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Library Directors and Discovery: A Changing Perspective?

As research and teaching practices evolve in the context of substantial environmental change within higher education, the ways in which scholars discover resources for these practices have shifted. In addition to providing traditional print resources, libraries have more recently supported these changes with a variety of digital tools including the library website, catalog, and discovery services, and meanwhile, outside of the library, mainstream search engines and targeted academic discovery products offer their own systems to enable discovery. Faculty members in particular appear to be shifting in how they begin their research, and are now as likely to begin their research process with a general purpose search engine as they are with a specific electronic resource or database.

Last month, Ithaka S+R published results from the US Library Survey 2016, which examines strategy and leadership issues from the perspective of academic library deans and directors. For the first time in this series of surveys, we asked library leaders about the number of years they have been in their positions to determine whether the opportunities and challenges they face and strategies they pursue differ in meaningful ways. A majority of respondents have been in their position for fewer than five years, and while there are not many ways in which these library leaders differ from their peers, they do often perceive the library’s role as a starting point for research differently.

While the survey results demonstrated that library leaders broadly see their role in discovery as highly important, they are less interested in investing additional resources towards these services, and are increasingly comfortable with scholars beginning their research process outside of the library.

Compared to the 2013 survey results, fewer library directors believe that it is important that the library is seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover content, and fewer believe that the library is always the best place for researchers at their institution to start their research. The share of respondents who agree that it is important that the library guide users to a preferred version of a given source also has continued to decrease.

Figure 1: “It is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover scholarly content.” Percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with this statement.

 

Perhaps this shift in perception is to be expected; in the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2015, we observed that discovery starting points appear to be in flux for faculty members. After faculty members expressed strongly preferring starting their research with specific e-resources and databases in previous cycles of the survey, they now report being equally as likely to begin with a general purpose search engine as they are with a specific e-resource and database, and are increasingly likely to begin with the library website or catalog.

However, library director respondents with many years in their position tend to be less comfortable with the loss of control over how users discover content. Greater shares of library leaders with 11+ years in their positions, as compared to those with fewer years in their positions, strongly agreed that their library is always the best place for researchers to start their search for scholarly information (63% vs 44-49%).

Figure 2: “My library is always the best place for researchers at my institution to start their search for scholarly information.” Percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with this statement.

 

Further, greater shares of these library leaders identified the “gateway” role of the library – that is, the role of the library in serving as a starting point for faculty locating information – as highly important (80% vs. 65-67%). And, greater shares of these respondents reported highly prioritizing the provision of an index-based discovery service (87% vs. 76-77%).

Figure 3: “The library serves as a starting point or “gateway” for locating information for faculty research.” Percentage of respondents who identified this function of the library as very important.

 

As the composition of this group of leaders shifts, and as the needs of scholars and students continue to evolve, we can expect that the role of the library in supporting discovery will also evolve in turn. We will continue to track these perceptions in future cycles of the survey.

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