ARL, CARL Engage Ithaka S+R for Report on Aligning the Research Library to Organizational Strategy

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) recently commissioned Ithaka S+R to examine how academic research libraries in Canada and the United States help their institutions achieve strategic priorities, what can be done to advance this work, and how university leaders gauge expectations of their libraries.

Ithaka, ARL, CARL logosThe Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) recently commissioned Ithaka S+R to examine how academic research libraries in Canada and the United States help their institutions achieve strategic priorities, what can be done to advance this work, and how university leaders gauge expectations of their libraries.

Aligning the Research Library to Organizational Strategy” draws on interviews and focus groups conducted in 2021 with more than 60 university leaders—presidents, provosts, senior research officers, and chief information officers—across the United States and Canada, whose libraries are members of ARL and CARL. It represents the findings of those consultations, as well as a summary of Ithaka S+R’s research and recommendations. These findings inform ARL and CARL’s strategic planning processes, offering a common starting point for both associations.

“This is meant to help develop that shared narrative,” ARL Executive Director Mary Lee Kennedy told LJ—“to really understand where each community’s lenses are focused.”

The report is part of a larger project that will follow through on the findings, developing indicators that can be used within institutions and stakeholder associations to assess research libraries’ alignment with institutional priorities and libraries’ roles going forward. This will include a series of case studies from each of the senior leaders surveyed, looking at how they are working with libraries to achieve institutional goals.



The project began in summer 2021 with the intent to look at “post-pandemic” changes to research university strategies. However, it soon became clear, as the report states, that “we are not simply in a crisis that will suddenly end but rather experiencing an era.” The project partners opted to use the lens of strategic directions and research priorities to provide a snapshot of how research libraries in the United States and Canada aligned with their institutions during that time, and to identify strategies to support them.

ARL and CARL designed the project’s basic approach and selected Ithaka S+R to conduct the research. The first component, a series of interviews with higher education leaders outside of libraries, focused on the strategic directions they were pursuing for their institutions and the broader contexts they were grappling with. Leaders were asked where they felt their institutions’ libraries fit into those strategies.

Ithaka then looked back at more than a dozen studies it had done with ARL and CARL member institutions over the past five to seven years that examined scholarly research practices across different fields, and how those practices—and scholars’ research needs—are changing. Taken together, the broad views of university leaders and on-the-ground perspective from researchers provided a picture of where research libraries stood in relation to institutional and user goals. Advisory groups from ARL and CARL collaborated closely with Ithaka, helping steer the project as it progressed; a number of outside partners helped arrange introductions and interviews, including the American Council of Learned Societies, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers, Educause, Universities Canada, and U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities. Interviews and analysis wrapped up in winter 2021–22, and the final report was released April 12.



While none of the strategic directions highlighted in the report were found at every university, the four most common were:

  • The pursuit of growth, particularly in the STEM research enterprise;
  • At public institutions, efforts to engage the state, both through its political system and its population;
  • Redressing relationships with the historically marginalized, with significant variation between Canadian and US institutions in terms of how this priority is framed; and
  • Defending the residential experience, which remains core to the educational strategy of most universities.

“The gelling around these four themes was really very clarifying,” said Kennedy. “Not that every institution will be in the same place or focusing on exactly the same things, but it was pretty consistent.”

For university leaders, these directions have not changed radically since before COVID, she noted. “There is an operational change, given the pandemic, but actually the strategic priorities for the presidents and provosts and CIOs seem to have been articulated as: ‘We’re on this path, we’re still on this path, and regardless, we’re focused on that.’”

Efforts to engage or align with the state in which they’re located have become increasingly important for public academic institutions in recent years, noted Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka S+R vice president of organizational strategy and libraries, scholarly communication, and museums, and one of the report’s coauthors. “We were hearing from university leadership that they were interested in better understanding and better serving the needs of the population of the state that supported or controlled their university, and what that looks like.”

Canadian universities are public, but there is still a concern about positioning the school as essential to the community—an element that is part of many universities’ strategic plans, said CARL Executive Director Susan Haigh. “This is where the funding comes from,” she pointed out. “Part of the reminder that was inherent in [the report] is that universities have to be attuned to their funders and the needs of their funders.”

This often includes engaging at the county level, with university leadership meeting with residents across the state to discover what they need from the university locally, such as better student recruitment, workforce development, or cooperative research. The project also discovered universities partnering with local public libraries and community groups, not only in programmatic areas like workforce development but in their work to reinforce their relationships with historically marginalized groups. Diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, and—in the case of Canada, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Indigenous peoples—are of primary importance, and ARL and CARL have expanded their support to help research libraries reinforce their institutions’ work.



The report’s perspective represents more of a top-down view than that of a library director or administrator, and a potentially new way for library leaders to think about change. “One of the things that resonated with me immediately was the observation that university librarians are no longer just the Chief Librarian,” said ARL President K. Matthew Dames, Edward H. Arnold Dean of the Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame, IN. “What is now being expected is that university librarians become full university leaders.”

When it comes to expectations for their libraries, university leaders “want something more strategically aligned with the goals of the institution,” Haigh told LJ. “Librarians have a tendency to sometimes think, ‘They would appreciate us if only they understood what we’re doing.’ This report helps to understand that it’s not [leaders’] business to understand the inner workings of a traditional library anymore—it is the business of the library to evolve to better serve the mission and approaches of the university.”

While this approach may feel like a profound change to some, “I find it in some ways quite liberating to hear it actually said out loud, the fact that that’s what our university presidents and provosts and CIOs are wanting from us,” said CARL President Vivian Lewis, university librarian at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. “Some of them are expecting it of us, and probably in other cases they just deeply wish it.” She finds the lower expectations of libraries more problematic than those of leaders with high aspirations.

That disconnect, Lewis noted, may come from outdated knowledge on the part of university leadership about what research libraries do. “As a profession we have moved along so far—we push the boundaries on what the library does—but I don’t know if we’ve always succeeded in getting the message out to senior leaders,” she said. “You think of all the work we’re doing: research, data management, bibliometrics, RIM [research information management] systems, but there’s still a communications piece that that needs to happen to get that point across. They shouldn’t have low expectations for us. They should have exceptionally high expectations.”

Changing that paradigm going forward will require clear lines of communication on both sides of the org chart. “Some responses from the university leaders were, ‘They’re doing exactly what I need them to do and I don’t see more happening,’” said Kennedy. “That’s a different response than someone who says, ‘I see a lot of innovation that could happen here, and if you want me to invest in you as part of this institution, I’m going to ask you to do that.” It’s going to depend a bit on the expectations of the [university] leader and the capacity of the leader in the research library role.”



Some of the key trends in research practice and support highlighted in the report include the turn to computation, big data, and machine learning; the inequitable impacts of the pandemic; the centralization of research enablement and support; and changes in research communications.

Based on these directions and trends, Ithaka proposed a menu of recommendations for strategic directions research libraries may want to adopt: an accelerated pivot to STEM, doubling down on humanities and distinctive collections, focusing on student needs and student success, strengthening relationships with historically marginalized groups, serving the needs of the political entity that funds or controls the institution, and/or ensuring the integrity of—and advocacy for—scientific communication.

Working with such a varied pool of public and private institutions across two countries has been useful to surface themes that go beyond what can be found among peer institutions, noted Schonfeld. “The work of leading a research library is to figure out the menu of possible directions,” he said. “This isn’t an easy set of outcomes—‘Do these three things and you’ve got it all set.’ These are politically complicated leadership roles in organizations, in academic contexts, where there’s a lot of change, there are a lot of different kinds of outside as well as inside pressures.”

He added, “This is a study in leadership and the importance of leadership for research libraries in the context of the complex organizational structures in which they operate.”

For ARL and CARL, the project helps contextualize ways the associations can support their member institutions’ research enterprises, from data management to research teams—as well as providing confirmation that this support is critical and that everyone in the institution needs to be at the table. Both associations are developing action plans for 2023–26, including services aimed at academic library leaders.

“There’s peer networking, which many people count on, and there’s also leadership development—sometimes it’s informal leadership development through programming and bringing in experts, and sometimes it’s formal programming in terms of ARL’s Leadership Fellows Program,” said Kennedy. “We’re actually developing a new senior leaders program, which will launch in March 2023. This kind of arrangement really helps to build out that curriculum and also to reinforce the opportunities to engage with presidents and provosts and VPRs [vice president for research].”

At the conceptual level, the report “gives us a sense of some of the things that we’ve already been doing, like addressing diversity, equity and inclusion, addressing anti-racism—broad societal problems,” said Dames. “I think the report provides us reinforcement that some of the things that we have started to do are, in fact, the things that we need to continue to do.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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