Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Provost just asked everyone who reports to him two questions:
  1. What is your greatest challenge facing your department?
  2. What will the greatest challenge be in twenty years time?
My first reaction to (2) was, how to retire with dignity. It will be about that time. Twenty years ago I had just started as an assistant manager in the Waldenbooks in a mall in Rochester, NY. A couple of years later I was working at RIT and just being blown away by, e-mail, modems, Gophers and Hytelnet. Anyway, you get the point. Twenty years is a long time.

I asked the library staff how they would answer those questions. They, as always, had some thoughtful things to say. Here are some excerpts.

"I think the biggest challenge for libraries will be how to prevent students from becoming hopelessly seduced by the lures of quick & easy Internet searching.

I find our students are increasingly sophisticated with technology, but very impatient with the time and attention serious research requires. Some won't consult the book catalog because they don't want to walk upstairs. Some can't be bothered to learn about various databases, because Google is so much easier and "good enough." This will be a battle both for librarians and for faculty (who will need to hold students to the grindstone and send them back to the library if their sources are lousy.)

I can't resist answering what I think the biggest challenge is to Rollins as a whole: keeping a liberal arts degree relevant in an increasingly specialized world. Already we have begun adding some programs to our curriculum to satisfy parents who want some level of practicality for their hard-earned tuition dollars (INB and the 3,2 Crummer program, in particular.) I fully support programs like INB, but we are starting to walk a fine line. Students can go to Full Sail and get a specialized certificate in a fraction of the time it takes to get a liberal arts degree. Or enroll in the U. of Phoenix and pick up a more practical degree from the comfort of your home.

Up until now, Rollins has not seemed concerned about competition from such sources....the students who select these schools are not our traditional bread and butter. But as the economy tightens, and job markets become more specialized, we need to be on our guard. I think these educational options qualify as "disruptive technology." A defining characteristic of any disruptive technology is that by the time the established companies perceive them as threats, it is already too late....it has been embraced by society." Dorothy Mays

"We, the library, are charged with keeping current in every discipline, in every media, even as we, the college, make changes to the core curriculum. The faculty help us meet that challenge with their suggestions. Unfortunately, the need to maintain an ever-expanding collection clashes with our available shelf space, bandwidth, and budget!

Now and over the next twenty years, we need to strike a balance between the old and the new, the general and the specific. Between physical books and electronic resources. Between what is important in the education of every Rollins student and what is relevant to individual courses of study. Between classic knowledge and timely information." Shawne Holcomb.

"The greatest challenges of today are continuing to provide an excellent education during a struggling economy. That means outdoing other places of higher education by getting the best faculty, facilities and resources available. Rollins has to maintain it's top notch standard while becoming less and less reliant on tuition and more reliant on the endowment and the responsible investment of that endowment. This will allow Rollins to sustain the excellent facilities and keep attracting great faculty while becoming more socially just in the opportunities that it gives to talented but less privileged students.

In 20 years Rollins will have to adjust to the changing landscape of central Florida. Hopefully by that time Orlando will be a legitimate city with workable public transit and a job market outside of construction and hospitality. Rollins will have to maintain the proper balance of remaining excellent in the liberal arts but at the same time preparing students for the job market.

I want to add a point to my second part of the question. The goals of the college are not merely to prepare students for the local job market and that sort of seems to be what I am saying. Rather, I think it is important for students to be prepared for things locally and also globally and this is more in tune with the Rollins vision statement." TR Parker.

"We know why we’re useful (strong resources and a variety of great instructors to help with library research.) Yet “knowing” why we’re useful in itself isn’t enough.
The greatest challenge we face as a library involves adequately demonstrating to students why our resources are beneficial to them. In other words, many students are proficient in using technology. And yet because of this natural facility, they might not immediately understand or appreciate the benefits we have for them and the many ways we can help them with their research.

Trends in the future: 20 years---
Increased commuting (distance learners) combined with less disciplined self-researchers. This trend indicates that as librarians we will need to better market ourselves to justify our relevance to increasingly sophisticated information consumers.
One growing microtrend (Penn) that has been identified is the rise of the *DIY doctor, or self-diagnosing patient who researches his or her own medical condition.
Yet, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project, “three fourths of individuals do not check the source or date when looking at health information online.” I’ll view this one microtrend as something that I see as emblematic of society becoming potentially less engaged with libraries and librarians despite overconfidence in the accuracy of “good enough” research.

If DIY medical researchers are so notoriously lax about online health information (considering that their research concerns their health or the health of a loved one, something that is so potentially important), there is no reason to think information consumers are any more disciplined in other types of research (it is difficult to say other types of research are LESS important, and yet certainly health research strikes me as being high in the general hierarchy of things you need to get right,) despite broader access to information.
This potential for spotty research coupled with the increase in commuters and distance learners will mean librarians will have to find a way to provide legitimate resources, demonstrate the role of the librarian in providing accurate research, and often do this within the constraints of a distance relationship. (Or at least provide the information on less than a strictly face to face basis.) And I think that when you have less direct contact with patrons, for lack of a better word, the potential quality of the reference transaction decreases. Yet, if you consider DIY medical researchers, they at least need to see a doctor to receive a prescription, while there is no mandate to visit a librarian. (The one advantage we have in this context is that while generally speaking library services are free, part of the reason many people might be increasingly self-medicating involves the prohibitive costs of visiting a doctor.)

Also, we will need to negotiate the more difficult question, as librarians do we simply provide information for patrons or do we also interpret information transactions in any significant way? Whereas in the past librarians may have started the research from the beginning, in the future we need to find our place as providers within less carefully defined “gaps” in prior knowledge. You might not begin the reference question in the beginning, but perhaps somewhere in the middle.

While examining our role as information specialists, I’ll continue with the medical analogy I started earlier. (Obviously, as librarians we do not give out medical advice.) Yet, this aside, what is our specific role in the information transaction? Consider the role of a doctor and pharmacist in the life of a patient. Would we equate more closely to the role of an MD making an examination of need and then making a diagnosis? Or are we simply a pharmacist distributing the information once a need has been established? I think our role falls somewhere in between doctor and pharmacist (there is the reference interview, but there is also the part where we explore and share information sources), and yet this role is one that the profession will continue to negotiate.

*117 million people researching their medical conditions in 2005 compared to 136 million in 2006 (16 percent increase.) Also, the demographic researching their medical condition tends to be young 20 or 30 somethings, according to Penn & Zalesene (Microtrends 2007)." Michael Furlong

These are all great ideas. Unfortunately, I failed to tell them that the Provost wanted very concise, one or two sentence responses! An impossible assignment, but here is my feeble attempt.

Our greatest challenge now is to successful manage the hybrid world of the print and digital library. This puts huge pressure on our services, our systems, and our resources because we cannot simply concentrate on one environment or the other and our users exist on a continuum from those heavily invested in print to those who have almost completely migrated to the digital environment.

Twenty years from now we will already know if the future of the library is as a museum of the book, a respected and beloved institution on campus that is essentially irrelevant to the educational mission of the College in anything but a historical sense. If we have avoided that slow death then the real challenge will be to find a role for the local, Rollins, library in a world of global digital information resources and services. As a recent CLIR Report makes clear, research and the resources that the research process uses and creates will be global. The role of the local library will be to improve, in partnership with the faculty, the information literacy of the students, and organize the access and filtering of vast quantities of information for our networked and digital community. The latter will be far more effective for consortia of libraries, rather than stand alone libraries.

More than one or two sentences, I know. So, stay ahead of the game, be the information experts embedded in your campus network, and get thee to a consortium!

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