New Directions talk: Betsy Wilson

The UC Berkeley library is sponsoring a series of speakers from other institutions as part of our regeneration and rejuvenation process. Our first speaker was Betsy Wilson, Dean of University Libraries at the University of Washington. I was asked to blog the content of her session, and give some responses. It was a great session and I took pretty thorough notes, so I post the content here behind the jump, to protect everyone’s RSS readers from overload…

October 16, 2007
New Directions Talk
Betsy Wilson

The talk began with an historical look at the development of the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington from its earliest days, when Seattle was a distant outpost on the West coast. The library’s founder, Henry Suzzallo, conceived of the library as the center of the university, and as a “cathedral of books.” Suzzallo’s detractors described the library as foolish and extravagant, but it was fascinating to see the bones of the building going up in Wilson’s slides, and to be reminded of the real affective power of libraries in universities and in society.

James Duderstadt affirms that the future of the library and of the university are inextricably bound up together. Wilson adds that libraries are both agents of change and change resisters, with dual roles as innovators and adopters of new technology, and preservers of cultural heritage. Essentially, Henry Suzzallo’s vision of the library as a “cathedral of books” no longer applies.

The future of libraries and universities depends on how these institutions collectively respond to technological change and the changing habits and expectations of our users. We will be measured on how well we disseminate the work done on our campuses, and the discoveries made here. The essential mission of libraries is still the same: to meet the information needs of our communities through collecting, disseminating, preserving, and even creating knowledge.

Some key questions to ask ourselves: what do our users value now? What will they value in 2060? Will they expect us to have preserved the blogs, mash-ups, video games, and other electronic ephemera of this era? If so, what will we stop doing? How do we decide where to invest our limited resources?

A “preferred future” for academic libraries might look like this: libraries provide information when, where, and how their users need it. Collections are available in perpetuity. Libraries are woven into the fabric of research-they have moved “upstream” in the research process, and are anticipating researcher needs, rather than engaging mainly at the end of the research process by collecting and archiving its output. Information is accessible and affordable, available irrespective of time or place. Users are information-smart (information-fluent.) Physical and virtual libraries are trusted, robust, and engaged institutions. Finally, scholarly communication has transformed into an accessible and affordable system for all.

Academic libraries must reposition themselves as global institutions, connecting and collaborating beyond traditional ARL and US partners. How can we bring this about?

4 suggested strategies:

  • Collaborative & collective action
  • Building a culture of assessment
  • Creating a “global research library”
  • People

Collaborative & collective action
This will be the defining characteristic of the 21st century library.

Artificial boundaries between different kinds of libraries (public, special, academic) must be overcome. Partnership with the private sector and with individuals must also be considered.

The library is ahead of the rest of campus in collaboration-viz. ILL and other resource sharing. (What other campus unit sends its collateral to other institutions around the world?) However, campuses are seeing increasing interdisciplinary work across all fields.

Libraries must discover what we can do at the network level, and what must be done at the local level. We should focus local efforts only on those activities that pay out best at the local level, and rely on collaborative agreements for the rest.

Group work sparks creativity and can be immensely productive, but requires intentional choice and represents hard work. Barriers to collaboration include budget systems, reward structures, etc. Collaborators must learn to cross boundaries and tolerate ambiguity.

Building a culture of assessment
Describes an environment in which decisions are based on facts, research and analysis, and in which we deliver services in ways to maximize positive outcomes for users.

We must continually assess our landscape, track patterns, and look for places to invest our energy/resources to make a difference.

Assessment allows us to make best use of resources, and to make intelligent choices from all of the opportunities available to us. Helps us to avoid paralysis, and to identify what we can let go of.

University of Washington has adopted “methodological diversity” in assessment, using the following methods and more:

  • Qualitative & quantitative
  • Surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Observation
  • Interviews
  • Usability tests
  • LibQual

Institutions should share data with each other freely. Currently, NYU, Minnesota, and U Washington all have significant survey results to share and compare. Examination of all these results shows significant similarities among the user groups.

One recent survey of bioscience faculty at U Washington produced a distinct profile of this user group. For them: print is dead; article databases aren’t widely used; they do multidisciplinary work across the campus and around the world; they consider themselves free agents, not bound by the university; they are funded largely by grants; they buy books they need from, because it delivers to their offices; the library presents too many obstacles to getting the materials they need.

University of Washington assessment results accessible here:

Library has become leader at UW in articulating the value of taxpayers’ investment in the campus, thanks to constant assessment.

Creating a “global research library”
Research & scholarship have been transformed by the Internet, across disciplines and around the world. Research partnerships are highly distributed geographically.

Libraries find themselves in some cases presenting a barrier to research, where licensing restrictions prevent researchers from accessing information. Scholars collaborating across institutions often find that only some members of a team can access needed information. This trend has increased in the last few years. (?)

Scholars have difficulty managing their data and organizing their information. Libraries have a role to play here.

Crystal ball prediction: by 2020, academic libraries will be either fully marginalized or fully transformed. To achieve the latter, we must globalize. Strengthen our awareness of the global infrastructure and landscape for libraries, and for scholarly communication and peer review. We must also learn to manage the global regulatory and policy framework.

U Washington sponsored a recent event called “Global Research Library 2020.” Retreat in WA state, hosting 30 creative leaders from around the world-librarians, technology leaders, government leaders, etc. Question: what collective action can we take to move toward a global research library? For more, see blogs and website:

If we don’t globalize our approach to libraries, we face

  • widening digital divide (developing countries are left behind)
  • disorganized library efforts to manage resources will be pre-empted and superseded by private companies
  • current data deluge becomes “data decay”
  • missed opportunity
  • libraries decline into marginalized, static institutions archiving past cultural heritage

There is also a concern that our singular focus on the sciences (more active, more funded, more engaged) will lead to the neglect of the humanities and social sciences.

The most important ingredient in all of this strategizing. We must invest in ourselves and our colleagues, including colleagues not even in the field yet.

We must create libraries as a “workplace of choice”:

  • Good compensation
  • Diversity
  • Transparence in leadership
  • Resources and infrastructure necessary to do the work
  • Inspiring
  • Self-renewal for employees

We must move toward the development of the whole organization as an ecosystem, focus on the whole, and on continuous learning and renewal.

We must be willing to hire individuals with specialized skill sets (PR, graphic design, data management, etc.) rather than assigning specialized work to current library staff.

In sum, the 21st century library is:

  • Both virtual and real
  • Flexible and networked
  • Both global and local
  • Clear, dependable, and comprehensible
  • Multidimensional and integrated
  • A working ecosystem

Conclusion: A story
Zach Latin, an undergraduate majoring in math and Spanish at the U Washington, with usual undergraduate hobbies. Latin is blind, and his work with the Tactile Graphics Project at U Washington allowed him to major in mathematics despite the difficulties inherent in representing mathematical figures in graphic/tactile form.

Latin became interested in Quechua, the indigenous Incan language, for an assignment, and went to the library for assistance. He was helped by librarian Laura Barrett to find articles and to request books via ILL, some of which came all the way from Peru. The books were translated to Braille for Latin to read.

Latin subsequently graduated, and left earlier this year to live and work in Peru, where he is helping to develop a Braille system for Quechua. This will allow Quechuans who are blind to read in their own language.

All this thanks to the “circle of gifts” that libraries provide…

Questions & Answers

Q: How do we balance the “print is dead” attitude with our mission to preserve and archive the cultural heritage?
A: UW has cancelled print wherever possible and sensible. Trusting in collaborative schemes for archiving purposes, and intentionally following user needs. Use stats for print declined, and fiscal pressures required some decision, so print journals were cut. Main focus for UW library (in response to user input) is accelerating discovery, not archiving print. Outlook has changed significantly.

Q: Can you say more about the precipitous drop in article database use you discovered at UW?
A: As of 2001 or so, usage began to decline. Due primarily to the open web-users value convenience over quality, and there is also more and more high-quality information available online. We must marry convenience with quality to compete. Information silos don’t work. Interdisciplinary researchers want interdisciplinary databases. So, Web of Science is still popular because it’s so interdisciplinary and also offers quality information. More specialized databases aren’t used, and may be cancelled.

Q: What’s the future of print in our collections allocations decisions?
A: It depends on the local situation. At UW, currently 40-45% of the collections budget is spent on electronic materials. UW supports more science disciplines than UCB, proportionately. UCB’s needs may be different. UW is also putting more money into “enabling technologies” rather than collections proper-i.e., support for data sets, etc.

Q: You mention that faculty aren’t coming to the library, but students still are. Why is that? Are faculty encouraging students to come? Or is the library just a good place to study?
A: Since 1992, undergraduate use of the physical library has remained constant, despite changes in services that no longer require students to come in (i.e., putting reserve materials online.) So, usage patterns have changed. Students use collaborative work & study spaces, and want library expertise in handling and managing information. Some faculty hold office hours in the library café. In general, faculty want students to use the library and engage with it, b/c students’ own estimations of their study skills are much more favorable than faculty estimations are. Also, faculty had the experience of engaging with the library as students, and they want to communicate that.

Q: How do we address the high cost of collections resources (books & journals, etc.), especially given foreign exchange rates etc.? Isn’t this the elephant in the room that prevents us from doing so much?
A: Money spent on exorbitant journal subscriptions is, in many cases, wasted. The open access movement hasn’t achieved as much in the last 10 years as we might have liked-faculty still don’t consider cost of journal when deciding where to publish. Teaching about cost doesn’t work. However, some faculty are beginning to understand the problems inherent in the journal market when they work in collaborative groups, and find that they or others can’t access needed information. Conversations about access may be an avenue for us to teach and create change. Libraries must simultaneously advocate for greater resources, and work to change the broken scholarly communication system.

Q: How should we manage our relationships with other information providers, such as Google?
A: Collaborations with private sectors can be tricky, and we may find that we don’t want to continue all partnerships we embark upon. Value sets of private companies are very different from those of libraries. But needs may converge, as in the Digital Futures Alliance, working to preserve access to digital materials in the long term. (Corporate partners include Weyerhauser, Boeing, Corbis, etc.) Ideal is to find “pre-competitive space,” in which collaborators can work together without competing.

The UW was an early adopter for the WorldCat Local project, which emerged from the BSTF report and Karen Calhoun’s (Cornell/LC) report. Collaboration with OCLC in effort to re-examine possibility of removing UW library catalog. Use of WorldCat Local has increased local resource usage by 20%, interlibrary loans by 40%, and Orbis/Cascade (regional lending consortium) by 50%.

Q: What would be your first wish if you could have any means of addressing staffing and organizational problems?
A: Speed up the process. Libraries’ love of process can jeopardize our opportunities. Incidentally, real opportunity to redefine science librarianship, which is in transition following a period of real leadership in mounting databases, etc.

My thoughts on Betsy’s talk (as opposed to my transcription of it) are at the UCB Library New Directions blog.


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