What Constitutes Resilience? What Does It Mean For Us?

It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.”  

That snippet of Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics from the musical, Les Miserables, seems to me to convey the positive spirit of a recent NISO Roundtable that had as its focus the topic of resilience. Participants Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka, Denise Stephens of the University of Oklahoma, Alix Vance of AIP Publishing, and Jamie Wittenberg of the University of Colorado Boulder engaged with NISO’s executive director, Todd Carpenter, in a far-reaching discussion that provided listeners with a sense that the information community was in the midst of a positive transformation. 

The conversation began with the question of what resilience currently demands of information community stakeholders. Do we hope to return to previous practices and assumptions, or can we hope to build something new in the information community? 

Speaking from the library perspective, Wittenberg, Assistant Dean for Research & Innovation Strategies, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, noted, “It isn’t that we need to raze everything to the ground, but the information needs of the various communities are changing. The people we serve have been transformed by this experience and their needs are actually—maybe fundamentally—different.” 

In the face of uncertainty due to new COVID-19 variants, Stephens, Director of Libraries at the University of Oklahoma, spoke of the need to assess thoughtfully and practically. “What we are probably most struggling with is how to help the community see that we're in a situation, one that is a continuing situation. There is no end date. We're having to work a lot with the frustrations, the fatigue, and the anxiety that comes with this … [and] to say, ‘Listen, this is with us for a while, so our job is to figure out how do we need to work, how do we need to support each other and ourselves, and what can we do to help our people deal with the challenges and the conflicts that they have to deal with, in order to remain with us and in order to do the work.’”

Wittenberg and Stephens both referenced pressures faced by state universities. How does the institution deliver the traditional face-to-face experience of the university (what students may be looking for) while allowing for the flexibility and balance needed by the workforce?

What Are The Priorities?

Speaking from the perspective of a scholarly association and content provider, Vance, CEO of AIP Publishing, articulated how the concept of resilience has shifted meaning for her. “A few years back, I might have talked about resilience in the context of sustainability and adapting to change, but I think now it's really a pivot to agile methodologies, not just in technology, but throughout the business. I’m not so sure we’re coming back to anything so much as we’re transitioning to something else.”

For the association's members, the imperative may be how to best support the work of the individual researcher. For that population, Vance thought the question might be slightly different: “How are [associations] going to enable them to focus on their highest priorities? The challenges that some of these authors face—they're called on to do ever more kinds of small administrative work … we want them to be laser focused on the research; that is their primary passion. How do we collectively find ways to support the most important aspects of what they do, and then, as an ecosystem, are we each targeting what we can do best and providing those services most effectively?”

What is the value proposition for academic institutions and for scholarly associations moving forward? Both Stephens, speaking for libraries, and Vance, speaking for content providers, succinctly summed up the problem: “...[I]f all we are is books and journals, then we’re in trouble.”

As Schonfeld, Program Director for Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums at Ithaka, put it, “We're at a bit of an inflection point about where things are going to go.”

At least in the context of higher education in the United States, there are a number of variables that influence the thinking of current decision-makers. Those administrators in the upper echelon of research institutions may be strategizing the speed with which they can leverage technology as a means of accelerating the research process, such as with Carnegie Mellon’s Cloud Lab Project. How can they attract the external funding that is vital to the productivity of their faculty? In a global research community, how can they remain competitive across a range of emerging disciplines? 

Administrators at flagship state universities with multiple satellite campuses may be similarly focused on funding issues, but with the additional challenge of adapting to the needs of nontraditional students or those coming from hitherto underserved communities. For those institutions, it is at least as much about pedagogy and community outreach. 

The pace of change is accelerating, said Schonfeld, and that may further exacerbate existing gaps. His question was whether the community was in danger of losing some of the protective guardrails needed to produce and preserve high-quality information. 

Caught between the need to address both the requirements of the institutional workforce and the expectations of the paying clientele, what will administrators have to do to succeed? What is the organizational strategy for moving forward? Where are the opportunities for innovation? Can workflows be streamlined? What services can or should be phased out? 

Again, Stephens pinpointed the two-pronged challenge for academic libraries: “We've got to be specifically and clearly aligned with the objectives of our institutions, particularly with regard to the research and learning/student success in instruction area, but also in other strategic objectives of the institution.… We haven’t historically been good in telling our story.” Stephens noted that it was key to focus on the benefit to the user, whether student or faculty member. “When it comes right down to it, it’s not about us. It’s about them.”  

Stephens' second prong had to do with a library’s ability to demonstrate how its application of resources moved the needle in a positive direction for the institution. Were services managed efficiently and effectively? “It’s time for us to think about where we can increase investment in people, programming, infrastructure, and all that, and where we can begin to decrease investment.”

Schonfeld echoed the importance of an alignment of departmental activities with organizational mission and objectives, “creating a climate and culture inside of our organizations that recognizes that alignment isn't a one-time activity.” He continued, noting “the idea of identifying the activities that are increasing in value and continuously asking, ‘How do we do more, put more of our resources into those? Which are the ones that are decreasing in value, and how do we continuously take more of our resources away from those?’ It’s not a ‘big bang’ change-management process, but rather just the day-to-day culture—one in which everyone feels empowered to make suggestions small and large.” 

Carpenter encouraged the Roundtable participants to talk about new services that might be brought forward but also probed for those activities that might be phased out or jettisoned.

Early on in the discussion, Wittenberg had mentioned in passing the idea of there being a new kind of intimacy being created as colleagues saw one another in different contexts of personal space through Zoom. Suddenly, we could see one another with pets or notice artwork, forming new connections. One of her priorities was to foster that sense of connection with staff and students who were adapting to being remote in one instance or on-site in another, noting that the library is critical to supporting both community engagement as well as the academic rigor of the university. “How do we balance those competing demands for increased workforce flexibility with our commitment to improving student performance? We have to find a model that enables that flexibility and that rich engagement with the campus. That's the value proposition of the post-pandemic research university library.”

Vance picked up on that idea. She could no longer count on staff being in the office and connecting in a physical space, and she raised the idea that one result might be shifting to a more authentic tone in communicating with colleagues, stakeholders, and customers. 

As to what work or tasks might be eliminated, Vance commented that she couldn’t necessarily be explicit about which activities a publishing organization might be going to do less of or abandon, because the goals in this new environment were more ambitious and the challenges harder. Staff would need to be strategic decision-makers at many more levels and create new networks for themselves. 

“We serve such a diversity of people with such a diversity of expectations,” agreed Stephens. “I would almost say the best way for us to determine what we should be doing, what we can be doing, is to understand how much political capital we have to play with.”

Leadership Matters

That was an interesting commonality across sectors, noted Schonfeld. “One of the particular challenges that not-for-profit organizations—libraries, society publishers and others—face is that there are some activities that are valuable because they are strategically aligned, and there are other activities that are valuable for political dynamics. Sometimes the political dynamics end up being an enormous drag on the ability to align resources strategically. Leaders need to be able to courageously have conversations along the lines of,  ‘Look, I want to align strategically in this way, but I don't have the political cover to stop doing these things that are no longer meaningful or valuable.’ We need more examples of how to do that successfully.”

The conversation continued to range across issues of accelerated dissemination, lack of sufficient vetting of content before it entered the mainstream, and possible areas of collaboration around that issue before Carpenter asked his guests what the future might bring. Two comments provided an upbeat close:

Wittenberg: ”I think that what the library can do is really focus on building and supporting infrastructure that’s both advancing and reflecting our values as a library. At least we can assure our constituents that the pipes, our delivery systems, are neutral. That’s an opportunity that I see for libraries of every size and composition.”

Vance: “Improved research outcomes and communication. Making sure that the information being provided is usable, neutral, and verifiable. Ensuring that it is valid for reuse. That’s our biggest collective service to the community, I hope.” 

The February 9 webinar is on the topic of skills needed in the 21st-century workforce and will build on this January discussion. NISO Roundtable webinars are provided as a benefit of membership to these organizations. Non-members may, for a small registration fee, join the audience for these stimulating broadcasts. Links to archived recordings are included in that registration fee. Please contact NISO headquarters for assistance in obtaining access.