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Dean’s Update: Connecting and Positioning Libraries in Higher Education

February 5, 2020

As we approach Valentine’s Day, thoughts wander to the important fuel of relationships—for not only romance and love—but also for connecting and positioning an organization to contribute to the success of another. I leave the first for you to ponder and enjoy elsewhere, but here I’ll highlight three activities this past month that illustrate some strategies to fuel improving the relationships of a library within its academic home.     

Let us start with an approach for the romantic skeptics among you—the February “bah-humbugs” who believe that data (over meeting dates) are the best fuel to enable change. One program at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference, held last month here in Philadelphia, featured a review of results of a recent survey conducted by the Library Journal, with sponsorship of ExLibris. During the session, graphically displayed data generated discussion of library directors’ perceptions of the “State of the Library.” Prompts from the convener and a panel reminded the audience that the data were summaries of perceptions, not all validated by other forms of data. However, one slide did include a 2013 analysis of the ratio of total ARL library expenditures as a percentage of total university expenditures, utilizing nine-year-old data; it showed a steady decrease in this measure since 1983’s high of 3.7% to 1.8% in 2011.

This served as backdrop for a reported optimistic perception among last year’s survey respondents that the trend has ended now, with academic library budgets expecting to grow (25.7% respondents) or remain the same (37.2%). Interestingly, the two library director panelists were professionally old enough to remember when the 1983 rate was disturbingly low compared to the earlier 5% averages. Nevertheless, the audience voiced mixed comments about whether the survey results warrant such optimism.

Next, those looking for “matchmaking” systems might relate to an activity to help position libraries in campus planning. Last month, I joined a handful of architects, administrators, educators, consultants and staff who serve in SCUP (Society of College and University Planners) leadership roles to review presentation proposals for its upcoming international conference. We had one day to help design a quality, three-day program for an expected 1,600 or more attendees to learn about and address key issues facing higher education. It was rewarding to see several of the accepted proposals look at libraries and their importance within higher education. The final program will stimulate many connections during the summer conference that will continue to feature contributions of libraries within the fabric of college and university administration.

Finally, for those feeling underappreciated and overlooked for their “special qualities,” an antidote may be to project better the reasons for building meaningful partnerships. A recent opportunity to address a large segment of the University’s executive leadership challenged me to prepare these individuals to identify in what ways partnerships with the Libraries will help their areas contribute to the University’s success. Achieving the University’s vision is a shared objective, and this approach for engaging with these leaders differed from offering stories of individual successes or making appeals for more funding.   

The narrative for the invited discussion was to address an anticipated lack of understanding of what a modern library is, and to place the Libraries’ relationship to Drexel through its history of experiential education. Highlighting Drexel’s recent classification as an R1 university to be a critical moment in its history, the meeting presented unique opportunities for a modern, innovative library to help Drexel achieve its envisioned future legacy. We have proposed initiatives to help address three key challenges Drexel and others in higher education face: containing the high cost of higher education, shaping future research, and preparing a workforce and citizens of democracy that are committed to seeking truth and authoritative information. Comments and discussions afterwards recognized challenges for the University around connecting to scholarship and ways to collaborate to share efforts to address them.    

There were times when the academic library was a university’s favorite sweetheart—its very heart, in metaphoric fact. As we understand better the interrelationships of many “organs” in any organization, however, and mature to relate to others beyond our own interests, we might more easily find effective strategies to affirm the library as essential to the happiness of higher education.  

Happy Valentine’s Day!    

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries