Sleeping Taiga?: Ten New “Provocative Statements” about Academic Librarianship

The Taiga Forum has released their latest list of provocative statements about academic librarianship, which are sure to cause plenty of debate, consternation, and foment around the field as I type this post, as did their statements from 5 years ago. Taiga is now couching these as “intended to provoke conversation rather than attempt to predict the future”, instead of as real expectations for what the next five years will bring academic librarianship. Some of these are already happening, some will never happen, and some are truly just meant to poke a stick in the hornet’s nest and see what flies out. I’ve added some comments below each statement and I (and Taiga, frankly) welcome any and all discussion on these statements.

1. Organizational structures flatten

I already see this happening in academia in general, and particularly in academic libraries. Budget pressures, shifting demographics, and the necessity to examine new organizational and management styles will mean that a lot of what academicians have taken for granted as the “way it has always been done” will end up changing. Changing the grinding bureaucracy of the university is something we should all welcome and celebrate. I disagree, however with Taiga’s notion that “libraries will have less autonomy and librarian roles will have been subsumed into other parts of the university.” I see libraries in general, and librarians in particular, taking on increasingly more central roles in the university as areas like IT, instructional support, university presses, and the like are consolidated under the aegis of the university library. I also feel that academic librarians will be called upon more frequently to take administrative roles in the university as teaching faculty become more research focused and averse to roles in administration.

2. Radical cooperation

This is another area in which we are already seeing movement in academia. Libraries are not only cooperating with each other across the divides of institutions, but libraries are cooperating with other departments and entities on campus and within universities and colleges as well. And cooperation buys libraries a greater voice and stronger participation when working with vendors, publishers, and suppliers, and elevates the status of the organization within an institution when done in conjunction with academic or administrative departments. Which leads to statement number 3.

3. Collaborative space partners

This is a “no-brainer” that I think has been taking place for years. Many libraries (mine included) have spaces devoted to information technology, food service, instructional support, or other “non-library” use. And I think this trend will continue into the future.

4. Books as decor

I’m not quite sure how to respond to this one. On the one hand, Taiga states “within five years, graduate students and faculty will fill all their information needs online, never coming into the library”, which I think is a fairly accurate statement. Faculty and grad students, unless they are in a “book intensive” field like the humanities, haven’t stepped into the library for years, if ever. Taiga then goes on to state “yet they [faculty and grad students] will continue to idealize the library as a sacred place to commune with books. Libraries will respond by flipping their stacks into designer reading rooms that use books as decor.”

I see the library being used less as a “place to commune with books” than as an adjunct student union, makeshift conference center, or general hangout place for friends to converse, collaboratively study, and get together for all types of reasons. And libraries have always been used as such, in addition to being a repository of books. As the print collections dwindle, in size and in number, the other uses of the academic library will take on more prominence. I think the momentum for this has already reached a pretty heady clip.

5. No more collection building

Ah, the shift from “library as repository for knowledge” to “just-in-time collection development” and “patron driven acquisitions”. Nothing really new or provocative here. This has been happening in public libraries for years (decades even), and the time is ripe for it to take place in academic librarianship.

6. New model of liaison librarianship

I’m not really sure what Taiga is suggesting here when they posit “efforts to develop research data management and curation services will have led to a wholly new model of liaison librarianship that is focused on institutional content.” Are they saying that liaisons will focus more on institutional research and resources in a given field?  If that’s the case, I think they are right on track. If they intended something else, your guess is as good as mine.

7. Staff reallocation, elimination, and retraining

Again, not a very provocative statement. Many college and university libraries are overstaffed or undertrained. Others have the opposite problem. It’s a shame, but I think this statement may be the one that generates all the heat. No one likes to be told that their job is being eliminated. At least they didn’t suggest that MLS-holding librarians should be replaced by post-docs.

8. Library in the cloud

Oh, cloud computing! Such enormous promise, yet so elusive. Anecdotally, I remember about 15 years ago when Citrix was hawking the “Internet workstation” that would not have a hard drive and retrieve everything from remote servers. It’s too bad the bandwidth and computing power destroyed that dream. We’re a little closer to that reality now, but I’m not quite sure if we will see “all library collections, systems, and services will be driven into the cloud” in the next 5 years. I’d love to be proven wrong.

9. Boutique services

Taiga suggests that “libraries will be forced to acknowledge that our boutique services have been collecting “in the basement.” To clean house, libraries will implement planned abandonment.” But why planned abandonment? In the contemporary world of niche marketing and personalization, why doesn’t the academic library market, promote, and celebrate “boutique services”? Unless, like most crap bought anywhere with the name boutique, it’s not worth keeping. I’m not really sure what Taiga is referring to here, so I’ll avoid commenting further.

10. Oversupply of MLSs

Well, I never thought I’d see it, but someone has finally and publicly challenged the widely-held notion that there is an unlimited number of positions out there for MLS-holders. I remember being told, 15 years ago, that because of the mass retirement of the Baby Boomers, my generation wold see limitless numbers of positions for folks with an MLS degree. Well, it never happened, and probably never will. I’m glad someone finally had the chutzpah to put that rumor to bed.

Additionally, I think the MLS degree was “sold” to thousands of people who had no interest in libraries, librarianship, or the like. This is the real reason that , according to Taiga, ” library programs will have overproduced MLSs at a rate greater even than humanities PhDs and glutted a permanently diminished market”. Coupled with the fact that an MLS is an easy-to-obtain degree and the coursework can be completed in a year (or less!), makes the current “perfect storm” scenario. But this is really nothing new to the field.

All in all, I found these provocative statements to be much less provocative than those offered 5 years ago. I’m not sure if Taiga is shying away from the provocateur role or if there is just not as much to get excited about in the world of librarianship that is currently seeing massive budget cuts and the non-stop barrage of constant change.

So how do you feel about these statements? Are they provocative? Are they already happening? What does this mean for academic libraries? I look forward to the discussion.

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Becoming a Librarian-Scholar

One of the most challenging, yet rewarding, aspects of my current tenure-track, faculty-status position is the expectation of involvement in research and scholarship in the field. Although I have been an MLS-holding librarian for over 15 years, this is the first position where I have been required to contribute to the field through scholarship. I have struggled with developing a research agenda, conducting research, writing academic papers, and presenting at conferences, but discovered along the way that I enjoy research and scholarship, and involvement in these activities has renewed a lagging interest in the field and reignited my interests in librarianship.

I no longer consider myself only a librarian, however. I recently heard the term “librarian-scholar” at a promotion and tenure retreat, and feel that this term truly captures the type of work that I am doing now. And I would argue that all librarians, no matter the position, are also called to be librarian-scholars. Librarianship needs scholars to keep the profession alive, seek out new methods, procedures, and theories, and to add to the value and worth of what we do as librarians.

But research and scholarship is not areas in which librarians are regularly trained. The Master in Library (and Information) Science degree does not typically require a thesis process or other “capstone” research for graduation and very few research methods courses, if any, are offered, let alone required, as part of the ML(I)S degree. Librarians receive much training in supporting the processes of research and scholarship, but very little practice or experience in performing research and scholarship of their own.

One change I would advocate in library and information science education is a greater focus on turning out librarian-scholars, including a required course in research methods and the requirement of a thesis or capstone paper as a requisite for graduation. Many other professional degrees, including the MBA and MSW, have similar requirements and I believe that this contributes to better scholarship in these fields. Scholarship and research was never much of a concern before my current position, but now I as I have taken on the role of a librarian-scholar, I cannot see any way that one can be a librarian without scholarship.