How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ithaka Survey

The Ithaka US Faculty Survey 2012 is out, possibly making some librarians who read it fret that the library isn’t the center of the faculty universe and librarians are hovering on the margins of that universe. Given that “the role of the library” occupies eight pages of a 79-page document, that’s hardly surprising. This year they asked a new question apparently designed to make librarians feel bad about themselves. Here’s the summary of the question and response:

Finally, we asked scholars to rate how important it was to them that “the library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.” In the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010 of deans and directors, when this role was first introduced into this module, it was rated as very important by virtually all of the library leaders who responded. Among faculty, however, only slightly over half rated this role as very important…. In general, a substantially smaller share of faculty members rated each role as very important than did library deans and directors; the only role on which there was agreement was the library’s buyer role.

“Virtually all of the library leaders” thought this was important but “slightly over half” of professors. I’d be curious whether the response would change if “critical analysis” and “information literacy” were dropped, the former because librarians play relatively little role in this compared to coursework and the latter because nobody besides librarians knows what the heck information literacy is. Would “librarians help students do library research” have gotten a better response?

Not that there was a lot of response, as Barbara Fister points out in A Surfeit of Surveys and Three Short Questions. A 3.5% response rate. Is that good? I’m no social science expert, so I turned to Wikipedia, which tells me that while a higher response rate used to be considered a sign of higher accuracy, “such studies have finally been conducted in recent years, and they are challenging the presumption that a lower response rate means lower survey accuracy.” Here’s the supporting evidence:

One early example of a finding was reported by Visser, Krosnick, Marquette and Curtin (1996) who showed that surveys with lower response rates (near 20%) yielded more accurate measurements than did surveys with higher response rates (near 60 or 70%).[2] In another study, Keeter et al. (2006) compared results of a 5-day survey employing the Pew Research Center’s usual methodology (with a 25% response rate) with results from a more rigorous survey conducted over a much longer field period and achieving a higher response rate of 50%. In 77 out of 84 comparisons, the two surveys yielded results that were statistically indistinguishable. Among the items that manifested significant differences across the two surveys, the differences in proportions of people giving a particular answer ranged from 4 percentage points to 8 percentage points.[3]

So if response rates near 20% were more accurate than response rates near 60-70%, does that mean a response rate near 3% is even more accurate? I guess by the time you get down to just calling that one professor you met that time and asking questions the accuracy should be just about perfect. It’s just possible that this report has no scientific or even social scientific validity. The other issue with reports like this is that they never tell you anything specific or applicable to your own campus. Thus, it could be that the survey isn’t valid and it has nothing to say about your campus.

Fister suggests that since so many faculty believe that librarians have no role in student learning librarians “should stop writing so many articles about information literacy for other librarians and think about reaching the faculty. Just a thought.” Someone commenting on her post agrees:

You offer a suggestion that I’d like to pick up on – that librarians should be writing about information literacy to professors, not to fellow librarians. Agreed, but the fact is that there is no market for it. Higher education journals rarely include anything on information literacy. I tried to sell a book manuscript on information literacy to a higher education publisher whose products are low-cost and accessible. The publisher’s senior higher education editor described my manuscript as “impressive and significant” and then turned it down. Why? Because “there’s no market for information literacy books among educators.” I later published the book with a library-oriented publisher, hoping (and having some success at it) that professors will read it.

What we could take away from this is that no educators care about the things librarians do, hence the lack of a market. Or, and here’s the more optimistic interpretation, there’s no market for books about information literacy among educators because it’s librarian jargon nobody else uses. To take a phrase only librarians use and then complain that nonlibrarians aren’t interested in it is frustrating and counterproductive. What about books on things other academics think they know about? Library research skills, perhaps. There seems to be a market somewhere for books like that. OUP published Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models and Princeton University Press published my colleague Mary George’s The Elements of Library Research. Neither are exactly bestsellers, but they’re both still in print and they belie the claim that there’s no market among educators for works about what librarians do. Some instructors assign Mary’s book to students, so some educators must know about it. Maybe the problem isn’t the content, but the phrasing. Unless librarians learn to talk like other academics, they will be much less likely to be listened to.

Nevertheless, librarians might find other reasons to fret. The situation reminds me of Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism, because why not. In section 12 of The Will to Power (or 11 [99] if you have a copy of the Writings from the Late Notebooks handy], Nietzsche describes what he believes are causes of nihilism. First, “nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a ‘meaning’ in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged.” Nietzsche was talking about meaning in the large sense, the meaning of life, the universe, etc. If we believe that the meaning of life is to dedicate ourselves to doing good works to please the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and we find that Pastafarianism is in fact false, we might become discouraged. The second form of nihilism comes when we believe the world has value because of some unifying source out there, like if we thought the world was worthwhile because we could become one with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Then we find out there’s no such thing, and believe life and the world are valueless. First we might come to believe the world has no overarching goal for human beings, and then that there is “no grand unity in which the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value.” If we believe that life has meaning only because of something we no longer believe exists, or that life is only bearable if there is a supreme being for us to immerse ourselves in but then we cease to believe in that supreme being, then we might be frustrated.

Okay, so what does this have to do with librarians, information literacy, or the Ithaka Survey? Let’s think about the frustrations of librarians with libraries, the academy, or even the world as they find them. Frustration often occurs because of a difference between our expectations about the world and the world as we find it. We base our value and meaning on something we expect or hope to find in the world; we don’t find that thing; so we begin to doubt ourselves.

Librarians are sometimes frustrated that faculty don’t use librarians as much as librarians would like to be used; that faculty don’t see a value in information literacy; and that faculty think of the library as a place that buys stuff and makes it available, not as a place where librarians are supposedly just as engaged in the teaching and learning enterprise as they are. (Obviously by faculty I mean those members of the faculty who are not librarians. That’s a different thorny issue I’ve been staying away from.) Often enough the response is sheer surprise. “But I do so much!” Yes, you do a lot. Sometimes the reaction is a pledge to do more outreach to make the faculty aware of what librarians can do. All well and good.

But what if we acknowledge that the faculty, such that are left, know what they’re doing and know what they need from the library. Let’s look at it from their perspective. They have PhDs, have completed dissertations, published articles and books, are either on the tenure track working like crazy for tenure or else contingent faculty teaching like crazy for food and rent. They’ve been using libraries successfully for a long time. Who are we to tell them they don’t know better? They don’t want services, they want stuff. That’s just the way it is. They don’t need you like you want them to think they do.

And their perceptions of what librarians can do for students? So half of the survey respondents think that librarians have no role to play? Well, that’s just the way it is, too. Professors aren’t  there when the befuddled student wanders up to the reference desk to ask a question. They’re not with librarians engaging in research consultations trying to reconcile a class assignment with a doable research strategy. They’re not there when a consultation turns into an advising session on the topic of the essay that really the instructor should be doing.

Or there’s the frustration that professors won’t let librarians into their classrooms. This is pretty common. Even one of my former library school students who was himself a professor admitted he didn’t let librarians in the classroom. Why is that, we might wonder? Well, based on my experience and a brief analysis of courses in the humanities where I work, the reason might be that most courses don’t really have a library research component. A lot of undergraduate classes don’t require research essays as such. They require essays, but the point of the essay is to show that students have mastered a certain amount of material and can write critically about it analyzing and synthesizing as appropriate. That’s why if they need sources, they tend to ask their professor or use course readings. A recent Educause study on undergraduates and information technology claimed that, “it is interesting to note that when students were asked ‘When it comes to your success as an undergraduate, what is the one website or online resource you couldn’t live without?’ the most frequently cited sources were Google (33%) and Blackboard (16%); both of these significantly outranked students’ citing the college or university library website (5%).” It’s only interesting to note if you’re not a student and everything you need to know to complete all your courses isn’t on Blackboard. Librarians want every course to require library research, but library research as such is a small portion of what students are expected to learn in four years.

There are areas where libraries and librarians can demonstrate their value, but being highly thought of as information literacy providers or educators by most of the faculty isn’t one of those areas. If we assume that libraries aren’t the center of the faculty universe and that librarians are never going to be generally seen as equal partners in the educational enterprise, then the sort of results we find in the Ithaka and similar reports provides us no basis for concern. If those sorts of results upset you at all, the problem could very well be with your expectations about the world, not the world itself. So even if the survey was statistically valid, which it probably isn’t, or said something specifically applicable about your campus, which it probably doesn’t, there’s really no reason to worry.

10 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ithaka Survey

  1. Good points (and thank you for the homework you did on response rates. I suspect the responses are as accurate as anything we’ve got; I also suspect it indicates what the report says, which is that libraries and librarians are not the center of the academic universe, so not worth the time it would take to fill out a survey.)

    Good analysis of the problem with the question and the words and phrases that might have led faculty to raise their eyebrows and say “uh, what? Librarians? Hell no.” I still find it odd that a largish percentage of respondents would say students’ skills are lacking but think it’s not their job to teach those skills. I can understand them thinking librarians are not in a position to do it – but who should?

    If nothing else, I think the survey should remind librarians learning how to find, assess, and build on knowledge isn’t our job – it’s the entire university’s job, and our role is necessarily limited because we are not students’ major professors.

    Since most students won’t go on to graduate school I would hope, whatever their major is, they get some significant practice in reading, evaluating, and sorting through information and some sense of how information works. Whether library research per se is how they do it doesn’t matter so much as that they have some experience making meaning and not simply having it made for them.

    Now I have to go take a look at that Educause survey….

    • It is kind of odd that professors think students have poor research skills but don’t think they should be teaching them. I think what librarians do is comparable to what writing instructors do. Both teach the basic research and writing skills necessary for students to succeed academically, and both are considered marginal by the majority of faculty in standard academic departments. Having worked both as a librarian and a writing instructor, I sort of understand the faculty distancing themselves from the tasks. While most of them are successful researchers and writers, they’re not necessarily equipped to teach those basic skills. On the campuses where professors rarely work with freshman and sophomores, maybe they think this stuff just happens in a vacuum.

      Librarians can be as myopic at times and think that they’re the only ones who are or should be teaching certain sets of skills, when really is has to be a joint enterprise of everyone if it’s to be successful, with librarians playing a smaller role than instructors. I just try to understand the library in its place, which means I don’t get upset when some study or another merely confirms what I already know in language that implies things should be different.

  2. Ah. I did look at that survey (ECAR) but hadn’t noticed the footnote about what one couldn’t live without. I was looking at the chart that asked students what technology they use, and the library website came in second, with something like 90% of students saying they use it. It was trumped in 2012 by CMSs which are now the most used technology on the list. What’s more surprising to me is that web-based citation tools come in third, with 80% of students using them.

    • I guess they all use it, they could just live without it. Makes sense to me.

  3. i am still waiting for librarians to become nihilists so we can go beyond libraries and the “clingingness” to something that is not there.

    • I just want to dress in all black and scream “I believe in nothing!” in a thick European accent, like the nihilists in The Big Lebowski.

  4. Maybe I’m misreading you, but I think some parts of your discussion undercut other parts. For example, “But what if we acknowledge that the faculty, such that are left, know what they’re doing and know what they need from the library.” And then, “And their perceptions of what librarians can do for students? So half of the survey respondents think that librarians have no role to play? Well, that’s just the way it is, too. Professors aren’t there when the befuddled student wanders up to the reference desk to ask a question.” Doesn’t the fact that the faculty aren’t aware of what goes on in the library undercut the idea that they know what they need from the library? Well, maybe “need” is too strong a word, but certainly they may not be fully aware of how librarians can help them. Maybe faculty are too wrapped up in their particular subject matter to realize that librarians can help their students research and write better and improve their work in their classes. At least one program at the ACRL conf. in Indianapolis noted that when professors at a university saw actual data that noted a correlation between library instruction and improved performance in upper level students, this led to a significant increase in requests for librarian-led instruction sessions from those faculty. So maybe faculty members really aren’t aware of how much they could benefit from the library. Even if we assume that libraries aren’t “the center of the faculty universe”, we still might be concerned that they don’t play a more significant role in their universe.

    • Paul, those two comments are talking about different things, so I don’t think they’re contradictory. Professors generally know what they need from the library for their own scholarship. If they hadn’t figured that out they probably wouldn’t have made it to the point they have. However, they don’t necessarily know what work librarians do for students, because they’re not in the library watching student transactions. What I think you’re getting at is that faculty should see how their teaching of students could benefit from knowing more about the library, or at least their students could do better jobs on research essays with librarian intervention. I think you’re right, but that’s not the sense of “benefiting faculty” that I had in mind. I was thinking more of the library as a tool for their own research. It’s also possible that I was interpreting this with a research university bias, where whether they like it or not faculty are judged more on the quality of their research than they’re teaching, so research is always prominent even among the faculty who are great instructors.

  5. Aha, so I was misreading you! Thanks for the clarification, Wayne. I agree for the most part with your response, though I’m not even sure about the “stronger” claim about faculty’s library needs. I have a colleague who did a survey of science faculty, and the responses indicated that many faculty members would have changed their research if they were better aware at the time of what had already been published, which suggests that their own library research skills were lacking for their own research purposes! But that’s a much more controversial claim that I’m not willing to go to the mat for. Very enjoyable post. (I also got a kick out of your ACRL 2013 post. Good times!)

    • “which suggests that their own library research skills were lacking for their own research purposes”…. I could be wrong, and am willing to just leave them with their illusion of mastery.

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