Wednesday, March 30, 2011

ACRL & Community Colleges

I am thrilled to be attending the ACRL Conference in Philadelphia for the first time this year. I'll be there all day Thursday and Friday.

However, as I peruse the schedule and look at the affiliations of the presenters (listed in the January issue of College & Research Libraries News), I count only two community colleges. Subsequent editions of the schedule may have brought changes*, but I doubt that number has altered substantially. The bulk of the presenters are from four-year colleges and universities.

So kudos to the librarians at Cleveland State Community College and the Borough of Manhattan Community College, but where are the rest of us? Are we not as smart as the college and university librarians? Were all of our proposals rejected? Or did we not write any proposals, because our abilities to find funding to attend the conference are so bleak? Will I see us at the poster sessions? Also worrisome is the fact that I don't even see any panel sessions where a community college collaborated with a university/college. Does this imply utter disconnect?

A consequence of this under-representation is that community colleges are in the position of following rather than leading. I struggle to understand how this benefits them. 

Community colleges are unique in many ways. As teaching institutions, community college faculty are not held to the same publishing expectations as elsewhere, and this is equally true for community college librarians. Without incentive, community colleges do not typically pursue monies to fund research, so community college librarians rarely get to contribute to ground-breaking, highly-publicized projects. Also, the open door policy of most community colleges means that remediation is a constant issue, along with the shifting sands of local, state, and federal support.

At the same time, community and junior colleges are undeniably a significant part of the higher education landscape in this country, and any organization that aims to "serve the information needs of the higher education community and to improve learning, teaching, and research" has an obligation to include them.

I must be missing something, right?

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* Looking at the copy of the program I received at the conference, I now count an additional 2 panel sessions, both involving collaboration with colleges & universities. I also count 5 roundtable discussions, 1 unconference event, and 3 poster sessions hosted by community colleges. This perhaps makes our numbers a bit more respectable, but they are still low.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Latest on the Textbook Reserves Project

 forsythia, near the physical plant

Having textbooks available on reserve continues to be a wildly popular service. It really gets students into the library, which in itself is an accomplishment in light of an item I discussed a few weeks ago -- the fact that at a commuter college students don't necessarily come to the building, unless they must for an assignment. This semester we were also able to expand the service to include all three college library locations. Even when we aren't able to get copies of the textbook for every campus where a class is offered, it's been useful to extend the possibility. Here are some other observations from the semester so far:

-I still don't entirely understand the publishers' policy of providing desk copies. As a whole, the publishers' representatives are really nice to work with -- in particular, certain individuals at Cengage, Pearson, McGraw and Wiley. Providing an extra copy of the book to faculty is common practice, so this easily extends to the library. But I have to wonder, is there internal research showing that when a student has temporary access to a book he/she is more likely to subsequently purchase it? I wouldn't be surprised if there was; I remember being a student short on funds, but it would never have been sufficient to use a library copy of a required textbook for the duration of the class.

-For the past two semesters, we used a survey to collect feedback from students who were using the textbooks on reserve. A frequent response to a question about how to improve the service was the desire to access the textbook online. When I created the survey, I added this option out of curiosity rather than because I thought it would truly appeal to most students. But if the feedback is accurate, and if online access to textbooks is a highly desired feature for our student population, the next thing the library could be doing is working with the publishers to arrange institutional subscriptions and access to the the textbooks through the college's online course management system.

-Another interesting occurrence is that students in online courses have come to the library expecting us to have a textbook unique to the online course. I think most people (including administrators) assume that students taking an online course will not expect physical, in-person services from the college, but this demonstrates the opposite. The fact that it has happened more than once may reflect certain things about our college's population of students taking online courses: That they are local residents; that they are taking other classes on the campus, or come to campus frequently despite not being required to; and/or that they expect a hybrid environment even when their classroom is entirely online.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Appropriation of Research

 crocus, blooming in the woods

I've found myself annoyed lately by certain information labeled research. Lots of this so-called research seems very questionable, and possibly corrupted by money and special interests, yet giving it the name research lends it an air of authority. True scientific research, on the other hand, is typically difficult. It is rarely able to prove something conclusively and is honest about its limitations. In the face of confirmation bias or blindness caused by over-specialization, it is hard enough to test a hypothesis fairly without vested interests pushing one way or another.
 
The problem is two-fold: There is misinterpretation of otherwise valid research, and there is research that receives the bulk of its funding from a non-objective third party and so has incentive to ask or avoid certain questions. Because valid research is often inaccessible to the general public behind paywalls, and because published research is not required to reveal the source of its funding, the entire issue largely goes unnoticed, unexamined, or ignored.  

At best it is unflattering to those involved when research is used to score points in matters of popular persuasion. I'd rather not give specific examples, because in some cases the original researchers may have been well-intentioned, but it seems that nearly every day there is news of some partisan group or commercial entity seizing upon a Research Study as validation of its platform or product. 

This may be because having an opinion, and arguing endlessly and blindly in support of it, is much easier than revealing objective, neutral truth through methodical research. I suppose it's possible for a researcher in higher education to remain untarnished by special interests, but it takes a lot of luck to repeatedly make high-profile, scientifically valid, and credible discoveries. Meanwhile, funding to support research is too often awarded to support someone's agenda.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Various in Libraryland

 
twigs in a pattern, after storms
 
I have a bunch of short ideas hanging around, so I'm combining them into one post. Here goes:

-I wonder if at some point there will be a period of dust settling when people stroll into the library and wonder where all the books went. I get the feeling that folks who are not regular users expect things to be exactly the way they left them when they went to set up their new personal computers, as though libraries might be immune to budgetary pressures, not to mention the immediate mobile access mentality. As frustrated as I am by faculty who quaintly insist that their students come to the library and find some newspapers to photocopy, I also pity them. They will be the ones who understand what is lost when they eventually realize the library collection is now largely leased instead of purchased.

-I wish librarians had the same type of leverage that instructors do, in terms of requiring students to use the library. Librarians end up competing with all the other support services at the college even though we are distinctly different from, say, the financial aid office. Encouraging people to use the college library is a good thing to do, and most people intuitively understand this, but that message doesn't necessarily extend into the classroom unless it's incorporated into assignments. At a commuter college, a classroom is often the only thing students are coming to campus for. They're not coming to explore the college library, no matter how beneficial that may be. Students might wander through if they have a few spare hours between classes, but they just as easily might not.  And many instructors seem intent on what I've heard called a trade school mentality, meaning that they do not encourage students to explore something that's not strictly part of a narrow curriculum of, say, how to use Microsoft Word.

-Another reason I like being a librarian is that I get to be intellectually curious but no longer have to go through the hassle of wondering where to find a source. I watch students who struggle with evaluating and synthesizing ideas even when a text is provided for them. Asking them to wander out into the vast information landscape and think carefully not only about the sources they do find but about their research process in general is a lot to bite off and chew in a few short weeks or at best the course of a semester. As a librarian, it's a privilege to finally be able to focus on the research aspect of the process.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Higher Ed: Another Financial Bubble?

 Skunk cabbage coming up in the woods. Ugly, but I'm always glad to see it.

I'm not trying to exaggerate the importance of higher education as an industry here -- if there is a bubble right now, and if it does burst, I doubt the ramifications will be as severe as with the housing crisis. However, several things have me a little concerned:

First is the emergence of for-profit institutions as a force in the higher education landscape. Recently there was a blog post in the New York Times discussing for-profit education with an optimistic angle. Commenters react with a range of opinions. Taken with the comments, I think the piece covers the major points of contention. The main one for me is the fate of students who graduate from for-profits, are unable to find jobs, and who default on their student loan obligations. If I understand correctly, for-profits generally charge more than comparable institutions, and most of that funding comes from student loans. As with mortgage lending, educational lending has in the past been considered a relatively safe form of debt, but what if large numbers of students start defaulting? In a way that echoes mortgage lending, loans have increasingly been offered to non-traditional borrowers. These students have often been lured into going to college with the promise of better jobs and greater incomes. On the relationship between steady employment and a college degree, I see correlation but not causation. We're about to find out which is the case. 

Secondly but strongly related, nearly all degree-granting institutions rely heavily on the federal government for funding. It's true there are some private schools, and schools with big enough reputations and endowments, that could probably survive independently, but most would not. Recent signs from the U.S. government indicate that financial support for higher education will continue. Lately I've heard a lot of talk about investment in education as part of the national infrastructure. If higher education continues to be a prerogative for the national government and words are backed by financial support even if student loan defaults rise, maybe everything will be fine, but I have a sickening feeling that the current system relies too heavily on this single funding stream.

Lastly, a significant reason why the cost of college continues to rise is that funding from state and local governments has been declining for approximately 30 years. Funding from the national government now provides financial aid for students in a way that is almost impossible for any college to ignore. The debate in the United States about the appropriate role of government could easily lead to ever less spending on higher education. Unless tuition, alumni giving, and endowments rose, government-supported institutions would then have to shrink or close.

What does all this mean for the academic library? In a worst case scenario, a golden age of access to electronic resources is coming to an end. I can't imagine any institution wanting to maintain a print-centered collection in this day and age, yet with an increasing proportion of our collections leased rather than purchased we are now more dependent than ever on continued levels of funding. Future cuts would mean we would lose much more than with cuts in the past. It would be like switching off the light and letting the room go dark.
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Update 12/12/11: There's a recent piece by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker that addresses this more elegantly than I have here.