One Purpose: The Research University and Its Library

Charles B. Osburn

The future of higher education in the United States appears uncertain these days, and the future of research universities and their libraries seems particularly unclear. A pessimistic assessment would find this an unfortunate and improbable conclusion to an otherwise brilliant chapter in American history. But a more optimistic assessment would find opportunity. This chapter discusses select elements in the intertwined history of American research universities and their libraries that have shaped relationships not only between these institutions but also among them and the rest of contemporary society. It proposes that they seize the opportunity to expand their natural role in scholarly communication and enhance their social service.


In the late 1970s, observers of science and scholarship in the United States and elsewhere began to note change—and the potential for greater change—in scholarly communication and in the scholarly communication system. Change was then synonymous with the advent of electronic technologies to manage information. Librarians, operating as mediators within this system, were among the first to recognize emergent threats to the system’s functioning in the best interests of the scholar. They also detected threats to the stability of their own profession. Librarians, in general, and academic research librarians, in particular, rallied to find opportunities for enhancing the system and to identify possible dangers of the electronic environment.

Due in no small part to the efforts of academic research librarians, learned societies and scholarly publishers began to shift focus from immediate, local, specific business matters to long-term, more generalizable implications of rapidly developing information technologies. Consequently, the literatures and activities of the societies and publishers now reflect lively involvement in the sea change affecting some of their most fundamental principles and practices.

In the midst of this reenergized, albeit inchoate, system there is a singularly important agent that sponsors a very large proportion of scholarly communication, from the point of creation, through mediation, to consumption: the research university. Throughout the past two decades of rapidly evolving social change, the university stands out as an institution that has analyzed its situation as intensely as any other. Yet, the university’s response to the emergent electronic society has been primarily in the form of ad hoc projects and programs, undertaken evidently out of desperation and without thoughtful reconsideration of the concepts and principles that underlie the institution’s mission. In view of the crucial role of the university, not just in scholarly communication but also in many other social systems, it is now reasonably clear that scholarly communication will function in the best interests of society if the university comes to the determination that scholarly communication is its very essence, from which all its other services flow. The focus of that determination can lead to a stronger mode of operation incorporating both the efficiencies demanded by contemporary society and the effectiveness that continues American higher education’s great tradition of social service.

As employed here, the term scholarly communication is generic, subsuming scientific communication. It also embraces teaching and learning at all levels of serious investigation and discourse not limited to the academy. The academic research library’s position in scholarly communication has developed from a plainly passive stance for most of twentieth-century history to an active role of restructuring and strengthening that system in recent decades. For these reasons, the mission of the university and that of its library have the potential to become perhaps not identical, but more congruent.

Far ahead of its time, the Alexandrian Library of ancient Egypt offers the clearest example of such congruency. Closely binding mission and function, it prefigured by two hundred centuries the model of the academic research library for the twenty-first century. For the Mouseion, as the facility was called, was at once the library and the classroom, bringing teachers and learners together for a free-flowing interchange of ideas, stimulated and reinforced by the documents close at hand. Learning was the primary goal. Teacher and librarian were one and the same, having not yet been affected much by either bureaucracy or professionalization. In principle, at least, the great library at Alexandria provided convenient access to all the knowledge that had been recorded around the globe. But that was long ago. Between then and now, much has transpired to bifurcate the purposes of universities and their libraries and to separate each institution’s mission and function. Why research universities and their libraries responded quite differently to developments in the scholarly communication system, and how scholarly communication in the future could become the forum of a shared purpose and function to serve society, unfolds nearly as a case study of the contemporary academic enterprise.

The Research University

The Industrial Revolution made it clear that knowledge and education presented an avenue to advancement for those not satisfied with the lot of the assembly line worker. Education became a doorway to options for one’s future. The general public in America began to see higher education as useful—thus breaking with European tradition then—and, to varying degrees, this vision has significantly influenced colleges and universities ever since. In a similar fashion, during the mid-nineteenth century, the principle of egalitarianism—fundamental to the social fabric of the United States—was linked synergistically to the attitude of utilitarianism. Consequently, unprecedented numbers of those who once would not reasonably have aspired to higher learning and to a place among the professions were attracted to, and accommodated by, the universities. All that strengthened the rationale of utilitarianism for higher education.

During the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, the egalitarian spirit was codified into law and enforced, altering society abruptly. Concurrently, societal debate about the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam energized general reform, most dramatically on university campuses. Driven by an aggressive and sometimes militant spirit, these long-overdue legal and social reforms hit the most conservative of institutions—the university. Overwhelmed by the extremes by which the reform wave swept the country and the world, universities came to adopt a laissez-faire posture in administration of higher education. More than any other phenomenon, this withdrawal from institutional authority conduced to the subsequent, serious loss of identity and purpose in American universities.

Meanwhile, other forces also were testing traditional modes of university operation. The student body changed as many sought education for second and third careers; part-time enrollment also increased. By the 1970s, any notion of a typical student had to be revised completely. A tightening of the general economy also affected higher education with the public beginning to demand more accountability than ever before, no longer taking for granted an inherent public good of social and governmental institutions. Eventually, citizens and their political representatives assigned a greater priority to the growing problems of health care, poverty, and crime than to post-secondary education. By 1990, the general economy clearly was being driven far more by market demand than by any other set of goals and principles, generating an environment to which the university has begun to adapt.

The University and Scholarly Communication

The foregoing enumeration of challenges to higher education may be old hat to anyone who achieved adulthood a decade or more ago, but it serves as a useful backdrop to examination of the university response to developments in scholarly communication. We have now arrived at a crucial moment, perhaps a historical juncture. For the first time, both the emergent medium of scholarly communication and the communication medium in demand by all segments and strata of society at large (not just an elite) are the same, the common feature being the seductive convenience of electronic information technology. This concurrent emergence of the so-called information society and the electronic scholarly communication system opens an era of unprecedented opportunity for the university to serve society through a new kind of relationship. Moreover, the academic research library possesses the potential to be instrumental in realizing that innovative relationship.

Efficient and effective adaption to new information technology will require even more fundamental change in universities. One could argue that this is unlikely to happen because resistance to change is a venerated tradition in the academy (except, of course, for disciplinary progress). It may be worth bearing in mind, for example, that ancient Greek objections to the introduction of writing into higher learning had to do with that medium’s not being interactive, as well as with a fear of its power to dull the memory. Later, the invention of printing was fought by some in higher education because it made scholarly communication a bit too convenient, because the student could learn in the absence of the teacher. Nonetheless, writing and printing have carried the day. Resistance to innovation in scholarly communication is a time-honored tradition but, eventually, higher education adapts itself to forces from without—perhaps because, in due time, they tend to become the forces from within. Likewise, it was not without resistance that academic research became closely entwined with the federal government as an immediate result of extraordinary demands of society during and following the Second World War. For the universities, however, monetary and prestige values of this new relationship far outweighed critical voices from both within and without, so the relationship remains strong even to this day. Growth in federal grants and contracts to universities stimulated a vast output of research which, in turn, stimulated a prodigious production of books and journals. As universities generated more of these products of scholarly communication, their libraries consumed more of them. All that drove up the costs of the scholarly communication system, to be borne principally by the academic institutions.

In this dynamic environment, the notorious and now tiresome debate about teaching versus research began to flourish. Because universities have not addressed this issue in a direct and decisive manner, it lingers and obfuscates fundamental matters of institutional purpose that must be resolved if mission and function are to be reconciled. Over the past half-century, mission and function could be viewed only through dim light, because the very nature of scholarship was undergoing fairly complicated reorientation. The new partnership with the federal government demanded an emphasis on societal problems, global concerns, and disciplinary crossings in the effort to discover new applications of theory and fact; this expansive thrust has tended to grow stronger over the past half-century.

Whether research crossed disciplinary boundaries or stayed within a discipline, since the 1970s the general tendency has remained that of specialization. Apart from the advantages of such focused research, few outside a given specialization can understand (never mind appreciate) a specialist’s research—a breach in communication by no means limited to the sciences. The reward system in the academy was rapidly becoming a conglomeration of meritocracies, all functioning within bounded spheres.

As old as scholarly communication itself, what has come to be known as the “invisible college” assumed special importance in this environment. The allegiance of large groups of scholars drifted away from the institutions sponsoring them to the disciplines recognizing their work. That left universities with faculty whose role in institutional governance is largely ambiguous and not necessarily dedicated to concern for, or even understanding of, the status of the institution. With some caution, an allegation of neglect can be extended to charges about indifference toward students and learning in general. For example, regardless of the high levels of theory informing pedagogy, the absence and even denigration of canon (or some mainstream of thought) in the discourse of many disciplines reflects a preoccupation with debate within the discipline rather than with the education and well-being of students.

Into this environment of increasing research output and specialization came a rich array of information technologies offering hitherto unknown power and convenience to the scholar. The scholarly communication system was gearing for even greater productivity and dynamism. The academy was well conditioned for this by the earlier introduction of the computer in some of the sciences and humanities during the postwar era, in the social sciences during the 1960s, and in other areas of the humanities more recently. Influenced markedly, perhaps irrevocably, by even rudimentary capabilities of the computer, the conduct of science and scholarship in all fields evinced a growing attraction to methodology, to the extent that specialists began to value it as much or even more than content. Personal computing, networking at all levels, and multimedia software easily and logically became the mechanism, the structure, and the stuff of scholarly communication in the electronic environment. Overall, the ethos to seize new technologies has evolved within disciplines for decades, and the universities have responded with financial support but not with guidance.

Mission and Motive

The lack of guidance by universities carries more significance than may at first appear. In its role in society and in the scholarly communication system, the research university does not deliberate as a whole and then take some initiative; instead, it strongly tends to respond by reflex action conditioned by centuries-old adherence to certain principles and goals.

Much of academic tradition can, in part, be credited with the success of American higher education, but it now jeopardizes higher education’s resilience to function successfully in the coming decades. More pointedly, there is little evidence that the American research university is seizing the opportunity presented by the confluence of electronic scholarly communication and the information society. In fact, strategies to develop a viable academy for the twenty-first century seem to be limited to strategies from three decades ago (recalled nostalgically as the golden age) now set to electronics. The essential difficulty is that the underlying lag of organizational development behind technological change centers on rather fundamental matters: the future of tenure, the emphasis on research and publication as criteria for academic success, the potential for instructional and information technology in the curriculum, the relative importance of graduate and undergraduate education, the prospect for the university to disseminate scholarly and scientific information, the need to protect and strengthen the global network infrastructure, the overly large expansion of postsecondary education, the emerging role of distance learning, the loss of financial flexibility as salaries consume growing proportions of the university’s budget, the need to make downsizing and “more with less” realities instead of hollow slogans, the general loss of public support for higher education, the urgency for the university to become more relevant to society and more competitive in the marketplace.

These issues—with major implications for institutional mission, goals, and principles of operation—tend to be addressed one by one, not in relation to each other in a holistic manner that could harmonize mission and function and prefigure a model for the future. In that respect, the fundamentally conservative nature of the university takes a heavy toll. Especially over the past decade, for example, there have been many articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about fund-raising as a growing dimension of the university (with more dramatic episodes in the pages of the popular press). So stifled by tradition are the research universities that fundraising from extramural or nonconventional sources is considered necessary in order to engage in “innovative enterprises” that do not alter anything traditional. The unstated goal is to preserve everything from the past—to change by growing and adding, rather than by breaking with tradition.

In a similar fashion, the university has tended to deal with various aspects of scholarly communication separately, without consideration of the institution’s priority role within that system as a whole. Yet, the rapid growth of the electronic environment and its potential role to join the academy and society are compelling reasons for the scholarly communication system to be considered holistically. Economic conditions eventually will force universities to assign a high priority to scholarly communication. But as things now stand, universities appear (from the outside) to have evolved relatively little since the 1970s—reflecting the view (from the inside) that process, principles, and goals have, indeed, remained essentially the same, except for the drive to cultivate new sources of revenue.

Divergent Paths

Although the library has been influenced by the same forces as the rest of the academy, its function as a service, rather than as a discipline, has made a difference. Indeed, librarianship has developed almost independently from the rest of the academy as a profession in its own right. Beginning on the local level in the 1960s, and on a national scale in the early 1970s with the creation of computerized cooperative cataloging, the academic library’s professionalism has centered on designing electronic scholarly communication services, many of which are now taken for granted. Librarians—not administrators or teaching faculty—planned and built that foundation. Although the universities’ financial capacity at that time made it possible (and, indeed, they established a half-century ago what is known today as the Center for Research Libraries), the libraries’ collaborative success was generally accomplished in spite of institutional priorities or plans.

In contrast to overall university inertia, academic research libraries have established a recent history of initiating changes of the most fundamental kind. They have restructured their organization to facilitate electronic resources; created entirely new kinds of positions and altered the qualifications of most others; introduced many new services, designed in most cases without tested models to follow; created such services without eliminating needed traditional ones; forged new relationships with other units on campus, most notably the computer center, while staff size declined or at best remained stable; established resource-sharing arrangements with other institutions to optimize services on campus; and generally recast their mission and goals to accommodate the changing environment of scholarly communication. The divergent paths taken by the library and its parent institution, the university, were paved primarily by three influences: the differing professional-development patterns of faculty and librarians; the hold of academic traditions on the faculty; and certain funding patterns that drove the library and the university even farther apart.

As noted earlier, the professionalization of the faculty was encouraged by a combination of meritocracy in the local reward system and disciplinary specialization that resulted in broader faculty allegiances to their respective disciplines. The professionalization of librarians took a distinctly different course, in part because it was only in the third quarter of the twentieth century that librarianship began to assume some of the characteristics of a profession, and in part because of its support mission. As the campus underwent change in the postwar era, faculty had less time to devote to the library and unconsciously delegated much of their former authority to librarians. For its part, the library—under the influence of more professional objectives and standards—began to be institutionalized as an entity unto itself. It was related to the university through its service responsibility, yet divergent by a rather unique mission. This mind-set proved to be a subtle, yet constant, influence on matters of policy and procedure throughout the several decades of unprecedented library expansion, removing the library from the mainstream of faculty activity on the campus, as well as from the attention of constructive academic concern.

A once-great strength of the academy in the United States and in other similarly economically advanced nations has been its relative freedom from the requirement to operate with strict efficiency and accountability. Indeed, the professoriat offers perhaps the only vocation that allows selected individuals to be employed for concentrated thought of one’s own choosing, fairly unconstrained and even unstructured by time interpreted as expense. A fragile condition at best, this fundamental aspect of the academy has steadily been challenged by growing public scrutiny of higher education. Academics have resisted this challenge, sometimes unreasonably, thus leading the public to question academics’ authority over other aspects of higher education. In the effort to preserve the academy, university administration has staunchly guarded faculty prerogatives—reaffirmingly to colleagues on campus, but defensively to others outside higher education. The problem has become one of societal understanding and balance. At the same time, owing to the sheer ambiguity surrounding conditions directly affecting the operations of these large, complex social institutions, there has been a steady dissipation of authority on campus. The early established authority of faculty over the curriculum, for example, has now spread to faculty control of many other areas of academic administration, more often by default than by design. Confluence of such conditions generated a broader resistance to orderly organizational development that has become excessive even within the staunchly conservative institutional arena of higher education.

Much of this evolving conflict over the need for the academic community to plan and operate as a single organization was, until now, subdued by available funding. In spite of the common practice during the 1960s and 1970s for universities to end each year with substantial financial surpluses—to be disposed of at the last minute by the library—no one should conclude that these institutions had sufficient funding. But it is a realistic inference that there was enough funding to obviate the need for serious institutional strategic planning and the establishment of operational academic priorities. It was precisely that set of circumstances that fostered, in a symbiotic way, the divergent paths of the university and the academic research library.

The void in university planning was filled on the library’s side by a strengthening of professional principles, as well as by the developing of the library as an institution rather than just a service. In extreme manifestation, this dual professional–institutional vision for the library became an ethos, if not a mystique. Consequently, the library began operating independently of the rest of the university. As the faculty lost understanding of the library’s agenda, their support of it waned, except in platitude. Gradually, the image formed of the library by faculty and administration became that of a discrete unit, not integrated into the academic enterprise. The library had lost focus on its scholarly purpose, and the university had lost focus on its library’s service mission. The lack of institutional coordination of programs with finances explains the apparent propensity—apart from any budgetary capacity—to adopt new programs and responsibilities on the implicit assumption that the library would follow suit, essentially carrying the burden of research resources and services. The “bottomless pit” metaphor, which came to haunt librarians in less-affluent times, is largely a product of this phenomenon. But that is also the simplistic characterization of a situation that arose, more fundamentally, out of the administrative withdrawal from academic matters. When days of restricted funding came along in the 1980s, they were not met with a concerted effort to plan how to do “more with less,” despite of all the talk to that effect, but, rather, with a deeper belief among all parties (faculty, library, and administration) that the academy had entered just a temporary phase of aberration (rather than a return to normalcy). In a similar spirit, university administration wishfully heralded the advent of advanced information technologies in the 1990s as the solution to dramatically escalating library costs.

A Climate for Change

If two decades of extraordinary financial support for the research universities unduly encouraged research specialization and output to the detriment of the university’s mission of service to society, it is now possible that more balanced and reasoned goals for higher education will prevail in contemporary times of normal funding. Although the will to accomplish this is the key factor, a number of financial and technological developments already under way may well establish a new relationship between the university and its library. First, there is the institutional jolt experienced by the stabilization or drop in funding generally for higher education, together with the rise of costs to adopt and maintain the rapid influx of new information technologies. The dual impact of these forces attracts growing attention in the academy, for the faculty can no longer avoid the truth that for so long had been overlooked or ignored: There really are trade-offs to be made and priorities to be applied. Library issues need to be addressed as they have not been for decades. That means that the library will be given closer scrutiny, no longer taken for granted. There will even be occasional debates on campus about the future role of the library in the electronic environment. There will also be opportunities to involve both faculty and administration in library planning in significant ways, thereby creating an overture for the reintegration of the library into the academic enterprise. This series of developments may lead, as well, to an understanding throughout the university of options for varying types and levels of library and information services affecting the scholarly communication system. Precisely in that realm, the university may seize the opportunity to act on a corporate mind.

Academic research librarianship has already recognized that its ultimate business is scholarly communication. It may be highly advantageous for the university to follow suit and focus on scholarly communication in designing its own business plan. The terms restructuring and reorganization are standard fare in the 1990s to announce major change in large, complex organizations, and surely a good deal of that will be required in the academy. But all the reorganization and restructuring in the world will not carry the day if the university does not recast its vision to the common horizon occupied by the scholarly communication system and the information society in higher education. The establishment of mission, goals, principles, and strategies to cultivate this common interest may well stimulate a level of public understanding of higher education that has not been in evidence for decades. Discourse on the commonalities of scholarly communication and information society would encourage a reinterpretation of traditional academic values, principles of higher education, and library services.

Higher education would then place a new emphasis on both learning and technology in the curriculum—local and networked—to become more efficient and effective in the increasingly competitive environment. In doing so, the academy would reach out to society as never before. It would also have great potential to pervade society with the very medium that society needs to conduct everyday business, creating a logical bond of dependency and service. Higher education, and particularly the research universities, could occupy natural leadership positions in the community. Universities will regain public support of their leadership only when the public reconsiders them more closely relevant to societal aspirations.

In the now increasingly businesslike effort of the academy to join its mission and function with emerging societal goals, two considerations in particular need to be addressed: the kind of service infrastructure that a research university can design to serve the information society, and the efficiency and effectiveness of such service to warrant public financial support. Underlying any such discussion should be an understanding that far more information exists in digital format than is apparent from the way it is presented, let alone distributed, today. And because much more is being created every day, at some point in the not-distant future, a critical mass of societal reliance will be achieved. Truly, the so-called knowledge or information society is on the brink of this sea change.

Concluding Remarks

Teaching, research, and service—concepts that have long served to lay out the mission of research universities and their libraries—need to be reshaped in the wake of the rapidly evolving scholarly communication system. These concepts can be keys, in turn, to analysis of broader concepts that link the concerns and aspirations of an information society to those of the academy in the 1990s and beyond. Specific functions and service programs follow in the form of library electronic capabilities.

The process to accomplish this kind of institutional self-reassessment may suggest new organizational structures or it may not. What is clear is that little of this can be accomplished without strong leadership to ensure that such issues are addressed and that appropriate decisions and actions follow. A renewal of leadership would have to extend from top university administration down to colleges, departments, and individuals, including librarians; it would reach from the academy up to political bodies and the public at large. Certainly, such leadership must pervade the scholarly communication system as well. The dual usefulness of the research university and its library to society will be demonstrated through the determination of common purpose. Technologically, financially, and socially, the time has come.

Related Readings

  • Altbach, Philip G., Robert O. Berdahl, and Patricia J. Gumport, eds. Higher Education in American Society. Third Edition. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994.
  • Ashby, Eric. Adapting Universities to a Technological Society. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974.
  • Dolence, Michael G., and Donald M. Norris. Transforming Higher Education. A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning, 1995.
  • Butler, Nicholas Murray. Scholarship and Service: The Policies and Ideals of a National University in a Modern Democracy. New York: Scribner’s, 1921.
  • Geiger, Roger L. Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • ———. To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Immerwahr, John, and James Harvey. “What the Public Thinks of Colleges.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 1995): B1–B3.
  • Kennedy, Donald. “Another Century’s End, Another Revolution for Higher Education.” Change (May/June 1995): 9–15.
  • Laing, Jonathon R. “Campus Unrest.” Barron’s (Nov. 1995): 25–29.
  • Levine, Arthur, ed. Higher Learning in America, 1980–2000. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Pr., 1993.
  • Pew Higher Education Roundtable. “A Calling to Account.” Policy Perspectives 6 (July 1995): 1–11.
  • ———. “To Dance with Change.” Policy Perspectives 5 (Apr. 1994): 1A–12A.
  • ———. “Twice Imagined.” Policy Perspectives 6 (Apr. 1995): 1A–12A.
  • Ruegg, Walter. “The Academic Ethos.” Minerva 24 (winter 1986): 393–412.
  • ———. “The Traditions of the University in the Face of the Demands of the Twenty-First Century.” Minerva 30 (Summer 1992): 189–205.
  • Shapiro, Harole T. “The Functions and Resources of the American University of the Twenty-First Century.” Minerva 30 (summer 1992): 163–74.
  • Shils, Edward. “Do We Still Need Academic Freedom?” American Scholar 62 (1993): 187–209.
  • ———. “The Service of Society and the Advancement of Learning in the Twenty-First Century.” Minerva 30 (summer 1992): 242–68.