Libraries

What Does an Unsuccessful Academic Library Look Like?

Yesterday, I started off the discussion with the question, “What does a successful academic library look like?” While there were a lot of people who read the post, no one left any comments. So instead of defining success, which may be harder to do; let’s define the negative and see what takes shape. Of course, we could say that an unsuccessful academic library is one that closes down, but let’s not jump to the end point. Instead, I ask, what are libraries doing now that reduces their potential for success?

Timothy A. Lepczyk

Tim is an instructional technologist and former librarian. On the side, he writes fiction and poetry, and publishes the magazine Scintilla. You can follow him on Twitter at @thirdcoast.

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14 Comments

Jacqueline

Kind of obvious but: a library that doesn’t like change. It seems to happen fairly often that administration signs off on changes but fails to sell them to staff. Disgruntled staff are then astonished/enraged that they have to learn a new software when they just learned one three years ago, or change a procedure that’s worked perfectly fine for the last twelve years.

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Timothy A. Lepczyk

Thanks for the response, Jacqueline. Would it be fair to restate your comment as one of perception? Is the problem with administration not selling change to staff or with staff seeing libraries as stable institutions that do not change often or fast?

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Jacqueline

Hmmm. Well, staff seeing libraries as ‘stable institutions’ is a problem in its own right!

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Grent

I’d add that the opposite situation is also just as likely — that staff doing the actual work are frustrated with antiquated systems. And the administration, lacking first-hand experience using these systems, and thus unfamiliar with the gross inefficiencies of such systems, will not lend their support to the modernization of the library’s technologies.

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Gillian Byrne

I still think you’re stuck having to define success in order to gauge lack of it, and that’s tricky. Libraries are publicly-funded institutions, and as such can tick along without being very good at a lot of things longer than for-profit enterprises. Off the top of my head, three characteristics of a mediocre (academic, that’s where I’m at) libraries:

– Lack of agreed-on vision – lots of libraries have vision statements, strategic plans, and the like, but when you look at the activities or talk to the librarians, they don’t line up.
– Trying to do “all the things”. Especially trying to do all the things the same way they’ve always been done. This is especially visible by looking at library depts/staff sizes. If the # of depts has grown without changes to other depts/staff sizes, they’re trying to do all the things.
– Working for the faculty without working with the faculty. Libraries that claim to be service oriented but have no integration into the research & teaching side of things are in big trouble, I think.

The first step in fixing a library is acknowledging the problems. I’m not sure a lot of libraries will have the leadership & motivation to do so until external forces become much greater than they are now, which may be too late.

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Timothy A. Lepczyk

Hi, Gillian, thanks for adding to the discussion. You raise three valid points and I’ll address them in three separate comments. One favorite book I recently read is Made to Stick. The book is about communicating “sticky ideas.” I bring it up, because it fits with the “lack of agreed-on vision.” If library leadership cannot effectively communicate their vision and mission, then there is no vision or mission. It’s just a bunch of words on a website that potential job applicants read.

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Timothy A. Lepczyk

Trying to do “all the things”: There are libraries that cut their losses and refocus. I’m thinking of McMaster University outsourcing their cataloging department. It’s controversial, but it might be a harbinger of future trends.

What do libraries do well? How can they best serve their users? This conversation needs to happen.

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Timothy A. Lepczyk

Working for/with faculty: This is another key point. How do librarians work with the faculty though? Is it a matter of attending department meetings, colloquiums, and events? Asking to be involved in classes? Do librarians need subject matter credibility? Is the onus put too much on librarians, without recognizing faculty attitudes toward academic staff?

While this relationship is important, it’s delicate to navigate.

I would love it if other librarians could chime in on how they work with faculty and comment on their experience.

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Ken

Working with faculty is easier now that I realize that it isn’t faculty that I need to initially advertise to, but that instructor’s students. When I engage with them, they certainly let the instructor know what I’ve been doing for them (serving them the program investment dollars in value). I then hit up the instructor in person, by email and even a nice letter with samples of the stuff I provided. It works better than initially trying to go through the faculty classroom management barrier.

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Margaret

I think the way librarians interact with faculty will vary by institution – and even by the individuals within the institution. Often, new faculty are very enthusiastic about library services, so I always try to talk to new faculty about what we can do for them and how they can work library services into their programs.

I love going to departmental programs, lectures, and events when I can. I get to see faculty, get to see the students, and always learn new stuff. It is a great way to stay up to date with the subject area and learn about new research in the field(s).

We are reducing the professional staff at our academic library and asking everyone to do more and more – and even asking people to do liaison work who are in other departments – so it is getting difficult to find time to do the enriching activities.

So I would add that a successful academic library has sufficient librarians for the number of students and faculty and those librarians are productive and content with their careers.

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