Breaking Though the Bubble

By Frank Winter, Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan Library

A couple of years ago I attended a talk by the renowned Australian scientist Tim Flannery concerning various issues related to climate change. One of the panelists, frustrated by the narrow focus of remarks by the other panelists, urged the audience not to limit their thinking to Vancouver (the city). He exhorted us to “break through the bubble” and think about Vancouver (the region). His phrase stuck with me and I thought about what sort of bubbles I might unreflectively inhabit. By extension, is there a bubble entitled “the University Library” that Canadian university librarians inhabit? How might they try to break through it as they engage with the challenges and opportunities that face them today?

Can we start by acknowledging that Canadian university librarians in continuing positions in publicly funded institutions have terms and conditions of work that are good by any comparative or absolute standard? Gaining job security through tenure or some other continuing status is demonstrably achievable. Individual librarians at publicly funded Canadian universities exercise a good deal of control over how their work assignments are carried out without overly intrusive management oversight. There are always individual or group cases where the situation is perhaps not quite so rosy for whatever reasons but these are exceptions.

Does this relatively comfortable status encourage complacency and a professional culture that focuses largely on how we perceive ourselves and our work and from that standpoint, how our work can assist others in their work? In Lorcan Dempsey’s phrase, this is an inside-out perspective.[1]

What are some of the conceptual bubbles that we ought to be aware of?

One bubble is not acknowledging that success in our work depends heavily on campus services provided from outside of the library. University libraries have really good infrastructure support from the central campus services in areas such as information technology and networking, physical plant, human resources, finance and other functions that public libraries, for example, typically have to manage for themselves. Without superior on- and off-campus networks, for example, university libraries would be stymied in their ability to deliver information services. Without a good caretaking staff, the heavily used public areas of libraries soon turn into unpleasant pigsties. These support services cost money and a good library manager must be vigilant that these central services receive appropriate budgetary support.

Another bubble is the presumption that the local collection is the most important service that the library provides to the university community. The implications of the concept of a collective collection for a mindset that privileges the primacy of the local print collection are significant. There may be specific areas of activity within a library in which the local collection is the most important service provided to a user community but there are others in which it might not be. Although the trend seems clear, internalizing and then communicating the consequences of this change to users and to senior university managers is difficult. Different approaches will be needed for different communities of campus users.

Many new roles are suggested for university librarians and libraries from a service provider perspective. The recent External Review of the University of Saskatchewan Library contained a typical list of current candidates: “digital humanities, scholarly communication, copyright, research data management, data visualization, and other areas of current and emerging priorities in academic libraries.”[2] They could easily have mentioned research information management services as well.

Deciding which of these services, or parts of these services, the campus community is interested in receiving from the library is challenging. Successfully engaging in any of these services will require breaking through the bubble of treating “the University Library” as an undifferentiated whole and instead viewing it as a disaggregated set of different units working with different user communities on and off campus in different ways. Each of these services involves interacting with experts from outside the library. Negotiating a mutual understanding of how these different expertises can be meshed to achieve a common goal requires that librarians be able to reify their skillsets and mindsets in a manner that can be communicated to other experts so that they can understand what value librarians bring to the table. Conversely, librarians in these multi-disciplinary activities have to be able to understand and work with the often very different skillsets and mindsets of other professionals.

Competitors abound but the bubbles university librarians inhabit may make it difficult to perceive let alone respond effectively to these competitors. Roger Schonfeld has posted some interesting observations on the evolving strategies of commercial content providers such as Elsevier.[3] The motives of the users of the pirate site Sci-Hub have been the subject of innumerable articles and comments while Google Scholar continues its prominence in the activities of people seeking scholarly information. DeDe Dawson’s recent BrainWork post addresses the topic of information privilege from the perspective of Open Access and how undergraduates will be able to access scholarly information once they leave the university.[4] David Worlock’s blog is a good place for tracking developments in the information industry that has developed to serve users in for-profit sectors.[5] He discusses many services that never appear on the radar of university librarians. For me, the bubble here is workflow. Sci-Hub and Google Scholar mesh with users’ workflows while Elsevier, in particular, seems singularly focused on building complete ecosystems for researchers to manage their research workflow. Although most university librarians know the importance of understanding their users’ evolving workflow patterns, the options available to them, and the services they actually use, it remains very challenging to alter our existing models of service delivery.

There are issues of finding the appropriate scale to work at. There is also a non-trivial element of risk. Besides the risks involved in financial and human resource reallocation in breaking through the bubbles described above, there is also the risk of mismatches between the goals of library leaders and the expectations of senior university administrators and between the library and the varied user communities on campus.[6]

Concerns about individual workload abound, as documented in numerous studies.[7] There is, however, an evolving toolkit of organizational and personal responses to resolving workload concerns.[8] In the context of workload, the basic requirement to account for our time remains relevant. Bottom line: librarians are at the university to do work that the university needs to have done. If there were not work that needed to be done, or if that work disappears, there will be fewer jobs for librarians.[9] It is quite possible, at any particular institution and for local reasons, that the institution may not be receptive or interested in what librarians can contribute to the institution’s evolving priorities and activities. In such cases, it is perfectly logical that some resources formerly allocated to the library may be directed elsewhere on campus to higher priority activities and/ or to groups perceived to be better able to deliver the required service.

Communication is key to understanding and breaking through the bubbles we inhabit. Think about how many different people you interact with physically or virtually over the course of a typical day or week or month. If they are always the same few folks and especially if they are library folks, then you are not getting out enough. Librarianship is a contact sport.


[1] Dempsey, Lorcan. (2016). Library collections in the life of the user: two directions. LIBER Quarterly. 26(4),  pp.338–359. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18352/lq.10170 retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[2] University of Saskatchewan.  (2016). University Library:  External Review Report. (2016). Prepared by:  Gerald Beasley Joyce Garnett Elliott Shore, March 10, 2016, https://www.usask.ca/ipa/documents/Reviews%20-%20University%20of%20Saskatchewan%20Library%20External%20Review%20Report%202016-03-10.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[3] Schonfeld, Roger C. (2017). The strategic investments of content providers. Ithaka S+R [blog]. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/blog/the-strategic-investments-of-content-providers/retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[4] Dawson, DeDe. (2017). Information privilege and the undergraduate student. Brain-Work [blog]. https://words.usask.ca/ceblipblog/2017/05/02/info-privilege-undergrad/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[5] See http://www.davidworlock.com/category/blog/.

[6] Schonfeld, Roger C. (2017). The strategic direction of research library leaders: Findings from the latest Ithaka S+R survey. Scholarly Kitchen [blog]. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/04/04/the-strategic-direction-of-research-library-leaders-findings-from-the-latest-ithaka-sr-survey/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[7] Delong, Kathleen, Sorensen, Marianne, Williamson, Vicki. (May 2015) 8Rs Redux: CARL Libraries Human Resources Study. Ottawa: Canadian Association of Research Libraries. http://www.ls.ualberta.ca/8rs/8rs-redux-final-report-2015.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017; Fox, David. (2007). Finding time for scholarship: a survey of Canadian research university librarians. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 7(4), pp. 451-462, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/portal_libraries_and_the_academy/v007/7.4fox.pdf retrieved onMay 17, 2017.

[8] See, for example, University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association. Fact Sheet: Assignment of Duties, http://www.usaskfaculty.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Assignment-of-Duties-Fact-Sheet.pdf. The Library has its own detailed guidelines on the assignment of duties. See also, for example, Workload Policy – University of Toronto Library. (2012), https://www.utfa.org/sites/default/files/LibrarianWorkloadPolicyFinal2016.pdf retrieved on May 15, 2017.

[9] Winter, Frank. (2014). Traditionalists, Progressives and the Gone-Away World. Brain-Work [blog]. http://words.usask.ca/ceblipblog/2014/10/14/traditionalistsprogressives-and-the-gone-away-world/ retrieved on May 15, 2017.


This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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