Thursday, October 21, 2010

“The Value of Academic Libraries” and the incomplete chapter

It’s fall here in Chicago. The darkness comes earlier in the day and the temperatures cool, creating an environment where deeper contemplation is more easily achieved as all of the normal distractions of spring and summer fade away.

So it was when I sat down with the newly issued report; “The value of academic libraries; a comprehensive research review and report”. It’s a meaty tome (the full version is 172 pages, an Executive Summary at 16 pages is also available) that requires focus, contemplation and endurance to work your way through it. However, you’ll be rewarded for that effort because the work is packed with great information and ideas.

As noted in the Executive Summary:

“This report is intended to describe the current state of the research on community college, college and university library value and suggest focus areas for future research”
It does this extremely well, resulting in a set of twenty-two recommendations for librarians who want to establish the value of library services on their campuses. However, virtually every recommendation requires substantive, coordinated and collaborative efforts across organizations and numerous departments, and with technology experts from both within and outside of the academic organizations. However, after reading all that, the report begins to leave the reader unfulfilled. I turned to the “What to do next” section and hoped to find a plan for making all these ideas and plans come to fruition. I suspected we were in trouble when I read the following (emphasis is mine):
If each library identifies some part of the Research Agenda in this document, collects data, and communicates it through publication or presentation, the profession will develop a body of evidence that demonstrates library impact in convincing ways.”

“Major professional associations can play a crucial organizing role in the effort to demonstrate library value.”
This is followed by what I consider to be some low level suggestions on how all this might happen.

Surely we can muster a more focused effort than this in order to achieve these goals? What hits you hard as you read this is that ALA/ACRL showed good vision in writing this report, but unfortunately, they’re not showing the leadership to realize its goals. They are instead, relying on wishful thinking and the loose coordination of others.

Now, like many of you, I’ve been a long-time member of ALA (27 years) and I know that it is a huge organization representing many interests, people and organizations. Furthermore, I want to be clear, the fact that this chapter is missing is not the fault of the author, or the many people who worked on this report. It is, as I said before, a wonderful piece of work. It’s just that the final chapter is incomplete. It should describe how we’re going to drive this plan through to completion. Furthermore, I understand that it’s because of the way ALA is organized and governed, that this chapter was written in this manner. The ALA website admits to the problem we’re all facing here (again, emphasis is mine):

“The American Library Association carries out its work through a complex structure of committees and subcommittees, divisions, round tables, and several other types of groups.“
I personally consider that a bit of an understatement. The focus of ALA is so large and so diffuse that I frequently feel that by serving so many competing interests, it really serves none of them as well as it should. As it stands, this report serves as yet another example.

Of course, it’s easy to criticize; the harder task is always to answer the question: what should be done? Here’s what I consider missing in the chapter: Take the 22 recommendations and do the following:

  1. First prioritize the list (P1 through P3). We all know we can’t do 22 things at once, no matter how many organizations enlist. Some items build on other steps, some will require more resources than might be initially redirected, etc. Sure, many can and should be worked concurrently and thus my suggested use of three priorities instead of a pure ranked listing. ACRL staff should work with membership to do this prioritization.

  2. Next, have the Board or Council look at these recommendations and endorse them along with a directive across the organization that these represent goals and tasks to be achieved ASAP. ALA Headquarters staff should assign the elements that need to be accomplished to specific divisions, committees and round tables of ALA, along with completion dates. In other words, this effort needs to have the endorsement of leadership by the highest levels of ALA.

  3. Then the divisions, committees and round tables should take their assigned tasks and the job of enlisting the membership, as appropriate, to achieve their tasks to support of this plan. The ALA and division conferences could be used for progress reports and next-step coordination meetings between all the arms working on the goals and tasks to be achieved.

  4. The plan needs to be treated as a full project, with project implementation and management oversight, to follow up and ensure the pieces are resourced, completed on schedule, and coordinated in time to move towards the full implementation of the ideas in a coherent, cohesive manner. This should be assigned to ALA Headquarters staff to achieve.
Maybe I’m being naïve or too simplistic. However, what’s described in this report is a set of strategically important steps. They will serve to enhance and document the value of academic (and really all) libraries. In my mind, that makes it important enough to think that ALA should marshal resources across the organization, from all the divisions, chapters and round-tables in order to push this agenda forward in a new and bold way.

Such an initiative would demonstrate leadership not only in achieving the goals of this report, but in demonstrating that through directed, focused efforts, ALA can achieve new and very important things for librarianship.