Dr. Deanna Marcum's Presentation Notes


The following notes are from the presentation by Dr. Deanna Marcum, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources. This was one of a series of presentations given under the collective title, "Virtual Place, Virtuous Space": College Libraries in the 21st Century at the American Library Association Annual Convention, San Francisco, California, 2001.

Perhaps more than any other part of a campus, the library has iconic value as a visible representation of the values we hold in common. The library represents our dedication to learning, to acquiring knowledge, and being in the library is the one experience that all graduates of an institution have in common. Even students who admit, under close questioning, that they did not use the library very much, often speak of it with high regard after they move into the alumni ranks. For faculty, the library is often viewed as a tangible expression of how much the administration values their work. Good library support for the faculty is surely a sign of being loved. But these feelings that most of us have about libraries are based on a print-based model of a library, and that model must be re-examined in the digital world. What is the library of the future?—a library that can provide services without requiring someone to enter the physical structure. Will the books and journals that all of us have depended upon in our academic careers be replaced with anytime, any place access through the computer?

Just in the last few years, libraries as we know them are changing in dramatic ways:

• the relationships between the library and the other information agencies on campus are becoming more complicated as faculty and students have more choices about where they get the information they need

• the ways in which collections are acquired, organized, and delivered have been altered radically through technology

• as methods of access change, many universities are rethinking the design of library buildings and facilities

• libraries are increasingly dependent on consortia

• financial models for delivering library services are much changed from the old models of owning books

• all of the other changes lead to new consideration of the nature of the library’s leadership needs

Technology has forced many of the changes, but there are also external factors that influence what the library will become.

  1. There are technologists who argue that books will be replaced by computers and that anything anyone needs to know will be found on the Internet. For scholars, this notion is absolutely absurd, but it may not be such a far-fetched notion for students. Of even greater concern, most boards of trustees have members who have "heard" that all information needs can be met through the Internet.
  2. The undergraduate students in colleges and universities currently have been using computers for most if not all of their academic careers. They had computers in their high school classrooms, and most of them come from households that rely on computers for finding information.
  3. Commercial services are emerging that promise to provide library services to the undergraduate population directly. A company called Questia is claiming that it will make a library of 250,000 volumes available online. The business model is to sell subscriptions to individual students who pay a small monthly fee, something akin to the telephone bill. By going to the Questia Library to which they have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, along with "helpful" information about how to write research papers, the company believes it has arrived at a compelling business model.

So I return to my earlier question: what is a library when students do not have to go to it to use it.

One of CLIR’s distinguished fellows is an operations research faculty member who is employed by the Carnegie-Mellon University Libraries. Over the years, she has been interested in how, why, and when different categories of users make use of the university library. In recent years, she noticed a very interesting trend. Visits to the library were declining among both students and faculty, but especially among students. She and the other librarians thought this was not so unusual since Carnegie Mellon had recently entered into license agreements with publisher to make a large number of databases and electronic journals available electronically. The researchers worked with the hypothesis that campus community members were taking advantage of the electronic resources the library was making available. But upon closer investigation, they discovered that the rate of use of the library-provided materials was also dropping. What was going on? To learn more, they conducted focus group interviews with a large number of students and found that students were simply typing key words into Web browsers and as long as they found something from the Web search, they were happy. In other words, a Yahoo search or a Google search, no matter what quality of information it yielded was accepted gratefully by students. When asked about this, students admitted that they do not distinguish between materials that have been evaluated for quality from those that are nothing more than individual opinions about a topic. This alarming situation caused the researchers at CMU to look systematically at what is happening in academic libraries. Here is what they found:

  1. Use of print resources is decreasing. Use of video and other media appears to be increasing. Overall circulation is declining. In-house use of library materials is also declining.
  2. The circulation of print reserve materials is rapidly declining. In some institutions faculty are putting fewer materials on reserve. The decline in reserve items and usage is probably due to the availability of full-text resources on the Web—provided by the library of by other entities. Several faculty are beginning to use course management software such as BlackBoard or Web CT to mount full-text materials for their students, thereby eliminating use of the library but accomplishing the same purpose.
  3. Use of reference service has been fluctuating, but appears to have dropped significantly in the past year. There are so-called reference services on the Web: Ask Jeeves, Allexperts.com, or one of the many Ask-A services. We know that these are hardly high quality reference sources, but many undergraduates seem more interested in 24 hour a day availability than the quality of response.
  4. Use of interlibrary loan is increasing, in many cases dramatically, probably because of cancelled journal subscriptions, the purchasing of fewer monographs, and the provision of citation databases that index materials not owned by the library.
  5. The number of traditional library instruction sessions and participants was increasing until recently, but now appear to be on the decline, perhaps because distance-learning technologies are being used to deliver library instruction.
  6. Gate counts are declining.
  7. The demand for desktop delivery of electronic materials is increasing.
  8. The volume of printing is increasing and the volume of photocopying is decreasing , probably because of the increased availability of electronic resources and printing of electronic journal articles.

You will note that I have been talking thus far about expectations of undergraduate students. These trends are not surprising to anyone who teaches undergraduate courses. They have been confirmed by another national survey conducted by netLibrary, one of the providers of online books conducted a study of the habits of 2,000 American college students they found:

• 82% of the student s own a computer and virtually all of them use the Internet

•93 % claimed that finding information online makes more sense that going to the library

•83% said that they were frequently unable to get the materials they need from the library because it is too late or too early to go to the library

• 75% said they do not have enough time

• 75% liked the convenience and 71% liked the time saved by finding information online any hour of the day

The dilemma for the library is determining whose interests are to be served. Faculty may bemoan the way students do their research, but their concern will not change the reality. The library has a unique opportunity to become a distinctive part of the educational experience by helping students who are using the electronic resources distinguish between academically sound materials from those that are not. Among the most prestigious liberal arts colleges, more and more library staff time is devoted to information literacy efforts: and assisting students in tailoring the library services to meet their individual research needs. Taking this approach means that more computer terminals are available to students, more informal group study and consultation space is needed, and library staff do not sit behind desks but actively circulate among the students who are involved in information discovery in the library. It may also mean that the library building will house other important information resources such as audio-visual materials. Or it may mean that teaching and learning centers are incorporated into the library where faculty come to get help from librarians in developing electronic teaching materials for their classes. For librarians who want to maintain a sense of order, this role of information consultant is a difficult one to play. But the results we are seeing in college libraries using this approach are astounding. Faculty report a much higher quality of research paper and students demonstrate greater mastery of subjects.

But this new approach produces a major difficulty for faculty: space for the books they wish to have at their fingertips are often moved to off site storage to make room for the more interactive needs of undergraduates. Some libraries have been quite creative in making off-site storage palatable to faculty by including a scan on demand feature, allowing the faculty member to request a title, have it scanned quickly at the off-site facility and delivered to the desktop.

The real difficulty facing libraries today is that circumstances are not evolutionary. Books are not going away as electronic resources emerge. The reality is that book publishing continues at a surprising rate. And electronic resources proliferate. But library budgets do not. Faculty and student demands fall into quite separate categories. Faculty need deep collection strength to do their research. Web resources, while wide, certainly are not deep. Until libraries digitize complete collections and put them on the Web, faculty (at least those in the humanities) will need to consult artifactual collections. I believe that it will not be possible for most small and mid-sized universities to continue buying books and journals to support the full range of research needs of the faculty. These institutions may need to consider building summer research grants for faculty into their budgets so that researchers can travel to the repositories that hold research-level collections. Or libraries need to enhance significantly their interlibrary loan activity, making it possible to deliver the needed material directly to the faculty member’s computer.

The point I am making is that libraries cannot continue to do all that they have done in the past to support faculty needs and make the transition to being an intellectual center for students without increasing costs. Since most universities cannot afford to increase their libraries’ budgets significantly, difficult choices have to be made regarding audience that is served , types of library services that will be available, and the extent to which the library will pay to participate in consortia that allow access to a broader range of materials.

Although books and paper will not vanish from libraries, the changes being imposed by the digital revolution are not likely to slow. To manage this hybrid system of books and digital information, libraries will be challenged to show leadership in changing their approaches to organizing, managing, and financing continuing access to knowledge in whatever forms it eventually takes.

Technology has turned our long-comfortable linear world into a sometimes-chaotic new order. But by its very nature electronic information will depend on the methods of the information’s creator, on a library’s ability to validate and organize the information, and on the information technologist’s skills in electronic networking. The librarians who oversee this transition must be prepared to take substantial risks, consult widely among different constituencies, and build consensus among individuals with disparate views and perspectives. This role does not call for a librarian who stays in the library ordering new books, cataloging them, and answering questions from those who walk through the door. All leaders of this transformed library must imagine what is possible and help staff members and users perceive the vision and find their own ways of realizing it.

Trustees and academic administrators must articulate an information policy for their campuses that will inform the decisions made by library directors and information technologists. In the past, the missions of libraries have been partly informational, partly inspirational. Will those dual roles continue in the digital environment? The answer depends upon the willingness of the librarians to play a leadership role, and on the vision the university has for the learning experience they are offering to students. Technology makes many choices available, but vision and economics will determine the choices that are made.

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Last Update: March 2009
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