Monday, June 3, 2013

Look to the present of libraries to see the future

When I was doing research among children in Northern Ireland, one of my projects was to write against the notion that "children are the future."  Yes, children will live in the future, but they are also living in the present, and their behaviors need to be observed and interpreted as very much Of This Time.  We do them a disservice if we marginalize their importance to the world as it is now.

I feel that way about the recurring conversations about the Future of the Library (and in particular, "the death of the academic library").  There are things happening now in library-land that are important because they are happening now, not because of what they may or may not signal about the future.  And, if we speculate too much about "the future" we run the risk of missing important things that are happening now.

These thoughts are tied up with my lingering musings about ACRL 2013, and what I got from it.  The low-level hum of anxiety about relevance and engagement (between the academic library and the rest of the university) felt strange to me, given how engaged I see my colleagues at Atkins are in the current work of UNC Charlotte (and, how engaged many people at ACRL were in scholarship of their own).  It made me think of my colleagues in folklore and anthropology wondering why no one asked them for help/advice/expertise.  When the answer is, you don't wait around for them to ask.  You offer.  You act.  I see people offering and acting all the time.

In my experience and opinion (disclaimer:  I am not a librarian, even as I work in an academic library), libraries are far more than the resources we provide.  We who work in academic libraries are contract-negotiators, we are digital tool-wranglers.  We are fellow researchers with our own range of expertise, we are partners in the delivery of curriculum to our students.   We are not waiting around for someone to include us in their research project, or their classroom strategies.  We are doing our own research, and teaching in our own spheres of influence.  We are experts on how students and faculty do their work, and we are advocates for and providers of digital and physical spaces in which that can happen.  We are facilitators of interdisciplinary connections, we provide the places in which scholars encounter each other, work together, learn and explain old ideas, and brainstorm new ones.    We are champions of faculty and student copyright holders, and of open access and all that it can yield to the new landscape of scholarly production. We are humanists, we are scientists, we are social scientists.  We are the heart of the university.

If we continue to frame libraries as containing staff and resources that merely “help” the rest of the university, yes, we will marginalize libraries.  This is why it’s important to continue to advocate for faculty status of librarians, because it removes a perceived barrier between “faculty” and “Library.”  Academic librarians are doing faculty work, and are more properly conceived of as colleagues and partners in the university’s larger goals.   The question should not be, “what can I do for you?” but “What can we do together?” 


  1. Great blog. It seems to me that, in the largest sense, you are talking about the research library being an engaged institution rather than a passive one. I feel much the same way about the popular academic concept that the research we do here at the university should just exist and if the broader world is smart, it will find out about it and pay attention. The knowledge being generated at research universities, whether the research is basic or applied, matters and needs to be actively communicated with the outside world. It needs to try to "engage" (as we are saying a lot lately) with the world.

  2. Thanks, Jim, I agree that this is part of the larger conversation about how academia engages with the rest of the world. It's not enough to sit around and wait for it to happen, and then get bent out of shape when it doesn't.

  3. Fantastic post, Donna, and I couldn't agree more. My colleagues and I are busy doing things, sometimes in the library but often outside the library's walls on other parts of the campus. We have a window on the academic life of the college that's unique, and I find myself taking every opportunity I can to share that out to the campus community. When every seat in the library is taken (and not only during finals), how can we think of ourselves as marginal?


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