“When will the library be open?”
I stood in a protracted line to enter a grocery store in the floppy heat of the late New Orleans summer, a week after Hurricane Ida shredded the region’s electrical grid and turned my institution’s fall term plans inside out. The operational status of the library may not have been the most obvious front-of-mind question, given the circumstances. But as dean of libraries at my institution, my job is to think about such matters even in the worst conditions. And even were I disinclined to contemplate the question, too bad: concerned faculty and administrators who were expected to resume teaching and research within a week had been asking it already. So, as I was queueing up with my fellow New Orleanians to replace basic staples lost to warm refrigerators and now-iceless coolers, the operations of the university library, and especially the fate of my staff members, were very much front of mind.
Eighteen months after COVID forced an unplanned national experiment in mass delivery of remote instruction and academic support, my institution found itself once again having to improvise a kind of continuity in the wake of upheaval. Of course, the issues were much more localized this time. They arose from a phenomenon familiar in this region; that they resonated with the unwelcome echo of the last devastating storm to hit the region 16 years ago (to the day) is just a cruel bit of lagniappe, as folks say around here.
But what is particular to my institution and locale is not likely to remain so isolated for long. Climate-related disruptions are increasing not only in their frequency and intensity but also in their reach. Residents of New York City who experienced repeated flooding of homes, streets and subways this past summer—not to mention those displaced elsewhere by fires or threatened by waves of prolonged record high temperatures and drought—may be getting a taste of what is already familiar to us in the Gulf South. We are at the vanguard of the meaner, hotter future.
The question of when the library will open is therefore not merely one that involves when a certain set of doors may reopen or when an instruction session may be scheduled. To answer the question going forward might well require the embrace of a definition of “library” even more diffuse than recent decades, with their exponential expansion of online resources, have already brought us.
That is not to suggest than an all-virtual, all-electronic library is inevitable or even desirable. Our physical spaces still matter. And all the electronic resources in the world hold little value when electricity and internet connectivity become sudden luxuries. But as climate-related operational disruption becomes more common, we may need to think of the library not as one place, but rather as a network of both physical and online resources whose user communities and staffing are fluid, distributed and sufficiently flexible to accommodate both short-term and longer interruptions to services along one or more of its nodes.
At both conceptual and practical levels, library networks are nothing new. Libraries have long entered into cooperative agreements with one another, exchanging cataloging data, sharing materials via interlibrary lending and offering means of entry, in-person materials checkout, or even access to licensed electronic resources, though usually under very prescribed circumstances. Public universities, by statute or long-standing practice, are typically open to the general reader. Through controlled digital lending, or CDL, recently made more prominent by pandemic needs and a stronger assertion of fair use, sharing of e-resources has also become more common. The HathiTrust partnership, for example, has made excellent use of CDL, relying on its massive corpus of digitized print works and careful legal work to make materials available in times of need.
All wonderful developments, if also inadequate: such measures have limits and complications, both cultural and legal, that continue to impede fuller cross-institutional sharing. To open the library more fully in times of wide-scale disruptions, the academic community will need to reduce such barriers to a much greater degree—and with a more determined focus on equity—if we are to fulfill the spirit of our access mission in a hotter, more hostile physical climate.
The Work of a Generation
Shared collections in more secure storage, particularly for monographic materials, will be crucial moving forward, and not just for large-scale emergencies. The Center for Research Libraries has long served as a haven for important but less widely held materials, particularly from outside of anglophone North America. Shared and distributed storage partnerships such as EAST, ReCAP, Scholar’s Trust and WEST have begun to point to a more distributed, communal future.
Even more radical expansion is needed. The Big Ten Academic Alliance has laid out an ambitious road map for a large-scale, cross-institutional collective collection. All this work is in the long tradition of librarians’ emphasis on sharing and preserving scholarly resources. But they are only the beginning. A truly collaborative and shared collection will require more than storage agreements and joint licensing, as important as those things are. Accessibility in the broadest sense will be required for a shared collection to be meaningful and operational in the coming decades.
This decentralized, distributed notion of the library will be the work of a generation of both scholars and librarians. It will necessarily require the thoughts and contributions of many. In this piece, I will I offer a few suggestions.
First, shared storage and shared ownership efforts deserve—and require—strong institutional recognition and support beyond the library. Such efforts are the backbone of an interdependent future for preserving the scholarly record and ensuring its availability in the face of environmental (or any other) challenges. Verbal equivalents of pats on the back are welcome but insufficient demonstrations of support. Presidents and provosts will need to understand their importance and commit their institutions to such efforts over the long term. Real money will need to follow.
Distributed staffing will be essential as well. High-contact, in-person services are still ideal for most of us. But when a given region is taken off-line by disaster, student support at a distance becomes impossible, and the extra burden placed on staff dealing with personal as well as professional obligations is enormous. That is particularly true in libraries, where front-line workers have long been disproportionately people of color and at the lowest end of the pay scale. A more imaginative, distributed staffing model that crosses institutional lines could help alleviate the pressures and ensure some continuity of service—and could confer any number of other benefits as well.
Our distinctive collections—archives, rare books and other objects—provide outstanding opportunities for our students to learn about primary source research, and they never fail to impress novice (and sometimes not-so-novice) researchers when seen and touched in vivo. While digitizing them for broader access remains important, particularly during long in-person service disruptions, reformatting alone cannot be mistaken for preservation. Still, digitization helps extend the originals’ useful life, safeguards them from theft and broadens access. But in most of our libraries, digitization is still seen as an extra. Most of us have had to rely on grant funding to do large-scale (or even small-scale) creation of digital surrogates. Copyright issues also prevent many images or recordings from both reformatting and broader distribution. Our own institutions should much more vigorously support these efforts as part of our business continuity plans. That includes financial and technical as well as legal assistance where appropriate.
Librarians at all levels will also need to readjust their own thinking of what it means to collaborate among institutions. For all the library community’s genuinely wonderful inclination to work across institutions for the greater good, a long-standing resistance to sharing has always shadowed those efforts. (If you doubt this, ask a library cataloger about accepting without revision the work of a colleague.) Last year, I began discussing with colleagues in one of the regional associations of libraries ways to share instructional materials, broadly construed, across the partnership. A few eager and talented professionals joined those conversations, but broader collective action stalled. Why? The consensus across the community seemed to be that using shared instructional tools would diminish the value of one-on-one relationships that both staff and their constituents held dear.
That is perhaps understandable but also very shortsighted. Human beings who are facing existential issues like shelter, access to potable water and personal and family welfare should not need to feel that an instruction session for evacuated students is their top priority, particularly when shared solutions are at hand. Students and faculty trying to learn and teach remotely should not miss the opportunity of learning information discovery and management techniques from librarians. Some bigger, broader thinking is needed.
As this piece appears, the power is long since restored at my home, and my campus is back in operation. The grocery store no longer has a line outdoors. Something like a more typical life as resumed—at least until, in the words of Charles Simic, some other trouble “taps us on the shoulder and vanishes into the crowd.” When will the library be open? Thankfully, it’s now open once again. But I know that the question, and my inevitably uncertain answer, will return, not just for my institution, but for others, as new and different troubles come to tap our shoulders in the months and years ahead.