Note: Roger Schonfeld, one of the authors of the study, commented and corrected some msiconceptions I had about the report. I’ve responded to him in the comments section – I’ll leave the original post unaltered, so you can see the context of his comments.
A recently released report by Ithaka – a nonprofit higher education and technology organization – discusses trends in the attitudes toward library importance, library role, resource format (electronic vs. print), and publishing method among faculty and librarians at various higher education institutions.
The report is interesting (I’m always interested in reports about how libraries are perceived), especially the section on attitudes toward library importance. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in the 8/26/08 issue, also commented on the report:
“Since 2003, faculty members across the disciplines have shown a marked decline in how devoted they are to libraries as information portals. Eighty percent of humanities scholars are still devoted to library research-although that may be not because they’re traditionalists but because they can’t yet get what they need in digital form. But only 48 percent of economists and 50 percent of scientists value libraries as gateways.
That should worry librarians whose budgets are eaten up by high-priced science journals. What if the designated users of those materials are sidestepping the library altogether?”
-Howard, Jennifer. “FYI: Scholar’s view of libraries as portals shows marked decline.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/26/2008.
The comment is more interesting than the report (which is a bit dry). So, anyway, the alarms sound because the trend shows that libraries are becoming less important in as gateways to information in the eyes of faculty: they don’t come to the library anymore to begin their research; nor do they start their research in the library’s OPAC. In turn, this threatens the viability of “librarian” as an important figure on campus.
However, I don’t actually think this report actually says quite what the quote from the Chronicle claims. First of all, the questions don’t particularly focus on “devotion” to library research – I would find an unusual devotion to library research a bit odd, actually. What’s more, the Chronicle author (and the report itself) seem to use “library research” to mean “research done while sitting in the library.” It should come as no surprise that much library research is done while not at all close to the library; this remote access has been a service goal of libraries for a long time. It’s laudable that you don’t have to actually sit in the library to conduct research using its resources.
Second, if you consider Figure 5 of the Ithaka report, it illustrates that the majority (something like 70%) of research is started using library resources in one way or another. It’s simply that it is conducted remotely (in fact, the report points out that ultimately, resource access is often via the library’s license, but the search starts somewhere else) or it may not start with a “generic library resource” approach. Breaking this down by discipline provides some no-brainer info: science faculty, for instance, rarely start in the library or the OPAC when they begin research, but rather in a specific electronic database.
This is not a surprise: science research is almost entirely journal-based, and the best way to access them is by going to the specific database in which the journal is indexed. The OPAC offers little support to science research when it starts (save for, possibly, knowing what journals the library owns), and given that the resources are electronic, and online, there’s no reason to come to the library. On the other hand, humanities scholars often have a more monograph-based research mode, and so they’ll begin in the library or with the OPAC.
In any case, while I think the library may in fact be less valued as a portal to information, this does not actually make the library less of a portal. After all, as pointed out elsewhere in the report, faculty don’t want to pay for access to the resources themselves; that’s the library’s job. However, faculty do wish to enjoy library-mediated access to those resources (and they get it, often no matter where their search actually starts). To me, this blurs the (somewhat artificial) distinction between “gateway” and “purchaser.” Without the library’s license to the materials, access would need to be mediated via some other means (which the faculty are loath to do, and rightly so, because that stuff is expensive) – ergo, the library is the gateway to the resource.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they know the library is the gateway, and that is where the report, I think, is really going. I don’t dispute the report. In fact, I thoroughly believe that the perception of value is a real problem. However, I think it’s heavily related to visibility: we’ve become so very good at providing seamless remote access to resources that nobody realizes that the library makes it possible for them to use these resources.