The era of guaranteed student loans has been good to academic librarians, in the US and elsewhere. University administrators’ ability to simply raise tuition fees when more revenue is needed, requiring students to borrow more, means that there is no incentive to, as it were, look too closely at the books.
Academic libraries have taken on large staffs, with massive bureaucracies. Typically, US university library directors have up to a half-dozen “associate university librarian” positions under them, each with an army of librarians and clerical and support staff. Nor has the rise of the internet had any discernible effect on these staffing levels. Government data show that the number of librarians overall in the US has remained about the same since 2003, and the profession is even expected to expand over the next decade.
But the internet has diminished the value of academic librarianship. It used to be known for adding value to information in the university context by collecting, cataloguing and preserving information and enabling its discovery. That role continued until the internet became popular; online library catalogues were a great innovation when they became ubiquitous in the 1980s. Yet now they go largely unused, supplanted by Google.
Indeed, since the advent of the internet, librarians have been distant followers rather than leaders and innovators in information standards and technology, surrendering their expertise to outsourced online databases.
Meanwhile, the open access that librarians have advocated so passionately for – alongside digital publishing more generally and the emergence of free databases such as Google Scholar – has removed librarians’ role as intermediaries between information and its users. To students and faculty, the only librarians who matter are those who pay the invoices for the proprietary online research databases, and those who ensure that they are not offline.
This has had some significant effects. Library buildings have morphed from spaces devoted to accessing research information into little more than glamorised study halls. Their lounge-like interiors and trendy cafes amount to elite social clubs, offering opportunities for drinking coffee and finding dates.
From a university administration’s perspective, such spaces are useful tools for recruiting new students – whose loan debt funds their ongoing renovation and expansion. Their size and luxury serve to symbolise the university’s wider prowess to high school students on pre-application visits.
No doubt it is also pleasant for students to be able to study with an endless supply of cappuccino on tap. But you have to seriously question whether the function merits the vast cost that comes with it.
Many university librarians are left-wing zealots and often bemoan the cost of proprietary library databases and journal subscriptions. Yet their large salaries cost universities huge sums and bring increasingly meagre returns as their functions become redundant even as their jobs remain intact. Meanwhile, their diminishing workloads have freed them to spend large parts of their days on Twitter, advocating for social justice causes, signalling virtue by retweeting hate speech directed at Donald Trump.
This prominence and homogeneity of leftist ideology is reflected at library conferences. Increasingly, events such as those put on by the American Library Association are more like meetings of the Democratic Party platform committees. At these, attendees pass resolutions demanding universal open access to research while the library society organising the meeting quietly makes millions of dollars every year from its proprietary publishing programme.
This politicisation of academic librarianship reflects the overall change in higher education over recent years, from a teaching and learning role towards social activism. That is no doubt why it is tolerated by university leaders. But among the social issues that everyone across the political divide is concerned about is the student loan debt crisis.
With student debt in excess of $1 trillion (£761 million), it is surely immoral for universities and colleges to be spending so highly on services that are increasingly unneeded, that duplicate services already provided free on the internet, or that go largely unused.
The cost of university education in the US must urgently be brought down. Pruning a bloated and hypocritical profession that has seriously lost its way would be an excellent place to start.
Jeffrey Beall retired in March 2018 as an associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver.