Friday, December 21, 2012

Library Friends

The idea of establishing a Friends of the Library group for the college has been tossed around several times lately. At first I was wary, suspicious that it could be used to cut the library's budget, but now I'm beginning to see a place for it. Previously I associated Friends groups with public rather than academic libraries, but nearby Rowan University has apparently had one since 1996. And at other academic institutions it is common for alumni to establish book funds, which are essentially the same thing by a different name. In the past our own efforts have resulted in a Dedicate-a-Book program, but it is not actively promoted right now. 

I think a Friends group, or something similar to it, could be worth trying for a number of reasons:

(1) Despite the everyday frustrations common to working in a bureaucracy, many people are very engaged in the college community, and they genuinely want to see it do good things and do them well. I'd rather not approach people and try to persuade them to care about the library if they do not, but when they come to the library of their own accord it would be nice to have an established avenue for how they could help us.

(2) Fiscally, times are tight, and much of our budget goes to electronic materials. I think our patrons (a group which includes scholars, instructors, students, and the general public) still like to see printed books. They like the idea of books, and they like to think that libraries have books. They like books even if in practice they use electronic resources more often. So while our library devotes a lot of time and resources to electronic access, as long as the printed book represents academia, the library has an obligation to support a physical collection. Maybe the primary purpose of a Friends group could be to support that physical collection.

(3) When people want to give things to the library, they rarely think of electronic materials. Accurate or no, electronic materials are still considered ephemeral, while the library as a place is not. Heck, even I find the idea of donating electronic materials unappealing, and I'm firmly convinced of how important they are.

I think the next steps toward making this happen involve working with departments outside of the library, and this is where the real work begins. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Culture of Higher Ed

It is representative of higher education in general that the college where I work was originally a seminary. (The seminary was built on farm land, and prior to that it was forest.) I think about this a lot, not only because a few of the academic buildings show vestiges of their original purpose, but because some traditions of the church appear in academic life. Many perceive, half-seriously, that a vow of poverty is taken when selecting work in higher education instead of business. Academic culture is much more community-minded than other occupations. It also promises to elevate its disciples if they are willing.

I do not question whether institutions of higher education are, overall, a good thing for society, but there is something blindly aristocratic in an insistence that a culture should continue even when income does not meet expenditures -- a situation I fear many institutions currently face. This makes the existence of academic libraries, with printed materials now a luxury, more impressive than ever. Libraries, which were able to form as an unplanned side effect of a free publishing market, now contain larger assemblages of physical books than many of our students have ever seen before and might ever see again.

I mention all of this partly because of recent news stories about how higher education is in flux. Free courses are available online; plenty of entrepreneurs publicly call a traditional college degree unnecessary; the ever-rising cost of college, and the resulting debt-load for many students, is either out of reach or seriously criticized by many middle-class citizens. Not to be fatalistic, but in this climate it is not unreasonable to suggest that the college where I now work might go the way of the seminary before it, and that the campus will be converted to something else in the coming decades. Who knows what -- a medical village? Testing and certification grounds? -- but presumably there would be a corresponding shift in the culture.

Is it fitting that the best thing I can think to do is continue to come to work each day?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Barriers to Student Success

It is near the end of the semester, and the obstacles facing students are suddenly more noticeable. As they sprint to the finish, students are rushing around and packing things in, with no time to waste. Anything that is not a requirement, it seems, can be dispensed with. They have to do what to get a library card, in order to access the library resources? You can't get this online because of copyright? How many clicks does it take to connect to the database? The assigned reading is how many pages, and it will take how many hours?

In our department, meanwhile, it seems we have repeated discussions about specialization and the amount of time needed to learn to do a task efficiently. Occasionally librarians are pulled into helping at the circulation desk, for instance, and those transactions then end up taking twice as long due to unfamiliarity with the system and procedures. Students figuring out the expectations of a college during their first years (or semester) in higher education are similar to librarians negotiating unfamiliar tasks, and these can be painfully inefficient and frustrating experiences until mastered.

Some of the barriers that students encounter are unavoidable; some are due to poor time management or organization; some are a result of indifference. But I keep returning to the thought that if there is something we can do at the library to remove a barrier, we should. This may sound simple and obvious, but it belies the amount of energy and willpower it can sometimes take. Here are a few that come to mind as examples: *Off-campus authentication: Currently this involves the integrated library system and the local public library consortium, and to improve it would involve the college's public safety department, some new code from IT, and a new process for library staff. *Cooperation among services that are located in the same building: The library as a space occupies an entire building, but as a department it only occupies the first floor. Students often approach library staff with problems we have little control over.

Librarians, along with others working in academia but particularly in community colleges, have an obligation to identify and remove barriers in order to foster student success.