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Dean’s Update: Functioning in Corners of Questioned Relevance

February 22, 2022

Funding support for the essential contributions a library makes to higher education within a pandemic-accelerated period of disruptive changes is a challenge facing many academic administrators. Communicating which library deliverables are essential and why they warrant investment is a specific challenge for library administrators and other stakeholders at times when such obvious educational resources such as faculty, facilities and student support services also are recognized as critical for learning to flourish.

At Drexel we have been exploring the challenge of planning the future of the library with a broad horizon that predictably envisions a period of reduced resources. Certainly not unique to Drexel, here we continually work to make sense of expected conditions that will affect our strategies for being a critical component of an institution that offers highly active research and intensely engaging educational experiences. Looming high throughout universities is the impact of challenges to continuing our status quo paths to success, whether due to, for example, new expenditures for addressing costly risks to safety and wellness, the demographic “cliff” appearing on enrollment and tuition revenue graph projections, or dramatically changing work habits and the availability of a diverse and flexible workforce.

This leaves library advocates swirling in the planning corners of questioned relevance—corners that are easier to avoid until other university priorities are better resolved. Library administrators are challenged in how to enable advocacy. Whether to encourage faithful stakeholders aggressively to demand financial support be increased and diverted to support what the library does? To recast ways the library makes unique contributions to the learning enterprise to compete for funding alongside the core university resources needed for its higher education business? Or to simply “make do” and wait to see in the future what stakeholders miss?

I suspect I am not alone to feel in such times that librarians have not been well educated or otherwise prepared to think along such diverse strategic paths. One approach I have found helpful to make sense of how to lead and make progress from these corners of questioned relevance is to face the challenge first as one of communication.

Recall the basic principles of effective communication that include ensuring ideas are relevant, framing a solid perspective, and choosing an appropriate medium and doing so passionately. Being relevant requires understanding the intended recipient of the communication—those influencing decisions about allocation of resources may not always be the library’s service clientele but may include potential partners seeking support from the same bucket of reduced funds. The still often held perspectives of the library as a place to house resources and offer helpful guidance to find and use them, or as the metaphoric “heart of the university,” are difficult to make relevant and heard. Higher education has experienced new benefits of conducting its business totally remotely and is yearning to embellish the established perspective of providing core on-site student experiences with benefits of remote delivery—the hybrid learning and work environment may be an opportunity for a sea change in framing the library perspective of itself and rebranding its communicated value.

Selecting appropriate medium for effective communication strategies goes beyond social media, webinars, blog posts, and traditional emails, newsletters, and social events. Communicating library messages will benefit from effective application of the protocols of diverse venues, recognizing when to be brief and reach quick attention, and when thoroughly to document evidence for a rational argument. Demonstrating passion does not equate with high-pitched, raised voices but rather with communicating commitment to the idea forwarded and the trustworthiness of the sender.

In this issue of In Circulation, we invite you to read about a sample of activities undertaken this month that leverage the occasion of milestone anniversaries to communicate an evolving perspective of contributions a library makes to higher education.

The description of the celebration of Drexel Authors illustrates our communicating relevance of this library event for our community to evolve its perspective on the achievements of authoring, which began with common knowledge of books to impact of journal articles, published for education or research, accessible widely or to a niche community of readers.

The article about celebrating Black History Month illustrates a few different ways to communicate recognition of our colleagues and their contributions to Drexel and the world’s learning through teaching and research activities.

Other activities underway this month are not ready yet to communicate in much detail and in relevant and effective ways through this newsletter. These include an exploration of Libraries staff perspectives on the hybrid library environments in support of both employee work and student learning, and enabling faculty advisory groups and deans to identify and communicate the essential deliverables they value most that the Libraries offer them and the University.

Enjoy the remainder of February and be encouraged that spring will come soon, as many of us here are, with increasingly warm and often sunny Philadelphia days.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries