August 21, 2013
Ithaka 2012: A Belated Analysis

The Ithaka 2012 faculty survey came out a few months ago, and quite a few people have already weighed in on its findings. However, as academic libraries prepare for the fall term, particularly as regards faculty outreach, it’s worth taking another look at this comprehensive survey that examines faculty attitudes on a wide range of topics, from scholarly communication to undergraduate education to, of course, library services. As usual, the results and conclusions present a mixed bag for libraries.

The Drift

Perhaps most frustrating (albeit unsurprising) overall is the slow rate of change in faculty perceptions of what the library is and what it does. From the library’s perspective, the information landscape and the library’s role in it have evolved rapidly, even in just the last few years. In contrast, faculty perceptions of what the library does, and what the library is for, have changed very little. On the other hand, when you consider that the library is ancillary at best to what faculty do, perhaps this is not so surprising. (The library is the heart of the university, we say, and yet how many of us really think about our hearts unless something is wrong?)

Some changes that faculty do seem to be aware of include a growing plethora of discovery tools, not all of which are library-based; increased options for “keeping up,” even if the mechanisms for doing so remain largely unchanged (talking with colleagues, skimming journals, and receiving TOC alerts); that the vast majority of scholarly journal literature is available digitally (though preference for this format has flatlined and fewer than 50% of faculty think that getting rid of print holdings altogether is a good idea); and that support for digital research, including finding data sources and data analysis, is increasingly available.

On the other hand, faculty are still relatively unaware of, and do not value, the library’s instructional mission. The library’s place in the overall institutional mission with regard to student learning is also highly variable.

The Value

Faculty continue to value the library primarily for our resource-gathering and -access abilities. That this is down a bit is not entirely surprising; not so much because open access has gained traction (it’s actually gained relatively little) as because the library’s hand in access provision to online resources is often invisible. A faculty member or student on campus might Google a research article, click the link, download, and read it without ever realizing that the library had enabled access to the resource—at least, not until they’re off campus and try the same thing. Increased visibility of metadata online is generally a good thing, but it doesn’t always come with increased visibility of the library’s role in providing access.

The library is still primarily seen as a collector of things to which it provides access, rather than as an educational unit in its own right. Since the peer-reviewed journal remains the ruling vehicle for scholarly communication, access provision to this literature remains a core mission element for which the library is still highly valued. This is particularly true in the humanities, which generally requires greater access to older literature and materials that can be hard to find even in the new digital age, and which places greater emphasis on library research at the undergraduate level generally. A somewhat surprising statistic from the 2012 survey is that 70% of faculty surveyed had used a research monograph in the past year. Guess it’s not time to stop buying books yet.

But the library’s holdings are still the most important place for journal access—followed by free, as in open access, materials, personal collections, then other institutions and departmental subscriptions. This suggests that we’ve done a good job at being a convenient point of access for journals, and that the library’s ability to secure pricey journal subscriptions is still valued. For all that I favor open access and espouse a sponsorship model where libraries financially support access for all, I also recognize that we’re still a long way from that, and may never get there.

An interesting data point from the survey that also points to the library’s value as a collector of things is that faculty are most likely to start with the library when searching for a known item: i.e., to see if the library has it or can provide access to it (probably a distinction without a difference to most faculty, to whom the access v. ownership debate has largely been invisible). Faculty are more likely to use discovery tools or search engines when browsing or exploring, which suggests that, much like their students, they’re inclined to start with Google—or with a specialized discovery tool for their discipline.

The Invisible

The lack of perceived value in the library’s educational mission is disheartening, but again, perhaps not all that surprising. In the sciences, which I primarily support at my institution, students in lower-division courses still rely primarily on their textbooks to acquire the basic knowledge, skills, and techniques of their disciplines; it takes a few years to acquire the expertise necessary to even start reading the literature. At the upper levels, faculty often prefer to teach literature searching—as well as how to read it—themselves. In this scenario, the library’s role is simply to provide access to the necessary tools.

The library’s educational mission is far more evident in the humanities, which assign research-intensive projects and papers at lower levels more often than in the sciences. This makes a certain amount of sense since a big part of learning to “do” English or history involves learning to read the literature. Reading is important in the sciences as well, but of a lower priority than learning core concepts and laboratory techniques. A key strategy with the sciences is to insert ourselves in the process where appropriate—i.e., where students are being asked to conduct literature searches of their own.

Open access has still gained relatively little traction, though more faculty are aware now of what it is. The key thing for faculty is that their colleagues and peers are aware of and read their research. While open access seems as though it would be a great way to facilitate that—anyone can read your work, anytime!—in fact faculty are more likely to target their publication efforts at well-recognized journals, whether these are open access or not. Merely being open access is not enough for a journal, especially since not every journal that claims to be open access is reputable. And while some OA journals have done just fine using publishing fees—Public Library of Science, for example—this model has an uphill battle to gain widespread acceptance among faculty, particularly humanities faculty who may not have any grant funding for their research. Could a library budget for these fees? It would require a radical shift in how libraries do budgets and what we use our money for.

It’s also not exactly surprising that faculty do not tend to use the library building much, and think that less money should be spent on it. To begin with, if faculty are primarily working in a discipline where the journal article is the main literature object, the increased digital availability of such objects means that faculty don’t have to come to the library to use them. Monographs are a somewhat different case, obviously, but even here a faculty member might stop by only long enough to check them out. However, this indicates a lack of awareness of how libraries are being recast into student-oriented spaces—and the students are coming. Our library building is one of the busiest buildings on campus in terms of foot traffic; most of the complaints we receive involve lack of space in which to work and noise. While we shouldn’t necessarily expect faculty to be interested in student spaces (though it would be nice if they were), the creation of space for students to work, particularly collaboratively, is worth spending money on.

The Message

Much of the literature on the future of libraries talks about “preserving relevance” and “reminding them why they need us.” This kind of language strikes me as self-defeating. If we do not already believe in our own relevance and that we are needed, why are we here? For starters, I strongly support changing up this discourse and talking about what we do in a way that recognizes that the future is already here. Libraries of necessity have a reactive component since part of our mandate is necessarily to preserve access to the past. If we’re going to talk about preservation, let’s do it in that context; humanities scholars, particularly historians, will thank us.

One thing we should be doing a lot more consistently is enabling access paths and providing content in the ways that work best for our users. E-books are one example. Now, I’m an e-book evangelist, though I’ve found the solutions many vendors have chosen for libraries to be cumbersome, frustrating, and unduly restrictive. But even I will admit that a lot of people skim e-books and read print in depth. Therefore, an online version either needs to a) enable in-depth reading at the same level as print; b) be the kind of resource that one tends to skim (such as an encyclopedia); or c) serve merely as a preview so the user can determine whether they want the book or not. I realize that I just advocated buying both print and digital, which in an era of stressed library budget (what era isn’t?) isn’t really feasible. But we can take advantage of print and e bundles, or use previews available from vendors or from Google books and integrate them into our catalogs. Amazon’s been doing “Look Inside!” for years. So should we.

Faculty even said that they’d like to use digital monographs more. Who wouldn’t? That’s a wealth of additional content literally at your fingertips. But they’ve also told us what it’ll take: a wider selection, better navigation, better downloading, better annotation features, and better integration into their existing media setups and workflows. In other words, and again, we should be working to make e-books just as good a research experience as print. Otherwise, we should stick with the print.

Another thing we need to do is continue integrating the library fully into the overall integration network, which includes journal platforms, websites, online indexes, and possibly professional networks. Many commercial vendors are trying out some form of the latter and while it’s not clear yet whether they’ll take hold—most researchers already have their own, informal networks—if they do, that’s another place for libraries to hook into. Faculty information access, like most people’s, is heterogeneous: the library is one of several places they go to get what they need. The question should be less whether they’re using the library, and more whether they know to check the library when they need an article, a book, or another resource. Several times I’ve had faculty tell me: “I should’ve come here first!” We need to make that easier for them.

We’ve recognized for years that the library is just one of many information options available to our patrons. Ideally, we should be fully integrated into the network of sources, channels, and contacts they use to do research, keep informed, and find what they need. Ithaka 2012 suggests that we’re on the right track in many ways. But we’ve still got a long way to go.

  1. stephenfrancoeur reblogged this from datamuse and added:
    Pull quote: “Much of the literature on the future of libraries talks about “preserving relevance” and “reminding them...
  2. datamuse posted this