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Libraries Becoming Invisible to Junior Scholars?

Last week, Times Higher Education shared provocative findings from a recent report that suggested that libraries have “little to offer” the next generation of academics.  According to the key findings of the report, funded by the Publishing Research Consortium, libraries appear to have “lost all visibility” with early career researchers, in part because many “have not visited the library for years.”  These conclusions were based on interviews with 116 junior academics in science and social science fields from seven countries (UK, US, China, France, Spain, Poland, and Malaysia), as a part of a three-year qualitative study to analyze how junior academics approach scholarly communication.

Ithaka S+R has been tracking the attitudes and behaviors of scholars with surveys in the US on a triennial basis since 2000, and in the UK more recently since 2012.  While the populations for these studies differ (Ithaka S+R has also included scholars in the humanities, and more recently in medical fields), we have drawn different conclusions based on our research in these areas.

Decline in use of the library building

One of the longest-running questions in the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey asks respondents where they begin their research (see Figure 1). In each cycle of the survey since 2003, we have witnessed a decline in the share of faculty members who begin their research in the library building.

However, junior scholars do not appear to be visiting the library any less than those with more years in their respective fields, both in our most recent findings from the US and in the UK in 2015 (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: Below are four possible starting points for research in academic literature. Typically, when you are conducting academic research, which of these four starting points do you use to begin locating information for your research? Percent of scholars in the US who indicated that each option is the starting point for their research.

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Figure 2: Below are four possible starting points for research in academic literature. Typically, when you are conducting academic research, which of these four starting points do you use to begin locating information for your research? Percent of scholars by number of years in the field in the UK who indicated that each option is the starting point for their research.

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When we asked scholars how they explore the academic literature to find new journal articles and monographs, those with fewer years in the field were more likely to begin with Google Scholar than those with more years in their fields, and the reverse was true for searching on a specific academic database (see Figure 3).  However, scholars across these cohorts based on levels of experience were equally likely to visit their college or university library’s website or online catalog.

So, while the share of scholars beginning their research in the library building has been continuously declining since we have been tracking this reported behavior, this behavior does not appear to be unique to junior scholars specifically.  And, while these junior scholars are more likely to begin exploring academic literature using Google Scholar and less likely to start with a specific academic database than their peers with more years in the field, they are about as likely to visit the library’s website or catalog as their starting point.

Figure 3: When you explore the academic literature to find new journal articles and monographs relevant to your research interests, how do you most often begin your process? Percent of scholars by number of years in the field in the UK who indicated that each option is the starting point for their exploration.

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Libraries have little to offer junior scholars?

According to the Publish Research Consortium report, “libraries seem to have lost all of their visibility.  Lots of ECRs [early career researchers] have not gone to the library for years.”  As has already been outlined earlier in this post, this does not appear to be unique to junior scholars; very few scholars are beginning their research in the library building.

However, this begs the question: even if this behavior is not unique to junior scholars, are libraries “losing all of their visibility” with junior scholars more generally?  Because junior scholars are more likely to start their research using Google Scholar, rather than with academic databases or in the physical library building, do they find the role of the library to be less useful than do peers with more years of experience?  And are junior scholars less dependent on the library, generally speaking, than those with additional years of experience?

First, we have found in our studies of scholars in the US and the UK in 2015 that junior scholars have rated the role of the library in paying for resources they need to be just as highly important as did those with additional years of experience (see Figure 4).  While they may not be starting their research in the same manner as their peers, junior scholars do still recognize the role that the library plays in providing these resources.

Figure 4: The library pays for resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases. Percent of scholars by number of years in the field in the UK who rated this function of the library as highly important.

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And, we have found that scholars with fewer years of experience are not any less dependent on their college or university libraries for the research they conduct (see Figure 5).  Approximately four in ten respondents across these cohorts report being very dependent on the library.

Figure 5: How dependent would you say you are on your college or university library for research you conduct? Percent of scholars by number of years in the field in the UK who indicated that they are very dependent, neutrally dependent, or not very dependent.

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So, while junior scholars exhibit research behavior in some ways that differ from their peers with additional years of experience, this doesn’t appear to imply that libraries are becoming invisible to them.  They recognize the importance of the library in providing access to these resources in the same manner as their colleagues and report being just as dependent on the library.

Changing role of the library

In our most recent cycle of these surveys in the US and the UK, we observed a noticeable shift in scholars’ perceptions of the role of the library.

In the US in particular, we have been querying scholars on the importance of various functions of their college or university library going back as far as 2003. The six broad faculty-facing roles played by the library that we have included in our questionnaire are:

  • Gateway: “The library serves as a starting point or “gateway” for locating information for my research”
  • Buyer: “The library pays for resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases”
  • Archive: “The library serves as a repository of resources; in other words, it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources”
  • Teaching support: “The library supports and facilitates my teaching activities”
  • Research support: “The library provides active support that helps to increase the productivity of my research and scholarship”
  • Undergraduate support: “The library helps undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills”

In the 2015 survey cycle, we observed a noticeable increase in interest in the “undergraduate support” role – that is, the library helping to support students and their competencies (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: How important is it to you that your college or university library provides each of the functions below or serves in the capacity listed below? Percent of respondents in the US who identified each function as highly important.

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Since the previous cycle of the surveys, there was not only a substantial increase in the perceived importance of the role of the library in helping these students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills, but an accompanying increase in the share of scholars who believed that their undergraduate students have poor research skills.  We did not observe any substantial differences between junior scholars and their peers in the value that they assign to these roles of the library.

Conclusion

There is evidence across both series of surveys in the US and the UK that the role of the library is undoubtedly changing.  The ways in which scholars are discovering and accessing scholarly materials are shifting, and interest in developing undergraduate students’ research skills is rising.  Thus, libraries will need to continue paying attention to and supporting both the research and teaching needs of scholars – junior scholars and more senior scholars alike – as they continue to evolve.

Comments on: Libraries Becoming Invisible to Junior Scholars?

  1. I would hazard a guess that, while discovery is increasingly happening outside of the Library, fulfilment still brings the academic back to the Library’s services.

  2. The traditional view of the library may be becoming less visible, as the report suggests, but we are happy to try to replace it with one that actually brings us closer to the researcher.

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