Roy Tennant’s Wake-Up Call to Academic Librarians

Roy Tennant works for OCLC as Senior Program Officer for Research and an important voice in the world of digital libraries. On Wednesday, June 13, he kicked off the Academic Librarians Conference at Syracuse University with an early-morning talk. Read on for a recap of his ideas on the future of academic libraries.

Roy Tennant’s Slide, “The Four Horsemen of the Library Apocalypse.” Image courtesy of David Lankes via Twitter (@rdlankes).

Academic Libraries Face Big Challenges

Funding for academic libraries is dwindling while competitors are popping up everywhere. Accessing e-content is ridiculously complicated and fraught. Library staff have the wrong skills. Today, students and faculty have lots of easy ways to find the same stuff they used to rely on a library to provide. Tennant said that these issues, along with new mandates for higher ed, are changing the roles of libraries on campuses. Rather than see these challenges as burdens, Tennant told his audience, a group of academic librarians and library students, to see them as an invitation to innovation, a kick in the butt. (My words, not his, but I think he’ll approve.)

Tennant believes librarians need to change the way we interact with our communities. He told us to pare down collections to make space for people. He wants to push librarians out from behind their desks to mingle with the community. Below are some of his key ideas for how to rock the challenges of academic libraries.

What the Academic Librarians Should Provide for Faculty

  • essential partnerships with faculty members. Tennant reminded us of an idea David Lankes suggested in a presentation the previous evening. An academic librarian should show up at the door of a faculty member up for tenure and say: hi! I’m your tenure librarian. I’m here to help. Not only would this help the faculty member prepare for her tenure review, but it will make her fall in love with the librarian and turn her into a champion of the librarian and library services.
  • services that make their problems go away. Make it easy to for faculty to comply with new educational and research mandates.
  • quick and easy access to the stuff they need to get their work done.

What the Academic Librarians Should Provide for Students

  • a place to meet friends, find a date, socialize, grab coffee or lunch
  • a place to get a way, be alone, maybe to get some work done
  • a place to find inspiration, to learn, to get excited about learning
  • a place to collaborate on work
  • quick and easy access to stuff they need to get their work done

Tennant put as much emphasis on creating an atmosphere ripe for learning and collaboration as he did on the importance of providing actual digital and print resources. Make your library the place to be. But, “be mobile,” he told us. Make sure your resources are online, accessible from all sorts of platforms and on the cloud—or they won’t get used, even by students sitting right in the library cafe.

Tennant’s Ideas for Tugging Your Library Into the Future

  • Outsource back-office work. Get someone offsite to manage your integrated library system (ILS), host it somewhere else—and free up back-office workers to move out front where they can interact with the community.
  • Get rid of the office. Instead of keeping your reference librarians behind reference desks and closeting your subject librarians in offices, send them out roaming among the students. Make sure they’re visible, identifiable, and approachable. They’ll be available right at the point of need.
  • Plan for continual change. The job descriptions of everyone who works in the library is constantly changing. Be prepared to reinvent yourself and embrace professional development as a natural part of life.
  • Reattach the library to the institution. Gather metrics so you have them ready at a moment’s notice to prove the value of your library.
  • Dream up big ideas and try them. Making an academic library appropriate for the 21st-century learner will involve flexibility and decisiveness and collaboration. It will take dreaming up strange new ideas and giving them a try. Tennant had this idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if whenever you walked into the library your device knew you were there and told you things? It would tell you your friend Amy is on the fifth floor, the book you put on hold is in, the coffee line is short, and there are two open meeting rooms on the second floor. The library would be alive because it would know who was in the building. And, wouldn’t it be great if materials checked themselves out as you walked out the library doors? You could control your privacy settings, choosing whether you want to announce my your presence to anyone or just to your friends.
  • Change collection development policies. Faculty and staff don’t care if the library owns content. They just want to be able to access what they need. Make sure your collection development policies acknowledge this. Reduce collections and store some of it offsite. Make sure your catalog gives your community a look at a unified collection: what you own, what you can easily acquire, what’s online should be all in one place.
  • Have fun. If you and your library colleagues are not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Read more about Roy Tennant and his adventures in digital librarianship at his website,

Roy Tennant’s portrait courtesy of

NOTE: This post was originally published on Information Space, the blog of the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Read the original post here.


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