Library, Inc.? Not exactly

A friend — an academic historian — asked me what I thought of Daniel Goldstein’s “Library, Inc.” essay in the Chronicle. This was my response:

I wholly agree with Goldstein that universities have become too corporate in their culture, but I don’t agree that libraries are leading the trend. Perhaps we are more so than, say, English departments, but certainly the hard sciences and law, medical, and business schools are in cahoots with the business world much more than we are.

Beyond that I find Goldstein’s examples incomplete or misleading. It’s true that librarians negotiate with corporate database vendors and that these vendors — and the publishing industry in general — have become a terrible problem. The model of renting journals is an awful one. (I’m actually very interested in the history of the process by which these database vendors — EBSCO and their ilk — came to dominate; I don’t think anything has been written on it.)

But librarians are wholly aware of these issues, and do more than anyone else in the academy to devise alternatives. They’re advocates for open access. They build institutional repositories as an alternate means of hosting published work. And I find the accusation that access services librarians are neglecting metadata and declaring incomplete records to be good enough to be, well, bizarre. Cataloguers and metadata specialists are, without exception, detail-oriented and precise people — tending, if anything, to perfectionism rather than the opposite.

Goldstein sees public services as a second problem area. I think he has a point about students’ tendency towards sloppy research. Too often they grab the first few articles they find that seem to be related to their topic. But, really, was there a golden age when the majority of students did their research thoroughly? This summer when I was trying to organize the archives of a professor from the 1930s-60s I found plenty of student research papers. Some were good. But some were crap too, in which the student had clearly just pulled five random books on eastern Europe off the library shelf and paraphrased. The only way to get around the problem is to make sure students only have access to the best sources. And that defeats the point of a research assignment.

Again, librarians are very aware of this problem. He wholly ignores the other half of public services: instruction. Instruction is probably bigger and hotter than reference right now. And instruction librarians are very much focused on concrete issues like helping students find the best possible sources. Some schools have independent one-credit library classes and all do individual instruction sessions for courses across the college. And we try to get the professor to give us a specific assignment to work towards so the students have to do the work themselves rather than just listening and forgetting.

In short, I just don’t think “Library, Inc.” holds up very well in light of actual library practice.

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