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DENVER—As snow fell from gray skies on Tuesday, higher education professionals, publishers, librarians, information technologists, government researchers and others met this week for the Coalition for Networked Information spring membership meeting. There, attendees gathered to discuss the use of information technology to advance scholarship and education.
Ithaka S+R shared results from its triennial survey published last week, which sought to capture college library deans’ and directors’ perspectives three years into the pandemic.
But Ioana Hulbert, Ithaka S+R researcher and survey author, confided to a packed ballroom that she had been anxious during the survey’s administration in the fall of 2022—mostly because of question 17.
“Without fail, almost every library director stopped on this question for multiple days,” Hulbert said about the prompt that asked respondents how they would handle budget cuts. “I just sat there hoping they would come back and finish the survey.”
Many of the survey results resonated with librarians present at the Denver meeting. Over meals and in hallways, they discussed an evolving library landscape in which print resources have been demoted, staffing shortages feel urgent and pandemic-era students struggle to engage with libraries.
High and Low Priorities
Question 17, which was new this cycle, asked respondents to indicate the top three areas where they would implement cuts if a 10 percent budget reduction were necessary. This question and another that had been asked in this and earlier cycles concerning how respondents would allocate a 10 percent budget increase sought to highlight librarians’ lowest and highest priorities.
Much to Hulbert’s relief, 612 librarians completed the survey, including the vexing question 17. Still, Hulbert said she learned a lesson.
“It’s going to be the last question in the next cycle.”
When the results were tallied, the librarians’ lowest priorities were print resources. More than half of respondents (54 percent) would cut the print monograph budget, and nearly half (45 percent) would cut print journal subscriptions. In the event of a budget increase, the librarians would prioritize staffing. More than half (56 percent) would direct additional funds toward new or redefined positions, and about two out of five (41 percent) would prioritize employee salary increases.
Budget cuts—real or imagined—are not the only challenge. Fewer than one in five librarians at baccalaureate-level colleges (18 percent) agreed that their library has a well-developed strategy for redressing the influence of disinformation and misinformation. Librarians at master’s-granting colleges and doctoral universities felt similarly dispirited (13 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
“Is the ‘well-developed strategy’ portion of the question really driving the response?” Hulbert said. “Maybe that’s too high of a bar to say that you have an explicit, documented strategy somewhere.”
Nonetheless, the finding stood in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of librarian respondents (98 percent) who indicated that helping students develop research, critical analysis and information literacy skills is a priority. This near consensus is set against the backdrop of a rise in disinformation during the pandemic.
Pandemic-Era Students Return to the Library
In recent years, students appear to have shifted the ways in which they engage with the library and librarians.
“We’re teaching this generation of post-pandemic, traumatized students who don’t have confidence in information,” said Christina Trunnell, assistant dean of the library at Montana State University. “Our core foundational information literacy programs that we teach don’t reach those students anymore.”
During the early pandemic lockdowns, Montana State students made abundant use of virtual chat reference services, Trunnell said. But that use plummeted more than 60 percent during each of the last two years. Meanwhile, this academic year, demand for one-on-one consultations has skyrocketed.
“We haven’t had time to assess this new cadre of students,” Trunnell said, adding that many college libraries are short-staffed. “How do students look up information? How do they understand it? Until we have time to assess those needs and assess those patterns, we’re behind the game.”
But assessing current students’ needs and offering one-on-one consultations places additional demands on library staff. At the same time, library deans and directors are struggling to retain and hire staff, according to the Ithaka survey. One in five of the librarian respondents (20 percent) is already outsourcing some skills. A similar percentage expects to reduce staff in access and technical services, metadata, and cataloging in the next five years. Technology and programming roles are the most challenging to recruit and retain, according to the survey.
Something’s got to give.
Meanwhile, students who attended high school during the pandemic may have underdeveloped library and literacy skills, according to some of the librarians in Denver.
“There’s a real disconnect in students even knowing what a library does,” Michael Vandenburg, dean of the libraries at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said. “That may have something to do with how students experienced high school research during COVID lockdowns, but it also may reflect the defunding of libraries in secondary schools.”
Pandemic-era high school students working on research projects may not have had abundant opportunities to engage with high school librarians, Vandenburg offered as an example. Many college libraries offer orientation programs that help students understand the library’s resources. But such programming often competes for attention with offerings from other campus offices.
“Information literacy has to be baked into their coursework,” Vandenburg suggested. Some faculty need minimal help with such efforts, while others require extensive assistance over time, he said.
In a library landscape where budgets are strapped and librarians struggle to reach students, artificial intelligence might offer some efficiencies, according to Elias Tzoc, associate dean for teaching, learning and research at Clemson University.
“I know that’s part of the misinformation issue,” Tzoc said. “But when we use it in the right way, it can help scale this and other library services as well.”