May 26, 2017

Ithaka Survey: Humanities Faculty Love the Library; Scientists Less Enthusiastic

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Ithaka’s strategic consulting and research service today released the results of the fifth of its periodic surveys of college and university faculty. (For the full survey, see Gary Price’s post on For the first time, the survey was developed with the help of an advisory committee (which included librarians) and conducted online. Some 5,261 faculty members responded.

Ithaka will be depositing the dataset with ICPSR for long-term preservation and access, as it has in the past, and will be offering a local surveying service for colleges and universities that wish to examine the services needs of their faculty members.

Start here

Of particular note to librarians, the previous decline in the role of the library catalog has been “arrested and even modestly reversed,” which Ithaka thinks may be driven in part by shifts in library discovery tools and services. The trend was driven principally by changing behaviors among humanists, with smaller or no change in other fields.


The starting point or gateway function also experienced a modest resurgence in perceived value for the first time since 2003. About two thirds of faculty rated this role as very important. Interestingly, the rating of this role as very important was largely the same across disciplines, even though faculty use of the library in this fashion varies dramatically from field to field. Faculty members are most likely to start at the library when they know what they’re looking for, at 40 percent, while more open-ended exploration of the literature tended to start instead at a specific database or search engine. Again, humanists are particularly attuned to the library, with almost twice as many of them starting at the library website compared to scientists. For exploring the scholarly literature, again, a much larger share of humanists than scientists start at the library website. “Perhaps because of the different types of materials that they use, scientists and humanists utilize very different infrastructure for discovery of needed materials,” the report concluded.

Collection is still king

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Of course, while the structure of these questions poses databases as a separate resource from the library, at most institutions access to such resources is also provided by the library, something the report itself notes. Some 80 percent of respondents indicated that their own college or university library is a very important source of journal articles and scholarly monographs for research and teaching. (Slightly larger shares of scholars at research institutions rated their own institution’s library collections or subscriptions as very important.) And indeed, of the library’s many roles, that of the buyer of resources remains the most important, rated very important by more than 80 percent of faculty. However it did decline by about 10 percentage points since the previous survey, something which Ithaka speculated might be due to the increased availability of free materials.

When it comes to what to collect, a solid majority of respondents continued to strongly agree that it would be fine with them if their library were to cancel print subscriptions in favor of e-only access for journals, but the trend of increasing agreement did not continue. In contrast, the share of respondents who agreed that they were only “okay” with journals ceasing print publication and going to an all-electronic format grew substantially, though the total number was still smaller than those who don’t care if their library collects the print version.

Likewise, while the majority of users are quite comfortable with electronic materials in general, the reaction to long form monographs in electronic form remains more mixed. While a growing share of respondents expects substantial change in library collecting practices for monographs in the next five years, more than 80 percent still say it is somewhat or much easier to read a monograph from cover to cover in depth in print format. Not surprisingly, as the task involves shift toward the interactive—exploring references or searching—the proportions shift until they are practically reversed.

The share of respondents who rated the library’s role as a repository or preserver of information as very important fell by about ten percentage points since the 2009 survey, to slightly less than two thirds. (The decline in the overall share of respondents who rated the archive role as very important was principally driven by a decline in the share of humanists and scientists who rated this role as very important. Social scientists remained about the same.) And yet, there’s clearly much room for the library to expand this role, particularly in the area of data. While about 80 percent of respondents say they preserve their data after their paper is published, most are doing it on their own. Under 20 percent turn to an institutional or other online repository, and even fewer said that their library or publisher preserves the materials for them.

Beyond the content

Emerging roles for the library, such as supporting instruction and enhancing research productivity, were rated as less important than more established ones, and rated even less important as compared to 2009. Again, a substantially larger share of humanists rated these roles as very important in contrast to responses from scientists, with social scientists in between—about two thirds of humanists rated each role as very important, compared to less than 40 percent of scientists. Not surprisingly, baccalaureate-only institutions tended to rate the teaching and undergraduate support roles more highly and the archive role less so, while research universities reversed those priorities.

Helping undergraduates develop research skills, while rated highly important by library leaders, doesn’t strike faculty the same way. Only slightly over half rated this role as very important, and most did not agree that this is primarily the library’s responsibility, though nearly half did agree that librarians help students develop these skills and succeed. In both cases a substantially smaller share of faculty respondents in the sciences agreed.

“This raises important questions about a perceived mismatch between library services and the needs of undergraduates in the sciences,” the report concluded.

Among humanists, all roles except for the research support role were rated as very important by more than two thirds of respondents. Among scientists, however, just over half rated the gateway and archival role as very important, and even smaller shares rated other roles as very important. Over a quarter of scientists agreed strongly “because faculty have easy access to academic content online, the role librarians play at this institution is becoming much less important” (compared to about 20 percent overall).

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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