Librarians, institutions, soldiers, revolutionaries

One of the central tensions of modern librarianship is how to allocate limited resources to both make the whole world a better place and to serve our local communities by providing them with the services and collections they need to support their teaching, learning and research.

The particular way we try and change the world that I'm talking about here is working to create a fairer and more equitable scholarly communications ecosystem. We do this by both advocating for increased openness in the publishing system and working to actually create that fairer system via our own local open access publishing and support activities. (There are also other ways we work towards making the world a better place, for example, through our instruction activities. Not mention that there is an aspect of making the whole world a better place via serving local needs.)

Rick Anderson's recent piece A quiet culture war in research libraries – and what it means for librarians, researchers and publishers has certainly reignited this conversation in the online librarian world in the last couple of weeks, sparking a lot of commentary and discussion in blogs and on Twitter.

The core of the piece is those two tensions. Being soldiers and taking care of our communities versus being revolutionaries and trying to change the system. Anderson mostly attempts to play it right down the middle and not really fall on either side of the issue. And he certainly acknowledges that it's unlikely that any person or institution will fall completely on one side or the other, that a mix of both roles is natural and desirable. But in the end he seems to favour the role of soldier over revolutionary.

Take the final paragraph for example,

This fact has serious implications for the ultimate outcome of the culture war that I believe is currently brewing in the research library community. We are now working in an information environment that makes it possible for each library to exert a global influence in unprecedented ways. The desire to do so is both praiseworthy and solidly in keeping with many of what most of us would consider core values of librarianship. However, even as we experience varying levels of agreement amongst ourselves as to the proper distribution of our time and resources in pursuit of these two different orientations, virtually all of us continue to be supported entirely by funds that come from institutions that expect us to use those funds to support local needs and an institutionally defined mission. As long as it remains impossible to spend the same dollar twice, we will have no way to avoid choosing between programs that support local needs and those that support global ones and, as long as we depend on local resources to do so, we will have an ultimate obligation to act more like soldiers than like revolutionaries. Libraries that fail to do so will inevitably lose their institutional support – and with good reason. (Bold is mine -- JD)

Where do I fall?

First of all, at the institutional level academic libraries (and librarians) have no choice but to take care of local needs. Our patrons and communities need the collections we purchase and licence and we must take great care to spend our institutions' funds wisely.

At the same time, we would also be betraying our profession and failing our patrons if we did not also keep our eyes on the long-term needs of our patrons and communities. That long term need being to play a role in building a system that just works better, that spends their money more wisely and more equitably on making their scholarship more rather than less accessible to the rest of the world. On making the scholarship they need to access from the rest of the world more rather than less accessible to them.

Hogwash, you say, there's no way I can justify this. My job is support the mission of my institution and nothing else. Resources are limited. It's clear how I have to allocate them.

The mission of my institution.

A lot of the discussions seem to revolve around those words.

So I looked up the mission statement of my institution. York University.

The mission of York University is the pursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. We promise excellence in research and teaching in pure, applied and professional fields. We test the boundaries and structures of knowledge. We cultivate the critical intellect.

York University is part of Toronto: we are dynamic, metropolitan and multi-cultural. York University is part of Canada: we encourage bilingual study, we value diversity. York University is open to the world: we explore global concerns.

A community of faculty, students, staff, alumni and volunteers committed to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education, and collegial self-governance, York University makes innovation its tradition.

Tentanda Via: The way must be tried. (Bolding is me again. )

[P]ursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge. Check. That's what building a fairer scholarly communications ecosystem is all about.

We cultivate the critical intellect. Check. It's part of our mission to think deeply and critically about the world. Which can lead to thinking of ways that it could be better.

[C]ommitted to academic freedom, social justice, accessible education. Check and bingo! My institution's mission actually includes working to make the world a better place.

The way must be tried. Check and mate. Just do it.

Of course, I work at York, one of the leftyest, most progressive universities out there. So the kind of language that we in the library (as a whole and as individual librarians) can use to justify building and advocating for a better world is all over the place.

But I invite everyone else who might be tempted to take a pass on devoting time, energy and other resources to making the world a better place to take a look at their own institution's mission statement. I've looked at a few around academia recently and from what I've seen most places have something in there about giving back to the community or making the world a better place.

Take a look for yourself. I hope your institution has something in its mission statement that you can work with (though I recognize it might not). And think about joining the revolution.

(This is about balance in resource allocation, of course. Every place and every situation will be different and local administrators will need to make different calculations about resource allocation. This isn't a call for librarians and libraries to shoot themselves in the foot. What I hope is to maybe expand a little bit how we look at our mission in relation to our institution's mission when we make those decisions.)


As is my wont I've gathered together some of the recent commentary sparked by the original Rick Anderson article. There are lots of different takes on the soldiers vs. revolutionaries issue and several of the items I'm pointing to make similar points to my own but perhaps a bit more eloquently.

As usual, if this issue continues to have legs, I'll probably update this list. If I've missed something, please let me know either in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

3 responses so far

  • […] Librarians, institutions, soldiers, revolutionaries An op-ed by John Dupuis, a librarian at York University’s Steacie Science & Engineering Library, was published on July 21. Read full story. […]

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