Berkeley’s budget woes and the Library

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Though the economy is strong again, many public universities continue to see declining support, or at least not see growth commensurate with an economic boom. UC Berkeley is facing a sixth year of frozen tuition (which was already low compared to peers), hard limits on out-state enrollment, no state financing for capital projects, and new responsibility for pension costs. Here is a message I shared with our staff and external advisory boards:

“By now you most likely have heard about Chancellor Dirks’s announcement that Berkeley has a serious annual, unsustainable budget deficit. If you haven’t, here is a link to his public statement: http://goo.gl/DQCHqP. The basic fact is simple: revenues are about $150 million a year less than expenses. That’s a big gap. To address this, our Chancellor has launched the campus on a major and necessary strategic re-alignment process. He has assured us, everything is “on the table”, with a simple guiding rule: we will make choices to uphold Berkeley’s world-leading commitment to excellence and access.

What do the long-term budget shortfall and accompanying strategic re-alignment of Berkeley mean for the Library?

The first and most immediate consequence is that for the second year in a row, we have been instructed to reduce our activity by about 4%. We also had a 4% cut last year. Over the next few months we need to find quick ways to reduce activity without seriously damaging our most important contributions to Berkeley’s excellence and access (in our case, access to information).

We have a smart and resilient staff, and together we’ll manage this immediate challenge. What about the future? Because of the size of the campus annual deficit, we must anticipate further cuts in our campus funds in coming years, as well.

As I wrote to you when I started this job — just a bit over five months ago — we have tremendous opportunities in front of us. There is no better time in history to be an information professional. But the public is providing less and less support to public higher education. The implication is straightforward: we need to prioritize, aggressively.

So we are launching a strategic planning process. Our challenge in a time of opportunity is not to work our staff to exhaustion and bitterness, to try to do more with less. Rather, we have to choose the very most important things, and do those excellently well. We will engage our staff, the faculty, the students, alumni and donors to discuss what those most important things are, and then we will prioritize.

We are not starting from scratch. The Library has been facing resource challenges for over a decade, and there has been a lot of strategic thinking already. Some directions are too obvious to ignore. We may not be able to prioritize them all, but we have to discuss them.

For example, we have one of the best collections of information resources of any research library in the U.S. Books, photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, videos, audio recordings, maps, journals, pamphlets, on and on. Those resources are held in trust for the benefit of the public. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to set those treasures free? To support Berkeley’s commitment to access by providing as much universal access to our treasures as is possible? Today we can do so in a way not possible until just a few years ago. We can create high-fidelity digital representations, and once created, there is essentially zero technical cost to sharing our treasures with everyone on the planet, through free and open networks. (The only limit is time, for those resources that remain under copyright for a while still.) We have started this project, but progress has been modest. Should we commit to this moonshot, to set our treasures free?

Another example: Berkeley provides the best public college and graduate education in the world. But 21st century leaders need more than we are providing today. Whatever path through life they will follow as artist or engineer, doctor or novelist, they need to be information professionals. They were not born into the agricultural age, nor the industrial age. They were born into the information age. The big information problem facing each Berkeley student today is not the scarcity of information, but the information flood. And so every well-educated citizen needs to be their own librarian, because the quality of their life — social, cultural, economic, political — will depend on being able to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Shouldn’t we, the information professionals on campus, the librarians, be greatly increasing our efforts to educate so that every Berkeley graduate is 21st century information literate?

We know about another major opportunity: the Library provides not only information resources, and information literacy education, but very special spaces for our students and faculty to learn and engage in scholarship. In fact, we are the primary provider of public, open, shared learning space on campus. And our space is needed more than ever by our students: with soaring Berkeley rents, they are living further away, and crowding more and more people into tiny apartments. They need space on campus to study and learn. And to be the best they need modern space that support collaboration, innovation and connection: connection to information resources around the world and right on our campus, connections to other learners around the world and right on our campus. The Library’s spaces should be our campus’s best designed and best equipped hubs for connected learning.

These are big opportunities, and there are others. We will prioritize so that we can take on ambitious challenges. We have to: Berkeley’s excellence depends on the Library, and we can’t let Berkeley down. Just as Chancellor Dirks promises for campus, we, the Library promise: we will come through this strategic re-alignment stronger and better, focused more than ever on Berkeley’s commitment to excellence and access.”

Can we afford privacy from surveillance? Do we want to?

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A couple of weeks before I started my position as University Librarian, the UC Berkeley School of Information invited me to give a talk on the future of individual privacy; here is a video of that talk.  Last week, nationally-syndicated radio show host Katherine Albrecht interviewed me on this topic for about 45 minutes; here is an MP3 of the show (with many commercials, I’m afraid).

In short, I think the economics of surveillance and protection from surveillance are leading inexorably to a not-very-distant future of radical transparency, at least for any information about us that is captured and stored on digital, networked-computers (which is more and more all the time, and will be even more when the Internet of Things really takes off).  I don’t see an alternative: we get to much value from selective revelation of information about ourselves, value that will be increasing as we learn better ways to network and use that information.  And the costs of capturing networked information are going down faster than the costs of protecting ourselves, and I think this is a technologically unavoidable fact driven by the nature of selective revelation in a networked world.

Relevance for libraries?  You might be thinking, “libraries have strong policies to protect the privacy of their users information.”  Yes…sort of.  First, policies are themselves a technology, and they are costly to enforce.  How good is our security against data breaches?  Better than at the IRS, or at JP Morgan Bank?  How fast are our budgets for security growing?

Another issue: to provide our users with access to the rapidly expanding networked stores of information, we provide them with access to an ever increasing array of third-party tools and databases.  What sort of privacy protections do we have on how those third-parties protect our users’ privacy?  Do we have contractual provisions with all of them? No.  (Can you spell “Google”?)  And contractual provisions are another type of policy, that needs ever-increasingly expensive enforcement, whether it be cybersecurity against external attacks, or protection against unscrupulous employees who might sell access.

Looking Forward

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People walking through wooden maze indoors

[I sent this message to all library staff today, my first on the job as University Librarian at UC Berkeley (slightly edited to remove some local info).]

Our campus is one of the top research universities in the world. To support our campus, our library should be no less.

What do we need to accomplish?

The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library concluded in 2013 that “the most important contribution of the research university library in the next twenty years will be to provide the increasingly sophisticated human expertise required to successfully navigate [the] rapidly shifting heterogeneous terrain” [emphasis added]. I agree.

Every well-educated, successful participant in the modern world needs to be information fluent. With the explosive and low-cost abundance of information resources, everyone needs to be their own librarian, finding and evaluating information all day long, every day. That doesn’t mean there is no role for us: just the opposite. First, we are needed to help our students and faculty become information fluent. But even though every college graduate can write, we still need professional writers in our society. And even when we elevate all of our students and faculty to more advanced levels of information fluency, our second responsibility will be as expert informationists, working with them to solve their more challenging and advanced information problems in this “rapidly shifting heterogenous terrain.”

The rapidly growing availability of new data, and computational tools to analyze them, provides one of these emerging challenges for many. Most of our faculty and students are not yet trained or equipped to provide for all of their own data curation, management and preservation needs. As the core provider of advanced information service on campus, we must further develop our expertise and provide an ever stronger set of data services to campus. We won’t provide all data services by ourselves of course, but will create a complete portfolio through partnerships with other campus units.

The University’s mission is to “discover knowledge and to disseminate it to its students and to society at large.” To support this, we must make it easier for scholars to engage in open access dissemination. At the same time, we have to work to create a more financially sustainable publishing ecosystem so that we can afford to provide access to scholarship at the same time as we deliver our other services. Our faculty and students will benefit from more open and lower cost dissemination, and the whole world will benefit from greater access to Berkeley’s discoveries.

We have many great spaces for contemplation and study. But the ways are changing in which students and faculty engage with information, and with each other as they use information to advance learning and discovery. We need to re-envision and re-design many of our spaces to support an age of interactive, connected and collaborative learning and discovery. For example, students need more sophisticated, powerful access to local and remote information collections, and to use new technologies to find, evaluate and use this information. We can provide them with access, training and experience to prepare them for their future. Equally or more important, students need access to each other — face to face and virtually — to engage inconnected, collaborative learning, discovery and knowledge production. We should provide spaces, technologies and human expertise to make our libraries the vibrant, go-to campus hubs for connected learning. The just-initiated renovation of Moffitt 4 and 5 is a first step in this initiative.

None of this is to say that we will abandon our collections, nor that we will stop building them. But our mission is not building collections for their own sake, but helping people to find, evaluate and use information. In some cases the most important way to help is to continue to build and preserve our tremendous collections of print and physical and digital objects, and we will devote considerable effort and resources to doing so. In other situations we should focus on providing advanced services to help people access, evaluate and use digital resources owned and stored elsewhere.

More than anything else we must provide professional, advanced service. Our people — you — are our most valuable resource.

We are at the dawn of the second Gutenberg age, with information production and dissemination growing explosively. Societies have evolved from primarily agricultural, to industrial, to service-based, and now we are entering the Information Age. At this time society needs ever greater knowledge institutions. What an exciting time for a university research library.

For me, this isn’t a job, it’s a passion, and I’m on a mission. Let’s make great things happen together.