Librarians Put Increasing Value on Their Role in Support of Student Learning

April 04, 2011

Supporting undergraduate education and teaching information literacy to students are chief priorities for academic libraries, trumping their traditional emphasis on collection-building and the preservation and discovery of research materials.

That's one of the central findings of a new survey of top librarians at four-year colleges and universities being released today. It concludes that both library directors and faculty members still put high value on the library as a purchaser of scholarly resources but that scholars are less likely than library leaders to see the library as a pillar of teaching support. It also points to a growing comfort among academic librarians with deaccessioning—discarding—or storing print-journal collections off-site, if reliable digital access to those journals can be had.

"Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Library Directors" officially comes out today, but results from it were previewed at the Association of College and Research Libraries conference, which concluded here on Saturday. Library leaders got a guided tour of the findings at a lunchtime session on Friday led by the survey's co-authors, Matthew P. Long and Roger C. Schonfeld of Ithaka, a nonprofit that studies and supports the use of technology in higher education.

For the survey, the Ithaka team drew on responses from 267 high-level library administrators at doctoral, master's, and baccalaureate institutions across the Carnegie classifications. They did not include community colleges. They did tailor the questions to reflect some from Ithaka's Faculty Survey 2009, which assessed faculty members' attitudes toward libraries, so that they could compare the two sets of results.

The emphasis on libraries' role in teaching and learning "was a constant theme" throughout the library-directors' survey, Mr. Long said in his presentation at the ACRL meeting. But comparing these results with the 2009 faculty survey also uncovered what he called "this really interesting divergence" between librarians' and faculty members' views about how central libraries are to information literacy and undergraduate education. Ninety-seven percent of library directors said it was important that their library help facilitate teaching, and many said they were adjusting their budgets and staffing priorities accordingly. Just under 60 percent of faculty members felt strongly about libraries' pedagogical involvement.

Librarians also put more emphasis on the library's importance as a gateway to information; more than 75 percent of them rated that role highly, while less than 65 percent of faculty did.

The two groups were more closely aligned in valuing the library's role as a purchaser of resources, with more than 80 percent of each saying that remains an important function.

The survey of librarians revealed a striking uncertainty among respondents about how to best assess the needs of their users, even though they're more eager than ever to meet those needs—a theme that recurred in different way throughout the conference. Only 35 percent of those surveyed by Ithaka strongly agreed that their library has "a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits."

When it comes to collections, libraries are also in the throes of figuring out how to manage the transition from a print-centric to a digitally driven world, the survey confirmed. Asked how they apportion their materials budgets today and how they expect to do that in five years, library directors "predicted a steady shift toward digital materials" over the next half-decade. Journal collections are well on their way to becoming mostly digital, the survey found, a shift that librarians are more comfortable with than faculty members are.

When it comes to books, though, librarians expect their monographs collections to continue to have a large print component, according to the survey. The responses indicated that libraries "appear to be entering a 'dual format' era," it said.

Librarian Perspectives

After the presentation, the librarians in the invitation-only audience had a chance to raise questions and share their thoughts on the issues raised in the survey. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, the president of the association, said she thought that pairing Ithaka's library-director and faculty surveys would help library leaders strategize. "We finally, in these two studies together, have an opportunity to think about comparative research results," she said. That's helpful at a time when "we are seeing ramped-up calls for accountability, and especially accountability for student-learning outcomes."

Even with budgets under intense pressure, "there are still large resources going into libraries," said Ms. Hinchliffe, who is an associate professor and coordinator for information-literacy services and instruction at the University of Illinois-Champaign. The question for librarians is how to make the most of what they still have. "We need to use this report back at our institutions," she told the audience, acknowledging the gap between librarians' and faculty members' perceptions of why and how the library is valuable.

One library director worried that the results of the faculty survey, from 2009, were old enough that they might not reflect researchers' current priorities, given how quickly the world of scholarly communication continues to change. Another talked about the need to get the word out to faculty members about libraries' holdings in "as many ways as we can."

Bill Mayer, the university librarian at American University, in Washington, said he'd like to know he's buying what faculty members really want rather than just guessing at what they need and will use. He added that he thought librarians ought to make it clearer to researchers that moving material to remote storage was not the same as getting rid of it altogether. Part of librarians' job, he said, is to give scholars "that bridging comfort to know they can carry on with their lives" and always have access to the material they need when they need it.