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There are nearly 3,700 academic libraries in the United States.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s plan to drop data on libraries as part of its main postsecondary data system has generated intense blowback from academic librarians.

The federal government’s collection of data about the nearly 3,700 academic libraries as part of its longitudinal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is “critical to understanding the value libraries provide to the institutional mission,” said a joint public comment letter from the American Library Association, Association of College and Research Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries. They urged the U.S. Education Department to sustain the library survey component as part of IPEDS.

For a decade, the library survey has been a part of IPEDS, a system of 12 annual interrelated surveys that track and compare basic institution-level data such as graduation rates, expenditures and enrollment.

Librarians say the survey data gives academic libraries visibility as an integral component of higher education institutions that supports information literacy, faculty research and student success.

Maintaining comprehensive data that illustrates the reach of academic libraries is especially important in an era marked by growing public skepticism of the value of higher education and the widespread availability of misinformation, the library groups said.

“Providing open, publicly accessible data about higher education is critical to transparency and earning and maintaining public trust,” the groups said in their letter. “Trust in U.S. higher education is in measurable decline—and media and information literacy is more crucial than ever amid growing crises of misinformation and disruptive emerging technologies.”

The letter is among 747 public comments submitted in response to the proposal before the comment period closed this month. Many of the comments came from people and organizations affiliated with academic libraries who oppose the regulatory change.

The American Association of Community Colleges, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities also submitted a joint letter asking Miguel Cardona, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, to keep the library portion of the IPEDS survey “in support of the points made by the library associations.”

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which manages the IPEDS survey, is seeking authorization to eliminate the library survey before it starts collecting 2025–26 data this August. The proposed changes partially stem from concerns about cost.

“With all the demands on IPEDS, NCES must manage the budget, staffing and burden for the IPEDS data collection, including prioritizing the data that are collected,” Josué DeLaRosa, director of annual reports and information staff for NCES, said in an email. “This includes considering adjustments to IPEDS to stay within budget, work within existing staffing numbers, and minimize burden on postsecondary institutions who provide data.”

He noted that despite removing the library survey, IPEDS will still collect data about staff counts, as well as services and resources offered by academic libraries.

“NCES considers multiple factors prior to making adjustments, including legislative requirements, policy implications/use of data elements, the utility of data for consumer information, and data that are responsive to current questions in postsecondary education,” DeLaRosa said. “Based on our analysis, we concluded the need to phase out the Academic Libraries Survey.”

‘Crucial’ Data

Since 2014, the collection of data about academic libraries has been a mandatory part of the annual IPEDS survey that all degree-granting institutions eligible to receive federal financial aid are required by law to complete. The library survey includes counts of physical and electronic library books, serials, media and databases. Academic libraries that spend $100,000 or more a year also have to report operational data such as salaries, wages, benefits and total expenditures.

“In aggregate, these data provide an overview of the status of academic libraries nationally and by state,” explained a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education about the history and origins of survey items for IPEDS.

But if the proposal is approved, it wouldn’t be the first time the government has made changes to its methods and oversight for collecting academic library data.

From 1966—the first year the government started collecting academic library data—until 1988, the NCES conducted the academic library survey on a three-year cycle, within the framework of the Higher Education General Information System, according to the NCES website. From 1988 to 1998, the library survey became a component of IPEDS and data was collected on a two-year cycle.

That changed again between 2000 and 2012, when the survey remained on a two-year cycle but was conducted independently of IPEDS. In 2014, the library survey was reintegrated back into the IPEDS collection and is now collected annually alongside 11 other components, which include surveys on admissions, human resources and student financial aid.

“This data has been kicked around to different agencies in the 35 years I have been working in libraries,” said one anonymous public comment letter submitted to the Education Department in March. “Now that it has found a home at IPEDS and is fed into/feeds out into other parts of academic library data, it’s crucial to keep. We use this for benchmarking and assessment all the time! In this data-driven decision-making world, and where most things are now being driven by the ‘bottom line,’ we need central data repositories such as IPEDS academic libraries data to do our jobs.”

‘Willing to Accept That Burden’

Judy Ruttenberg, senior director of scholarship and policy for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), said that because the proposal didn’t offer much explanation about why the NCES wants to eliminate the academic library survey from IPEDS, she’s trying to fill in the blanks.

“We’re left to surmise two ideas: That the data isn’t highly used and that the data represents a burden to collect,” she said. (The burden on survey takers is indeed one of the reasons NCES cited in its response to Inside Higher Ed about why it wants to eliminate the library component.)

Ruttenberg said that while the library surveys are detailed and take time to complete, the volume of public comments “demonstrates that the library community is willing to accept that burden.” She added that “in fact the data is used all the time” to analyze trends, such as a library’s relationship to institutional research growth and student success metrics.

“We’re absolutely here to partner with the department to figure out what can be done in order to streamline things,” she said.

While the ARL collects data—some of it similar to the IPEDS data—about its 127 member institutions in the U.S. and Canada, its scope isn’t nearly as big as what comes from the IPEDS survey, which accumulates data from thousands of academic libraries and puts it in the broader context of higher education trends.

“When an entire institution is responding to an IPEDS survey, it remains an important touchpoint for communication on campus,” Ruttenberg said. “People who fill out these surveys talk to one another. It’s important that these different survey takers are in touch with each other. It’s a touchpoint for institutions taking the survey to understand themselves, and it’s important for the library to be in that conversation.”

Beyond losing visibility for libraries and their ability to demonstrate their effectiveness, eliminating the library data from the IPEDS survey could disrupt the rapidly changing information marketplace.

“Many of our library vendors that our libraries subscribe to and purchase resources from use the IPEDS data when setting prices,” Ruttenberg said. “One thing we would lose is a bit of transparency in that marketplace, which is critically important … That kind of sector-wide visibility into cost would be a loss.”

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