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Survey Highlights Digitization's Impact on Campus Libraries

Academic library leaders are feeling increasingly less valued by and less strategically aligned with senior institutional leadership, according to recent research from the nonprofit Ithaka S+R. The study, Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2016, released last month, highlighted a number of challenges facing library directors in an era of increased digitization. Another key finding: While most library leaders identified supporting student success as a high priority, only half of survey respondents indicated that their library has clearly articulated how it contributes to student success initiatives.

Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, the survey coordinator in Ithaka S+R's Libraries and Scholarly Communication program, discussed the survey results in a Future Trends Forum video chat May 19 hosted by Bryan Alexander.

Wolff-Eisenberg, who previously worked as a program coordinator for planning and organizational research for the Rutgers University Libraries, explained that Ithaka S&R has conducted the survey every three years since 2010. The 2016 survey had 722 responses, with the response rate for doctoral institutions higher than for other types of institutions.

Alexander zeroed in on the finding that library directors feel increasingly less valued by supervisors such as chief academic officers. "One finding that has been constant across survey cycles is that library deans and directors see a lack of financial resources as a top constraint," Wolff-Eisenberg said. (Only about 20 percent of respondents agreed that the budget allocations they receive from their institution demonstrate recognition of the value of the library, the survey report notes.) What has changed, she added, "is that there are a number of questions about how the library director's vision aligns with the organizational vision and whether they feel like members of the senior academic leadership, and we are seeing decreases there."

Not surprisingly, the survey illustrates a broad shift toward electronic resources, Wolff-Eisenberg noted, with an increasing number of libraries developing policies for de-accessioning print materials that are also available digitally. In fact, since the 2013 survey, the number of surveyed library directors who have developed these policies has nearly doubled – from roughly one in three to approximately six in 10.

"Library directors continue to report increased spending on electronic resources and decreased spending on print resources, and they expect spending trends to continue in that direction," Wolff-Eisenberg said. However, fewer than 10 percent of library directors strongly agreed that within the next five years, the use of e-books would be so prevalent among faculty and students that it will not be necessary to maintain library collections of hard copy books.

And although they predict little change in terms of the share of their material budget devoted to items outside of journals, databases and books, a large majority agreed that libraries must shift their collecting to include new material types. "The responses to the question about investing in non-textual resources is interesting," she said. "They appeared to be saying they would shift collections toward new material types, but when we asked them to break out budget allocations for five years from now, the results don't match their predictions that other types of items will be incorporated into their collections."

The survey also found that library directors are increasingly recognizing that discovery does not always happen in the library. Compared to the 2013 survey results, fewer library directors believe that it is important that the library is seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover content, and fewer believe that the library is always the best place for researchers at their institution to start their research.

"We see this reflected in our survey of faculty members as well," Wolff-Eisenberg said. "We have been tracking starting points with research for faculty members. Traditionally the most frequent place they say they begin the process is with a specific database or e-resource. But that started to change in the 2015 survey, when more respondents said they start with a general purpose search engine," she explained. "In corresponding fashion, with library deans, they are not as interested in being the place for research to start. Perhaps they see other types of starting points and that their resources are better allocated toward other areas of the library."

There is also a substantial gap between how faculty members and library directors perceive the library's contribution in supporting student learning. Both tend to agree that students have poor research skills, Wolff-Eisenberg noted. The faculty members see it as more of a problem, but they are less likely than library directors to see librarians contributing to student learning by helping them to develop research skills, she said.

Survey results also portray a shift in resource allocation toward services, with library directors predicting the most growth for positions related to teaching and research support. The positions for which respondents anticipate the most growth in the next five years are related to instructional design, information literacy and specialized faculty research support involving digital humanities, geographical information systems (GIS) and data management.

The full report is available on the Ithaka S+R site. The survey will be conducted again in 2019.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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