Critical Assets: Academic Libraries, a View from the Administration Building

By Barbara Fister

Academic libraries, a view from the administration building

Which of the following predictions about the future of libraries were made by university administrators?

  • Within five years, libraries will focus exclusively on electronic resources
  • Academic computing and libraries will merge.
  • Librarians who do not produce will be reassigned or fired.
  • The library will only house materials that are actively used.
  • Libraries will shrink, in both collection size and staffing, and funding will be redirected from libraries to more critical and productive areas of the university.

Answer: only the last one. Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California (UC) system, reportedly made this assertion at an Ithaka conference on sustainable scholarship in September 2009. But unlike the typical university administrator, he's a librarian whose previous positions include directing the Digital Library Federation and the California Digital Library. The other predictions were among "provocative statements" made in 2006 and 2009 by the Taiga Forum, a group of associate university librarians and assistant library directors.

These statements are all intentionally extreme, a call for librarians to be forward-thinking and to embrace new roles in a period of transition. But for many observers, these predictions sound, too, like assumptions that might be made by bean-counters in the administration building who haven't set foot in a library in decades and think students don't need books, now that they can get everything on the Internet for free. As higher education confronts shortages in hungry times, will officials who previously viewed the library as a sacred cow think it's time for a barbecue?

Don't light the charcoal yet. Interviews with chief academic officers and an online survey taken by over 130 leaders in academic affairs yield surprising results.

They like us. They really like us.

Enduring importance

It's no secret that academic library budgets are feeling the pinch in the global economic meltdown. Libraries at UC-Berkeley have had to manage an 18 percent budget cut, the University of Washington Libraries closed two branch libraries and eliminated 30 positions, MIT libraries had $1.4 million lopped off their budget, and the University of Michigan cut 90 positions with buyouts. Hard decisions are being made about collections, space, and services. Yet academic administrators are not declaring libraries an anachronism. On the contrary, administrators see libraries as vibrant centers of learning.

When asked about how their libraries support teaching and learning, administrators seemed knowledgeable about the library's role. "There is a total focus on information literacy—in classes, helping faculty, teaching students," according to Mark Matson, VP for academic affairs at Milligan College in northeastern Tennessee. "This focus has had a radical change across campus. And the use of our library has simply skyrocketed the last three years."

Bryon Grigsby, senior VP and VP for academic affairs at Shenandoah University, VA, recognizes that faculty members are also constituents. "Imagine a library where the librarian emails a faculty member and says, 'I know you are teaching a course on the Civil Rights Movement. Have you seen this reusable learning object by the University of Maryland on Martin Luther King? Here is the web address.' That ability would make the library highly relevant to faculty and greatly improve teaching and learning."

"As we move toward more individualized forms of instruction," David Burrows, provost and dean of faculty at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, points out, "the library will become even more important."

Challenges for research institutions

Large universities with major collections that provide services for first-year students and postdocs, supporting research from a wide range of fields with different needs, face enormous challenges as they cut costs. Syracuse University (SU) Library, NY, for example, faced a public brawl over its identity when it planned to store some of the collection at a remote site. The plan was postponed when a large number of students and faculty protested. Ithaka's recently released faculty survey ( shows that SU's situation is not an isolated case; scholars turn to libraries as purchasing agents but not as agents of change when it comes to scholars' fundamentally conservative research and publication practices.

Though press coverage at the time suggested SU protesters were frustrated by administrative parsimony and a disregard for traditional forms of book-based research, particularly in the humanities, Kal Alston, SU associate provost, expresses confidence that libraries and librarians will always remain vital resources for universities' intellectual life. "Libraries are like all human and social institutions and must continue to adapt to, support, and sometimes resist changes." She feels the library as a social and cultural institution will endure "as a repository and portal, physical location and virtual space, preserver of memories both shared and idiosyncratic." She adds, "I cannot imagine, however transmuted in form, any other institution performing its essential functions, or scholars, teachers, students, and the public not needing and connecting in some vital way" to what libraries provide.

SU provost and vice chancellor Eric Spina agrees but notes libraries' need for "strategic investment to enable them to continue to meet the...evolving [demands]...of our scholars, teachers, and students. What is and will continue to be different is that the kinds of investments we are making, both in collections and in 'place,' are changing, even while traditional collections and tools remain the largest part of what we do."

Making a difference

Mary Kay Rudolph, VP of academic affairs at Santa Rosa Junior College, CA, is feeling the state's catastrophic financial crunch. Though she expresses concern about being able to replace librarians as they retire, she is proud of two new libraries that serve as a "sticky" third place where commuting students can engage with the campus. Information literacy has been identified as a campuswide institutional learning outcome, and librarians were among the first to articulate a specific set of learning outcomes. Though recruiting and retaining excellent faculty is of primary importance, "pitting faculty against the library in the budget process is not healthy," she says. "It shouldn't be 'this' or 'that.' Our faculty use the library all the time."

For students, she says, library resources are not frills. "Our students don't have computers, and they don't have the resources," she says, adding that libraries are "an essential institution for an educated society." Libraries need to address the realities of a diverse student population, and she has concluded that the investment makes a profound difference in students' lives. "The first time you hear a student stand up and say 'now I have a career and I have hope'—the library is integral to that."

Looking forward

While the future is uncertain, most administrators see exciting new opportunities emerging, and few appear to anticipate the radical disruptions predicted in the Taiga statements.

According to Lawrence University's Burrows, "The question of what libraries will look like in the future is an open one. I am particularly interested in the extent to which libraries should support learning that involves collaboration—i.e., getting students to spend time talking to one another in spaces in the library."

"While I agree that over time print collections might decrease," Milligan College's Matson says, "the digital collections will continue to increase at phenomenal rates. And with this shift, the role of librarians to help other patrons negotiate this world will be critical. In fact, I see skilled modern librarians as being even more important in the future, provided they are partners with faculty in designing courses."

Syracuse's Spina says "libraries have been and...will always be an essential campus resource...but what they look like today is different from what they looked like 20 years ago, and I suspect that they will look even more different 20 years into the future. That future is very hard to predict, and that is precisely why we need librarians who are entrepreneurial, creative, attentive to national trends and local needs, and scholars and teachers themselves. It is also why we need to be prepared to ask continually whether libraries are investing in the right mix of people, books, technologies, and space—continued internal reflection and willingness to change will be important, and universities also need to be willing to invest in that change."

Shenandoah's Grigsby concurs and thinks librarians need to move more quickly into digital media and the establishment of learning commons. "Today's students need places where they can work on projects, get help with research, and have access to technology.... The library of the 21st century must be able to be configured to meet all these needs." At the local level, he thinks his library is keeping up. Students can check out laptops, iFlip cameras, and Kindles.

Don't make do, make a case

One intriguing attitude found among administrators was that they feel library directors should be more forceful advocates for their libraries, ready to provide evidence for funding that can be carried forward to the highest levels of the administration. One provost who asked not to be identified says the librarians at her institution are excellent stewards of available resources, strong advocates for information literacy, and—to their credit—provide crucial evidence that help build an argument for resources.

"I feel very blessed to have good people who understand what I need to know and when I need to know it," she says. "This helps me prioritize and also lends credibility when the library gets additional resources." Though she isn't sure if her most recent budget request for the library would be funded, she feels better prepared to make the case.

In 2007, in interviews with 25 chief academic officers (CAOs) undertaken at the request of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), researcher Leigh Estabrook was surprised to learn that most of them were not particularly concerned about the expense of maintaining libraries. Funding libraries was perceived as the cost of being part of higher education. CAOs were more interested in outcomes—how much were the libraries being used? How central were they to the mission of the institution? In what ways did they enhance the reputation of the college or university? Though administrators admired the ways librarians could stretch a dollar, they were frustrated by directors who were masters of frugality yet failed to articulate the need for increased resources in meaningful ways. They looked to library directors to be strong advocates and to provide sufficient evidence to take the case for libraries to the president and Board of Trustees.

Producing the evidence

Carol Tenopir, professor of information sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and LJ's Online Databases columnist, is one of several researchers currently investigating the return on investment (ROI) in research libraries by comparing investments to income-generating activities such as successful grants that depend on references to literature provided by the institution's libraries. For many administrators, however, the library's value can't be easily quantified as ROI. They recognize that good libraries have an impact on recruiting and retaining high-quality faculty, improving student learning outcomes, and providing inspiring and functional learning spaces. But the value they recognize has to fight for traction among other needs that are hit hard by the current economic climate, such as financial aid for students, competitive faculty salaries, and adequate employee benefits packages.

ACRL is gearing up to make it easier for libraries to state their case. In January, the association appointed Megan Oakleaf, assistant professor at SU's iSchool and an expert on outcomes assessment, to lead an investigation into how we measure the value of academic libraries. She will review the literature, search for gaps, and identify best practices correlated to performance.

If this survey is any indication, academic administrators won't be hard to persuade, but they will appreciate having compelling evidence they can use to advocate for their libraries.

Reimagining what we can be

When contacted for this article, UC's Greenstein, who made waves at the Ithaka conference, sounded enthusiastic about the future of libraries. Traditional roles and values, he predicts, will remain important. "Research universities have the important function of managing printed collections of books as [essential] cultural artifacts. Print materials have to be maintained in some form." He just isn't convinced that every academic library needs to take on this challenge. He envisions a future where a handful of research libraries will perform that function as regional or national repositories.

"Special collections will be very important," he states. These may be unique archival materials, rare historical items, or web archives, such as a special collection that captured the first draft of history on the Katrina disaster as it was being published in digital form ( Libraries can turn their preservation and collection efforts toward conserving such ephemeral material that would otherwise be lost.

It may be time to reinvest in a traditional position, the subject librarian, Greenstein thinks, but rather than focus on bibliography—collecting and providing access to published scholarship—these subject-savvy librarians could help scholars in the prepublication phase. "That notion is a very powerful one. If you think about it, 20 years out scholars will need help on how to publish in innovative ways, how to use information in their teaching, how to manage research data sets. Subject specialists could be supporting a range of functions, not just the ones covered by traditional information literacy. In a world of sophisticated search, finding stuff is such a small component of what scholars need. There are so many things they need help with. We're missing a huge opportunity."

But it's not clear to him whether libraries are willing to take on these new roles. "People are rushing in to fill the need, but they are not rushing in from the library."

A hand in creating knowledge

A library that tries to provide every traditional service to its constituents isn't being selective enough about what it should do well. Greenstein argues it's not enough for librarians to demand a seat at the table as decisions are made. "It's more than that. It's beginning to staff up appropriately." And that means libraries "have to shed some stuff."

Librarians who really know a subject, rather than knowing a library system or the products the library provides, will have a "copious understanding of the life cycle of publication and could help at any juncture." Though this flips the relationship librarians have to publishers—being involved throughout the creation of knowledge, not just in the consumption of completed publications—Greenstein feels this is "what librarians are ideally suited to do."

Perhaps the final lesson we can take from hearing from administrators is that they look to us not just to make the case for libraries but to ride the wave of change. We must ensure that libraries and librarians step into new roles and take up different challenges, reimagining the ways we and our libraries can be essential consultants in all the ways that students and faculty learn, discover, and share their work.

Author Information
Barbara Fister is a Librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and the Peer to Peer Review columnist for LJ Academic Newswire. Also an author of crime fiction, her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published this month by Minotaur: St. Martin's


Survey Findings

A survey distributed in January and February 2010, taken by 134 administrators, asked how much they agreed with statements about libraries and librarians. Overall, respondents tend to agree that the library's role was important in recruiting good faculty, supporting student and faculty research, and providing study space. They are less convinced that libraries are essential for providing research support for grants, offering service and cultural opportunities to their local community, or attracting donors.

Respondents generally feel librarians at their institutions work closely with faculty, have an impact on student learning, and play an important role in keeping up with copyright, publishing, and information trends. There is a somewhat stronger feeling among respondents from master's degree—granting institutions than at four-year colleges that librarians are technology trendsetters. In general, administrators at all types of institutions are less likely to agree that their librarians are perceived as innovative or that they play a role in campuswide planning and decision-making.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly report positive feelings about their libraries. They are aware of the issues librarians face as they use limited resources to try to meet the varied needs of constituents and are excited about the possibilities.

Administrators at two- and four-year colleges are more likely to agree that students use the library heavily than those at universities that grant master's and doctoral degrees; libraries' support for faculty research was rated higher at graduate institutions than at those granting associate or bachelor's degrees. Yet across the board, the overwhelming response is that libraries are important and are likely to remain so.

Invaluable Resource

Open-ended comments submitted anonymously suggest that administrators value both libraries and librarians. They included statements like these:

  • As a resource center, place for study and conversation, and sanctuary from the buzz and busyness of so many other student centers, libraries allow us to know and remember that learning is an embodied act and resource materials matter. (Community college)
  • It would be folly to think that libraries are out-of-date and will be replaced by emerging technologies. Quite the contrary, libraries are figuratively and literally repositories of knowledge and culture. Technology is a basic tool that enhances the acquisition of knowledge and the preservation of culture. Symbolically, the library remains as the beacon/metaphor/lighthouse of campus intellectual life. (Master's degree—granting university)
  • Information literacy is a vital intellectual skill, and our faculty have embedded this into the curriculum. In addition, our faculty and librarians work together to ensure that students ask good and interesting questions and thoroughly research those questions. (Four-year college)
  • It is the real heart of any university campus because it brings together students, faculty, and the community. (Ph.D.-granting university)
  • They are more important than ever! (Master's degree—granting university)

Change on the Horizon

At the same time, respondents are aware that change is afoot.

  • Traditional visions of the library are less viable every year. Who would bind and keep paper journals in the JSTOR era? Yet, there has to be an advocate for JSTOR and someone to help learners to distinguish gold from garbage. Librarians matter enormously in these roles. (Four-year college)
  • I feel that the library will continue to be an "essential resource on campus," but it may have to take a different shape or form, providing different services as compared to the past. (Master's degree—granting university)
  • Libraries will remain, but they have to evolve. They need to be repositories for digital resources and places of learning. (Ph.D.-granting university)
  • The value of academic libraries is and should be a separate issue from the shape of those libraries as time progresses. I believe that true digitization (which may be some time away but may also be closer than any of us think) will increase the need for librarians as info-filtering specialists but radically decrease the importance of the library as repository. (Four-year college)

Potential to Lead

Some respondents were unsure about the future, while others wondered if their librarians were effective advocates.

  • Changes are coming—possibly quite soon if, for example, one or two of the large repository libraries were to partner with Google books around a higher-quality scan/file structure. I do fear that we are building and adding to libraries that meet today's needs but will seem like largely empty edifices in the future. (Four-year college)
  • It is not obvious what the functions of a "library" are. The role and importance of the library depends upon how the library program is defined. (Master's degree—granting university)
  • While librarians have consistently integrated change into their operations, our librarians have not taken the initiative to educate senior leaders about the emerging value of libraries, or to lead the campus community to understand, use, and value the expanding capacities of libraries. (Four-year college)

But rather than dismiss libraries as a costly burden or a relic of the past, administrators seem interested in where they are headed. As one respondent put it:

  • The changing value and meaning of academic libraries is one of the most fascinating developments in higher education today. (Master's degree—granting university)

A Note about Methodology

A link to this survey was distributed by email to members of the American Conference of Academic Deans. It was also posted to various academic library email lists with a request that librarians forward the link to their campus academic officers. It's likely that administrators who feel connected to their own libraries and take an interest in them are disproportionately represented in the results. Results were higher for four-year and master's degree—granting institutions than for community colleges or research institutions.

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