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No one is pushing the panic button, but recent events in higher education have got many academic librarians wondering what their future is in the industry – or at least at their institution. Within the past month a torrent of news, from Moodys negative outlook for all of higher education to demographic changes that will increase the number of at-risk students to massively attended free courses that challenge traditional institutions to fewer students graduating on time and to overwhelming student debt, all point to challenging times ahead for American higher education. Bring all these indicators together and the future of higher education looks less promising.

While all this is happening academic librarians are paying attention to other impending challenges in their own house. The shift from print to digital, a scholarly communications crisis, dwindling budgets, shifting needs for specialized staff, maintaining the education mission and keeping the physical library relevant have many of us pondering out own future and the ways in which we must evolve to keep libraries relevant in higher education. Rightly so, academic librarians are trying to figure out how to best adapt to a rapidly changing higher education landscape. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to trends in higher education to give us some guidance.

In a talk delivered at the Serials Solutions Breakfast at the ALA midwinter conference I shared some observations and ideas about how higher education was changing and the ways in which academic librarians could respond. After discussing a number of trend changes and why traditional higher education was slow to respond – because of the difficulty in escaping their entrenched culture – I offered some possibilities for how librarians could evolve to work in this new environment – what I referred to as “Alt-Higher Ed”.  It’s a form of higher education subject to unbundling. Not unlike the music industry, where digital content meant consumers could buy individual songs from any supplier as opposed to a fixed set of songs from one supplier, students can now obtain their higher education courses from a variety of providers. In other words, students no longer need to depend on a single institution offering a fixed set of courses. It changes everything for traditional colleges and universities – and the librarians who work there.

In order to adapt to this new world of higher education, I shared a set of strategies academic librarians could use to evolve as “alt-librarians”:

  • Be a design thinker
  • Be a gate opener, not a gatekeeper
  • Be a producer of non-commissioned work
  • Be a salesperson for your library
  • Be a functionally free thinker
  • Be a grassroots leader on your campus
  • Be value driven
  • Be a librarian who starts with why

Becoming an alt-librarian, or encouraging others to do so, requires a willingness to change and we know that change is hard – especially when colleagues may be less ready for change. I summarized the points I made about going through the rebooting process which is substantially about the change happening in higher education. I used the acronym TWEEP to related these core ideas:

  • T = Trust – build it; when people in an organization trust each they are more open to change
  • W=Why – start with it; if you don’t know why you do what you do why should anyone care
  • E=Emotional Connection – it’s important to reach people on an emotional level
  • E=Empower – allow others to share their ideas and take responsibility for them
  • P=Persist – keep trying even when others may fail to accept your ideas

In making a reference to the current state of higher education, one writer stated “It’s a mess”. From my perspective that’s an accurate observation, but anytime you unbundle and reboot, things are going to get messy before they get settled. I believe, and as I shared in my talk, that this is also a time of opportunity for academic librarians if we are able to stay flexible, agile and open to change as higher education goes through this process. In doing so, we may just be able to help our institutions to be disruptive and avoid disruption.

20 Feb 2013 | Posted by Steven Bell

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