User studies and risks for research libraries?

This is the first in a series of posts that synthesize conclusions of published user studies about desires and needs for research support. I’ve collected quite a stack of them. For the past three years I’ve been reading up on what academics themselves say about all this. Along the way, I’ve also gathered studies that include administrators and librarians. When the latest Ithaka US and UK faculty surveys came out this spring[1], I integrated their findings into my growing pile of evidence.

The cumulative effect is rather foreboding. Academic libraries appear to be somewhat out of touch with the needs of researchers. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The typical library often does not provide the support that researchers need to do their research. As a result, researchers report not being as well-served as they should be, and in their eyes academic libraries are losing relevance.

Today’s synthesis introduces user studies about risks for research libraries, especially the risk of doing nothing. In separate future posts I’ll focus on what researchers themselves say. If I get ambitious, I may delve into to user studies with university administrators and – last but not least – librarians.

Why user studies?

Many leaders of research libraries are concerned that their institutions have become less relevant to faculty members and academics, whether due to advances in technology, success in licensing journals, or over-investment in teaching services for undergraduates at the expense of research. In the current context of disintermediation of libraries – combined with constraints on funding – administrators at research-intensive universities perceive that libraries are presently at risk. Internationally, significant attention has been given to demonstrating the value and ‘business’ of libraries to universities and funding agencies. Managing research information – whether research data, articles, or administrative information about researchers and their work – has recently become a strategy for libraries to weave themselves into the fabric of the research lifecycle, in order to demonstrate their value and mitigate risk of losing relevance and funding.

To re-establish the research libraries’ alignment with research needs, the community has called for investment in developing new services that support research workflows and university administrations. Considerable thought has been given to the nature and function of such new services. National and institutional initiatives have enabled a handful of research libraries to spend significant resources planning and developing up-to-date research services.

For years, librarians have called for studies that articulate what researchers desire by way of support for their research.[2] These blog posts are my meta-analysis of the results of some 30+ years of studies – including recent reports from RIN, Ithaka, OCLC Research, and the DCC – in order to gather together evidence of system-wide needs for research services, both within and outside libraries. Of course, methodologies used to generate the numerous studies vary, such as interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Also, the objectives of the various projects are different, so exact or parallel comparisons are difficult and the conclusions are not necessarily overlapping or consistent.

Nevertheless, clear trends and distinct patterns emerge from the body of work as a whole. Recent research on scholarly behavior converges on conclusions about all manner of information-related services in universities and across academic disciplines. Qualitative and quantitative studies of scholars and academic administrators provide a mountain of evidence about the nature of services and infrastructure required to span the entire lifecycle of the fruits of research. While we have witnessed simultaneous evolution of discipline-based and institution-based services, diverse international reports have identified gaps in digital infrastructure and provision of services to manage research information, both by libraries and by university administrations.

Risks: disintermediation, funding, value

Martin Feijen, in a literature review from the Dutch SURFfoundation titled What researchers want, gleans the crux of the matter: “There is one very concise statement about risk: ‘The biggest risk is to do nothing.'”[3]

In the spring of 2008, before the economic crash, OCLC Research commissioned a business-style risk assessment with 15 library directors in ARL and the RLG Partnership (as it was called then). The highest risk we identified concerns “the uncertain library value proposition.” Jim, Constance and Arnold conclude that this risk weakens visibility and thus the value of the library, and our user base erodes because of the library’s uncertain value proposition. Their essay recommends that libraries restructure traditional workflows, “in favor of a new emphasis on and investment in research support services.” Investing in research services should refocus the library’s agenda on “improvement of the research enterprise they serve.”[4]

It is not news that research libraries are currently at risk due to changes in funding, technology, and research. According to Ithaka’s 2009 survey of researchers, academic libraries are increasingly being disintermediated from the discovery process.[5] Librarians’ own evidence shows that the library is being bypassed and displaced.[6] Michael Jubb has analyzed statistical trends in libraries’ declining share of university budgets in a digital environment. Jubb articulates challenges related to disintermediation: “developing and enhancing relationships with their users, and developing new services to maximise their value to users.”[7]

Concerns such as these, about perceptions of how irrelevant libraries seem, appear in several reports. First, what do we mean by ‘value’? The value of libraries for research and researchers (a recent report commissioned by RIN and RLUK, based on interviews and focus groups with researchers, chancellors, research support administrators, deans, finance directors and librarians) defines value as “the direct and indirect benefits of libraries, actual and perceived.” The report, however, elides two different meanings of the word ‘value’: “the value of any library is inextricably linked to the values of the university” (emphasis mine).[8] In the singular, the ‘value’ of the library is its usefulness and worth, while the ‘values’ of the university – in the plural – are intellectual ideals and academic standards. In this construct, libraries are justifiably worried about being seen worthy of funding, while universities are concerned with principles, such as ethical and social benefits of research and education.

RIN and RLUK stress that the case for libraries must be made from evidence. One example of bellwether evidence is a negative correlation between research performance and the volume of serials and electronic databases.[9] If library collections no longer seem essential to scholarly research, how can a library realign with the institution’s mission and evolving needs of researchers?

In this precarious context, the value of academic libraries to both universities and researchers is not clear. ACRL has contributed a monumental literature review about the value of research libraries.[10] In one attempt to remedy the risk, RIN’s Ensuring a bright future essay warns that libraries and information services are critical to national and institutional success in research.[11] Based on the results of the RIN’s monumental survey Researchers’ use of academic services and their libraries[12], RIN’s essay directly addresses vice-chancellors and senior managers in research settings. The anxious tone of the title alone suggests some nervousness about the future of academic libraries.

Next up: User studies with academics and faculty members.

[1] Housewright, Ross, Roger C. Schonfeld and Kate Wulfson. 2013. Ithaka S+R US faculty survey 2012. Housewright, Ross, Roger C. Schonfeld and Kate Wulfson. 2013. Ithaka S+R/Jisc/RLUK UK survey of academics 2012.

[2] Brown, Sheridan and Alma Swan (Key Perspectives). 2007. Researchers’ use of academic libraries and their services: a report commissioned by the Research Information Network and the Consortium of Research Libraries, page 68.

[3] Feijen, Martin. 2011. What researchers want: A literature study of researchers’ requirements with respect to storage and access to research data, page 25. Utrecht: SURFfoundation.

[4] Michalko, James, Constance Malpas and Arnold Arcolio. 2010. Research libraries, risk and systemic change, pages 11, 14, 19.

[5] Schonfeld, Roger and Ross Housewright. 2010. Ithaka S+R faculty survey 2009: key strategic insights for libraries, publishers, and societies, page 2.
[6] Brown and Swan, 2007, pages 7, 20.

[7] Jubb, Michael. 2010. “Challenges for libraries in difficult economic times: evidence from the UK.” LIBER quarterly 20(2) (October), page 132.

[8] Curtis+Cartwright Consulting Limited. 2011. The Value of libraries for research and researchers: a RIN and RLUK report, pages 8, 10.

[9] Cartwright+Curtis, 2011, pages 57, 58. (contra Tenopir, Carol et al. 2010. University investment in the library, phase II: an international study of the library’s value to the grants process.) Brown and Swan, 2007, page 32 notes slight use of full-text articles despite demand.

[10] Oakleaf, Megan. 2010. Value of academic libraries: a comprehensive research review and report.

[11] Research Information Network (RIN). 2008. Ensuring a bright future for libraries: a guide for vice-chancellors and senior institutional managers.

[12] Brown and Swan, 2007.

2 Comments on “User studies and risks for research libraries?”

  1. Jennifer, thank you for taking the thought, time and effort to aggregate these reports. It is something I have been advocating for, and am happy to see a considered approach to their meta-analysis. Cheers!

  2. Thank you Jennifer very much for this useful piece.

    Research support in libraries is growing. New worldwide research into 70 academic libraries has so far brought up over 250 examples of library research support services:

    Evidence has shown that it is the open, engaged and committed library who discusses, deliberates, experiments and explores new opportunities with researchers and other professionals that will thrive. It is in this context where preconceptions and perceptions of the library will change on both fronts: library staff and researchers. This will in turn create further fruitful relationships, where the researcher concentrates more on research rather than on peripheral activities and where the library provides yet more efficiency and value.

    The new character of libraries is still in transition. As long as there is movement, we know they are alive, growing and well.

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