Column Editor: Corey Seeman (Director, Kresge Library Services, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; Phone: 734-764-9969) Twitter @cseeman
If you wondered what I was listening to these days, you will likely hear classical music from my two favorite stations.1 If I am not listening to that, it is likely I am listening to Broadway on XM or the brilliant cast recording of Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s brilliant show that captured the 2019 Tony Award for best musical on its way to a total of eight wins along with 14 nominations. This brilliant re-telling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a time period that conjures up the image New Orleans during the Great Depression.
At one point, Orpheus is asked to share a toast to Persephone to welcome her back and celebrate the arrival of Spring (in the song titled Livin’ It Up On Top).
And if no one takes too much, there will always be enough
She will always fill our cups
And we will always raise them up
To the world we dream about,
And the one we live in now!
When I first heard that beautiful turn of phrase, it might as well have been 1,000 years ago. Right now, we definitely find ourselves wondering about the world we dream and about the one we live in now.
And as our libraries, theaters, stadiums and convention centers remain quiet, we are left to wonder and ponder what the future will bring. It is as if we are in a gigantic intermission and we are all left wondering when the house lights will flash to let us know when we can return to our seats. It has been weeks and weeks — we are still wondering.
If there was ever a time to ponder change management, maybe it is this time. Strike that — it is definitely the time to think long and hard about what we are doing and what will be needed of us after get to return to normal — or what we think will be normal.
If you read my earlier columns, I have broken down change management into six key terms: inevitability, rapidity, flexibility, hospitality, accountability, and empathy. These terms are particularly important to use in the context of your institutional culture and identity. Through these six terms, I was exploring how to best manage your operation in less than optimal conditions (and let’s face it, most libraries are operating in exactly that “place”). I need to work on hospitality, but given the state of the travel and food service industries, maybe a pause might be in order. Instead, I want to share some thoughts that I pulled together for my annual report to the Academic Business Library Directors.2 As has been the case over the last few years, we have been asked to address the “Top 3 Things Affecting Your Library.” What I shared might make sense for a broader audience.
Building a Library for the World We Live in Now
In thinking about this question, I broke it down into three terms: Resources, Relevancy and Resiliency. I also want to address one more term, the need to be grounded in Reality.
Resources can make or break a library. Resources, very loosely identified, give the library the fuel they need to run. These resources include financial resources (needed to grow and acquire collections), personnel resources (needed to provide services and assistance for the community), and space (needed to operate and provide places for students and community members to work). If a library is deficient in any of these resources, then providing services and information tools to the community is impaired. Larger libraries and smaller libraries have one thing in common, neither have enough resources to fully satisfy their campus communities. In the world of COVID-19, there are not many libraries that will have the people and budget they need to fully support their communities. For librarians who support their community through print resources, our world has been flipped upside down with the shuttered buildings and the need to close face-to-face services. Working through this new world order will require libraries and librarians to be creative and collaborative here to bridge the gap. If international students are not coming to North American universities (especially the business schools) or students decide to defer a year or two — this could get much, much worse.
Relevancy stems from the simple question are we providing the resources and services that our campus community needs. I was thinking about the billions of dollars of print books that are sitting on the shelves of our locked libraries these last 2-3 months. While we will get back into the buildings someday — was that the best way to help our campus? I also saw a message from a vendor encouraging the adoption of OER textbooks (this is good) with a purchase of a printed set of the freely available 32 volumes for your reserve collection (this is bad — especially now). I know why you would want to have a print option available — but is this the best use of money for a library? The desire for us to be the library of old will make us less relevant for what our community needs. When all our free access to resources dries up this summer — will we be able to help the campus as effectively as they need?
Resiliency might actually be the most important here. How do libraries bounce back after this longest term ever in Winter 2020? How do we grow and change to reflect our current world? There are many librarians who see our current situation as something that will be over in due time. But in many ways, this will last longer for institutions in the higher education space. A colleague at the University of Michigan Library astutely pointed out that our austerity will far outlast the public health crisis. This is a complete change in the way that we operate and what we can do. From this event, there will be schools that consolidate, merge, and collapse. From this event, there will be publishers that will do the same. The most important task we have as librarians is to see this not as an event or an episode, but an opportunity to change how we operate and how we interact with our campus and our users. It might not be 100 years until the next pandemic…
Reality did not make the initial trio of elements — but it might be the trickiest. Maybe it is my role embedded in the Ross School of Business, but our reality heading into the Fall Term is one that cannot truly be figured out just yet. I was listening to an interview with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who talked about his state’s response to COVID-19 as stone to stone. As you cross the morass, you plant your foot on a stone and wait for it to steady before moving the other leg. Our new reality is one that will forever change our environment and should forever change the way that we think about services for our communities. When we first moved Kresge Library Services to a library without print holdings in 2014, I thought we were 20-30 years ahead of the curve. Now, I think we are less than 5 years. Just as COVID-19 accelerated the demise of many retail and travel entities, I think this will accelerate problems across our environment. The things that we could count on in libraries may not be there for us in the year coming up.
So in many ways, we need to raise a toast, “to the world we dream about, and the one we live in now!” We need to see this as two distinct places and act accordingly. While it is great to dream about the 2020 that we all planned to have, in the end, it will not help. We have a new reality and our job is to look forward. Don’t look back, whatever you do. It will not end well for us, as it did not end well for Eurydice.
Corey Seeman is the Director, Kresge Library Services at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is also the new editor for this column that intends to provide an eclectic exploration of business and management topics relative to the intersection of publishing, librarianship and the information industry. No business degree required! He may be reached at <[email protected]> or via twitter at @cseeman.
1. WRCJ-FM (90.9 from Detroit, Michigan) — Classical Days and Jazzy Nights — https://www.wrcjfm.org/ or KBAQ-FM (89.5 from Phoenix, Arizona) — great classical music all day long under the name KBACH — https://kbaq.org/.
2. See ABLD at http://www.abld.org/.