Library Link: Redefining the Academic Library

| January 5, 2012

Since the rise of the web, the future of the library has been in debate. Recently, the popularity of e-books and online access to research materials have been drawing attention and causing some uneasiness among publishers, libraries, and professionals of all sorts that use or are employed by them.

One more report of this ilk focused on academic libraries in particular just came out, published by the University Leadership Council, a DC-based sub-group of the Advisory Board Company that conducts and publishes best- and worst-practice reports for universities and medical centers. Their report earned a spot on the “Library Link of the Day” site run by John Hubbard, Senior Academic Librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I  just found it.

The report has a handy list of its top findings, most of which will come as no major surprise to practicing academic librarians who keep an eye on trends. Here’s the list:

1. Collection size rapidly losing importance

Even the wealthiest academic libraries are abandoning the “collection arms race” as the value of physical resources declines. Increasingly, libraries must adapt to a world in which providing access to—rather than ownership of—scholarly resources is their primary role.

2. Traditional Library Metrics Fail to Capture Value to Academic Mission

Libraries can no longer demonstrate their educational and scholarly impact via traditional input measures such as the number of volumes and serial titles held, expenditures on monographs and staff, gate count, and reference requests. New measures of success (still under development) will emphasize impact on student learning outcomes, retention and graduation rates, faculty research productivity, and teaching support.

3. Rising Journal Costs Inspiring Calls for Alternative Publishing Models

Subscriptions to scholarly journals and electronic databases have steadily risen as a share of library budgets at what many believe is an unsustainable rate, particularly in an era of tightened budgets. While publishers see growing costs as an unavoidable consequence of expanded research output, many librarians and academic administrators feel that a transition to nonprofi t, open-access journals would mean substantial savings and broader access for all.

4. Viable Alternatives to the Library Now Boast Fastest Growth Easiest Access

With the rise of companies like Google and Amazon, as well as nonprofi ts like Wikipedia and HathiTrust, users now meet most of their information needs through sources outside of the library. The collections of articles, monographs, and ebooks made available through these organizations dwarf library collections in size and scope, and content is increasingly accessed virtually through web- and cloud-based distribution portals.

5. Demand Declining for Traditional Library Services

Very few students and a decreasing number of faculty start research in the library building or via the library website, opting instead for search engines and discipline-specifi c research resources. Circulation and reference requests have been steadily declining for years, driving the library’s traditional core (providing access to books and guiding patrons through research) to the periphery.

6. New Patron Demands Stretch Budget and Organizational Culture

The modern library is caught between its historical role in managing print materials and new demand for digital resources and services, and it cannot afford to invest indefi nitely in both. Today’s users require a new set of services and accommodations from the academic library that necessitate a strategic paradigm shift: from building and maintaining a collection to engaging with students and faculty, as well as providing space for study, collaboration, and creativity. Traditional organizational boundaries are likely to fade and the word “library” will cease to adequately describe the suite of both virtual and physical academic support services offered to patrons.

You can read the entire report here.