Libraries and Learning


September 18, 2019

I’ve been hearing for years that we should expect increasing competition for students in the upper Midwest and New England because the population of traditionally college-age students has been declining. That decline is predicted to become precipitous in a few years, since after the 2008 crash the birth rate dropped and hasn’t rebounded. For institutions that aren’t bribe-worthy and elite enough to have both big endowments and heavy competition for admission, the belt-tightening that has been going on for a long time will get worse.

So I’m not entirely surprised that a public university in my neighborhood is making cuts after years of declining enrollments. St. Cloud State has sent letters to eight tenured faculty announcing they will be let go at the end of the academic year. Their union disputes the decision-making process and challenges the administration’s legal right to move forward with this retrenchment.

One of the layoffs is in the Theater department, which is also losing a position to retirement – and its major will be discontinued. Three of the layoffs are in philosophy. That’s about half the department. Replacements have not been approved in recent years, and four retirements are pending, so that department is also on the near-extinction list.

Four of the layoffs – half of the total – are in the library. (For non-librarian readers, it’s not uncommon for librarians to hold faculty status, including meeting requirements for tenure.) There will be eight remaining librarians to serve over 14,000 students, 200 majors, 60 graduate programs, and two doctoral programs.

Libraries are easy pickings because librarians’ labor is almost by design fairly invisible. When you click on a database link and download an article, it may take only a second, but people did a lot of work to make that happen: they selected and negotiated a license annually for that database, put links to it in all the right places on the library website, changed them when the vendor randomly decided to rebrand (please don’t), and did a ton of fiddly work to make sure the links to hundreds of thousands of individual articles actually work. When all goes well, it appears seamless. In the classic words of S. R. Ranganathan, we want to save the time of the reader. But it’s a ton of labor that nobody sees.

Then there’s the considerable work of helping students one-on-one and in courses figure out not just where to click but why scholarship matters and how to think through questions with the help of good sources. We also work with other libraries so we can share what resources are sharable. If you got an article or book by interlibrary loan, a lot of people had to do a lot of work to make that happen. You’re welcome.

There’s no question universities will have to adapt to changing enrollment patterns. The best way to do that is openly and with shared information and with a process that allows data to be examined and challenged if necessary. The philosophy department argues the administration’s decisions didn’t take into account recent changes in enrollments and offerings, including gen ed courses. In the case of the library, the reasoning behind the cuts is that fewer reference questions are being asked (something that’s true in nearly all academic libraries) and far fewer books were checked out last year than in 1993.

You know what happened since 1993? Journals went online and became easier to find than books. No mention in the analysis of how much use digital resources have received at the library. No mention of the fact that there has been no budget to buy new books for the past three years, which can discourage checking them out. So the administration argues with fewer students and faculty on campus and less (selectively-measured) library use, they now have to cut people. People who teach credit-bearing courses, but mostly help other faculty teach. People who work with students every day. Half of the faculty being cut in the library are the only faculty of color in the department. I’m well aware that falling enrollments have to be addressed, but as these positions are eliminated another 30 are reportedly being hired in selected departments that have “stable or rising enrollments.”

The St. Cloud State University library has already lost positions in recent years, both faculty and staff, through attrition, and its non-salary budget has been nearly cut in half since 2014. I’m not going to claim libraries are more deserving than other departments, but I am offended by the way library labor is so often discounted because we work hard to make using library resources seem as effortless as possible. If you think your library doesn’t matter, why not avoid the  thousand-cuts approach and shut it down altogether? Without people, the library perishes. It can’t run itself.

But hey, the university has high hopes it will get another $700,000 appropriated by the state to update the hockey arena that had an $18 million renovation a few years ago. I guess that shows what really matters.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.