Librarians, Crisis, Higher Education: the Real Challenge

One of the blogs I like to follow is the Librarians Committee Blog from the University of Toronto Faculty Association. Always interesting, often instructive, sometimes infuriating.

Recently, like many, the authors of this blog have railed against the various abuses to librarians and archivists, libraries and archives. In articulating this, a recent post laments:

“the naïve optimism of others who have tried to spin a positive perspective
on many of the changes that others have resisted.”

I suspect the good folks from this Committee would include me in that group. And I think I consider it a badge of honour.

At the Canadian Library Association Conference later this week I’m speaking about “The Crisis in Academic Librarianship.”

Is there a crisis?

The short answer is yes …. and frankly it’s about time.

Academic librarianship is in the midst of profound transformation. The crisis is not because things are wrong but because so many things are right. It is a crisis of opportunity.

Yes, I know that sounds ever so cliché like. It just happens to be accurate.

Too much of the debate around what is happening in academic librarianship has revolved around preserving a retro vision of our profession; it’s like trying to drive forward while looking in the rear view mirror for direction. Apparently it is naïve to observe that the whole freaking world has changed and this is having (will have/has had) a profound impact on our profession.

My point is simple: the real challenge is not around academic librarianship but higher education. If we are to create universities for the 21st century then librarians & the rest of the faculty are going to have to work more constructively with university administrators (and a host of other folks) to make this happen.

I believe in an old style university but in a new style sort of way. By this I mean that the values which have guided higher education for a century or more need to continue to inform how we work. However, the means and the mechanisms have changed substantially (perhaps completely).

We may not easily recognize the university of the future but it will the same. It’s a bit Zen-like:

to remain what it is the university must change;
if it does not change, it will not remain what it is.

In all this I am firmly convinced that academic librarians can provide essential leadership in re-imagining the university. We have to rise to that challenge because we have the skills and expertise that will make a difference.

Naïve? Only if we lack confidence in ourselves.


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