When librarians are obstacles

Heading into the Open Ed Conference and especially the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival, I expected to be one of only a handful of librarians participating. Librarians haven’t been terribly involved or engaged with the open education movement, but our values and missions align so well that I expected to be welcomed by the professors and the edupunks as a peer and fellow traveller. Well, I got the first part right – I met only a couple of librarians all week – but the second, not so much. Imagine my surprise when the other two speakers in the session on libraries and the future of OER spent much of their time criticizing the ways in which librarians have engaged with open education, and lamenting the possibility of librarians being anything other than a liability.

Julià Minguillón, a computer science professor who spoke about digital preservation issues, described attempting to deposit an equation into his university library’s OER repository, only to be told that because his equation did not have a title, it could not be included in the collection. He then went on to criticize librarians’ obsession with the “useless” metadata of “author, title, date.” He argued that if we put librarians in charge of OER repositories (exactly the thing I argued for in my paper), we will sacrifice broad, immediate access in favor long-term preservation and proper metadata schemas.

R. John Robertson gave a paper about the role libraries can play in supporting OER initiatives but a significant portion of his presentation was given over to his concerns about librarian participation in this work. His experience with librarians is that they are so risk averse that the merest hint of a copyright issue is likely to send them running for the hills. Like Minguillón, he had anecdotes to back up his worries about librarians as obstacles in the field of open education.

In a word: Blergh! How did this happen? Why, despite biannual New York Times articles about how modern and hip librarians have become, are we still perceived on our own campuses as fearful impediments to progress?

Okay, I know why. Some librarians are fearful impediments to progress. Some librarians allow perfect metadata to be the enemy of good access. Some libraries, as institutions, do not foster innovation and experimentation, and are deeply resistant to change. It’s so disappointing.

It probably says something about the job I’ve had for the last year and a half that I see this primarily as a failure of management. On the plane to Barcelona I read a column by Meredith Farkas in American Libraries called “Nurturing Innovation: Tips for Managers and Administrators.” She offers a number of excellent suggestions for ways to adjust the institutional culture at libraries to support and embrace innovation: Encourage staff to learn and play, give staff time to experiment with potential new initiatives, keep an open mind, develop a risk tolerant culture. These suggestions kept coming back to me at Open Ed as I struggled to defend librarians and libraries against accusations of stodginess. I wanted to hand the article over to the people who complained about their uptight, change resistant libraries and say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Go talk to your Dean. Make it better.” I also, in that way that sometimes happens, added one more suggestion to the list, thinking it was from Farkas but it’s from somewhere else, part of a theme that developed at Open Ed: Library administrators must make some room in their budgets for failure.

Innovation and progress can’t happen without failure. It’s how we learn, as individuals and as institutions and as species. Yes, library budgets are tight these days. Tighter than we ever thought they could get. With money so tight, and cuts so deep, it’s easy to think that now is not the time to take risks, but of course, now is exactly the time to take risks. How else will we prepared to address the challenges that await us in next year’s budget cycle, and the one after that, and the one 15 years from now?

To use one relevant example: The current commercial scholarly publishing apparatus is choking us. We know this. Knowing this, we have two choices: We can invest in activities that could ease the financial pressure – open repositories, deposit mandates, awareness campaigns – or we can choke. In this case, many libraries are experimenting, and sometimes those experiments even fail. As Farkas points out, when our experiments fail we still learn something valuable from them, something that can set us on a path to succeed the next time.

It’s not enough simply to encourage our staff to experiment. We need to give them money to play with, to set up a repository or buy a license to a promising tool or hire an expert to train staff in something new. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but it does have to be relatively free from strings. And then, we need to make sure our experimenting staff share what they’ve learned with colleagues in other libraries, the successes and the failures. It’s how we will all evolve.

So to wrap up this meandering post with a tidy bow: Higher education is changing, and our campuses are full of people (many of whom were at Open Ed and Drumbeat) experimenting with new models, tools, and philosophies related to teaching, learning, and research. The primary responsibility of academic libraries is to support teaching, learning, and research, and so those experiments and the people conducting them are highly relevant to us. We must make sure that we remain relevant to them. If they see us as an obstacle it is only a matter of time before we become obsolete. We want those experimenters and innovators to view the library as both a resource for and a partner in their work, and we can do that by funding innovation among our own staff, expanding our definition of the library’s role on campus, and embracing the possibility of failure. If we neglect to do these things, we don’t just risk becoming obsolete, we guarantee it.