“And when it comes it’s so so disappointing.” – Let Down, Radiohead.
I spent the better part of a year focussing a lot of my mental energy on a contributed paper for the ACRL conference. While it was certainly a worthwhile experience, I can’t shake the feeling of letdown that I felt once it was all said and done in twelve short minutes. Now what?
I think part of this mini-existential crisis can be attributed to the fact that the first day of the conference, I attended a panel that presented the precise opposite of my thesis, titled ever so charmingly “The Neoliberal in YOUR Library: Resisting Corporate Solutions to Collection Development.” I attended because I felt that I could learn from those who did not hold my opinion. It was the subtitle of the presentation that hooked me. Trouble was, they never really got around to talking about resistance. Instead, the audience heard straw man arguments premised on several false grounds. For my very first “peer-revered” ACRL presentation ever, I was pretty deflated.
Citing Chris Bourg at the outset, the first assertion I took issue with was the position that libraries are not economic realms. While I understand the issues with the neoliberal university pretty well, I think that to dismiss the millions of public funds that flow through library acquisitions budgets as a non-economic realm is false and perilous in terms of carefully examining how that money is invested. I prefer Jenica Rogers’* take on the issue wherein she suggests that libraries could do better if librarians recognized the economic force that they are, rather than willful denial of a matter of fact. For example, the team I lead is charged with spending $4 million of my universities funds on collections for the community. That’s a lot of dough and a lot of responsibility for me to not approach it as an economic realm.
Secondly, I was gobsmacked to see two articles** that I cite heavily in my paper (for an apparent misunderstanding of the function of demand driven acquisitions***) frequently used throughout the panel – for the exact opposite reason I cite them. The peer-reviewed journals that originally published them in all their fear-mongering “librarian as threatened expert” glory was galling enough, now here they were being repeated back as gospel. Let’s dispel a few of those straw men, shall we? Fact: there is no “request to purchase button” as suggested in the panel; discovery records are invisible to the patron – they look like any other record. Fact: the free market does not determine what is going into a library’s catalogue – the librarian does. Fact: publishers/vendors cannot force discovery records higher in a search – the only difference between an owned record and a discovery record is a locally determined fixed field. Fact: perpetuating misinformation does not move the conversation about collection development tools such as approval plans and DDA/PDA forward. I wish we could move past these hollow claims so that we can have a real conversation about the (legion) issues inherent in modern collection development.
Thirdly, collection development as taught in library school was fondly recalled by a panelist as a thorough education in the finer points of building enduring research collections through deep knowledge of one’s subject area’s publishers and scholars. The panelist was confused upon getting her first job and realizing that what she learned at library school had little to no relevance to a world that had been outsourced to vendors. I had a similar experience. Approval plans garnered nary a mention in my collection development class. However, instead of laying the blame at the feet of the libraries using these tools, I posit that perhaps library schools should be doing a better job at educating students on the tools that are actually used. Which brings me to my final point…
When we got to Q&A, the first person to speak was a rep from YBP. He wondered why approval plans, designed and maintained by librarians, were undermining the work of the collection development librarian as had been suggested. The response was a bit of an a-ha moment for me – apparently the intended message of the panel was not that the tools themselves were the problem, but that librarians are so far removed from them that they don’t know enough about how they work to question them. The fact that this thesis was only revealed in a response to a question was deeply disappointing to me. I completely agree with it – but the trouble is, they didn’t actually speak to it, preferring to speak in hyperbole that denied fact. I likened it to listening to anti-vaxxers at an esteemed medical conference. I didn’t get it.
Here’s the thing – I get that the corporatization of education is a problem. I read and loved Karen Nicholson’s recent piece on the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries. I get it. But there’s nuance in these issues that are skirted over when we make sweeping generalizations. Tools like DDA/PDA can co-exist with serendipity and critical IL. About 75% of my reference transactions end with me directing students to browse the physical stacks despite the fact that our collection policy features DDA quite extensively. I have one of the least critical IL ready subject areas (Marketing) but I still manage to sneak in some points about the commodification of information in my classes. The existence of one does not preclude the other from being used or discussed.
I carried on through the rest of ACRL feeling sort of disillusioned. I was heartened by a couple of great sessions on diversity, but otherwise, I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it’s just run-of-the-mill academic isolation. Maybe I just need a new topic or area of focus. Maybe I need a break from library conferences. I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure I’m all out of patience for hand wringing without meaningful calls to action.
*I’m paraphrasing from Jenica’s CLA 2013 Collections preconference keynote.
** See Walters and Sens and Fonseca as cited in my bibliography.
***See also this post from Ian Gibson, inspired by a reading of the Sens and Fonseca article. Ian also articulates the issues surrounding DDA/PDA that I believe should be the centre of the conversation.