The perilous state of public higher education is accepted as some kind of natural condition by many who have grown accustomed to the news of tuition hikes amid complaints from university officials that the economic model is broken. But this time the problems are far from exaggerated and the weakening support for public education by states with eyes on falling tax revenues and aging residents is taking its toll in tangible ways. Today we learn that LSU is planning cuts across the board to save $3m annually, and among the targets are the School of Library and Information Science, with the MLIS threatened with closure.. It’s difficult to imagine how the university foresees the closures of this program, along with some 20 others, including the Williams Center for Oral History, The Education Policy Research Center and the Office of Community Preservation in the College of Art & Design, can be worth the price. If a university can deliver such programs for $3m a year then they seem to have basic business planning down to a fine art (or else they have been starving the units for years, with one end in mind). I can’t speak for all those units but the SLIS program has 10 faculty, including an endowed professorship, a joint degree with Systems Science, and offers the only ALA-accredited degree in the state of Louisiana. It’s difficult to see how the loss of this program advances the university or the state at a time when the world is swimming in data and needs information professionals more than ever. Of course, the timing of this is doubly ironic when the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a forthcoming longitudinal study across cultures which reveals book ownership and access at home as the strongest predictor of academic achievement in a person’s life. More on that study in a future post. For now, we need to recognize that public universities in this country are facing a squeeze in their resources that makes unit and program closures more likely. The savings that result may or may not be real (large complex organizations are by their very nature unpredictable), but the consequences will be, and it will take decades to recapture what may be lost. Once we slip down the self-support road, universities will be home to large business and engineering units which can usually sustain themselves with outside support from industry, but will offer only the humanities and social science programs at the margins. Education is not only a business, it’s a commitment to society, a contract between state and university to think, reason, and share insights for the greater good. That message is in very real danger of being drowned out, and with it, the very mission of public higher education in many states.
Archive for May, 2010
It’s been a while since I checked back with the Taiga forum and I find the site now largely locked down to members, but there are some updates for others to see. The most recently available in their series of “provocative statements” (TM) can be downloaded (see the pdf link in the bottom left corner) and it contains a few gems such as:
In 5 years, library buildings will no longer house collections and will become campus community centers that function as part of the student services sector. Campus business offices will manage license and acquisition of digital content. These changes will lead campus administrators to align libraries with the administrative rather than the academic side of the organization.
collection development as we now know it will cease to exist as selection of library materials will be entirely patron-initiated. Ownership of materials will be limited to what is actively used. The only collection development activities involving librarians will be competition over special collections and archives.
There’s a couple of duds in there too, in my view (and theirs too, since they lined out the one predicting Google meeting everyone’s search needs), such as the predictions that 20% of ARL directors will have retired by 2015 or, the truly outrageous idea that the library community will insist on better ROI from organizations such CRL, ALA etc…..as if!
That said, it’s good to see some direct and clear statements on some of these issues, though one wonders if the motivation to provoke discussion is somewhat negated by the controlled membership structure involved. I was reminded to check the forum again by Sarah Glassmeyer’s defense of libraries in May’s issue of the AALL Spectrum where she accuses too many people of throwing in the towel too quickly. She reports the Dean of Libraries from a well known university as stating up front in a recent conference that the ‘library, as a place, is dead’. (Suzanne, was that you?) And she offers a good retort to Seth Godin’s implications that libraries have become irrelevant, drawing solace, like many before her, in Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science. Ah, we have laws to prevent this kind of thing…..good to know!
Another survey, this time the fourth of the three-yearly Ithaka studies of faculty perceptions of their libraries, suggests all is not well. Without putting too fine a point on it, the authors state up front:
Since the first Faculty Survey in 2000, we have seen faculty members steadily shifting towards reliance on network-level electronic resources, and a corresponding decline in interest in using locally provided tools for discovery.
What follows is a colorful presentation of data that is wrapped up in suitable contemporary jargon (network-centricity, digitized resources etc.) that paints a picture which is not as bleak as some are interpreting it. Surprise surprise, faculty don’t like to leave their desks, know how to find stuff with Google, prefer domain specific to generic databases, follow links from articles, like full-text ejournals. In short, all the design features that we have been advocating for years such as ease of access, direct readability, linked documents, full coverage etc. are proving to be important to people.
Where the survey might be posing some more challenging thoughts is the shifting view of academic libraries as less the gateway and more the purchaser, though this has always been a role that academic libraries played. The shift seems sharpest among scientists, who unlike their colleagues in the humanities, report less value in the library for teaching, research, or even archival purposes, and appear to just want libraries to buy the materials. I have some doubts about this. The data are not provided which might explain how scientists imagine teaching materials of the future to be provided or how they foresee the scientific record being curated, though this surely is an issue of very real concern to many that I know, as confirmed by the results in section three, so I suspect the wording and terminology in some questions might be crucial here.
We do see faculty becoming more and more comfortable with electronic only versions of holdings. Much is made of the media shift from paper to digital but this also points to the continuing value placed on provision and curation through time. More and more faculty seem willing to trade off paper (even seeing it ‘discarded’ in terms used here) for reliable e-versions as we move forward, but this should not surprise us. Yes, 40% of respondents agree with this, but the key issue for faculty is availability, and that is a role the library has long fulfilled. Long term preservation of the record is what matters, and faculty are wide-awake to the importance of ensuring electronic resources are maintained. But for those still seeking the e-book tipping point, for all the desire to preserve these, still relatively few faculty seem to use them for teaching or research purposes. Maybe there’s a publication market here?
Media shifts get the news but the constants of quality triumph. In a series of questions about publication venue, faculty care about readership by peers and reputation more than medium. While much noise occurs about the need to revamp scholarly publication systems, there’s little data here to suggest faculty are so concerned. The published paper, tenure-dossier approved, is the gold standard. Self-interest motivated publishing behavior and the survey authors seem a little concerned at the end that faculty are unwilling to lead a revolution in the publication paradigm. It’s interesting stuff but I am not sure any of it is surprising. What is surprising is the suggestion of commentators that this points to the irrelevance of libraries to faculty. Hardly so, would be my interpretation.