Do We Need Academic Libraries?

A Position Paper of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)

by Larry Hardesty
December 15, 1999; Revised January 6, 2000, Revised January 21, 2000

No one will dispute that technology has had a tremendous impact on academic libraries over the past generation and few will disagree that this impact has been positive. Because of technology, academic libraries have evolved from card-based catalogs and print-based periodical indexes to online public access catalogs (OPACs) and online periodical indexes. Increasingly, digital journals and books have supplemented the traditional print sources housed in physical library buildings. Often members of the academic community can access these digital publications without regard to proximity to the physical library building or its hours of operation. The availability of digital information made available by libraries through paid subscriptions combined with the growing amount of digital information available free via the Internet has created, for some, the mistaken impression "all information is available electronically."1

Perhaps it, therefore, was inevitable that someone would ask, "Does a degree-granting institution of higher education need a physical library (and librarians) for accreditation?" In August 1999, Oswald M. T. Ratteray, Assistant Director for Constituent Services and Special Programs, posed such a question to library directors at member institutions of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. He asked because the Middle States Commission is facing the highly controversial issue of the accreditation of transregional and virtual institutions,2 as are other regional accreditation agencies.3

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the largest professional association representing academic librarians, is, of course, vitally interested in this issue. The issue, however, is not only of significance to academic librarians but has consequences for the entire academic community and for society in general. It calls into question the very meaning of a college degree from an institution accredited by a regional accrediting association.

Just what does a college degree signify? What does a student really need to obtain a college education? To obtain a college education, does a student need face-to-face contact with classroom faculty, fellow students, and librarians? To obtain a college education, does a student need to experience the benefits offered by classrooms, laboratories, theatres, galleries, and libraries?

Should, for example, a college degree signify that a student has been prepared to locate, evaluate, and use information in order to become an independent and continual learner? If the answer is yes, can one become a lifelong learner without access to a physical library and the services of librarians?

The answer is not obvious because too often the wrong question is being asked. The 19th century ideal of the Mark Hopkins at one end of the log and a student at the other end of the log has long given way, at most institutions of higher education, to a post-World War II reality. The teacher is too often an ill-prepared, over-worked, underpaid teaching assistant at one end of the lecture hall and the student is often one of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of others sitting at the other end of the lecture hall. Any assignments may be designed to keep the student (and his/her numerous fellow students) out of the library. So, is there a difference between the library needs and educational outcomes of this student and the faceless student 500 miles away receiving the same lecture via videotape or Internet? Probably not, but this is the wrong question! If neither the on-campus nor the distance education student goes beyond the textbook and any other prepackaged materials, both are being cheated out of the opportunities to receive a college education.

In addition, accreditation agencies should be particularly cautious about accepting findings that there are no measurable differences between on-campus and distance education experiences. Methodologies examining the differences have been recently called into question.4 Not only is the wrong question being asked, it is being asked in the wrong way.

We recognize that some courses and even some major fields of study are legitimately not dependent upon the library. A first-year course that might heavily depend upon the textbook or reserve readings in the library may be little different from pre-packaged curriculum materials made available to a distance education student. An undergraduate mathematics major, for example, may make little use of the academic library in his or her field. However, regional accreditation agencies are being asked to accredit not individual courses or the courses for a singular field of study. They are being asked to accredit an entire curriculum of study.

A curriculum that consists largely of pre-packaged materials devoid of opportunities and requirements for independent study and interactive research possibility may be little more than a series of first-year, entry-level courses. While accumulating credit hours, students moving through the courses do not develop an increasing sophistication in the skills and abilities needed to be a lifelong learner.

Can an electronic access to information resources be provided that is equivalent to traditional campus-based print materials? For some courses, the answer may be yes, just as for some courses traditional print materials are not needed. However, for most major fields of study at even the undergraduate level the answer is still no. Academic librarians recognize that currently available digital resources have serious limitations in supporting an entire curriculum. Relatively few of the millions of journals and books that fill our academic libraries have been retrospectively converted into digital formats and there is no evidence that a significant percentage will be in the foreseeable future. In addition, there has been little evidence of any abatement in the current publication rate of print materials, and most remain unavailable digitally.

Therefore, the student who has access to only digital information has access to only a very fragmented and incomplete portion of recorded human knowledge. It is fragmented because the creation of digital collections is not based on the interests and needs of the classroom faculty and the bibliographic development skills of librarians. Digital collections most often are based on the willingness of publishers to make their product available in that format. Two situations can result. An institution may offer only those courses that available databases support. Or, an institution may offer courses not adequately supported by information resources. Neither should be acceptable for an accredited institution.

In addition, the contents of many electronic databases remain unstable. Contracts between vendors and producers are often short-term. Electronic journals available one year may not be available next. Academic librarians can readily testify to major resources being available one day through a vendor and not the next-with no advance notice.

In contrast, the traditional print collections of the academic library are highly shaped by the interest and needs of the classroom faculty. Faculty members have the opportunity to recommend for purchase materials to allow their students to explore the topics of their particular classes in more depth. Through the collaboration of classroom faculty and academic librarians access to resources can be provided that can lead the student beyond the classroom. And considerable effort is made to preserve and make accessible these collections. An entire range of journals will not disappear with the flip of a switch. At this point, access only to digital databases is hardly equivalent to access to an adequately supported academic library.

Can then a transregional or virtual institution provide equivalent access to traditional library resources through formal agreements with traditional institutions for access to their traditional libraries? There is a long history of cooperation and collaboration among academic libraries, and technology has further enhanced this collaboration since most academic libraries now make the electronic record of their holdings available online. However, some institutions have come to rely all too heavily on the largesse of institutions that have expended considerable resources to support the library needs of their own students. Accrediting agencies should look carefully for evidence of abuses. Some institutions directly or indirectly encourage their students to rely on inappropriate libraries, such as the local branch of the public library, a community college library that does not support upper-level courses, or the library of a four-year institution that does not support a particular program. Even institutions with appropriate collections may drop programs and reduce acquisitions below an appropriate level. Finally, through the lack of guidance and the provision of adequate libraries, distance education students often find their ways to libraries for which there are no formal arrangements. Libraries once open to the public are closing their doors to all but their currently enrolled students because they cannot afford to support institutions that are not providing their students with adequate library resources.

Development of the independent learning also does not end simply with providing access to information resources. A librarian, knowledgeable in the identification, location, and evaluation of information resources, must be available to guide students in the use of the library, whether it is in print or in digital formats. The vast increase of information in many ways has created a need for more-not less-guidance in the use and evaluation of information. Students uninitiated in the complexities of information retrieval and evaluation are often confronted by an overwhelming amount of useless or inferior information from the Internet. They often make little distinction between information from those refereed scholarly journals available digitally and the digital equivalent of vanity press publications. To the chagrin of their teachers, many uninformed students accept convenient information, whether appropriate or not, at the expense of appropriate but less convenient information. Left alone, students may perfect inappropriate information retrieval and evaluation techniques under the misconception that they are obtaining the benefits of a college education.

The traditional academic institutions of the United States have expended considerable resources to develop academic libraries that are the envy of the rest of the world. Individuals from all over the world seek to come to the United States to study because of the quality of our academic programs-supported by our academic libraries. The Association of College and Research Libraries recognizes the importance of innovation and the opportunities offered by technology. However, the Association of College and Research Libraries is also aware of current and past abuses of nontraditional programs.5 Therefore, the membership of ACRL strongly urges the regional accreditation agencies to exercise carefully their responsibilities and to proceed most cautiously in the accreditation of transregional and virtual institutions. We believe that the collections of traditional academic libraries and the services of librarians are vital for students in obtaining the benefits of a college education. Therefore, the offerings of these institutions and the distance education offerings of traditional institutions both should be evaluated by the same rigorous criteria applied to traditional educational programs. To do less not only puts academic libraries at risk but also misleads the American public as to the true meaning of a college degree.


  1. William Miller, "Troubling myths about on-line information," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 63 (August 1, 1997): A44.
  2. As defined by Mr. Ratteray, "A transregional institution is one that is chartered and has its principle operation in one of the six accrediting regions in the United States and has a branch or other instructional location in the other regions. A virtual institution maintains a limited physical plant at it headquarters and transmits its courses and provides learning resources to students at a distance, usually electronically via the Internet, by mail, or some combination of electronic and print media."
  3. Florence Olson, "'Virtual' Institutions Challenge Accreditors to Devise New Ways of Measuring Quality," The Chronicle of Higher Education 66 (August 6, 1999): A29.
  4. James P. Merisotis and Ronald A. Phipp, "What's the Difference?" Outcomes of Distance vs. Traditional Classroom-Based Learning." Change 85 (May/June 1999): 12-17.
  5. David F. Noble has provided a very cogent essay on the abuses of correspondence instruction in the early part of this century, often by some very respectable institutions of higher education. See David F. Noble, "Digital Diploma Mills, Part IV, Rehearsal for the Revolution," November 1999, Accessed December 10, 1999.