The role of the liberal arts college library in the 21st century remains an open question. Much of the library literature on the future of academic libraries pertains to research libraries or academic libraries generally. The liberal arts college library is a special genre of academic library that holds great potential in the digital era and leaves a considerable amount of room for self-definition.
I believe that the liberal arts library has the potential to advance learning and scholarship in ways that distinguish its institution. Going forward, we will provide an evolving suite of resources and services that incorporates local collections, consortial cooperation, and networked technologies. Through partnerships with faculty and close relationships with students, librarians will raise expectations about what is possible in student research and creativity. The library will provide faculty the resources, platforms and support needed to to pursue innovative projects and offer students opportunities to make their own discoveries as they explore resources in traditional and emerging forms of media.
Before exploring this vision in more detail, I think it is worthwhile to review some of the broader twenty-first century context in which academic libraries at liberal arts colleges operate.
Clearly digital technologies have changed our relationship with information in ways that we are still trying to comprehend. Retrieval of information through search engines has accustomed a new generation to instant gratification in information seeking, though arguably only at a rather shallow level. New forms of media consumption including digital music, video, blogs, online reading and gaming have altered our experiences with media. With an abundance of information, we’ve shifted from a scarcity of content to a scarcity of context. A fundamental aspect of work our in higher education, and the liberal arts particularly, is to provide the latter.
The opportunity to interact with online content using various social media has opened the door for participatory knowledge creation unlimited by the boundaries of time and space. In many cutting edge fields from medicine to information technology to art, in order to innovate, it’s not enough to have access to authoritative works in the field. Rather one needs to be in the flow of knowledge that top players in that field are continually exchanging in real time through social media as well as interpersonal interactions.
On an economic level, the Internet has allowed many industries to move activities done locally to larger levels of scale, and believe me this is affecting libraries in a big way. The latest technology trend I keep hearing about this year is “big data,” which refers to massive amounts of data that are now being collected, stored and analyzed in a variety of industries including retail, energy and academic research.
Within the higher education field, things are hardly stable either. Increasing costs particularly in non-teaching expenditures (do libraries fall into this?) have come up against hard economic realities of strained households unable to pickup tuition increases. The selective, residential liberal arts college model remains strong, but managing costs remains a challenge especially with the demographic flattening of the freshman population in coming years.
A public discussion has bubbled up in the last few years around a “crisis in the humanities” prompted by declining majors in fields like foreign languages and literature. I feel that libraries have a ‘special relationship’ with the humanities disciplines and insofar there is any crisis here, I regard it as our challenge and opportunity.
Here at Lewis & Clark, we are moving boldly forward on a strategic planning initiative that emphasizes academic excellence in a number of key areas: international education, environmental studies, and student-faculty collaboration. The College is exploring liberal arts more broadly in our 21st century context and its potential to position students for a variety of post-baccaluareate opportunities. Meanwhile, it remains vitally important to foster our sense of community as we strive to create a welcoming environment for an increasingly diverse student body. I’m told that at this time of year we are all admissions officers, and this goes for librarians as well.
Now I’m going to move into discussion of various library roles and how I believe that they are evolving in the context of these broader trends. I’m going to regularly drift between generalities about libraries and specifics about what we are doing and where we are going at Lewis & Clark.
The most fundamental role of the library remains an archive and provider of information resources. But if we look at the basic economic model that underpins that role, things get problematic in the digital era pretty quickly. Libraries make sense economically because they are a way to share physical information resources within a geographically bound area-a single library makes more sense than every student and faculty member having a separate library of books at their desk. However, when digital libraries like JSTOR can be built centrally and shared with with any subscriber in the world, the necessity of the library’s information provider role comes into question. As things go digital, we become more of the conduit for content rather than the manager of content ourselves.
Physical books remain the proven form of scholarly communication for many fields and we continue to spend 90% of our book budget on them. Before getting into digital formats lets look at how that plays out. One way that we collect books centers around building strong general collections where students can browse and discover information in their field. With bookstores closely we’re getting to be one of the last places to browse physical books, and my belief is that we’ll continue to build collections like this in certain humanities fields where the preference is for the physical book. We’re also now building our collection with the Summit collection in mind; as we buy books we look carefully to see if its held in Summit before deciding to purchase it locally.
Another way that we buy books is by working very closely with faculty to support particular courses. For example, we collaborated with Art Historian Ben David to create a set of books, articles and digital images to support his course, “Dante and the Visual Arts: last spring. Ben worked with Visual Resources Coordinator Stephanie Beene, Collection Development Librarian Jim Bunnelle, and Stafford Archivist Paul Merchant to assemble the readings, many of which were rare and hard to acquire. My colleagues in Access Services Rick Peterson and David Shratter worked with Ben to set up a mini reading room adjacent to the art books and the Visual Resources Center so that students could access and read the texts in a social sort of way.
Our librarians foster this model of collaborative collection development frequently in topical literary courses from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf to, most recently, the Charles Dickens course taught by Pauls Toutonghi this spring, which incorporated an exhibit as well as research assignments that directed students to engage our Dickens collection. I find this strategy for collection development partcularly exciting and effective because it is so tightly coupled with the curriculum and offers our students opportunities to encounter sources that often animate their interest in the field.
In both journals and books, the presence of digital formats is growing. A general trend is to subscribe to larger and large aggregations of content whether it be bundles of journals, e books, or research databases. Paying for access to these larger chunks of information saves libraries time and resources because effectively the collections are managed elsewhere. Though I should caution that there is a loss of control and certain vulnerability that comes with outside players owning the content.
New electronic formats do offer us challenges to manage, however. This year we delved into the world of e books in a significant way for the first time using a multifaceted strategy. We leased a large set of e books through E-brary that provides us with some 70,000 titles for a modest annual fee, akin to the Netflix on-demand of e books. We have also participated in two pilot projects for demand driven e books, one through the Orbis Cascade Alliance and another on our own. This purchasing model allow us to put many books out there in our library catalog and only buy ones that students chose to use; it also retains a model where we own the content rather than the vendor.
These e book projects have taken an enormous amount of staff ingenuity on the part of our Collection Development Librarian Jim Bunnelle, who has helped lead the project at the Alliance level, as well as our metadata and technical experts Laura Ayling and Anneliese Dehner. In this increasingly digital world we will still need that local ingenuity in acquisitions and cataloging to handle emerging formats of materials as well as maintain access to older materials. The next phase of the process is evaluation of the e book format.
Before moving on, I might mention a few thoughts about print vs. digital media. I would strongly emphasize that ever different type of media has its own substantive qualities. Some would even go as far as to say “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McCluhan did in the sixties. Books are great as an immersive experience and if you are studying aspects of print culture as we often do in humanities. Electronic media are wonderful when you want interactivity and dialogue around a text.
One commentator in the library field, Scott Walter, recently identified what he termed the service turn: that is, academic libraries will now distinguish themselves increasingly with the services that they provide. Collections remain important, but because so much content is on the network, services will be where the action is, according to Walter. I think liberal arts college libraries have always been oriented this way as we have never had the mandate to build research collections.
As an information provider, liberal arts libraries should provide a set of services that help students access the growing array of information resources out there and assist faculty with the integration of those resources into their courses. These services will take the form of customized search engines (discovery interfaces to us library folk), assistance with preparing course readings, support for copyright compliance, services to support the use of audiovisual material within the curriculum, and integrating new media formats like e books into teaching.
Recent studies on the information seeking behavior of young people reveal that college students continue to have difficulties navigating the scholarly information environment. Reports from recent studies out of the University of Washington Project Information Literacy and the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) project break the myth that digital natives have built in mastery of digital information environments. Today’s students are comfortable on the web but have problems with many stages of the academic research process including formulating a topic, selecting a research database and executing searches.
Undergraduate information research from introductory to advanced levels is a central to the kind of liberal education we provide at Lewis & Clark. Learning good research techniques works best as students are pursuing a well structured research assignment on a topic that they are passionate about. In other words the research question is at the forefront of the learning process, not the skills acquisition. Librarians can most effectively facilitate good student research when they work closely with faculty on assignment design, provide in-class library instruction and work with students one-on-one through librarian research consultations.
In recent years, Watzek Library has had success creating a strong library presence in Lewis & Clark’s first year seminar program, Exploration & Discovery. Our research librarians now work closely with over half of all second semester sections on their research projects, in most cases providing in class instruction for students. Last spring, we founded the James J. Kopp First Year Research Award, a great a chance for an underclassman to land an academic award early in their careers. This fall, we sponsored a faculty seminar on research assignment design attended by over a dozen faculty. This spring we have brought more Watzek Librarians into the E&D instruction process, and through Instruction Services Librarian Kate Rubick’s leadership, we have worked to integrate assessment into the instruction process. The inclusion of more librarians in the course delivery has been a wonderfully collaborative endeavor in which has brought the creativity of multiple librarians into the process. Going forward, I believe that the library should expand its presence in E&D through more faculty development opportunities like the workshop I mentioned, more partnerships with faculty, and the development of rubrics that define the research competencies that we would like for our students.
Close collaboration with the E&D program creates a foundation for basic research competencies. As we support research within the disciplines, things get even more interesting, and this is one area where our library has the potential to truly raise expectations about what’s possible in student research. At a college like Lewis & Clark disciplines approach student research in various ways and each case provides a unique opportunity for specialized research support from the library. For example, in Sociology/Anthropology a research librarian often team teaches a research methods class with a faculty member to show students how to navigate literature in the field. In the History department’s historical materials course, students meet with a librarian to learn about techniques for bibliographic research in the discipline and also often attend multiple sessions with Special Collections and Archives to learn about primary sources. In a recent 100 level biology class, students worked with digital initiatives staff on a project in which they collected samples of spiders, documented them with digital photos, analyzed their DNA and created a web resource that organized and showcased all of their findings. Just this semester we’ve pioneered some innovative approaches to supporting overseas programs, in one case providing our extensive electronic resources to faculty teaching the Ecuador program.
Watzek Library has a strong precedent for customized research support, but I believe that we are just beginning to tap into the possibilities in this realm and will present a few new ideas. In many fields, particularly across the social sciences and sciences students are being asked to make their points using data sets. Whether students are looking for economic indicators, political polls, census statistics, geo-located scientific data, we often hear that locating, analyzing and presenting data is a barrier. Given that big data is poised to play a larger role in our society a whole as well as within the academy, stepping up our support for data services seems like a rich area in which we could deepen our expertise to the benefit of the campus.
We also may have some room to provide deeper support for the hard sciences, who tend to engage librarians less than than their colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities. We could engage these disciplines by supporting information literacy, assisting with the management of scientific data and digital assets, and supporting student fieldwork projects such as the Spiders biology project mentioned above.
A report out of the University of Washington’s Project Information Literacy observed that student research for assignments is somewhat out-of-step with the kind of research students will need to do in the workplace after they graduate, in large part because it often lacks a social media component that allows one to get “in the flow” of information at the cutting edge of the field. Digital scholarship and digital humanities now offer many opportunities for undergraduates to participate in original research with peers in a digital environment, and in fact the New York Times has recently highlighted these opportunities at selective liberal arts colleges. For example, the History Engine, out of the University of Richmond lets students contribute their research to an online archive of historical episodes also authored by students. Our own Environmental Studies Situated Research Intiative asks students to collect resources using social media tools like Diigo and Wordpress and build on the research achievements of earlier generations students as they pursue their research. Librarians have the potential to assist faculty as they integrate digital scholarship components in their research assignments, components that may allow students to make their own discoveries and share them with a wider community.
When many people think of the library, they have its built environment in mind. At Lewis & Clark, we are blessed with a beautiful library whose architectural style is still a signature of this campus and whose 1960s modernism has perhaps enjoyed a bump in coolness with the popularity of the Mad Men television series. Looking to the future, I believe that we will want to preserve the library as a sanctuary for quiet collaboration and study and as an archive of tangible resources that the community can explore and browse.
There are some new possibilities for the use of library space at our library and others, however and I would like to discuss these. In recent years we have brought in furniture that facilitates student collaboration and flexible reconfiguration in a few areas of the library. In areas where we have introduced these new arrangements, students buzz with activity almost every day of the academic year. I think this may reflect a new more social approach to study embodied in the millenial generation. It also reflects the reality that the library has a role in the transfer of knowledge between people.
The way we provide services to the users in the library building is shifting in parallel with trends at the libraries of other selective colleges, Oberlin being a recently documented example. Students ask fewer questions at the reference desk but one-on-one research consultations, which provide support for introductory to advanced assignments, have increased in popularity. We need to update our service points in response to these trends. I see us considering the possibility of a combined reference/circulation desk that would provide one-stop service to students, elevating research questions to librarians as appropriate. And because of the increased popularity of research consultations, I believe that it is important to pull our research librarians out of their somewhat obscured office and get them offices adjacent to the public areas of the building with big windows so that they are visible to students studying in the library. Students should be able to easily find their favorite librarian. With an increase in recent years of students doing practicums in the Special Collections and Archives, I would also love to see more visible spaces for students to perform this work.
The library is a unique out-of-classroom learning space, especially given its extensive hours and central location on campus. Through academically oriented events and exibits including poetry readings, student art exhibitions, special collections exhibits, and even a rock concert, the library can serve as a venue for creative expression and welcome diverse perspectives and viewpoints. As director, I would look forward to joining with our co-occupant in the building, IT, in engaging in discussions with various players across campus on ways that the library space could be integrated with other student services and resources on campus.
Specialized Resources and Services
Libraries at selective liberal arts colleges have the opportunity to build a set of specialized resources that fit with their College’s character, traditions, and goals for the future. Watzek Library has such a set of resources that with the right leadership will advance the College’s strategic goals by providing unique opportunities for faculty and students.
Perhaps the most obvious one is the library’s Special Collections and Archives. For an institution of our size, Lewis & Clark has an incredibly rich holdings in Pacific Northwest history anchored by the Literature of the Lewis & Clark Expedition Collection. In recent years Head of Special Collections Doug Erickson and his colleagues Paul Merchant and Archives Assistant Jeremy Skinner have used the William Stafford Archives as a calling card to expand our holdings in regional literature. In recent years, students in the humanities have engaged in research with the collections in record numbers through thesis projects and practicums.
Digital projects connected to the collections such as Oregon Poetic Voices also provide opportunities for students to work with the resources creatively. The direct engagement with sources, often under the guidance of a faculty member or archivist, aligns well with the College’s strategic goal to foster student-faculty research. The collections also attract a variety of outside researchers and interested parties, raising the profile of the institution and fostering valuable ties with the community. Going forward, I believe that we should continue to robustly build our collections in regional history and literature while we look for new opportunities to tie them in with the curriculum.
I should also mention that Special Collections and Archives boosts a book arts and publishing component known as the Berberis Press. Once again, this spring, Paul Merchant is teaching a course which enables students create and print original broadsides to go with the poetry that they have authored. The bridge between art and poetry that the students get to make in that class is a particularly unique and compelling experience. In the library, we have a deep well of talent in the book arts. In fact Serials Specialist Robyn Ward recently one a prestigious fellowship in this area and co-created with Archives Assistant Jeremy Skinner a broadside that one first place in a regional competition. In the future, I would look for more opportunities to build the book arts into student learning experience.
At Watzek Library, we are one of just a few liberal arts colleges in the region fortunate to have a dedicated Visual Resources Center, whose coodinator, Stephanie Beene, works to integrate visual representations of art and culture across the curriculum. Traditionally, visual resources has supported studio and art history courses, and this work continues to be the top priority of the unit. Even in the digital age, high quality images of art work particularly work from East Asia can be difficult to acquire. The program provides specialized support for the studio art by capturing the work of its seniors, which will be available on a new web site coming this spring. Particularly exciting is the Visual Resource’s librarian’s work with faculty in other areas of the humanities from Gender Studies to German, where she provides images and guidance in visual literacy, that is approaches to critically evaluate images as cultural objects.
I’ve mentioned digital scholarship and digital initiatives some, but I’d like to talk about our digital initiatives program as a resource to support innovative faculty projects. Expectations for scholarship are evolving. The standard for tenure remains peer-reviewed publications, but faculty often need or desire a digital component, sometimes a a database or interactive web site, to support their research behind that formal publication. For example, sociologist Bob Goldman consulted with us on the construction of a web based database for his Landscapes of Capital book. Often there is external funding available to create these digital research components and in many cases the projects can create opportunities for students to become part of the research.
An endeavor currently underway is Oren Kosansky’s Rabat Geneziah project, which is centered around creating an international digital archive of Morrocan Jewish documents. Oren secured a prestigious NEH digital humanities startup grant, and he has involved the library as well as students as collaborators. In cases like this, the library has provided its expertise in grant writing, archival practices, digital humanities practices, digital library construction, and project management to put the project on its way to success.
Many selective liberal arts colleges have aspirations to support digital scholarship: Hamilton, Wheaton, Occidental, the Five Colleges of Ohio to name a few, and many have secured large foundation grants in support of this. I’m particularly proud of our library’s track record in this area as I think we a program that shines beyond all of those schools. In the future, I look forward to supporting more projects like these; I hope that we can give faculty that extra boost they need in support to realize their ideas and land grants that bring in funding and recognition to the College.
Some particularly fertile areas for expansion include: projects that deeply involve students in the construction of a resource; collaborative projects that bring together interdisciplinary clusters, medievalists for instance; projects in which our students might participate in a larger digital endeavor at a university; and collaborations with colleagues in Information Technology who have expertise in many areas that we don’t such as video production and the use of mobile devices like iPads.
I’ve presented a vision for the future of the library that builds on current strengths and offers some ideas for future directions. But we are left with a couple questions: First, how could these ideas and others come together in a strategic plan for the library that aligns with the broader goals of the College and has buy-in from the community? Second, in an environment of limited resources, how would we actually implement these plans?
Any plan for the library should be well-aligned with other planning efforts on campus. As the College moves forward with its strategic planning initiative, I am working hard to make the library’s voice heard in these discussions and I am pleased that we have a representative on the Faculty/Student Collaboration working group. The Library also has a number of formal channels in which it can receive and put forth ideas, chiefly the faculty Library/Educational Technology Committee. As Exploration and Discovery and its research component evolves our representative on its Steering Team and the Curriculum Committee will advocate for information literacy as a meaningful aspect of that program. Our Student Advisory Committee is an important channel for input about library services and space, and I would expect them to contribute to any library strategic plan.
The most essential element to our progress is our direct relationships with faculty and departments on campus. It is my firm belief that the deeper these partnerships are, the greater the possibilities for innovative library services and practices. Right now, any time a librarian discovers a new possibility to support a faculty member in their teaching or research-whether through an instruction session, some new acquisitions in special collections or a digital initiative-its something we celebrate around here and I want to maintain and enhance that culture.
Finally, building the actual strategic plan for the library will be a participatory exercise for the library staff, who will all have opportunity for input and discussion. I truly depend on my colleagues at the library as a brain trust of ideas and I owe them a debt of gratitude for many of the ideas in this talk.
With a strategic plan in place, the larger challenge of implementation remains. As a manager, I set clear goals for employees and then giving them the latitude they need to take ownership of those goals and reach them. I believe this is the kind of management culture that we will need in place to pursue this ambitious agenda. We’ll also need a team oriented culture where everyone puts aside individual aspirations to work for the the broader mission. As we put new programs into place, we will need to communicate them with the rest of campus and beyond. I’ll depend on our marketing team for much of this work, who has made huge strides in the last few years especially in their use of graphic arts and social media.
As we move along, we’ll need to assess or progress through both quantitative and qualitative means. In recent years, we have refined and adjusted the statistics that we gather, but in the future we’ll need to go beyond them and bring in assessment tools that really get at the outcomes we are trying to achieve.
As these tight budgetary times remind us, finding funding for the essential information resources provided by the library is challenging. I am however optimistic that going forward this College will continue to support funding for library resources in the strong way that it has done in the past. As director, I will work with faculty to communicate their needs for information resources to the College administration.
Finding the staff time to pursue new initiatives is also a challenge. As clear as I have been that we will need to maintain a mix of traditional and new resources and services, I would emphasize that the mix is changing and the way we do are work will be also. With more automation in our book processing and cataloging operations, we have already been able to reallocate some staffing to new initiatives in the last few years. Collaboration with colleagues in the Orbis Cascade Alliance as part of their strategic initiative also may offer opportunities to free up time. In the last five years, I have probably completely re-written or co-re-written a dozen job descriptions. Going forward, I don’t expect the pace of this activity to let up any. Part of our job will be continually redefining our roles.
It is an uncertain time for libraries and even the academy in general. But the possibilities for innovation and creativity have never been greater. I think they are especially so in liberal arts college libraries, which are surrounded by faculty with high expectations and gifted, eager students. Libraries like Watzek are small enough so as to be quite nimble as they reposition themselves to take on exciting challenges.
Please join me in defining the future of our library.