Turning the page: What does the future hold for academic libraries? – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Three


John Chrastka: “It’s fascinating. Ithaka’s study asks the question of library leaders, what’s your self-image on campus? And then it asks the same question, what is your image of libraries by administrators and faculty? The librarian self-image on campus is the heart, the beating heart of the campus. It is the facilitator of learning and knowledge.”

Intro: Ideas to Innovation

Neville Hobson: The concept of libraries has evolved dramatically from humble beginnings in Mesopotamia over five thousand years ago to the expansive academic libraries in the United States today. While a small number of ancient libraries was limited and accessible only to a select few, today’s 3,500 libraries in universities and colleges across the US serve over 13 and a half million students, offering them diverse resources in multiple languages and formats, accessible in person or remotely.

The journey from Mesopotamia to modern US academic institutions highlights humanity’s enduring commitment to collective learning and the advancement of knowledge. And despite vast differences in scale, technology and accessibility, the core mission remains to preserve and disseminate knowledge.

Welcome to Ideas to Innovation, a podcast from Clarivate, with information and insight from conversations that explore how innovation spurs incredible outcomes by passionate people in many areas of science, business, academia, technology, sport, and more. I’m Neville Hobson.

It’s easy to see that modern-day libraries in universities and colleges in the United States are worth supporting. They facilitate academic excellence, embrace technological advancements, and foster community and collaboration. There are challenges though, not least the significant cost of such support.

I’d like to welcome John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a non-profit organization at the forefront of championing the cause of supporting and funding academic libraries through its advocacy and influence. Welcome, John, thanks for joining us.

John Chrastka: Neville, it’s a treat to be here. Thank you so much.

Neville Hobson: So EveryLibrary describes itself as a national organization in the US dedicated to building voter support for libraries and help public school and college libraries secure new funding. You just agreed to a partnership with Clarivate to support your work, and it allows Clarivate to deliver on its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education by supporting the librarian community.

Can you tell us about your role at EveryLibrary? Let’s start off with that and explain in simple terms how effective is your advocacy and influence work.

John Chrastka: Certainly, so every library is a politically-facing NGO here in the States. The work that we do covers across public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries. Really we focus on the systems by which libraries are funded and by which librarianship is supported. We do that across political conversations as well as social conversations.

The political side, there’s advocacy work that we help support. It might be about a particular matter of public policy or tax policy. It might be the ideas behind how do we want to structure government or structure education.

We also work on activism, and that mode of activism is to find and identify people who care about the outcomes that librarians deliver in libraries as infrastructure, be it on a community setting or a college campus setting or a K-12 setting.

Find those people who care about the…outcomes that librarians deliver and help engage them. Identify them, educate them, orient them to who librarians are these days and what libraries do in these particular contexts and give them an opportunity to say yes to a good idea of public policy, a good idea about a budget, a good idea about how do we want to structure society. We’ve been doing that now for 11 years. We’ve been very effective.

When it comes up to the public library side, we win eighty five percent of the elections that we’re involved in. For public libraries on the school side, we’ve helped to safeguard and secure oh gosh hundreds of jobs uh… for school librarians around the country ,and in helping academic libraries engage in that dialogue with administration and prepare for some big changes that are coming uh… for how education is done in this country that it’s a real pride of place for us, Neville.

Neville Hobson: So your overall background speaks volumes about your commitment to this cause, to this need to build a culture of learning in the United States. I’m curious, John, really to learn a bit more about how you got into this from the start. I mean, it really is everything you’ve talked about just now demonstrates that, the volume of commitment that you have. So tell us a bit more about how you got into this from the beginning.

John Chrastka: It was not an area that I expected. I don’t have a librarian background. I’m not a librarian myself. I don’t work in libraries. I don’t pretend to know how to work in libraries. But to take that opportunity again, that infrastructure opportunity, how do we support through that association, the amplification of good ideas around the profession? Or once in a while, how do you put a stop to a bad idea? Then, as I got to know the industry more and more, I realized that we’re missing something.

It’s not that the membership organizations aren’t adequate to the task of helping do standards and practices, awards, set the course for the profession, but we weren’t as an industry, as a sector, paying attention to where the sources of funding were. And that’s largely in the United States on public libraries and school libraries and public universities, political money.

And there was a survey, a very big survey, of American voters in 2008. And they asked the question of American voters, not parents, not citizens, not residents, voters, would you like to vote for the library? And it was a very simple question. And 37% of American voters said, absolutely. And 37% of American voters in addition said, maybe. And the rest of them said, no. And I looked at that and said, we have to be working not on the no’s but on the maybe’s.

So setting up every library as a political NGO uh… and then spooling up over time our EveryLibrary institute as a public policy think tank helped us address that moment when somebody says I love the library, wonderful, we know they’re with us. Or somebody says I don’t like taxes are not in the library services, I get that, that’s part of the deliberative dialogue of society for those people who say, I don’t know, tell me what libraries are doing these days. I haven’t been paying attention.

Now that’s fundamentally where we land.

Neville Hobson: So you stimulate conversations in that case on a pretty core topic, pretty key topic and the way you go about that. Yeah, so let’s explore this culture of learning that is at the heart of much of this as I see it. There’s a set of requirements, right, for this to exist. A certain environment needs to be in place.

And I’m just wondering, looking at what you’re doing, is it that none of this is in place in the US at the moment or what is it? How do you see it?

John Chrastka: Well, it’s not that none of it exists on campus, Neville. It’s an “already but not yet” situation. Already we have the built environment of libraries on campuses. We have specialized libraries and specialized collections on campuses. We have a faculty of librarians. We have support staff and administrative staff. There’s an “already” quality to it. The systems are in place. The conditions are there. Where are the disconnects?

Those folks in the public library space are like, well, tell me what libraries do, tell me who librarians are. But that space right now is not being answered very well by our sector. That’s my thesis.

We haven’t answered it necessarily with our peers across the teaching community. We haven’t necessarily answered that question adequately upwards towards our administrators. And we’re receiving students right now who don’t have necessarily the information literacy skill set or familiarity with librarianship, because the systems of education in primary school here in the States, elementary and secondary, were missing so many school librarians that we lack a current place of reference.

I mean, there are some excellent examples of college and university librarians who are doing the good work. And I’m very excited to know them and show them off, but I also know very clearly that we are in some significant ways under resourced and perhaps even under staffed.

Neville Hobson: Well, I’d love to hear those examples, John, because I think the landscape is the most interesting one that you’ve outlined so far. And I think we could I suppose convey an impression to our listeners that, you know, this is a serious issue that needs solving because it’s in a bad place.

But if you’ve got some great examples, and I know you do, about a library or university that’s progressive in this whole context, what can you tell us about that?

John Chrastka: If the mission and vision of a library and campus in Higher Ed here in the States includes support for scholarships, support for inquiry, support for discovery, and support for dialogue, and then we have a hope in academic libraries that we are part of the beating heart of campus, I’d say that there’s a few really good examples.

One that comes to mind immediately is Scott Walter at DePaul University, when he was at DePaul University. Right now, he’s at Southern California. But when he was at DePaul University, he was a leader in developing the two things that put the systems of libraries on campus to work. It’s the Learning Commons. He was a leader in developing the systems that put the hope, the vision, the mission of libraries on campus to work. Learning Commons and a Scholar’s Lab.

The Learning Commons approach here which is to facilitate, I mean, the resources that are brought in to the library, how do you get in touch with them? How do you access them? How do you have intermediation happen? If we have a group of students, generationally a group of students who are not used to inquiry, who are not taught how to do this in their high school and grade school environment, that Learning Commons provides that context.

And it was very important, I think, in the mid-2010s, and as I said, Scott was a leader in this nationally, to bring that intermediation, perhaps even remedial intermediation, to those students and then the scholars lab, which is fundamentally a place where you move from discovery and inquiry into scholarship, and that opportunity to have not only interfacing as a student with your faculty, but interfacing with librarians as not guides alone, because that’s the intermediary or the remedial, but as partners in your discovery.

Whether it’s an undergraduate or graduate program or postgraduate program, that opportunity at a certain class of university is replicable across, my colleague Dustin Fife, he was at Gunnison College, now he’s at Colorado College, the same kind of thing but a different kind of set of resources.

Dustin had 10 people working for him as the college library director. He’s got 40 people now at the Colorado College. He was telling me the other day what a relief it is for him to not have to staff the desk when somebody gets a cold at the other college.

But even in that kind of a context where the resources and the leverage can be applied to it, learning and scholarship is available and excited by the presence of a librarian.

Neville Hobson: Let’s talk a bit about generational change.

We hear a lot about that these days, usually comparisons between the different age groups and the demographic monikers from Baby Boomers to Gen Z and even the next in line, the Gen Alphas maybe. There is a disconnect across these ranges here, isn’t there? I think that you can’t disagree with that. I know you’re not going to! What can you tell us about that, though, John? How significant is it?

John Chrastka: Sure, so we are, we’re from different places, Neville, you and I in particular, I mean, your accent and my accent are obvious, but the “when” are we from is often as important as “where” are we from.

The when are we from generationally, there’s a significant difference between how Baby Boomers and Gen X teachers, instructors, librarians, senior faculty, and those Gen Z and Gen Alpha folks… Where are they from is one thing, but when are they from?

The Gen Z and Gen Alpha folks have been coming up in an environment that I think is very important to consider when you’re looking at dialogue on campus.

When you’re looking at frameworks around how do we have discussions that are part of the scholars’ experience, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are much more attuned to their social and emotional life than we are.

And there is a concern, a very deep, dramatic and legitimate concern on their part about operations like deliberative dialogue or reflective dialogue that would place them into a context where reflecting on someone else’s opinion is actually a source of either harm or violence to them.

And that’s very important to consider because when I came up I’m a Gen Xer and the Baby Boomers uh… there’s a lot more bullying going on and the term the devil’s advocate is certainly one that Baby Boomers and Gen X folks enjoy uh… the difference between uh.. a Gen Z or a Gen Alpha person  who is not necessarily interested in placing themselves in the position of the devil the Boomers and the Gen Xers …

I mean we look at law school, the way law school teaches someone is to take the other perspective and argue for it if there’s a huge disconnect between Gen Z and Gen Alpha not one to argue for the other side because the other side has caused harm to them and yet there’s a nobility to argue the other side successfully on the part of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers where does the library sit in that uh… where does scholarship sit in that uh…

The role of libraries, of course, is to teach skills but also to convene and I think about a few situations and the opportunities that somebody like Nicole Pagowsky did around critical librarianship and her critical librarianship and pedagogy conference, what with the library industry does best is it talks with each other before it starts talking to other faculty and scholars.

And that example of the critical librarianship and pedagogy conference is very important because there’s a unique approach in that pedagogical structure uh… for the library there’s unique sets of resolutions and not the least of which is to help with information literacy and acquisition skills for that Gen Z, Gen Alpha that lack it in their preparatory work towards your campus.

Neville Hobson: That’s very interesting. I think it highlights something I hear anecdotally, and of course I’m not in this industry myself even, but the idea, and this is generational, it seems to me, that the younger you are, the more… willing you are on the one hand to discuss ideas, but the less willing you are on the other hand to entertain strong, different opinions, I hear that.

Misinformation and disinformation play a factor in all of this too, because the younger you are, as I understand it, the less likely you are to verify content. You just pass it on, you share it, that’s in your nature. So that I would imagine is gonna become potentially, I suppose, increasingly an issue to address somehow in the context of what we’re talking about.

John Chrastka: Yes.

Neville Hobson: I think the disconnect, though, is interesting because it leads into a related element of that matter. Recent studies from groups such as Ithaka, a consulting service to libraries, universities and other non-profit organizations, suggest there’s also a disconnect between the administrators and faculty of libraries and the librarians themselves. What can you tell us about that?

John Chrastka: Well, it’s fascinating. Ithaka’s study, I think it’s biennial, asks the question of library leaders, what’s your self-image on campus? And then it asks the same question, what is your image of libraries by administrators and faculty? The librarian self-image on campus is the heart, the beating heart of the campus. It is the facilitator of learning and knowledge. It’s all of the noble and virtuous things we’ve discussed so far.

We do a lot of marketing about tomorrow, Neville. It’s amazing how many flyers and brochures and things put up on bulletin boards and… social media posts say come to do something tomorrow. We’re going to have a program, we’re going to do an event, we’re going to teach you how to do something tomorrow.

And I’d like to suggest to our colleagues that the single biggest thing that they can start to do differently to elevate their own image on campus is to start marketing yesterday. What did you do yesterday with the resources you currently have? Were you successful in delivering on the mission, vision, and values of your program? Did you market yesterday? What did you do yesterday? with a small amount of maybe smart money to move this thing forward, what do you wanna do tomorrow? It’s dependent on yesterday.

You either wanna scale up your success tomorrow based on what you did successfully yesterday. If we have a generation of students who are coming through COVID, and they are back on their heels, if we have a generation of students who don’t have information literacy skills, who haven’t seen the inside of a library ever because their institutions in primary school didn’t have them?

What failures are we looking to avert or address? We have to talk about what we did yesterday with what we have in order to visualize tomorrow as more than a fun program for kids to learn how to use the card catalog.

Neville Hobson: That’s an interesting assessment. It sort of leads into the point we’re gonna talk about in a second or two about what tomorrow would look like overall. But I’m curious, actually, something you mentioned that triggered a thought in my mind about this gap, I suppose it could be, in terms of how libraries are seen as places just for ordering books.

And it suffers from that, I would imagine, in what you were saying about the Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow trilogy, if I could call it that. How do we change that? How do we elevate into this culture of learning the role of the librarian and the fact that they’re an essential component of a learning institution, not just a book orderer?

Does that make sense, that question? Because I’m curious to know how you assess that.

John Chrastka: Well, there’s a posture that librarians have of service that I think is salutatory. It’s one of the things that was most attractive about working in this industry coming out of EdTech and publishing myself.

The idea that they create systems that allow for service for neighbors in public library context of students in schools and emerging scholars in universities. That posture of service is salutatory 364 days of the year, Neville.

On that one day a year when your administration, your provost office, your chancellor’s office is considering the budget and finalizing the budget, you are not in a service position. You are in a faculty position. You are in a peer position. The dean of libraries is the equivalent of every other dean.

The programmatic posture here around what the quality of your faculty is and what the quality of your faculty should be, we have to be on a peer-to-peer basis here.

While we do have a mission of service, our posture is that of a colleague. And our posture and our position on the org chart is that of a department that needs the proper kind of funding. We have to be considerate of our vocabulary about librarianship on that one day a year, that metaphorical one day a year when they decide on the budget.

Otherwise we will be seen as something that’s nice to have rather than absolutely essential.


Neville Hobson: So that’s a good point to pivot slightly in our conversation today about what’s next. You’ve portrayed the landscape today. Let’s talk about the coming decade, the next 10 years. What do you see the academic library landscape looking like in 2033? Radical changes, perhaps? Status quo? Something different?

What’s your take on it?

John Chrastka: I think we’re at the potential moment where there’s a fork in the road and it’s coming in the next two or three years that fork. A lot is dependent on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which is not a prosaic bit of uh… public policy in the United States Congress, it is a determinant factor for how education is structured in the United States.

Right now the status quo uh… is that we accredit institutions and part of the accreditation requirements from institution is to have general purpose academic libraries to special libraries that support different academic programs, which require either faculty level or staff who are competent in delivering those services.

If that status quo changes level, and we look back at 2023, things will be radically different I think for the university and college and community college community. Because what we see are political pressures and big discussions in this country about whether or not we should be accrediting individuals rather than institutions.

We’ve had 15, 20, 30 years of folks who are going through certificate programs and independent learning in order to achieve their professional goals. If that approach to saying that those sorts of credentials, those sorts of certificates, those sorts of learning moments, are the… you bundle them all up for somebody’s lifetime, and they’re the equivalent of receiving a master’s degree in public policy.

I mean, it would be a radical shift for how colleges function, universities function, and if there’s no requirement any longer for, or if the requirements begin to be diminished or lost over time because of changes to the Higher Education Act, and we don’t have to have these specialized libraries, these specialized collections, these specialized library faculty, ten years from now, Neville, will be a very different place.

I’d like to suggest to the library community here in the States that we pay a great deal of attention to the Higher Education Act and talk amongst ourselves about where we want to go in those ten years.

I’m not saying one is more rosy than the other, but they are radically different potential outcomes based on the structure of law and the structure of public policy. The form of our… how do we want to do higher education, will allow our libraries to function in one way, shape, or form, but perhaps in a very diminished way, shape, or form in ten years.

Neville Hobson: That’s an interesting view, John. Appreciate your sharing your thinking on that. I’m thinking myself, culture of learning then is the kind of the holy grail almost, if you will, that all this is aiming to elevate, right?

John Chrastka: That’s right. And so in 10 years, if the culture of learning framework changes from accredited institutions to credentialed individuals, I know that librarians will be responsive to that.

Librarians are already responsive to the credentialing opportunities. You find facilitated learning across institutions that are looking to do things asynchronously in new and innovative ways and librarians, especially during the pandemic, have stepped up to those asynchronous ways to do it.

I’m confident in our colleagues’ ability to do it. But I would like them to keep their eyes on in what kind of uh… context do they want to facilitate that culture of learning uh… it’s not a negative prognostication, it’s identifying perhaps opportunities even because within that Higher Education Reauthorization Act it doesn’t have to be the status quo, it doesn’t have to be a negative situation moving forward.

We have some extraordinary things that we’ve done back to the Learning Commons, the Scholar’s Lab, the ability to do these convenings with extraordinary ability even to influence in new and more positive ways the way we were reauthorizing that Higher Education Act to make sure the culture of learning is well if we are the beating heart of campus uh… that we’re putting the blood through it.

Neville Hobson: Well, that’s a great note to conclude with, John. This has been a great conversation. I’ve learned quite a few things myself as well, John. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your insights with us.

John Chrastka:

Neville, you’ve been very kind to me. Thank you. And I appreciate the Clarivate community for giving this a listen.

Nevile Hobson: You’re welcome.

You’ve been listening to a conversation about libraries and the culture of learning at university and college campuses in the United States with our guest, John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary.

For information about how Clarivate supports academic institutions and libraries, visit clarivate dot com, select ‘who we serve’ from the top navigation menu and choose ‘academia’. For information about the EveryLibrary partnership, visit clarivate dot com and search ‘Every Library’.

In a few weeks we’ll release our next episode. Visit clarivate dot com slash podcasts for information about ideas to innovation. And for this episode, please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues, rating us on your favorite podcast app or leaving a review.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

Outro: Ideas to innovation from Clarivate.