The Libraries that We Return to

On January 16, 2018, publisher Tim O’Reilly was visiting New York City’s recently opened Randall’s Island outpost, Cornell Tech. In 2011, Cornell Tech was named the winner of then New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s visionary Applied Sciences Competition. Awarded to a top academic institution from around the world to build a new or expanded applied sciences and engineering campus in New York City, Cornell promised to diversify the economy and create a national hub for technology.

Commenting on Twitter about its progressive studio curriculum, I couldn’t help but reply, “Curious, Tim, is there a library? A learning commons?”. His response was prescient: “A learning commons, yes. But not a physical books library.” Curious, I thought, surely a library is the core of the institution.

Studying information science in the late 1990s a wonderful professor of cataloging, and one-time graduate of Columbia University’s venerated and since closed School of Library Science, humored: “Don’t you know, Sebastien, libraries are where we go to speak with the dead.” At the time it was funny.

Libraries have since evolved. From places about things to places about relationships, a necessary third place, where users should be supported to discover, focus, grow, create and share. As form follows function, brainstorming, stacking and prioritizing these experiences is both fun and challenging.

We can look to examples like the growing number of classrooms in libraries, data science and scholarship programs, innovation labs that give students the opportunity to get their hands on new state-of-the-art technologies or the Carpentries curricula. All are projects which open up higher education culture to the introduction of technology.

So what of Cornell’s decision not to include a library or librarians in their plans?

One response is that what can be done online should be. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends in investments toward digital resources and services. Everything shoulder to shoulder has been turned upside down. Libraries can provide a laser focus on the student and faculty experience online, yes. With the absence of in-person services, libraries are offering webinars, real-time chat, webcam appointments, support for Open Educational Resources (OER), even virtual study halls. Clearly, though, there is more.

An urban gardener, plants benefit from periodic repotting. Repotting includes pruning and trimming. It can be stressful for the plant. The main reason for repotting is to give the roots room to grow.

What current events indicate is that it is now time to retell the story of the academic library for the digital age. There is an enormous opportunity for libraries to function as scholarship platforms and communication centers.

Observing it through the lens of OER and the Creative Commons, how can our students find, use, remix and share? Projects like Mary Washington’s Digital Knowledge Center point to making that could take place in the library. Libraries can continue to support researchers’ information finding and publishing needs, while recognizing that we want our students to be makers most of the day. To borrow from Tim, we want our students to “create more value than they capture.

A university leader remarked, “We may be not-for-profit, but we are also not-for-loss.” Search a university’s website using the keyword labs and you will retrieve 1000s of results. With schools thinking very carefully about efficiencies — especially technology — and how to control costs in the face of significant revenue declines, libraries are in the best position to support community access, but it will require re-shaping the mental model of what it means to be a library. What is needed is to a) fully embrace the changing nature of digital scholarship and b) communicate a renewed vision of the library.

Where better than the library — a department that supports students from all Colleges and Schools — to focus on the student experience? Long have libraries de-mythicized and democratized learning. Long have they supported diversity, equity and inclusion. Storefronts and one-stop shops are becoming more common. Learner centered. Self-directed. Inquiry based. Social. Peer-to-Peer. Collaborative. As students increasingly question the cost of higher education, libraries offer a place to celebrate the student experience. At New York Tech we have had great success hosting technology rich special interest groups that function as communities of practice.

From Roberto Greco:

“So, imagine someone arriving in your library communications center to begin the process of communicating their work and learning for a class in any discipline. They come in, gain access to examples of many of the types of published work that have come from the center, see what others are working on at the moment, and begin creating a vessel for their own work, always with the hope/intent that the media they choose to do so are the best for the specific content/concept/idea they are trying to communicate.”

So how do we position the library to continue to be a central place on campus? It will require partnerships with Information Technology, strong links to academic programs, and thinking beyond traditional boundaries.

Beyond documenting the value of advancing institutional goals, libraries must better communicate their curricula. Too long considered soft skills, the ability to succeed as a graduate with little experience in a new economy is supported by search. Learning is iterative and depends on asking increasingly difficult or new questions whose answers in turn develop additional questions. Searching is learning.

Our students too are increasingly diversified and non-traditional. And we aspire to engage them in longer relationships. Libraries enhance retention and persistence, but also lifelong-learning. There is an opportunity to strengthen these bonds and along with them development.

While we can expect to see a curatorial approach to physical book acquisition going forward — libraries call it collection development — a library’s physical presence, without books, fosters social and academic community among students like no other unit.

Accreditation agencies support for academic libraries is thin at best. Documents like the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Standards for Libraries in Higher Education are helpful, but being able to demonstrate technology leadership and frame a narrative is key. The COVID pandemic should force all academic libraries to develop and share a clear vision of where they want to go.

Brushing leaves from her face, Alice’s sister wakes her up from a dream: “Wake up, Alice dear! Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!”

Alice finds a door behind the curtain
Alice finds a door behind the curtain

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