As someone who is about to start graduate school to study higher education, I have developed a keen interest in the idea that the library plays an important role within the campus community. So I was interested to read this part of Ithaka S+R's release on the project:
"it [a discussion of the future of libraries] often proceeds without reference to the universities of which they are a part. We contend that the most important long term influence on the library is the requirement placed on it by changing patterns of research and learning. The changing patterns, in turn, are shaped by the focus of the university and the direction it is taking."I am interested to see higher education and librarianship put into conversation in this way because I think it draws explicit lines where there may only be implicit ones.
What gave me pause is the research question at the center of the project: what happens when libraries differentiate themselves in terms of services, not collection size; are there multiple models of success?
I think this is a fair question to ask, and I am curious to see what Ithaka S+R and OCLC find. How would our libraries be different if we thought more about the services we offer our user communities instead of the number of volumes in our collection. I think that collection size does not necessarily directly correlate with value or relevance to the user community. And while our collections are important to the people who use our libraries, they are not necessarily the first or only concern. So if the decision-makers in libraries only think of their library in terms of the number of volumes it holds, they may be missing out on making important connections with user communities. And, as the release on the project points out, a change in the patterns of research and learning on a campus can significantly alter how a library presents itself in order to response to that change in patterns. That is, in some ways the library of today looks different than the library of tomorrow will.
But what gives me pause about this question is that it surfaces a thing that often happens in libraries. Decision-makers in library seem to frame a conversation that puts collections and services at odds. Because space in a library is finite, short of the funds to undergo a building project, a choice must be made about how space is allocated: collections or services? How many new services and spaces can we offer our user communities, one wonders, if we clear our libraries of the collections they don't seem to want to use? So we clear our our stacks, either moving things offsite or withdrawing them from our collection. And we tell a story to our users about the value of the collections we have to offer them.
The collections in our libraries are not the enemy. And creating a false choice between collections and services is not the best way for a library to become more valuable to its user communities. Decision-makers have to balance the need to have a thoughtfully curated collection and the need to offer services that are relevant to the user communities that their libraries serve. Choosing to focus their efforts mostly on building a large collection is as unhelpful as choosing to focus on building a suite of new, cool services. The strength of a library, it seems to me, is at the intersection of thoughtful services and an intentionally built collection.
So yes, let's stop thinking that our value is tied up in the size of our collections. Let's weed our collections thoughtfully and relocation our collection when we need to make space for something new. But let's also stop think of our collections as the enemy of progress within our libraries and of engagement with our users.