In academic libraries, there are usually so many levels of priorities. There are the priorities of the university. There are the priorities of the library. Each unit probably has its own priorities, as does each individual. Ideally, these all sync up nicely, where an individual can show how their priorities mesh with library’s and university’s priorities. However, it’s not always easy for the library to support all of those university priorities. That’s often because the library doesn’t have the people-power or financial resources to do everything well. So the library has to choose whether they follow every university priority in a superficial way, or whether they focus on the priorities that they can accomplish well in light of limited resources. Neither is a completely satisfying choice.
At my library, and really at the University a a whole, there is definitely a tug-of-war going on between the original access mission of the University and the growing importance of research. Clearly both are important and both require library support. My colleagues are deeply committed to both roles, but it’s frustrating when you know you can’t do it all as well and completely as you’d like. You can’t develop a vibrant scholarly communications and data management program AND have a comprehensive program of outreach and instruction to the neediest students when the same people are involved in both. And yes, we’re doing all of those things, but not to the extent that we’d like to. Having been at a small place before, we certainly dealt with those limitations too (we still don’t have an institutional repository at Norwich), but the expectations of the academic community were lower because we weren’t a large research institution. And in light of budget cuts, I’m sure many, many academic libraries are feeling similarly frustrated by what they can’t do (or do enough of).
And this tug-of-war is seen in the instruction program as well. We can’t do all of the teaching we’d like given our staffing, so we have to prioritize. But how? With the growing research priority, do we focus more on faculty outreach and graduate-level instruction? With the focus on Freshman retention, do we put more time and effort in teaching first-year students? We have a strong liaison program and a ton of teaching goes on in upper-level undergraduate classes, especially those that are core to majors (like research methods). This is fantastic! I remember when I got to Norwich, very little library instruction was going on outside of the lower-division classes and we worked hard over the years to get information literacy instruction integrated into core courses in the majors. PSU has been there for a long time. Is that less important than reaching Freshman or more? Or is there, as I suspect, no one right answer to that question?
So how do we set priorities? How do we determine how much focus to put on each thing we do? A colleague recently showed me stats on what percentage of the total enrollment is each class (Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, etc.). Do we use that to determine our instructional priorities? Do we say “sophomores make up x% of student enrollment, so we will provide x% of our teaching in 200-level classes?” It’s certainly a concrete way of making decisions, and probably as good as any, but I don’t feel like needs and priorities translate so easily to exact numbers and percentages. We still need to take into account Univerity priorities, student needs, what classes are the most valuable to be involved with, and in what classes can we make the greatest difference. If someone comes up with a formula for figuring this out, they deserve some kind of award.
Another thing we talk a great deal about is using learning objects to augment and/or replace the one-shot. And I’ve started to wonder where is the best place in the curriculum to implement this? Should we replace Freshman-level instruction with online learning modules because most students are not really at an emotional/intellectual space yet where they are capable of serious research or do we focus on face-to-face instruction because they need the high-touch approach? Do we employ learning objects in upper-division classes because the students are more self-motivated once they’re in their majors, or is that the critical time to connect with them because the sort of research they’re doing is higher-level? Do we stop teaching grad students face-to-face because of their much higher motivation level, or is that the perfect reason to focus on them? I don’t know if there have been studies on this, but it would be interesting to figure out at which level does it make the most sense to provide face-to-face instruction and at what level would students benefit most from learning objects. It seems like most suites of learning objects designed to replace face-to-face instruction happen at the Freshman level, but that might just be because there are so many sections of the same few courses and it’s easier to create something that works for many, many, many classes.
None of these issues is unique to my University; in fact, I’d argue that in a world of rising materials costs and shrinking budgets, they’re pretty darn universal. Even at little old Norwich, where the student/librarian ratio was so much smaller, we had to prioritize. It got to a point where I had to start cutting down on the number of history classes I was teaching, because it was taking up such a disproportionate amount of my time (although I really enjoyed it!). So, at your institutions, how have you determined what to prioritize in terms of library instruction? When demand for your services exceeds supply, what do you stop doing? Where have you replaced face-to-face instruction with other lower-touch models and why?
As you’ve clearly indicated, setting priorities is difficult especially when there are so many competing demands and opportunities.
Unfortunately there isn’t an easy answer and sometimes libraries need to stop worrying about serving everyone (and all their needs) and focus on doing just one thing, preferably that which adds the most value to their customers, really well.
Just over a year ago, I wrote a post with some suggestions on how libraries might go about this. Essentially I suggest libraries focus on their most valuable customers and offer some ways to identify who they may be.
I’m not sure the link above is working, so here it is again:
[…] Setting priorities (in academic libraries) is difficult. Where to start? via @aarontay. (BoK9) […]
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