Wednesday, December 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/29: Naughty or Nice?

“Schools nationwide are rethinking how to provide students with resources, said Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians. It's much easier to forgo physical books if…each student has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.”—Pam Louwagie, “Stack of books are history at Benilde library,” Minneapolis Star Tribune

I might not have seen the article were it not for a day-after-Christmas dentist appointment. (Who schedules a dentist appointment the day after Christmas? I guess I do.) But there it was, staring me in the face. What initially caught my attention was the fact that the article on the Benilde-St. Margaret junior and senior high school library was on the front page. It is not everyday that a library story makes the front page. (Sorry, I can’t remember if it was above or below the fold.) But then again, it was the day after Christmas and perhaps the news cycle was a bit slow.

We’ve seen stories like this before. The school library, nearly empty of books, has been transformed into a “learning commons.” Novels and a few magazines are the sole print survivors, sitting forlornly in a forgotten corner in case a student needs a change of pace. All the rest of the books and periodicals are gone, picked off by interested faculty for classroom shelves or boxed and shipped to someone with a greater need, often in a distant land.

However, what really grabbed my attention—and reading between the lines—was the interconnectedness of this private school library with other libraries—public and private—in the metropolitan area and how the relationships between this library and its students were about to change. According to the article “Leaders at the school…decided against trying to duplicate what area public libraries offer. Instead, they will emphasize teaching the school's 1,200 students to find reliable information electronically.” Teaching information literacy is important and I commend the school for focusing on these skills. But I wonder what staff at public libraries serving these students think of the decision. Will they see an uptick in circulation? Will their reference staff field more questions related to homework assignments? Will other demands be placed on public libraries that were not present before Benilde made its decision? Did Benilde administrators consult with their counterparts in the public library systems?

I’m an academic librarian so perhaps some of these questions are na├»ve. And I’m not publicly reprimanding the folks at Benilde. Consider it, instead, a case study that raises interesting questions. I know that public libraries face their own challenges with funding; the pool of money municipalities and counties make available for public library services is steady state at best. (Remember, we’re only days away from the “fiscal cliff.”) I live in and enjoy one of the best public library systems in the country, Hennepin County. I take advantage of their collections for personal and professional use. I’m also plugged in with the good folks at Minitex and the Electronic Library for Minnesota (ELM). Did the folks at Benilde talk to Hennepin County or Minitex as they contemplated the switch? Benilde, according to the article, did not make the decision based on budgetary reasons. It was a gradual decision and followed an earlier weeding of their collection. Evidence existed that students already used public libraries for their research projects. Professional groups such as the American Association of School Librarians were “rethinking how to provide students with resources.” So it sounds like a lot of thought went into the decision at Benilde.

But I still wonder about the underlying assumptions, e.g. that each student “has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.” All of which leads me to a number of “what if” questions. What if those assumptions prove false, that not everyone has that kind of access to computers or books? And what if funding for public libraries shrinks (or continues to shrink)? Or what if a relationship with an e-book vendor sours? What will the school do then? And will I suddenly see a new crop of students at my door, wanting assistance with their school assignments? How will I fit their needs into the spectrum of needs that already exist for the students and faculty at my institution? What will schools like Benilde do then? I don’t have answers to these questions. At this point I’m simply raising them. I do think that some of the underlying assumptions in decisions like these are not always valid or not fully explored or thought through. I’m just hoping that next year students (or teachers) like those at Benilde won’t find a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

30th Year Reflections/28: Heartbroken

“I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.”—President Barak Obama

Since Friday, when news came to me of the soul-wrenching event at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’ve wrestled with what to write in this space. It has been a trivial pursuit compared to what families, first responders, and the community of Newtown are dealing with. And yet, there is a need to respond, to put into words, however poor, whatever wisdom my profession might offer at a time like this.

Librarians are not first responders, but they may be in the next line of response. We need to remember our colleagues at Sandy Hook and think of creative ways to support them as they work through this tragedy. The Library Media Center at Sandy Hook is staffed by four individuals. I make bold to name them so that we might keep them in our thoughts and prayers: Yvonne Cech, Library Media Specialist; Nancy Duffy, Library Teacher; Mary Ann Jacob, Library Clerk; and Cindy Carlson, Library Educational Assistant. Beyond keeping their names before us perhaps some of my colleagues will send them a card or note of support; perhaps some already have.

Some of you might also have resources in mind that you can share with them. Librarians are excellent at finding material and connecting sources with those in need. Now may be the perfect time to offer up your expertise to these colleagues. Perhaps a book or article was particularly useful to you in a similar time. Or maybe you know the perfect book to suggest for those in their care—the students who will again come to them looking for answers. For myself, I’ll note a group that was made available to me in a time of need, following the death of my fifteen-year-old niece: GriefShare. Our parish nurse coordinated this program and I found it immensely helpful as I walked through my own grief. Other faith-based or community groups may offer similar programs. I encourage my colleagues at Sandy Hook to look for such opportunities. You are not alone. You need not walk this path alone.

Finally, I’ll end with a story I heard last Sunday. It is, perhaps, well known to you. For me it was a new story that carried with it a sense of hope. The gist of the story can be found in Wikipedia, from which I borrow here. During the American Civil War Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oldest son joined the Union army, without his father’s blessing. His son was wounded in battle and this, together with the recent death of his wife, prompted Longfellow to write “Christmas Bells.” It was set to music in the 1870s, a carol familiar to many. A few of the verses, it seems to me, speak to those in Newtown and to us:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day | Their old, familiar carols play, | and wild and sweet | The words repeat | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent | The hearth-stones of a continent, | And made forlorn | The households born | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head; | "There is no peace on earth," I said; | "For hate is strong, | And mocks the song | Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: | "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; | The Wrong shall fail, | The Right prevail, | With peace on the earth, good-will to men."

Grace and peace to my colleagues at Sandy Hook.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

30th Year Reflections/27: Accreditation

“The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that in all four of the cases, accreditation by the American Library Association did not, and could not, guarantee the survival of library education programs on campuses where administrators had determined to eliminate them.” — Marion Paris, Library School Closings: Four Case Studies (1988)

As noted previously, I’m writing a book about the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The school closed in 1985, three years after I graduated from the program. The framework for my narrative is provided by Marion Paris’s book, specifically her case study of the Minnesota closing. I’m now writing the last major chapter, with the goal of having the book finished and ready for some publisher (as yet unidentified) by the end of January.

One of the issues I’ve been wrestling with in my research and writing is the role accreditation played (or didn’t play, as the case may be) in closing the school. All of my findings line up behind Paris’s original observation: accreditation did not guarantee the survival of the school. Just yesterday, I found a most remarkable letter written by the director of the school, Wesley Simonton, to Elinor Yungmeyer, accreditation officer for the ALA Committee on Accreditation. Here’s one section of the letter that caught my eye:

As the same time I must convey to you my express regret that the faculty of our College of Liberal Arts is unwilling to recognize the importance of accreditation….Unfortunately, our Liberal Arts Dean has told me that the liberal arts faculty generally, being unfamiliar with the accreditation process, tend to assign little weight to its findings. Future events may indicate how University officials “up the line” view the results of accreditation, but knowing something of the resistance of University officials to the many accreditation agencies on their doorstep, I cannot be optimistic. And so I end with the disturbing thought that universities are not sensitive to the accreditation process. This is undoubtedly “old hat” to you, but at least you now have new evidence on the subject. You have a difficult job in explaining the process—its details and its integrity—to university presidents and other high-ranking officers.

The letter is disturbing and makes me wonder what the current state of affairs is with the ALA and its Committee on Accreditation (COA). Are they still fighting these same battles with university administrators? Why do we accredit programs? What utility is there in the process?

I have, in some ways, been involved with the accreditation process. As a student at Minnesota, I observed a COA visiting team and met with them during their visit. While working in Illinois I was a member of an accrediting team, not for a library school, but for a private high school. As an adjunct faculty member of the MLIS program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul I participated with the school in providing feedback for its self-study report, met with visiting team members during a site visit, and saw the process develop into the eventual accreditation of the St. Kate’s program. The accreditation process is hard work. I discovered, while working on my book, how much work the faculty and administration of the U of M school went through for two self-studies and site visits. A year or more was spent working on each self-study. Enormous energy was spent by the visiting team preparing for the visit, making the visit, and then writing a report of their findings. All of which then went up the line to the COA for its evaluation and processing. At every step great amounts of time and careful attention were paid to the process.

Yet I am still left with the question: to what end? I understand the need of accreditation to insure the quality of individual library/information science programs. I’ve seen how this process helps guide a school and its parent institution towards avenues of improvement. I know and understand how the process, in the end, provides the profession with a cadre of new and competent practitioners. But if the parent institution doesn’t grasp the process, if administrators and faculty from other disciplines can hold the process in such contempt, where does that leave us? I’ll admit, I’m not up to speed on what’s happening on this front today; I’m reflecting my findings from three decades ago. But it does make me wonder and want to find out where the matter stands today.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Primary Sourcery

Just a quick note to let you know about a new blog called "Primary Sourcery" produced by the folks in the Archives and Special Collections department of the University of Minnesota Libraries. The introductory post (and link) may be found here. I invite you to subscribe or otherwise follow along as we offer weekly postings on things of interest here at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.  I'm looking forward to seeing these posts from my friends here in the library and discovering new things about the amazing collections under our stewardship. No doubt you'll hear from me now and then as I join with my colleagues in posting something of interest.  I hope you enjoy what we have to share!

30th Year Reflections/26: Desire

“Two hearts fading, like a flower. | And all this waiting, for the power. | For some answer, to this fire. | Sinking slowly. The water’s higher. | Desire.” — Ryan Adams, “Desire”

I’m pretty sure the lyrics to Ryan Adams’ song, “Desire,” have nothing to do with writing or authorship, but they came to mind all the same as I was thinking about this week’s post. I like to write, and I’m finding the practice of writing—on this blog and elsewhere—an enjoyable experience. I want to do more of it; I desire to write.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing over the last three months and have come to the conclusion—surprising in some ways to me—that I’m in the process of writing a book. I’m writing a book about the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. The project started out in late August as an article. I was reading a book by Marion Paris about the closing of four library schools. Each school was described in a case study, made anonymous to protect the identities of the schools and those interviewed. As I read one of her case studies I realized that she was describing my school—the U of M—and that it was the 30th anniversary of the decision to close the school. I never received a satisfactory answer from anyone at Minnesota as to why they closed my school and so, after reading the Paris case study and realizing the significance of the date, I decided to write about the closing and to take the case study out of its anonymous wraps and put names and faces and actions to the events I lived through thirty years ago. I thought I could do this in an article-length piece, but as the research and writing progressed I quickly burst the bounds of a standard length article. I’m now at about 120 pages of writing (160 pages total if you include my notes for unwritten sections and the 20 pages of endnotes); a total of over 70,000 words. I still have one chapter to write and so the final product will probably be at least 150 pages and perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 words. I never imaged such a thing could happen, but it has. And, as painful as it has been to write some of those words, and describe some of those scenes, I’m finding it a useful, cathartic, and enjoyable experience.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that has happened as I’ve moved through the process is how consuming the practice of researching and writing can be. There are days when I think of almost nothing else, sometimes to the detriment of my regular work. And yet, as a library professional I am expected to research and publish in service to the profession. So there is no guilt here, no desire to run away from something that has become almost an obsession. But it does mean that I need to be careful with my time and make sure that other things in the office are getting done, the necessary things to keep the unit functioning and on track. Admittedly, it has been a struggle. But the end of the book is in sight. I hope to have the last part of the draft completed by no later than January. Then it will be a matter of finding someone who might be interested in publishing it. I’m still not sure who might want to read it. The audience that has developed in my mind as I’ve worked on the piece is a combination of library educators, those involved with professional accreditation, and folks with an interest in higher education. We’ll see if it goes anywhere.

I’ve been obsessed about projects before. I combed through all the sources I could find many years ago when working on a bibliography of the published and unpublished writings of a friend of mine for a festschrift in his honor. (I think the final product of my bibliography resulted in some 78 pages of published text.) I dove into boxes and files when working on a chapter for a book on Swedes in Chicago. Other projects had the same flavor. All of it was fun. Some of it was hard work. The end result was rewarding.

The flip side, which I also discovered this fall, is that one can come to a point of seeming exhaustion. I was “all written out.” That realization came to me just a few weeks ago, which perhaps explains the somewhat sporadic appearance of the last few blog postings. What has saved me, and what prompts me to soldier on with something I desire, is the discipline I’ve also imposed on myself of writing each day, and posting each week. It has been a valuable lesson, one I’m sure has application in other parts of my work. If the discipline is there, coupled with desire and commitment, it will carry you through the rough patches, when everything seems exhausted and “written out.”