Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries

This essay derives from a Roundtable on Technology and Change in Academic Libraries, convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) on November 2-3, 2006 in Chicago. 

To provide comment on this essay, visit the  blog posting on ACRLog.
Read 2007 ACRL Vice President Julie Todaro's response here.


The iconographic power of a college or university library expresses a purpose not just to collect, but also to organize, preserve, and make knowledge accessible. Today on the campus of virtually every higher education institution the library occupies a central position.  In its placement and prominence, the academic library conveys its integral role in supporting higher education’s core missions of research and education. 

As higher education in the U.S. has evolved through recent decades, college and university libraries also have forged pathways to serve faculty and students more effectively. Academic and research libraries have been early adopters of digital technologies and have provided leadership and training to help remake the academic enterprise.  And yet, for all their success in accommodating and even powering recent transformations in higher education, libraries and the librarians who lead them now find themselves asking a series of fundamental questions:

  • To what extent, and in what ways, are academic libraries likely to change?
  • What new roles will librarians come to have in the changing information environment?
  • What aspects of the academic library will prove the most resistant or impervious to change?
  • Will technology finally spur a recasting of how colleges and universities produce and disseminate knowledge?  If such a merging of interests takes place, what impact will that have on academic libraries?  Or conversely, if there is not a merging of these two agendas, will academic libraries be caught in the middle of an increasingly difficult competition for institutional resources?

To try to answer these questions is to realize that the years ahead constitute an age of transformation for academic and research libraries.  At the outset of the twenty-first century, these institutions confront the need to reconceive and reconstruct the means by which they support faculty and students in research and education.  The business of libraries can now be understood as one component of a rapidly evolving, almost wholly transformed environment in which information is proliferating at heretofore unimagined rates and in which the ability of academic libraries to deliver authenticated and reliable information is continuously challenged by new technologies. 

Academic and research libraries in 2007 confront circumstances that are as distinct from one another as they are different from the past.  The combination of constrained budgets and the changing, increasingly competitive domain of information production impacts virtually every library in some way. While some major research libraries have the ability to invest strategically in collections as well as new kinds of services, most university and college libraries now face real tradeoffs between print publications and digital resources. Many librarians find it necessary to cancel journal subscriptions and acquisitions, devoting more time and resources to negotiating licensing agreements with digital providers, acquiring access to important databases and digital collections,  re-profiling approval plans, or implementing new software to provide federated searching. 

The changes that are occurring—in technology, in research, teaching and learning—have created a very different context for the missions of academic and research libraries.  This evolving context can afford a moment of opportunity if libraries and librarians can respond to change in proactive and visionary ways.  There are diverse and unmet needs now arising within the academy—many of which closely align with the traditional self-definitions of academic and research libraries.  To the extent that libraries and their leaders can reposition themselves to serve these evolving needs—which pertain in part to the centralized storage, description, and delivery of academic resources, and in part to the organization and support of scholarly communication within and across higher education institutions—libraries will emerge as even more central and vibrant resources for their institutions. 

Necessarily, these forces of change encourage academic and research libraries to work together in new as well as collective ways.  The fact that some libraries have resources and incentives to build and manage unique collections can allow others to focus more intensively on ensuring accessibility to the range of information now available from other libraries as well as from multifarious digital sources.  A defining element of this moment is the capacity for academic and research libraries to accelerate their own transformation through collaborative action.

This essay derives from a roundtable convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) in Chicago in November 2006.  Participants in this roundtable included librarians from academic and research libraries large and small, public and private, from throughout the U.S.  Also included were current and former administrative leaders of higher education institutions, as well as leaders from other sectors of the information industry, including publishers of electronic journals, designers of electronic course management systems, providers of information resources through the Internet and other digital means.  In addition to the questions pertaining to academic libraries and librarians in general, our roundtable considered another, more particular question:

  • Can ACRL develop a reliable road map for assisting academic libraries and institutions in traversing this changing landscape? 

Indices of transition

The time in which the library stood as the repository and guardian of knowledge has given way to an era in which both the production and consumption of information far exceeds the library’s ability to contain.  To be certain, academic and research libraries continue to perform the roles of organizing, cataloging, and storing information in ways that faculty and students can readily access and use.  Most have made remarkable strides in providing users with organizational paradigms and strategies for accessing information beyond their own holdings.  At the same time, however, traditional structures of authority and qualitative certification, which the library embedded both in its own collection and in the scholarly apparatus it supported, have been engulfed in a flood of information from multiple sources, disseminated primarily in digital form, and retrievable by means that the library, and hence the academy, no longer control. 

Part of a library’s function has always been to guide users to information—to provide members of an academic community with tools for thoughtful inquiry.  Libraries and librarians have exemplified the ideal of a higher education that combines knowledge in depth with contextualized understanding of different fields and domains. The very fact of developing and managing a collection conferred on librarians a degree of authority and influence in shaping the process of research and education. Faculty have understood well-built collections as a means to enhance their own productivity in teaching and research.  The conceptual tools libraries provided could lead seekers of knowledge to resources both within and beyond the library’s own walls. 

Yet the explosion of information now being produced in digital form has dramatically changed expectations about the production as well as the use of knowledge. Given the Web’s ability to expedite the dissemination of information in all forms, “time to market” has become a growing value and source of advantage, in the academy as in other domains. To some extent the sciences have led other academic disciplines in this respect; in physics, chemistry, and increasingly biology, data and findings commonly circulate among peers in digital form and have greatest impact prior to formal publication. Timeliness of communication confers a strategic advantage not just in popular media, not just in the sciences, but in all forms of scholarly communication.

At the same time it accelerates the pace of knowledge dissemination, the Web gives rise to changing conceptions of knowledge production and use. The open information culture as exemplified by Wikipedia attests to a dramatically altered conception of knowledge as something produced, not solely by experts, but through a convergence of many who bring knowledge or experience to bear on a subject. Knowledge that is fluid and even imperfect today carries higher value than knowledge perceived as static and intact.  Data that can be copied, pasted, mixed, adapted, recast for evolving purposes and new modes of understanding has very strong appeal in today’s information environment, particularly for young people.  The problem of managing and preserving knowledge produced in these shifting realms of digital proliferation is enormous, and it is one that librarians need to be integral to solving. 

Among young people in particular, however, there is a tendency to consider the library as primarily the domain of the book; fewer now regard the library as either a primary source of information or as a means to discover and access knowledge that exists beyond its own physical collection. The recent OCLC report, College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, indicates that most undergraduates either do not visit their campus library or do so only one or two times per year. Librarians and faculty members alike complain that young people too often conceive the research process as beginning and ending with an Internet search. Several have observed that it takes only one dissatisfying experience with a library to solidify a student’s conviction that the Internet provides more efficient, productive, and enjoyable paths to information.

In many respects the academic library has become transparent. A growing share of libraries’ costs consists of providing faculty and students with access to scholarly resources through licensing agreements with electronic journals, databases, and other digital resources. While the library incurs significant costs in providing access to these materials, its users are increasingly likely to consider such access as simply a feature of the landscape—a scholarly abundance or retrievable feast that registers in exactly the same terms as other forms of information ubiquitously available through the Internet. Though they may have drawn extensively on digital resources the library has made available, it is increasingly possible for faculty members as well as students to research and write a scholarly article, book, or essay without ever setting foot physically in the library or understanding the library’s role in providing information they have obtained.

Academic libraries in many respects are canaries in the mine for the colleges and universities whose values they epitomize. Traditional two- and four-year institutions of higher education no longer constitute the single means of attaining higher learning. The fastest-growing segment of postsecondary education consists of for-profit institutions that cater to market demand and make no commitment to expanding or preserving the store of human knowledge.  For-profit education providers tend to contract out both the library and faculty functions to meet a growing market demand for knowledge and education delivered expeditiously, at low cost, in a form that has immediate practical application. 

Leadership and Transformation

The transitions occurring in the production, dissemination, and retrieval of information provide important opportunities for academic libraries to lead their institutions in pursuing new modes of academic research and productivity, much as they did in helping their institutions adopt digital technology in its earlier stages. The evolutions that continue to occur—changing paradigms of knowledge production, expanding sources and modes of dissemination, faster and broader accessibility to a growing range of information – all have the ring of opportunity from the standpoint of an entrepreneur. Changes in technology and modes of academic work create new kinds of needs that libraries can help fulfill. In this sense the challenges libraries now face are the same ones that confront any contender in the expanding market for information: there is a continuing need to adapt to rapid change, to keep pace with new developments in technology and new competition in the industry. 

From the standpoint of an institution’s chief academic officer, the only rationale for a library and its budget is to support the work of faculty and students. As the competition for resources within higher education institutions becomes more intense, the amount of funds an institution provides may derive in part from the relative priorities the library budget accords to its diverse functions, including staff, acquisitions, teaching, and technology. The allocation of funds among such budget items becomes a statement of priorities and a vision of roles the university or college librarian envisions for the library. The question any librarian should be asking is, “Do I want to be an advocate for the library as it currently exists or an advocate for the library as it must exist in the future?” 

Then there is the tendency among some librarians to regard a comparatively small number of faculty members as core constituencies essential to the library’s future. In all likelihood, those faculty members who are the strongest supporters of the library’s traditional modes are more essential to the organization’s past. The paradox resembles that of university presses in some ways; their controlling influence tends to reside with a limited number of faculty members, many of whom adhere to traditional modes of scholarly dissemination, peer recognition, and academic advancement. The recent report of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion provides a hopeful prospect for cultural transformation in the humanities – a transformation that university and college librarians can help facilitate.  Among the core recommendations of that Task Force are to “develop a more capacious conception of scholarship by rethinking the dominance of the monograph,” and to “recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media.” 

Libraries and librarians are fulcrums of academic productivity, with potential to expand both the range and depth of creative work that faculty and students undertake in any discipline. What has changed are the actions librarians perform and services they provide in carrying out these core functions.  The challenge for libraries, their leadership and staff, is to recast their identities in relation to the changing modes of knowledge creation and dissemination, and in relation to the academic communities they serve.  Librarians need to reposition the fulcrum and reconceive the kinds of leverage they can provide to faculty and student productivity. No one has been trained explicitly to bring about this change in library organization and culture, though many of those now seeking the Master of Library Science (MLS) degree conceive themselves working in libraries that have emerged from their earlier cocoons. One instance of promising evolution is the more robust integration of library educators in the classroom brought about by the information literacy initiative of the past two decades. 

Making Sense of a Messy Future

There are three essential actions libraries must take to achieve the necessary transformation and remain vital forces on campus in the years ahead: 

  • First, libraries must evolve from institutions perceived primarily as the domain of the book to institutions that users clearly perceive as providing pathways to high-quality information in a variety of media and information sources. 
  • Second, the culture of libraries and their staff must proceed beyond a mindset primarily of ownership and control to one that seeks to provide service and guidance in more useful ways, helping users find and use information that may be available through a range of providers, including libraries themselves, in electronic format. 
  • Third, libraries must assert their evolving roles in more active ways, both in the context of their institutions and in the increasingly competitive markets for information dissemination and retrieval.  Libraries must descend from what many have regarded as an increasingly isolated perch of presumed privilege and enter the contentious race to advance in the market for information services—what one participant in our roundtable termed “taking it to the streets.”

What is at stake is the definition of the indispensable library—indispensable to faculty and students in the first instance, and to the knowledge and information industry in the second. In redefining and reasserting their value, libraries will have to embrace much more aggressively the fact that they are one of many contenders for their institution’s financial support. Libraries have been comparatively slow to realize and accept the need to function in an environment of direct competition for resources, either from within or outside their institutions. As one participant in our roundtable observed, “Don’t assume that people care about libraries. People care about streamlining the processes that support research and learning.” Libraries must be active contestants in the race for financial support or fall increasingly to the periphery of their institution’s strategic vision.

A Reconfigured Portfolio

The road to indispensability is not without obstacles, but we believe it is one that academic and research libraries can readily travel. To remain indispensable, libraries and librarians must come to define and fulfill a reconfigured set of roles for serving their institutions. To be sure, some elements of the future have the familiar cast of tradition as libraries continue to support the core research and educational purposes of the academy. To act on these core purposes in today’s environment, however, requires that libraries move beyond parameters of earlier times to pursue new modes of serving their institutions.  

Broaden the catalog of resources libraries provide in support of academic inquiry and discovery.  A library’s fundamental purpose has always been to support the process of research and education by helping users find information and ascertain its value. Libraries have provided the tools and fostered modes of inquiry that guide users through quantities of information and help them identify that which meets particular needs. In the age of acquisitions, libraries performed this service essentially by providing inroads to materials they owned or could obtain through partnerships with other libraries.  Linking users to information will continue to involve physical volumes to some degree, particularly for libraries that acquire specialized unique collections for the purpose of enhancing faculty productivity in certain fields. 

Increasingly, however, the library’s role in supporting research and education will require providing access to materials beyond the library’s own walls in digital form. Libraries and their staffs will become increasingly important as navigational guides, helping users make discerning choices among materials available in the public domain on the Internet. Just as important, the academic library will become an agent of accessibility and integration, linking users to a range of digital information available to a user community through licensing agreements or other means. A growing share of library and institutional budgets consist of payments for access to journals, databases, and other materials produced in digital form. It is an expenditure that differs in kind from the purchase of a physical volume that the library owns for all time. 

Accompanying the expanded range of resources the library provides are opportunities for librarians to serve users in different ways, for example, by providing more in-depth consultation to research questions, hosting new types of tools that enable users to guide each other in specialized disciplines, as well as social networking software and other tools. The demonstrable value of academic libraries and their staffs must increasingly reside in the guidance they provide as well as the technical infrastructures they develop and maintain, helping users give shape and meaning to the omni-directional rush of otherwise unmediated digital information, and helping assure scholarly integrity in that environment. While many of those who work in university and college libraries now engage in these services, the knowledge of their doing so has not become widespread. To the extent the library comes to seem merely transparent it also appears redundant. Whatever the source of digital or printed resources, librarians must be known as active resources who provide an organizational structure that allows both current and future users to access and retrieve the knowledge being produced.

Foster the creation of new academic communities on campus.  One of the most important strategic advantages of an academic library is space. It is often observed that the library inhabits the most desirable real estate on any college or university campus. Geographically and symbolically, it occupies the center of a community established to support the advancement and perpetuation of knowledge. The positioning of the library conveys a sense of intellectual common ground, a setting in which knowledge from a range of disciplines comes together in a single place. Known as a place of gathering and collection, the library embodies core academic values reflected in the domains of knowledge that faculty and students pursue. As a physical structure and hub of interaction, it affirms the value of sustained inquiry in particular fields, at the same time it affirms the need to understand knowledge as a whole—to impart context and synthesis to knowledge produced within particular fields of study. 

An increasingly important role of the library in coming years will be to provide meeting space and support to foster communities of shared interest on campus. Some of the most exciting advancements in recent years have resulted from the combining of disciplinary approaches. New kinds of partnerships among scholars and their disciplines make it possible to ask questions and explore existing knowledge in different ways. Yet the growing interest in interdisciplinary pursuit has not tended to yield new allotments of space on university and college campuses. The library has the unique potential to provide common space to strengthen academic community and foster new developments in teaching and research within the institution. Beyond the provision of meeting space, the library’s continuing appeal must derive from the new kinds of academic service functions it provides in support of teaching and learning as well as academic centers and research enterprises. 

Support and manage the institution’s intellectual capital. In addition to providing physical space for assembling communities of interest, the library has an important role in making digital space accessible to members of an academic community on campus and beyond. The pervasiveness of the Internet has yielded new forms of interaction among practitioners of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields. The expanded possibilities in turn have created new kinds of needs for sharing large bodies of information and scholarship in digital form. A growing number of faculty members have data sets that they may wish to post for review and comment by colleagues on or off campus. Some academic and research libraries have expanded the concept of providing access to scholarly work by becoming electronic publishers of faculty projects involving multiple media. Others are addressing this issue by providing institutional repositories, where faculty can store their scholarly work under the stewardship of the of the library.  Libraries also can participate in the institution’s e-portfolio program, in particular, by  providing advice and expertise on information policy issues and preservation strategies. In crossing the line from acquiring to publishing the scholarly output of faculty members, libraries substantially enhance the meaning of providing space to foster academic community. 

Become more assertive in helping their institutions define strategic purposes.  Academic and research libraries have a major role in ensuring that they and their home institutions remain vital players in the changing terrain of information and education. To the extent a library accepts its responsibility in helping the institution achieve its future goals—as opposed to preserving a heritage vested essentially in the past —it becomes a powerful asset in helping ensure the institution’s ability to thrive amid change. 

One challenge many institutions face, for example, is to develop deeper and more substantive ties with their alumni. It is not uncommon for graduates to feel a sense of alienation from their alma mater after graduating. Generally the qualities of their experience that undergraduates valued most—including relationships with faculty mentors and access to the academic resources of the institution—come to an abrupt halt with the attainment of a degree. After graduation their first—often their only—direct contact from the institution comes from the development office. The message conveyed is that however substantive and fulfilling their engagement with the institution may have been as students, after graduation the institution appears to regard them essentially as donors. The library can serve an important purpose in sustaining more meaningful ties with graduates through the creation of an alumni portal, with links to academic resources that alumni could not otherwise access on their own. Just as the library has evolved to serve users seeking information beyond its own walls, the population it serves can extend beyond the community of current faculty and students. In addition to enriching opportunities for substantive engagement with alumni, an alumni portal can help sustain the emotional ties to the institution that in turn help encourage financial giving from graduates. The resources required to establish an alumni portal are significant, and for many institutions the decision to invest in such a service must be balanced against other potential means of serving many constituencies. The librarian’s role in such cases may include advocacy for pursuing an important strategic opportunity.

The library can also serve its home institution by providing presidents, chief academic officers, and other administrative leaders with guidance on the complex and changing world of intellectual property. In addition, leaders of academic and research libraries must conceive their responsibility in part as one of advocating the interests of their institution—and of higher education—in policy issues that impact the continued accessibility of information for libraries, their faculty, students, and home institutions. Library leaders must also advocate for preservation strategies, government policies, and business models that assure faculty and students long-term access to the literatures and research documentation that libraries will now license rather than own.

If a library is to make a significant contribution to achieving an institution’s strategic purposes, universities and colleges need to regard the head librarian as a key player in the decision making process. Often the organizational structure of the leadership group prevents the librarian from having direct access to the provost and president. As a result, senior administrators often lack a clear conception of the problem the library can help the institution solve. Librarians need to be in positions to give forceful expression not just to the problems but also to the solutions the library can provide. The university or college librarian needs to be at the table as both a thinker and leader along with the institution’s senior leadership in determining key strategic directions with regard to changing demands in supporting research and education. In the competition for resources and recognition, leaders of libraries are learning to think and act strategically, both within and beyond the context of their home institution. External resource development from fundraising, grants, partnerships, and entrepreneurial activities, now occupy growing portions of a librarian’s time and creative effort.

Risks of the Undertaking

However easy it may be to describe evolving roles for libraries in supporting their institutions, there are two inherent risks in pursuing these directions. Both derive from the library’s core function of advancing research and learning in fulfillment of higher education’s academic mission. Both take the form of questions that give pause in considering academic libraries and institutions of the future. 

First: To what extent are faculty members themselves calling for the kinds of changes described above?  In supporting the academic mission, the library serves the faculty first and foremost.  In pursuing new conceptions of the roles it might play, the library runs the risk of alienating what has traditionally been its most important constituency.  For many faculty members, the “gold standard” for promotion and tenure continues to center in conventional forms of book and journal publishing, and the metric of a library’s utility is simply its ability to provide access to books and journals in their field, regardless of cost. In all likelihood the greatest faculty support for the new directions a library might pursue would come from newer faculty members – tenured people in early and mid-career who are likely to have come of age with computers and understand the potential of electronic resources to support research and teaching in more effective ways.  A related issue is that some faculty who have need for partners with information and technology expertise do not think of librarians in that role.  This sense of discordant purpose is especially apparent in the sciences, where many researchers have large data sets and need assistance with organization and curation but look to graduate students or post docs to assist them rather than librarians.  In some cases, the librarians at their institutions may not have the requisite skills; in others, the librarians may not have marketed their skills effectively.

Second: If libraries and their staff share some of the responsibilities ordinarily attributed only to teaching faculty— fostering skills of inquiry in students, providing tools and strategies to find information from multiple sources and assess its quality – to what extent will faculty consider themselves “off the hook” in providing students with the foundations to seek out and evaluate knowledge throughout life?  From an institution’s standpoint, one possible danger of allowing libraries and their staff to engage directly with students around issues of information technology and learning is to grant license for the faculty to focus more exclusively on research while taking less direct responsibility for their students’ learning. 

Libraries and their staffs need to pursue a delicate course in addressing both risks. In the first instance, they must distinguish between faculty who are essential to the library’s future and those essential to its past, building strong alliances with the former while being as responsive as possible to the latter. Any organization in transformation must take account of multiple stakeholders and define a strategy for progressing through competing interests.  In addressing the second risk, libraries and their staffs must delineate between facilitating research and education on the one hand, and sharing faculty responsibility for what students learn on the other. The recent OCLC report, College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, makes clear that faculty members make far more substantive impressions on students than do librarians in students’ learning about electronic resources; students look to faculty above all for guidance in delineating the quality of information. Library staff must regard themselves as partners with faculty, offering tools and expertise that in many cases differ from what faculty members themselves possess.  The working relationship between faculty and library staff must be one of conjoining complementary strengths to produce a result that neither partner could attain alone. Furthermore, faculty and students must be directly engaged in shaping the roles of librarians.

Library Professionals

These considerations make clear that the library staff of the future must comprise a different mix of skills from those whose professional identities were cast in the age of acquisitions, when libraries gauged their value by the number of volumes on their shelves. The familiar profile—even the caricature—of a library staff member in past decades was of one who enjoyed authority and control over domains of knowledge without experiencing too direct an exposure to competition or change. The collections they oversaw and professional practices and processes they devised, if not static, were changing in ways that could be managed prudently without significant disruption. 

Today’s library staff must include people who see themselves as active contenders in a race for relevance, regard, and resources. Some of its members must have strong technical skills and an ability to identify specific areas in which technology can advance the institution in fulfilling its academic mission. Library staff must be capable of working effectively in partnership with faculty members to enhance the strength of teaching and research.  To be certain, there are many staff members of this kind in academic libraries today. Frequently those who bring technological grounding and insight express frustration in dealing with faculty members who simply dismiss them as technology buffs who could not possibly understand the workings of academic scholarship. In this as in other respects, part of the skills library staff must develop is the ability to educate faculty members, helping them to understand the power and applicability of resources and modes of inquiry that have come about since the time of a professor’s own graduate training.  Beyond their understanding of technology resources, many librarians bring considerable knowledge of effective pedagogy in the use of instructional technology.

Library staffs in general must become more agile, more highly attuned to, and more aggressive in proclaiming just how different the world of knowledge has already become. It is often the case that the kinds of skills and experience libraries seek in their staff lie beyond the realm of what Master of Library Science (MLS) programs commonly provide their graduates. Particularly in large, complex research libraries, new staff hires may possess a range of expertise very different from the skills one would commonly associate with that of librarians. At the same time, MLS programs are attracting people who see themselves serving in libraries of the future, and the curricula of many such programs are evolving at rates that outpace reform in graduate Ph.D. programs. 

In our roundtable we explored the extent to which current staff are capable of contributing to the transformation academic and research libraries must make in the coming age. We identified three categories of library professionals:  those who now actively contribute to the necessary transformation; those who could become contributors with some professional development; and those who do not admit of retraining and will impede change until they retire. The ratios differed in different libraries; while some essentially have the staff currently in place that can carry the library forward, others face the need to retrain and replace staff whose proclivities reflect older and more staid conceptions of the library and the institution it supports. It is important that the leaders of academic and research libraries ask the question about their staffs’ “fitness for use” in addressing needs of the future. In this as in other strategic challenges facing universities and colleges, the focus cannot be on where the ball has been or where it currently is—but on where it is going. 

Roles for ACRL

In addition to describing the changes confronting academic and research libraries and the institutions they support, a core purpose of our roundtable was to identify ways in which ACRL itself could support libraries and librarians in making necessary transformations. 

Our roundtable identified actions of several kinds that ACRL could take to help power successful transformation in academic libraries, both individually and collectively. Some are actions that could be taken in conjunction with other divisions of the American Library Association, such as the Library Administrators and Management Association (LAMA) and the Library Information Technology Association (LITA). Because the roundtable consisted both of librarians and a range of other leaders within and beyond the academy, our discussion ultimately identified many actions that ACRL has in fact performed for many years.  In that sense, the following enumeration serves two related purposes:  on the one hand, to affirm important actions ACRL currently undertakes, and on the other, to outline steps that further extend and enhance the services ACRL performs on behalf of academic and research libraries and librarians.

In the broadest sense, the roundtable discussion suggested that ACRL can assist librarians in the process of reconceiving their role and contributions to the academic institutions of which they are part. As a national organization whose membership encompasses a variety of institutions, ACRL can provide context and perspective that helps college and university libraries address change, both individually and collectively. While affirming the notion that no one size will fit all libraries, ACRL can encourage the reconception and restructuring that allows for more resilience and greater success in meeting the changing demands that libraries, their leadership and staff, must address.

The following list identifies several roles ACRL might usefully perform (in italics) followed by examples of actions (in bullet form) that could accomplish those broad purposes. As noted above, several entries in the list describe services that ACRL currently performs, while others represent significant new initiatives. We regard these examples as suggestive rather than exhaustive, offered in the spirit of helping ACRL define its own roles in supporting libraries and librarians of the future. 

Convene and facilitate dialogues with leaders of key constituencies to consider the future of libraries in supporting the missions of higher education institutions.  

  • Draw together library leaders with college and university administrators, possibly in conjunction with national organizations such as the National Association of State Universities and Land Grand Colleges (NASULGC), the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), and the Association of American Universities (AAU), to consider factors of change and address common issues and challenges. 
  • In particular, focus a sustained dialogue of institutional leaders on the continuing, critically important, and evolving role of libraries in the organization, preservation, and archiving of information – in traditional print format as well as in the expanding realm of digital production, where hardware and software platforms may change with no reliable backup in print or other forms. 
  • Bring together librarians with different academic constituencies – including current and future leaders of different disciplines – to discuss needs and identify ways in which libraries can most effectively support learning and research in particular fields of study. The report of the MLA Task force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion offers a useful foundation for convening such dialogues, as does the recently issued report of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, "Our Cultural Commonwealth."

Contribute to national efforts to better understand elements of successful learning, and help advance higher education’s performance in the achievement of learning outcomes.

  •  Building on contributions ACRL has made in understanding the relation between information literacy and learning, take steps to conjoin with other national agencies, notably, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), in advancing the agenda of improving learning outcomes in higher education institutions.
  • Help position academic libraries to be active voices in state conversations about learning outcomes.
  • Develop metrics to gauge libraries’ contributions to the core functions of learning, possibly in conjunction with the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), in addition to the achievement of such outcomes as retention and persistence to graduation.

Identify and monitor indices of change in the environment of libraries and information dissemination, as well as metrics to gauge the effectiveness of libraries in serving changing needs of their institutions. 

  • Conduct a survey to provide a quantitative basis for understanding the evolving functions of the library – including such factors as the allocation of budget to staff, acquisitions, subscriptions to print and electronic journals, etc.
  • Conduct studies, collect and analyze data, possibly in conjunction with OCLC, on how students and faculty are using information they obtain through digital technology, including qualitative methods such as case studies or focus groups that yield nuanced understandings of how these constituencies regard the library and use its resources. 

Provide leadership in helping libraries and librarians make effective use of technology in supporting research and education.  

  • Coordinate relationships between academic libraries and the vendor community to ensure the quality, suitability, and cost-effectiveness of technology that libraries obtain. 
  • Help cultivate relationships between libraries and providers of search engines to support search criteria that meet the needs of faculty members at particular institutions. 
  • Provide assistance to libraries seeking to offer new digital services, such as an alumni portal, or institutional repositories for storing and providing access to faculty data. 
  • Develop programming to help library administrators better understand library technology issues at an administrative level, academic content issues, and the interface of library technology issues and the web environment on campus.
  • Help librarians to develop more dynamic partnerships with their institution’s Information Technology divisions to develop or deploy innovative tools for information access and creation.
  • Convene library technology leaders and others to develop an agenda of technology goals and strategies, possibly in partnership with the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), as well as the Association for Library Collection and Technical Services (ALCTS), and the Library of Congress. 

Provide national leadership in communicating the potential and performance of libraries in adopting new paradigms and meeting changing demands of institutions, faculty, and students.  

  • Energize a national effort to heighten awareness of libraries and their contribution to the intellectual vitality of higher education in the digital age; lead the process of “branding” by investing the terms “library” and “librarian” with meanings that more accurately denote their evolving roles beyond the collection and oversight of  books.  Help establish a better brand awareness of the term, “information literacy” as a movement that contributes positively to student learning and success.
  • Develop a program to recognize innovation in libraries – conferring an annual award, with the judges being higher education leaders who are not themselves librarians.
  • Help libraries of different kinds become “best of class” in pursuing specific goals appropriate to their size, budget, and the mission of the college or university they serve.
  • Advocate for public policies and business models that support and sustain access to the literature and research record of academic disciplines prevalent in higher education institutions that are members of ACRL.

If Not Now, When?

If one were to ask what academic libraries will look like in 50 years, it is hardly controversial to say that they will have undergone a transformation, and that some generation between then and now will have accomplished it. A more contentious and nervous question is what changes libraries will make in the next 10 or 15 years. The answer will depend on steps that university and college libraries take—now, and in the immediate future—to accommodate, address, and even lead the changes brought about by the information explosion, the ascendance of electronic over print publication as a primary form of communication, and the transformation occurring in the market for higher education itself. 

Whether the present state of affairs is an occasion for the library to move forward or fall behind depends on the leadership role that libraries and librarians are willing to take. The success of libraries in meeting upcoming challenges will determine the extent to which administrators conceive libraries in the same light that they have come to regard many university presses—as “a luxury that you indulge, within a limit ”—or as essential partners in ensuring the ability of future faculty and students to create, distribute, and affordably access past and current research.

Academic and research libraries created a way of thinking about and managing educational resources at a time when ink on paper was the principal mode of communicating thought. Whether the forces of change cause libraries and their parent institutions to advance or revert to solidified roles of the past is a question that the current generation of library leaders, along with the faculty and administrators of their home institutions, will decide. 

Academic and research libraries have often been positive agents of change in the past. Collectively and individually, academic libraries have made substantial progress in providing new modes of service in such areas as publishing programs, research data curation, alumni portals, copyright offices, and institutional repositories. By exerting visionary leadership and making the right choices within and beyond their institutions, academic libraries can continue to exert a positive force that allows them to remain integral to the transformational process.  ACRL itself can be a collective force that heightens the impact of visionary leadership that exists among libraries at individual universities and colleges.
 

February 13, 2007

 


This essay derives from a Roundtable on Technology and Change in Academic Libraries, convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) on November 2-3, 2006 in Chicago.  The roundtable was facilitated by Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania’s Learning Alliance for Higher Education.  The essay was drafted by Gregory Wegner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association in conjunction with Robert Zemsky.  The following individuals were participants in the roundtable discussion and helped formulate the essay’s central themes:


Steven J. Bell
Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services
Temple University Libraries
Temple University 

Douglas C. Bennett
President
Earlham College

Paul N. Courant
Harold T. Shapiro Collegiate Professor of Public Policy
The University of Michigan

Mary Ellen K. Davis
Executive Director
Association of College & Research Libraries
 
Ameet Doshi
Public Services Librarian
University of North Carolina, Wilmington

Czeslaw Jan Grycz
Curator of Books
Internet Archive

James L. Hilton
Vice President & Chief Information Officer
Professor of Psychology
University of Virginia    

Karen Hunter
Senior Vice President
Elsevier

Richard N. Katz
Vice President
EDUCAUSE

Joan K. Lippincott
Associate Executive Director
Coalition for Networked Information

Patrick J. Mullin
Associate University Librarian for Technical Services & Systems
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

James G. Neal
Vice President for Information Services
  and University Librarian
Columbia University

Kenley Neufeld
Library Director
Santa Barbara City College

Cerise Oberman
Dean of Library & Information Services
State University of New York @ Plattsburgh

Loretta Parham
CEO and Library Director
Robert W. Woodruff Library
  of the Atlanta University Center, Inc

Matthew S. Pittinsky
Chairman
Blackboard, Inc.
PhD Candidate, Teachers College, Columbia University

Gary D. Price
Director of Online Information Resources, Ask.com
Founder and Editor, ResourceShelf.com

Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Director, Library Systems & Information Technology
California State University, Sacramento

Sherrie Schmidt
University Librarian
Arizona State University

David Shulenburger
Vice President of Academic Affairs
National Association of State Universities & Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC)

Adam M. Smith
Group Business Product Manager
Google Book Search & Google Scholar

Pamela Snelson
College Librarian
Franklin & Marshall College
 
Helen H. Spalding
University Librarian/Professor
Portland State University

Roy Tennant
User Services Architect
California Digital Library

Julie Todaro
Dean, Library Services
Austin Community College

John M. Unsworth
Dean and Professor
Graduate School of Library & Information Science
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Gregory R. Wegner
Director of Program Development
Great Lakes Colleges Association

Ann J. Wolpert
Director of Libraries
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Robert Zemsky
Professor & Chair
The Learning Alliance
University of Pennsylvania

To provide comment on this essay, visit the  blog posting on ACRLog.

Read 2007 ACRL Vice President Julie Todaro's response here.