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'Everything for Everybody, Everywhere': A Conversation with James O'Donnell
Posted On August 8, 2017
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O’Donnell: Their role is going in a couple directions. The most obvious is to be alert as new programs are being created that the library needs to contribute to. Beyond that, one librarian who has just become embedded there will be focusing on new ways to deliver learning materials. Traditionally, you might think of textbooks or course packs, but those are just a subset of the ways we want to provide information to students. In EdPlus, we’re reassessing how we can deliver content digitally and keep costs down—and that’s leading us toward the use of open educational resources (OERs). EdPlus also employs instructional designers, so we’re working very closely with them to integrate information resources into courses.

Shumaker: How about another role that’s become increasingly important for librarians: information literacy instruction? What do you see as the place of that activity in librarians’ portfolio, either within the EdPlus organization or the more traditional setting?

O’Donnell: I’d say it’s a matter of doing as much as we can, automating as much as we can, partnering with academics as much as we can, and being realistic about the practices today’s students are bringing to us. We’re not going to convert today’s students into a generation of library-going book readers en masse. That means we have to adjust the goals and methods of our instruction.

Our plans to redesign our space are an important aspect of this. We’re thinking about our new space in marketing terms. We get 10,000–15,000 students in our main complex every day. The vast majority of them are coming in to get some work done—mainly course assignments. That’s good, but we’re planning our space so that it will “hook” them. They’ll see things that they didn’t know existed before. They’ll have opportunities to put their hands on things, and try things, and see other people doing work. When they leave the building, they’ll have more of a sense of what our resources are and what the possibilities are. They’ll leave with their academic ambitions ramped up.

The main floor of the renovated building will be devoted to special collections. It will be the place people come to work on resources like Barry Goldwater’s papers, which we have. But it will also be designed to be “in the way,” so that the 19-year-olds coming in to do their calculus homework will be surprised and intrigued. We want them to think, “That looks interesting,” and “I didn’t know they could do something like that,” and “Could I get to be involved in something like that?”

We’re paying equal attention to both high-tech resources and book resources as we move forward, because this building isn’t the library anymore. The library is everywhere. Even the thousands who come into the building every day are making most of their use of the collections when they’re not in the building, or digitally even when they are in the building. This means that the building shouldn’t be the book repository any longer. Instead, it should be the home for the students—their intellectual place to go, to focus, to get serious. In the renovation, we’re working hard to make it a comfortable and inviting place. I’m even getting a reputation as the guy who obsesses about bathrooms, because I believe amenities such as bathrooms and food service are important. The library is the one place on campus where you know you can always go—if you want to be alone, if you need to focus, whatever it is, it’s OK to be in the library. At the same time, when you come here, you’ll be exposed to the special collections on the first floor, our “wizard spaces” with collaboration tools, video walls, and more of the emerging technologies on the third floor, and the top floor will be the silent study space and the place where the on-site print collection is kept. In our student surveys, we’ve found that they want two things: group study/collaboration spaces and private intense study spaces. So we’re designing both: the noisy, collaborative, bustling, happy places and also quiet, “get some focus” spaces.

Shumaker: What about faculty partnerships? How do they fit into your strategy for the library space and services? For example, do you anticipate more faculty giving assignments that require the use of the makerspace tools and special collections?

O’Donnell: For now, I call it the “Tom Sawyer makerspace,” where you come around and Tom explains how much fun it is to whitewash the fence. As faculty become aware of it, we’ll deal with scale issues. Obviously, if a faculty member wants 200 students to complete a project, we’ll have to have a conversation. But it will be a satisfied and happy conversation, in that we will have provoked something of value. We want to get students more actively involved in using special collections as well.

The other area in which we’re working most closely with faculty is our institutional repository. For us, it’s not just a place to put things, but to create cool archives of key projects. For example, ASU is currently leading a NASA initiative, the Psyche project, which will send a spacecraft to an asteroid. There will ultimately be NASA archives of this project of course, but we’re looking to do the unofficial archives, the cooler archives, the readily-accessible-to-our-students-as-they-go-along archives. We’re working with the project to make its information available, especially on the web, but also by physical exhibits and events. Projects like this use the research that’s going on in the institution to inspire next-generation students. As freshmen arrive here, it’s in everyone’s interest that they be aware of really cool things happening around the university, so that they can get involved in some way—so they can do the training they need to do to get involved—and not simply follow whatever career path they had in mind based on what they took in high school and where their hometown is. Universities are really good at expanding minds and horizons, and the more resources and initiatives we can expose, and the cooler we can make them, the better job we can do.

Shumaker: Are there other partnerships with faculty and academic units? In collection development, for example?

O’Donnell: Bringing up collection development leads me to what I think is the biggest frustration for librarianship at the current time: There’s no good reason why any information in digital form that is in some sense publicly accessible should not be accessible to every teacher and every student in every educational institution on the planet. There are lots of bad reasons. They have to do with the historical legacy that the rich folks would sit on top of a big pile of books and the poor folks wouldn’t have any books, but also the business models that descend from that. Commercial digital collections aren’t priced for the mass market. They’re priced for the top-tier research institutions. That’s an educational, social, and cultural problem for all of us. There has got to be a better business model, in which students at any community college in any small town who get inspired can get to that good material.

As David Weinberger was saying a couple of years ago, “There’s a library-sized hole in the internet.” Take any topic—slavery, for example. Take the situation of an enlightened general reader anywhere. There’s a ton of material on the internet that you can read about slavery. But then there are incredibly important resources that are locked up in the collections of research libraries and only available to the constituents of those libraries, not to that general reader. That’s wrong! It’s bad for libraries if the majority of the population finds this library-sized hole in the internet and has to settle for the rest—outdated, inaccurate, and incomplete as it may be. It’s a social, cultural, political, and business issue for all of us. We have to go back to that motto I mentioned earlier, “Everything for everybody, everywhere.” There isn’t any good excuse why we can’t move toward a universally available digital library of the good, curated material—the resources libraries have pointed to and the publishers have published because it is the best.

I gave a talk about a year ago about the library of the year 2100. I said, I’m going to be bi-modal about that. How many libraries will there be? First, I said 3 million. That’s the number you get by extrapolating the number of libraries per capita in the U.S. across an estimated world population of around 9 billion. On the other hand, I said, the number is one—the universal library. Both numbers will be true. The value of a local library as a place to work and focus will remain high, and libraries will also distinguish themselves by the unique local materials they collect, through initiatives such as community archiving and oral history. But getting to that one library with universal accessibility is the mission we should be reaching for in the 21st century.

Shumaker: And so, how does that library mission, “Everything for everybody, everywhere,” relate to the university mission? Does the library serve the university, or is its mission broader than that?

O’Donnell: To answer that, let me ask you a question: Why do we call it a “university”? The word originates as “universitas studiorum”—“the totality of the studies” in a particular place, in Bologna, for example, or whatever city the university was in. It made sense for those universities to be place-based, and we will always be place-based. But for educators today, delivering education to people who can’t come to our place is important for a variety of reasons. For example, we have a crisis in rural healthcare. When I was at Georgetown, we had an online program to educate nurse practitioners. Someone, a nurse in a rural community, in North Dakota, let’s say, who has a family and responsibilities, can’t pick up and move to Georgetown for a couple years for additional study to become a nurse practitioner. But by offering that program online, that person can be educated to provide the healthcare in that community that would otherwise be lacking. There’s a planet full of places that can use all kinds of skills and education that we can provide. We’re not going to do that unless we’ve got the librarians riding along with the teachers. And so, the university’s mission and the library’s mission really are one.

Shumaker: That’s a wonderful insight. Jim, is there any other observation you’d like to end on?

O’Donnell: I’m proud to belong to the tribe of librarians. We do extraordinarily good work, and libraries are places of real heroism and strength and contributions to the future of our global society. We’ve got lots of positives, and we’ve just got to make them stronger.

Photo courtesy of James O’Donnell

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Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.


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