In an email response to my piece “How Do Academic Libraries Spend Their Money?” David Lewis took me to task for not doing the necessary research to answer the questions posed.
As David spent the last 40 years working as an academic librarian and the last 20 years as a library dean, his critique carries some weight. (David is also co-editor of the Journal of Electronic Publishing.)
To make amends and to learn some things, I wrote these questions about academic libraries and librarians and asked if David would consent to share some of his thoughts.
Q: David, thank you for agreeing to this exchange. First, I’d like to ask you about careers. What advice do you have for early to midcareer academic librarians about navigating their careers?
A: Thanks for the invitation.
I think it is useful to start with the demographics. The baby boom cohort in academic libraries was large, and it is now, finally, retiring, and the Gen X cohort is relatively small. This means that younger libraries will be needed to fill both leadership positions and positions that bring new skills and expertise into the organization. If you have the required skills and expertise, even without extensive experience, there should be opportunities.
Academic libraries are going to change and if you work in them, you will need to grow and change as well. More importantly, you get to and have to create the change. So, strap in and get ready for a ride. In particular, I’d recommend:
- Don’t be afraid to switch jobs, especially early in your career when your life is less encumbered. Being in different situations brings perspective and helps build your personal network.
- Find a group of colleagues, either inside or outside your institution and make something you think is important happen. This is a lot easier than you might think and it can be fun.
- Collaborate with nonlibrarians whenever possible. It opens horizons.
- Look for organizations that encourage experimentation, accept failure and learn from their mistakes. You want to work in an organization that favors action over discussion. These may not be the most prestigious or richest libraries. Change often comes from the periphery, so don’t be afraid the go there if the opportunity is right.
- You are going to have to keep learning, so read and study, especially in areas beyond librarianship and bring these ideas to the way you think about library problems. Read research on libraries critically. Also, read science fiction.
- Write and present. it will focus your thinking and require you to engage with the research literature.
- Take long walks without ear pods or whatever other activity allows your mind to wander.
- At the end of the day, get some exercise, cook a meal, spend time with your friends and family. You are in this for the long haul and stamina matters. Take care of yourself so you can get up tomorrow and continue to do good work and fight the good fight.
Q: From your perspective, what are the big themes, trends and facts that those of us who do not work in an academic library should understand about the structure, challenges and place of the academic library?
A: The academic library is, at its core, about making scholarship available to students and faculty and preserving it for future generations. The transition of scholarship from print to the digital network is fundamental and it will change many things in the academy beyond libraries. It is a revolution and it is only the beginning. As Clay Shirky has said, “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” Scholarly communication and therefore scholarship and the work of the library, will probably be weird for at least the next decade or two. Faculty and campus leadership will need to be tolerant of this weirdness and the library experimentation that accompanies it as we figure out how the new stuff is going to work.
The economics of digital content breaks print-based practices and will require reinventing the means for creating, accessing, evaluating and preserving scholarship. Digital content is, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson put it in their book, Machine, Platform, Crowd, “Free, perfect and instant.” A copy that is the same as the original can be instantaneously delivered anywhere in the world at zero marginal cost. A marginal cost of zero means the most efficient price for digital content should also be zero. Thus, open access should be the dominant business model for scholarly publishing. But there are still first copy costs to be covered. Doing so will require new funding models and new ways of moving money. Changing the way money moves in the university is always nearly impossible. This change won’t be an exception.
Established interests, particularly commercial publishers hoping to keep their profit margins and stock prices high, but also many scholarly societies, will resist change. Hardball will be played. Libraries will by necessity be leaders in these battles. Everyone is busy, but faculty, provosts and presidents need to pay attention and foster campus conversations that lead to concerted action to protect academic interests and values. The example of how the University of California handled their recent negotiations with Elsevier provides a good example of how this should be done.
Q: In the span of your career, the academic library transitioned (in my understanding) from predominantly analog to predominantly digital. Is that an accurate (if simplified) characterization? What do you expect will be the big academic library story of the next 40 years?
A: In the 1970s, when I was in graduate school studying to be a librarian, we learned how to punctuate a catalog card. Early in my career libraries, especially large research libraries had one essential task—they had to keep millions of small pieces of paper in the correct order. If they couldn’t do that nothing else mattered. That was 40 years ago. When I tell this to the librarians coming into academic libraries today, they appropriately roll their eyes, so thinking about the world 40 years from now seems a fool’s errand. So, let’s say 20 years.
I would expect nearly all scholarship will be openly available to everyone in the world. The inclusion of data and methods supporting reported research results will have become the norm. New methods for evaluating research and researchers will have been developed that will take into account what are now considered informal communication vehicles, blog posts, videos and who knows what else. Review and revision of work will be ongoing. Importantly, financial models will have been created that make this possible. Scholarship will be seen as a public good and it will be funded as such.
This means that the role of the library as the local campus provider of scholarship will be greatly diminished as most of what matters will be delivered by network-scale resources. Think a legal Sci-Hub. The library as a local institution will be primarily engaged in preserving and making accessible unique local content and assisting students and faculty in their engagement with the network scale resources in their roles as both consumers and producers of scholarship.
Since Moore’s law does not seem to be slowing, it seems inevitable that some form of machine “intelligence” will contribute. I can imagine an evaluation engine that has ingested large quantities of data accessing researcher “impact.” Large commercial publishers are actively working on this today. It will be important to learn how to document the contributions of machines to scholarship.
My optimistic view, or maybe just my hope, is that the network resources I envision will be controlled or regulated by governments or international organizations in ways that preserve the values of the academy and resist capture by profit-maximizing organizations. But it could easily go the other way. We won’t solve the big problems we now face—climate change, inequity—unless everyone can contribute to and access the world’s common store of knowledge. Who controls the world’s knowledge and how it is controlled will be what matters most, so we had better get that right.