Academic Libraries

2012 State of America's Libraries Report

Students rushing past a reserve desk at an academic library.Photo by Kurt Wagner

As academic librarians and their colleagues in higher education in the United States continued to navigate the “new normal,” characterized by stagnating budgets, unsustainable costs, increased student enrollments, and reduced staff, the pressure on higher education to demonstrate value took on new urgency and importance in 2011–2012. While several stinging reports concluded that learning outcomes for students in post-secondary institutions are limited and that students are “academically adrift” and do not work very hard, others saw a “value gap” and questioned whether going to any college at any price was worth it.

Given the new focus on academic rigor as part of the value proposition, the contributions of academic librarians to student learning and critical thinking assumed an even more important role than before. Most students entering college in the fall of 2011 acknowledged that they lacked the research skills needed to complete assignments and be successful in an information-intensive economy: a survey of incoming first-year students found that 60 % do not evaluate the quality or reliability of information; 75 % do not know how to locate research articles and resources; and 44 % do not know how to integrate knowledge from different sources.

A key issue: Student information literacy

Accreditation commissions and post-secondary institutions have acknowledged the importance of developing students’ information-literacy capacities. At a national summit funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) to find new ways to help academic libraries demonstrate their value, accreditation officials affirmed the importance of information literacy and the contribution librarians make to developing students’ capacity to think critically.

A recent ACRL survey found that information literacy has been incorporated into the student learning outcomes at 56 % of associate-degree granting institutions, 44 % of baccalaureate institutions, 52 % of comprehensive universities, and 43 % of doctoral-degree granting/research institutions. The National Survey of Student Engagement has formed a working group to develop an information literacy assessment module for the 2013 survey, and the IMLS-funded Rubric Assessment of Information Literacy Skills project is using the Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) to create a suite of rubrics that can be used by librarians and disciplinary faculty to assess information literacy outcomes. Learning analytics (defined as “the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance, and spot potential issues”) is expected to become a key focus for institutions, including academic libraries, within the next four or five years.

It was in this context that the ACRL, in 2011, published Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, which emphasizes the importance of establishing and measuring outcomes that contribute to institutional effectiveness.

What Is the role of the academic library?

The question posed in a 2010 survey by Ithaka S&R was: “How important to you is it that your college or university library provides each of the [six] functions below?” This is how the functions ranked:

  1. “The library supports and facilitates faculty teaching activities.”
  2.  “The library helps undergraduates develop research and information literacy skills.”
  3. “The library provides active support that helps increase the productivity of faculty research and scholarship.”
  4. “The library pays for resources faculty members need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases.”
  5.  “The library serves as a repository of resources; in other words, it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources.”
  6.  “The library serves as a starting point or ’gateway’ for locating information for faculty research.”

Source: Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Academic Library Directors.


Academic libraries embrace transformation

Academic libraries are working to transform programs and services by repurposing space, migrating collections, and redeploying staff in the digital resources environment. (7) Recent expenditure data reflect libraries juggling their historical role in managing print materials and new demands for digital resources and services. Spending on ebooks jumped from $133.6 million in 2008 to $152.4 million in 2010, an increase of 13 % in inflation-adjusted dollars. Expenditures for electronic journals increased from $1 billion in 2008 to $1.25 billion in 2010, an increase of almost 24 % when adjusted for inflation. (8) Spending on print books (and other non-journal material) declined almost 22 % since 2008 (from $661.1 million in 2008 to $515.9 million in 2010).

The cost of providing access to scholarly resources, including journals and databases, continued to rise at what many believe is an unsustainable rate: library expenditures for ebooks, electronic journals, and database subscriptions increased 23 % (more than $264 million) since 2008. Not surprisingly, a recent ACRL survey showed that the top challenge for the profession is re-defining the role of libraries and librarians in an environment in which Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, and HathiTrust provide easier access and richer collections.

According to new data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), libraries spent a total of $6.83 billion in 2010, compared to $6.78 billion in 2008 (the equivalent of $6.87 billion in 2010 dollars). Library expenditures represented 0.62 % of all post-secondary expenditures in 2010, less than half the 1.33 % of 2008. And academic libraries are spending less per student. In 2010 libraries spent $332 per student, down from $355 in 2008 ($359 in 2010 dollars).

Usage of academic libraries, on the other hand, is up: Increased enrollments have pushed library gate counts up 8.89 % over 2008. Student enrollments are expected to increase by 14 % between fall 2010 and fall 2019. Although staffing has declined by 4.5 % since 2008, more libraries are expanding hours. Sixty-four % (2,362) of academic libraries were open between 60–99 hours during a typical week. Another 15.2 % (564) were open 100 or more hours per week, an increase of 6 % over 2008.

Libraries loaned 11.2 million documents to other libraries in 2010, an increase of 1 % over 2008. Presentations to groups increased 4.4 % over 2008, from 498,337 to 520,122 and reached 7.7 % more individuals. Other electronic services provided by academic libraries have increased dramatically: 40.8% provide document digitization services (up from 35.7 % in 2008); 17.1 % support electronic thesis and dissertation production (up from 13.3 % in 2008); 54.1 % provide technology to support patrons with disabilities (up from 48.8 % in 2008).

New roles, new responsibilities

Academic libraries find themselves embracing new roles in at least two key areas:

  • Publishing. More academic libraries are entering the world of scholarly publishing by creating or expanding services. About half the respondents in a recent survey had (or were developing) library publishing services in order to support change in scholarly publication. Three quarters of the respondents indicated they published journals, while half indicated they were publishing monographs and/or conference proceedings. The most common services provided included digital repository, author copyright advisory, digitization services, and management of research data.
  • Data curation. Funding agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) now have requirements that promote open access to the underlying data gathered during grant-funded research projects. The NSF states, “Investigators are expected to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the primary data, samples, physical collections, and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of work under NSF grants.” Since January 2011, proposals submitted to NSF must include a brief supplementary document describing a data management plan. Some academic libraries are already creating services that help campus researchers comply with the requirements to create the plans and to archive and share the data once it is gathered while many more are preparing to “embrace the role of data curator to remain relevant and vital to our scholars.”

Staffing in academic libraries off sharply

Academic libraries — like libraries of all types — have sustained staff reductions: 88,943 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff worked in 3,689 academic libraries during the fall of 2010, a decrease of 4.8 % (4,495 positions) since 2008 according to the NCES. The number of academic librarians has decreased 1.2 % since 2008 to a total of 26,706 FTE positions. At the same time, FTE student enrollments have increased by 7.3 %, to 20.6 million students. Librarians accounted for about 30 % of the total number of FTE staff in academic libraries.

Rapidly changing needs and tightened budgets have made permanent staffing decisions more difficult than ever. Some academic libraries have responded by hiring highly specialized professionals or post-docs and sharing their time with other units or departments on campus. (24) Other libraries are training existing staff to support new digital initiatives. Academic libraries provided 17.7 % of all jobs for new library school graduates in 2011, up from 11.5 % in 2010. With the economic downturn, many older librarians are not retiring (25) and generational differences and conflict are one of the top personnel issues in the work place. (26)

Total expenditures for salaries and wages accounted for 49.8 % of total academic/research library expenditures in 2010, up from 49.3 % in 2008. Although the median Association of Research Libraries (ARL) salary increased only 1.5 % over 2010, it compared favorably to the 1.2 % increase in the CPI. The ALA salary survey below shows mean salaries increased the most for most positions over 2009. (27)

Academic salary data, 2009-2010

2009 mean 2010 mean Percentage increase Number reporting (2009) Number reporting (2010)
Director/dean/chief officer 92,996 97,767 5.13 459 217
Deputy/associate/assistant director 80,895 81,897 1.23 573 282
Department head/branch manager/coordinator/senior manager 62,007 65,320 5.34 505 261
Manager/supervisor of support staff 55,704 55,732 0.05 680 347
Librarian who does not supervise 55,073 57,079 3.64 2458 1260
Beginning librarian 46,459 47,000 1.16 441 153
Total (number reporting)       5116 2520

Source: ALA-APA Salary Survey: Librarian—Public and Academic: A Survey of Positions with an ALA- Accredited Master’s Degree, 2009 and 2010.


Librarians keep an eye on legislation

In order to help shape the future of higher education, academic libraries and librarians continued to monitor and speak out about legislation that would either enhance or hinder their ability to provide access to information and pave the way for innovation. Issues of critical interest in 2011 included:

  • Expanded public access to taxpayer-funded research. In April 2011, ACRL sent letters to the NIH, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in support of public access to federally funded research. The letters, sent to commemorate the third anniversary of the NIH Public Access Policy on April 7, asked the NIH to shorten the current embargo and asked Health and Human Services and the OSTP to expand public access policies to other federal agencies. In December, ALA and ACRL submitted comments in response to a request for recommendations on approaches for ensuring long-term stewardship and broad public access to the peer-reviewed scholarly publications that result from federally funded scientific research issued by the OSTP.  ALA and ACRL have long believed that ensuring public access to the fruits of federally funded research is a logical, feasible, and widely beneficial goal.
  • Google Book Search settlement. Members of the academic library community continued to monitor progress toward a Google Book Search settlement.In response to the March 2011 rejection of the proposed settlement, the Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) — consisting of  ALA, ACRL, and ARL) — issued a statement saying that copyright law continues to present significant barriers to libraries interested in mass digitization initiatives because of orphan-works issues. The group also released “A Guide for the Perplexed Part IV: The Rejection of the Google Books Settlement (PDF),” an analysis of the latest decision in the Google book case and its potential effect on libraries. This guide is the latest in a series prepared by LCA legal counsel Jonathan Band to help inform the library community about this landmark legal dispute.

    In the wake of the settlement rejection, several interested parties were discussing with renewed vigor the issues of orphan works, mass digitization, and even modernization of Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act (“Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Reproduction by Libraries and Archives”). As part of this initiative, the LCA released a statement (PDF) describing the key features copyright reform proposals should include in order to constitute significant improvement over current law for libraries and their users. The statement, which represents the needs of library stakeholders in these debates, provides helpful guideposts for these discussions.
  • Access to information in the digital environment. The LCA works toward a unified voice and common strategy for the library community in responding to and developing proposals to amend national and international copyright law and policy for the digital environment. The group filed briefs in 2011 on a variety of cases related to fair use and other copyright issues. In November 2011, the LCA submitted comments (PDF) to the Library of Congress in response to its Notice of Inquiry on exceptions to anticircumvention provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that place technological protections on copyrighted works. The LCA asked that the previous exemptions for the prohibition of circumvention of copyright protection systems for access control technologies be renewed.

      Also in November, the LCA sent a letter to members of the House Judiciary Committee outlining the group’s concerns with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The comments focused on Section 201, specifically the definition of willfulness in Section 201(c) and the expansion of criminal penalties to public performances in Section 201(a), which together could threaten important library and educational activities. Exactly one month later, LCA wrote to congratulate (PDF) committee members for their “vigorous advocacy of First Amendment rights and the value of an open and secure Internet. Complete details on LCA activities are available on the alliance website at   

Finally, in a related development in late February, the cosponsors of the controversial Research Works Act declared the legislation dead, just hours after the science-publishing giant Elsevier pulled its support for the bill. H.R. 3699, which would have prevented agencies of the federal government from requiring public access to federally subsidized research, had been submitted by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). Open-access advocates credited a scholarly boycott of Elsevier for the publisher’s change of course, but Elsevier called its decision a response to feedback from the scholars who continue to work with it.