April 6, 2016
Everything libraries do is more important than before, a new study shows
by Chad Felix
A new study—“a wide-ranging exploration of how faculty members feel about information usage and scholarly communication,” notes Carl Straumsheim in Inside Higher Ed—has revealed that university faculty, faced with growing concerns that students are leaving university life ill-equipped to locate and use research materials, are turning to the library for help.
The study, which was conducted by the nonprofit consulting and research company Ithaka S+R and surveyed “9,203 faculty members representing all arts and sciences and most professional fields at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.,” shows, as Straumsheim puts it, “two storylines in higher education intersecting.” Firstly, “the results,” he notes, “suggest the pressure on colleges to improve retention and completion rates and prepare students for life after college appears to be influencing faculty members, who are more concerned than ever that undergraduates don’t know how to locate and evaluate scholarly information.”
[M]any faculty members view university libraries—which are engaged in a process of reinventing themselves and rethinking their services—as an increasingly important source not only of undergraduate support but also as an archive, a buyer, a gateway to research and more.”
The 2015 study’s findings contrast the same study conducted by Ithaka S+R in 2012 (they perform the survey every three years), which found markedly less enthusiasm for support for teachers, researchers, and undergraduates in libraries. And while the consensus remains that acquisition is by far the university library’s most important function, undergraduate support in particular is now seen as more of a priority, surpassing both gateway and archive functions.
It is the most obvious thing in the world, that the library is incredibly important as a collection of research materials, but what good are those collections if very few know how to actually access, and then asses, them? Still, given the contrast to previous years, this return to the importance of students knowing their way in and out of the stacks is a revelation. Straumsheim points out that:
Most faculty members — about two-thirds of respondents — said they see improving undergraduate research skills as an important goal for the courses they teach, but they are not alone in that pursuit. About half of faculty members now say librarians contribute significantly toward students being able to discover and use primary sources in their course work — “substantial increases” from the 2012 survey.
Furthermore, Roger C. Schonfeld, the director of Ithaka S+R’s libraries and scholarly communication program, writes that the study, authored by himself and Christine Wolff, shows that:
[F]aculty members are paying more attention to students’ skills and that they’re looking at the library as a partner. It suggests real opportunities for universities that wouldn’t necessarily be possible if it was just an administrative initiative rather than a set of perception changes.
And while the perception may have shifted, in general, it remains the same: libraries are important. Take it from Schonfeld: “[R]espondents in 2015 rated everything libraries do as more important than they did in 2012.”
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.