From the Dean . . .
How to Continue to be a Great Library in Hard Times
Most of us have been following the news about the economy and the University’s budgets with interest and increasing concern. There is no doubt that our state and Auburn University will face some lean times and belt tightening as our country slides further into recession. The University Libraries will have less to spend for the next several years.
So what are we to do? My firm belief is that we should renew and reshape our goals – and never give up on our aspiration to be a great public university library. Hunkering down will only guarantee mediocrity. If I have learned one thing about you over the past four years it’s that you have too much energy, creativity and devotion to excellent librarianship to settle for mediocre.
We will still have a budget, albeit a smaller one. We will be able to hire new staff – but we will not fill all open positions. One thing is certain, we will buy and process fewer books, journals, and documents. We may have to consolidate and streamline some library services. But, perhaps this is not a tragedy.
For many years librarians have tied our professional self-image to counting how many thousand new volumes we add to the collections each year. But really, is this any way to measure excellence or prosperity? I love to say we are the largest library in the State of Alabama but I am even more proud when I talk about how many students we’ve taught and how well we served them, about our efficient and responsive processing units, about our leadership on campus and in the state in technology and digitization, and about our role in supporting the increasing academic and research excellence of Auburn University.
Quantity may have been a good rough measure of a research library when I started my career – but not anymore. Counting volumes, or staff, or the number libraries on campus is no way to measure the success of a university or its library system. For most academic disciplines, the size of the local print collection is absurdly irrelevant to the success of faculty or students.
We can take pride in our great collections – the Auburn community will continue to enjoy the benefit of them for generations to come. But, today, most of the world’s knowledge and scholarship is created in digital text, images, and multimedia. Books and monographs are still hugely important to scholarship, but they, too, must be managed and organized in ways that fit with a 21st century vision of libraries and the university. We have no choice. All universities are facings difficult decisions about how best to use their limited resources. Libraries must adapt to the changing university environment or they will no longer be supported.
The leadership of the University of Wisconsin Libraries has developed a set of principles that they call “Looking Forward.” I think they are useful for us as we toward the next few years.
- Maintain excellence. We will maintain our commitment to excellence in all that we do. We will not begin with an assumption that budget cuts necessarily require reductions in library hours, services to users, or access to information. Indeed, the pressure of budget reductions may allow the library to become more efficient and focused in the way it does its business while improving service to students.
- Become smaller. We may become somewhat smaller in staff size and programs. We can do this by taking a fresh look at how we deliver services, process collections, and manage technology. The truth is that we can always rethink how we support university teaching and research.
- Do Cool Stuff. Nothing will protect the library’s future more than a deserved reputation for creative collaboration with library users. We have survey feedback from students who say that “the Libraries rock” – primarily because we have worked with them to design services and work spaces that enable them to do their academic work better. Faculty members appreciate the Libraries’ role in helping them develop new approaches to research and teaching. This is no time for “back to basics” – the Libraries must innovate or die.
- Hire for the future. Our recent experience has shown that we are still able to recruit dazzlingly talented new staff members who can hold their own with the outstanding and dedicated staff of this library. We must never be afraid to hire people who are more talented than we are. We need a diversity of talent with the agility and adaptability to excel in a rapidly changing information environment.
- Strengthen our relationships with friends. Across the county the best collections were given to libraries – not bought. Our most innovative services were created in partnership with friends and library users who suggested new ideas for improving the Libraries. The Libraries are most supported and successful when it is trusted that we will use all of its assets wisely and effectively for the benefit of students and scholars.
I doubt these are new ideas for Wisconsin. I know they aren’t for us. The Auburn University Libraries already follows these principles. Combined with your energy, hard work and dedication, they account for our success and accomplishments. I’m grateful to Ken Frazier for permission to use his article “How to Be a Great Library in Hard Times” in The University of Wisconsin-Madison Friends of the Libraries Magazine. It’s a good reminder for me that even in tough times, we can stay focused on our mission and on a future that is bright and full of promise for ourselves as library workers and for our organization as a critical part of the University.