College librarians: We are facing an 'existential crisis'

Jobs lost, tempers flare as libraries redefine themselves

Difficult questions over the future of the library—particularly at smaller liberal arts schools—is leading to more infighting among faculty, librarians, and administrators, Carl Straumsheim reports for Inside Higher Ed.

In interviews with several library directors, Straumsheim found anxiety over how to position libraries in a time of declining budgets and information overload. Terrence Metz, a university librarian at Hamline University, says "for the entire history of libraries as we know them—2,000 or 3,000 years—we have lived in a world of information scarcity," adding "now we’re living in a world of superabundance."

Libraries are going through an "existential crisis" says Amherst College Librarian Bryn Geffert. As a result, he says conflict is more frequent.

Read the study: Redefining your library's role in a digital age

Staff shakeups

Lisa Norberg, the dean of the library at Barnard College, resigned last month. Barnard's library is being demolished to make room for a $150 million teaching and learning center. As a result, the library's physical collection will shrink by thousands of volumes.

Faculty defended Norberg's decision, penning an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator saying she had been "disrespected" by the administration.

The Barnard example highlights how libraries have felt increasing pressure to justify themselves in the electronic age. "My sense is that administrators look at libraries as something that is easy to cut or easy to subsume under an IT department, because it feels as though when library materials become electronic, they are best managed by, say, an IT department," says Patricia Tully, a former librarian at Wesleyan University.

Tully was fired after less than five years after conflicts with the provost over how the library should function in the broader university community. "We just seemed to have different ideas about the role of the libraries," Tully says.

Budget hurdles

It all comes back to funding, the major issue underpinning these philosophical questions about the future of libraries. A recent study found that 90% of library administrators said funding was the primary obstacle at their institution.

In an effort to trim budgets, library administrators often turn to digital subscriptions—but these can erode their traditional place in the campus ecosystem. This is why some campuses have experimented with combining libraries and IT departments.

In two anonymous cases, Inside Higher Ed says administrators brought in directors to manage a combined library and IT department, only for those hires to be fired as the result of faculty pushback. "There was a perception that... I was fixing IT at the expense of the library," says one of the fired directors. "I think you’re even more vulnerable if you’re leading a merged organization."

Institutional challenges

There seems to be some agreement among observers that leading the library is becoming a more politically complicated job. "Librarians just have so many different constituencies they have to satisfy -- students, faculty, administrators, alumni, trustees," says Geffert. "My sense is often when things go wrong, it’s because the incumbent has not been successful in finding approaches or solutions that satisfied all those different constituencies."

Even so, others note that even if the job is becoming more complicated, the core functions of the library will be needed for some time. "There will be some institutions that decide that they don't need libraries," says Tully. "However, all the functions that now occur in libraries are going to continue to need to occur somewhere… The way we get information has changed, but our need for information and our need for guides to that information continues" (Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 12/10).

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