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The changing face of academic libraries: Why less space does not have to mean less impact

Dr. Robert Schwarzwalder, Stanford University | Dec 28, 2011

Dr. Robert Schwarzwalder

After decades of expanding library facilities on American university campuses, the last few years have brought news of library closures and consolidations. While the economic turbulence of the last few years has accelerated this trend, I see it as the natural evolution of our profession. Whether we, and our profession, prosper or decline in the coming years will depend upon our ability to adapt to the changing nature of information access.

 

A staff member in my library recently received an enormous compliment from a graduate student in environmental engineering. Paraphrased, it read something like, “I can’t imagine how a preeminent research university could possibly exist without a reference desk.”

To me, this meant one thing: This student clearly understood the value of the library in his research and learning. But why? What had we done for him that he valued us so? And how can we communicate this value to others?

So, you want more money for your library? You are hardly alone.

Intensifying competition for diminishing academic resources may be the problem of the day, but it’s hardly a new challenge. As budgetary cycles ebb and flow, the strategies for successful advocacy remain surprisingly constant. The process of lobbying for funding is not easy, but it is quite simple.

The NYSHEI case study provides inspiration

Adequate funding is vital to keeping a library alive. Beihang University, formerly named Beijing University of Aerospace and Astronomy, has been undergoing a dramatic change from being a polytechnic to a comprehensive academic institute. This transformation is posing a big challenge for our library: We now need to raise additional funds to provide academic resources supporting newly built disciplines, such as bioscience, engineering, law, economics and literature.

In a word, lobbying for library funds isn’t easy work for a library director at this time.

Today’s academic environment can be both competitive and collaborative, and nowhere is this truer than in the area of grantsmanship. Faculty are increasingly judged at hiring, tenure and promotion time by the amount of grant revenue they generate for research efforts.

At the University of Minnesota, librarians conduct workshops on the effective use of online resources to identify possible funding sources. This is a joint effort of the university’s libraries and the Office for the Vice President for Research (OVPR).

During the recent ACRL 14th National Conference in Seattle, we presented a poster to share the highlights of our grant funding workshops. In sharing those highlights again, we hope to inspire other librarians to consider similar projects.

The backstory

Traditionally, extramural funding for a public research library has been applied toward “purchases of opportunity” (purchasing materials that will enhance special collecting areas), new collection endowments or enhanced user services. While specialty materials make the difference between an excellent library collection and an extraordinary collection, collection endowments fund certain areas of interest in perpetuity, and enhanced delivery of services helps provide greater access to materials.

Thirty years ago, a library consortium for which I worked was in dire financial straits. As I recall, we had a six million dollar budget and a three million dollar deficit. These numbers are so staggering that they seem unbelievable. But I remember clearly the words of the president of our organization as he addressed staff in this hour of crisis: “You will never manage as well as when you are operating under constrained resources.” This observation has echoed in my ears many times during my career.

"It does not matter at all how wonderful you are, how much service you provide, or what a great manager you are, if you do not have the budget under control. That really is the story. That really is, in the final analysis, how you will be evaluated.”
– A long-tenured ARL library director to a new library director

Return on investment (ROI) is one approach to demonstrating the value of the academic library to university administration and faculty. In this way, ROI helps in choosing the most effective ways forward for the library in tight economic times.

Together with measuring the implied value of library products and services (through patron usage) and assessing the explicit value of the library to stakeholders through testimonials gathered in interviews and focus groups, ROI can be a part of the ongoing assessment and measurement tactics that modern academic libraries must undertake.