Taking a Longer View

From Library Babel Fish, January 30, 2014

I’m working with a group of liberal arts college librarians to explore the question of whether we can contribute something valuable to the open access movement by founding a press. This puts participating librarians on the horns of a dilemma because it would involve taking money that we use to provide our local communities access to published scholarship in order to publish scholarship anyone can access. The practical and the ideal are in direct competition for resources.

This is an example of what Mita Williams meant when she addressed the question of “why librarianship is difficult and contentious.” Of late, we have sacrificed the larger question of the value libraries have for society for the smaller question of what the library can do for its institution and its immediate constituents. This is something happening in education generally during our age of austerity. The underlying assumption is that what benefits society generally will be revealed by competition when we run the numbers, because the market knows best and numbers don’t lie.

As the demand to justify every move we make with metrics trickles down to the day-to-day operations of the library, an obsession with metrics that Jonathan Rochkind warns can (mis)lead us to focus on only that which can be easily measured and/or that which will make us look good, Mita charges library directors to do a better job of articulating the broader mission of libraries. Those broader goals are far more universal and enduring and, in the end will be our saving grace.

The more business-like our approach to education, the more each thing we do is measured by return on investment, the harder it is to reconcile local, immediate and broader long-term needs. For example, when I have time with students to help them understand how information works, I can spend that time stepping them through the mechanics of our system so that they can harvest five scholarly articles from library databases, get that paper out of the way efficiently, and enhance their GPA. Or I can spend some of that time raising their awareness of critical issues: what is peer review and why does it matter (and does it really work)? Why do we care what the experts think? How do we justify the choices we make when two experts disagree? What role does this kind of knowledge play in society and what is the individual’s relationship to knowledge? That’s more interesting than “click here to limit your search to peer-reviewed articles,” and it won’t hurt the grade, but for a student who is working full time and needs a good GPA to keep her financial aid, that kind of long-term learning may be a luxury. Being able to harvest articles from a database may not be valuable in the long run (especially considering that we will cut off her access as soon as she leaves the institution), but speed and efficiency may have short-term value that trumps deeper learning.

Scholars face these trade-offs constantly. Do I give myself time to ponder a complex and difficult problem, or do I knock out another bunch of articles using data I already have? I can’t guarantee that pondering will pay off, but those articles can go right on my CV. Do I gather a longer time-series of data or report my results now, before my experiment has a chance to give me additional information that may not line up nicely with my hypothesis? A little knowledge may be less valuable, but more knowledge won’t help me right now and could hurt me if it complicates my theory. Do I support my discipline by reviewing articles, or do I invest that time in doing what the T&P committee values?

So there are all kinds of incentives to take the short-term benefit, and meanwhile we are going mad for metrics. What is done with those numbers? Let’s say we can prove (because we have the data!) that students like the library, that use of our databases is up, that students are better this year at distinguishing between popular and scholarly sources than they were last. What of it? The ax keeps falling on the budget, and it doesn’t check the numbers first. So far as I can tell, the only benefit is that we have followed orders and have been spared for another day. We are allowed to continue to exist.

The student does the efficient thing and doesn’t lose her financial aid. The scholar has a longer CV and isn’t fired. The library isn’t closed. We’ve survived for one more day.

What long-term value is there in what we do? I don’t know. Who’s counting?

That’s my cynical side talking. In reality, it seems what can’t be counted easily matters most and lasts the longest. In an age of austerity, survival is the name of the game, but it’s a rigged game and a distraction from what we’re here for. It’s how we ended up with a precarious faculty, a rented library, and indentured students. We need to focus further out, more broadly on what all of this is for, and see how to align what we have to do to survive for one more day with what we want the world to look like five years from  now, or ten. Because working toward a healthy future – which may mean sacrificing immediate local need for a longer-term good – is the only way we’ll have one.