Academic library existence at risk?

From the Ithaka survey of US Faculty , and library perceptions Figure 44 in full report.

“Percent of respondents agreeing strongly with each statement”

Because scholarly material is available electronically, colleges and universities should redirect the money spent on library buildings and staff to other needs

  •  2012: ~18% (results annoyingly seem to only be given in bar chart form, requiring me to graphically estimate numbers, sorry)
  • 2009: ~10%
  • 2006: ~8%

Because faculty have easy access to academic content online, the role librarians play at this institution is becoming much less important

  • 2012: ~20%
  • 2009: ~17%
  • 2006: ~4%

Around 1/5th of faculty surveyed agree with those statements in 2012. According to report narrative, even higher in the sciences, somewhat lower in the humanities.

What do you think those numbers will look like in 2015 when they run the survey again?

At what number (if not already) will the percentage of ‘strongly agreeing’ faculty (especially to the first one, ‘redirect money spent on library…’) result in lowered funding to libraries?

Because there is certainly some point, at any institution, it will, right?

Different institutions have different decision-makers for library funding, depending on public vs. private university, centralized vs decentralized, etc.   But in almost all of them, faculty opinion is going to have an effect on library decision makers, and when a substantial number of faculty think the library should have it’s funding reduced…. ?

While I think libraries ought to continue to have a huge role in university teaching, research, and culture — I think it’s indisputable that our role is,  in fact, lessening. And I think, at most institutions, faculty are right that the value they are getting for the substantial investment the university makes in the library… is getting smaller and smaller.  Less and less justified.

It’s not an issue of marketing, or just properly ‘branding’ ourselves.  (Or do you think that our marketing has gotten much poorer in the past 6 years, and that’s why the number of faculty thinking our budget should be reduced has doubled? Really?)

Our decades-old service models will not justify our budgets to our host institutions. The services we used to provide are, in fact, no longer as needed/valuable as they once were — no longer as succesful even in cases where what we’re trying to do is still needed and wanted, we’re failing at fulfilling those needs.

We will not survive by focusing on what we think our patrons need and ought to want, in contradiction to what our patrons say and believe they need and want. We will not survive by trying to convince them to want what we provide, but only by changing and coming up with new provisions that excite and delight them.

We need to change. We need to provide new and different services. We need to preserve some services, but significantly change the manner in which they are delivered.

And yes, that means we need to reduce and eliminate other services too. Change is hard. Yes, there are still some staff and patrons who are used to and rely on the services we’ve got now exactly how we deliver them now, and are going to be disrupted and upset by change.

But the number of patrons who think we are decreasingly relevant — and deserve a smaller share of the university’s budget — gets larger all the time.

When those numbers start effecting the relevant decision-makers, who start cutting library budgets as an overall share of the university budget (not just because overall university budgets are shrinking, which they are too) — our services will be reduced and eliminated then anyway.  Our staff and organizations will be cut, and in some cases even eliminated.

Insisting that what we’re doing really is valuable, and our patrons are wrong not to realize it — isn’t going to work (even if it were true, which I do not believe it is). We have to learn how to change faster and better, or we are not going to exist anymore.

The need for expert assistance in organizing and finding information is not going away, it’s only getting larger. There is — or ought to be — an important place for libraries in the contemporary university. But only if we learn how to provide the information services that our host institutions need today, not what they needed 20 years ago —  and are willing to seriously change up our game. Many of our library organizations are not willing to do this — in their practice if not in their leaders words, do not exhibit a willingness or capability to change. Those are going to be the organizations that disappear in the coming… decade?  There will come a point, if it has not already come, that it is too late to recover our value to our host institutions.

21 thoughts on “Academic library existence at risk?

  1. I totally agree with you on the marketing. We’ve been preaching that for years and where has it gotten us? If we cannot figure out better ways to remain “the heart” of the university then we deserve to go down in flames, but marketing ain’t the answer.

  2. Recognizing that the data presented here concerned faculty, I’m worried that the concerns of students, our primary users, one would think, who greatly outnumber faculty on most campuses, are being ignored and left behind.
    But yes, we academic librarians have a lot of soul-searching to do. This data is troubling. Thanks for posting.

  3. When you say you’re worried the concerns of students are being ignored and left behind, you mean that in your observations of academic library operation, you see libraries ignoring student concerns/needs? Or do you mean something else?

    Whether students are considered ‘primary users’ or not, and how much attention a library pays to them — probably depends on the particular institution, and the priorities of faculty and administrators at that institution.

    Because it’s worth pointing out that, ultimately, faculty perceptions have a _lot_ more impact on library funding than that of students, right? Students are basically powerless to effect funding, except in so far as their desires influence faculty and administrators, right?

    My own guess would be that students value the libraries actual staff and service provisions even less than faculty, although students probably value the library as a study/meeting space more than faculty. The study/meeting space role could be filled by any well-appointed study hall or student union, and does not require library staff expertise or programs… or does it?

  4. It may be relevant that the defunding of higher education has advanced tremendously in these years. Now that 76% of faculty positions are contingent, and a whopping 40% are part timers earning less than $3,000 per course in most cases) faculty priorities may have changed not because the library is less important but because the library is less important as everything else is thrown overboard.. In a sinking lifeboat, priorities shift.

    I wouldn’t worry about faculty power of the purse. They don’t have any.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree that academic libraries’ roles and how they are perceived are changing. Of course, they have always been changing (remember card catalogs?), though the changes seem to be coming at an increasing rate. We do know something about change, no? However, in moving an organization forward and planning for the future, there is always the risk of changing too much too fast, faster and more drastically than warranted by hard evidence. So looking at the 20% who think that library funding should be reduced I say: a) I imagine that there’s always been a baseline of faculty who don’t see the value of the library. What is it? Five percent? Ten percent? So the increase to 20% may not be that huge. b) 20% is still a pretty darn small number. Remember, this is a question about reducing funding for the library, so 80% don’t think we should reduce that funding–including all those part-timers (assuming that any large number of them actually responded to this survey, which is doubtful but unknown). What percent of them think we should increase funding? My point is, before we conclude that the 20% response indicates a large sea change that warrants drastic changes or cutbacks, let us ask some questions: 1) How much increase does the 20% really reflect? 2) What changes have we made that have made a surprisingly high 80% think that we should NOT cut spending? We should know what we’re doing right so that we can continue down that path. In fact, if we find we don’t have the time to do more of those successful things, then perhaps we SHOULD be looking at what else to discontinue. 3) Undoubtedly we do in fact do some things in out-of-date ways; for which of those things are the goals outdated as opposed to our methods of achieving those goals?

    We have some advantages over public libraries, where the patrons come primarily for entertainment (except the toddlers, who still need physical books); our patrons need degrees, they need to take courses to get those degrees, they need to complete assignments to complete those courses, they need information resources (in an ever more complicated world of information) to complete the assignments, etc. I’m not a luddite: I think we should be wary about talking ourselves into leaning on comfortable techniques that we know from years in the field; we can’t hide from the continual tsunami of changing technologies and social/communication/education pathways; we have the same amount of hours to address the ever-more-difficult information environment; we have to drop some things entirely; etc. But let’s not just charge ahead on the basis of 20% of faculty in a survey without obvious stratifying of results beyond science, social science, and arts & humanities; a survey that leaves lots of questions unanswered.

  6. The question is whether students will need a library to complete assignments to take courses to get degrees, and whether faculty will need a library to do research.

    Actually, that’s not even the question. The question is if they get sufficient value for the amount of money spent on the library, or if they can (or decision-makers will think they can) get by with a skeleton library at 20% or less of current library budgets, and still get what they need to complete assignments and do research — perhaps spending some portion of the remainder on information products/services from non-library organizations (especially third-party vendors) able to provide more relevant and cost-effective services than the library has been.

    And the question is when decision-makers will start realizing or deciding thus.

    Do they need anything more than a bunch of electronic subscriptions, whether purchased by an organization called a ‘library’ or not? I think there is indeed a lot more than this the library could be doing for them — but is what the library _is_ doing for them actually valuable, and valuable enough to justify the cost?

    1 in 5 faculty members do not think so. I vehemently disagree with your suggestion that 1 in 5 faculty thinking the libraries budget should be reduced as a proportion of the university budget is a “a pretty darn small number.” But more importantly is the trend, this number nearly doubling in the last 3 years.

    Return again to the two questions I begin this essay with: What do you think these numbers will look like in 3 or 6 years? At what percentage of faculty thinking the libraries budget should be reduced — will it be a sufficiently held opinion to lead to the libraries budget being reduced?

    Only if you feel confident that percentage with that effect is not going to be reached anytime in the foreseeable future — either because the percentage isn’t going to go up much, or because faculty opinion in fact has little impact on library funding — then indeed one could think there was no cause for alarm.

    I think that unless libraries change fairly drastically, that percentage is going to keep going up precipitously, and indeed, at many institutions, will start having a drastic effect on library funding probably somewhere around 30-40% — depending on the institution, due to some combination of: faculty influencing the decision-making administrators (or at a few rare schools actually collectively being decision-makers); faculty being representative of the opinions of decision-making administrators too; or faculty support of libraries being the only thing stopping decision-making administrators from the drastic reduction of library budgets they are intrinsically inclined to seek already.

  7. I work at a science and tech university where the library spends 95% of its budget on electronic resources. For faculty, it’s not necessarily clear that resources are subscribed, and it’s not necessarily the case that they’re interested either. (I think they ought to be because there’s something rotten about academic publishing at present.)

    The physical library is an anachronism for the vast majority of users (yes, it is a vast majority) and yet it serves as a meeting place and safe study space for very many users. The needs of one group does not eliminate needs of another, and it should be clear to building planners that the library serves a purpose here.

    The problem for universities is the funding model; we don’t see a partnership across departments, we see competition. This makes it easy to say ill-thought-through things about reallocation of resources.

    At the same time, we’re all aware that the real issue of resources is staffing, where the changing roles the library has require different skills and phasing out of certain tasks. I don’t think that libraries are particularly bad at this — I don’t think it is any better or worse than any other institution faced with similar challenges (for instance the faculties adapting to modern learning paradigms).

    I don’t think the role of the library in an academic institution is fading, just changing. I doubt that the current technological infrastructure would allow subscriptions to electronic content to be simply farmed out to third parties. I am aware of one UK university that is doing this, but I am unsure how well that is functioning; I also wonder to what extent this cost effective.

    I think we need to promote the partnership we have across the university, rather than focussing on “us” and “them”, and this is something that the library isn’t alone in.

  8. Great post. I’d say the right discovery service can help when it comes to changing service models and improving real and perceived value of the library. Case Western Reserve University library is an example of ARL that has leveraged discovery to change the way they connect with users (faculty and students) and they’re seeing a measurable impact which translates to value. I hosted a webinar ( with Brian C. Gray of CWRU in which he discussed some cool things they’re doing at his library that are making a difference.

  9. In part what I’m saying is that focusing on this decreasing percentage of faculty is a fool’s errand. If these cuts are coming regardless, and it appears that they are, then Barbara’s comment is correct. Appealing to faculty won’t be the bulwark against cuts that this post suggests.
    It may be nihilistic of me, but it seems at this point many academic libraries are playing a game that’s rigged. May as well focus on what we do best, and that includes student services, whether they are appreciated or not. The data I have shows that we are. As a librarian and an administrator, if my library is going down regardless, it’s going to do so on my terms. I won’t give up on outreach to administration or faculty; I will continue to use the language of institutional mission statements and strategic planning and to collect and present data that shows what we do and how we add value, but how we go about earning that data is going to be on our terms, not theirs.

  10. Rurik, do you mean 95% of the collections budget is spent on electronic resources, or do you mean that actually 95% of the total budget (including staff and facilities) is spent on electronic resources?

    It is hard to believe you could be so sanguine if you really mean 95% of the total budget — but I would (unpleasantly) not be surprised to see the academic ‘library’ of the future being exactly that — nothing more than a skeleton staff of 1 to a handful of people doing nothing more than licensing, with ‘patrons’ interacting directly with vendor-supplied software and support staff. Perhaps, in a second function, slightly more staff and resources may also reside in a study hall/student union facility of which it’s essentially of no practical effect whether or not the facility is managed by something called a ‘library’ or not.

    Even if still referred to as the institutional ‘library’ organization, it is exactly this scenario I see as the likely death of the academic library. In this scenario, the library is so downsized, so de-profesionalized, and so devoid of any remaining institutional role in providing any research or information management expertise — that it becomes nothing but a sad parody to suggest it’s still a library at all only with a so-called changed role.

  11. Yes, apologies, I should have specified that it was the collections budget. The issue is that around half of the total budget is spent on staffing the library; and I guess that maybe ten-fifteen people are involved directly with the electronic resources we spend 95% of the budget on. This really doesn’t make much sense to anyone looking at the library from the outside.

    Ironically, the situation you describe is reflected in the current dash to work with discovery systems, particularly those where there is a very tight partnership between discovery system and content vendors. This kind of move has some benefits for users, but essentially deskills library staff oriented towards systems. Equally ironically, the more effective your discovery system is, the more likely you are to have skilled IT people on your staff.

    The UK university to which I was referring is reported here:

  12. I enjoyed this – pragmatism is an elusive beast in the current world of libraries. It’s all very well librarians bleeting on about how ‘but we ARE just as important – we have to help them make sense of all these electronic resources!’ etc etc, but the fact is if faculty are saying we’re less important now than in 2006, we *are* less important now than in 2006. So, we need to be fluid and find the value we can provide for academics, researchers and students.

    But I think (predictably as I am a library marketer) that rallying everyone to believe that marketing isn’t important is really not the answer – the fact that our role and service is changing means that communicating how we can help people is becoming more essential all the time. People will not understand what we are changing to become if we do not market this information to them.

    What you’re proposing, broadly, is a market orientated service (what people need) rather than a product-orientated service (what we have) which I am 100% in favour of – I do this in my academic skills teaching and it goes down very well with the students, who think better of the Library as a result.

    There is a move towards doing this in the UK with the Subject Librarian Team (or equivalent) being remodelled in several institutions. We’re aware that the old service package simply isn’t fit for today’s purpose, and trying to do something about it.

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