Saturday, April 09, 2011

Cassandra and the future of libraries without librarians

If you are a young man and you are clever, poised, articulate and full of promise, you are called a 'golden boy'  and everyone knows what that phrase means. If you are a young woman, wise beyond your years and able to see the best course of action for the future of your community, well, you don't exist because there is no equivalent cultural description for you in the English language. The closest I can come up with is this: Cassandra.

On that note, let me tell you a future.  It's a future of academic librarianship.

There once was a golden boy who became the University Librarian of McMaster University. He promised transformational change for the University Library and he followed through on his promise. He fired two librarians and set up the early retirement of five more. He then went on record that it was unlikely that no more librarians would be hired, librarians would be moved out of supervisory roles, and the work of the library would largely be performed by IT staff and postdocs.

And the conditions that made this scenario possible at McMaster are the same conditions that exist in almost every other academic library today.

The first reason why this de-professionalization is possible elsewhere is because in many universities, librarians do not have tenure or they are not unionized. Those who are in unions are not necessarily in the same union as faculty, and thus, hold less bargaining power. Those librarians who are in the same union as faculty are still not ultimately responsible for the library as library departments are not formalized like academic departments in the university governance structure (for example, in my own institution, the University Librarian Administrative Council acts like a department but is officially only an advisory body to the University Librarian). In other words, you can be an academic librarian with tenure and in the faculty union and you still might be fired.

The second reason why a library without librarians is possible at a campus near you is due to the disruptive nature of the digitized human record. The majority of the online material made available by academic libraries is now largely licensed through large contracts signed by members of library administration. Instead of acquiring and processing many individual periodical titles selected and curated by a librarian, the entire suite of titles from a publisher is licensed through a provincial or national consortium. Books selected for the library collection are still hand-picked but a future in which ebooks are acquired en masse with a payment made by a single signature is altogether possible. Furthermore, the work of the building and maintaining The Digital Library is, by and large, being outsourced to companies such as Proquest, as academic libraries collectively spend millions on products like Summon.

A third reason why librarians may become a endangered species is that the library is a cost centre that is paid for through the goodwill by the communities they serve. If your campus believes that the presence of librarians are not essential to the maintenance and growth of the academic library, then it doesn't matter how many librarians from other institutions howl in indignation about the travesty of it all.

What is to be done?

Well, I'm not Cassandra so I don't know. But I do have some ideas.

First and foremost, we need to support the librarians of McMaster. If you have the pleasure of meeting one, give them a lollipop* or buy them a beer. And if you are planning to attend the now doubly egregious The Future of Academic Libraries Symposium, you might want to ask some pointed questions about the future of librarians in the future of libraries.

Secondly, we must ensure as academic librarians, that our work become more public, more widely used and re-used, more deeply connected to the lives of our students and faculty, and that the work we do embodies the values of the best of librarianship, scholarship, and community.

And lastly, we need to recognize that the future of academic librarianship depends on strong leadership that is committed to librarians. I'm very fortunate that at my place of employment that I have a library administration that champions the work of librarians on campus. Still, if you are committed to the higher ideals of librarianship, you damn well better grab the brass ring lest it falls into the wrongs hands again.

On that note, I want to thank Amy Buckland for ringing the alarm and I especially want to thank Jenica Rogers for demonstrating tremendous leadership by calling out the unthoughtful actions of Jeff Trzeciak publicly.

* This is an inside joke between myself and adr. I don't mean to sound flippant.


Matt Ciszek said...

Thanks for adding to the conversation about Trzeciak's presentation at Penn State yesterday. I was looking forward to the presentation, and he presented some interesting ideas and projects that have been accomplished at McMaster.

He completely lost me when he laid out his vision for academic libraries: to strip them of librarians. To insist that PhDs would be better at performing the tasks of librarians or turning over the management of libraries to non-librarians were ideas I could not get behind. Thank you for adding to this debate as well.

art said...

Great post, as usual, and it is worrisome that there are warped perspectives on what makes the library and librarians relevant on campus. Libraries betray more than other organizations when they misstep on issues of equity and access. In addition to being disruptive, the trend towards outsourcing the digitized record seems almost contradictory. The vendor options have a lot of traction in cases where libraries can cut a check, at the same time, how libraries position themselves to work with initiatives in discovery from major search engines is probably an important strategy for the future. Surfacing book and article content is still vitally important to scholarship but there seems to be a real argument that we don't have to continue to direct so much of our shrinking resources toward achieving this goal. What I would like to believe is that libraries have an opportunity to work on the massive amount of content that gets missed by global indexing agents, in partnership with organizations that have obvious synergy, and that we can direct more attention to confronting the greatest information challenge ever, how to achieve a sustainable planet. Cory Doctorow's post on the always amazing Make blog about our species' capacity to commodify everything — even the anti-commodification of things strikes me as the kind of context that libraries should be helping to provide.

Mita said...

Just a follow up comment and a link that I think is relevant.

It appears that permanent librarian positions that are being replaced by temporary post-doc positions.

This presentation by Jeff Trzeciak and Rebecca Jones, a Partner @ Dysart & Jones Associates (found by John Dupis) sheds some insight to the organizational shift that is underway at McMaster.