Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
I was pleased to see that my From the Bell Tower column of October 22, 2009 ("It Was Nice Knowin' Ya Special Branch Library") inspired Susanne J. Redalje to write a response on the topic, one she knows well as the former head of an academic branch library. While I thought Ms. Redalje accurately raised important concerns about the closing of special branch libraries, I thought her characterization of my column was somewhat less accurate. For example, she suggests that [Bell] "pretty much declares academic special libraries to be useless entities". Nowhere in the column do I actually say that they are "useless entities". Ms. Redalje's choice of words suggests that I think and promote such an idea, and that is simply not true. In fact, I believe the overall tone of my column is sympathetic to the importance and value of providing branch libraries. Nor do I suggest that branch libraries won't be missed. I simply point out that in the future special branch libraries will likely not be a part of what constitutes an academic library. Likewise, I would argue that I often promote the importance of keeping the needs of our users front and center, and write about these issues at my Designing Better Libraries blog.
Admittedly, my column does not overtly advocate for the continuation of special branch libraries or defend their importance and right to exist. However, the absence of such language does not make the column anti-branch library The goal of this specific column is to bring to the library community's attention a significant trend worth their attention (had any other library writer or blogger focused on this issue?), one that will certainly change the landscape of academic librarianship. I understand Ms. Redalje's concerns, but the signs surely suggest that more consolidations and closings are coming in the future.
My quibbles with Ms. Redalje's choice of terms in her response aside, I think the column and response can serve as the foundation of a larger discussion within the library community about the future of special branch libraries. I would encourage Ms. Redalje to seek out her colleagues' opinion on these issues so that an ongoing conversation can develop. I remain somewhat pessimistic that this conversation would reverse the consolidation and merger trend, but it might certainly be of benefit for those who have gone through this process to help others and share advice for preventing or surviving the closure of a special branch library.
Steven J. Bell
Associate University Librarian
I'd like to take advantage of the soapbox provided me by Steven Bell's original piece in LJ Newswire (October 22, 2009), and his reply, because there is one point upon which we both agree -- academic branch libraries will continue to close. As we have both discussed, there are a variety of reasons for this, making it a complex issue. I am not prepared to say that closing branches is always a bad thing. I would, however, very much like to see more discussion of the issue on all levels. Money and space issues have almost always been there and will continue. Very real problems like these have often been used to justify desired outcomes that may not have been possible under ordinary circumstances.
I am an unabashed fan of branch libraries, feeling that even in this day of remote users and 24/7 provision of digital and other services they provide a value to users which is otherwise impossible to provide, and I would like to see them survive. One size, however, does not fit all, so there is a lot of room for discussion. Some libraries had 20 or 30 branches. Is that too many? If the decision is made that some or all branches must be closed, how do you best go about it? When, and how, do you bring the users into the discussion in a proactive, constructive way rather than a reactive, negative way? How do you replace the connection that branches had with these users? These and many more questions deserve plenty of attention, because once a branch is closed it's gone forever.
Susanne J Redalje
Reference & Research Services
University of Washington Libraries