Yesterday, Ithaka S+R published findings from our triennial survey of library deans and directors at academic institutions in the United States. Authored by my colleague Christine Wolff, and supported by EBSCO, Elsevier, and JSTOR, the report examines the strategic directions of academic libraries as well as their staffing and spending plans for the coming years. Wolff’s report stratifies findings by institutional type, which is important since research libraries differ from smaller academic libraries in several key ways.
Zooming in on research universities and their libraries, where the survey had a response rate of 68%, Wolff provides a clear overview of the strategic direction of these institutions. Just as content providers are trying to reduce their reliance on licensed content products and provide workflow tools and business process solutions to universities, so too are research libraries looking to pivot away from what Rick Anderson once called an identity as providers of “commodity” collections and toward new roles. Many are investing in acquiring distinctive collections and providing staffing to enable access to and preservation of these materials, as Anderson foresaw. Many also report that they are reshaping their staffing to provide a variety of new data and digital scholarship services.
There is a noteworthy uptick, from the previous cycle of the survey three years earlier, in the share of respondents reporting one or another type of disconnect with other parts of their university.
This uptick is probably no surprise. Leaders often find themselves forced to disappoint their strongest customers and users in an effort to navigate a strategic repositioning, the type of change that David Lewis has described as a sort of innovator’s dilemma applying to the academic library. Content providers are sometimes heard to advocate that libraries should devote a higher share of their budgets to content licensing, but perhaps they would do well to advocate for the full sweep of work the library must take on in order to be a strategic partner on campus.
While the format transition for journals has advanced so far that there is little new to report, for books we seem to have reached a trough in the hype cycle. There are numerous indications of a plateau, and in some cases a decline, in the sense that the transition away from print and towards ebooks will continue to advance. This maps directly to what we reported from our survey of faculty members a year earlier, when I concluded that we would be grappling with the effects of a dual-format environment for scholarly monographs for some time.
Back to the library directors, one finding that will likely surprise no regular reader of this blog: three-quarters of doctoral institution respondents view the provision of an institutional repository as a high priority for their library. Even as research library directors remain keen to reshape scholarly communications, their interest in shaping the discovery experience for their users has continued its systematic erosion.
This may be worthy of reflection, since the discovery starting point brings users into a workflow, and whoever controls that workflow can route those users preferentially, for example to a publisher site or to an open access repository, as they see fit. Efforts to co-opt existing infrastructure for openness are already well underway. Perhaps these efforts belong at the network level rather than at any given library itself. But, if library directors are no longer as interested in serving as the discovery starting point for research, it may nevertheless be worth examining what implications this will have for transformation agenda for reshaping scholarly communications. As a new set of services such as Meta and Yewno propose to reshape yet again the environment for discovery, it will be interesting to see how if at all these affect content platform usage, scholarly communications, and other important library priorities such as information literacy and student success.