By Meredith Farkas | November 29, 2012
Years ago, I visited the libraries at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. After lots of conversations, the one word that stuck with me was entrepreneurial. The library faculty there were a truly entrepreneurial bunch, creatively finding opportunities to improve services and raise the profile of the library through collaboration, experimentation, partnerships, grants, etc. When you look at all of the cool things the UIUC libraries do, it’s not just the significant budget they have; it’s also the culture. The mindset.
I don’t think being entrepreneurial is just about getting or making money. It’s about finding ways to do more of the things you want to do than you could if you just relied on your own internal resources. It’s about partnering. Seeking funding. Seeking mutually-beneficial opportunities with other people and groups. Looking beyond what has been done in the past and toward whole new ways of doing things. It’s about creativity and chutzpah in equal measure.
I don’t know if it’s something about being tenure-track faculty, but now, at Portland State, I really understand what it is to be entrepreneurial. It’s not that we weren’t amazingly creative and inventive at Norwich. We found so many ways to do things for free that other libraries spent a fortune to do. We made a lot happen with a very small staff. But we were very much about making it work using our own resources. We often didn’t look outside of the library (to external funders or units on campus) for ways to make things happen (and part of me wonders if that’s not a product of the self-sufficient Vermonter culture). Here at PSU, the librarians are all about partnerships. I was blown away when I got here by how strong the liaison program is. Our liaisons are deeply involved with the majority of departments. They know their faculty well and they know the curriculum. They’ve taken the time to really build strong relationships with the faculty in their disciplines. And the proof is in the pudding. We are teaching not only in the lower levels, but in many key upper-level undergraduate classes as well as graduate-level classes. And so many of my colleagues have partnered or are working towards partnering with their departments in creative ways: to do collaborative research on how to best support their students, to team teach a credit class, to collaboratively fund an online collection, to embed themselves in a class online, to create a flipped classroom model for library instruction, etc. I’m constantly inspired by the creative things I see my colleagues doing around me.
And it’s not just about partnering with the traditional departments. We’ve built bridges to lots of other units on campus: Research and Strategic Partnerships, the academic advisers, OIT, etc. These partnerships have led to a number of mutually beneficial projects that allowed us to offer more to students and faculty than we could have otherwise. We’ve brought units into the building (a writing center outpost and the learning center) that allow the library to provide more support than just with research and information seeking without actually offering any of it ourselves. These are win-win projects for both sides of the partnership. My colleagues Joan Petit and Tom Bielavitz write about some of our projects in their book chapter “Innovation on a Shoe String: High Impact Space and Technology Updates in a Low-Funding Environment.”
We’re looking to strengthen our relationships with faculty and to increase their awareness about how we can support their teaching and research. We’ve partnered with the Center for Online Learning this year to be part of their Advanced Design process which gets faculty from a specific department together to design online courses from scratch using a backwards design model. In working with faculty at the point in which they’re building their classes, we have the opportunity to influence research assignment design and help faculty scaffold research skills instruction in their classes. Again, a win for us because we’re helping to (hopefully) improve student success and a win for faculty because they’re (hopefully) getting better research products from students.
For the Winter term, I’m hoping to piggy-back off the popularity of my Zotero and Mendeley workshops and begin offering a series of workshops geared towards faculty with many of my colleagues. We’ll cover topics like determining where to publish, open access, fair use, using online library resources for your class, and research assignment design. I hope that by doing this, we will continue to better position ourselves as partners in student success and build those critical faculty relationships. I believe that it’s not teaching one-shots that is going to make students successful information seekers/users in school and life. It’s weaving information literacy instruction into academic curricula. And that can only happen with the disciplinary faculty. It can only happen through partnerships. And what we’re doing is helping to put us in a position to experiment with other models of information literacy instruction and create meaningful change.
The environment here has helped me get more into that entrepreneurial mindset. While I felt very creative in my last job, I’m much more driven now to build relationships on-campus and look for opportunities outside of the library. That’s not to say I didn’t have strong relationships with my departments in my last job, but frequently when I’m going for an opportunity here, I’ll think to myself, “gosh, why didn’t I think of doing that at my last job?” It’s an exciting time here and I feel like the greatest challenge is actually choosing the right opportunities, the right partnerships, to pursue. We can’t do everything.
So I wonder, is it being tenure-track faculty that helps to nurture that entrepreneurial mindset? Is it because we go through the same evaluation process and serve on the same committees as other faculty that building partnerships feels so natural? Is it faculty governance and the faculty-driven culture? Or is an entrepreneurial culture possible in any sort of library, even one that is not so flat as a traditional faculty-governed library? What do you think?