College and Research Librarians Discuss the Economy, Looking on the Bright Side

March 13, 2009

Seattle — The 14th biannual meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries kicked off on Thursday under bright skies — it’s been unseasonably sunny here — and with a determination to forge ahead despite the gathering economic gloom. The theme this year is “Pushing the Edge: Explore, Engage, Extend”; there’s a green slant, too, with eco-friendly tote bags handed out at registration, and disposable water cups made from corn rather than plastic.

The economy is not far from anyone’s mind. Everybody has a story about budget cuts already imposed or likely to come, and what that will mean for hiring, collection development, and database subscriptions. A session on 2009 trends for academic libraries had a Depression-inflected title: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The session wasn’t as grim as its title. Panelists took as their starting point a just-released “Strategic Thinking Guide for Academic Librarians in the New Economy.” The guide speaks plainly about “the current economic and financial turmoil affecting all of higher education.” It lays out three main drivers of change — economic pressures, changing student demographics and needs, and technological developments — that librarians must grapple with as they forge ahead. And — here’s the bright spot — it raises the possibility that the current situation will finally force the kind of systemic change that hasn’t taken place yet because “the stakes have never been high enough to make radical reinvention imperative.”

As one of the panelists, Charles Lowry, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said, the trick is to focus on “what we can do as opposed to what we face.” Debra Gilchrist, dean of libraries and institutional effectiveness at Pierce College, called on librarians to “be educational leaders” in the shift from content-driven to “process-based pedagogies.”

Annie Paprocki, anthropology and sociology librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, urged the audience to build off the current cultural momentum to do away with the old ways of doing business. “The economy is going to touch on everything we do in libraries,” she said. “This really does signal a time to think big.”

You don’t have to have the charisma of Barack Obama, she said, to build grass-roots support for change at your institution. “We can hitch a ride on Obama’s star,” she told the crowd. —Jennifer Howard