I Don’t Know What it Means, But it Can’t Be a Good Thing

by Bob Schatz (BioMed Central North American Sales Manager;  Phone: 646-258-2126)  <[email protected]>

For over thirty years I’ve been traipsing all over the planet for various kinds of work that involve university libraries.  United Airlines says I’ve traveled over 1.5 million miles with them, and that’s not the only airline I’ve flown.  Any day now I’m expecting Holiday Inn to name one of their new properties after me.  It seems only fair. I cover all of the U.S. and Canada for BioMed Central, my current employer.  In fact, I’ve covered this territory once before for another employer.  As strange as it may seem, if the company is good and the work true (which is certainly the case now), I don’t mind the travel.  It can be challenging and, yes, sometimes lonely, but it is not such a bad way to make one’s way through life.

One of the biggest challenges is trip planning.  There is an art to putting together trips that make sense and are productive when dealing with large swaths of geography.  Days’ worth of time go into figuring out where to fly in and out of, whom to try to see and in what order, where to stay overnight and how to cover the distances in-between.   In the old days, every seasoned rep had a good road atlas (my favorite has always been a Rand McNally), which one could consult without getting into an accident while cruising down the road at seventy miles an hour.  Larger universities were pretty easy to spot, especially if they were close to freeways, but finding others could be a bit more daunting.  Lots of smaller colleges are off on side streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods.  Before the days of directions posted on websites and GPS’s, finding a campus, securing parking and getting to the library could be tricky.  Finding parking remains so.

The advent of the Internet helped.  On virtually every college and university site were “Directions to Campus,” frequently with diagrammatic maps one could print before departing on a sales trip.  While it meant lugging around stacks of printed instructions, significant time and frustration were saved.  Now I have a GPS, which is a godsend, in spite of the times it hiccups and delivers me somewhere not quite on target.  Overall, it saves a ton of travel time.  The first few times I traveled with my new GPS, I brought a road atlas with me too.  It did not take long, though, to see that there was no need to do so.  I still use my road atlas at home to plan out trips, but it remains there when I head to the airport.

Even with a GPS, I spend a lot of time on university websites.  I still need to stay on top of which librarians are responsible for areas that intersect my interests, especially now that I am meeting with folks other than those with whom I visited during my bookselling days.  One of the great things about new work is meeting new people.  I like that.  I also have to find street addresses for my GPS to work.  Websites are great for that kind of information.

In the old days, the most daunting thing about websites was finding where the library staff directory was hidden.  Many buried them so deep within their pages that it made one wonder whether they were ashamed of the people who worked there.  Now the staff listing is usually one of the options under the “About” tab on the library homepage.   Now if I could only convince all libraries to list the job titles of each librarian they list in their staff lists, I’d be a happy guy.

In the last year I’ve encountered a disturbing trend when I go to university websites to gather my information.  I can’t find the library.  Not that long ago, every home page had a number of tabs for Students, Visitors, Faculty, etc.  Typically there would be added tabs or headings for Academics, Sports, and Admissions. Invariably, there was a tab titled “Library” or “Libraries” on the home page.  The library, along with some other essential aspects of university life, was front and center for anyone who connected to the site.  This is no longer true.

Now my quest involves figuring out where the university has hidden the library.  (Perhaps we need a Where’s Biblo cartoon character to make the task more entertaining.)  Frequently, there are tabs labeled “Academics” and “Research” on university home pages.  A case can be made for listing the library under either of those.  Libraries support both Academics and Research.  Maybe it should be listed under both.  More often than I care to recount, though, the library tab is not to be found in either listing.  If I keep at it, I sometimes find a library link at the bottom of the home page, listed in very small print next to the webmaster’s email address.  (The gulag of the home page.  No one except a desperate sales rep would look down there.)

I do business at one particular major university in the U.S., so I won’t name names.  This university is a highly regarded research institute with nearly twenty (count them, twenty) libraries on its main campus.  Yet, nowhere on its home page is there a single listing for any of the libraries, nor for any library under any dropdowns, which include “Academics,” “Research,” and “Student Life.”  There isn’t even a link at the bottom of the home page.  In order to get to any library information, I first had to do a site search under “libraries,” and then link to the library pages from internal Google results.  How many visitors give up before then?

This trend troubles me on a number of different levels.  The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” didn’t come about by accident.  When things are perceived to have less value, they are pushed aside.  Once pushed aside, they become even more remote, because they are no longer in the field of vision.  It is a downward cycle.

We all know that the role of libraries is changing as is that of the entire university.  While university libraries interact with their collections and patrons in ways that are markedly different than just a few years ago, they are not irrelevant to the research and teaching that takes place on (and off) campus.  Apparently, being relevant does not equate to being front-and-center in the consciousness of academe.  If major universities perceive no problem hiding libraries underneath layers of their web pages, what does that say about the perception of their relevance on campus?

I don’t know what disturbs me more, that libraries are disappearing from university home pages, or that no one seems to be fighting this trend.  At those institutions where this is happening, do the libraries even know they have been relegated to “back page” status?  Have they taken any steps to have that rectified?  While I’d like to believe that the absence of libraries from these home pages is just a reflection of how little web designers use libraries, I think the problem goes much deeper than that.  Designing a website involves lots of people representing all sorts of interests on campus.  Everyone wants to know how their piece of the site will be presented.  They have to provide information that will appear on each part of the site.  Are we to understand that through the entire web development process, no one could carry a case that the libraries need to have a more prominent place on the site?

Libraries provide important, essential services to their universities.  To function well, these libraries need to have strong budgets to build collections, hire and train staff, and maintain up-to-date technology.  That kind of support comes from being perceived as providing value to the whole campus.  It is hard to believe that libraries are generating that value if they are not even able to appear in a prominent place on their universities’ websites.  The library was once the cornerstone of the university.  If web pages are any indication, they now seem to be about as important as the student health center and the campus parking office in the minds of their administrations.  This isn’t a death knell for libraries, but it certainly isn’t anything positive.  The canary in the coal mine dies if there’s no air left in the environment.  It also dies if no one remembers to feed it.  I don’t think the library canary is dead by any means, but it looks much thinner to me than is healthy.