Since 2000, Ithaka S+R has been conducting periodic surveys of faculty members in the United States. (In 2012 the project was expanded to include UK institutions.) In 2006, the company began surveying academic librarians as well, and in 2009 that survey began to focus exclusively on library directors. All of the surveys are designed to examine the attitudes, strategies, and expectations of these key players in the creation and management of academic knowledge, and they have revealed a number of very interesting attitudinal and behavioral trends over the years. (Disclosure: I serve on the Library Advisory Group of JSTOR, a sister organization of Ithaka S+R.)
The most recent library survey report has just been released and, like all previous reports, is freely available to the public. This one was administered specifically to academic library directors in the U.S., and examines:
how the leaders of academic libraries are approaching systemic changes in their environment and the opportunities and constraints they face in leading their organizations. While exploring key topics covered in our 2010 survey of library directors, such as strategic planning, collecting practices, and library services, in 2013 we also introduced a new emphasis on organizational dynamics, leadership issues, and undergraduate services.
The whole report is well worth a careful reading, but here are some findings (and implications) that particularly jumped out at me.
Directors and Provosts May Have Very Different Ideas about Library Roles
Library directors consistently reported that they believe their immediate supervisors (for simplicity I’ll use “provosts” as a generic term) see traditional library functions as less important than they themselves do. In baccalaureate and master’s institutions, the biggest perceived gap regards the “archival” role: 71% of directors said this role is “very important,” but only 52% said they believe their provosts agree. At doctoral institutions, the biggest perceived gap (80% to 54%) between directors and provosts was with the perceived importance of the library’s “teaching” role. Now, it’s important to bear in mind that these results are not direct measurements of what provosts believe — they are measurements of what library directors think their provosts believe. This is an important and useful thing to measure, but it’s not the same thing as querying provosts directly. (A follow-up survey of provosts based on the same questions would be extremely interesting.)
Fewer Library Directors See Faculty Research Support As “Very Important”
Between the 2010 and 2013 surveys, the number of library directors rating research support for faculty members as “very important” declined from 85% to 68%. The decline was, unsurprisingly, smallest in doctoral institutions. More troubling, though, is the fact that respondents’ “very important” ratings across all library functions (except for “undergraduate research support”) declined either slightly or moderately compared to 2010, leading to the uncomfortable (or possibly exciting?) impression that academic library directors may be decreasingly convinced that their libraries are doing the right things generally.
A Declining Interest in Discovery Tools?
In 2010, 41% of library directors said that, if given a 10% budget increase, they would like to spend at least some of it on discovery tools. In 2013 only 16% said the same thing. It’s unclear whether this finding means that many of those who reported that desire in 2010 have since acquired discovery tools, or that interest in discovery tools is declining — but given general budget trends since 2010, one might suspect the latter.
Trouble on the Horizon for Technical Services
When asked where they expect to reduce staff resources over the next five years, library directors said the areas of greatest expected reduction were (in order from greatest to least expected cut): Technical Services/Cataloging; Access Services (Circulation, Interlibrary Loan, etc.); Print Preservation/Collections Management; Reference; and Collection Development. In all but one of those (Reference), more directors reported plans to cut back than reported plans to increase investment over the next five years.
Faculty-Library Disagreement 1: The Library’s Educational Role
In Ithaka S+R’s 2012 survey of faculty members, only 22% of respondents agreed with the statement “Developing the research skills of undergraduate students related to locating and evaluating scholarly information is principally my library’s responsibility.” In the 2013 library directors survey, 72% of respondents agreed. Similarly, in response to the 2012 statement “Librarians at my (institution) contribute significantly to student learning by helping them to develop their research skills,” about 45% of faculty agreed; 85% of library directors agreed with that statement in the 2013 survey. These findings suggest a sobering gap in perception and expectations between library directors and a major stakeholder group.
Faculty-Library Disagreement 2: Print Books and Ebooks
In the 2012 faculty survey, 55% agreed with the statement “Electronic versions of scholarly monographs play a very important role in my research and teaching.” By contrast, in the 2013 library directors survey, only 32% of directors agreed with a similar statement about faculty use of ebooks at their institutions. This finding suggests that at least one piece of conventional wisdom — that libraries are more aggressively moving into the ebook realm while faculty drag their heels — may be the exact opposite of the truth. It also suggests that library directors are not as aware of faculty ebook practices as they should be. (By contrast, library directors are almost twice as comfortable as faculty members with discarding print journal runs in favor of reliable online access and with substituting online subscriptions for print ones — another surprising finding, though faculty reported being substantially more comfortable with that shift in 2012 than they had been in 2009.)
One topic that I kept expecting to pop up in the survey report, but that never did, was open access (OA). While to some degree the questions represented in the report’s fig. 37 (at right; click to enlarge) imply various kinds of OA-related activity, I wish there had been explicit discussion of that increasingly important and sometimes troublesome issue in this survey. On the other hand, it’s such a complex issue at this point that it probably deserves a survey all its own — perhaps Ithaka S+R will conduct one devoted to that topic at some point in the future. In the meantime, this survey series continues to provide thought-provoking and sometimes troubling hints of how things are going in academic libraries.