May 11, 2018

Top 10 Academic Library Issues for 2015 | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellThe beginning of the year brings many “top” lists for what to look for in 2015. So far there’s not much predicting what looks big for the academic library world. Here’s a shot at it.

In January, EDUCAUSE released its top ten information technology issues for 2015. It was just one example of the many lists produced at the beginning of a new year that look ahead in an attempt to predict what’s ahead for the coming year. Developing a list that tries to offer those insights isn’t exactly an attempt at futurism. It’s about bringing attention to a set of concerns that are likely to matter to most of us. If you look at the EDUCAUSE list you’ll see that some of the issues are almost always present, such as data security. Perhaps I overlooked it, but nowhere did I come across a top issues list for academic libraries, so I decided to put one together. It’s a mix of a few items that continue to concern our profession, ebooks for example, and a few that continue to emerge.

Top 10 Issues

Here’s a list of issues or areas of concern, not intended as a ranking, that to my way of thinking represent where academic librarians will want to focus their attention in 2015:

  1. Alternate Higher Education
  2. Shifting Staff
  3. ACRL Information Literacy Framework
  4. Transition to Openness
  5. Digital Education
  6. Accessibility
  7. Library Space
  8. Ebooks
  9. Student Data
  10. Leadership

Alternate Higher Education: Everyone is wondering what’s become of “The Year of the MOOC.” For a while it seemed that these free online megacourses would continue to dominate the face of change in higher education, but now that is less certain. There are still plenty of MOOCs for now, but traditional higher education continues to splinter and morph into alternate versions of what postsecondary learning can be. Competency-based education is more likely to be the big story of 2015 as new institutions receive approval to offer these degrees. As these alternates continue to emerge, academic librarians will be wondering how they fit into the equation and whether their traditional services will have value to students experiencing higher education in entirely new and nontraditional ways.

Shifting Staff: Academic librarianship is an aging profession, yet there’s no retirement exodus happening. Excepting a noticeable increase in the number of deans and directors retiring, there’s little to suggest that academic librarians in their 60s and even 70s are planning some mass retirement—and 2015 starts the peak five-year period when some boomer librarians will turn 65. The lack of professional opportunities continues to stymie new librarians who want to start their full-time careers. It also hampers our profession’s capacity to broaden its racial and ethnic diversity. Where the real action is happening in 2015 is the shift from traditional to nontraditional positions in academic libraries. Reference librarians, instruction librarians, catalogers, etc., will continue to dominate, but 2015 will see more academic libraries creating new types of positions, such as user experience librarians and digital scholarship specialists, or morphing those traditional jobs into new roles with different responsibilities—and continuing the trend of non-MLS hires in academic libraries.

ACRL Information Literacy Framework: Now that the ACRL board has accepted the new Framework and issued the final version, this year will be one of transition. Perhaps hold on to those Standards just a bit longer. ACRL will be putting its massive overhaul process into drive to help us all manage the changeover. Academic librarians are already taking the literacy initiative into all sorts of different directions. Whether you like to keep it basic and stick with the search fundamentals or explore new territory with critical literacy, the Framework will give you something with which to work. If the transition process keeps academic librarians engaged in a lively conversation about what works best when it comes to information literacy, things should continue to be interesting in 2015.

Transition to Openness: There’s more than one transition under way, and 2015 should be another year of strong progress for the move to openness in higher education. Leading the way is the expansion in open educational resources. A 2014 survey of faculty revealed that 65 percent were unfamiliar with open educational resources (OER). With more institutions encouraging their faculty to adopt OER in order to help students eliminate textbook expenses, it’s guaranteed that more faculty will know about OER and make use of them in the future. Another thing you can depend on is that academic librarians will lead the way in 2015 to promote the use of OER and continue to push the boundaries of openness in higher education. I believe this will have spillover effects causing more faculty to gain sensitivity to openness in scholarship, particularly in the growing area of open science.

Digital Education: While a purely online college education is only one possible track in the spectrum of Alt-Higher Ed options, the distance education track offered at most traditional colleges and universities continues to show modest growth. It is likely to become even more essential to revenue streams in 2015. After a slight drop in expectations last year, owing primarily to problems in the for-profit sector, a record number of academic administrators say that digital education is critical to the long-term strategy of their institution. That leads me to believe that digital education, college courses, and degree programs being offered primarily via digital platforms (hybrids can fit here as well) offer even bigger opportunities for academic librarians in 2015.

Accessibility: Given the size of your institution, and whether it has public or private status, achieving universal accessibility may not yet be a factor in how your library delivers services. However, the necessity to meet the requirements for 508 compliance across the full spectrum of those services, from the stacks to your website to your third-party e-resources, is no longer a matter of if but when. If you and your library colleagues haven’t paid much attention to accessibility, 2015 is a good year to begin. Start with your website, then move on to a review of your electronic resources. Though time-consuming, it’s better to start slowly and work through it rather than being forced by external parties to get compliant quickly. Focusing on the benefits the changes bring to your community’s disabled members makes the effort worthwhile.

Library Space: You might say that library space (and what we’re doing to improve it to meet user expectations better while positioning the library as a place of intentional learning and community engagement) is always a big factor, in any year. In 2015, I think academic librarians will be doing even more experimentation with their spaces in an effort both to attract even more students and demonstrate the beneficial impact of students connecting with the library and librarians. We’re only beginning to explore how new spaces for digital scholarship and creativity fit into the academic library. We’ll be learning more from one another this year about how to get these spaces right.

Ebooks: I don’t tend to pay as much attention to ebooks as some other academic librarians do, but even I know that in the coming years, as we continue to make the digital shift, ebooks will be increasingly essential to academic library collections. While there are still many sources of dissatisfaction with ebooks, from access and sharing policies to pricing, they will continue to evolve in 2015 and the major publishers will continue to figure out better ways to respond to the librarian community’s concerns. The big question, though, is whether we’ll see more user acceptance in 2015 that will move ebook collections from their primary functionality as searchable databases to a source community members go to for their reading.

Student Data: In 2014 I first wrote about higher education’s growing interest in using student data for monitoring academic performance, primarily as a way to intervene with at-risk students by alerting faculty to the need for additional support. Despite concerns about students’ privacy rights and the potential harm that could result if they’re violated, expect 2015 to be a growth year for colleges and universities adopting predictive or learning analytics systems. Some academic librarians will explore how these systems work and whether the library can leverage them to provide more personalized services to students. Some academic librarians will reject these systems and advocate against them on the grounds that we have a duty to guard and maintain patron privacy. On whichever side of this debate you find yourself, expect student data systems to grow in prominence in 2015—and for academic libraries to play a bigger role in how they are deployed on campus.

Leadership: Why leadership? That’s always important to our efforts to help increase our presence on campus and advocate for change at our institutions. What might be different in 2015? With more intense pressure on academic librarians to demonstrate their value on and beyond the campus, we will need those who lead at every level in their library to bring the focus and energy required to build the library’s secure future as an essential contributor to the success of our students and faculty and the institution itself. I look forward to engaging in some new leadership projects in 2015 and working with colleagues to provide better learning opportunities for all those who want to enhance their leadership skills.

I suppose if we academic librarians were to work collectively to compile a top issues list it would become lengthy. Some would want to add more technology matters, such as the design of academic library websites, mobile services, or our need to master educational technology more firmly. Others would want to add the issues at the heart of their work for 2015, such as linked data, research data management, e-science, resource constraints, assessment, and more. I’m reminded of any number of “top lists” that are then challenged by commenters who think that entirely different items should be included. That’s fine. I make no claim that my insight into building such a list is superior to what any other academic librarian has to offer, so feel free to let me know what I missed and why. I will look forward to seeing what issues garner the bulk of the conversation in our library community throughout the year. One thing is for sure: some issue will emerge that no one quite saw coming, and it will likely be the one we are all talking about in December.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Jahlen Tuvilleja says:

    Thank You Very Much for this!!! I really need this for my report tomorrow with the newest trends and issues in academic library. I am so glad I found this.

    • Nothing like some timely information.

      I hope you’ll add some other key issues into your report – lots of other great research from OCLC, Ithaka and others that would help you.

  2. Roger Strong says:

    Great list Steven!! I do think digital humanities could be #11 on this list, as libraries are still trying to figure out a strategy around how this fits at their particular institution. Good stuff!

    • Hi Roger. Thanks for reading this column. Yes, I was debating whether or not to go with DH, but I decided it wasn’t an issue as much as an important service most academic librarians will want to start supporting. Why wouldn’t you do this if you have researchers moving into this area. As far as strategy, the one that seems to be most emerging is to develop a digital scholarship center within the library. some are elaborate spaces with all the bells and whistles, including visualization walls. Others are just office space with scanners, etc. I think the challenge is figuring out what exact services will be provided – but local demand might drive that.

  3. kamlesh vyas says:

    Dr. Steven

    Really nice message for academic librarians. It is all touching points for all. thanks for the discussion.

    • Thanks for the positive feedback kamlesh. Appreciate you reading the column and let us know what your top issues are.

  4. Loc Nguyen says:

    Thanks Steven for a very interesting article. I could not agree with you more on most of of the issues you presented, especially the shifting staff and leadership ones :D. And the use of student data for at-risk-student scanning and interventions is really becoming a major topic among educators including us the librarians.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Haven’t heard the term “swirlers” as a group yet. Would you please elaborate?

  6. Hallo Bell,
    Thanks for enumerating & explaining top 10 trends affecting Academic Libraries considerably. It enlightens me to participate in a Seminar on the topic at IIT, Kharagpur in India on Aug 21, 2015.