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University Libraries Are Putting the Student First
Perspective from US Library Leaders

Last week’s article in The Guardian from Alterline’s Ben Hickman, entitled “University libraries need to start putting the student first,” proposed that university libraries need to put evidence on student needs and practices at the heart of their decision-making. The author included a number of suggested areas for improvement – for example, the provision of ample space, friendly engagement with librarians and library staff, and accessible resources.

As UK higher education transitions towards taking a more student-centric approach as a result of the shifts in its funding model, there is much to be learned from the experience of US academic libraries, which have already placed students at the heart of their work. To be sure, US academic libraries face real constraints, and an examination of their successes and shortcomings may be useful for UK planning as well.

I led a major study of strategic priorities and constraints in US academic libraries in late 2016. One of the key findings was that an overwhelming majority of library leaders (over 80%) indicated that the most important priority for their library was supporting student success. And, consistent with findings in previous survey cycles, library leaders identified the role of the library in helping undergraduates develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills as the most important function of the library.

However, librarians are facing two major challenges in executing strategy to support their students: a lack of institutional support and a lack of articulation of how they are contributing in advancing the success of their students.

Speaking to this first challenge, library directors appear to be pursuing strategic directions with a decreasing sense of support from their institutions. Library directors feel increasingly less valued by, involved with, and aligned strategically with their supervisors and other senior academic leadership.

Further, only about 20% of respondents agreed that the budget allocations they receive from their institutions demonstrates recognition of the value of the library. And, consistent with previous findings, library directors continue to see insufficient financial resources as the biggest constraint on their ability to make desired changes in their library.

While many library directors would love to have the opportunity to invest additional funds towards their staff, facilities, and resources, the reality is that, for many institutions, this is a problem that is beyond their control.

Additionally, library directors appear to be struggling with articulating their value. While an overwhelming majority of library leaders indicated that the most important priority for their library is supporting student success, only about half reported that their library has clearly articulated how it contributes. And, while roughly eight in ten library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of faculty members from our triennial survey of US scholars recognized these contributions.

A recent national study of provosts and chief academic officers, from authors Adam Murray and Ashley Ireland, reinforces many of these findings, and offers a number of directions that library directors can pursue to most effectively communicate the value of their organizations to academic leadership. For example, provosts and chief academic officers overwhelmingly indicated that their campus does not recognize the role that the library can play in retention initiatives, and only moderately indicated that they see the library involved in institutional initiatives to support student retention, enrollment, and academic success, faculty research productivity, and accreditation. The authors found that demonstrated correlations linking usage of library services and resources with institutional initiatives (including student academic success, retention, and enrollment) were viewed by provosts as most compelling in having influence on funding requests.

While there are certainly always areas for improvement in supporting students, and those should be regularly examined and prioritized, academic libraries in the US have been putting students first for quite some time. Despite the prioritization of students in the US, it is clear that it would be unwise to assume that the academic library will perpetually maintain its place as the “heart of the university.” The positioning of the academic library as a contributor to institutional priorities, including student academic success, will be critical for the future of these organizations, both within and outside of the US.

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