UMaine System library cuts could cause irreparable harm — students will feel the impact

Posted May 07, 2014, at 2:57 p.m.
Illustration by George Danby

Libraries are a critical element in the continued success of students of all ages. This certainly includes students in the University of Maine System, especially those who are underprepared for the rigors of university-level research. The importance of librarians cannot be underestimated in that equation.

But recent budget cuts in the University of Maine System have been extraordinarily hard on university libraries. The latest round of budget reductions and layoffs made earlier this year didn’t spare the already-small staffs of university libraries. And the positions of library directors who have retired in recent years have gone unfilled.

When funds are not available, difficult decisions must be made — but eliminating librarian positions and leaving positions unfilled leads to libraries that are less able to shepherd students through a complex resource environment.

Given limited budgets, it is absolutely essential to have librarians who can make sure that every dollar spent on the library is spent wisely and in support of the curriculum. It is absolutely essential for the sake of students and scholarship that libraries and librarians not be considered an expendable part of the University of Maine System budget.

School libraries from elementary through high school are also facing reduced budgets and staff cuts throughout the state and country. As a result, many students are entering college with a deficit of general research skills, and this problem is worsening, according to a 2013 study by Alison Head called Learning the Ropes.

Head found that between 2007 and 2011, school librarians were eliminated in greater numbers than other types of school staff. The repercussions for these declines are clear at the university level: Three-quarters of college students surveyed have difficulty creating effective search queries and using appropriate keywords. With sustained librarian cuts at both the school and university level, students will only continue to struggle to effectively search available resources when doing research.

Head’s study indicated that high-quality library instruction at the college level has a bearing on freshman retention rates, and that librarians are tied with English composition instructors as the “most helpful individuals on campus with guiding [students] through college level research.”

One modern myth is that everything a person needs to know is available for free on the Internet. A great many free resources are in fact on the Internet, but some of these resources take skilled searching techniques to locate. There are also a great many resources out there that, while available online, cost a great deal to access and require specialized skills to search. Such resources are often available through colleges and universities.

Access to these resources is facilitated by librarians. Librarians not only help students learn searching techniques that will turn up useful results, but also select which resources and databases best support the offerings of schools and colleges. Many of the most invaluable and expensive of these resources are difficult to navigate without assistance. Without librarians to guide students through the search process, these resources can represent money wasted.

Maine has a rich history of resource sharing among libraries of all types. Our resource sharing is designed to keep the broadest possible set of materials and resources available to all citizens in the state, and the amount of collaboration between school, public, academic, and special libraries is truly unique in the country. These collaborations strengthen the whole state by making so many resources available to all of us, quickly and relatively inexpensively, but we need professional library leadership to continue to provide and maintain such services.

Without professional librarian leadership, and with sustained and disproportionate cuts to the libraries of our schools and the University of Maine system, I fear that we are going to irreparably damage our scholarship, our reputation and our integrity.

As the president of the Maine Library Association, a taxpayer and a concerned citizen, I urge the Maine residents to support the research needs of their students and faculty at all levels and reconsider the deep cuts that have been made to the University of Maine libraries as well as our school libraries around the state.

Nissa Flanagan, systems and technical services librarian at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, is President of the Maine Library Association.

 

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