From Library to Intellectual Ecology

(Note: the following article appeared in the January-February 2014 issue of Computers in Libraries. It elaborates on the bellwether report on the University Library at UC Berkeley which I refer to in a previous post.)


Information professionals are trained to recognize patterns in how knowledge resources are used, and also to look at information seeking behavior to discern the ways users think. It’s no secret why usability testing (also known as “human factors”) is a now a standard element in library and I-School curricula: We do it all the time and we are going to do it more and more. We are immersed in a professional culture of recognizing patterns—and that is a very timely advantage. If you are at all like me, you practice pattern recognition wherever you may find yourself. This habit makes us good allies to have, because we often have our hand on the pulse what is new and good, or what is about to appear. In other industries, this skill goes by names such as market analysis, future-casting, trend-watching and more. For us, it just comes with the territory.

Every now and then we reap substantial “payback” for the patient, long-term cultivation of the knowledge based alliances we build. More than ever before, the key alliances we form are with our diverse user communities. Of any potential allies, our users are the quickest to see the value of our services, and if we give them half a chance, they’ll even go to bat for us. But for that to happen we need to set the stage, foster the dialogues, and make sure our allies know what we need.

I’ve been writing a lot about a 2013 report that appeared in October at UC – Berkeley, titled “Report of the Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library.” The Commission that published the report was charged by the campus administration to deliver a thorough review of the University Library and its ongoing needs. Their charge followed a very successful self-study process the University Library itself conducted, and which I also have commented upon (see “Survey Says, What Our Users Really Want Is Us.” CIL, May 2013 33 (4), p23-25).

The Commission spent a full year studying The Library, but the total review process was really more like a three year project. In this case, the time investment produced powerful results, and the authors of the report can only be seen as “users” of The Library’s services. As stakeholders in its future, they delivered an uncommonly insightful document that works quite effectively as a blueprint for any research library’s strategic planning. But it also can serve as an example how librarians form alliances, influence institution- and global-level debates about information, and work to create excitement and “buy-in” for bold ideas from their own user communities. It is this ultimate “deliverable” –good PR, delivered at the right time—that I am going to focus in this column.

Beyond “Heliocentric”

Don’t take my word for the quality of the document; be sure to have a look at the document itself (see

As you read you will find a few key themes and sentiments that stand out.

First, the tone of the document is declarative and imperative. There is a pleasant surfeit of well-phrased prose throughout, but the principal sentiment this report conveys is certainty.

The authors leave no question as to the fact that the library is the heart of the university, to wit:

“The University and the Library cannot exist without each other. Because the Library—in both its physical and virtual forms—is ubiquitous in the everyday lives of faculty, students, administrative staff, scholarly researchers, and the general public worldwide, it is difficult to make a case for its role in sustaining the academic preeminence of the University except by imagining our University and world without it. The Library is the heart and circulatory system of our research mission…it makes research happen; it makes learning possible….”

Well. Certainly the authors have concluded that they, as faculty members, cannot function competitively without the help of the Library, and they are sufficiently convinced that they are clearly advocating for major new institutional support. But they also did their homework before going out on a limb. UC Berkeley’s collections funding was ranked 4th by the Association of Research Libraries in 2004; in 2011, it was ranked 14th. Yet in 2012, the Library provided 2.7M physical items and 33 million article downloads during 2012. Its “human touch” is deep, with millions of in-persons visits, online exchanges and phone conversations. One of the authors spent many weeks analyzing financial reports with the senior business officers of the Library as well, and so the level of understanding about operations among Commission members was substantial.

The second theme is the necessity of change, and the readiness of the Library to embrace that change. At no place in this report do the authors find any significant complaint with the Library’s level of resolve to make bold changes and to do so proactively. They rightly point out that a “heliocentric” model, which depends on branch locations and services that encircle a vast central library edifice is no longer big enough to respond to changing needs. Instead, the Library must embrace a new service and collection-building model.

The authors offer a long list of imperative recommendations, some of which we might expect, while others imply deep awareness of the potential of the future. Revitalize the Moffitt Undergraduate Library and open it 27/7; enhance existing collaborations with IT departments; create a second-generation Web portal that is responsive to the changing world of discovery—all great ideas, but no big surprises. Yet also: embed the Library in “virtual carrels” so faculty have better access to resources. Ensure that student-based “e-portfolios” that follow them from admission to graduation and beyond enjoy a robust library presence with the potential for human touch. Further still, embed the Library in online classroom platforms and in MOOCs—and not least, keep up live presentations in physical classrooms.

Hey: where these guys get all these great ideas? Answer: from talking not only to us, but to every user community that uses the Library.

“The Intellectual Ecology”

I have discovered my favorite new library appellation from the dearly departed year of 2013 in this report, too. It is called the “intellectual ecology.” Readers might have noticed that I often favor the phrase “diverse, information ecology,” in describing our enabling roles, but this group has raised the bar, declaring that library spaces (physical and virtual) comprise an intellectual commons that fosters all kinds of scholarship. This affirmative view of library space shows awareness that libraries carry authority and influence that is equal to any learned society or discipline of knowledge. Moreover, library space in all its forms and improves productivity and quality in learning.

Take note, all you who have gone through “library space wars” with competitors who want our learning spaces: you are custodians of a vital resource and should not back down an inch. Yet even though the authors give a strong vote for library space, they also affirm the idea of repurposing this valuable space to change with the times. The 20t century research library, they point out, has “…housed physical collections of textual inscriptions for the purposes of preserving human learning…since Bablyonian times.” In this century we must do that and so much more. This is where the importance of friends—especially among our own users—becomes crystal clear.

The Value of User Awareness

It’s worth noting that even as of this writing it still remains to be seen how the University will respond to the Commission’s report. But whatever fiscal outcomes may yet appear, I think it is safe to say that faculty and campus support for its University Library may be at an all-time high.

The reservoir of good will that flows from a clear understanding of the Library’s potential has incalculable value. Good will among allies makes it easier to explain our goals at the highest level, but it can also be quite handy in clearing the way for less lofty needs, such as entrée to physical classrooms, being at the table for institution-level strategic planning, or just getting the janitorial support you need. Further still, such good will among “high value” user community members, such as the faculty who served on the Commission, keeps on giving back in many forms: doors are more likely to be opened, dialogues can build shared outcomes, and perhaps even foster the hope of a broader role for the library in the digital future.

Perhaps that may be a lot to hope for. Perhaps I am once again the optimist I am continually accused of being. But early evidence, in the form of excitement and interest in this report, back up my upbeat sentiment. And important public institutions such as UC – Berkeley are often bellwethers for broader change in society, so what happens here is not parochial, but well worth following. More than anything, the Commission’s report is proof positive that our very long-range goal of cultivating allies is paying off—and that our users may be the best allies of all.

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