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University libraries face uncertain future in a crowded information marketplace

Expert chides librarians to identify their core mission and ‘unique value proposition.’


For the record, Ken Haycock believes the future of libraries “can be very bright.” The long-time consultant and expert in library and information management said he’s “very optimistic,” adding for emphasis, “I am a critical friend of libraries.”

But those who heard his presentation at the Ontario Library Association annual conference in Toronto at the end of January may not have felt reassured. Dr. Haycock spent the next hour outlining serious challenges facing both public and academic libraries.

There are some “very basic questions we need to ask ourselves in order to figure out our future and our place in the information marketplace,” he said. Top among these questions: “What exactly is our mission?”

Dr. Haycock offered this rhetorical response: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – except that is already the mission statement of Google. His point was that “the information marketplace is a very crowded place to be, and we can’t distinguish ourselves very well there. So, if we’re going to play in that marketplace we have to have a unique value proposition or we have to redefine what that playground is going to be.”

Currently chancellor of Vancouver’s Capilano University and a research professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, Dr. Haycock is also professor emeritus and former director of the University of British Columbia’s school of library, archival and information studies. Since 2013, he has teamed with fellow consultant Jane Dysart to organize a series of gatherings they call the Future of Libraries institutes. There have been four such gatherings so far, bringing together more than 250 public library chief executives, university librarians and their senior staff to discuss the issues they are facing (provosts were also consulted, but separately). The first meeting was held in Vancouver and the most recent was this past February in Los Angeles. Dr. Haycock said he intends eventually to write-up his observations from these meetings, “because it is becoming pretty consistent what the issues are.”

As well as questioning their mission and unique value proposition, Dr. Haycock said libraries need to identify “the boundaries within which we will operate.” Areas once dominated by libraries, such as reference services, are now provided by private companies online, he noted. Moreover, areas that libraries are looking to expand into are already occupied by others. Dr. Haycock gave the example of community centres that have transformed themselves into learning centres by providing Internet workshops, literacy programs, preschool programs, book clubs and so on. And many of these programs are offered at a much lower cost than at libraries. “How do we deal with that?” he asked.

Once libraries have identified their mission, Dr. Haycock continued, they then need to agree on what constitutes success, at least for their own institution, and how to measure it. “In every set of questions we’ve undertaken with CEOs, city managers, provosts, they all have a different view of the success factors for their library. For some, it’s as simple as circulation, foot traffic, web counts. For others, it’s impact on family literacy, economic development, social cohesion. For others, it’s advancing student learning. For some universities, it’s student success. For others, it’s helping faculty to get research grants.”

On the topic of academic libraries, Dr. Haycock recounted an observation by a provost concerning the library’s claim that it was busier than ever as a study space, especially during exam periods. “‘Great,’ says the provost, ‘I can open up the cafeteria for ten percent of what it costs for you.’ If it’s just study space, there are alternatives.” In response, librarians “fall back on the old nostrum that you can’t have a great university without a great library,” said Dr. Haycock, adding, “Actually, you can. There are examples today.” Dr. Haycock related a story about another provost who questioned whether a librarian was really needed to negotiate site licences. “The purchasing department could do that,” he said.

Part of the problem is one of branding. He referenced a study by a university that found that the majority of undergraduates said they never used the library in their first two years. However, the students said they appreciated the databases of articles that the university provided, being unaware that this was a library service.

His take-home message is that librarians need to focus on what they see as the unique expertise of their professional staff, to demonstrate it, and to leverage it for community value. “We need to become much more competent in looking at what exactly it is that our professional staff can do that faculty can’t do, that teachers can’t do, that social workers can’t do, that researchers can’t do. … And how can we start to collaborate to make the institution a better place for students and faculty?”

In his view, this is “a huge challenge. I don’t think there is a lot of time. And I think we’re just sleepwalking. Somebody’s got to get out ahead of the game.”

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  1. Siobhan Stevenson / April 1, 2015 at 14:37

    With all due respect to Dr Ken Haycock, he has built a successful career on the making of bold and dire pronouncements about the state of the profession only to dine out and on the anxiety –and the business– they produce for his firm. As an associate professor who worked as a professional librarian for many years before returning to the academy and who maintains close linkages with that sector, I take issue with this one-sided, uninformed, and reductionist take on the state the profession. The content of this article would be better placed in the editorial section or as an opinion piece written by Mr Haycock himself. To produce this under the “news” section of University Affairs demonstrates a stunning lack of editorial judgement, never mind the potential damage it does to a generation of present and future graduate students.

    • SDas / April 2, 2015 at 12:23

      Yes, very appropriate comment. I agree! This seems like such a one sided opinion piece. I must say I grow increasingly weary of those in higher ed, who evoke professional expertise to advance agendas that undermine broader social benefits, perpetuate the neoliberal vision of everything (including information management), and create more opportunities for the author’s consultation business.

  2. William R. Maes / April 2, 2015 at 12:05

    While I do appreciate Ken Haycock’s observations on the challenges facing libraries, both academic and public, I am concerned that the print legacy of libraries is being largely ignored. Not all books have been digitized and many that are remain in an inaccessible legal limbo. While there are millions of books there are many more printed reports, studies, essays, government documents, etc., that still need preservation and management with the possibility that they will never be digitized.

    As libraries ponder how to keep themselves from going extinct by busily seeking new missions and directions, hopefully they will not neglect what has been the basis for their existence through the millennia: the collection, preservation and management of the printed word, and by extension, the digital word, It might well be a mission that can continue to serve some of them in the future.

  3. stevenb / April 3, 2015 at 13:35

    Asking the question, what is our mission or what business are we in is a good one for librarians to be asking. Why does it have to be organizing all the world’s information. We need to promote the idea that libraries are about much more than the content they hold.I’d like to think that libraries are in the education business. Beyond that, some of ideas shared are hardly new, and there are many libraries, academic and public, moving from gatekeeping to gate opening. Sleep walking? I don’t think so.

  4. SC / April 3, 2015 at 14:26

    University libraries serve very few and can be easily ‘rationalized’ and reorganized without affecting most students, teachers and researchers. I am a biomedical researcher and 99% of the reading/research material is available online (Pubmed, Medline etc).
    The libraries at our campus (a major research uni in the Prairies) mostly serve as a combination of internet cafe and quiet study/makeout space. These services could be provided at a much lower costs with minimal staffing (security guard and one computer person on hand).
    The internet has changed so many aspects of civilization (newspapers, music stores, paper journals)….. this is just the latest.

  5. Ken Haycock / April 4, 2015 at 11:33

    It is to easy to diss the messenger. These are the consensus views of more than 250 senior library leaders. And for the record, I do not consult with academic libraries.
    The view was not a different mission but a more refined one, built on the unique expertise of professional staff.
    I see that as neither dire nor reductionist.

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