March 16, 2018

Ithaka Study Shows Shifting Priorities Among Academic Librarians

Itahka GraphOn March 12, academic research nonprofit Ithaka S+R released its latest survey of academic library leaders. Gathering input from 499 library deans and directors from institutions large and small, the new Library Survey—the first of its kind since 2010—paints a picture of the shifting priorities of modern academic libraries, the challenges they face, and the resources and leadership techniques they’re using to meet those challenges.

According to study author Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka’s program director for Libraries, Users, and Scholarly Practices, the latest survey found many university libraries shifting their priorities from research assistance for faculty to information literacy training for students. Ninety seven percent of directors and deans responding ranked helping undergraduates “develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills” as “very important” this year, while just 68 percent assigned the same level of importance to the support for faculty research and scholarship. That’s down from 85 percent in 2010.

While helping students learn to navigate the rapidly evolving research environment is a priority, the study also found that not many library directors feel like they have a well-developed strategy for serving changing user needs, with less than 40 percent of library directors at undergraduate institutions strongly agreeing with the statement. While that is more than twice the rate of agreement that was seen in the 2010 survey, Schonfeld said it was still a concerning figure.

While those numbers may be less than heartening, the data also suggested one way to improve confidence in planning for change. “Those institutions satisfied with their data collection and analysis positively correlate with those who think they have a well-developed strategy to suit user needs,” Schonfeld told Library Journal. “That may suggest that libraries that are invested in gathering info about users and needs for new services are more likely to be able to develop strategies to serve those needs.”

One finding that will surprise few academic librarians showed that most academic library directors feel constrained by their budgets. Nearly 90 percent of respondents told Ithaka that a lack of financial resources was the primary constraint in their ability to change with the times. Those financial constraints were felt especially keenly on the staffing front. If they had more money to work with, most directors who responded to the survey said they would put that extra money towards hiring more library staff. Academic library heads hadn’t forgotten about their current employees, though—raising the salaries of existing staff was also a popular priority for a hypothetical funding increase. “What we’re seeing is library directors who would like to be able to invest more than has thus far been possible in their staff,” said Schonfeld.

From a collections standpoint, librarians reported a drop in spending on print journal subscriptions, while spending on subscriptions to online journals and databases rose steadily. Asked for their predictions, respondents expected both trends to continue. “Library directors are ready for the print to electronic transition in journals,” said Schonfeld.

In the transition from print books to ebooks, though, researchers found evidence that professors, not librarians, were taking point. The NPO’s 2012 Faculty Survey found that more than half of faculty members reported that ebooks played an important role in research and teaching while just over twenty percent of librarians at undergrad institutions said the same. According to Schonfeld, that gap is just one of several trends Ithaka S+R intends to track carefully between now and its next Library Survey, scheduled for 2016.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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