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Library Assessment and the Research Support Services for Scholars Program

Last week I presented at the 2012 Library Assessment Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we previewed some of the results from two projects that are part of our Research Support Services for Scholars program. These projects take a closer look at the research support needs of historians (funded by the NEH in the US) and chemists (funded by the JISC in the UK). The conference proceedings led me to reflect on some of issues in the assessment community, and how the work we are doing can complement the assessment work that librarians already do.
Keynote speaker John Lombardi argued that most institutions of higher education are facing increasing challenges from online education, where “brand name” institutions may play a bigger role. Many colleges and universities are now asking, how will we differentiate the educational experience that we offer? Lombardi challenged libraries to demonstrate how they can contribute to each of their institution’s efforts to find its unique strengths.
Just like colleges and universities, academic libraries risk seeing their services commoditized. Outside of the largest research libraries, what value does each academic library add to the relatively standard set of collections that it maintains? Many of the conference attendees discussed how their libraries are often tacitly squeezed out of the university budgeting process because they provide ongoing services rather than new initiatives that excite university administrators.
Ithaka S+R hopes to use the Research Support Services for Scholars projects to help libraries reframe the question of “How can libraries demonstrate the value of existing services and collections?” to “How can libraries offer services that are compelling enough to become university-wide priorities?” The research program is designed to help libraries and other service providers—including scholarly societies, digital humanities centers, publishers, and technology companies—provide new services to fill existing gaps and enable new types of research.
The information we gathered about how historians use archives provides a good example of the insights that these S+R projects will provide. We observed broad changes in the way that historians have used archives. Instead of analyzing materials in the archive, historians now try to capture as much information as possible, usually through the use of digital cameras, and then take the materials back to their offices to analyze over the course of the year. Archivists increasingly fill a public-facing role, consulting with scholars who are on-site and planning visits to the archive. In addition, archivists sometimes have to guide younger scholars through the research process, as students in most graduate programs receive little methodological training and their first visit to an archive can be a daunting process.
In his concluding plenary, Jim Self pointed out that 20 years ago no library could have anticipated that students would want to access the library catalog on their phones. In order to create innovative new services, librarians need statistics about how their libraries are performing today, but they also need research that will help them identify coming trends and opportunities. We are grateful to have the chance to engage with the library assessment community, and we look forward to sharing the full findings of the history report by the end of 2012 and chemistry report by early 2013.

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