Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries: A Response

by Julie Todaro
Dean, Library Services
Austin Community College

(return to Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries)

The November 2006 ACRL Tech Summit was an invitational summit convened to address “how technologies, on the one hand, and the changing climate for teaching, learning and scholarship, on the other hand, will likely recast the roles, responsibilities and resources of academic libraries over the next decade.” The event was an “unscripted” facilitated roundtable and attended by 30 internal and external leaders who “both care about academic libraries and have the ability to look over the horizon in order to imagine an alternative future. The result of the summit was an essay titled “Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries.”

I attended with a variety of agendas. My primary role – in my opinion - was as President-elect of ACRL. I viewed the event as an excellent way to gain unique opinion and knowledge of and about the profession while gathering information that could assist me in my presidential initiative and my leadership responsibilities within the association. Although my secondary role was that of a dean, specifically a library dean in higher education, an additional role for me was one of a community college librarian. My comments here should be taken as just that, my comments and opinions. I do not represent the “ACRL Board view” of the event.

The Summit Essay
It is challenging to provide both an evaluative and summative response to our discussions. Clearly, getting a “group” response on such a wide range of issues and questions presents divergent approaches to capturing content and making recommendations. In addition, one’s “baggage” and/or prior knowledge frames different responses to both discussion and recommendations. That being said to me the essay provides an excellent summative look at where we are now. Almost a state-of-the-state, the document builds on the last five to ten years and offers an external view of where we are now.

From my “perch” many, if not most, of these discussions began years ago. While we are still struggling to be all things to all people (literally, it seems), we have made significant inroads and established toeholds that provide solid structures for most of the ideas and recommendations presented. Have we as summit participants/as a profession really accomplished anything if those external to our “discussion” and efforts seem not to know about us and what we do? During the summit those around the table presented widely divergent knowledge bases and frames of reference and not everyone had equal time to express him or herself. What struck me during the roundtable, however, was that individual participants expressed experiences from their own background/situation that were in-depth. Did most external to “us” know their libraries and library leadership on campus? Yes. Was every library experience a ‘complete’ one that made use of all of our resources and services? No, of course not, but I would very surprised if any randomly selected group – much less our experts – were completely knowledgeable about what we as a profession do. Did most participants external to “us” know the infrastructure of our business and global directions? No, but did we expect them to?  I know what my accountant does for me, but do I know global accounting views and directions? No. I know the “state” of my higher education environment, and – given my activities - know a bigger picture of higher education, but am I able to articulate the major issues of humanities scholarship on my campus? No, but my humanities bibliographer can.

My responses, in italics, follow selected text from the essay.

From the essay: “Today on the campus of virtually every higher education institution the library occupies a central position.  In its placement and prominence, the academic library conveys its integral role in supporting higher education’s core missions of research and education.”

Response: How I would love this to be the case, but it’s not. Have we gained more status, established broader missions and relationships in the last ten years? Absolutely, but all higher education support environments are fighting for recognition, funding and real estate. Libraries, as other higher education support environments, are striving to find funding and position ourselves to provide much needed balance and have our role(s) viewed as integral to teaching, learning and scholarship and student success. Does everyone see us as integral? No, but that’s been my goal for over twenty-five years and will continue to be.

From the essay: “Academic and research libraries have been early adopters of digital technologies and have provided leadership and training to help remake the academic enterprise.  And yet, for all their success in accommodating and even powering recent transformations in higher education, libraries and the librarians who lead them now find themselves asking a series of fundamental questions: ’To what extent, and in what ways, are academic libraries likely to change?’”

Response: In retrospect perhaps the question is the problem. We must change to continue our classic tradition of providing needed resources and services but within the context of the higher education of today and tomorrow. Although I think most of us recognized that we needed to change decades ago, I see the bigger problem as “can we get the necessary funding to carry out today and tomorrows’ critical initiatives” and – if we can’t – “is it possible to shift dollars from one commitment to another?” What should we stop doing in order to start or maintain something else? Perhaps a dialogue on the national level on “what are we no longer doing and why?”

From the essay:  “What new roles will librarians come to have in the changing information environment?”

Response: Although the answer to this can be inferred, we simply did not have enough time to discuss this in depth in the roundtable. One of my interests is not only what our new roles are, but also where and how will the ongoing professional development and continuing education needs be met? Library schools? Other higher education programs? Continuing education and professional development? This dialogue began MANY years ago and we still have more questions than answers. Who is up to the challenge?

From the essay:  “What aspects of the academic library will prove the most resistant or impervious to change?”

Response: My recollection and notes indicate we did not discuss this much in the event and, as the “no longer doing” question/issue above, this deserves a discussion of its own. As with other answers to questions, connections can be made and recommendations inferred that focused on the higher education environment in general – that is – “What aspects of higher education will prove the most resistant or impervious to change?” Within current business models the widely held opinion is that little in higher education funding will change and many feel that within current tenure models little within the senior ranks of faculty will change. Of course this discussion is just as relevant to senior library faculty and senior administrators. As our middle and front line staff are expected to change, are our own administrators embracing change?

From the essay:  “Will technology finally spur a recasting of how colleges and universities produce and disseminate knowledge?”

Response: We began these discussion years ago with an organizational/association wide discussion and commitment of funding to scholarly communication in general and within the context of a technological “present” rather than future. The answer to the question specifically could include “colleges and universities have no choice but to review how they produce and disseminate knowledge given today’s changing technological infrastructure.” Our question to address is “how will libraries recast their roles in the access, design and delivery of knowledge today?” As a profession, we have a variety of – and always need more -  excellent roadmaps and benchmarks. We are beyond our internal discussions and should focus on continuing to move the discussion out into the external arena to illustrate by example and market this role aggressively. Much like the information literacy movement (a la Earlham) of thirty years ago, identifying partners, “retreating” with partners, and identifying partner-driven models to create a series of benchmark projects is a solid approach.

From the essay: “If such a merging of interests takes place, what impact will that have on academic libraries?  Or conversely, if there is not a merging of these two agendas, will academic libraries be caught in the middle of an increasingly difficult competition for institutional resources?”

Response: Yes, we’re already caught in a competitive world of who gets the money, who holds the “keys to the technology cabinet” and who is the “tech leader” on campus.

Essay recommendations:
From the essay: First, libraries must evolve from an institution perceived primarily as the domain of the book to an institution that users clearly perceive as providing pathways to high quality information in a variety of media and information sources.

Response: I think we are well on the road and are already in our second generation of evolving. Among the first to embrace many technologies in higher education, libraries – if appropriately and adequately funded – often lead the “institutional way” to virtual and digital resources and services.

From the essay:  Second, the culture of libraries and their staff must proceed beyond a mindset primarily of ownership and control to one that seeks to provide service and guidance in more useful ways.

Response: I think we are beyond the mindset. When I first entered the profession the beginning discussions were “access vs. ownership.” Many of our decisions were made for us by shrinking dollars that drove choices of alternative formats, alternative storage and delivery, and seeking partnerships and shared access instead of ownership.

From the essay: Third, libraries must assert their evolving roles in more active ways, both in the context of their institutions and in the increasingly competitive markets for information dissemination and retrieval.

Response: We can always be more aggressive about carrying our messages forward, positioning and re-positioning our services and resources. It never ends and it shouldn’t end. Just as marketing must be a critical element of what we do, we need to continue to redefine our message to make sure – as all marketing ‘teaches us’ – to assess the message and the delivery mechanism.

Refocusing discussions
What should we look for in the essay? The essay provides excellent content to begin or re-focus existing discussions on:

• The characterization of our information -age choices

• Our need to continue our multiple roles of collecting, organizing and teaching ( our far more than “twenty year history” continues to need aggressive marketing)

• Struggle with credible content and web-delivered content (some credible, some not)

• Gathering and making info accessible transparently (continuing to refine how we balance maintaining transparency while getting “credit” warrants another global discussion and identification of exemplary programs)

• A discussion of “who is our audience?” (A critical expansion beyond the students and faculty into our critical role of delivering resources and services to the alumni - blends – in many cases – our need to be viewed as “revenue generating” in the provision of resources and services)

• The recognition of the for-profit education environments (the proliferation of the for-profit environments who focus on delivery of coursework but not on the provision of support services and resources that meet faculty and student needs with critical depth and breadth)

Recommendations for ACRL
From the essay: Convene and facilitate dialogues with leaders of key constituencies to consider the future of libraries in supporting the missions of higher education institutions.

Response: For over three decades ACRL has had a commitment to focus on external awareness and partnerships with an extensive focus realized in the last fifteen years. A review of the current strategic plan will reveal almost 50% of initiatives either directly or tangentially geared to external relationships. Always a balance of dollars and internal vs. external focus, a lesson learned would be there is no comfortable level of outreach to be achieved. Rather, aggressive funding and mechanisms to reach out and educate must be continued at both a macro and micro level.

From the essay:  Contribute to national efforts to better understand elements of successful learning.

Response: This recommendation needs a much closer look and an articulation as to how ACRL might further engage in this area. ACRL’s extensive discussion on teaching and learning and the information literacy standards (both general and discipline-specific – is useful in seeking a place at the table of discussion of “successful learning.”

From the essay: Identify and monitor indices of change in the environment of libraries and information dissemination.
Response: ACRL offers content on a variety of indices of change including legislative issues. The implementation of a pathway that identifies ways to translate our monitoring to the desktops of higher education administrators is underway with the current design and delivery of an extensive legislative network. More pathways for both monitoring and delivering content – similar to ACRL’s organizational and media outreach are always needed.

From the essay:  Provide leadership in helping libraries and librarians make effective use of technology in supporting research and education… and..

• Provide national leadership in communicating the potential and performance of libraries in adopting new paradigms and meeting changing demands of institutions, faculty, and students.

Response: Addressing change is a critical need of higher education in general. ACRL should expand the discussion of “change,” the identification of new paradigms and the delivery of “new” with its first focus being on effective use of and our role in technology in supporting research and education.

Todaro’s recommendations
Recommendation statements are very general and should be studied. Of course, academic libraries should “broaden the catalog of resources libraries provide in support of academic inquiry and discovery” and “support and manage the institution’s intellectual capital.” In addition, most - if not all - academic librarians believe that we must “become more assertive in helping their institutions define strategic purposes. It is my opinion, however, that academic libraries have led the way in “foster (ing) the creation of new academic communities on campus” both in the support of the institution as well as the major leadership roles of the “commons” and one-stop environments, the joint-use of teaching and learning spaces and when physical space has not been possible – the delivery of resources and services to the classroom, the dorm, the outdoor “commons” and to the desktop and “home” of their constituents. Can we reposition our current space as shared space? Again, perhaps the national dialogue should begin on “what might we stop doing” in order to meet contemporary needs. This discussion goes beyond resources and services and would yield an intriguing discussion for physical space issues.

So what’s the “answer” and how would I use the essay?
We need to “keep the conversation going,” as the press release directs, in the widest variety of locations .Most importantly:

• Realize that your higher education community may not view you your work or your library as you do

• Establish an internal dialogue within your library regarding  the institutional view of what the library is and what is does.

• Establish a dialogue with those external to your library but in your immediate higher education community

• Gather opinions, distribute facts, market your library with the specific, correct message you want for your external constituents realizing they won’t come to know you, what you do and what you offer on their own (For help developing your messages check out ACRL’s advocacy toolkit, “The Power of Personal Persuasion” available at

• Take the essay and/or the recommendations in the essay and create your own response. Take your internal temperature and score or grade your own environment. Compare essay recommendations to your own strategic plan. Are you on the path already? Are any recommendations ones to add for your own directions? If you’re well on the way, say so. If you need to add to your strategic plan, use the essay to begin the discussion both internally and externally.

Is it frustrating to always feel as if you have to position yourself and explain what you do? Yes, but it takes decades, literally, to make an impact and to  structure and restructure opinions,  knowledge bases and vision of who we are and what we do (even our own). There are moments of delight and even joy when – out of the blue – someone identifies what you do, includes you first as part of the critical discussions and decisions, asks you to lead an important project, recognizes an impact you have made, or just calls on you for your standard services and resources. I am reminded of a moment in the summit (and not my only moment) when a president spoke up and identified the unique role his college librarian had played in his institution’s recognition and design of processes to meet the needs of the freshman in the “first year experience.” The president outlined his own role in the discussion, the college librarian’s role, the process used to assess needs, the leadership role the librarian had played and the benefits to the institution and ultimately the benefits to the freshmen. It was excellent recognition of our roles and responsibilities and a great example of our strengths, what opportunities are available and what successes we can build on as we move swiftly forward into our future.

Although the temptation will be to respond primarily to the “essential actions” and “roles for ACRL” included in the press release, I encourage everyone to read both the press release and the essay so as to be fully informed.  I welcome your thoughts and comments so that we can “continue the conversation.”