What does the boss think?

Attitudes of presidents and provosts on the university library is the title of an interesting article in the current issue of College & Research Libraries [68(3), May 2007].

The authors found that, although leaders recognize the symbolic value of the university library, it is the functional role of the library in service to the university’s mission that ultimately garners budgetary support.

Ultimately, these findings are a reality check for university librarians, confirming that the days of automatic library support are over. Indeed, university administrators expect their library directors to actively compete for funding with deans and others who sit on the provost’s council.

Findings are based on discussions with presidents, chancellors, provosts and chief academic officers at six public universities in the US. There are familiar messages. One noted that for students the library is “becoming more of a social center and less of an archival center.” The network has changed things: there are now many alternative sources of information. Library funding requests and strategies need to connect clearly to the values and mission of the university. The participation and visibility of the Director in the life of the university is important. Interestingly, the interview group favored internal feedback over external or comparative measures when assessing the library. However, the relationship between the library director and the provost may be the most important factor in library allocations. Outside fundraising and visibility as well as engagement with research and learning were factors that were more important in this study than in a similar study carried out ten years ago, as was innovative use of technology. Competition for research funding and changing needs and behaviors in the sciences are important issues. Changing realities all round require investment in mutual explanation and exploration of roles.
Reading this report, I was reminded of the presentation [ppt] that Peter Brophy gave at the Dinosaur or Phoenix conference in Hong Kong recently. He invoked Wittgenstein’s concept of a ‘language game’ to talk about how an organization or discipline discusses what is important to it. To participate effectively, you need to understand the rules of the game. He argued strongly that academic libraries needed to understand how to talk about themselves in terms of the academic language game. They needed to show that they understood the mission of the university, the practices of research and learning, and to be able to interpret their own mission and goals in the terms with which their parent institutions articulate their value.

One thought on “What does the boss think?”

  1. The University of Toronto’s library system grew enormously in the 1960s and 1970s because there was a decision to build the university into a major research centre. Claude Bissell, the president at the time, was a great believer in libraries, as was Ernest Sirluck, dean of graduate studies. They wanted a library where people could plan out all of their research, and then actually do most of it, right there. Toronto didn’t have that in the early 1960s, but with Bissell and others pushing, it soon did, and now the library is one of the biggest in North America.

    I mention this because recently I’ve read Sirluck’s autobiography, First Generation, and U of T chief librarian Robert Blackburn’s history of the library, Evolution of the Heart. Both discuss the growth of the library and Bissell’s role in it–without him, none of it would have happened. Blackburn reported directly to him, which was a great advantage.

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