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Georgia Tech

How do you measure the impact of a library when the number of books on its shelves is no longer its defining characteristic?

The research arms of Ithaka and the library collaborative OCLC have launched a joint project to find out. Over the next 14 months, researchers with the organizations plan to survey the higher education landscape to identify how colleges and universities are differentiating themselves, explore the different types of services libraries are investing in, and help college librarians articulate the new ways in which they are creating value for their institutions.

“Our research question is: What happens when libraries differentiate themselves in terms of services, not collection size; are there multiple models of success?” a project description shared with Inside Higher Ed reads.

The two nonprofits, both of which conduct research on topics related to libraries, have titled the project “University Futures; Library Futures” -- a recognition that the success of colleges and their libraries is connected, co-principal investigators Deanna Marcum and Lorcan Dempsey said in an interview.

“If universities are going to more purposely think about their place and position, what it is that they have to offer, how they want to be seen and what they want to do, then that’s the most important determinant of what the libraries in those universities are going to be,” Dempsey, chief strategist and vice president of membership and research at OCLC, said. “Over time, if universities are going to be more differentiated, then so will university libraries.”

That transformation is already taking place at many colleges and universities. But while many library reorganization projects involve some of the same features -- adding space for new activities, investing in support services for faculty members and students, and reducing the footprint of physical books, among others -- they are rarely identical. Yet libraries continue to be judged based on the size of their collections or their recent book acquisitions.

“If these books that are filling the shelves and occupying an awful lot of prime real estate on campus aren’t being used, what else should the facilities be used for, and what is the right kind of support for the faculty and students in the institution?” Marcum, a senior adviser for Ithaka S+R, said. “Just as there are different types of institutions, there are going to be different measures of success for libraries.”

Two recent projects highlight some of the directions university libraries are headed in. Georgia Institute of Technology, with its focus on STEM fields, has decided to move virtually all of its physical books to a storage facility. Arizona State University, in comparison, will also move much of its physical collection out of its main library, but use the space to better showcase its special collections and, perhaps, exhibit rotating collections organized around a monthly theme.

Those are two examples of the “clusters” of similar institutions that Dempsey and Marcum said their project may outline. For example, their research could find groups of colleges defined by their focus on teaching students or their faculty’s research output. At the same time, the project will look at which “bundles” of services libraries at those institution are prioritizing, with the goal of producing a framework that can be used to display a library’s strengths in key areas.

“For instance, if the project identifies three main bundles of academic library services, these might be visualized as dials that are turned up or down in intensity according to institutional need,” the project description reads. “We might expect that in libraries supporting research institutions, some dials would be turned higher and others would be lower, relative to libraries in teaching/learning institutions.”

The later stages of the project will involve site visits and workshops to gather input from higher education and library groups on the types of institutions and bundles of services that the researchers have identified.

Dempsey and Marcum said the goal of the project is not to grade libraries, but to explore the ways libraries and universities are changing and help libraries find the support services best suited for the people they serve.

“The major purpose is to provide good ways [for] libraries and librarians to talk about their services in ways in which universities are developing,” Dempsey said. “We want to be able to help the library tell good stories about the range of services it provides.”

Ithaka S+R’s own research suggests library directors are having a harder time telling those stories today than they did only a few years ago. A survey released last week showed fewer library directors feel they share the same vision for the library with their supervisor compared to three years ago.

“In some cases there’s a very clear alignment between the direction that the university is going and the direction the library is going,” said Roger C. Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s library and scholarly communication program. “But it is the case that colleges and universities are making strategic pivots in one way or the other in recent years, and sometimes in ways that libraries are not always well positioned to stay abreast of.”

Schonfeld said he hoped the project will produce several “road maps” that can help library directors see how their counterparts at similar institutions are planning for the future.

Both Ithaka S+R and OCLC Research will contribute resources to the project, which is also being supported by a grant of unspecified size from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“This is not an answer, but it’s an exploration,” Marcum said. “There are so many ways of looking at the future of the library, and this will help us have that discussion.”

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