By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Although libraries are in transition, they provide viable models for dealing with disruption that the American higher education system can use to cope with its own impending institutional changes.

That was the message engagingly related to an audience of students, educators, and library professionals at Hamilton College last week by Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool) Professor and Dean’s Scholar for New Librarianship R. David Lankes. He was invited to Hamilton to present the school’s Couper Phi Beta Kappa Library Lecture.

Lankes believes higher education in the United States is in major disruption, facing “serious organizational, monetary, administrative and functional challenges” that are “likely to fundamentally change higher education as it currently exists,” he said.  

The four elements of what Lankes humorously terms “” include a generational shift, so there are fewer young people obtaining high school diplomas—or needing college educations; changing economics where lowered salaries make it difficult for college graduates to pay high tuitions and pay off student loans; competition from for-profit learning organizations; and the trend that colleges are giving away their intellectual products through MOOCs (Massive online open courses) and open source publishing of scholarly information.

From Outputs to Outcomes

“This is a major disruption time, and we should look at new models of education,” Lankes said. “We are moving from this idea of outputs (college degrees) to outcomes (educated individuals), and the question of how do we demonstrate competency. It doesn’t just stop at the classroom–and for academic libraries, we have to ask, what was your part in that?”

Lankes says that academic libraries are also educational institutions, but for too long, have viewed themselves through the lens of bricks-and-mortar and collections, and seeing their roles as “supporting people who conduct education for the institutions.” He said that is a false construct, and that “In truth, what makes libraries institutions of learning is the mission of libraries’ number one asset: librarians.” That mission, he said, is “to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

Libraries have been in the habit of “hiding behind our buildings and our stacks” when in fact, “the libraries are the librarians, and not the buildings, not the institutions,” he added. Since knowledge is created through conversation, libraries need to regard themselves as being “in the conversation business, not the book business, thing business, or data business.”

Higher education now needs to look at revamping its form, functions and self-perception similarly, because of the disruptions underway, according to Lankes.

Expertise Economy

That includes thinking about the idea of the “expertise economy,” where it is possible that students, not the professor, might be the best equipped to teach a segment of the class, based on their unique levels of expertise, he said. In addition, “We also need to think about moving away from a focus of accreditation and out of a model of monopoly of delivery. Today, certification and delivery of competencies are bundled.”

Just as libraries have moved from a model of artifacts to one of learning, and of serving others to co-owning the information, higher education “needs to move into the idea of what do you know and how do you know it, from managing courses to managing documents…and to “be like libraries, but not libraries focused on collections, or functionally-oriented libraries, or information-based libraries…more like progressive libraries that see learning, participation and community at the core of what they do.”

Lankes’ presentation can be found on his blog at: They include slides and an audio of the talk.