The Question They Forgot To Ask

Make no mistake that the newly released Ithaka Report titled “Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education” is essential reading for all academic librarians – and it’s chock full of easy-to-grasp charts – so you won’t get bogged down in reams of text in getting the important messages. But as I read the document I thought that an important role of the academic library in the digital transformation was overlooked.

The 2006 faculty study marks the third triennial research effort in this series, so one of the valuable aspects of the report is that we can look back to see how faculty attitudes toward the library are changing. For example, faculty are asked to rate the importance of the library’s role on three dimensions: gateway; archive; buyer. Then we can see that between 2003 and 2006 faculty believe the library’s role as gateway has diminished, but that its role as archive and buyer has risen. The report also breaks out faculty responses by discipline so we can understand that humanities, social science and science faculty rate the library rather differently. As you might expect, the humanists value the library for its gateway role far more than the scientists.

But why are we only considering the role of the academic library as gateway, archive and buyer? I would argue this report needs to add a new dimension for faculty to consider – the academic library’s role as learning center and instruction partner. Where this study seems dated to me is that it focuses on the acadmic library’s traditional role as collector, organizer and gateway provider. I don’t find any information in the report (perhaps I missed it) about the institutions surveyed. Were they just surveying faculty at research universities or does this represent a wider representation of academic institutions? The authors, Ross Housewright and Roger Schonfeld, accurately conclude that “the profile and relevance of the library is in decline. There are a number of possible futures for the academic library, and strategic thought and change is needed to ensure that we move into a world in which the library continues to play an important role in the intellectual life of the campus.” That’s a great observation and we need to start asking faculty the right questions because as the authors point out “A deep understanding of faculty needs is critical to developing programs and services that will be valued…”. The question we should be asking – the point we should be raising – is how faculty rate the importance of the library as partner in achieving student learning outcomes.

Now it is true that this study focuses on the “digital transformation” and by its very nature that means a shift from paper to electronic content. But I would argue that an equally essential part of the academic library’s digital transformation is the shift from the gateway role to the teaching and learning role in a much more aggressive way that integrates the library into the digital learning environment that has become many faculty’s preferred method of delivering their educational content. Hybrid and online learning environments are only going to expand exponentially in this century, and the importance of the library as judged by faculty is only likely to diminish further if academic librarians fail to position themselves prominently in these learning spaces. I do suspect that if faculty were asked to rate the importance of the library as instructional partner, that many would rate it less important than the other categories; many faculty still regard academic librarians as the administrative staff that support their research by buying the books and journals and making it all accessible. I think that attidtude is shifting, but we no doubt have a long way to go. That’s why asking the question is a good first step in helping us to track our progress.

So my suggestion for whoever develops the 2009 faculty study is to add a new library role beyond gateway, archive and buyer. Those are important but perhaps a throwback to the library’s traditional past. We need to look ahead to a future where the academic library is as much valued for its role as educator and instructional partner (perhaps “instructional partner” is the simplest way to define this role for the sake of the survey) as for its collections and providing access to them. If we want to avoid a futher decline in the profile and relevance of the academic library, I advocate that the major change needed to ensure our important role in the intellectual life of the campus is the one that transitions us to a fully integrated partner in the teaching and learning process – in both physical and virutal classroom spaces. I have made a personal commitment to that change through my work at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. What are you doing to create this change?

19 thoughts on “The Question They Forgot To Ask”

  1. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your kind words about our study, as well as your suggestions on how we might improve the questions going forward.

    Let me clarify that the faculty survey was from a national (US) sample, including individuals from large research universities to small baccalaureate colleges (but not including community colleges).

    One of our demographic points is whether respondents consider themselves to be more of a researcher or more of a teacher, and we will look into whether the “value of the library” questions differ by this element. Although that will not directly answer your question about the library as learning partner, it may help us to isolate whether faculty role matters in their views on the traditional library functions.

    In addition, I’ve made a note of your suggestion that we add a question about the learning partner role should we pursue a 2009 faculty survey. Through other research areas and our affiliated organization NITLE, we have an ongoing interest in the support of teaching and learning, and these surveys could do a better job of addressing these interests. As you point out, we are right now in the process of considering whether and how to mount a similar survey for 2009, so feedback and suggestions of this sort are especially valuable for us right now.

    Thank you,


  2. Following up on Roger’s comment, I took a look at the data to see how questions addressing the value of the library varied between faculty who self-reported seeing themselves as more of a teacher or as more of a researcher. In general, more faculty who considered themselves as primarily teachers felt that the role of the library had continuing importance than did those faculty who considered themselves primarily researchers. On the other hand, faculty who considered themselves primarily researchers depended more on the library for their research than did those who considered themselves primarily teachers (perhaps an intuitive result due to the framing of the question). Another interesting difference can be seen in the gateway, archive, and buyer roles. Faculty who considered themselves more researchers rate the library’s buyer role as more important than do faculty who consider themselves more teachers, but on other roles the two groups are about even. I think those are probably the most relevant questions to this topic, but if any others come to mind I’ll post them here as a further comment.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts on the surveys. The library’s educational roles definitely deserve further study, and we’ll keep that in mind in thinking about our future research.

  3. If librarians work closely with faculty in various subject areas in the selection of both monographs and periodicals, use the the library will remain a valuable source for scholarly research. My site, Web Based Resources gets thousand of hits each month. It was created at Emporia State University while I was a librarian there.

  4. Steven, there was so much I wanted to say in response to this post that it took me a week to write two related posts on other blogs.

    Questions to Ask about Librarianship and the Future: Thoughts about the Ithaka and Portico Reports:

    Assumptions about Library’s Roles in Disasters:

    Excellent observations, and thank you for kicking off a valuable discussion!

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