The inherent insularity of library culture?

Or is that the inherent insularity of academic culture in general?

Joshua Kim has some great observations (in context of a review of This Book is Overdue) (Amazon) about the great chasm of misunderstanding between the culture of the academic library and the broader academic culture.

As academia shifts and changes, as budgets squeeze, as millenials millenialize, it's a constant struggle to make the case for the library's role in academic life. It's hard to know both who our best champion's are and who our most determined opponents are. Sitting in the library talking to ourselves is probably not the best way to accomplish to figure that out.

I like Kim's straightforward, honest approach to figuring out what the heck we're all about. And I think it's worthwhile to unpack some of what he says.

The more time I spend thinking about the library world the more I realize how little I know and understand. I'm not sure if my lack of understanding is due to my own limitations of perspective (coming from a teaching and technology background), or due to some inherent insularity of library culture.

Ah, the $64,000 dollar question. It is most definitely our job to make the case for our role in academic life, to make the case for what we do for students, what we do for faculty and what we do for staff.

To the extent that the people we serve and work with don't understand what it is we do, it's completely our failure.

Is library culture inherently insular? To a large degree, yes. At the same time, I think all the various silos that make up the whole of academic culture are also to varying degrees insular. It's called the Ivory Tower, not the Ivory Commons, for a reason. It's not a coincidence that towers are silo-shaped.

So, yes, we are insular and it's totally our responsibility to make sure there's a broad understanding of our role across campus. Easier said that done, of course, but that's another post.

At the same time, universities would be better places if we all made an effort to understand what our colleagues are trying to accomplish. This is especially true of the various support units who I think often work at cross purposes. It's what I'm trying to get at with my embryonic Science Foo proposal.

A couple of recent articles that hopefully will help explain libraries to a broader campus community: The Place to Go: Libraries reinvent themselves to serve digital-age students and Gutenberg 2.0
Harvard's libraries deal with disruptive change

The fact that librarians are so engaged in rethinking their profession and institutions probably would not come as a surprise to any librarian, but to an outsider this is an eye-opening notion. You will have to tell me if this observations means that librarians should be spending more time talking and engaging to non-librarians about their ideas and plans for change and re-invention, or if non-librarians need to spend more time hanging out with our colleagues (at library conferences, library blogs etc.).

As I mentioned above, it is 100% libraries' job to make our case to other parts of the campus, not the job of other units to figure us out. If we're rethinking what we're all about (and we are), it's up to us to engage others in that exercise. On the other hand, there's nothing more boring that other people's navel gazing, so non-librarians can be excused for not being that interested in the gory details of our introspections.

That being said, it is completely our responsibility to get the hell out of our libraries and talk about what we are becoming within our campus context, to engage our communities in our reinvention so we can serve them better. It is also completely our responsibility to go to non-library conferences and talk about what we do and what we're becoming.

Of course, I have no objections to people outside the library world inviting their local librarian out for a coffee and sharing some ideas about the future. So all you faculty, faculty support, instructional technology and campus IT people out there, you can also feel free to share with us where you want to go too.

Given all that however, there are some complicating factors.

  • Size Matters. Libraries are usually quite small compared to other units in terms of professional staff. For example, we're 40ish librarians on a campus of 1200+ faculty members and 50K students. The branch library I work in has about 300 seats for a student body of about 6k. It's a challenge getting noticed.
  • Silos are us. As I said above, academia is pretty insular as a whole. It can be a challenge to get through to busy people who are deeply involved in the mission of their corner of the institution, whether it's an academic department or campus IT.
  • Competition rather than collaboration. Many of the different silos are set up to sometimes provide competing similar services. The ones that affect libraries the most are for services such as student space or for access to technology. To the degree that some of these services are truly zero sum games (or even just perceived as such), the incentive for these different units to understand each other and collaborate rather than compete and cut each other down can be hard to get across.

At the end of the day, I'm not as interested in my own potentially insular responses to the question as I am to exploring both the library's and the broader academic institutional culture.

So, my questions for all of you out there:

  • Is academic library culture inherently insular?
  • Is it more insular that other parts of the academy, be they faculty or other support units? Why?
  • How should librarians fix that? Are there specific things that we can do?
  • For you non-librarians out there, any ideas about insularity in academia in general or about how different units can reach out to each other and work on common concerns?

(My Job in 10 Years: part of the chapter on campus outreach)

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