For centuries, library work has been about building collections, and then managing them. More recently, the emphasis shifted to discovery and access, which in turn led to an emphasis on instruction and information literacy initiatives. In some sense, one could create a cogent argument that the combination of services and collections will sustain our work for the foreseeable future. However, it also seems that this same argument will not facilitate innovation or necessarily help us provide the much-needed shift to “value beyond discovery.”
So where do librarians provide this value? Well, almost every ARL meeting involves intense discussions around open access and related scholarly communication issues. We can start there by seeing that most ARL libraries have a scholarly communication librarian type of position, which demonstrates some commitment to these issues. But until the scholarly communication issues become fully integrated into the framework of our work, meaning subject librarians, and other library service providers, it’s hard to imagine any sustainable value. In this regard, we may need to reconsider the scholarly communication librarian as having a much more visible and central role in program planning and service direction, as well as content decisions. The time of having such a position reporting to the university librarian and essentially operating independently has passed.
The other hot topic for ARL and libraries at large has been special collections. The primary quandary with special collections has been one of transitioning from the curator-knows-best model to one of patron empowerment and partnership. Coincidentally, many of the legacy issues with special collections dovetail nicely with scholarly communication concerns. For example, many special collections do not have copyright restrictions per se, depending on deeds of gift. On the other hand, many such deeds of gift were written pre-internet, and in several cases the signatories have passed, which presents a whole range of logistical and sometimes legal issues. Still the general affinities between scholarly communication and special collections remain palpable. In fact, one could argue that they represent two sides of the same proverbial coin, and that coin in turn represents a large measure of how libraries can add value beyond discovery.
As scholarly communication has given rise to new ways of adding value, our more traditional unique content has become increasingly relevant by offering distinctive content for conducting research, presenting knowledge, and teaching students. We tend to group such endeavors under rubrics of digital humanities and the like, but in general the value being added here brings our special collections into the mainstream of our message and our work. Similarly the content of special collections cannot continue as independent of the overall enterprise of library services. As much as our subject librarians need to incorporate the language of scholarly communication into their overall knowledge base, so too must they familiarize themselves with the content of special collections and thereby advocate for the use of this content in new and exciting ways, in the classroom and in scholarly research.
Organizationally, at Boston College, our approach has our scholarly communication librarian appointed as a department head. This position, along with the head of collection development, leads and facilitates new directions for our subject librarians. This change contains both operational and symbolic elements, as we have responded to new demands and changing roles of librarians by intentionally altering the narrative within the library and thereby the conversation with faculty and researchers. Similarly, with Instructional Services, where appropriate and whenever possible, affinities with special collections are encouraged and supported. The outcome, so far, has been better integration and collaboration, a substantive increase in undergraduate use of special collections (about one in eight undergraduates used special collections during this past year), and frankly, more excitement in the workplace.
By vigorously adding and effectively bringing scholarly communication and special collections into the mainstream of our work, we have two interconnected and very viable opportunities to transform ourselves, and the path to operationalize these opportunities resides in the decision-making fabric of the library itself. For example, virtually all special collections decisions should consider scholarly communication issues. Likewise, interactions with faculty and researchers should leverage both special collections and scholarly communication and such conversations should include these elements as normative.
Moreover, general collections issues, staffing plans, and technology considerations all play into the equation. In fact, depending on the level of risk one is willing to assume, in the same way that scholarly communication and special collections have been reintegrated into the envisioned library, so too could technology be deconstructed and reintroduced across departments. Our scenario has abandoned the idea of an AUL for information technology in favor of a distributed model where digital initiatives are paired with special collections, the ILS is positioned within collection and technical services, and the web and front-line digital services are under the purview of public services. The decoupling of technology services has been liberating to all staff, and has enhanced senior staff discussions with an inherent entrepreneurial dimension: no discussions happen in a vacuum and no decisions stand alone.
By having the courage and conviction to make decision making an interdependent exercise, then not only will special collections and scholarly communication become normative to our work, but so too will other areas of library operations, such as technology services, be better able to understand and appreciate the synergistic beauty of all libraries can offer. We can be increasing nimble, less territorial, and continue to actually live and work in a learning environment, all the while delivering “value beyond discovery” to our universities.