This morning, media personality Greta Van Susteren tweeted out:
Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students-full libraries are on our smartphones! https://t.co/QBeVKZvIKZ
— Greta Van Susteren (@greta) October 31, 2016
A vanity project? Hah! No library I’ve ever worked in could be called a “vanity project.”
The tweet was in response to a Yahoo Finance article: College is Still Getting More Expensive: What Can Stop It?
No real surprises here: College is too expensive and yes, debt is a concern for most students and families–something that most of us agree with.
The comment about smartphones? A flippant remark that reveals a real lack of understanding about academic research and how information is accessible to students.
But a vanity project? A 2012 article on InsideHigherEd.com reported that library budgets as a percentage of the total university budget had fallen from a high of 3.83% in 1974 to 1.95% in 2009. Let’s face it: Academic libraries are small potatoes when it comes to the larger pot of university money.
In terms of outrageous college spending, there are a lot of examples–other than a library–to point to: the University of Oregon has a $68 million football facility – donated by the Nike founder. Imagine if that money was used on academic resources or scholarships instead? There’s also Louisiana State University’s “lazy river” – funded by recreation fees that students voted to approve, but add to the cost that students pay (while others have commented on the physical state of their libraries). High Point University (they have a steak house!) is arguably winning the college amenities “race,” by targeting affluent families who can pay for these amenities. Where does that leave other students?
It boils down to this: The library is not an “amenity”–it’s the academic heart of the institution. You need it to access books, articles, and other resources to complete assignments and projects. That may not necessarily mean using the physical library space, but it’s still popular and well-used.
In fact, research has shown that in term of campus facilities, the library can be the 2nd most important factor (facilities for the student’s major is number one) in choosing a college. On a campus tour, the library ranks as the 3rd most important site after facilities for the student’s major and residence halls (Source: Library Assessment in Higher Education, 2nd ed.)
Side note: I don’t have access to the full copy of the above book, because it’s behind a paywall…see the point on “Access” below.
So what are academic libraries all about? Here are five of our most important roles on campus:
- Access: Van Susteren is correct in saying that the “library” is on your smartphone, but there’s a big caveat: Are you affiliated with an academic institution? If not, then most academic information (articles and books) is behind a paywall. Libraries license the information to provide access to its students. Although I would like to see more things go open access, right now, you’re going to need this licensed information provided by the library to be a successful student researcher. Oh and guess what, after graduation, most students lose access to that academic information…but that’s a whole other topic!
- Learn: So you have all of this information at your fingertips, but how do you navigate it? Academic libraries are all about learning and discovery. With their information literacy programs, academic libraries partner with classes and professors to help navigate the information landscape, find and evaluate sources, and build relationships with librarians for expert help.
- Collaborate: The James B. Hunt Library at North Carolina State University may be one those “vanity projects” that Van Susteren was mentioning. But again, she’s missing the mark. Step inside and you’ll see what the modern academic library is all about: collaboration. The library has a makerspace, digital production studios, 100 group study rooms, and a special graduate student area. The library is all about creating opportunities (both planned and unplanned) to collaborate.
- Study: Students still need places to study and they need a variety of study spaces. In my library, we generally have about one-third of students who prefer silent studying in our quiet Reading Room, while another one-third prefer the collaboration spaces of our Information Commons, with the final one-third preferring a noisy and “anything goes” atmosephere like our coffee shop.
- Socialize: Yes, it’s OK for the academic library to feel like the campus living room. From therapy dogs to welcome back parties for students (note: all usually done on a shoestring budget!), libraries continue to dispel the notion that they are only for studying. Everyone deserves a break now and then!
These roles firmly place the library in the center of the academic institution. It’s not vanity, it’s necessity.