Monday, June 10, 2013

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in the Academic Library

Fully 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families. And libraries are touchpoints in their communities for the vast majority of Americans: 84% of Americans ages 16 and older have been to a library or bookmobile at some point in their lives and 77% say they remember someone else in their family using public libraries as they were growing up. 
Still, just 22% say that they know all or most of the services their libraries offer now. Another 46% say they know some of what their libraries offer and 31% said they know not much or nothing at all of what their libraries offer. (Library Services in the Digital Age, Pew Research Center)
Ahh, libraries. Never more important, and never more irrelevant. One could be forgiven for thinking that along with declining budgets, libraries themselves, as a concept, are in decline. When faced with this perception, or perhaps the reality, librarians have three options: exit, voice, and loyalty.

Exit means leaving the profession, as at least one librarian has done rather vocally in the last week. Others are thinking about it. The specific reasons for exiting are varied, but stem from dissatisfaction. Exit need not be physical; plenty of people mentally exit their jobs.

Voice means the airing of grievances, and I suspect the majority of librarians fall into this ideal type; seeking to improve libraries and working conditions by speaking up in a variety of media.

Loyalty is the action and behavior of those relatively satisfied with their organizations. We rarely hear from them, and as a result tend to discount their numbers.

Voice takes many forms, but a recent meme is to decry the death and decline of libraries at some future date thanks to current events. Enter the "academic library at risk."

Armed with horrific data about what faculty think of us, never mind that 76% of faculty are adjuncts whose own livelihood is far more tenuous than any academic library's, the "academic library at risk" trope is for the most part unhelpful because it offers alarmist rhetoric without any solutions. To wit:
We will not survive by focusing on what we think our patrons need and ought to want, in contradiction to what our patrons say and believe they need and want. We will not survive by trying to convince them to want what we provide, but only by changing and coming up with new provisions that excite and delight them.
We need to change. We need to provide new and different services. We need to preserve some services, but significantly change the manner in which they are delivered.
And yes, that means we need to reduce and eliminate other services too. Change is hard. Yes, there are still some staff and patrons who are used to and rely on the services we’ve got now exactly how we deliver them now, and are going to be disrupted and upset by change.
Okay, so I'm cheating, because all those three quotes are from the same article. And to be fair, alarmist rhetoric is not without value. And unlike many other articles I will not link to, these are worth reading. But at what point is an academic institution going to forgo a library? When will it happen, and will it happen because the library becomes nothing more than a website with databases and a discovery service? Who among institutions of higher education is "disruptive" enough to do something truly daring and close a library?

How important are libraries? So important that as soon as opposition occupies physical space, it attempts to build one, as evidenced by recent actions in Turkey as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement. So important that 91% (!) of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities. And yet, at the same time, not important enough to fully fund. Not important enough to keep people from exiting for monetary reasons.

Focusing on a decreasing percentage of tenure-track and/or full-time faculty to show an academic library's worth and to obtain funding is a fool’s errand. Budget cuts are coming regardless, and have been for some time; appealing to this shrinking group won’t be a bulwark against cuts.

Rather, these cuts originate in state and local governments, and the rise of a bloated administrative class of higher education professionals whose populations sometimes exceed the number of full-time/tenure-track professors, as is the case in the University of California system. It is telling that even climate change denier George Will recognizes this latter point. There are three ways to get tenure: teach, research, and administrate. We can infer from the rise of Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, who is in charge and what they think of teaching.

Many academic libraries are playing a game that’s rigged. We may as well focus on what we do best, and that includes student services, whether they are appreciated or not. As a librarian and an administrator, if my library is going down regardless, it’s going to do so on my terms. The primary focus of this library, and, I suspect, most academic libraries, isn't faculty, or administrators. It's students. So I'm concerned that 18% of faculty agree with the statement "Because scholarly material is available electronically, colleges and universities should redirect the money spent on library buildings and staff to other needs," up from 8% in 2006 (Source is figure 44 below), but I'd be a lot more concerned if they came from the people who use our library the most, students.

Download Report

What else do we do best? We have values. We don't give your data away, we don't violate your privacy, and most of us will politely chuckle when you make a Dewey Decimal System joke. We are a "third place," and that includes a place for faculty. And yes, we're more than "just books."

I won’t give up on outreach to administration or faculty; I will continue to use the language of institutional mission statements and strategic planning and to collect and present data that shows what we do and how we add value, and values, but how we go about earning that data is going to be on our terms, not theirs.


  1. I am not a librarian, but I probably fall between "voice" and "loyalty."

    1. That's an excellent post. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  2. Thank you for applying Hirschman to libraries! I've explored the connection and applicability, and appreciate your analysis.