Beyond eBooks

March 11, 2014

Library directors and administrators at all types of colleges and universities agree their libraries should teach undergraduates research skills and information literacy, but the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2013 also suggests libraries are increasingly tailoring their services to address institutional needs.

Ithaka, a nonprofit research organization that promotes innovative forms of teaching and scholarly communication, previously surveyed library directors in 2010. That survey captured libraries in the middle of a difficult transition from print to electronic resources. Based on the responses of 499 institutions in the fall 2013 survey, that shift has been, “from a budget allocation perspective, nearly completed.”

Yet library directors and faculty members remain split on the usefulness of electronic collections of books and journals. Instructors are more likely to prefer ebooks -- more than 50 percent of respondents in Ithaka's 2012 faculty survey said they “play an important role” in research and teaching, while only about one-third of library directors agreed. Meanwhile, two-thirds of library directors said they “would be happy to see hard copy collections [of scholarly journals] discarded and replaced entirely by electronic collections,” compared to 40 percent of faculty members surveyed in 2012.

Budget concerns, however, still remain. About 90 percent of respondents identified limited financial resources as the primary obstacle facing their libraries. At slightly less than 50 percent, lack of staff skills in key areas finished a distant second.

Roger C. Schonfeld, Ithaka’s program director for libraries, users and scholarly practices (and a co-author of the report), said colleges and universities are still facing “striking” budgetary constraints -- an issue exacerbated by the fact that much library funding is tied to maintaining scholarly journal subscriptions.

“The other issue is that there is a real challenge that many of the respondents seem to report in maintaining and renewing the really important staff resources that they want to devote in areas where faculty members’ and students’ needs are pulling their attention,” Schonfeld said. “There certainly is an opportunity to invest in things like instruction, instructional design, digital preservation, web services and a variety of other priorities and new priorities than print. Some libraries have invested tremendous resources in training and reskilling different members of their staff, but what we’re hearing from the directors is that one piece of this is new hires.”

The budget constraints may be one of the reasons why institutions could be pushing different roles for their libraries that better reflect the amount of research that takes place on campus, Schonfeld said.

The survey grouped the nine Carnegie classifications into three broader groups -- baccalaureate colleges, master’s colleges and universities and doctoral universities -- and asked respondents to rate the importance of six proposed roles of a library. Respondents at baccalaureate colleges rated helping undergraduates develop research skills and supporting faculty members’ teaching the highest, and were less likely to emphasize the library’s role as a gateway to or support structure for faculty research. Respondents at doctoral universities favored an all-of-the-above approach, while institutions that award master’s degrees placed in the middle.

“One of the patterns that’s most clear across all the different library types is the deep commitment that library directors responding to our survey feel about helping students with skills development,” Schonfeld said. “That’s something we saw in the past, but it’s only growing increasingly more uniform in this cycle.”

When combined, responses from all three groups show opinions about five of the six proposed roles have not shifted significantly since the 2010 survey. The exception is the research support role, which fell from 85 percent to 68 percent. Even among doctoral universities, the proportion of respondents calling research support a “very important” role of their library fell from 95 percent to 86 percent.

Schonfeld said Ithaka will continue to track those numbers to see if the 2013 survey could be an early sign that university libraries are morphing into different types of service centers based on their Carnegie classification.

“I’ll speculate for a moment, but there’s certainly been an increased focus at many different kinds of institutions in student learning outcomes and other metrics of student success -- graduation rates, retention issues,” Schonfeld said. “Increased focused on students, but a decreased focus on research support does seem like it could be understood as part of that discussion.”

Another finding Schonfeld said Ithaka needs more data to explain: In three years, the number of library directors at baccalaureate colleges who said they have a “well-developed strategy” to address students’ and faculty members’ needs has doubled. That brings the colleges closer to master’s and doctoral universities, whose numbers hover around the 50 percent mark.

The most confident institutions, the survey found, were those who engaged in some form of library assessment. Nearly every respondent said they gather feedback from informal discussions with students and faculty members, but a majority also said they conducted more official surveys to gauge the efficacy of their library services.

“No approach is perfect -- no survey is perfect, no informal conversation is perfect,” Schonfeld said. “Many libraries are really doing a lot of these things, and those libraries are more likely to ... feel that they have a well-developed strategy.”

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