Thursday, September 24, 2009

University Libraries and Their Future

From today's Inside Higher Education . . . .

Libraries of the Future
September 24, 2009
NEW YORK CITY — The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.
That's what Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California System, told a room full of university librarians Wednesday at Baruch College of City University of New York, where the higher education technology group Ithaka held a meeting to discuss "sustainable scholarship."
“We're already starting to see a move on the part of university libraries... to outsource virtually all the services it has developed and maintained over the years,” Greenstein said. Now, with universities everywhere still ailing from last year's economic meltdown, administrators are more likely than ever to explore the dramatic restructuring of library operations.
Within the decade, he said, groups of universities will have shared print and digital repositories where they store books they no longer care to manage. “There are national discussions about how and to what extent we can begin to collaborate institutionally to share the cost of storing and managing books,” he said. “That trend should keeping continuing as capital funding is scarce, as space constraints are severe, especially on urban campuses — and, frankly, as funding needs to flow into other aspects of the academic program.”
Under such a system, individual university libraries would no longer have to curate their own archives in order to ensure the long-term viability of old texts, Greenstein said. “What is the proportion of a library budget that is just consumed by the care and cleaning of books?” he said. “It's not a small number.”
Greenstein said he expects universities to outsource other library duties as well. Cataloging can be contracted out to providers such as Google, he said, and research data services are increasingly springing up directly out of academic departments (Greenstein used as examples the Cultural VR Lab at the University of California at Los Angeles and the Environmental Information Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara). As individual libraries' archives and services shrink, he said, so will their staffs.
So too would their operating costs. In economic times such as these, Greenstein said, “reallocation practices are now not just good business practice, they are fundamental and essential if we are to preserve the integrity of the core academic mission.”
Some university librarians in attendance reacted coolly to Greenstein's presentation. “I don't think we need your office to reallocate funds in order to achieve the types of information services leadership and change which you described,” said James Neal, university librarian at Columbia University. “I think that if seed funding and empowerment were enabled within the libraries at most of our colleges and universities, we would find great capacity to build ... the types of changes that you outlined.”
“I think that's not a very accurate depiction of what I see happening at research libraries,” said Deborah Jacobs, deputy director of global libraries at Duke University. “I see the exact opposite happening, that libraries are taking on new roles — [such as] working with faculty in introducing technology into teaching... there's a lot more intersection with libraries and faculty than he would lead you to believe.”
Jacobs added that universities have already equipped libraries to provide the whole buffet of services at the level of individual campuses. It does not make sense, she said, to abandon that infrastructure and rely on outsiders.
Shawn Martin, a scholarly communication librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, said Greenstein's points largely rang true, but he doubted university libraries would transform on the 7-to-10-year time scale he suggested. “We already have a legacy of stuff that we have to do,” Martin said, “so just shifting funds quickly is a very difficult problem.”
— Steve Kolowich


Martin Weiss said...

This is interesting, and not unexpected. In telecom, we have dealt with shared resources for years because dedicated resources are expensive (this is one of the economic advantages of wireless over wireline communications, by the way, but that's another topic for another day).

If libraries want to maintain a level of availability for print materials, they need more copies when demand is high. As demand wanes (such as when the book becomes dated), even a single copy may be more than is needed. Thus, sharing resources more broadly makes sense. There are queueing theory models that can tell you how much resource you need for a given level of service ...

karen_w said...

There is a certain irony that UC Provost Greenstein is telling this to a group of librarians on the East Coast.

Meanwhile back on the West Coast we read a different view:

September 22, 2009
In U. of California Budget Crisis, Some Faculty Members See a Cover-Up

By Josh Keller
San Francisco

"The University of California is dealing with its worst financial crisis in decades and a very uncertain financial future. But its leadership has another problem: convincing many of its employees that the situation really is as bad as it looks."

"As thousands of faculty members, staff members, and students stage protests on the university's 10 campuses this week, many of the demonstrators are charging the university's leaders with fiscal mismanagement...."

July 29, 2009
U. of California Cuts: a Faculty Member's Dispatch From the Front Lines

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
"Budget cuts at the University of California have generated a lot of attention, especially after a plan of across-the-board salary cuts, combined with mandatory furlough days, was recently announced. How will such drastic financial measures threaten the strengths of that system and other large public universities? Are certain fields of study in the humanities and social sciences especially vulnerable to state cuts because those areas of inquiry—even when dealing with topics of broad importance—rarely get large infusions of national, foundation, or corporate monies of the sort that routinely support work done in areas such as engineering and medicine?" .../kw

Alison Langmead said...

I'm not happy with the way he groups libraries and archives here. It seems oversimplified at best and uninformed at worst.