Revive the university library
The university library is threatened.
At first glance, the challenge facing libraries is simple: decrease funding. In an age when universities and colleges are strapped for funds, developing archival, book, journal and electronic collections costs money. Libraries therefore face the same challenge as other academic units – humanities, social sciences, the classroom in general – which depend on rather than generate income.
The difference is that across the country, the deans of libraries are giving up the fight and changing their mission rather than fighting to save an important academic institution. Rather than being clear about why we need academic libraries, library leaders instead seek to become vague learning environments that, in short, are nothing more than computer labs with sofas and coffee.
However, declining funding is not the only problem. Equally important is the emergence of professional fields that seek to turn academic support institutions into an end in themselves. At all universities, positions once held by academics have been taken over by professions increasingly related to autonomous fields such as student affairs, higher education administration and library science. The result is that academic support units are accountable to these areas rather than to the basic goals of the academy.
There is a paradox here. In each of these areas, their advocates claim to put students first. In fact, they undermine student learning by removing the focus on the classroom. The argument for transforming the library, for example, is that it will better promote student learning even if it means giving up its main purpose.
The emergence of the field of librarianship combined with declining funding created the perfect storm. Deans of libraries are realizing that unless they can claim to be the center of the university, a foundational learning site for students, an end in itself, declining funding threatens their very existence. They draw on the field of librarianship to suggest that the library needs to be transformed. According to Richard E. Luce, director of academic libraries at Emory University, the library does not exist as an archive of human knowledge but “as a place [for students] to connect, collaborate, learn and really synthesize these four roles together. How do you do this without bricks and mortar? “
But, of course, this is not true. The classroom is where students connect, collaborate, learn, and synthesize, under the guidance of faculty who are ultimately responsible for teaching. Students can continue the process over a cup of coffee in the local college cafe, in their dormitory common room, or when they meet in the computer lab or library. The library exists as a means: to support class members, students and teachers.
What libraries need to do, and what faculty need to do, is revive the traditional mission of the university library.
The main objectives of the academy are to teach and produce new knowledge. Books, journals, music, and electronic access to online sources of information remain essential for undergraduates writing research articles or seeking to expand their knowledge. The search for graduate students and faculty depends on the depth and breadth of a library’s holdings. In the case of public universities, moreover, documentary holdings are important for citizens seeking to educate themselves.
The library is a means to an end: to enable students and teachers to access archives. This does not disparage the importance of the library. In fact, it reminds us of how important libraries are to the academy and, more generally, to a democratic society.
No matter what librarians offer in rhetoric, if they abandon their primary mission, they not only insult the dignity of library history, but they offer no reason for the library’s sustainability. After all, other services can be provided cheaper and better by student unions, residences, sports centers, computer labs and coffee shops.