

    That means we need to develop mechanisms for engaging with faculty and with students in their daily lives — not just in labs and classrooms, but in offices and dorms and hallways and lounges. We need engagement at a much more fundamental level than librarians have tended to have in the past. We need to be visible in ways we never thought we needed to be before. (Example — my librarians have “office hours” for the schools they serve (all health sciences) — they spend a few hours a week in a student lounge or at a table in a heavily trafficked hallway. Sometimes they answer a question or two, sometimes they just have general conversation, sometimes they just joke around. But they get to know each other. The librarians find out more about what the students (and faculty) are really dealing with, and the students & faculty find out about the kinds of things we can actually do. Building these relationships effectively takes years.)

    The most disturbing line in Dr. Swanson’s post is this: “I also promised him that there were absolutely librarians on his campus who were dying to give him more help than he could possibly imagine. One phone call,one email,one visit and he would find the best research partners imaginable. I told him that he just needed to take the Pepsi challenge and give his librarians a call.”

    I hope that I’m over-interpreting what Swanson is saying and that the image this calls to mind of lonely librarians sitting near the phone like forlorn high school seniors waiting for a date is not at all what he means. But it’s not that faculty member’s job to make that call — it’s our job to find out how to be in his space, getting the word to him about how we can become that best research partner.

    This is hard. Very hard (and depending on the institution may be damned near impossible). But there are loads of examples all across the country of institutions where librarians are making this kind of leap. Getting there does require a conceptual shift that recognizes that for many groups on our campuses the building IS irrelevant — and that’s okay as long as we’re willing to go to them. In person.

  7. Basic first thoughts — speaking to a medical / science professional in this blog post I don’t think it’s any deep dark unknown about the differences in medical/sci/ tech fields and how those collections & library services have changed oh since the 1990s I’d say…. I wouldn’t give the impression that today’s libraries or librarians don’t know that difference already. I wrote about this back in 1999 the subject disciplines make a difference. Our academic libraries are also different in these disciplines. This seems to give a certain “impression” that libraries and librarians dont’ already know something. hmm wonder why
    What do you think about the new library at the University of Illinois Chicago that was featured in the Chronicle a few months ago & on YouTube which was one of the most popular videos in the edu domain focusing on actual “print” research collections at an academic research library. just one example that comes to mind. Cheers, Karen Weaver

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