Sunday, May 3, 2009

Libraries; A Silence That Is Deafening

During the last election campaign in the United States, there was a bumper sticker that spoke to what was happening in this country: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Fellow librarians, are we paying attention?

As a librarian in the United States, I’m growing more and more upset and outraged about the lack of a national vision for librarianship. Where is our professional leadership in this time of economic crisis? Who is describing a vision that inspires us and that we can support? Furthermore, why haven’t libraries and librarianship been considered as part of the national infrastructure and eligible to receive significant funding assistance to bring them to up to 21st century global capabilities as the US Federal Government is giving to banks and insurers in the new economic packages?

I’ve now done a couple of posts (here
and here ) stating that I think we librarians are lacking a national vision and agenda and are placing our profession and institutions at risk as a result. I believe the profession’s introspective nature and actions have led to a situation where our lack of a focused strong vision and agenda has resulted in a silence that is deafening. It’s time for us to speak up. I for one do not want to contribute to the silence!

I recently read an interesting editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education
that I found extremely well written. It described this same set of issues in today’s educational institutions and the actions educators should be taking in response. There are some wonderful messages and ideas in that article that can be applied directly to libraries (frequently, with little more than a word swap).

John Simpson, President of the University of Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, makes the following points, which I’m going to paraphrase and add to, in order to have it apply to libraries:

1. Today’s youth face a decreased probability of graduating from college in this country when compared to their parents. The American Bar Foundation separately notes:
“It is surprising and disturbing that, at a time when the premium for skills has increased and the return to graduating high school has risen, the high school dropout rate in America is increasing. “ The ABF further notes: “To increase the skill levels of its future workforce, America needs to confront a large and growing dropout problem.” Both what is stated by Dr. Simpson and what is stated by the ABF, represent trends that are massively alarming for employers and society in general. Since libraries are an integral part of academic campuses, this trend is of significant concern and should be a wake up call for libraries and librarians to drive for a national solution.

2. Dr. Simpson goes on to state: “We must again treat higher education as a public good, and to get there we need federal leadership” What is stated here is directly applicable to libraries as well. In fact, if we look at other countries, such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore (the list goes on), we see federal governments displaying not only an understanding that libraries play a key role in the future infrastructure of their countries and their pursuit of global excellence, but more importantly they are backing that understanding with government financing. In many cases that financing is tied to libraries (and educational institutions) achieving nationally defined goals. Brilliant!

3. “What is America’s national education strategy? ….What is our plan for making sure all...can compete and excel in a globalized economy?” are additional questions posed by Dr. Simpson. Again, the same questions are directly applicable to libraries. The sad answer right now is that there is no plan of this scope and dynamic for U.S. libraries. Simpson notes when talking about educational institutions “in the absence of shared national goals, state legislators perhaps can’t be blamed for taking short-term steps…” Again, the parallels for libraries in the United States are amazingly similar.

The United States now has trillions of dollars being spent by the federal government to rebuild its infrastructure. Yet if I go to the ALA website, what I find is this statement about the Omnibus spending bill: “The $410 billion spending bill, which includes the nine unfinished appropriations bills from last year, contains $171.5 million for the Grants to State Library Agencies program within the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). This funding level is an increase of more than $10 million from last year…” That might be well and good had libraries received appropriate levels of funding to begin with but when the funding has been so poor it has little impact. Further, if my math is right, that means out of a $410 billion dollar appropriation, libraries are getting less than 4/100’s of ONE percent of that amount!!! It is almost insulting. What is even more unbelievable to me is that ALA and its membership seems to find this acceptable? A recent post by Library Journal
points out that libraries received a “cameo” in the President’s address to Congress. Are we really satisfied that we received a cameo? Is our own self-image such that we don’t believe we offer way more than “online job searching and resume development, education on personal finances, and other services that respond to today’s pressing needs” as justification for us to receive additional funding? I find this cause for concern.

The librarian profession is part of the core infrastructure of America, of its society, and it is part of the very bedrock upon which the ideas and technology that defined our lives was built. Where is our outrage that the cutting and reduction of this core infrastructure is allowed to occur? Why aren’t we banding together to reaffirm and tell our story and articulate a vision? Our fellow educators seem to have a similar need maybe we should align with them? Given the state of the newspaper industry, another major information supplier that is rapidly disappearing, maybe we should also bring them into our efforts. Maybe all three groups, given the opportunity, could come up with a new model that maintains the core mission, goals and objectives they were theoretically founded to serve and which share so much.

The bottom line here is that we’ve got to get on with the task of redefining librarianship and what it means for users. And as part of the national agenda in America to rebuild infrastructure, we need to make it clear we are part of that infrastructure. Librarianship is important. The basic principles upon which this profession was based and the tenets that define its services are as sound as those defined in the documents underlying the democracy of America. We’ve seen those very principles under direct attack in our society and hopefully we’ve moved to pull them back to safety (although I’ll admit the question is still open for debate). Now it is time for us to do the same for our profession. Maybe we need a single, articulate leader to shoulder that role for us? That would undoubtedly be the easiest. But lacking that, we have many brilliant minds in this profession. Let’s carve a pathway, build a platform and align behind a clearly articulated vision of librarianship that will be understood and supported both nationally and internationally. Let’s map out how the vision contributes to the population we serve and the creation of global, competitive workers and by so doing, help to answer why government involvement and funding is needed. (Note: There are at least some ALA division efforts on this front. See ARL’s Strategic Planning initiative here
. Although an effort to find the same for libraries in general, National Libraries and/or Public Libraries can leave one exhausted and unsatisfied. As a result, even the ARL effort doesn’t support a larger national plan for libraries). It’s time for us to make it clear that alone or together with educators and possibly news people, we as librarians, are also ready to lead again.

Let’s start today.