Strengthening Library/Faculty Partnerships

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Last week, after heated protest from the faculty senate, the Syracuse University Library pulled back from plans to move thousands of books off campus. The tensions at Syracuse University illustrate the importance of communicating with faculty and with academic leaders early and often; as academic libraries continue to grapple with issues of core identity and as they plan to reshape collections, it is critical that library deans and directors find productive ways to involve faculty in the conversations from the start. Charles Forrest, director of the library facilities office at Emory University, offers some tips for launching these conversations.

Start Talking Early

It is important to establish strong partnerships with faculty champions before the time comes to discuss major changes in the library. If you don't already have one, Forrest advises, "get a mechanism in place for ongoing dialogue: a library policy committee, a faculty advisory group." You need to build a core of advocates who understand what the library is facing as an organization and as part of the larger academic institution.

Continually look for opportunities to engage new voices from the faculty in dialogue about the role of the academic library at your institution. Get them involved in discussions over intellectual property and information literacy. Examine together data showing actual student behavior, how different library resources and tools are being used by students and by members of the scientific community. Engage faculty in the key questions:

  • What are the information-seeking behaviors of library users? What are their expectations?
  • What is their level of information literacy?
  • How can we, in partnership, through the library, meet the students where they are, increase their literacy, understanding, and enthusiasm, and provide them with new learning and research opportunities?
  • How can we partner to help students achieve positive learning outcomes?

"We can't stay in the library anymore and expect to be successful. We have to get out there."
Charles Forrest, Emory University

Address Resistance

If your faculty have concerns over the use of new technologies, share data on how students are using them. If faculty express concerns about "pandering" to students, present success stories. Forrest suggests that two keys to addressing resistance effectively are:

  • Keep the dialogue focused on the mission
  • Make sure you listen to and acknowledge their concerns

Your institutional mission and your library mission need to be the starting point of every conversation. Demonstrate and document the link between mission and the decisions that are on the table. Focusing first on the mission can help to redirect conversation away from more personal needs and prejudices that can distract from what's most important.

Also, make sure that you take the time to listen openly to faculty concerns over the preservation of and access to knowledge. Museums, archives, and libraries have the dual objectives of preserving knowledge and transmitting that knowledge forward into the future. Some faculty may fear that in pursuit of the second objective, the first may be compromised or short-changed. "Acknowledge the first objective," Forrest advises, "and then build the link to the second."

Research on adaptive challenges suggests that people do not fear change; rather, they fear the loss that change might bring. When making a move toward off-site archives or expanding digital collections, it is important to engage faculty in a direct conversation about what will and will not be lost, and what will and will not be gained. Help faculty -- who are your partners in preserving and transmitting knowledge -- understand that while the book is one crucial tool for learning and scholarship, there are other tools, too, in which the library must invest in order to stay competitive, serve its user community, and foster learning in the twenty-first century.

"Frame the alternatives in ways that people can understand and relate to. Review the costs and the consequences of each option. This is about making active and informed choices."
Charles Forrest, Emory University

Find Your Allies

"Look for early adopters," Forrest recommends. "They're in all disciplines, not just in the sciences; you'll find champions in the humanities, too." Forrest advises finding those faculty who have embraced new technologies as tools for scholarship, or for teaching and learning. Learn how they are using these new resources, and ask how you can support their work. Give them showcases and opportunities to speak to colleagues about what they are doing and why. In this way, you can both educate faculty about the opportunities presented by the new resources and tools, and gain some champions.

Keep Your Perspective

The academic library is the heart of research on campus, and conversations over changes to collections can get very heated. It's crucial, though, not to take a stance of hostility or avoidance toward some of the faculty.

Make sure you approach faculty as partners, not as obstacles or opponents. "The faculty are the front line at your institution," Forrest notes. "Always, the question has to be: How can we partner with them in pursuit of institutional goals?" Make sure that you keep focused on who you are pursuing change for. "Are we making these choices for ourselves or for our users?"

"Don't avoid controversy. Don't try to sidestep the opportunity for dialogue. Don't duck into an office when you see that one professor coming down the hall. Look for teachable moments."
Charles Forrest, Emory University