Saturday, March 14, 2015

So Colleges Don't Need Libraries Now? Right.

Barbara Fister over at Inside Higher Ed quoted this NY Times piece on her blog Library Babel Fish. I decided to read the whole article ("College for a New Age") before I read Fister's take, so I could write my own take. The part that librarians took issue with was this:
“You don’t need libraries and research infrastructure and football teams and this insane race for status,” he says. “If you only have to pay for the things that you actually need, education doesn’t cost $60,000 a year.”
 So what to make of this? Well first of all I have to agree with Mr. Carey about a lot of what he is supposed to be saying in his book. College is way expensive, and something's gotta give. I expect that the college library was not even his main target in the book. The quote might have been chosen by the journalist writing the piece because talking about getting rid of libraries gets people upset, and therefore talking about the article.

"Only pay for things you actually need," he says. Unfortunately, at least in the article Carey does not elaborate on what he thinks you need to complete your education.  Call me biased, but I think that you do need a library to succeed in college.

The library as a place is often derided as a collection of dusty old books. Fair enough, it is hard to keep the average library dusted; books create dust. Books also have been for centuries the primary record format for the accumulated knowledge of Western Civilization, and the place where you can go to get access to that knowledge. It is a continual frustration to me that the urban legend endures that says 'everything is on the internet, and it's all free".  No, no it isn't. 

Most current scholarship is publicized in ways that do not include dumping on the Web for anybody to read. The Open Access movement is changing that, but right now, if you want current research and scholarly writing, you have to pay for it yourself, or get access through some organization that has paid for it and will allow you to look too. In other words, a library.  
As it was in 1890, so it is in 2015

Oscar Wilde said in An Ideal Husband that "information is the modern commodity". If you want to be educated today, you need access to information. Libraries have it, and we take some of the hassle out of finding it. We'll even help you find it, or find it for you. 

A few other points

Not all colleges are focused on 'research'. Lots of schools still focus on teaching and the liberal arts. My school self-describes as a teaching university. The big research schools are a small proportion of all the colleges/universities in the United States. 

The article says that Carey explored online learning as an alternative to the traditional classroom model. Good for him. He is reported as saying his online class was a better experience than if he had sat in a classroom with the professor (who teaches at MIT). Well, that's nice, but it is pure speculation. He hasn't taken a residential class with this professor, so he has nothing upon which to build his comparison. Oh, and by the way, I work with professors who teach online classes as well as residential, and they want their students to use the library. How else are their students going to get the current scholarship?
They get it here. Of course.

I agree we do not need any more big, fancy football teams and stadiums. They are supposed to be money-makers, but that's not what college is about. 

It is probably true that in the future there will be other venues for certification and credentials that employers will accept. But you have to get the business world, which is also encumbered by cultural habit, to change its employment practices (like the resume, a bureaucratic dinosaur) before that can happen. And that's outside the world of higher education. We'll change more readily when the business world says they want it. 

There, that's my two bits. Now I'm going to go read Fister's take on it. Read it here, then tell me what you think about it. 

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