Alchemical Thoughts

Some quick notes on the ITHAKA Report 2009

Posted on: June 10, 2010

The ITHAKA Report (full title: "Faculty Survey 2009: Key Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies") has been discussed in Librarian Blogsville ad nauseam, so by the time I got around to reading it (and yes, I actually read it), I did not feel a need to write about in my professional blog. Like many things in librarianship, once the big shots have pretty much beaten to it a pulp, I don't see much of a point covering it. However, since the tagline at The Gypsy Librarian (my professional blog) is "I read a lot of the library literature so you don't have to," and I did read this, I would be remiss if I did not at least make some notes. The bottom line for the report is pretty much doom and gloom as faculty are moving more to using and preferring electronic research sources; it is becoming an issue of "if it is not online and full-text, it probably does not exist." In a way, faculty are not that much different than the students they teach, which I personally find a little disturbing.

The report is done every three years, and it has been done since 2000. It is limited to "colleges and universities in the United States that grant bachelor's degrees or higher" (2). It is a longitudinal study that tracks faculty attitudes and practices. I assume faculty means traditional disciplines; in other words, I don't think it includes academic librarians who have tenure or are on a tenure line, thus designated as faculty. The study does not make that distinction. When you consider the study, the sample may seem pretty small:

  • 35,184 faculty were mailed the survey.
  • Only 3,025 complete responses were received (that is about 10% as I am "eyeballing it." The actual math according to the document boils it down to 8.6% response rate).

I do wonder how come they have such a low response rate. Are faculty really that lazy or just have that "I can't be bothered attitude" that they could bring themselves to complete a survey on a topic that is certainly very relevant to them? Then again, this is not inconsistent with other library and information science studies where results are based on very low numbers. So take it as it comes.

Some findings and observations. I am sticking mostly with the ones related to libraries, since that is my area of interest and expertise, but the rest of the document may be worth a look:

  • "Since the first Faculty Survey in 2000, w have seen faculty members steadily shifting towards reliance on network-level electronic resources, and a corresponding decline in using locally provided tools for discovery" (4). This is not surprising. It has been happening, and it will continue to happen that if faculty can get their research materials from the comfort of their offices (or their homes), that they will not set foot in the library. This does raise the issue that they often are not fully aware of the costs of providing said resources (subscription, infrastructure, etc.).
  • "The survey found that scholars tend to prefer electronic resources specific to their own discipline over those that cover multiple disciplines" (6). This is where we get faculty that complain their subject area is not represented even though we do provide plenty of content in their area, often including all the major journals in their field, through a multi-discipline database. I am recalling a specific professor who wanted some obscure film database that was not full-text, nor provided as much coverage as some of the larger databases we did have at the time (and that included a list of journals she had provided). She wanted it because the database had "film" in the title (I kid you not) even though that product was inferior and had no full-text coverage. It took quite a bit of convincing on our part to show her we were meeting her needs. I mention this because very often such preferences seem a little idiosyncratic.
  • However, faculty still mention that they follow citations from journal articles and that they search full-text databases for their research needs (7).
  • I am pretty skeptical on this: "As scholars have grown better to able to reach needed materials directly online, the library has been increasingly disintermediated from research processes. . . " (8). In some places, faculty are NOT exactly better able to find anything online. This is the sort of reality that will give me job security because someone has to show them how to use the resources and find the information they need. That someone is usually an academic librarian.
  • The change in libraries as envisioned by the faculty: ". . .envision the transformation of the library from an institution focused on acquiring, maintaining, and providing services centered on a local print collection into a more electronic hub offering a variety of services to support campus needs for research, teaching, and learning" (9). Personally, I don't think the books and print will totally go away contrary to what the naysayers and twopointopians (to borrow the Annoyed Librarian's term). There may be less, but they won't be totally gone due to reasons ranging from certain things are just better or more efficient in print to students who come across an e-book wanting "a real book" (I get that one often) to "what happens when the power goes out? Oh yea, you reach for that book." Libraries will change, become more dynamic, what have you, but the books are not going anywhere towards extinction. However, we do need to have the conversations about change and about how libraries and librarians can provide new and better services to our patrons. One possibility is emphasizing how we add value via education and information literacy instruction. That would be one thing I would focus on if I ran things.
  • How faculty see us (and probably why I tend to be more comfortable in universities that see themselves as "teaching institutions."). "Significantly more faculty members who consider themselves as 'more of a teacher' rather than 'more of a researcher' rate both the library's teaching (67% vs. 45%) and research (62% vs. 51%) support roles as valuable. And faculty members at the very largest research universities are less likely to appreciate the library's research and teaching support roles" (10; emphasis in original). At least there is something positive out of all this for those of us who work as subject liaisons assigned to academic departments: "Taken together, these patterns suggest that the relationships built through engaging faculty in supporting their own teaching activities (which have been historically proven harder to scale at the largest institutions) may be an especially beneficial way to build relationships with faculty members more broadly" (10). 
  • A problem for us: "The declining visibility and importance of traditional roles for the library and the librarian may lead to faculty primarily perceiving the library as a budget line, rather than as an active intellectual partner" (13). You know things are not going well when the administration thinks you can put everything in a server room and just rely on the Internet (which may or not include subscriptions, and yes, I have actually heard at least one administrator say something along those lines, that all we need is a server room for the website, a guy to watch over it, and done) for research needs. 
  • Where the future may lie for us, which goes back to the idea of adding value I suggested above: "The two new roles in our most recent survey, teaching support and research support, suggest unique opportunities for libraries to further develop campus relationships" (14). 

Update note (6/11/10): Some of the dwellers of Librarian Blogsville that discussed the ITHAKA report, in case anyone is interested:

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