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3 questions for a retired librarian


In an email response to my article, How do academic libraries spend money?David Lewis accused me of not doing the necessary research to answer the questions posed.

Since David has been a librarian for the last 40 years and a library dean for the last 20, his criticism carries some weight. (David is also a co-editor of the Journal of Electronic Publishing).

To make amends and learn some things, I wrote these questions about academic libraries and librarians and asked if David would be willing to share some of his thoughts.

Q1: David, thanks for agreeing to this exchange. First, I would like to ask you about your career. What career advice would you give to aspiring academic librarians?

Thank you for the invitation.

I think it’s useful to start with demographics. The Baby Boom cohort in academic libraries was large and is now finally leaving, and the Gex X cohort is relatively small. This means that young librarians will be needed both in leadership positions and in positions that bring new skills and experience to the organization. If you have the necessary skills and experience, even without much experience, there should be opportunities.

Academic libraries will change, and if you work in them, you will also need to grow and change. More importantly, you achieve and must create change. So buckle up and get ready to ride. Specifically, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t be afraid to change jobs, especially early in your career when your life is less stressful. Being in different situations gives perspective and helps build your personal network.
  2. Find a group of colleagues, inside or outside your institution, and do something you think is important. It’s a lot easier than you might think, and it can be fun.
  3. Collaborate with non-library staff whenever possible. It opens up horizons.
  4. Look for organizations that encourage experimentation, embrace failure, and learn from their mistakes. You want to work in an organization that prioritizes action over discussion. Perhaps these are not the most prestigious and not the richest libraries. Change often comes from the periphery, so don’t be afraid to go there when you can.
  5. You will need to continue to learn, so read and study, especially in areas outside of librarianship, and bring these insights into the way you think about library issues. Read research about libraries critically. Also read science fiction.
  6. Write and present. it will focus your thinking and require you to engage in research literature.
  7. Take long walks without earplugs or any other activity that allows you to wander.
  8. At the end of the day, exercise, cook, spend time with friends and family. You’re in this for the long haul, and stamina counts. Take care of yourself so that tomorrow you can get up and continue to do the good work and fight the good fight.

Q2: From your perspective, what are the main themes, trends, and facts that those of us outside of academic librarianship need to understand about the structure, challenges, and place of the academic library?

An academic library is, at its core, about making scholarship accessible to students and faculty and preserving it for future generations. The transition of scholarship from the print network to the digital network is fundamental in nature, and it will change much in the academy beyond libraries. It’s a revolution, and it’s just the beginning. As Clay Shirkey said, “That’s what real revolutions are. The old breaks down faster than the new takes its place.” Scholarly communication, and thus both science and library work, will likely be strange for at least the next decade or two. Faculty and campus leaders need to be tolerant of this quirk and the library experiments that accompany it while we figure out how the new material will work.

The digital content economy is disrupting print practices and will require a rethinking of the means by which scholarship is created, accessed, evaluated, and preserved. Digital content, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson argue in their book, The car, the platform, the crowd, “Free, perfect and instant.” A copy that matches the original can be delivered instantly anywhere in the world at no marginal cost. Zero marginal cost means that the most efficient price of digital content must also be zero. Therefore, open access should be the dominant business model for scholarly publishing. But you still need to cover the costs of the first copy. This will require new financing models and new ways of moving money around. Changing the way money moves in a university is always nearly impossible. This change will be no exception.

Established circles, especially commercial publishers hoping to maintain high profits and stock prices, as well as many academic societies, will resist change. Will play hardball. Libraries are bound to be leaders in these battles. Everyone is busy, but faculty, provosts, and presidents must pay attention and foster conversations on campus that lead to concerted action to protect academic interests and values. The example of the University of California’s recent negotiations with Elsevier is a good example of how this should be done.

Q3: Over the course of your career, the academic library has moved (as I understand it) from predominantly analog to predominantly digital. Is this an accurate (if simplistic) characterization? What do you think the big story of the academic library will be in the next 40 years?

In the 1970s, when I was in graduate school as a librarian, we learned how to punctuate a catalog card. At the beginning of my career, libraries, especially large research libraries, had one major challenge – they had to keep millions of little pieces of paper in the right order. If they couldn’t do that, nothing else mattered. It was 40 years ago. When I tell this to librarians who come into academic libraries today, they rightly roll their eyes, so that thinking about the world forty years from now seems like a silly thing to do. So let’s say 20 years.

I expect almost all scholarships to be open to everyone in the world. Incorporating data and methods that support reported research findings will become the norm. New methods of evaluating research and researchers will be developed that will take into account what are now considered mediums of informal communication, blog posts, videos and who knows what else. Review and revision of the work will continue. What matters is that the financial models that make this possible will be created. The scholarship will be considered a public good and will be funded as such.

This means that the library’s role as a local provider of scholarship on campus will be greatly reduced as much of what matters is delivered by network-scale resources. Think legit Sci-Hub. The library as a local institution will be primarily concerned with preserving and making available unique local content and assisting students and faculty in their interactions with network-scale resources in their roles as both consumers and producers of scholarship.

Since Moore’s Law doesn’t seem to be slowing down, it seems inevitable that some form of machine “intelligence” will contribute. I can imagine an evaluation engine that consumed a large amount of data that accessed the “impact” of the researcher. Large commercial publishers are actively working on this today. It will be important to learn how to document machine contributions to scholarships.

My optimistic vision, or perhaps just my hope, is that the network resources I envision will be controlled or regulated by governments or international organizations in a way that preserves the values ​​of the academy and resists capture by profit-maximizing organizations. But it could easily go the other way. We won’t solve the big problems we face now – climate change, inequality – unless everyone can contribute and access a shared global repository of knowledge. Who controls the world’s knowledge and how it is controlled will be most important, so we better understand that.

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