In December, Ithaka S+R released a study on Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. It’s the result of interviews with history professors, graduate students, archivists, and librarians, as well as other “research support professionals.” It has advice for librarians and archivists on supporting research that’s worth reading. There has been some public anxiety from the library world, such as this blog post by a curator friend of mine that concludes: “What I’m hearing here is that history subject specialists are viewed as fairly useless to historians when it comes to their research. Does that frighten anyone else? How do we combat this perception? …And should we bother?” Good questions that I might address in a future column. For now, I want to take a look at parts of the document that confirm my belief that we’re all in this together. But what can that mean in practice?
Librarians often tend to think of their library as an island, which makes sense for a lot of activities. If I’m buying books, typically I would buy books because I thought they were appropriate for my library, my campus, and my users, not someone across town or across the country. That’s not always the case with my own work, but most of the time I operate as if I’m on an island, buying stuff that makes sense for the collection and guiding students to that stuff.
That’s not the way historians work, though. It’s not just that a lot of scholars see themselves as loyal to a profession rather than an institution, although I believe that’s true. It’s in the way they go about doing their research as well. Consider this passage from the Ithaka S+R report on historians and archives:
Typically, historians reported traveling to the archives they were working with, with a very small minority relying on local resources. None of the scholars included in these interviews were actively using the collections held at their local institutions. For the most part, scholars indicated that they had explored their campus special collections holdings upon arrival, [and] took note of relevant and potentially interesting sources. However, they generally have to look much farther afield for primary sources, and the campus collections are not a primary resource. (15-16)
The local collections that no scholars were using are the archives for primary resources, not necessarily the secondary sources in the circulating collections. This makes a certain amount of sense, because the uniqueness of archives compared to books in the regular stacks means that an archive can’t have the general campus appeal and adaptability of the ordinary book collection.
However, it turns out that it’s not just the archives and primary sources that send historians elsewhere. The report also claims that,
Among scholars, using a number of libraries, academic libraries are likely providing research support services to faculty from other institutions with all of their materials, not just the rare or unique materials. It was clear that history researchers are not solely reliant on the campus library for access to collections or research support services. (23)
It seems this is especially true of historians at smaller teaching-oriented colleges. One of the interviewees accepted a position at a small liberal arts college partly because of the proximity of a large research university library. Yet, despite the obvious fact that universities often send their PhD graduates off to jobs at colleges without research collections, it’s still usually the case that librarians at large libraries buy stuff for the library mostly with the thought of their own users in mind, and not the scholar who works at a small college with a tiny library and who thus relies on another library’s collection to do the research that’s still required for tenure.
In some cases, ILL can suffice to extend a library’s collection, and most libraries take advantage of it. My library, as large as it is, still borrows thousands and thousands of items every year. But ILL can only work for discrete, known items. If your research would benefit from searching Early American Imprints, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, or the Making of the Modern World databases, you need to be at a library that subscribes to them. It’s a small irony once pointed out to me by a visiting scholar that sometimes the people who could most benefit from having virtual access to a library’s digital resources are those who aren’t allowed such access.
The study concludes with some recommendations to libraries. For example, because “access to collections not available locally is an especially vital service for historians,” and, I would add, scholars in other fields as well, “libraries should continue to advance their borrowing partnerships and joint collection management plans” (43). Such partnerships are complicated affairs, but build on the strong tradition of resource sharing that academic libraries have developed over the last century.
Another suggestion for sharing is more complicated, though. One of the issues historians had was that librarians were rarely experts in their particular subfield, and thus supposedly of little use for research help. The first part is undoubtedly true for obvious reasons, but the inference is debatable. Nevertheless, building on that interpretation, the report suggests that in addition to collaboration around collections, libraries “may want to consider opportunities to make other types of services – such as staff expertise – more readily available to those at other institutions who can benefit from them,” claiming that “for historians, this would be beneficial if it were to allow institutions to develop deep specializations in discrete sub-fields of history” (43).
Leaving aside the benefits to historians or other scholars, the first question is, how would libraries do this? How could this be an organized project for a group of libraries for any subject? Would libraries hire for subfields, like departments do? Could there be a formal or informal network for every academic subject? I’m still questioning the premise that this would be beneficial, but before considering whether it would be beneficial, we have to question whether it’s even possible. No library is an island, but can everything really be shared?