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What do libraries need to thrive in the future?

by | Feb 7, 2024 | 2 comments

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And whose job is it to fill those needs?

By Camille Gamboa, Associate Vice President of Corporate Communications, Sage

One of the best things about working for an independent company is that we don’t have to think of (or obsess over) success as a growing number in a graph shared at the end of a quarter. Instead, we “obsess” over is how we contribute to the big-picture, long-term future of higher ed. And for us, that picture features librarians playing a big and central role in teaching, learning, and research. For so many reasons – their values, training, expertise, relationships, passions, etc., etc. – the librarian is key to a successful higher ed ecosystem. 

We talk a lot about how the different members of this ecosystem can ensure a healthy future for libraries and have asked many librarians what they think. At the 2023 Charleston conference, I led a panel on the subject and learned that when librarians do think about their long-term future as a profession (and it isn’t easy for them to slow down to do so), often many focus on what is in the realm of control of the library profession. 

The panelists Courtney Young, Jamia Williams, and John Burgess made the case that proactive adaptability, workplace flexibility, and a sustainability mindset (respectively) are key for a successful library future. An attendee poll found that those in the room think that flexibility, collaboration and relationships, staff, outreach, and especially money, are key to the successful future of the library. I was surprised that even the topic of money did not lead to finger-pointing, but to a discussion on how librarians themselves can either make money or demonstrate how they bring funds to campus. 

Earlier this year, I also put together a blog series in which I asked nine thought leaders in the industry to respond to one of the following:

  • What should members of the higher ed community do now to ensure a healthy future for academic librarianship? 
  • What persistent challenge do your patrons face that you most wish — if you had a magic wand — you could erase for them? 
  • What current trend do you wish would become part of the higher ed canon? Why?

Their responses varied in terms of who is best placed to make change, but some common themes emerged. Read a summary and read their individual responses on the Sage website

The changing definition of “librarian” offers a golden opportunity 

Several librarians referenced the changing academic landscape brought on by COVID, the open science movement, and rapid AI advances, all of which redefine the librarian’s role (once again!). Each change has made the librarian even more vital. 

But how can librarians re-engineer their own role while making the best use of unique traditional librarian talent? 

Ian Snowley, dean of learning skills and university librarian at The University of Lincoln, says the answer is “very simple – focus our services and our support where it will have the greatest impact on our institution’s mission.” By starting with that bigger picture, academic libraries will stay relevant for the long term. 

Andrew Barker, director of library services and learning development at Lancaster University, says that we should focus on the intersection of skills and partnerships. “We can start by moving beyond some of what are considered our traditional roles, building on our recent achievements and our skills, and looking to where our skills align with opportunities to partner. That may be in the digital sphere, where our knowledge often plays a major role, it may be data, it may be information, it may be the relationships we have across the university and across the wider sector including our vendor partners… It is this move beyond service provision to partners in our university’s strategic endeavors that will ensure a healthy future for academic libraries.”

Emerging technologies need to be considered thoughtfully (and not as foe) 

As new technologies arise, new skills must be learned. For example, librarians who “recognize that the rise of AI is an opportunity to stimulate and strengthen their talents and personal values” can foster “innovation while taking advantage of their unique human traits – traits that will be essential in the competitive job market of the future,” says Nora Quiroz, university librarian at Universidad CES, Medellin – Colombia. 

On AI specifically, librarians should consider adding a new role to their ever-expanding list – “prompt engineer” — to help those engaging with AI get the answers they need. 

Ray Pun, academic/research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education, agrees with this framing. “What is certain is that we have an adversarial relationship with any new technology and may need to rethink how to work with [ChatGPT] in a critical way that interrogates the content these tools produce.” But he warns that such an interrogation “must be centered on values of justice, equity, diversity, equity, and inclusion,” as the tool reflects – or even heightens – biases it encounters. Pun recommends that institutions adopt their own ethical frameworks for campus-wide treatment of the tool.

Librarians can – and should – play a more central role in enabling student success 

Some responses highlighted collaboration between different departments, particularly between librarians and faculty, to promote student success. Andrew Carlos, head of research, outreach, and inclusion at Santa Clara University, emphasizes that librarians — given their role promoting information literacy — should take a leadership role by offering more than just instructional sessions. 

Sarah Morris, a librarian at the Carter Center, suggests that librarians can work with faculty to design research assignments that align with students’ goals, address faculty frustrations, and address real-world issues. “From institutional racism to the climate emergency, and/or utilizing different technologies in research assignments to help students develop additional valuable digital skills,” librarians can address issues faced on campus and beyond. 

To invest in the library, we must invest in the librarian 

For librarians to help grow student skills, they must invest in their own professional growth. Courtney Young, university librarian at Colgate University, says, “Librarians must continually further their learning and develop skills applicable to the ways students are being asked to work.” Yet, they constantly meet barriers such as low funding for conference attendance or professional memberships, little time for learning or researching, and little recognition from their institutions for engaging in such pursuits. 

Andrew Carlos agrees that “campuses need to acknowledge the skills and knowledge of all library staff” – skills that go far beyond the traditional. “Given the nature of our work with students, they often feel comfortable sharing information with us that they wouldn’t share with their professors or others on campus. We also see and hear students’ struggles – we help as they struggle through enrolling in a class, provide snacks because they haven’t had anything to eat, and navigate websites looking for housing.”

Librarian wellbeing needs to be prioritized 

Many of the responses nodded toward the emotional nature of library work and the pressure it places on library workers. 

John Burgess says this reflects that librarians often internalize a “gap” “between their initial, idealized versions of that career and the everyday reality of their workplace.” He continues, “Academic librarians operate at the intersection of high ideals and little direct reward for possessing those ideals, rendering them highly susceptible to burnout.” 

So what can be done to support the librarian struggling to live up to their ideals and suffering as a result? 

“The antidote to occupational burnout is not getting rid of our ideals, it is cultivating a nuanced, mutualistic, more mature relationship with them. While it should not be up to individual librarians to resist occupational burnout, I believe everyone can benefit from learning techniques to minimize the risk. 

Jamia Williams, consumer health program specialist with the Network of the National Library of Medicine Training Office, advocates for flexibility to support librarian wellbeing, including work-from-home arrangements. “[During the pandemic,] this allowed us to be present for ourselves and our loved ones. We need to do a better job with boundary setting to thrive at work.” 

What do you think libraries need to thrive in the future? Which of these responses resonate and what have they missed? Leave a comment to share your thoughts. 

2 Comments

  1. Northwestern University

    Have you polled or talked to academic special librarians? Librarians (and those who work in libraries) in other sectors? Are some of the trends and conclusions the same?

    Reply
    • Camille Gamboa

      I have not but that’s a great idea. Let me know if you have recs!

      Reply

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