Academic Libraries in Transit; Racing to Change from Monolith to Information Clearinghouse

Article excerpt

Academic libraries in transit

THE ASSOCIATION OF COLLEGE and Research Libraries' Fourth National Conference in Baltimore April 9-12 was a sell-assured, determined attempt to place academic libraries squarely in the middle of the information action on campuses. But it reminded some 1,800 participants that to be in the center, librarians must be ready to champion the case for libraries to university administrators, stay a step ahead of groups vying for sole information policy-making power, and re-examine and perhaps give up some long-cherished beliefs about libraries.

The conference theme, "Energies for Transition,' suggested that academic libraries are--or should be--moving to a new level of leadership and prominence on campuses. After all, librarians' knowledge is in demand as never before.

But parlaying this knowledge into "clout' requires an understanding of the forces that seek to keep libraries on the sidelines.

While this conference did not offer a formula on how to empower academic libraries, it raised many related questions. It also provided an arena for often spirited discussion of 51 research papers and nine "idea briefs' that covered all areas of academic library concern and offered some solid, useful results (see box). It showed off new publications and online products and services in 471 exhibits and two new-product seminars.

Generally excellent theme speakers helped conferees go beyond their day-to-day concerns and contemplate the connection between academic libraries and larger issues in society such as free access and quality of higher education. The conference mood was of moving away from a concentration on library-centered procedures and problems toward a vision of the academic library as a strong, equal partner with other campus units in providing information within and beyond the academic community. Some libraries are moving in that direction faster than others; some are not moving at all. But the vision is clear.

Touching the spirit

The high point of the conference occurred on the second day. It did not concern academic status, bibliographic instruction, online catalogs, or any of the other topics academic librarians like to debate. Rather, it was a moving, lyrical rendering of autobiographical reminiscences and poems by author Maya Angelou, which brought the audience to its feet in a heartfelt ovation.

In introducing Angelou, Carla Stoffle of the University of Michigan said, "It's good to have someone talk not about technology and what we do everyday, and good to take the time to remember that we try to touch the spirit and make our students grow.'

Angelou touched the spirit of conferees in stressing the humanistic possibilities of libraries. "You have your hands on a magic,' she said, "and you have the chance to inform and transform the world.' She termed librarianship a calling rather than a career--a calling "rich and full of promise.'

American mind a pudding?

David McCullough, historian and host of television's Smithsonian World, also gave a humanist's view of libraries in a product-oriented society preoccupied with watching TV. Warning that "we run the risk of the American mind turning into a great pudding,' McCullough lamented "the terrible job we've done of teaching history in this country,' which has led to Americans having no sense of sequence or consequence. "All of us in this room knew more about history when we graduated from grade school than most freshmen in college today,' he said, recounting some unfortunate conversations with students to illustrate his point.

TV, history, and libraries are closely connected, McCullough said. The fact that the Library of Congress has tried to get books mentioned on TV is "OK, but it's not the point: Do we ever see anyone on TV reading a book to a child?'

McCullough pointed to drastic cuts in funding at the Library of Congress as "a very bad sign--exactly the type of thing future historians could point to as the first important crack in the system. …