CUNY’s Libraries: Past, Present, and Future

June 16, 2011 | Chats with the University Dean

University Dean for Libraries and Information Resources Curtis Kendrick gave a presentation with The New York Public Library’s Ann Thornton, acting Andrew W. Mellon Director, on February 2, 2011.  The presentation was done in interview format, and the following is excerpted from Mr. Kendrick’s responses.

The event was held at the Lotos Club, one of the oldest literary clubs in the United States. Mark Twain was among this storied institution’s early members.

To provide some context or background, can you tell us a little bit about CUNY and its library system?

CUNY has some 264,000 degree seeking students at its 23 colleges and institutions around New York City.  There is a mix of community colleges and senior colleges offering bachelors and master’s degrees, and graduate programs.  Our library system has 30 campus-based libraries, and a central office of library services.  Our libraries hold more than 8 million volumes; make 1.1 million circulation transactions a year; receive 12 million physical visitors, and 200 million virtual visitors.

All you hear about these days are e-books and Kindles and Nooks and so forth.  What’s changing at CUNY in terms of print collections and electronic collections?

Print collections are still important. The number of print books being published is increasing, but electronic formats are offering greater ease of use and their graphics are improving.

CUNY has been purchasing electronic materials for years.  Most of our new journal subscriptions come in only electronic format.  Our colleges have also been buying many more e-books lately, and experimenting with various forms of delivering e-content, either on readers or directly to people’s computers.  Last year, CUNY began to license a collection of about 50,000 electronic books from a company called ebrary.

As a university, CUNY faces concerns about the cost of textbooks.  Many of CUNY’s students come from economically disadvantaged households, so for them spending $1,000 or more a year on textbooks is a stretch. Whatever we can do to reduce the burden of these costs will make a positive impact on their college experience. This year we awarded 13 grants to faculty to pilot mechanisms for reducing reliance on the traditional textbook. Last year we invested $2 million in buying reserve textbooks, ebooks and reference materials.  This is not only a concern of higher education, but of the City Council, the New York State Legislature and of agencies at the Federal level.

With so many people having Internet access at home or at work, how has the use of the library changed?

Well this isn’t just specific to CUNY, but in general we are seeing a decentralization of authority.  Individuals are creating their own content – wikis, blogs, YouTube videos.  Anyone can be an author now as the barriers to entry are so low.

Our patrons are also demanding a lot more in terms of speed and convenience.  For some, if they can’t have what they want right now and the way they want it, they’re not happy.  For some reason the image of a cranky toddler who has missed naptime comes to mind.

Face it, for the first time we are confronting competition. Technology enables others to enter the higher education marketplace and the library marketplace; it facilitates a global market.  We are competing for students, labor and the attention of our patrons.  For-profit colleges are certainly feeling the impact. The monopoly that institutions of higher learning have held over education is eroding [or has eroded.]  For libraries, we continue to help people see that while information is ubiquitous, knowledge is less so, and wisdom, even rarer.

With all of these information choices, isn’t there an issue of Information Overload?

Yes, this is a huge problem.  Not only is there information overload, but finding high quality, vetted information becomes a huge challenge.  It’s one area where librarians have a major competitive advantage because we are often perceived as trusted guides who help people navigate the information wilderness.

Librarians talk about information literacy, but it’s really a form of critical thinking.  This is a huge issue on college campuses: teaching students how to find information, assess it and evaluate it, and use it legally and ethically.  CUNY just received grant from the Verizon Foundation to develop an online information literacy/critical thinking skills course.  We are also building in an assessment component to this, partnering with Educational Testing Service to use their iskills test for measuring critical thinking.  Students who pass the course and the test will be issued a certificate. We will also be working with the business community to help industry understand the benefits of recruiting people who have certified skills in information literacy.

How has the recession affected CUNY’s libraries?

Tax levy support is decreasing.  Across the nation, states are cutting assistance to public colleges and universities.

CUNY’s budget has been cut by $225 million since 2009. To accommodate their portion of the cuts, our libraries have been compelled to become more collaborative—both within CUNY and beyond.  In addition, our libraries are outsourcing functions such as cataloging and some technology functions.  And we are seeing an even greater reliance upon philanthropy.  But all in all it has been difficult, especially when you consider the high costs of some library materials.  For example, a subscription to Brain Research costs more than $23,000 per year.  For a journal.  I think that’s how much my parents paid for their house.

One positive effect of university budgetary cuts has been their role in helping to advance the Open Access movement, in which high quality research publications are made available at no cost to the end user.  Libraries have been leading proponents of the movement for at least a decade, being on the front-lines of the disproportionate portion of scholarly publishing costs shouldered by colleges and universities. It goes like this: When faculty members write an article or book, they sign away some or all of their copyrights to a publisher. The publisher sends the work out to other university faculty for peer review without compensation.  Faculty are called upon to serve on editorial boards for little or no compensation.  And, once the article or book is published, college and university libraries must to pay for the content.

You mentioned collaborations at CUNY.  Can you talk about that some?

We have been enhancing our ability to share collections across the CUNY system, as well as working at the state level with colleagues at SUNY to promote a state-wide interlibrary lending service.  CUNY was a founding member of The New York State Higher Education Initiative, NYSHEI, which advocates on behalf of New York’s academic and research libraries.  The main agenda for NYSHEI right now is to modify the State Education Law that will create the Academic Research Information Access bill, whereby the state would contribute funds towards developing state-wide access to high-end research materials.

Our libraries have also been working on an international scale.  Last year we began an exchange program for CUNY librarians with Shanghai University and Shanghai Normal University.  We’ve been sending people there for a month at a time, and we have hosted several visitors from the two Chinese universities as well.  Earlier this fall, a member of my staff was visiting Moscow, and met with leading librarians at Moscow State University to discuss the possibility of initiating a similar type of exchange. CUNY’s librarians have also participated in the Cuba Book Project, which sends library materials to that nation, and the Library Association of CUNY has made a contribution to Haiti after their devastating disaster.  And as of this week one of our chief librarians is off to South Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship to help build a human rights archive.

Do libraries still matter?

I would argue that, especially in the digital information age, libraries matter more than ever because they are becoming centers of information technology use and learning. Academic librarians are now experts who teach the critical skills of information literacy—how to select, evaluate, and utilize information from the dizzying array available. University libraries operate information systems that provide access to far-flung materials. They are able to tailor special digital collections. And they provide virtual places for information sharing and collaborative learning.

The public thinks libraries matter. Opinion research shows that voters view libraries as a good use of their tax dollars. Americans view public libraries as improving quality of life in their communities, and as leveling the playing field by providing free materials to all, regardless of economic status. Research has shown that libraries benefit the public. During the recession, public libraries have been important information resources for the jobless and entrepreneurs alike. Notably, one study found that resources including business and job search information accessed through the Philadelphia Free Library system created more than $30 million in economic value for that city in 2010.

What are you reading now?

The Long Fall, by CUNY’s own Walter Mosley!