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What keeps you up at night?

(And what are you doing about it?)

Andy Havens and Tom Storey /

6 librarians, 4 countries, 3 generations, 1 conversation

In this issue of NextSpace, we reached out to six librarians from different types of institutions at different stages in their careers to find out what was top of mind about their libraries and their profession. We asked them about the specific challenges and opportunities they were facing, whether it was in their departments or the library as a whole. We asked them about how collaboration—local, regional, national or global—might help in addressing some of those challenges and realizing some of those opportunities.

What we found were diverse thoughts and ideas—ranging from shelf space and training to identity and copyright—that provide helpful insights into how people—as opposed to institutions and organizations—are responding to the fundamental challenges we all face. These six librarians provided personal, geographic and generational perspectives across many issues. And although they were from vastly different environments, servicing different populations, there were shared concerns and common ground.


Our interviewees were: (from left to right)

  • Megan McGlynn, Access Services Librarian, University of Michigan, U.S.
  • Brett Bonfield, Director, Collingswood Public Library, New Jersey, U.S.
  • David N. Ofili, Web Librarian/Pharmacy Librarian, University of Benin, Nigeria
  • Charles Oppenheim, Retired Professor and Head, Information Science Department, Loughborough University, U.K.
  • Maria Luisa Arenas Franco, Retired Library Director, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile
  • Gretchen Caserotti, Library Director, Meridian Library District, Idaho, U.S.

What keeps you up at night?

First and foremost: customer service

An area of common ground among participants was their concerns about libraries’ customer responsiveness. Each interviewee wanted to improve, in different ways, the services they offered to support their users. They all realized that the communities libraries serve are changing; that the library has no destiny independent of the institutions, towns, cities and citizens it serves.

The community of Meridian, Idaho, is going through substantial change, Gretchen Caserotti says. What was an old farming community has exploded in growth over the last decade and is now considered a booming suburb of Boise. In addition, there is a mix of audiences, ranging from refugees and immigrants to farmers and suburban families, which creates service challenges and identity issues.

“We have both sides of the Digital Divide coexisting in our district,” Gretchen says. “On the same block you’ll see a wealthy housing development with three-car-garage homes tucked in between cornfields and cattle pastures. Additionally, the area is a desirable place to live due to the low cost of living and high quality of life. Idaho is filled with outdoor enthusiasts, and Meridian has repeatedly been named on ‘Best Places to Raise Kids’ lists.”

This conflux of demographics is both a challenge and an opportunity, she says. “With such diversity in demographics, we don’t have a clear identity, yet the fact that we have this diversity is so unusual it makes us special, which is part of our identity. As a suburban community, families are our ‘bread and butter’ and consideration of the whole family is at the core of our program planning this year.”

For David Ofili, the pursuit of excellence is the driving force behind his library’s programming, which means leveraging technology to reach out to current and potential patrons in new ways. “Information and communication technologies (ICT) constitute great opportunities, especially through social media,” he says. “Sourcing for information and collaboration in resource and service sharing has been made easy with ICT.”

For Maria Luisa Arenas Franco, the aspects of customer service she sees as being most important are:

  • Supporting academic research in new ways, such as bibliometrics, which provides data to analyze the popularity and impact of specific articles, authors and publications
  • Playing a role in institutional archives and cooperative repositories
  • Creating benchmark statistics and management indicators that deal with the library´s contributions to teaching results and student academic performance
  • Retrieving valuable information from library social networks to drive new development efforts.

“These new demands, in addition to the so-called traditional services, are great opportunities and put a lot of pressure on management, planning and personnel in libraries,” she says.

The most pressing customer service need for Megan McGlynn is the provision of both digital and print resources in a timely manner.

“We want to give our users the materials they need, in the formats they want, at lightning speeds,” she says. “Often that means digitized collections, but also a rich collection of physical materials, like maps, rare books and more everyday items—of keen interest to undergraduates—like a rotating cast of textbooks. The interesting bit is striking a balance between expanding e-book availability while still getting books in users’ hands.”

“We want to give our users the materials they need, in the formats they want, at lightning speeds.”

As a host of online providers continue to emerge that deliver information to consumers fast, inexpensively and conveniently, Charles Oppenheim sees the most pressing issues as: the need to retrain or recruit staff who understand users’ needs, and; the need to improve lobbying skills and efforts to put libraries higher on the scale of influence with government officials.

Learning the ropes

For Maria Luisa, preparing the next generation of librarians in the skills and practice of library and information science is her greatest concern. To her, the most pressing needs and opportunities in academic libraries in Chile and Latin America center on enhancing services—and new librarians will need to be educated and trained in new areas that extend the library’s influence beyond traditional services.

Charles has been involved in, given talks on, and published widely on all aspects of information law, especially intellectual property rights and licenses, and on bibliometrics and research assessment. What keeps him up at night boils down to two major concerns, both of which involve education: the failure of governments to recognize the importance of libraries to the community, and the failure of libraries to influence user rights in copyright.

Space, space, space

The changing uses for libraries’ physical spaces weigh heavily on the minds of Gretchen and Megan. The Meridian Public library was built in the 1990s and is a vestige of a “last century library,” Gretchen says, with inadequate power, meeting room spaces and poor acoustical design. It was built to be a quiet library where everything was in its proper place.

“That does not work for the modern community that wants to see the library as a community gathering place where dynamic programs happen and patrons can plug in their laptops to do their work,” she says. “Our branch library has no programming space at all and the staff do these wonderful programs often for 40–60 people right there in the middle of the library! It is beautiful to see them push right past the space limitations.”

A vision of an overcrowded shelf haunts Megan. Part of her job is stacks maintenance for large physical collections, so she’s constantly planning shifts to accommodate the ebb and flow of materials.

“People outside the library field sometimes ask, ‘Isn’t everything online now?’ It’s true that we have access to amazing digital resources, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for housing and providing access to physical materials. We acquire material on the order of 50,000 items a year, which is equivalent to nearly a mile of shelf space. Of course we deselect at the same time…but allocating shelf space in the right places can still be a challenge.”

Funding? Of course

While budget concerns are top of mind in many OCLC surveys and focus groups, our respondents had a range of issues that occupied most of their attention. Of our interviewees, only Brett Bonfield listed funding as the primary area that worried him and where he will have to invest attention in mitigating this risk.

“About two-thirds of New Jersey municipalities traditionally provide their libraries with more than the minimum…required funding, and we’re fortunate to be in that majority,” he says. “Our elected officials have a lot of faith in us, and we try to reward that faith, but I worry that I’m an election or crisis away from trying to manage a significantly reduced budget.”

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

In the face of these pressing concerns, we also asked, what keeps you focused and optimistic? While our interviewees provided a wide range of specific examples, they all relate to two essential recipes for success: focus on making an impact on the people served by libraries, and focus on what librarians can accomplish by working together.

Making a difference in our communities

That’s easy, says Gretchen. Being a small part of transforming someone’s life is what library service is all about and why all of the participants are in the profession.

“If I thought I could cure cancer or other diseases, that’s what I would be doing, says Brett. “But I would be a terrible medical researcher. I’m better able to help people by providing the kinds of services that libraries have traditionally provided or seem capable of providing in the future. My intention is to take my work just as seriously as the most dedicated medical researchers and other health care providers take theirs.”

“There are so many things that are right about libraries today and there are innumerable things that could be improved.”

Brett sees assessment as one way to sharpen the library’s services, keep on track with your vision and head off potential problems. “There are so many things that are right about libraries today and there are innumerable things that could be improved. The data we have on what public libraries can do to serve their communities as well as possible—it doesn’t exist. Not yet. We have a lot of nice anecdotes, and anecdotes are important, but it would be very helpful to have more quantitative assessments as well.”

Gretchen says that it is rewarding to see people grow as library staff build relationships with them and help them meet their goals. “The library has the power to make a real difference in people’s lives,” she says. “I see it in the interactions our circulation staff have when talking romance novels with the grandmother or the children’s librarians helping parents find resources to get them through tough developmental stages in their children. I see it in the smile our reference librarian has when someone tells them they got the job the librarian helped them apply for online. I see it in the number of exclamation points in an email from an out-of-state genealogist who we helped find information about their ancestor who lived in this area.”

Working together across our communities

Although the demands and issues facing the librarians we talked to differed based on community or user needs, all thought that the best way to face these challenges was with a core library value and strength: collaboration—at the global level as well as the local and national levels.

Collaboration is essential in order to achieve what we want to achieve,” says Maria Luisa. “Introducing and supporting new services will require sharing information, expertise, training, bibliographical resources, new IT developments, good practices and metadata management on all scales.” To translate her dreams into reality for the next generation, she’s involved in forming a new graduate program at her university. “Our university recently created the first Magister in this area of the country, Processing and Management of Information, focused toward Chilean and Latin American audiences,” she says.

David adds, “Considering my library’s opportunities and challenges, collaboration helps us reduce the cost of acquiring resources we desire to have. We value collaboration, especially in metadata management and reference services, because it discourages duplication of effort.”

And although David sees value in today’s collaborative cataloging and resource sharing, the role of sharing transcends what is currently being accomplished. “In a nutshell, collaboration is a cherished opportunity for my library. If sharing resources and services can reduce cost today, then, a way has been paved for cost reduction in the future.”

“It would be nice to see more major open source projects. I think code4lib is amazing, and I suspect a few years from now we’ll realize that it’s really only just getting started.”

From her perspective, Megan sees a bright future in cooperative collection development and resource sharing to help libraries deal with space issues and content needs. “When we collaboratively share commonly used resources,” she says, “academic library collections can go deep rather than broad. Libraries can learn to trust that the institution down the road—or thousands of miles away—will maintain and share their unique collections with our users, if we do the same. Now those miles of shelf space can be used for rare, interesting and astounding materials.”

“I am so grateful for the development of regional repositories, like the CIC Shared Print Repository,” she adds. “Contributing libraries maintain access to seldom-used print journals, but by sharing the resources, we all can allocate our shelf space to the materials users need most often. Resource sharing is the best news stacks managers have heard in decades.”

Gretchen knows how crucial collaboration is on the local level. If one of the missions of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities, then librarians need to become part of communities, she says. Embedded librarians develop deep relationships as part of a team, and they can share what they learn with the wider library community.

“I want to have someone from the library at the table when a problem is addressed and be able to say, ‘How can the library help you?’”

“We couldn’t possibly serve this community adequately without partnerships,” she says. “We want to expand our service points and services and we know that word-of-mouth and grassroots approaches have more lasting impact on helping something be a success.

“So, we are embedding ourselves into the community by having staff serve on local boards, committees and leadership programs. I want to have someone from the library be at the table when a problem is addressed and be able to say, ‘How can the library help you?’”

Charles wraps it up nicely when he offers that libraries are already good at working together in all sorts of areas. “I am sure collaboration will increase over time as the pressures on libraries increase. The development of e-books and open access will impose significant changes on the ways libraries do business. They will have to adopt strong, collaborative outreach programs to address the changes coming their way. And collaboration on lobbying government is essential as well to make sure the library user is well-represented in issues of access and fair use in copyright.”

Our core values…manifested

Librarians around the world are clearly aware that their users’ needs and views are evolving. Our interviewees understand that these rapid shifts in the information environment require change—sometimes
radical, system-wide change rather than incremental, operational adjustments. They also recognize that librarians bring unique perspectives and skills to the information ecosystem, which is now crowded with online alternatives. They seek to develop high-value services…and expect that this will be a moving target. They are open to continually reinventing themselves to emerging demands while retaining their core values of cooperation, resource sharing and public service.

“Libraries exist to provide everyone the opportunity to have access to resources to better themselves and to discover new things,” Gretchen says. “Holding onto our core values and seeing them manifested in the everyday work that we do helps keep me motivated. And that includes staff! Seeing my staff grow, challenge themselves and succeed is very rewarding.”

OCLC Research Library Partners: Priorities and directions

OCLC Research Library Partnership Vice President Jim Michalko conducted 66 interviews with the senior staff of many of the OCLC Research Library Partner institutions earlier this year. His goal was to listen and then synthesize what he was hearing and find out what issues were top of mind for the management team. Here is what he discovered.

  • Special archives and collections. The number one area for attention is special collections and archives. This seems logical. If the broad information environment has become flat with academic collections increasingly alike and discovery increasingly done outside the library, these types of materials represent spikes of local institutional distinction. They are a means for the library to connect with new forms of scholarship in the humanities. The concerns around special collections are that they are not discoverable by those who could make best use of them, nor properly described or indexed in search engines.
  • Research support services. Here the challenge is for the library to become involved directly in the research process by providing expert resources and services. These might include text and data mining, global positioning services (GPS) expertise or virtual research environments. There is a need to create a class of liaison librarians who can actively reach out to the faculty and the academic departments.
  • Data management. There is an increasing expectation that academic libraries will need to help to manage the data products of research. Some of this can be very large scientific data sets. In other cases, it might be personal data collections. The requirements for doing so may be outside the library’s expertise, as classification and description of data sets are different from the skills used in describing library materials. Whether this should be created locally or built as part of a national infrastructure is a major question.
  • Shared print management. Libraries need to determine how they can rely on centralized repositories of printed material instead of continuing to manage multiple collections locally. This means there will be difficult decisions about what materials to keep and discard. Success here requires libraries to navigate major changes in policies, manage local politics and set up new services with very efficient fulfillment capabilities.
  • Space usage. The central library buildings on campuses are expensive and very desirable physical locations. These spaces need to be repurposed for people, not collections, by turning them into group and collaboration spaces.
  • Staff realignment and development. Progress on the other five areas of high concerns will require that the library staff have new skills, that jobs are redefined, and that appropriate knowledge be acquired either through training or hiring these new skills. These priorities, trends and directions represent changes in organization, infrastructure and metrics.
  • In summary: The successful 21st century library organization will be defined by shared collections, cooperative governance, and disclosure on the Web at the network level. It will be supported by an  infrastructure of collaboration spaces, joint ownership and stewardship of assets used by all research libraries, and cloud-based management services. And it will be assessed based on its support for the research process, its management of its institution’s intellectual property and the impact it has on teaching, learning and research outcomes.

About the Author

  • Andy Havens

    Andy Havens

    Andy Havens is OCLC’s Manager of Branding and Creative Services. He is Managing Editor of OCLC’s NextSpace magazine, leads the OCLC Cooperative Blog team and is “head tweeter” for the @OCLC Twitter account. He frequently works on the writing, editing, design and production of OCLC Membership Reports, white papers and symposium materials.

  • Tom Storey

    Tom Storey

    Tom is an Editor at OCLC and works on NextSpace, OCLC’s membership magazine, as well as OCLC Abstracts, a weekly e-news update, and the OCLC Annual Report.