“What, after all, are librarians now for?” 2

August 26, 2008

Thanks to Anna Ercoli Schnitzer for highlighting the new report from Ithaka [1], which the ACRLog is calling “essential reading for all academic librarians.”[2]

Ithaka’s 2006 studies of key stakeholders in the digital transformation in Higher education “presents some of the more interesting findings” from Ithaka’s 2000, 2003 and 2006 surveys of US universities [3].

While the role of the Library itself is decreasing in  faculty’s perceived importance, “the vast majority of faculty view the role that librarians play as just as important as it has been in the past.” [4] The surveys “tested three ‘roles’ of the library – purchaser, archive and gateway.” [5] Unsurprisingly, the purchaser role was most important – “faculty don’t want to have to pay for scholarly resources, a finding which holds across disciplines and has remained stable over time.” [6]

The gateway role has declined in importance to faculty – just over 50% scientists value this, and the report’s authors see this as “logical, given the increasing prominence of non-library discovery tools such as Google in the last several years.” [7] However, good news for cataloguers – “Despite the rising popularity of tools like Google, general purpose search engines still slightly trail the OPAC as a starting point for research.” [8]

There’s a mismatch in expectations of academics and librarians, since “Librarians at all sizes of institutions see this gateway role as among their primary goals … along with the licensing of electronic resources and maintaining a catalog of their resources.” [9] Alongside this mismatch, “faculty members are growing somewhat less aware of the library’s role in providing the tools and services they use in the virtual environment.” [10] :

The (In)visibility of the library
An important lesson is that the library is in many ways falling off the radar screens of faculty. Although scholars report general respect for libraries and librarians, the library is increasingly disintermediated from their actual research process. Many researchers circumvent the library in doing their research, preferring to access resources directly. Researchers no longer use the library as a gateway to information, and no longer feel a significant dependence on the library in their research process. Although the library does play essential roles in this process, activities like paying for the resources used are largely invisible to faculty. In short, although librarians may still be providing significant value to their constituency, the value of their brand is decreasing. [11]

The report concludes:

Information – the historic province of the library – is the focus of more attention than ever before, and yet the profile and relevance of the library is in decline. There are a number of possible futures for the academic library, and strategic thought and change is needed to ensure that we move into a world in which the library continues to play an important role in the intellectual life of the campus. The library exists to serve the needs of its campus; a clear understanding of these needs will allow the library to maximize its value to its constituency, both improving its own stature locally as well as facilitating scholarship, teaching, and
learning among its community.

More generally, in our modern information age, many of the historical patterns of scholarship and scholarly communication are shifting rapidly; this will require strategic change on the part of the institution as a whole in order to keep up. A holistic consideration of the diverse information needs of the campus community is needed to effectively and efficiently facilitate scholarship, teaching, and learning. A collaborative approach, harnessing the expertise of many different campus constituencies – librarians, technologists, administrators, and more – may enable exciting new opportunities and growth. A deep understanding of faculty needs is critical to developing programs and services that will be valued, along with a willingness to make serious changes in situations where these needs do not match with the traditional roles … It is … important, however, to engage with local faculty to determine what changes are and are not appropriate for the local campus environment. As we move further into the digital age, questions of campus information strategy must receive serious consideration from a variety of different players; care must be given to ensure that we develop a future in which scholarship, teaching, and learning are effectively supported, and in which important scholarly values are not lost. [12]

Lots to think about in this, especially with regard to how we maintain enough of a profile to retain our role now that it is becoming increasingly backroom. ACRLog starts the discussion by highlighting our function within training and education [13].


[1] Ross Housewright and Roger Schonfeld. Ithaka’s 2006 studies of key stakeholders in the digital transformation of Higher Education. Ithaka, 2008.

[2] StevenB. The question they forgot to ask. ACRLog, 22 August 2008.

[3] Ross Housewright and Roger Schonfeld. Op Cit: 4.

[4]-[6] Ibid: 5.

[7]-[9] Ibid: 6.

[10] Ibid: 7.

[11] Ibid: 30.

[12] Ibid: 33.

[13] SteveB. Op Cit.

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