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CUNY Libraries: Old Paradigms or a Digital Future?

It is not saying much to state that libraries currently are going through major challenges in the digital age.  Library attendance has been trending down for over a decade as users abandon the stuffy recesses of the stacks for the flash and utility of their digital devices. How can libraries stay relevant given the onslaught of digital media, social networks, and ubiquitous access to information? In a word, many are not.

When a library refuses to embrace the digital challenge, students vote with their feet and stop visiting and using the libraries.  Increasingly, the primary usage for many libraries within CUNY and elsewhere is mainly students using the computers for non-library, non-research work. The library as a “glorified computer lab” trend is virtually epidemic in most colleges as these static institutions become increasingly irrelevant in the minds of students and even faculty.

Let’s be honest here– libraries are the last office on most campuses where one would expect real innovation. Library personnel often have positions that are secure, regardless of whether they keep current with digital trends or not.  With librarians at CUNY getting tenure after publishing a few peer-reviewed articles, many chose to coast the rest of their careers since accountability in these positions is virtually non- existent. I’ve heard many reports of search committees hiring a candidate that “would not rock the boat” while rejecting a more qualified and digitally knowledgeable person.  If the norm is mediocrity, then can such behavior be expected?

Yet, libraries vigorously fight to fend off efforts to use their space for more productive purposes. It is comical, if not tragic, to see rows and rows of dusty stacks being defended as critical to library operations when there is no student or faculty who would reasonably peruse the contents of any volume on those shelves.  But instead of re-envisioning what a new library might look like, these rear-guard turf-wars become commonplace at many CUNY libraries.

But the tide is turning, if not merely for the fact that space is at a premium at campuses.  So under-utilized space now gets more scrutiny, albeit after decades of neglect. For the most part, change will not come from current library personnel themselves whom hold tenaciously to old paradigms and procedures. No, change will by necessity come from the administrations of respective campuses, assuming there is a real vision for change.  To date, many campus administrators have not measured up in this respect.

A Digital Future

What would change look like for college libraries?  While there are articles about new campus libraries without any books, this is an extreme scenario.  More likely, college libraries are transforming themselves by:

  • Hiring chief librarians with bona fide digital credentials and a new vision for what those libraries can become
  • Gathering campus stakeholders for sessions to re-envision campus libraries
  • Funding training to upgrade the skills of existing staff to function in the digital age
  • Collaborating with IT service desk operations to offer a one-stop desk for any problems relating to student technology or information needs
  • Training students in new digital and information technologies as part of their new mission
  • Expanding the standard “information literacy” sessions for students to include a broader “digital literacy,” covering items like portable devices, social networking, phone apps for students, etc.

This list is merely a starting point. Given the balkanized, unionized, tenure-ized, and dysfunctional structures that exist within CUNY, nothing short of a real mandate from the Chancellor will address this issue.  As with most paradigm shifts, the entrenched actors will need to “leave the stage” before a new paradigm becomes the norm. In regards to many CUNY libraries, we are looking at a minimum of another decade before we see the long-touted “libraries for the digital age” we need now.

References:

Blumenthal, R., (2005)  “College Libraries Set Aside Books in the Digital Age,” New York Times, May 14, 2005.  Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/14/education/college-libraries-set-aside-books-in-a-digital-age.html?_r=0

Lenkie, A.,(2015) “Libraries in the Digital Age,” NEA Blog post. Retrieved at: http://arts.gov/art-works/2015/libraries-digital-age

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