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Dean's Update: New Opportunities to Increase the Visibility of Libraries 

May 7, 2020

Perhaps it takes a crisis to test whether our society’s “motherhood” and “apple pie” elements are essential.  Ask most people on a campus if their library is “the heart of the university,” and the response is something like, “Of course, why do you even ask?” Students protest if the library is not open around the clock during final exams; faculty are shocked if a particular journal they need is not available through the library. Yet, the average percentage of university budgets that are allocated for libraries continues—as it has for decades—to drop. So what’s the disconnect between the value of the library and the financial support it receives to ensure its deliverables?

Throughout my career, I have seen academic libraries—whether ones ranked among the best endowed in the world or those subject to budget-line vetoes from a financially strapped state governor’s office—repeatedly challenged to justify investment in their operations. Library administrators and staff are confused and sometimes demoralized by the devaluation a budget cut seemingly reflects, especially when funding does not seem to match the praise of the value of library deliverables shared by faculty and students.

Over the years, I have heard hints why this is so, from presumably well-intentioned comments from fellow academic leaders that, “We love what the library does, but it will always be our second priority,” or faculty noting that, “Librarians are of great use to me [only] when they serve my needs.” And, most recently, as higher education faces another crises that will have an unexpected and major financial impact on university budgets, university administrators are asking, “Which of the library’s activities are essential?”—not just ‘well appreciated,’ not ‘always done,’ but essential.

Promoting the value of libraries and their relevance to a university’s success is never an easy task, and it is especially difficult during a time of rapid change in operations and work behaviors, unprecedented and not fully understood health and safety conditions, and highly uncertain financial impact.

In this issue of In Circulation, we share some activities staff have undertaken this past month that illustrate attempts to promote the Drexel Libraries’ contributions to higher education and their work to bridge the relevance gap for understanding how these are essential to Drexel University’s success, and thus worthy of support in the future.   

One approach is to tell personal stories of what a library does. You can read an interview with one of our most recent hires who, almost immediately after joining us on-site in early March, went home to work remotely to introduce a newly conceived Curriculum Support program and build campus partnerships. 

Our recap of this year’s Library Celebration Awards event, hosted online through Zoom, captures exceptional achievements of our staff over the last year. And although this year’s event lacked refreshments and in-person conversation, we were delighted to have several Library Advisory Board members join us online for the event to learn more about what the Libraries does and to recognize staff members’ achievements, some whom they “met” for the first time.

Another approach taken to minimize the relevance gap is through raising awareness of the value of sharing library expertise, knowledge and resources. One article describes how active participation in regional consortia and partnerships with campus units leverage collaboration as a cost-effective approach to addressing challenges all of higher education faces. Similarly, the Drexel Libraries’ participation in a virtual panel discussion about the impact of emergency remote teaching on libraries not only offered evidence of essential library services and programs related to COVID-19, but also exposed the Libraries to thousands of industry professionals in a single hour, an added valuable campus advertising. 

Looking ahead, we have also begun this month to design a survey of those serving on two of our advisory groups that invites not only rating of how essential the Libraries contributions are to their work but also to illustrate (through use cases) how these are to the University’s success. By next month, we should have gained some new insights to help us prioritize what to do next in preparing for new phases of being a “pandemic library.”

There are no guaranteed silver bullets or secret strategies to raise awareness of the value and the importance of the library in higher education. However, the current public health crisis offers an opportunity to launch—and promote—new and exciting library services that support our university communities through this challenging time, and we welcome feedback on what others are doing as well.  

No amount of opportunities this pandemic might offer us will ever warrant having anything like this happen again. With respect and gratitude for those in the trenches that provide the obviously most essential support for our safety and wellness, all of us in the Drexel Libraries wish you and your families all the best to stay healthy, informed, and in good spirits.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries