I’ve been wanting to write on the Ithaka Faculty Survey 2009. but I’m not sure I have time for more than selective comments This is the latest in the series of surveys that seemed designed to show how irrelevant librarians are becoming because while faculty used to see the library as a gateway to information, they now find the buyer role much more important. Thus, we librarians need to do something.
Here’s the first main finding:
1) “Basic scholarly information use practices have shifted rapidly in recent years, and as a result the academic library is increasingly being disintermediated from the discovery process, risking irrelevance in one of its core functional areas;”
The phrase “risking irrelevance” makes this sound bad, but I can’t see where this is a problem. The details aren’t any more fear-inducing. “As Figure 1 illustrates, the library‟s physical edifice and catalog have declined steadily as starting points for research. The research process is no longer likely to begin with a face-to-face consultation with a librarian, a visit to the library‟s special collections service points, or a search of the online library catalog. Rather, faculty most often turn to network-level services, including both general purpose search engines and services targeted specifically to academia” (5).
Why would we think that more faculty talking to librarians first or coming to the library building first would be good for anyone, including librarians? If the faculty came to librarians at all before, it was because resources were hard to find. Disintermediation is exactly what we should want. According to Figure 1, almost half of faculty begin their research with a subject-specific database, which is almost certainly paid for by the library, linked to the library’s website to enable easy access, and either providing the full text of resources the library subscribes to online or citations of books and articles the library has in print or will have to get through Interlibrary Loan. Thus, the library is still the “gateway” to resources far more often than the leading questions of the Ithaka survey would indicate.
About a third now begin with a “general purpose search engine” (gee, I wonder which one), which would merely duplicate the function of a subject specific index for anything behind a pay wall, plus link out to lots of free resources that we don’t even have to purchase and catalog. This is a good thing. I don’t mind at all being disintermediated for faculty beginning research. Academic librarians have worked very hard to make sure that the resources we have are easily available. Disintermediation has been our goal, and it looks like we’ve been very successful. Far from signalling some problem, this indicates to me a job well done by librarians. This is the decline of the “gateway” function of the library, but as Figure 7 shows, 59% of respondents still find the gateway function very important.
According to the survey results, faculty now find the “buyer” function more important than ever, with 90% of them indicating this function as very important. This is made to sound dire as well. “While the buyer role has always been important to the most faculty members, it is now by far the most important of the three” (9). Ah. By far! Here I might be betraying a research library bias, but the buyer role has always been by far the most important thing libraries do for faculty, and in a world of pay walls that’s going to be the case for a very long time. This becomes even more important when we consider faculty with research interests that can’t be satisfied by English-language books and journals.
This also seems a good thing. It at least means there is a function the library performs that 90% of faculty see as very important. Any thoughtful faculty member, if presented with a discussion rather than very focused questions, could easily see that “buyer” is never a category by itself, but often necessarily includes “gateway” as well. For a lot of material, someone has to select it, buy it, make it accessible somehow. “Buying” is more than just handing over money, unless you’re buying from Elsevier, in which case it is.
In addition to the “buyer” and “gateway” roles, there are also “teaching support” and “research support” to give us something to worry about.
“A roughly equal share of faculty members rate these roles as very important, and the importance of both of these roles is rated at almost exactly the same level as the library‟s gateway function [about 60%]. Neither receives anything close to the universally high importance expressed about the library‟s buyer role. In the absence of tracking data, it is impossible to speculate whether recent library investment in these roles has positively affected their value to faculty members or if they will over time come to be among the most widely valued roles of the library (although analyses stratified by years in the field or faculty rank do not show noteworthy patterns)” (10).
In this case, the statements themselves are worded to get low responses.
The library supports and facilitates my teaching activities (which we refer to as “teaching support”)
“The library provides active support that helps to increase the productivity of my research and scholarship” (which we refer to as “research support”)
Given the questions, I’m surprised even 60% acknowledged them as very important. How do libraries directly support and facilitate teaching? Library instruction. Course reserves. Research guides. Sometimes classroom space. Nothing else is coming to mind at the moment. There’s lots of indirect support, of course. Reference. Collection development. From a professor’s perspective, teaching doesn’t have much to do with the library.
And notice the way the second statement is phrased: “active support.” What does “active support” mean? I buy materials requested by faculty, answer their library questions, solve their library problems. Are those too reactive? Maybe I could do their research for them and provided bulleted summaries of articles for them. No, that would still be reactive since they’d have to tell me what they’re working on. Maybe if I pestered them in their offices until they gave me some work to do, that would be active. Or, could it be that these particular questions are too vaguely worded to drive any generally applicable change?
Some might read the Ithaka report as a sign that librarians are doing something wrong or that they’re “risking irrelevance.” Instead, I think the report shows we’re doing something right, and at worst that something is too hidden from outside eyes. Providing the librarians are actually doing something, it shouldn’t be too difficult to show the usefulness of that work if pressed. I can read this as a call to engage faculty more and explain our work, but even without that, the librarians aren’t irrelevant.
There is the argument that irrelevance is in the eye of the beholder, and that if faculty view the library or librarians as irrelevant, then they are irrelevant. But most faculty don’t see the library as irrelevant. The 90% that see the buying function as very important tells us that, and the buying function entails a lot of other functions.
Also, the faculty are not the only users of the library, and depending on the library might not even be the primary users. More students than faculty use the library, and they have different needs. If some of the same questions were asked of them, the answers might change. Do librarians provide active support for their research? Research instruction, online and in-person reference, consultations, workshops, outreach–
many of the public services of academic libraries are designed to provide active research support to students. When it comes to their own research, the faculty are the experts. Many of us work to educate students to the point they don’t need us anymore, not to make ourselves more necessary. This would seem foolish from a professional perspective if there weren’t always new groups of students. Our job is to make ourselves unnecessary in any direct way.’
Because it’s focused on faculty, the Ithaka survey ignores a distinction I’ve notice in my own work and read from others. There is split between the major library needs of faculty and students. Faculty need libraries to buy materials for their research. Students need support services to teach them to do research and find the materials the library already has. This report confirms for me this statement about the faculty. Do they think the buyer function is overwhelmingly important? Of course they do! And so do I. That’s mostly what faculty need, and I’m mostly in a position to fulfill that need.
We need a parallel survey of students, but that’s more problematic. To get a fair comparison, it couldn’t be all college students, because that category is an incoherent mess these days. It would have to be students actually working on research projects. Ask them about the gateway function and research support of the library, and I think the responses would be more favorable than those of the faculty. What little I’ve seen on the topic indicates that after starting with Google and Wikipedia (which is pretty much what I do these days), students working on research papers visit the library website next. We are their gateway to scholarly information, and when they don’t need us as a gateway anymore, we’re still their buyer.
I wanted to comment on another part of the report, but I’ll spare you now and save it for a post on pooching the serials crisis.