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Research Libraries Ensure Trustworthiness in Times of Need

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As we emerge into what follows historic crises in public health, democracy, and social justice, our society is challenged in almost every dimension of our lives with questions of trust and trustworthiness—whether about higher education, the media, the political system, or any number of professions. In this mix, libraries, especially research libraries, are rarely mentioned. However, they are well positioned to convene, inform, shape, and influence a more inclusive, equitable, and trustworthy existence, as they take action both within their organizations, and in partnership with others who share their values.

Research libraries are taking actions that will necessarily be the work of generations. However, before you read further it may be helpful to clarify what is meant by trust, entrustment, and trustworthiness.

During the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Spring Meeting, Kwame Anthony Appiah shared an eloquent talk on “Who Knows? Who Decides? Identity, Authority & Trust,” particularly in the context of scholarship. In their recent book The Power of Trust, Sandra Sucher and Shalene Gupta also provide a helpful framing of the key concept of trust. And, of course, Robert Putnam is renowned for his work on social capital, particularly as it relates to trust. Borrowing from these sources, I offer the following simplified set of definitions for the reader’s consideration, knowing that whole careers exist to study and advise about individual, group, and organizational trust.

A few definitions, for the purposes of this blog post:

  • Trust is an attitude shared in a relationship between individuals or between different groups, often with their own conflicting needs that must be balanced. Trust is essential to solve shared problems and it is often focused on or specific to one area or aspect of the relationship. Trust is earned and can be lost.
  • Trustworthiness is the ability to be relied on. It is based on four elements that affect gaining, keeping, or losing trust: competence, motives, means, and impact.
  • Entrustment is the act of making a person/group/organization responsible for specific interests or making oneself vulnerable by trusting another and therefore making oneself open to manipulation.

So what does this mean for trust in research libraries today?

By many accounts, senior decision-makers’ support for research libraries increased in 2020–2021, based on the libraries’ role in providing expertise and advocating for access to information and uninterrupted service during the pandemic, when many others in research, teaching, and learning struggled. Because research libraries were quickly able to adjust to a digital-only service model and be accessible, they also identified significant digital gaps—students without access to the internet or devices, faculty without the support they needed to offer online courses, and anyone depending on accessible content. Research libraries stepped up by lending laptops and hot spots, providing access to digitized publications through HathiTrust, and supporting faculty with research and course preparation. In essence, research libraries were competently able to meet needs in a crisis and have a positive impact on teaching, learning, and research.

Research libraries and credibility during COVID-19

Research libraries can be daunting, both in their physical state and in navigating to content and expertise. With the onslaught of COVID-19, research librarians and staff were easily accessible via chat and videoconferencing. In fact, reference librarians were busier than ever in 2020. Barriers to accessing the information and knowledge in research libraries were reduced, the librarians and staff gained credibility through their competence, and the users’ sense of vulnerability was often replaced by a shared need to problem-solve.

Both 2020 and 2021 highlighted risks to our democracy, particularly in the context of intellectual freedom and critical thinking, misinformation, and racial inequity. ARL, among other associations, took a strong stance on all of these threats, as well as an inward review of its own diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and practices. Building on work to decolonize collections and recruit BIPOC individuals into our profession, research libraries further emphasized the need for new types of partnerships with community collections, structural changes to retain and advance underrepresented populations, and the reconsideration of legacy policies and practices that perpetuate systemic inequities.

Looking to the future

All that isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of work to do still—there is, if we want to truly represent humanity’s knowledge through the diversity of experiences we all bring. However, in a moment of crisis, research libraries took action. And, in an important way, research libraries are uniquely positioned to represent the full breadth of knowledge across time, and to connect the full breadth of knowledge as part of a network of trusted sources. Individuals do this naturally, of course; research libraries are set up to do this institutionally, hopefully forever.

In the face of public health and climate crises, challenges to critical thinking and democracy, and challenges to social justice, ARL remains focused on the research and learning mission, and the principles that guide us. Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our governance and throughout our Action Plan holds us accountable to being trustworthy. Through our advocacy and other stakeholder engagement, we support truth, racial healing and transformation, including efforts to create a US commission to “properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value, embracing our common humanity, and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.”  As trusted partners in the research and learning ecosystem, research libraries advance the strategic priorities of the higher education sector. ARL’s joint project with the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, with initial work by Ithaka S+R, intends to identify where research libraries are contributing and can further contribute to these priorities as we emerge from this historic moment. We look to bridge any gaps in trust, and to ensure we continue to be entrusted by this and future generations with providing access to the breadth and depth of humanity’s knowledge.

 

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