Library Functions & Outsourcing

I was brainstorming about ways in which a library may attract more people to come use its resources. Some of the schemes I dreamed up amount to crass, commercial lures like giving people money. For instance, a $500 prize towards paying for the Rare Book School. The prize would be given to the best essay on a topic on, say, the library’s Special Collections. Anything from original research that a scholar did using the special collections, to the history of the special collections, or proposed changes to the special collections. At the least, such an essay contest would get people to come check out the resources in the collections. Of course, this “lure” would only interest people who want to go to the Rare Book School, a rather select group. To attract more students, especially if a library has just gone through a redesign and the goal is to simply get feet through the door, a more populous-pandering scheme like a treasure hunt can be put in place. Hide “treasures” in places you want people to check out and incentivize them to  hunt down those treasures: a $30 gift certificate to the book store, a gift certificates for a campus cafe . . . it doesn’t have to cost much to get ramen-fueled grad students to do stuff for free food.

I also thought of schemes that do not involve directly giving library-users money and constitute ongoing programs instead of one-shot marketing campaigns. For example, I thought that libraries could act as aggregators in purchasing textbooks and selling them to students. If  a library puts in an order for 500 textbooks for an introductory chemistry class, say, shouldn’t it be able to get those textbooks at a lower price than 500 students individually buying the textbooks? It can then pass part of the savings onto the students.  Over time, the library can come to act as a book rental; students pay the library a fee to get all of their textbooks for one quarter and return them for use by the next class when the quarter ends.

You may well ask if the library has any business doing such things. Isn’t that the domain of campus book stores? You’re absolutely right to ask such a question (although a library-run scheme would be strictly on a breakeven basis, which are not like student-run bookstores meant to generate profits to subsidize other students’ activities).

How about if the library offer beginning-to-end assistance on research papers? After all, one probably needs to use library resources, whether they be electronic journals accessed from home, books from the collections, or other medias, to write the research paper. Why not approach librarians at the very beginning of the process? Librarians can participate in the brainstorming process, point to possible resources to examine, and evaluate the feasibility of proposed thesis ideas. Then before the student leaves, he and the librarian make an appointment to see each other in another two weeks or so. At that point in time, the student comes back with what’s he’s already done; the librarian looks his progress over and provides appropriate feedback. The process continues until the student has a paper, at which stage the librarian offers editorial services.

Isn’t that what writing/student learning centers are supposed to do? Is there a pattern here? Are a lot of things that librarians can do for students already done by a specialized somebody else? Did libraries outsource too many of their functions? I’m sure that any practicing librarian would object that he already has plenty on his plate, plenty duties assigned to him. However, in an era where libraries are pushed to “show their relevance”, they may, in fact, have to do more (with increase in resources). What can they do that aren’t already outsourced to other departments? How can they “in source” these functions of helping student step-by-step through their classes?

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