Here’s a story I’m telling because I think libraries need more allies in the academy. As a librarian-slash-researcher-slash-professor I have these weird insider/outsider (or emic/etic) experiences with academic libraries from time to time. In these experiences (here’s one from last year) I can absolutely rationalise why libraries as institutions are behaving the way they are, yet I am also acutely aware of how these behaviours serve to irritate and even alienate academic faculty members based outside the library. The faculty members where I work my research-librarian job value librarianly expertise. They also pretty much never set foot in any of the libraries on campus, to my knowledge. I think this story exemplifies the reasons behind this behaviour.
A little while ago, I got a revise & resubmit decision on a manuscript under review. As part of the revisions, I needed to find a couple of citations for something I’d written. I knew what source I wanted to use, and checked the book’s availability in the OPAC. Its status was “available,” so I schlepped across campus in the rain (of course) to get it. However, the book was not on the shelf.
I logged into the nearby library computer terminal to verify that the book was still supposed to be available. This process took me 4 minutes of standing there waiting for the login to load, authenticate and update software. I checked the record. It still said “available.” I second-guessed myself and figured maybe I’d just missed it, so I decided to go back to the shelf and look again. In order to do this I had to log out of the computer to protect my private library account information that I’d had to input as part of the 4-minute process to check the book’s availability status. Back to shelf. Still not there. Checked all carrels and book trucks on the floor. Nowhere to be found.
So, in an attempt to be helpful, I logged back on to the computer terminal and eventually clicked the “report a problem” button on the record’s display. In the form provided, I explained that the book, while listed as available, was not on the shelf, and that given that I didn’t find it lying around anywhere on book truck/carrels or anything on the floor, it might merit placing a trace on the book so it could be found and/or be labelled lost/missing and replaced. I added that it’s was a fairly hot new volume, so I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one looking for it.
Then I logged out and left the library, of course getting caught by the gates on my way out because any public library books in my bag trip the academic library gates all the time and vice versa.
Got back across campus to my desk. Electronically, without leaving my seat, and using Google rather than a library database, I found an openly-accessible article or two that would suffice. Then I received an email from the library, thanking me for reporting the missing book and informing me that requests to have books traced have to be made in person at the circulation desk at the appropriate branch where the book should be located.
Are you kidding me?
I was feeling pretty patient, if disappointed, up until this point. But, first it’s raining (not the library’s fault!). Then, the book that’s supposed to be available isn’t there (these things happen…). Then the dinosaur computers suck 10 minutes of my time logging in and out to verify the status of the missing book and report it missing (okay, this is getting annoying and why does the library still use computers with floppy disk drives in them?). And now you want me to walk back across campus in the rain to go wait in line at the circulation desk to tell you the information I already reported to you? (This last bit is where I run out of rationales…um, perhaps someone frivolously made up and emailed fictitious trace reports once upon a time?)
I didn’t file the report. Sorry. Maybe the next person who fails to find this “available” book will do it. Not me. I have work to do. I’m on a schedule. I’ve already located two freely accessible substitute resources online and ordered a copy of the book I wanted from an online book retailer.
This is why people who have the means to do so avoid going into the library. Because the library is stuck in archaic systems that suck time. And those systems are presented as normal. When you’re grant-funded, or you’re racing the publications clock for tenure, time is money. Spending half an hour or more wandering back and forth around campus with nothing to show for it, all because electronic systems of communication aren’t yet in this century, is not normal to everyone. And it’s certainly not normal for the most productive faculty members on our campuses – those whose voices could be the most meaningful as allies.
I want my faculty colleagues to be advocates for our university library. So I do what I can to give them warm fuzzies about it, pointing out new acquisitions in their areas, noting that online access to the Journal of Important Stuff is brought to their desktop by the library, etc. But some days the library doesn’t make this easy for me. Some days I’m afraid to tell them too much about the library, in case they actually try to use it and have an experience like the one above.
I absolutely know there are budget constraints, time constraints, people-power constraints and bureaucratic time-suck constraints on academic libraries. I can explain why any given problem with the library systems might exist. But I can’t make archaic systems less frustrating and more worthwhile for people who have the option to avoid contact with the library most of the time. And those are the same people I really want out there speaking for the importance of the library. What a conundrum.
I’ve been sitting on this post, mulling it over for a while. I haven’t worked in a library in almost 5 years. Maybe I’m off-base here. Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them. Maybe it’s all about the students and the have-nots of academia these days. Maybe it should be. I dunno. I do think libraries are missing out on opportunities to win powerful allies, but perhaps this is a deliberate move? Maybe you readers have insight to share?