Are Academic Libraries Too Big To Fail? (What if the answer is no?)

December 7, 2011, 5:23 pm

Over Thanksgiving a conversation thread opened along the lines of “are some Universities too big to fail?” With budgets what they are and the doom and gloom prospects looking ahead, combined with a seemingly growing public distrust of higher education—it’s likely we’ll see some schools close, merge, downsize, or even implode over the next few decades.


Leaving that aside—what about libraries? In the ARL world you hear conversations about branch libraries closing or merging all the time—it’s largely economics. But what about academic libraries in general? Specifically the concept of the central/main unified library? Is the library too big (valuable) of an organization to fail? I’m looking at the next 30 years and have to consider what happens when/if budgets are not only cut to the bone, but even to the point where we might have to lose a few bones and some vital organs? I guess the big question is: are academic libraries (as we know them) sustainable? And if not, what’s next?


This sounds like a good conversation for ACRL Indianapolis. If someone pulls together a panel, invite me on it.


Ok, so here is a thought. At Virginia Tech we use the term College Librarian… not subject librarian or subject specialist or liaison or anything like that. The Librarians are linked to a particular College and then divide up the departments from there. Let’s take that to the extreme. What if the library building is gutted and turned into classrooms and graduate offices (universities always need more of those!) and the librarians were fully embedded in their College. This builds upon the special library model in which the librarian works at and is paid by a particular College. This could be feasible in a digital world—we’re not there yet, but getting closer every year. How might this change the relationship between the faculty and the librarians with the Colleges investing in such professional positions?


Now—I’m not advocating for this model (I love the central library) and there could be a host of issues with access and authentication and accreditation—but it’s a stab at the future. It all steams back to the question: are libraries as we know them too big (valuable) to fail or are there other models that campuses will explore in the (somewhat near) future? Thoughts? Other scenarios?


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