Monday, October 18, 2010

Branch Campus Libraries

Over the years, libraries have been an important part of my life. I worked in the library, as an undergraduate, spent nearly countless hours doing research in libraries, and had library directors reporting directly to me for at least a dozen years. I’ve even published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship.

I’m also genuinely impressed by the way libraries and librarians have transformed over the years. I’m confident that libraries will continue to evolve and to serve a critical function at colleges and universities.

Against all that sits my belief that a disruptive environment has emerged in higher education. One prediction I’ve made is that newly emerging options will offer high quality online and hybrid programs at prices that are sharply lower than we see currently. However, even if that doesn’t happen, institutional leaders will be forced to take a hard look at programs and services, to make sure that spending is tied closely to recruitment and retention. All services and programs need to serve a strategic purpose, or they need to go.

I’m not suggesting that libraries are unnecessary, but that branch campus libraries need to be thought of strategically. The library budget and the library’s programs and services need to be evaluated based on how they contribute to the success of the institution. Simply asserting that you have a great library is relevant only to the extent that your targeted audience cares.

For example, some branch campuses have converted part of their library space into a “student commons,” providing commuter students with an excellent place to meet and study, while also providing access to materials, online data bases, and staff support for research projects. That makes intuitive sense to me, and if the campuses are obtaining data that demonstrates the commons receives heavy use, then it may be a strategic success.

In contrast, I have heard some faculty members argue that there are certain materials that must be in the library, regardless of whether or not anyone uses them. Those faculty members, Platonists all, believe that there is some library ideal that begins with a core collection of books and periodicals. If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t agree with that point of view, but for those who do, the future promises to be even more frustrating than the present.

Of course, it isn’t just about libraries. I also enjoy athletics and nice fitness centers, but I suspect it is going to take unambiguous data to support continued growth in spending at many institutions. Whereas an outstanding library—or an outstanding football team—may contribute to the value of an institution’s brand, they will not typically contribute to how branch campus students, never mind distance learning students, make their decision to enroll, unless those students see the value added.

Libraries and athletics stand out only because their costs are a bit easier to identify than some others. Indeed, I hear repeatedly, from different institutions with quite different missions, that no one seems to be able to get a handle on the marketing budget, the communications budget, or the IT budget. It’s tough to calculate the return on investment, when you don’t even know what you are spending! Moreover, there are opportunity costs that come with the investment of time and money without a clear strategic purpose.

So what will the branch campus library of the future look like? Clearly, it will depend on the type of branch, its size, and its mission. However, staffing, collections, and services should be those that have a demonstrable effect on student recruitment and retention. In addition, campuses of the future may want to consider carefully how they can gain access to collections, without the full expense of creating and maintaining them.

Electronic data bases have an obvious value, in that respect, but I can imagine the creation of collaboratives or of customizable electronic collections, and I know examples of online providers contracting with universities to provide collection access. Of course, current projects that are scanning entire university collections may have an impact, and the general trend toward open access may be significant.

Students still will need to learn how to use the technology, conduct effective searches, and evaluate the information they find, although the physical location of librarians may not have much to do with the location of a branch campus. I’d expect even more of the 24/7-type of service orientation, given the growth of online programs and the increasing emphasis on student service excellence.

Identifying essential elements of how libraries impact recruitment and retention, then providing appropriate services with an eye on cost, is simply an example of how successful branches approach every decision. Assessment is not just for academic programs!