The inherent insularity of library culture?

Or is that the inherent insularity of academic culture in general?

Joshua Kim has some great observations (in context of a review of This Book is Overdue) (Amazon) about the great chasm of misunderstanding between the culture of the academic library and the broader academic culture.

As academia shifts and changes, as budgets squeeze, as millenials millenialize, it's a constant struggle to make the case for the library's role in academic life. It's hard to know both who our best champion's are and who our most determined opponents are. Sitting in the library talking to ourselves is probably not the best way to accomplish to figure that out.

I like Kim's straightforward, honest approach to figuring out what the heck we're all about. And I think it's worthwhile to unpack some of what he says.

The more time I spend thinking about the library world the more I realize how little I know and understand. I'm not sure if my lack of understanding is due to my own limitations of perspective (coming from a teaching and technology background), or due to some inherent insularity of library culture.

Ah, the $64,000 dollar question. It is most definitely our job to make the case for our role in academic life, to make the case for what we do for students, what we do for faculty and what we do for staff.

To the extent that the people we serve and work with don't understand what it is we do, it's completely our failure.

Is library culture inherently insular? To a large degree, yes. At the same time, I think all the various silos that make up the whole of academic culture are also to varying degrees insular. It's called the Ivory Tower, not the Ivory Commons, for a reason. It's not a coincidence that towers are silo-shaped.

So, yes, we are insular and it's totally our responsibility to make sure there's a broad understanding of our role across campus. Easier said that done, of course, but that's another post.

At the same time, universities would be better places if we all made an effort to understand what our colleagues are trying to accomplish. This is especially true of the various support units who I think often work at cross purposes. It's what I'm trying to get at with my embryonic Science Foo proposal.

A couple of recent articles that hopefully will help explain libraries to a broader campus community: The Place to Go: Libraries reinvent themselves to serve digital-age students and Gutenberg 2.0
Harvard's libraries deal with disruptive change

The fact that librarians are so engaged in rethinking their profession and institutions probably would not come as a surprise to any librarian, but to an outsider this is an eye-opening notion. You will have to tell me if this observations means that librarians should be spending more time talking and engaging to non-librarians about their ideas and plans for change and re-invention, or if non-librarians need to spend more time hanging out with our colleagues (at library conferences, library blogs etc.).

As I mentioned above, it is 100% libraries' job to make our case to other parts of the campus, not the job of other units to figure us out. If we're rethinking what we're all about (and we are), it's up to us to engage others in that exercise. On the other hand, there's nothing more boring that other people's navel gazing, so non-librarians can be excused for not being that interested in the gory details of our introspections.

That being said, it is completely our responsibility to get the hell out of our libraries and talk about what we are becoming within our campus context, to engage our communities in our reinvention so we can serve them better. It is also completely our responsibility to go to non-library conferences and talk about what we do and what we're becoming.

Of course, I have no objections to people outside the library world inviting their local librarian out for a coffee and sharing some ideas about the future. So all you faculty, faculty support, instructional technology and campus IT people out there, you can also feel free to share with us where you want to go too.

Given all that however, there are some complicating factors.

  • Size Matters. Libraries are usually quite small compared to other units in terms of professional staff. For example, we're 40ish librarians on a campus of 1200+ faculty members and 50K students. The branch library I work in has about 300 seats for a student body of about 6k. It's a challenge getting noticed.
  • Silos are us. As I said above, academia is pretty insular as a whole. It can be a challenge to get through to busy people who are deeply involved in the mission of their corner of the institution, whether it's an academic department or campus IT.
  • Competition rather than collaboration. Many of the different silos are set up to sometimes provide competing similar services. The ones that affect libraries the most are for services such as student space or for access to technology. To the degree that some of these services are truly zero sum games (or even just perceived as such), the incentive for these different units to understand each other and collaborate rather than compete and cut each other down can be hard to get across.

At the end of the day, I'm not as interested in my own potentially insular responses to the question as I am to exploring both the library's and the broader academic institutional culture.

So, my questions for all of you out there:

  • Is academic library culture inherently insular?
  • Is it more insular that other parts of the academy, be they faculty or other support units? Why?
  • How should librarians fix that? Are there specific things that we can do?
  • For you non-librarians out there, any ideas about insularity in academia in general or about how different units can reach out to each other and work on common concerns?

(My Job in 10 Years: part of the chapter on campus outreach)

More like this

Don't academic libraries go through strategic planning processes in which they get specific and targeted feedback from their customers? They should!

Don't the liaison librarians go to staff meetings and symposia in their departments? Join department listservs? Consult the departments every year with the inevitable cuts?

How could they possibly be insular and do their jobs? Who are they serving?

BTW - pinging on behalf of DrugMonkey who weighed in on his blog.

One problem we have had here at Small University Academic Library is in simply getting the faculty to talk to us.

We offer to come to Departmental Meetings, we invite them to discussions, we send them lists of journals that might be canceled, we send them lists of books we are planning to withdraw, we send them lists of books we are thinking of getting, we offer to prepare pathfinders for their classes, and so on - all to no or little response. And many of them persist in sending their students to look for materials we do not have, despite our repeated communications.

It is as if many faculty think that we are simply magical genies whose job is to fulfill their wishes by reading their minds. Perhaps we should try showing up at their Departmental meetings without an invitation.....

By Prof.Pedant (not verified) on 12 May 2010 #permalink

Thanks, Christina. Yeah, those are all things that libraries should be doing to reach out to other campus groups. And I imagine that most places are doing at least some of them. I was tempted to include a list of the kinds of activities that libraries could engage in but thought it might be too distracting from the main point.

Also, I suspect we tend to do better connecting with academic units rather than academic support or administrative units. That's a problem too as they are often the units that either influence the budget or offer "competing" services.

Prof. P, it not just SUALs that have those problems. It's all of us. I do liaison for several departments and some of them are great about including me in stuff. Others, I have trouble getting people to respond to my emails.

John - I think this is a great posting and you've raised some interesting points. For what it's worth, here are my two cents:

1) Stop going to library conferences and start going to disciplinary conferences, IT conferences (like EDUCAUSE) and educational conferences. We spend way too much time talking to each other and not enough time talking to our constituencies. Get to know what your campus is interested in, not just what your library wants to do or thinks it should be doing. If they start seeing you at their conferences they might start thinking about you as a partner.

2) Be willing to do something outside of your normal range. Ask the faculty "how can i help" but be prepared to do something that may not be your typical librarian duty. We're asking ourselves "what is the future of our profession" but I find that too often I hear "that's not librarianship". If we limit ourselves to that which is normally defined as librarianship we may be marginalizing ourselves. Think broadly.

3) If someone asks you to participate in something the response should be "yes, i'd like to participate, thank you". Dont over analyze it.

4) Don't fret if a faculty member doesn't return your calls. Find one who will and devote your time and energy to building that relationship. Eventually word will get out and others will seek you out as well.

5) Space is a valuable asset. Libraries have lots of space. Our physical collections will be declining. Offer space to partners where it makes sense. Invite your faculty development center into your library --- an honors program---a writing centre----etc. It's better to make the offer than to have space taken away, which will happen as others realize how little some of our spaces are used.

6) Partner with other non-academic units (marketing, development, etc). In particular, partner with your research services office. Tell them what you can do and they will link you to faculty. Again, word will get out.

I like your comment about knowing our chief supporters and our chief opponents. I think sometimes we are our chief opponents. As a profession we can be conservative and constrained by tradition. We need to get beyond that. We need to be creative and take risks. The future of our profession depends on it.

By Jeff Trzeciak (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

I think the whole issue stems from the fact that Librarians and Library services are taken for granted! For example take Power supply or Water supply.. We are so accostomed to regular supply that we don't EVER acknowledge the folks who work behind the screens! Aah.. If there is an interruption, we all join the chorus and yell at them..

After my Ph.D in Library Science I moved on to the technology side of board..This is why ( I think) our profession always thinks and re-thinks on our role (unlike other professionals)

i) Not sure how many of us agree - but in general our professinals OPPOSE change!

ii) Do not really know how to market/publicize our services. Organizations have something called "Technical Support", where in, staff are always ready to support via Phone/email to customers' calls/mails. Yes - we do some kind of Reference Service. How many of us are always on top of the technological advances and answers queries in a flash?

iii) Rather than waiting (?) for the faculty to come to us, why not we make it ESSENTIAL for them to seek our attention. Attractive & sensible bits of regular research such as the most cited articles in each subject, Most popular research areas etc etc (I think we should debate on these techniques) should adorn the librarian's corner. May be we can have some teasers like "Coming soooon" stuff..

To do all this, I suppose we should view publicity as a major part much like our other conventional house-keeping operations..