Creative Destruction in Libraries: Designing our Future

In Brief: Joseph Schumpeter defines creative destruction as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” As libraries struggle with how to position themselves to thrive in the digital age, how can we balance the traditional elements of librarianship like collecting and reference with the demands of the present, all without sacrificing staffing and support for collections, space, and community?

Image Credit: Rebecca Partington

Image Credit: Rebecca Partington


In my first job after library school, I worked in Manuscripts & Archives in the Yale University Library. There I worked adjacent to an extraordinary archivist named Laura Tatum. Laura was the architectural archivist and she worked with firm records and personal papers, forging unique relationships with donors to streamline the processing of manuscript and records collections. Through Laura I became familiar with Eero Saarinen, the Finnish architect who designed the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Saarinen’s structures and aesthetic mesmerized me. I spent hours poring over plans, drawings, and photographs of his completed projects during the slower moments of my reference shifts. At home I began reading widely about his work. I continue to take field trips to his completed projects whenever time allows.

Saarinen designed furniture and buildings with the intention to build a vision for the present that also leaned forward to the future. Considering his projects and his vision for futurism in the built environment, I began to connect my interest in Saarinen with my exploration of the role of creative destruction in academic libraries. Through the course of my reading, I came across these words from Saarinen: “Each age must create its own architecture out of its own technology and one which is expressive of its own Zeitgeist-the spirit of the time.” (Serraino, 2009) Within our own libraries and within the field of librarianship at large, creative destruction is the idea that in order to create new ways of knowing and thinking, we must break with the past to plan and shape our future.

Through my relationship with Laura, my devotion to Saarinen scholarship, and my interest in futurism, I often consider what creative destruction can and should mean for libraries. What should libraries be in the twenty-first century? What should twenty-first century librarians do?

As our collection bases transition from print to hybrid print to digital collections, libraries face new challenges around budgets, space, personnel, and questions of relevance. Many organizations have shuttered their reference desks in favor of unified information desks like the Info Bar at Hampshire College or programs like the Personal Librarian Program at Yale. Technical services and acquisitions departments manage spreadsheets of data to make selection decisions, rather than relying on a monkish bibliographer ordering title by title. Libraries are increasingly loud, bustling, collaborative places, out of step with the image so many have of the classic library-a somber building governed by a stern cat lady who demands silence. Can librarians and libraries evolve to meet new challenges and expectations, or will these things require  a new generation of managers who will, as a colleague remarked to me in 2010, “turn off the lights?” Librarians are guardians of our profession: we are the stakeholders in our future. Libraries have long survived threats to their existence and as Scott Bennett discussed in 2009, have experienced “paradigm shifts” from “reading centered” spaces into “learning centered spaces.” (Bennett, 181-182)  The nature of librarianship in the digital age demands that we continue to re-evaluate our work and confront the reality that our personnel, job descriptions, and spaces must change. In order to facilitate that change, what should we give up?

If libraries do what Saarinen suggests – creating their own architecture reflective of the time, how will libraries creatively destroy traditional aspects of our profession without too much collateral damage? How can we make creative destruction in libraries, particularly in the context of higher education, sustainable and constructive as we create a profession that fits the evolving demands of our digital age? Students are the heart of today’s academic libraries; engaging students as collaborators in library work; redesigning spaces to be active hubs of student engagement and learning; and putting ourselves in the role of students for a continuous arc of learning to continually revise how we provide and promote library services.

Tools of the Trade: Once Pencils, Now Pinterest

Recently, while I was sitting on the reference desk in Archives & Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College, I ran into a colleague from my days as an archives assistant at the University of Massachusetts. We caught up after having not seen each other since 2007, when I graduated. While I was working with other patrons, he walked around the reading room, marvelling at the readers, poring over the card catalog that houses descriptive details of collections and remarking, “the tools of the trade: the pencils, the cards, the boxes.” Indeed, those were the tools of the trade when I worked at UMass processing collections and responding to reference requests. But will they be for much longer? Recently, the Taiga forum posted about a “gentle disturbance, The End of Library Scut Work?”  Responding to an earlier piece in Library Journal, where Stanley Wilder asserted that the decline in library support and student worker staff since 2008 in (Association of Research Libraries) is less a byproduct of the recession and an impact of the “evolving nature of library work.” Wilder writes, “The iconic image of library workers pushing book trucks is quickly slipping into obsolescence…Lower skill library work is disappearing, and it will never come back.” (Wilder, 2013)

At Mount Holyoke College, we continue to hire student workers to manage the stacks, and to staff service points like the circulation desk and the research help desk. Indeed, I see students pushing book trucks daily as physical books return to the library and to their rightful places in the stacks. However, these are not the only types of student positions we offer at Mount Holyoke; in true “learning paradigm” fashion, we engage students in library work that leverages critical thinking skills and creative imaginations. The Library at Mount Holyoke College employs students to conduct outreach, publicize events, and generate content for our social media channels. These positions leverage the excellent communication skills that the Mount Holyoke College curriculum cultivates while preparing these students to apply skills learned in the classroom, exercised in student positions and applied in internships and jobs off campus. Students as collaborators incubating projects and actively engaging in daily work is a core part of how we can promote and sustain a user-centered library experience. The increasing disappearance of piecemeal library work among student workers is a new opportunity to train undergraduates to meet the demands of today’s workplace; we may give up solitary, meditative, repetitive tasks for these works, but the students and staff who supervise them gain much more. Where students like me once relied on pencils for our library work, today’s students rely on Pinterest.

This Used to be my Playground? Revising Job Descriptions

As Stanley Wilder discussed the end of the low wage library work in Library Journal, he also described the simultaneous 40% increase in professional library salaries. (Wilder, 2013) Citing the impact of digital scholarship, Wilder wrote, “There is a second answer as to how libraries managed to raise skills and salaries: they had to. For every physical process that no longer exists, a new and complex digital process has sprung up in its place. These digital processes employ far fewer people but the expertise required is greater.” Indeed, the trend that Wilder reports at ARL institutions is similar to trends at liberal arts colleges; new developments in digital scholarship, collections, and workflows supplants traditional library work.

I made this connection over the summer when the Five Colleges (Five Colleges, Incorporated is a consortium of colleges in western Massachusetts) held a Digital Humanities Symposium to consider how to build an effective community of practice in the digital humanities, especially at liberal arts colleges. We circulated a call for proposals and invited speakers from Colgate University, Haverford College, and Washington & Lee University to present on how they were conducting digital scholarship in their local contexts; how they were adapting to the new scholarly landscape; and how their organizations were changing to meet the growing demands of digital scholarship. In all cases, staffing changed to reflect the new missions and charges of departments. Washington & Lee created a brand new position of Digital Scholarship Librarian; Haverford underwent an organizational shift that resulted in one of their unit heads becoming the digital scholarship coordinator; and finally, Colgate saw sweeping changes in terms of how their library shifted from a 20th century model of reference librarians to a dynamic team of 21st century instructional designers. Joanne Schneider of Colgate reflected on the process: “This effort also has focused on rebuilding the Collaboration for Enhanced Learning (CEL) Group, a partnership of the Libraries and Information Technology Services composed of librarians and technologists who provide coordinated support to faculty who wish to rethink courses and pedagogical approaches using current and emerging technologies to enhance student learning and engagement with information.” (Digital Humanities for Liberal Arts Colleges Symposium, 2013) In order to accomplish this transition, the organization had to destroy old job descriptions and create new ones in their stead.

The type of human capital transformation described at Colgate is also represented well at Columbia University, where librarians in the history and humanities division cultivated The Developing Librarian Project as an effort to empower their librarian staff to reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of the present and position themselves for success in the future: “In the fall of 2012, and running in parallel with the expansion of the Digital Humanities Center, we initiated the Developing Librarian Project (DLP), a two-year training program, with the goal of acquiring new skills and methodologies in digital humanities. The DLP is created by and for librarians and other professional staff in the Humanities and History division.” (dh+lib, 2013) Columbia recognizes Schumpter’s “incessant revolution” and responds by empowering its staff to gain the skills necessary to participate in the digital scholarship ecosystem by participating in the process themselves. The team reflected in their announcement on dh + lib, the Association of College & Research Libraries Digital Humanities interest project earlier this summer stating, “We realize training is no longer a thing to do a couple of times a year, but a continual process of learning integrated into the fabric of what we do every day. In that sense it would be more accurate to say that ours is not a training program, but part of our continuing professional development and research. We are committed to gaining a better understanding of emergent technologies and to being partners in the research process.” (dh+lib, 2013)

Projects like the Developing Librarians Project and organizational shifts like the one described at Colgate University enforce the idea that in order to stay agile and relevant, librarians and libraries must have organizational structures and programs in place to promote change. Libraries cannot realize radical change to support emerging digital scholarship unless we build organizations and cultures with the human capital to scaffold instruction, resources, and technical support to enact new models for scholarship. Just as the Jet Age demanded new architecture to acculturate Americans to air travel, libraries must design new types of organizational structures and cultures to acculturate faculty and students to the changing demands of our rapidly shifting scholarly landscape.

Trading Spaces: A Slide Library Becomes a Media Lab

The end of “scut work” Wilder describes and new trends in student library employment have coalesced in a project at Mount Holyoke College called the Media Lab. I first learned about the lab during a webinar I hosted last February about new types of learning spaces at liberal arts colleges. My colleague, Nick Baker, presented on the development of the media lab he built in collaboration with arts faculty at Mount Holyoke College in the former MHC slide library.

In 2002, the slide library at Mount Holyoke enjoyed a triumphant renovation; faculty packed the library reviewing slides for their lectures. As time passed and database products like ARTstor matured – and other faculty members began digitizing slides to embed in power point presentations – by 2009 Mount Holyoke faculty no longer stood “elbow to elbow” in the slide library. The space stood idle. In 2010, the library created a new department, Digital Assets and Preservation Services (DAPS) and absorbed the slide librarian into their group. The slide library effectively closed; the art librarian and the former slide librarian shifted to the main library.

In response, the Art and Architecture departments hosted a contest for students to propose new plans to revise the space. Students across the Five Colleges submitted proposals. The winning proposal devised a pop-up media lab; the students wanted to add new furniture, computers, and some minor physical modifications to the space. While plans moved forward with an architecture consultation and a modest budget proposal of $50,000, the financial landscape at the College  rendered those changes impractical. In spite of this, Baker and the Art department moved forward with small changes, couches from elsewhere on campus moved into the space along with older computers and some grant-funded studio supplies. With minimal intervention, Baker and faculty programmed the lab slowly with workshops and projects. Baker hired students to do experimental projects and serve as ambassadors to evangelize about the space and its potential for interdisciplinary studio work. The students’ outreach efforts drew more students into the space. Faculty and library staff recognized that in order for precious campus space to remain vital, it was necessary for the the slide library to close and transform into something entirely new.

Baker also found ways to ground the space in the past in spite of its experimental nature. As Baker cleared out projectors and obsolete technologies, it inspired him to save some items and create a slide museum that demonstrates for students how the building was used in the past. What was state of the art in 2002 became obsolete by 2009. A creative intervention transformed a slide library into a dynamic teaching and learning space. The evolving nature of the curriculum demanded a new type of space informed by student needs. Given the constraints of budget and space at Mount Holyoke College, librarians, faculty, and students collaborated to remake an obsolete space into a energized and relevant one.

Which Way Do We Go?

As guardians of the profession, we all must decide how to proceed. In many cases, change is hard, even emotional for some employees, users, and organizations. There are clearly tasks that librarians will no longer do: sit at reference desks for regular shifts, only develop collections by ordering monographs title by title, or shush patrons as they labor in rows of tables in pristine reading rooms without a machine or whiteboard in sight. There are librarians who mourn the loss of some of these activities, their hours spent reading book reviews, days at the reference desk where people asked questions of facts now easily accessible through a plethora of online resources. On the other hand, there are a growing number of librarians like me who have “library” in their job titles, but who also work in instructional technology or digital scholarship or digital humanities, or as digital archivists.

Transformations like the Developing Librarian program at Columbia or the staff reorganization Joanne Schneider initiated at Colgate require bold leadership, vision to build new programs and positions that did not exist, the balancing of budgets by dissolving positions like reference librarian or cataloger in favor of different choices – relevant ones. We may throw out older copies of AACR2 as our supply closets burst with materials discarded from our desks, but we are not discarding the contributions of our librarian forebears. Those communities built the foundations that our positions of the future depend upon; we create new opportunities unimaginable by previous generations, but we must do so with an eye towards respecting the past, too.


Many thanks to Emily Ford for shepherding the project from idea to article; Alex Gil (external editor) for astute edits, my writing group at Mount Holyoke College, especially Julie Adamo, Sarah Oelker, and Alice Whiteside for their support, and, finally, to Laura Tatum, whose encouragement, friendship, and brilliance inspired me to evolve and grow as a librarian.

References and Further Readings:

Serraino, Pierluigi. Eero Saarinen, 1910-1961: a Structural Expressionist. Köln ; London: Taschen, 2005.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York; London: Harper & brothers, 1947.

Bennett, Scott. “Libraries and Learning: A History of Paradigm Change.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 9, no. 2 (2009): 181–197.

Booth, Char. “The Library As Indicator Species: Evolution, or Extinction?” October 18, 2011. http://www.slideshare.net/charbooth/the-library-as-indicator-species-evolution-or-extinction.

“The End of Library Scut Work? | Taiga Forum.” Accessed September 8, 2013. http://taiga-forum.org/the-end-of-library-scut-work/.

“The End of Lower Skill Employment in Research Libraries | BackTalk.” Accessed September 8, 2013. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/06/opinion/backtalk/the-end-of-lower-skill-employment-in-research-libraries-backtalk/.

“Digital Humanities for Liberal Arts Colleges Symposium.” Accessed October 31, 2013. https://sites.google.com/a/mtholyoke.edu/digital-humanities-for-liberal-arts-colleges-symposium/.

“The Developing Librarian Project.” Accessed October 31, 2013

Nick Baker, interview by Caro Pinto, Mount Holyoke College, August 21, 2013.

9 Responses

  1. laborlibrarian

    “As Stanley Fish discussed the end of the low wage library work in Library Journal, he also described the simultaneous 40% increase in professional library salaries. (Fish, 2013)”

    In referring to the source, readers will learn that this figure covers a 10-year period, that 27% is accounted for by ‘routine wage growth’, and that it is only applicable to ARL member libraries.

    Please try to employ stats with more care. I’d hate to see folks throwing around that 40% number indiscriminately without actually looking at aggregate salary data (from the ARL or ALA-APA salary surveys) or labor market statistics.

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  4. I applaud your search for a new way of thinking about the future of libraries and librarianship in this new millennium. Almost 3 years ago I wrote in my Blog 21st Century Library “Discontinuous thinking sounds very impressive. Some might call it thinking outside the box, or lateral thinking, or creativity, or whatever. The point is still that conventional thinking and incremental decision making will not address the changes that confront 21st Century libraries.

    Charles Handy based the title of his book THE Age OF UNREASON on George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man. His argument was that the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable [person] persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; therefore for any change of consequence we must look to the unreasonable man, or, I must add, to the unreasonable woman.” [Handy, C. (1990). THE Age OF UNREASON. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.]

    Discontinuous Thinking

    10 Reasons to Believe Discontinuous Change

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