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Faculty Survey Breaks Down the Role of the Library in Higher Ed

A new report from Ithaka S+R explores the multi-faceted role of the library in higher education. Every three years, the research and consulting firm's US Faculty Survey tracks faculty views on research, teaching and publishing practices to identify critical trends in higher education. For its latest iteration of the survey, conducted in fall 2021, the researchers polled 7,615 faculty members at four-year colleges and universities across the country about topics such as the value of the library, instructional support, equitable and holistic teaching practices, and more.

The survey tracked perceptions of the role of the library in nine areas:

  • Archive: "The library serves as a repository of resources — in other words — it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources."
  • Buyer: "The library pays for the resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases."
  • Gateway: "The library serves as a starting point or 'gateway' for locating information for my research."
  • Graduate Support: "The library supports graduate students in conducting research, managing data, and publishing scholarship."
  • Physical Space: "The library provides an informal academic environment and space that supports student learning."
  • Research Support: "The library provides active support that helps to increase the productivity of my research."
  • Teaching Support: "The library supports and facilitates my teaching activities."
  • Technology Access: "The library provides access to technology resources that support student learning."
  • Undergraduate Support: "The library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills."

Eighty-four percent of faculty considered the "buyer" role as the most important library function. Not surprising, faculty also said the academic library's collections or subscriptions are their most important source of scholarly materials: Eight in 10 faculty members rated those resources as highly important for their research and teaching, a data point that has remained the same for the past four survey cycles (going back all the way to 2012).

Still, the library's student-facing role, as an informal academic space that provides access to technology resources, received high marks from faculty. "While faculty members continue to view the library's most important function to be that of buyer of scholarly resources, they consider the library's role in providing direct support to students as essential," the report noted. Eight in 10 faculty members rated technology access and physical space as highly important library functions, and three-quarters considered the library's undergraduate support role as highly important.

Faculty in the survey generally supported the library's budget for both scholarly collections and physical spaces. Eighty percent of faculty agreed that when the prices of scholarly journals increase, colleges and universities should provide libraries with adequate budget to ensure continued access. And nearly half of faculty strongly disagreed with the statement, "Because scholarly material is available electronically, colleges and universities should redirect the money spent on library buildings and staff to other needs." However, faculty were indecisive on funding libraries' in-person vs. digital services: 44% neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement, "Because of the proliferation of experiences with digital teaching and learning, college and university libraries should redirect money spent on in-person services to digital support options."

The library role rated lowest in the survey was supporting faculty research. That is perhaps reflected in faculty members' self-service approach to managing research data: More than 80% of faculty in the survey said they are organizing and managing their data collection (including data, media or images) on their own computers. Two-thirds of faculty are using a cloud storage service such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Just a small percentage of faculty said their college or university library manages their research data.

The findings were similar for the preservation of research data once projects are complete. Sixty-five percent of faculty said they preserve these materials themselves, using commercially or freely available software and services. And 30% said they utilize a repository made available by their institution or another type of online repository. A small percentage said their campus or university library preserves research data on their behalf.

Finally, the survey explored the instructional supports that faculty receive from the library, instructional designers, teaching and learning centers or other service providers. Seven in 10 faculty said they receive support from one or more of those providers to promote academic integrity, adopt new pedagogies that integrate instructional technology, and understand copyright standards for their instructional materials. In particular, faculty considered the library a valuable source of support in all of those areas, as well as for discovering media content such as instructional videos for their teaching.

The full report is available on the Ithaka S+R site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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