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.

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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.

bar graph

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.

The full set of findings are available in Wolff’s report, which you can access at Ithaka S+R.  

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


6 Thoughts on "The Strategic Direction of Research Library Leaders: Findings from the Latest Ithaka S+R Survey"

It seems that library directors are finally catching up with (on on to) what the Ithaca S&R group was reporting as far back as, I think, 2006 when it reported that faculty and librarians were out of alignment on the library as the primary source of discovery. Even then faculty were reporting that they relied more on non-library paths to scholarly content (even if it linked them back to full-text provided through the library). Back in 2009 I mentioned this and a few other reports and indicators at the time pointed to this trend. (See: Wanting the library to be the first place its users go for content may have been wishful thinking all these years.

Perhaps we are better off being “gate openers” than gatekeepers. (see: There’s a growing recognition that academic libraries have more impact for their communities when they focus on building relationships in addition to building collections. That’s not to say that collections, especially special collections are no longer important, but that integrating the library into the teaching and learning process, supporting research and being viewed as a trusted partner in the academic enterprise are where our strategic efforts should be focused.

” if library directors are no longer as interested in serving as the discovery starting point for research,” I’m a little confused. If library directors are choosing to focus on the unique physical or digital properties of their respective libraries–as was also suggested in an ARL report a while back–and relinquish role as central portal for academic research, then lib. directors see their future as archivists and curators, yes? Future is a network of work flow applications tied to OA and some digital objects (the Web itself). Not saying I don’t agree, just wondering if that is what is being taken from this survey. Thanks, in advance for any input on this…

The future is a network tied to OA!

I hope not, OA is but a small part of the vast body of scholarly communication and one that seems to be shrinking rather than growing. It seems to me your prognostication is rather viewed from a rear view mirror!

Not sure OA is entirely a ‘rear view mirror’ issue, some publishers seem still to be paying attention to it. That said, my question was about the directors’ expectation of the role of the library.

There’s an important but easily overlooked word in that quote: “as”. From the view we have of the data, it would be overstating things quite a bit to say that library directors as a whole are relinquishing the role of the library in discovery. Certainly the trend has been in that direction for a little while, but healthy majorities still consider it important. Notice how strongly the question is phrased, asking about libraries as “the *first* place” for content discovery, and note also that the pictured graph shows only those who *strongly* agree. (I also wonder how the unfortunate word “place” affects the responses. There are obviously very few who would make the case for a library’s physical facilities as the first stop for discovery.)

As a side note, it’s fascinating to me that faculty are *increasingly* likely to begin their research at the library website or ahem “catalog” (see p. 37 of the report). That suggests that the investment over the last decade in discovery services has been well placed.

My thanks to Roger and Ithaka S+R for the typically fascinating report.

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