Glamorised study halls do not need an army of librarians

The rise of electronic publishing has left many academic librarians underemployed and overpaid, says Jeffrey Beall

February 7, 2019
A modern university library
Source: iStock

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.

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Reader's comments (15)

Why would anyone want to listen to the bile of this man? Retired, privileged, out of touch and downright wrong. There are many engaging advocates in the library profession, it makes no sense to give this man a platform.
I agree with nothing that this person writes BUT, be careful here; as a facilitator of knowledge you have to practise neutrality. Don't shoot yourself in the head by trying to adjudicate who can be given a platform, that is not your call.
"free databases such as Google Scholar"... 1. It's not a database 2. The content it links to is very rarely free
I am trying to find a sensible, neutral, polite response to this bile driven US centric view of academic libraries. It in no way represents the UK experience. In short it's very poor and basically THE clickbait...
It doesn't represent a US view either. It represents one bitter man's viewpoint. It's worth noting this person no longer even works in higher education and it appears his overall knowledge of academic libraries, student preferences and needs, and the overall work of many academic librarians across the US is very narrow in scope. It's unfortunate that he feels the need to denigrate a whole profession because of his personal disagreements with some colleagues.
Just wow. One of those "why am I paying a subscription to THE?" pieces.
This is the biggest pile of click-bait trash I've read in a while. Thanks to THE and Jeffrey Beall for making me laugh harder than I have in a while. He may have worked in an academic library, though I wonder if his role consisted of him just sitting in a corner, staring at the wall and talking to himself as this "opinion" demonstrates an enormous lack of understanding of what libraries do within higher education and how resources are paid for/accessed. He also does not seems to understand how the internet or digital literacy works--good thing he retired.
As both an academic librarian and someone who has published on predatory publishers, I am disappointed to see this sort of unverified opinion published simply because the author is a 'name'. There are many better ways to gauge the state of academic libraries than the opinions of one guy, especially one retired guy, but I suppose it is these controversial opinions that gets people like me reading. I could start with a very basic critique: there is so much in this op-ed that is driven solely by the author's obvious political leanings, which he feels does not reflect those of the profession as a whole. I can't say whether librarians truly lean to the left of the political spectrum, but it certainly appears Mr Beall is still rather upset that Hillary Clinton once addressed an ALA meeting. In any case, if you want to determine whether librarians are needed, you'll first need to ask yourself what it is that librarians do. My own definition is that a librarian exists to connect people to information. The 'people' vary depending on one's area of specialty and the 'information' may or may not be online, may or may not involve the written word, may or may not be scholarly publishing. In this case, the need has not gone away at all with Google. I both teach my students how to find information and how to evaluate information and I do the work of finding information for people when the information needs are too complex. But I gather Mr. Beall having been in back of house roles like cataloguing and acquisitions has not seen this change. Certainly here, he is right, there has been a decline in the persons (both librarians and support staff) who need to process physical things, whether that is cataloguing books or sticking date due stamps on the back jacket. And not enough attention has been paid to the vital intellectual role of evaluating collections. But to then dismiss his public services colleagues for their teaching and reference roles on this basis is a remarkable stretch. I taught a two-hour class this morning. And because I like to think I'm a pretty decent teacher, I had to spend considerable time preparing for the class. I worked with a researcher on developing their systematic review question. I ordered some promotional materials for an upcoming visit to one of our teaching hospitals. And yes, I even tweeted about predatory publishing. All in a day's work, I suppose, but each of these activities connects a person to information in a different way.
I agree wholeheartedly.
Very well said. I do exactly the same type of job. I could not believe how ignorant Beale seemed to be about the vast scope of academic library work and how necessary it still is.
Disappointing article. I'm sure it will persuade some, unfortunately. Yes, there is some amount of waste in the university. Is this the best response to it? No, it's too cynical and obtuse to do anything to improve the institution of higher education. Despite its minor excesses, quality education is always going to be valuable to those who can afford to access.
Goodness, Really awesome post I discovered cool and intriguing here I valuing your insight continue sharing sympathetically look at it
Has the librarian workload reduced or not?
I find it incredible that THE would even give the writer and his article oxygen. Littered with pathetic attempts at stereotyping librarians, it reads like a vendetta against an occupation he personally sees no value in for whatever reason. The role of the librarian has undoubtedly changed but so has a typical campus, the way in which students are engaged and how they accommodated during non-taught hours. Librarians are now far more involved in teaching and learning, the provision of study space and embracing electronic reference material. They are also involved in archiving, preserving knowledge, the publication of research and also curate academic exhibitions and events. Libraries will never close and will have an ever present role on the University campus.
And open are academic libraries about the decline in book borrowing over the past ten to fifteen years? In my experience library workers (management, librarians, assistants) are not even aware of the statistics; they are keeping quiet about it if they are....

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