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Monmouth University’s Librarian Kurt W. Wagner Plays a Profound Role in Higher Education

By March 12, 2019 July 1st, 2019 No Comments

Wagner Named Chair of VALE  Executive Committee

In a setting fit for royalty, the Monmouth University library is housed in the historic Guggenheim Cottage in West Long Branch, New Jersey. The 1905 École des Beaux-Arts mansion provides an impressive and dignified setting for students to engage in research and academic needs. Even though the structure is over a century old, the library is quite modern and complete with all the amenities, equipment, and resources desired and required to meet the needs of its users.

What was once the historic summer home of Murry and Leonie Guggenheim, University Librarian Kurt W. Wagner believes the current setting of the Guggenheim Memorial Library serves as a constant reminder of how libraries and library users are part of a transitional and transformative era of learning.

“I think that our historic setting does set a definite tone and our faculty and students appreciate the setting,” Wagner said.

The ongoing mantra at the library is “our mission is your success.” This vision spreads throughout the Monmouth Library walls as the staff works hard to make sure the Hawk community receives services of the highest quality.

Wagner faces constant challenges of issues like budget, space, and the demand for new resources. His goal is to provide more space for faculty and students, while making sure the library’s resources are adequate to support the requirements of the Monmouth University program and curricula.

Massive Amounts of Information Available

Monmouth students have access to millions of online materials through library databases, as well as admittance to 2.1 billion holdings in over 72,000 libraries in 170 countries through OCLC Worldcat. The library itself has nearly 300,000 books, nearly 60,000 e-books, over 200 databases and access to nearly 90,000 online journals, eliminating any excuse for not finding what’s needed to finish a paper or to study for a test.

“I think that three things contribute to these impressive facts: inter-library loan (ILL), web-scale-discovery, and our New Jersey academic library consortium’s database offerings,” Wagner said.

The Monmouth Library uses a system called Clio which is a comprehensive ILL management system. If a faculty member or student can’t find specific information onsite, users can submit requests for articles or books not found in Monmouth’s collections but are available through their subscriptions. The ILL staff puts these requests out into OCLC’s enormous network and quickly hears back whether the book is delivered by courier, by mail or the article is sent by email.

“We sometimes receive articles within hours,” he said. “With such an effective ILL system, it isn’t necessary to own everything.”

Wagner says Monmouth University places about 2,000 ILL transactions per academic year.

The library webpage also features a search box called “HawkFind.” HawkFind refers to the ProQuest Summon search tool which is connected to all of the library’s subscribed resources as well as their catalog of physical materials. Wagner likes to click this search box without anything entered — recently he saw 729,704,494 results. This figure is all of the articles, books, and materials indexed in the system. When he narrows his search and clicks full text journal articles, he saw 65,308,839.

“When I teach classes in library instruction, I always point this fact out and tell the students how most of this content will not be available through a Google search and that it’s crucial for students to know how to search in the correct places for the information they need,” Wagner said.

Faculty and students also have the option to procure materials through VALE (Virtual Academic Library Environment), an academic library consortium of 53 college and university libraries. The organization licenses 65 databases and makes them available to its members at an attractive price. Wagner has recently been named the chair of the VALE executive committee, composed of 17 esteemed members from across the state. “In doing so, we make it cost-effective for all of our members to enjoy access to the most important databases,” Wagner said. “VALE is a big equalizer.”

Wagner finds huge value in VALE and how the organization contributes significantly to its members and increasing student success in New Jersey higher education. VALE interacts with affiliate organizations such as Edge, LibraryLink New Jersey, the New Jersey State Library, and the New Jersey Library Association College & University Section and, as such, draws the academic library community together in New Jersey.

“We are an incubator for discussions, ideas, and initiatives which will benefit all of our members. We’re talking about Open Educational Resources, which has the promise of relieving some of the exploding cost of textbooks. We are interested in making sure all of our databases are accessible and compliant with ADA and other important guidelines,” Wagner said. “Plus, we are always looking for even more resources that will benefit our members and their user communities.

”Besides offering a set of databases at competitive prices, VALE also provides a sense of belonging and community to the librarians and the institutions themselves. While Monmouth University Library is independent, Wagner is reminded how no man is an island and being a part of a community is necessary for future success. He also was very involved with VALE while at William Paterson University.

Wagner Library Background

Before becoming Monmouth University’s Librarian, Wagner was the Library Assistant Directory at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey for six years. Prior to that position, Wagner was William Paterson’s Systems Librarian for 14 years.

“I had been at William Paterson for 23 years, and it was the first place I worked at after graduate school,” Wagner said. “My time at William Paterson was a great experience and I wondered what my experience would be like transitioning to a different university. I was pleasantly surprised with the similarities between the two schools, and I felt more at home here at Monmouth faster than expected. I believe the similarities helped for an easier transition for me.”

There are differences between the two universities, as one is public and one is private. This distinction creates a difference in funding and how monies are secured. However, Wagner said that both institutions have more than half of the library funding sourced by student tuition.

“For me, a student is a student and they are paying to attend either university, whether the institution is public or private, and students are entitled to receive the same level and quality of service,” Wagner said. “I don’t really see a difference in perspective of the library and my roles. Yes, they are different libraries, different organizations, and different structures, but we still offer and perform very similar types of services.”

Evolution of Libraries

The emergence of digital technology in the last 25 years has caused a dramatic shift in how libraries function; one Wagner has seen firsthand. He began his library career in 1993 and has since watched libraries evolve and change.

No longer are libraries filled with books the only place where resources are found. Another trend recently being noticed is the elimination of school-based libraries and the librarian role in certain K-20 school systems in New Jersey. These changes taking place are being noticed by librarians in higher education.

“I think overall our students are coming to us with a different set of habits with regards to the way they consume information. There are more students not having established a love or habit of reading, gained an appreciation of the scope, or understand the depth of information available to them. These are often qualities students acquire and make regular habits of during their childhood, adolescence and while preparing for college,” Wagner said.

This mentality is different from prior generations where going to the library was a part of life, many times at very young ages.

“Speaking from my own personal experience where going to the library was part of growing up,” Wagner said. “I learned how to use the library throughout my education and spending time in the library was a necessary habitual part of my education and what I learned in class.”

Wagner said it’s important for students to understand how to use the library. Students need to know where information exists and how the information impacts what is being learned in class. They also need to understand how to research and look for sources. Many times even more can be learned when the two intersect together.

“I’m not sure our students think of the library in that way anymore,” he said. “I feel like most of them would feel somewhat the opposite and the library doesn’t even come to mind when they are researching. Rather, Google or Wikipedia comes to mind as their source for information on a topic they’d like to learn more about.”

This developing trend is one of the reasons why libraries are being challenged to transform and evolve themselves throughout this transitional generation. There is also a concern in higher education about the preparation of students and how to change this growing issue.

“I have this conversation most frequently with our English and composition faculty, where there are a lot of written assignments and essays. The process involved with a written assignment is not just being able to write, but also understanding information seeking abilities or critical thinking abilities,” Wagner said.

“This gap becomes even more of a concern as more Pre K-20 schools are eliminating the media specialist positions. This trend is disturbing as it really devalues the role of the library in education in general.”

VALE’s Strategic Future Planning

When looking at higher education and the overall landscape, VALE has put together strategic initiatives they hope to undertake in terms of future growth and possible areas of opportunity. VALE’s goal is to increase collaboration with shared technology.

“This mindset represents the core values of VALE because it helps us all address common challenges and work on these challenges collaboratively. The collaborative process creates benefits to all of our institutions and allows us to work together,” he said.

One strategic initiative VALE has considered is the open educational resource (OER) and is taking the initial steps to join the open education network to provide training, information, and resources. The idea is to take the skills back to the member institutions, so everyone is better poised to help implement OER.

“OER has gained a lot of traction, especially with the high cost in higher education and being mindful of student debt,” Wagner said.

VALE is currently undertaking a survey where future strategic initiatives will be developed. The organization is in fact-finding mode and taking stock to better understand how the consortium can help with issues arising in higher education. The results will be released in early 2019, and the goal is to use the results to clarify which areas VALE can become more effective at helping its overall membership.

“We need to see how we can best focus our efforts to help each institution in an optimal manner,” he said.

VALE and Edge’s  Strong Partnership Benefits New Jersey

Three years ago, VALE and Edge joined forces, with the intent and hope their partnership would make both organizations stronger and position them to provide greater benefits to the higher education community. This process was aided by the numerous commonalities the two organizations shared with each other.

“I feel like we are siblings in the higher education community, where the relationship is born of the same parents and we have a strong sibling relationship,” Wagner said. He further elaborated, “I think we can learn and emulate from Edge’s knowledge and co-develop between the two of us,” he said. “I think just having group partnership and collaborative activities and having both of our names on events and initiatives will help us both be more visible to constituencies in both of our organizations.”

The partnership opens up new audiences in both organizations, as they gain knowledge about each other. They can share services and tools, providing strengths in places the other may not be as strong. Wagner feels like there are also some aspects of Edge’s infrastructure that benefit VALE, especially in how to conduct business in a more effective and efficient manner.“

We want to be more than just good guests, but also equal partners. I would like us to find ways where VALE can benefit Edge,” Wagner said. “I believe our audience in the academic library community of New Jersey can be used as an advantage to Edge for initiatives and activities where their audience may find of use. I feel like there’s lots of partnership opportunity there.”

At Wagner’s previous position at William Paterson, he was a part of the Edge CIO Group. He looked forward to the meetings and being a part of the conversation, so he could better understand what was of interest to the IT community. He also finds value in attending the Edge conferences and seeing the different types of presentations and current initiatives.

“I feel it’s important for the library community and the IT community to have a good working relationship,” he said. “The relationship(s) may seem like only a one-way street, with IT supporting and helping libraries through the use of technology, which is becoming increasingly more important.”

Wagner has been a part of several incidences where libraries were actually of assistance to the IT department. Plus, libraries are helping with numerous types of electronic resources in higher education. One aspect benefiting Monmouth involves a seemingly simple idea wherein Wagner sends some of his staff to attend the IT help desk meetings in order to help them focus more on their customer service skills and their ability to help students with questions.

“I think just through our collaboration on strategic initiatives we can recognize a shared participation between each other will produce a product that’s better for both,” he said.

Digital Transformation in Higher Education

Digital technology has transformed many aspects of the education world, especially in higher education. Virtual libraries have become more common, and Wagner feels VALE and Edge should tap into this concept and provide a set of services and resources to the member institutions. Combined services will benefit everyone as there are different needs or institutions require distinct services.

“I’m hoping VALE and Edge will be the unifying force of shared vision and guidance that can get translated back down through our parental organizations, rather than everyone doing tackling challenges on their own and having to navigate the pitfalls and reinvent the wheel over and over again,” Wagner said.

He suggests VALE and Edge be the common partnership, helping their membership acquire virtual libraries. This partnership approach is something the organizations could do with other projects, using the learnings as a springboard into even larger opportunities for New Jersey’s higher education.

“If we align with one another, are allied and share resources and the same technology, the power unleased in higher education in New Jersey, I think would be formidable,” Wagner said. “I think joining forces would give us the same types of abilities, reputation and visibility that others in the country have enjoyed.”

There is wisdom in collaboration in areas that benefit both parties, especially something like virtual libraries. Wagner feels it’s encouraging to see six of the state universities signing contracts to all migrate to the ProQuest/Ex Libris Alma system. This transition shows how libraries aren’t just static institutions, soon to be replaced by technology, but they have an important and intentional role in leveraging technology for fundamental critical thinking and information literacy skills.

Libraries can then effectively educate their users, showing them that just because there are terabytes of information at a person’s fingertips, access to all of this information doesn’t necessarily make an informed and educated consumer. At the same time, many users are drowning in data and haven’t become effective researchers and evaluators of the information.

“To use the phrase on everyone’s lips, how do people know what is ‘fake news?’” Wagner said.

Libraries can help someone sift through the information and know how to perceive the difference between fake or trustworthy news. The process involves showing students how to evaluate an article and discover if the article, and content contained therein, is valid. What criteria are used to discover sources and valuable information for a paper? Teaching users how to evaluate content becomes a great opportunity to learn how to use these necessary tools.

“I think a critical thinker is our best student, because they’re asking questions. They’re being critical, and they’re not just taking the first three hits coming up on a Google search. They are asking ‘why did I get these results and what made these the best results?’” Wagner said.

Starting the Conversation

Students must understand the importance of this conversation about research and knowing where to look for appropriate sources and information. Determining the validity of content involves discovering how the search results are appearing on the computer. Students need to understand how information is organized and why news appears when it does. Students may be surprised how some results appear because of their click history and searched websites.

Much of an individual’s personal information is out there and shaping the world he or she perceives through the lens of the Internet. When people are aware of the easy availability of their personal data, this knowledge makes them take a second look at what information they are receiving during Internet searches.

The VALE Executive Committee is also researching ways to help people with challenges or disabilities to make sure all of the databases are compliant with ADA policies and protocols. This focus will make sure all users receive equal access to the information being provided and not unintentionally biasing it or creating an uneven playing field.

Emerging Digital Technologies

One emerging digital technology is augmented reality, which can add context and depth of information. While the technology creates some initial challenges, augmented reality also provides advantages of providing more information on things someone is already encountering in his or her world.

Wagner is involved in different projects where a segment of augmented reality, or GIS aspect, has been leveraged into the plans. Another ubiquitous technology finding traction is using more Global Positioning Services. Because information is available practically anywhere and everywhere, the world has a growing sense of ‘immediate’.

Several challenges emerge with these types of technologies because, unfortunately, there’s a concern about new technologies only gravitating to the privileged few. The issue is how to level the playing field and make resources equally available. Cost is another problem many face.

“Finding the time to know about everything and finding things worthy to implement can be massive,” Wagner said. “I know there will be things coming along that will astound and amaze us so much. Even if we can’t predict them, I think we have to create an environment receptive to
them appearing.”

Wagner also feels it’s important to have excellent relationships and abundant communication in as many channels and sectors as possible and keeping these conversations open.

Whether Wagner is helping students procure information within the beautiful walls of Monmouth University Library or providing leadership for the VALE Executive Committee, he has a passion for learning and broadening the horizons of everyone he encounters. He finds value in fostering a connection between the library and a student’s skills, providing them access to an entirely different world – essential to future success. Wagner is a definite visionary for librarians and universities in New Jersey, providing leadership at Monmouth University and the membership of VALE.

VALE

VALE (Virtual Academic Library Environment) combined forces with Edge in January 2015. The academic library consortium provides valuable assets, such as information resources and databases and the development of inter-institutional information connectivity and collaborative library application projects for New Jersey academic libraries.

Through leveraged purchasing and cooperation and through the use of technology and collaboration, VALE provides the needs of New Jersey institutions through a seamless network of access shared electronic academic information.

Another compelling benefit of VALE is the consortium purchasing model for acquiring highly demanded databases. This model helps everyone involved with VALE and explains why the program is looking for other ways to assist higher education in the state. Some interest from members is doing more resource sharing amongst each other, as well as facilitating at the consortia level open education resources by joining the Open Textbook Network. This expansion will allow VALE to host events in the state that promote OERs and provide support to smaller institutions that would like to get involved on a more granular level.

Edge is helping VALE with the collaboration and growing process, especially since Edge is able to provide 501(c)(3) status. The connection with Edge enables VALE to pursue projects they couldn’t legally do in the past.

More information can be found at vale.njedge.net.