Changing Information Needs of Faculty

The latest Educause Review has an interesting article on “The Changing Information Services Needs of Faculty.” In it the authors report on a study of “attitudes and perceptions of academic collection development librarians and faculty toward the transition to an increasingly electronic environment.”

For the most part the perceptions of faculty are encouraging for any anxious librarians. Faculty value libraries highly for their collection development functions: buying materials and preserving them, especially in electronic formats. This hardly comes as a surprise to me, since buying stuff is one of my main functions for the faculty in the departments I serve, along with solving problems and explaining any library procedures that might be considered byzantine by the uninitiated.

One minor disagreement concerns the “consultative role” of librarians. “The consultative role of the librarian in helping faculty in their research and teaching is viewed as an important function by most librarians [I bet it is], but most faculty members do not put the same emphasis on this role of the library.” Again, not much of a surprise. I often get requests to track down hard to find resources or to purchase materials the library doesn’t have, but almost all of my research consultations are with students. Usually professors only contact me for help if they’re doing research out of their usual areas. Librarians who think they know more about a scholar’s research than the scholar does are often deluding themselves.

The major disagreement between librarians and faculty concerns the relevance of the library in the future. For example, “in the future, faculty expect to be less dependent on the library and increasingly dependent on electronic materials. By contrast, librarians generally think their role will remain unchanged and their responsibilities will only grow in the future.”

Some anxious librarians may question the future of the library, or whether libraries will be needed, especially since so much information and so many resources are online and more or less easily searchable. Why bother with the library?

One key problem is the meaning of “library.” I think the article uses the word “library” equivocally. The major disagreement may be that faculty expect to be less dependent on the library, while librarians expect their responsibilities to grow, but faculty and librarians may very well mean different things by “library” when they answer these questions. Faculty expect to be “increasingly dependent on electronic materials,” but who provides most of these electronic materials? The library, obviously.

By “library,” do we mean the library building, or even the library website as first stop portal to scholarly resources? If we do, then the library probably will become less relevant. Even some of the hard core humanities professors I know don’t come to the library if they can help it. They want everything available online, so they can work from anywhere. I can’t blame them, because I’m the same way. I don’t want to be tied to a particular place for research.

But the library as place is increasingly not what I and some other librarians mean by “library.” The library building is great, and will probably always be an important location for residential college campuses. Physical books will probably still be an important part of research, at least in the humanities, for a long time to come, and traditional library functions will survive for the time being. Personally, I get great satisfaction from wandering around a research library with millions of books, which may help explain why I’m a librarian. I’m not alone in this satisfaction, but the joys of wandering around a good research library are not the same as the joys of research and scholarship.

The “library” will eventually become a mostly virtual world, consisting to a large extent of “electronic materials.”. It’s only a matter of time, as much as some librarians try to fight it. Librarians care about the format of information, but researchers usually don’t; they care about the ease of access. However, that doesn’t mean that whatever the library becomes isn’t the library, or at least the functional equivalent for the library in scholarly research.

Academic libraries will be useful for what content they provide and for helping people find and use that content when they need help, just like they are now. Libraries buy and organize materials, even if the materials are all online. Perhaps scholars aren’t using the library website as their first portal to information, but even if they use Google Scholar or some equivalent the content is often available only because someone in some library has made a decision to purchase it or digitize it and a lot of people have worked to make it available. This stuff doesn’t just buy or digitize itself, and it doesn’t just organize itself, either. And if researchers need help using it, they will need the expertise of librarians, even if these librarians don’t sit at a reference desk or even in a building called a library.

Some librarians grow anxious with declining circulation or reference stats, or with the disappearance of traditional ways in libraries. In many ways, it’s the success of librarians and others to make so much information easily available that leads to the anxiety. We’re so successful we won’t have jobs anymore! For some reason, this doesn’t bother me, and as a relatively young librarian who has an interest in supporting serious scholarship I should probably be more anxious than some of my older colleagues. I’ve got at least 30 more working years ahead of me, and it would be nice to have a job for those years, but I’m not sure it will bother me if that job changes radically over the decades.

Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination on my part, but I can’t imagine a time when all relevant scholarly information is digitized, organized, freely available, and easily accessible to all, at least not a time in any immediate future. (If I can just make it to 2040, I’ll be safe!) And if that ever happens, I think that whatever World Brain the library evolves into might just be called a library, and the people who make it happen librarians.