On Friday afternoon I attended a seminar presentation by Tom Leonard, University Librarian at the University of California Berkeley. Leonard has a doctorate in history and has been on the faculty of Cal's journalism school since 1976. He's also been the University Librarian since 2001.
Ever the historian, Leonard began with an illuminating historical overview of academic libraries in the US. He divided academic libraries pre-Web into two broad phases: the "slacker phase" and the "overachiever phase."
Slacker phase (late 1800s): In this period students and faculty viewed the campus library as irrelevant, removed from the realities and heart of campus life. Hours were terrible, since the library closed at sundown. So at the exact time students could most easily go to the library, after the end of the class day, it was closed. And collections decisions had no bearing upon what students learned in the curriculum. What was this library thing anyway?
Overachiever phase (turn of the century up until dawn of the digital age): The big turn happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s--first on the East Coast, then spreading to the West Coast. As doctoral programs blossomed, so too did collections budgets and the desire to tie collection decisions with the curriculum. Academic libraries transitioned from peripheral entities into the "heart of the campus." The stated desire was to collect "everything," which in its way was Google-esque (Google's mission, after all, is to "organize the world's information.")
Leonard pointed out that "everything," in practice, meant much deeper collections in German and French than in Chinese or Korean. There was no attempt to collect with true comprehensiveness, despite rhetoric to the contrary. As he spoke, I remembered an analogy from the Dewey Decimal System. Melvil Dewey's treatment of Christianity in the Religion bin is fine-grained, while all the rest of the world's religions are dumped at the end of the line.
Although the great academic library collections were not truly comprehensive, they did become massive. As the 20th century continued, the key metric of an academic library's prowess was its "number of volumes held." Leonard referred to this competition between libraries as an "imperial" "arms race." I recall that "x million volumes" figure bandied about on my tour of the Northwestern campus as a prospective student, and this metric is very much with us today as we go ever deeper into the digital age.
The trouble is that this concept--"millions of volumes held"--is more about keeping up with the Joneses than anything else. How much difference does it really make that Cal has twelve copies of a book while Harvard has eleven? The more rational thing to do, way back when, would have been for the elite academic libraries to coordinate their collection decisions to ensure true comprehensiveness and to stretch dollars the furthest. Alas, human nature tends to be more narrow and competitive than this. And so, over a century we built up impressive collections that are now very expensive to maintain and to a large extent seldom used.
Today: After outlining this history, Leonard spoke about the challenges of making substantial changes within a large bureaucracy that rewards settled habits. Even if organizations know they need to change, it is very hard to do so when there is no shared language available to define what those changes should be. This is the current state of academic libraries.
Leonard described the work of a new Commission which will soon make changes about how the UC Berkeley Libraries should operate in the coming years, given budget cuts and the continued evolution of digital scholarship. Even humanities scholars, long-perceived as monograph fetishists, are now building Centers for Digital Humanities. In theory, this confluence of new modes of scholarship and budget strains will lead to bold thinking about how the Libraries should operate. But I suspect the Commission will offer a modest set of recommendations, locating operational effiiciencies that preserve the core function of collection development, and the core metaphor of the library as a keeper of books.
I could be wrong. We will have to await the Commission's forthcoming report. My prediction about the Commission's likely modestness is because most of its members are UC Berkeley faculty members. For at least a decade librarians have been grappling with the challenges of preserving "born digital" materials, and creatively re-purposing library space. But the deeply ingrained notion that the library is a warehouse for printed work has not yet budged very far in faculty consciousness, and I suspect it will carry the day. Arguments about the "imperial" over-reach of 20th century collection practices probably do not mean much to the Chair of the History department who is counting on an ample monograph collection next year.
The Future: So, where are we headed? Assuming that established notions of what an academic library should be remain in force, I'd like to see a bifurcated organizational structure evolve. The apparatus for physical collections and preservations would remain in place; alongside it, a skunkworks devoted to facilitating and preserving new modes of scholarship would be established. What's a skunkworks? A "project developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation."
Bethany Nowviskie has already developed one such skunkworks with some success at UVa. Other ideas are available in the "Libraries" section of "Hacking the Academy." The goal of these projects is to inspire and facilitate impactful projects in libraries that position us to thrive in the 21st century.
Perhaps these skunkworks would need to be funded by soft money first to prove their worth, and then later be added to the main library budget (at which point--when money's on the table--the real battles about the library's purpose would commence.) Or perhaps faculty members called to serve on the next library Commission in 15 years will demand serious treatment for digital scholarship, finally severing the tie to those imperial 20th century collection development practices. If that happens, these skunkworks will have been proving grounds.