2 Planning Process and Findings

Information Gathering

Believing in the importance of an evidence-based process, OLS spent the Fall 2021 semester gathering information. We conducted structured interviews with nearly all 25 CUNY chief librarians, broadly surveyed members of the 16 OLS committees, representing hundreds of librarians, that partner with OLS to develop policies and best practices, and ran focus groups of several committees whose wide-ranging mission and charge would most benefit– notably the Scholarly Communication Committee, the Digital Initiatives Committee, and Library Information Literacy Advisory Committee (LILAC). Additionally, the University Dean of Libraries interviewed select provosts and central office stakeholders in IT, the Office of Research, and the Office of Academic Affairs to engage campus and CUNY Central leaders in the process. [See Appendix A for the complete list of interviewees and survey respondents.]


Three strong dialectical themes emerged from our information gathering efforts, and these themes shape the goals of our strategic plan. They require finding the right balance between:

  1. A vision in service of campuses needs versus one that’s library-focused.
  2. A culture that’s innovative versus a culture that is focused on traditional library functions
  3. Systems and resources that are centralized and locally controlled

Balancing a vision that’s in service to campuses and a vision focused on academic libraries

In the interviews with chief librarians, the value of strong relationships with campus leadership and integration in campus governance was very clear; chiefs who were integrated into leadership structures on campus found avenues for library advocacy and were able to express plans and strategies that were aligned with their campuses.

Provosts we interviewed were looking for leadership partners who understand the constantly evolving nature of work to address student and faculty needs within a public university system. Libraries need to be relevant, and to do this they need to align their priorities with campus needs, which vary in substantive ways, often by sector. Provosts at community colleges, for example, expressed interest in creating a “culture of caring” that serves high-needs communities, and engaging local communities; while senior college provosts spoke more of integrating library teaching efforts with college curricula; and provosts at more research-focused institutions discussed cutting-edge issues like open data, data equity, and artificial intelligence (AI). Provosts expressed differing visions for their ideal library but overall, they had one thing in common: they all used the word “hub” to describe their ideal library, meaning a physical and virtual space for collaborations and connections. Notably, all the provosts spoke of “clearing the stacks” and reimagining library buildings and physical spaces as an eventuality.

Chief librarians and members of library committees, on the other hand, spoke more of a vision that was academic library-focused– a “library imperative,” rather than a “campus imperative.” For these groups, physical library spaces emerged thematically as a source of anxiety. While a few chief librarians imagined space planning as an excellent strategic opportunity to build vital collaborations, many worried that if stacks were cleared, CUNY Libraries might lose even more relevance and agency to define their future identities. Many spoke of a pressing need to enhance libraries’ teaching role, worrying that “we are dead in the water if we are only space.”

Members of OLS committees also spoke of the need to invest strategically, inside and outside their libraries, in the many initiatives they were pursuing to fortify the next generation efforts of CUNY’s academic libraries. “We are so far behind,” some worried, “that people assume we can do more than we can.” Investment areas they mentioned include: publishing services, digital initiatives and digital preservation, and building CUNY archives and special collections.

In the end, provosts, chief librarians, and library committee members interviewed recognized library relevancy as an issue to be addressed, which will require intentional efforts to demonstrate an integrated vision in service to CUNY campuses. Integration requires libraries to be “at the table” on their campuses when it comes to identifying and taking action on college goals, especially related to important areas such as teaching and learning and support for evolving notions of research. 

Balancing a culture that’s proactive and innovative but focused on traditional library functions

Chief librarians spoke of a culture challenge as primary. Particularly, they spoke about how, in the context of limited resources, a growing divide exists between those within CUNY Libraries who have become more reactive versus proactive.

This divide makes it difficult to institutionalize innovation. Librarians working in innovative areas, trying to specialize, or even working collaboratively are sometimes perceived by their peers as going beyond  “what libraries do.” This not only makes it harder to develop expertise internally, but also impacts talent recruitment and retention, development of new functions, and the creation of organizations that can foster and support change.

While scarcity makes it harder to keep on top of core functions, chief librarians acknowledged CUNY Libraries cannot thrive without proactive efforts to innovate and demonstrate the operational impact CUNY Libraries could have on the changing landscape of public higher education. However, they and OLS committee members alike talked about the challenges of directing talent and investing resources toward innovation with so many immediate needs. The result is CUNY Libraries that are more reactive, with more faculty and staff in libraries taking the stance: how can we expand the mission of libraries if we cannot cover the basics?

This fundamental stalemate has contributed to the perception among some provosts that CUNY Libraries are change averse. They don’t see libraries as programmatically or operationally at the cutting edge, which may make it harder for them to think of CUNY librarians as among their key change makers.

While all interviewees acknowledged CUNY Libraries need to continue to support their basic needs to function, and even expand core competencies, they believed this shouldn’t be at the expense of facilitating proactive change in a breadth of areas aligned with CUNY-wide and campus strategic priorities like industry partnerships, community engagement, accessibility and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, research support, and coordinated assessment and curriculum integration tied to student success. In fact, some interviewees highlighted that pursuing innovation ultimately builds capacity to address basic operational needs by helping CUNY Libraries attract resources that cover both existing and new costs. 

Balancing systems and resources that are centralized vs. locally controlled

CUNY libraries, like their campuses, each have unique identities and are at their best when they can serve their local campuses in a variety of ways. Having local agency has and will continue to shape the identity of CUNY Libraries, from serving specialized or “niche” academic programs and researchers, to developing and disseminating unique archival collections that reflect and engage the rich diversity of the CUNY communities.

At the same time, interviewees across the board expressed a strong interest in more shared library content, centrally managed platforms, shared assessment frameworks, and increased efficiency across the system so that meaningful local work can move forward. People are ready to see CUNY Libraries through the lens of a shared collection with universal access restored and enhanced.

OLS Committee members expressed a strong desire for more uniform practices and standardization across the system, encompassing workflows, policies, and platforms. Without shared, centrally managed platforms, libraries need to piece together important functions on the fly– a bootstrap approach that is not working and contributes to isolation and competition for resources. Maximization of Alma is a particular concern.

Provosts, while fully committed to integrated libraries and universal access for all CUNY students, were less familiar with consortial versus local procurements. While this points to a need to raise awareness of shared resources, provosts are keen to determine where central coordination can benefit campuses, especially when that best serves CUNY students and controls costs.

Overall, interviewees recognized the value of identifying where strategic centralization could yield economies of scale and efficiencies that benefit all campuses and CUNY Libraries.


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The City University of New York Office of Library Services Strategic Plan: 2022-27 Copyright © by CUNY Office of Library Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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