Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Retrofit 3: C-I-C, C-L-I…M-O-U-S-E

This is my third “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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My last post ended with a few basic and not very earth-shattering observations: our professional future (corporate and individual) is partially shaped by organizations external to our host institutions; other forces or movements also shape our future; and none of this is necessarily a bad thing. As an example, I highlighted the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) involvement with the RBMS guidelines on competencies for special collections professionals.

This trite conclusion, however, engendered questions with—I hope you might agree—a little more heft: Where is the balance (or tension) between individual professional expectations and corporate or administrative or institutional or external expectations? Who gets to be part of the conversation that determines or influences a balance point? Does such a balance point exist? (Which perhaps begs another question: Where—or what—constitutes a tipping point?) How many of our expectations and realities do we get to create (or at least have a say in their creation)? How many expectations are imposed from above or beyond, wherever (and whatever) “above” or “beyond” might be? Are we able to perform the core functions of our position or is something—The Next Big Thing—continually crowding in, begging for attention and completion?

I’m not ready to attempt an answer to any of these questions. For the moment I’ll let them hang there, like so many damp pieces on a clothes line. We’ll come back to them later.

In the meantime, I want to explore another relationship between my position, my library, and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, aka The Big Ten.* According to its website: “For more than half a century, these world-class research institutions have advanced their academic missions, generated unique opportunities for students and faculty, and served the common good by sharing expertise, leveraging campus resources, and collaborating on innovative programs. Governed and funded by the Provosts of the member universities, CIC mandates are coordinated by a staff from its Champaign, Illinois headquarters.” Please note that governance and funding resides with the provosts, that is, with administrators.

References to ARL or the CIC (or pick your favorite organizational acronym) should not be interpreted as administrator or institution bashing in the course of these ruminations. Rather, it is simply my way of trying to identify centers of power and influence that bear on the seminar’s fundamental questions of retrofitting expectations or redefining reality in view of a future professional existence. The questions I raise are ontological questions, i.e. of being and becoming. (I will admit, however, to having some fun, at institutional expense, riffing on the Mickey Mouse theme for the title of this post: “Who's the leader of the club | That's made for you and me…”).

A number of collaborative projects exist within the CIC. One of these is the Center for Library Initiatives (CLI), staffed by a director, deputy director, project manager, and office manager. The CLI “focuses on three objectives—optimizing student and faculty access to the combined resources of our libraries; maximizing cost, time, and space savings; and supporting a collaborative environment where library staff can work together to solve their mutual problems.” Key projects for the CLI include: the CIC/HathiTrust Digital Repository, Google Book Search Project, Shared Print Repository, Consortial Licensing, Scholarly Communication, and Reciprocal Library Borrowing.

In 2009, Big Ten special collections librarians met in Chicago. The last time this group gathered was in 1993. Five years ago the major topics of conversation revolved around “how can we expose our collections better in the Midwest,” identifying “strategies to bring researchers to the Midwest,” and “showing off riches and promoting the Big Ten brand.” The vehicles to make this happen included the Google Books and HathiTrust projects, along with development of a shared print repository. At the 2009 meeting, representatives (primarily directors of special collections) shared major campus issues; many of these were common across institutions: budget constraints, hiring restrictions or freezes, merging units/departments/libraries, moves, space planning, renovation projects, and space constraints. In the last five years there have been perhaps two or three conference calls between special collections directors about priorities or potential collaborations, but nothing substantive has happened. It seems safe to say that such spotty meetings or conversations are indicative of corporate interest—i.e. CIC provosts or university librarians—in special collections over the past two decades.

CIC-CLI Director Mark Sandler provided an overview of goals in the most recent issue of the CLI electronic newsletter. In other words, he provided a status report. I’ll not spend any time criticizing Sandler except to note that I found some of his comments condescending—hardly the kind of esprit de corps one wishes to develop in a collaborative universe. What is important to note—and to ask—is where special collections, or libraries writ large, fit into current CIC thinking. Sandler wrote:

…I’m likely not doing justice to the breadth, depth, or significance of the collaborative work going on in the CIC offices and across our universities, but cataloging the accomplishments of CIC collaboration is not really my point here. Rather, I’m writing this in the new year to remind myself, the CLI team, and all of our wonderful CIC libraries/librarians that the goals of libraries can’t only be about libraries. Our library goals should be about advancing the interests of our campuses, higher education as a global institution, and the aspirations of scholars—both young and old—everywhere….

Within the CIC, our greatest strength in the CLI is that we work in close proximity to a broad array of campus concerns, aspirations, and opportunities. We see the future of libraries as inextricably linked to the success of these broader campus collaborations; collaborations about improving student learning outcomes, diversifying our university communities, enriching the research portfolios of our faculty, strengthening campus leadership, making our universities more cost-effective, or making athletic participation safer.

For those who work in grand libraries, with their grand reading rooms and atria, it’s easy to look up at the high vaulted ceilings and mistake them for the sky. In other words, the goals of our campuses, states, and regions are not about libraries per se, but, rather, are about student success, impactful research, creative and uplifting works of art, world-changing invention, life-saving medicine, economic advancement, and social justice. Our work in libraries, and in the CIC-CLI, is to figure out how libraries connect to, support, and advance these larger goals. And, if we do manage to figure that out, we should next be thinking long and hard about how we convey our role—our value-add—to partners, funders and the beneficiaries of our work.

This is the universe in which I work and move and have my being. If I’m interested in retrofitting my expectations around the reality defined by the Big Ten, then it looks to me like I’ll need to focus on “student success, impactful research, creative and uplifting works of art, world-changing invention, life-saving medicine, economic advancement, and social justice,” or to put it more succinctly, to advance “the interests of our campuses, higher education as a global institution, and the aspirations of scholars—both young and old—everywhere.” Sure. No problem.

Of course, this begs another question: who calls the tune for the Big Ten? Or do they dance to their own tune?

*CIC member universities include: University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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