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Chris Bourg: valuing libraries, challenging orthodoxies

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Chris Bourg

Chris Bourg, Stanford's Assistant University Librarian for Public Services, has recently given an important keynote address titled "Beyond Measure: Valuing Libraries" at The Acquisitions Institute 2013.  (Chris will also soon be traveling to Penn State University to deliver a lecture on the same topic.)

Chris understands the term "valuing" in multiple ways, not only as the enduring value of libraries to our culture — perhaps questioned by a few short-sighted people, but generally acknowledged.  More important for Chris are two other distinct meanings of "valuing": the expression of the core values of librarianship as a profession, and the important task of evaluating — that is, assessing — the impact and cultural value of particular libraries.

For a long time, the "value" of libraries has been assessed based on a fairly limited and superficial set of measures: the number of volumes, the collections budget, circulation statistics, etc.  These may be useful measures, but Chris argues that they miss some of the most important and deepest value of a library's collections and services.

More important, she argues, are the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories that are told about us and our libraries.  In one of her most innovative moves, Chris (a social scientist by training, and so never opposed to thoughtful "measurement") undertook an informal, text-based study of library acknowledgments in published books and articles.  The results are fascinating.

In yet another challenge to old library assessment orthodoxies, Chris makes the important point that in times of budget pressure — and who can remember a time of no budget pressure? — the supposed "values" at play often have perverse consequences.  She counters the claim of some library and university administrators that they don't want to "waste" money and shelf space on "obscure books no one will read" with her own view of its unfortunate result: such an attitude can lead only to impoverished, homogeneous, shallow library collections, not to the rich, diverse, and unique collections that our core values tell us should be our goal.  

Chris challenges her fellow academic librarians not only to recognize and embrace our role in "representing and shaping the scholarly conversation — now and for future generations," but also to acknowledge a largely hidden fact: that libraries "are not passive players in the publishing ecosystem. We can’t just sit back and buy books based on popularity or presumed popularity and pretend that those decisions don’t affect the kinds of books that get published, the kinds of topics that get studied, and the kinds of authors that get book contracts."

Read the full text of Chris's powerful speech on her blog, Feral Librarian.

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