Signifying Excellence

“When access to content is no longer scarce, what are the services that will stand as the ‘primary measures of quality’ and ‘distinctive signifiers of excellence’ in the academic library?”

So asks Scott Walter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in his guest commentary “Distinctive Signifiers of Excellence”: Library Services and the Future of the Academic Library.” If you haven’t read this short essay, I urge you to do so if only because this, I believe, is the new battleground for ARL Libraries in the never ending push to distinguish themselves from each other.

Once it was about how large your entire collection was, then it was how unique your collections were, especially your special collections. Now it appears that we are moving away from the physical stuff that we collect as a definition of who we are towards a definition of success that embodies the uniqueness of our services as compared to our peers. I’m not saying this is bad, I believe this may be a trend worth our attention if only because it is truly becoming harder to see our “stuff” as who we are in the age of format-neutral (read e-preferred) collecting policies and the push to share our collections digitally through in-house and mass digitization projects.

What does this mean for the preservation and conservation departments who are so used to counting things (number of books treated, number of flat paper treated, number of items deacidified, etc.) as a way to define success? While the ARL preservation statistics have been suspended in light of Lars Meyer’s “Safeguarding Collections…”, we are left adrift in our attempts to advocate for our continued funding. As we await a new ARL preservation statistics initiative (promised, but not yet delivered), this idea of conservation/preservation as a “distinctive service” is worth considering.

“…[I]n an era when everything we know about how content is created, acquired, accessed, evaluated, disseminated, employed, and preserved for the future is in flux, the research library must be distinguished by the scope and quality of its services programs in the same way it has long been by the breadth and depth of its locally-held collections.”

Is your elevator speech ready?


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