November
20th 2009
Excellence without Money!, part III: Knowledge without Books!

Posted under: American history, jobs, students

knowledgewithoutbooksAnother in our occasional series on the Great Recession and the crisis in funding public institutions of higher education, with thanks to Moose at Roxie’s World for coining the phrase “Excellence without Money!”

Johann Neem, an Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University, has an article over at Inside Higher Ed called “Reviving the Academic Library.”  In his brief comments, he defends the traditional library, something that many librarians are reluctant to do these days.  Just read some of the angry comments–most of them from librarians, and some of them well-earned, by the way.  Neem writes rather condescendingly about librarians, who are at most universities tenure-track and tenured scholars themselves, and he claims that education can only take place inside university classrooms.  That was unfortunate hyperbole, in my view, because in the main I agree with Neem.  (Can’t we all just get along?)

In case we’ve forgotten, amidst all those i-Pod downloads and football games and keg parties, Neem explains that “[t]he core purposes of the academy are to teach and to produce new knowledge. Books, journals, music and electronic access to online information sources remain vital for undergraduate students writing research papers or seeking further knowledge. Graduate student and faculty research depends on the depth and breadth of a library’s holdings. In the case of public universities, moreover, library holdings are important for citizens seeking to educate themselves.”  In sum, “[t]he library is a means to an end: enabling students and faculty to access archives. This does not denigrate the library’s importance. In fact, it reminds us how important libraries are to the academy and, more generally, to a democratic society.”  (I disagree with Neem here too, in that I think it’s fine for the university to provide “clean, well-lighted spaces” for students to work collaboratively.  That kind of connection doesn’t always happen or even happen best in classrooms under faculty supervision, but those spaces don’t need to be in the library supplanting space that could be use for collections.)

I’ve been meaning to link back to something Janice Liedl wrote a few days ago in the comments to my previous post on the magical shrinking university libraries that seem to be afflicting many of us:

When you nickel and dime your library, you nickel and dime humanities research which already is thought to be cost-free because we don’t require labs or investigators or the like. But if no one has the books, and no one keeps journals available (whether through leaving the private-sector model or what-have-you), if no one keeps the material available, if no one teaches the students how to use the materials we have, how can we be surprised that libraries turn into Starbucks and study rooms?

Exactly!  One of the things I had always considered an advantage in the humanities is the low cost of supporting our research.  A really big grant for us is $50,000 or $60,000–that will buy us a year of leave time in which to write.  All we need is a library card and the occasional travel grant, and most of us can do pretty well.  Now I see that the diffuse nature of our research–much of which happens when we sneak into the shadows of the stacks and can’t be tracked the way internet access to journals can be–actually is a huge disadvantage when it comes to making arguments about the importance of our work.  We don’t need to win multimillion dollar grants to build laboratories and hire an army of postdocs.  The university invests so little in us that it’s easy to invest even less in us.  After all–they’ve just helped build a bunch of new laboratories, so it would be shame to let that kind of investment in research go to waste!  (My department has been instructed by our subject librarian to go check out more books in the with Library of Congress call letters that start with B, C, D, E, and F just to prove that we actually use the library collections.  She’s fighting the good fight for us, but apparently, some people at Baa Ram U. don’t believe the collections are important if they can’t track their movements electronically and show proof that they’re being “accessed.”)

Here’s a plan:  let’s start calling our libraries “Humanities Laboratories” instead.  Let’s write mock grant proposals and send them to our librarians and provosts and university presidents that would make the point that libraries to us are not places to go hang out and update our FaceySpace pages.  (We do that in our offices, on our university-provided computers, right?)  Libraries are our laboratories, and our universities have already spent millions of dollars over the years building them, maintaining them, and adding to the collections.  Interlibrary Loan is, for many of us historians, as important as an internet connection in enabling our research on anything other than local history.

If the university really needs more coffee shops and lounges for the encouragement of student collaboration, why not carve out some space in someone else’s lab?  From what I’ve seen at Baa Ram U., the engineering building has lots of space that’s not being used to full capacity. . .

17 Comments »

17 Responses to “Excellence without Money!, part III: Knowledge without Books!”

  1. Barb on 20 Nov 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    Or put them in the student union building – isn’t that what they are supposed to be for in the first place?

  2. Janice on 20 Nov 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    “Humanities Laboratories”? I like the ring of that. And I agree with you that ILL is a lifeline. I’m also proud that our collection contributes in a small way back to this same mix. Want books on Tudor/Stuart pamphleteering or midwifery? We’re actually a “hot spot” for these topics as loans out to other schools.

    Not every discipline is library-focused, of course. From my years on grad council or the Academic Planning committee, I’d see library reports where the average accession date of a monograph on the subject was sometime in the 80s or earlier (meaning that half of all the monographs in their key areas are from that year or earlier). That’s not because they’re timeless classics, but because the discipline has pretty well abandoned the stacks as a useful part of their curriculum!

    Here, the library card is also the student card. From that, the library can track the usage records for different cohorts and concentrations. That data has been useful for our librarians.

    From what I’ve been told, history students are the heaviest users of the library. This stands out whether you count books checked out, interlibrary loans, periodicals and/or database materials. The library’s tracking of this information’s helped to protect some of our budget share when it comes to monographs and subscriptions. The library knows that history books aren’t just sitting on the shelves!

    We do have a popular coffee shop on campus (being Canada, of course, it’s Tim Horton’s) and a substantial Learning Commons. But we’ll fight, tooth and nail, to keep our library as a tool for faculty AND students.

  3. Indyanna on 20 Nov 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    Keep up the good fight on this one, Historiann. I think we may be at or near a liminal moment of push-back on this question, or set of questions, really. Make no mistake about it, underlying much of this transformation of libraries, are not just resource utilization issues, but relations-of-power agendas as part of a larger movement “out there” to reduce faculties to mere “stakeholders” in the definition and governance of universities. And the fact is, there are lots of high-end academic librarians who seem to want to go to great lengths not to be associated in the cultural imagination with anything as mere as “books,” much less “warehouses of books.” Good for them, but the physical and virtual management of access to knowledge go so straight to the heart of scholarship itself that faculties can’t allow themselves to become mere consumers of communal or bureaucratic decisions about it.

    Ten years ago it was about moveable shelving, which was great, except when its moving parts didn’t work, which was too often. And then, an intent and/or oblivious browser in the 923.B311 section was holding literally half a million other books hostage on a dozen adjacent rows of shelves linked to the power train. Now, when they do surveys to see which books “aren’t being accessed,” it’s often the ones which have been trapped for years in the moveable shelves that only one person can “access” at a time. So off they go, to Cheektowaga.

  4. Grandoc on 20 Nov 2009 at 5:20 pm #

    When I was in college half a century ago the library was the only quiet place on campus where one could study. Ditto for med school. The best location was the English Dept library with comfortable wing chairs and foot stools. Just today our hospital librarian was able to send away for a reprint of a thirty year old journal article. I could not do this on line. The ability of our local library to access interlibrary loans is vital. There are always plentiful pre-schoolers in the children’s section – as you well know.

  5. Z on 20 Nov 2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Excellent post. And I agree.

  6. thefrogprincess on 20 Nov 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    Personally I’m all about the cafes. If I’m going to be in the library all day, it’s better if there’s a place with food and drink and more comfy chairs. But this lack of books business…unacceptable. At my university, there was a brief conversation a few years back about offsite storage and there were rumblings about closed stacks. I don’t know whether there were any serious plans of this kind but the main issue people kept bringing up was how reliant we are in the humanities (or maybe just history) on the ability to find a book in the catalog, go to that location, and browse around to see what else is on the nearby shelves that’s relevant. Unless online catalogs are going to replicate the experience of standing in the stacks for a few minutes and surveying the land, then we need physical books in physical stacks.

  7. Writer2 on 20 Nov 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    I agree wtih your post, and like the idea of “humanities laboratories.” In fact, unless humanities and social sciences scholars make this clear, few understand how vital the library remains for basic research.

    It is worth noting that Neem, in his short essay, blames deans of libraries, not librarians. You are right that academic librarians are often scholars and are the most-ignored members in this high-profile debate between library deans and humanities-social sciences scholars.

  8. undine on 20 Nov 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Great post. “Humanities laboratories”–let’s spread the word on this.

  9. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Nov 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    You history buffs are just jealous that you don’t have armies of post-docs to march around. HUT! TWO! THREE! FOUR!

  10. Roxie on 21 Nov 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    OMG, another totally fabulous seal that my typist will have to steal and use at some point very soon! Didn’t even read the post, ‘cos, you know, for us it’s all about slogans and eye candy. Paws up on both counts.

  11. Bavardess on 22 Nov 2009 at 9:18 pm #

    I’m with thefrogprincess on this one. I’ve found some of my most useful and interesting sources by browsing the shelves near the specific book(s) I went to get in the first place. Scanning the relevant shelves at random is also a good cue for lateral thinking.

  12. Mark K. on 23 Nov 2009 at 6:13 pm #

    Okay, (small) academic library director here, sticking my foot in it no doubt…

    “Libraries are our laboratories, and our universities have already spent millions of dollars over the years building them, maintaining them, and adding to the collections.”

    That’s precisely the problem. Library buildings and collections have in practice become black holes, sucking up ever more resources to maintain the same level of service.

    Now, I’m a librarian, and a humanist. I would be mostly happy to see libraries take over university campuses in geometric fashion over the next 75-100 years. But I can understand why not everyone shares my preferences. Say what one will about science labs, but once an experiment is done, the space and equipment can be used for a different experiment. (They also attract external funding and offer the chance of patent spinoff revenue in some cases.) Once a book goes on the shelf, that space is spoken for except when it is in circulation, until such time as it is weeded or sent off-site.

    This is another good reason to check out more books. Along with generating supportive statistics, you functionally increase the carrying capacity of the stacks. Librarians keep track of what percentage of a collection is out at any given time, and a common thing to hear is, “If everyone returned all the books, we’d have no place to put them.”

    Some of these library space decisions are faddish, and some are just plain bad. But a lot of them come from looking at the overall scholarly research and publication landscape over the next 10-15 years and saying, hey, for once why don’t we get ahead of the curve?

    “Interlibrary Loan is, for many of us historians, as important as an internet connection in enabling our research on anything other than local history.”

    Can someone explain to me why interlibrary loan is a godsend but off-site storage is the devil? Because from a library management perspective, they function in *exactly the same way*.

    “If the university really needs more coffee shops and lounges for the encouragement of student collaboration, why not carve out some space in someone else’s lab?”

    Partly it’s philosophy and partly it’s politics.

    On the philosophy side, the librarians are people who really are into the holistic ideal of all members of the learning community taking advantage of all resources and support services in effective and efficient ways. We’re the ultimate generalists. A lot of us want the writing center and the computer lab and the tutors and the cafe to be right there with all our cool books and periodicals and databases. (If someone could figure out a way to incorporate dorm rooms into the library, we’d probably jump on that opportunity too.) Whether that is the best delivery model for all these services is certainly debatable, but librarians as a class are predisposed to liking the grand unifying service narrative.

    Which leads to the political side: Librarians tend to be the ones sucker enough to go for that kind of plan. The engineering lab might dedicate collaborative space for engineering students–but for all students in all disciplines and degree levels? Not likely. In my experience, turf is ferociously defended in higher education. Librarians defend our turf too, but we tend to have a kum-ba-yah attitude about who gets to make use of that turf. So university administrators might see “undergraduate recruiting and retention candy” and only the librarians will embrace it as mission-related instead of an imposition.

    And we’re not even completely bullshitting ourselves. We pay close attention to the actual usage of those impressive collections we’ve built up in our impressive buildings. (Okay, in my particular case, neither is so impressive, but you get the idea.) Along with circulation, library staff have traditional tracked in-house usage by paying attention to what items get left on reading room tables, etc. And the usage statistics are depressing. Grim. The great majority of what we own is rarely used, and a sizeable chunk is never used even once. “Just in case” becomes harder to justify as our budgets shrink more and more and more. So we start looking at “just in time.”

    Here is my cranky suggestion, born as much out of frustration as disagreement with the post’s overall message. Do historians want a Humanities Laboratory? Then work with the librarians on making one. Embrace undergraduate research initiatives. Advocate moving the humanities faculty offices into the re-envisioned library. Help us to maintain on-site collection sizes while *also* achieving our own generalist disciplinary goals (read: learning commons and institutional repositories). Stop the pattern of protesting decisions you don’t like and ignoring the librarians the rest of the time. Be constructive partners. Librarians have been trying to partner with faculty on issues of shared concern for years, and the result has been patronizing head-pats at best and open mockery at worst. If that’s how it’s going to be, you can run your own damn libraries and see how easy it is.

  13. Historiann on 24 Nov 2009 at 8:25 am #

    Mark K.–thanks for your reply. I see where you’re coming from, and I especially appreciate your thoughts about why the libraries get imposed upon in ways that engineering doesn’t when you write, “Librarians defend our turf too, but we tend to have a kum-ba-yah attitude about who gets to make use of that turf. So university administrators might see ‘undergraduate recruiting and retention candy’ and only the librarians will embrace it as mission-related instead of an imposition.” When you’re part of a discipline that’s ideologically pro-access (library science) rather than obfuscatory and exclusive (engineering), it’s hard to say no.

    I would love to move my office to and have classrooms in the library and make the library more central to my teaching and be closer to the collections for my own research. (This would probably require a reduction in the number of students I teach each year–I personally don’t think it’s practical to have students do research papers in classes with more than 15 students.) This is the kind of intellectual use of space that most humanities faculty would be on board with. But–since space is at a premium (not to mention budgets, and FTEs), I’d rather see the library use the space for shelving the collections on-site. (I understand the need for off-site storage, by the way–I think the point at Syracuse was the scale and distance of their off-site plans, not the bare fact that some volumes would be off-site.)

    Your comment about science versus the humanities, and history in particular, puzzles me. You write, “Say what one will about science labs, but once an experiment is done, the space and equipment can be used for a different experiment. (They also attract external funding and offer the chance of patent spinoff revenue in some cases.) Once a book goes on the shelf, that space is spoken for except when it is in circulation, until such time as it is weeded or sent off-site.” So, scientists are permitted to do science, but when historians try to do history–by advocating preserving books and collections and building bigger libraries–what we’re doing is unproductive or somehow counterfeit? Again–if the scientists want to go all-digital, that’s fine–there should be more room for humanities books, then. Why must we all be judged by the same standards and use the library in the same way? (This is a sensitive topic for me, since I teach at the old A&M in my state, and it’s still shocking to me, after being trained in History departments that were housed in the central administration buildings, and which were traditional feeders into college & university administration.)

    I would love to work in the ways you suggest with librarians. (We have a very smart and energetic subject area librarian, whom I work with a lot, actually, and who’s a great advocate for keeping the books and journals we prize.) I’ve always thought historians and librarians had shared common goals. I don’t think historians always understand that library science is a discipline unto itself, and not just a service department for the rest of the university. But, I also don’t think librarians should be surprised when book-intensive departments like history squawk when libraries look like they’re organizing themselves around something other than books and journals. I agree that historians should be a part of this process, but speaking for myself, that hasn’t happened at my uni.

  14. Mark K. on 24 Nov 2009 at 10:00 am #

    “So, scientists are permitted to do science, but when historians try to do history – by advocating preserving books and collections and building bigger libraries – what we’re doing is unproductive or somehow counterfeit?”

    No, no, not at all. I simply mean that the time horizon on the commitment of resources is different in the humanities and the sciences. To access the data set and researcher’s interpretation from a science experiment doesn’t require that the science lab run the same experiment in perpetuity. (It *could*, but that’s not the disciplinary expectation.) The data set of an historical archive or print collection, on the other hand, pretty much has to stay in the same form in order to continue to be useful.

    “I also don’t think librarians should be surprised when book-intensive departments like history squawk when libraries look like they’re organizing themselves around something other than books and journals.”

    We’re not surprised. That’s why we get cranky–it’s so unsurprising.

    Academic libraries continue to organize themselves around monographs and articles. We’re just less committed to guaranteeing that they will all be available in print on-site. I think it’s good and important for different disciplines to advocate for their different library needs. But this is best done through advocacy, not through an assumption that the default state of libraries will always be optimal for, say, historians.

    I agree that historians aren’t always fully aware of what librarians do, and the converse is also true: librarians aren’t always fully aware of what historians do. In the dawn of online journal databases, for example, it took librarians a while to understand why the plain text of an article was not an adequate replacement for the image of the printed page. As a profession, we needed historians and others to explain to us the information that was being lost.

    “I agree that historians should be a part of this process, but speaking for myself, that hasn’t happened at my uni.”

    Why is that, do you know? At my university, we have a standing faculty committee that is a major actor in shaping the library’s strategic goals and objectives, and I’m always pushing to broaden the range of disciplines represented on it.

  15. Historiann on 24 Nov 2009 at 10:56 am #

    Mark–thanks again for your response and further clarification. As for faculty involvement: I don’t know about any standing committees, because I know that no one from my department is on it (if it exists.) We have a faculty member in our department who is a liason to our subject librarian, but that’s the only institutional link I know of. (There may be a standing committee with a representative from the Lib Arts college, but the rep isn’t a historian.)

    I should have said that I am grateful for all of the work that librarians do, and that I’m amazed and how much *more* you all do now than twenty years ago and how seamlessly you’ve adapted to the demands of our new information age. I know I use journal articles a lot more since they’re all available on-line, and the whole design and maintenance of a library web page as a kind of information portal has got to be incredibly time- and resource-intensive. I know that you’re being pulled in all directions to do everything.

    There was a great interview on the Diane Rehm show yesterday with Bob Darnton, the French historian who’s now director of the Harvard Libraries. He’s very much in favor of e-resources (since he’s the founder of the E-Gutenberg project), while also being a strong defender of Codex technology. (It must really help to have Harvard’s money! Most university libraries have to make choices, whereas he doesn’t, or at least not so much.)

  16. Mark K. on 24 Nov 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    Historiann–thanks for the props for the profession! We are big fans of faculty as well, at least, those of us with any sense are. Those delicious, delicious books don’t write themselves or teach their own contents.

    Speaking of the Harvard Libraries, they have a restructuring proposal on the table. Challenges associated with decision-making are explicitly cited. I have very mixed feelings about the plan, but that’s probably neither here nor there.

  17. Mark K. on 24 Nov 2009 at 6:12 pm #

    (Oops, forgot the closing tag on the link, sorry.)