Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does a University Need a Library? A response.

A colleague of mine wrote a very interesting blog post titled “Does a University Need a Library?” It is inspired by the almost $600,000 in budget cuts foisted upon The University of North Dakota’s Chester Fritz Library’s Material’s budget. This is the money that the library uses to buy books, journals, magazines, and other print and digital research media. Since the budget cut is from Materials, they cannot, for example, close the library one day a week, or open a few hours later to save money. The have to make the library a lesser institution, cutting down the collection, making sure that this round of cuts has a permanent impact.

In the blog post, the always articulate and persuasive Bill Caraher (a professor in the History Department) makes the argument that the role of libraries are changing. He claims that they are more social hub than research institutions, that more material is accessed via the web than ever before, and that the old fashioned book repository is being replaced by a more modern, more interactive, more virtual institution. Change, he says, “hurts,” but in the long run, this budget cut is a form of “cleaning.” It will lower the obscene cost of journals and, in the end, he implies, our library will be better for it.

I disagree, but to explain why, I’d like to discuss something that seems unrelated: the University of North Dakota mission statement. The mission statement is what justifies administrative decisions and anyone who seeks to fund a program for the next five to ten years must show where it fits into this philosophy of governance. The mission statement represents the University’s plan for the future and the fundraising rhetoric. It is the blueprint for what will make the cut and what won’t. 

The new mission statement, Exceptional UND, touts five initiatives for the university: Enrich Student Experience, Encourage Gathering, Facilitate Collaboration, Expand UND’s Presence, and Enhance Quality of Life. All UND’s activities must fit somewhere in there, either directly or as support. So, there has to be a good cafeteria or a sports team in order to enrich the student experience, and there must be public spaces or events to encourage gatherings. 

While these are quite broad and I like them all, something very important is missing. Nowhere in these five initiatives is the central mission that all universities should share: create and disseminate knowledge. Exception UND has abandoned the university’s role in expanding human understanding, exploration, and discovery, replacing it with a camp-like philosophy to keep the students happy and support North Dakota economically. This may create generous donors, but it won’t cure cancer, send people to Mars, or make the world a more just place. (And I’m not convinced it will create donors, but that’s another discussion for another time.)

While it is true that one sentence in the section on collaboration mentions “teaching and learning, research, and extracurricular activities,” these goals are barely there. They should be celebrated, highlighted, and trumpeted, but instead they are buried…like the library budget. 

Now, some might respond by claiming that this mission – creating and disseminating knowledge – is assumed. Exceptional UND doesn’t need to highlight it, they might argue, because it is the foundation of a research institution. But if this is so, why cut the library’s materials budget? If scholars don’t have access to current library materials, they can’t run experiments, they can’t get grants, they can’t publish papers, and they can’t collaborate with people in other universities. (Why would anyone want to partner with someone who can’t carry his or her scholarly weight?) And, to make matters worse, the library Director can’t even appeal to the Exceptional UND initiatives in order to make his case to restore his budget. The mission of the library – to record and disseminate knowledge – doesn’t fit in anywhere. If you can see where it does, post your comments below.

Does a university need a library? Yes, it does. Without one, it is not a university at all, and the only way that the administration can get away with such brutal cuts is by ignoring why we are here in the first place: to create and disseminate knowledge for the betterment of humanity and the planet we all live on. UND is, by the way, building a brand new training arena for our Division I athletes, but this construction is justified by Exceptional UND, showing yet again, that the library won’t be getting better under the new mission statement, it will only become irrelevant.  

UPDATE: Bill responded to this blog post here and I responded further on PQED, here.

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    1. I appreciate the response as always. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but you seem to be thinking the issue is all about physical resources. This is not true. The most expensive resource and the most likely to be cut are large-scale digital databases. The way they work is that if you buy one of the big journals, you get 400 small ones bundled as well. So, if you cancel it, you are really losing 401. And, if we miss a year and resubscribe, there will always be a gap.

      But perhaps you do understand this and you are still opposed to any resources. Perhaps you reject the research role of the library in general. And I would ask this in response: how would you feel if the university said that you are not allowed to go on location? Not in Greece, not in Fargo, nowhere. Why? Because you are forbidden to spend money on research unless it is entertainment for college students who have no actual interest in archeology. Denying faculty access to research materials is equivalent, especially for scientists who need a library to be competitive for a grant and for those whose jobs are purely text-based.

      There are plenty of non-research universities. Mayville State may be one. MSU Crookston is another. But UND claims to want to be Carnegie One. It wants to be nationally ranked, have Ph.D programs and hundreds of millions of dollars in grants per year. But if it defunds the library by as much as reported, then it pulls out the rug from these plans and any claim to the otherwise is just smoke and mirrors.

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  3. There are so many other things they could pull funds from. I just don't understand how the administration can levy fees on students to build multimillion dollar new buildings and then turn around and cut this kind of funding from essential preexisting infrastructure. A library is pentultimately essential to any academic institution.