Notes on the Ithaka Faculty Survey

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.


3 thoughts on “Notes on the Ithaka Faculty Survey

  1. First of all, I am a fan of your blog, even when I disagree with your points. It’s nice to see thoughtful writing as well as responses to comments.
    As an academic reference librarian, I love the use of gateway. I find myself frustrated at attempts to make faculty, as well as students, co-dependent on librarians or libraries. My faculty normally come to me when they are having difficulties, required specialized research, or are looking to purchase books. I believe that any information learned through teaching them about special faculty services, databases, or our collection enables them to be more independent researchers. Furthermore, their ability to find material other places often helps me in the collection development department when our vendors do not have a specific item.
    As for the “gateway” function, databases such as JSTOR are now linking to engines and vice versa. As I tell faculty and students, if you find something on a search engine, check with the catalog to see if we own it so you can get it for free. To me, poor scholars or rushed professors appreciate this “gateway” tool than me telling them how they are “supposed to” search for something.
    Finally, I often wish my colleagues would concentrate more on working with how faculty and students look for materials and use the library and polish those skills rather than bemoaned their perceived irrelevance. I have students running out of my ears and faculty members requesting help on a regular basis, so these our services have not become irrelevant. The have simple changed…and we have to look at those changes as possible ways to grow. Who knows, maybe (gasp) they could teach us that some of our methods may be outmoded or inefficient.
    A.E. Harrison
    Arts and Humanities Librarian

  2. “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?”
    Librarian are afraid of being disintermediated not in general, but from specific work that they like doing. Many librarians, particularly those with an specialization in a subject, like to be the knowledge expert. They want to be the intermediator because they 1) like to know about sources and find information and 2) they like to share this expertise in a way that gets immediate recognition. They find this aspect of their work enjoyable. Heck, I don’t even have a subject and this is true for me. It is nice to be able to share what I know and know that I’ve been helpful. Even better when the patron says “thanks” or “wow.”
    We should not, however, base what we think we should do on what we like to do. Liking to do it does not give it value. I’ve said for years that if patrons don’t need to ask me how to find a particular book or journal article then someone else in the library has done their job very well. This can be expanded out to finding information on a topic rather than just my “known item” examples.
    Some of the most important work I’ve done in the library has been related to improving systems to help people discover information in their own. If “some search tool” eclipses that work? Fine. I am with A.E. Harrison that what is important isn’t the path to finding but that when it comes to getting the item, the patron knows to get it through what the library has paid for and not purchase it. Reference librarians and liaisons are ideally placed to represent patrons when changes are made to our discovery tools since we know what patrons search for and have difficulty finding. If the work done in this area today mean less reference work for future librarians, there will be some happy patrons but some disappointed librarians.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts on our Faculty Survey 2009 and especially the focused attention you’ve given to issues of library roles. I want to emphasize my agreement with you that, in examining faculty attitudes and perspectives, our work provides only a partial analysis of the complicated stakeholder perspective for any academic library, which also includes students, academic administrators, and others as well. Still, the support of faculty members for the academic on many campuses is an especially important consideration in its ability to be successful in serving their needs, which is one reason we have focused our surveys on helping to build hypotheses about their changing needs.
    Our analysis of the gateway / discovery role is based on the tracking capabilities of our Faculty Survey, which gives us a decade’s worth of data on how this roles is seen as changing, along with disciplinary-level stratifications. Over time, we have seen faculty members’ self-reported starting points for research shift to the network level (and, as you rightly point out, in many cases the resources they use are licensed or otherwise provided by the library), as well as a gradual erosion in importance placed in the library role in serving as the gateway. Some libraries have concluded, as you suggest, that “disintermediation is exactly what we should want,” but other libraries continue to invest significant resources in serving the gateway role when faculty members, even humanists, decreasingly perceive value in libraries providing it.
    At the same time, the gateway / discovery role is traditionally a most important function provided by the library, with high visibility for faculty members. For 2009, we added questions about the research support and teaching support roles in which many libraries have been investing additional resources. The questions about these roles were worded to reflect the ambitious visions that some hold for the library in these areas, and to your list of what the teaching role might actually incorporate I would add, among other things, the information commons and instructional technology partnerships. On the research support side, I would add to your list supporting or partnering on digital humanities projects, certain kinds of special collections activities, and data curation, among others. While we do not have trendline data on the perceived importance of these roles, they are not so uniformly high as to rival the gateway role in years past or the buyer role today. We intend to track whether these roles grow in perceived importance to faculty members in the future.
    Finally, in terms of these roles, the buyer role may take on different characteristics at different types of institutions. For one of the most well-supported research libraries, with an extraordinary breadth and depth of faculty needs to support, the buying role can be as you suggest truly multi-faceted. For some other institutions, it may be closer to the alternative scenario you paint and may be perceived less as a valued partnership with faculty members.
    Ultimately, we did not argue that “the library or librarians are irrelevant,” but only that the relevance of one of the library’s core functional areas is in steady decline. My colleagues and I strive to support libraries as their roles shift in response to the changing information environment, which as you say has in many, many ways been very positive for faculty members. Thank you again for your comments about our Faculty Survey.
    Roger Schonfeld

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