« Random Thoughts on Facebook | Main | People and Events »

September 03, 2008

Questions to Ask about Librarianship and the Future: Thoughts about the Ithaka and Portico Reports

A week ago Anna Schnitzer, my friend and colleague, brought to my attention the following blog post. For the past several days, I've been working off and on to write this blog post.

ACRLog: StevenB: The Question They Forgot To Ask: http://acrlog.org/2008/08/22/the-question-they-forgot-to-ask/

The post was in reference to the Ithaka Report, released August 18th.

Ithaka: Faculty and Librarian Surveys: http://ithaka.org/research/faculty-and-librarian-surveys

[PDF] Ithaka's 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, August 18, 2008: http://ithaka.org/research/Ithakas%202006%20Studies%20of%20Key%20Stakeholders%20in%20the%20Digital%20Transformation%20in%20Higher%20Education.pdf

Around the same time as the Ithaka Report a related report was released from Portico, one of the partners on the Ithaka Report, available for download from the following page.

Portico and Ithaka Digital Preservation Survey of U.S. Library Directors – Results Released: http://www.portico.org/comment/

[PDF] Digital preservation of e-journals in 2008:
Urgent Action revisited; Results from a Portico/Ithaka Survey of U.S. Library Directors. http://www.portico.org/comment/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/porticosurveyondigitalpreservation.pdf

The Portico document refers to a survey of library directors performed in 2008, and provides a brief preliminary overview of their data, while the Ithaka Report is a fuller (but still incomplete) preliminary analysis of data collected in 2006 from faculty and academic librarians at four-year institutions. Both reports examine the significance and impact of a shift toward electronic collections, with a focus on digital preservation of electronic resources, as well as looking at how these trends impact on the profession of librarianship.

StevenB's main take home point in his response to the Ithaka report boils down to this take-home snippet.

"If we want to avoid a further decline in the profile and relevance of the academic library, I advocate that the major change needed to ensure our important role in the intellectual life of the campus is the one that transitions us to a fully integrated partner in the teaching and learning process - in both physical and virtual classroom spaces."

This was primarily in response to this sentence from the original report.

"Over the course of these three surveys, we have tested three 'roles' of the library—purchaser, archive and gateway." Ithaka, op cit, p. 5.

The Ithaka Report is quite overt about the limitations of the study -- that their focus is on academic libraries and "how to best serve faculty" (p. 4), not students, administrators, staff, or community. In other words, what they do is important and useful as far as it goes, but it does not in any sense look at the larger view of the roles and functions of academic librarians, much less librarianship as a whole. It leaves plenty of room for other groups to make similar enquiries about the future of the profession.

The Portico overview statement provides a footnote stating their restrictions on data collection and response rate.

"A web-based survey was sent to 1,371 library directors at four-year academic institutions in the United States. The survey launched on January 11, 2008 and stayed open for 11 days. A total of 186 full submissions were received, in addition to 10 partially completed surveys, for a response rate of 13.6%." Portico, op cit., p. 1.

There are discussions currently objecting to the response rate as insufficient. Personally, I find the response rate rather remarkable and quite satisfactory, especially given that this is for a survey of library directors sent in January of the year and open for response for only eleven days. My concern is that the timing and constraints on the survey would tend to self-select toward responses from persons who care passionately about the topic, and would tend to exclude opinions from more moderate viewpoints. The Portico analysis did make an attempt to account for a possible skew or bias in the results, but this would remain a concern of mine to be kept in mind while reading the report.

"We found no evidence of response bias according to the Library Materials Expenditure of the institutions polled; our sample mirrored the larger population in its LME breakdown (according to ACRL data). We also checked to see if the survey might be skewed towards those who were actively concerned about preservation or favorably disposed towards Portico, since the survey announcement came from the librarians on the Portico Advisory Committee. ... In order to correct for this bias, we removed responses from Portico participants at random from the sample until the proportion of Portico participants in the sample matched that of the larger population." Portico, op cit, p. 1.

Now, beyond questions of the validity of the studies, moving on towards the bigger picture. Both reports are looking at the impact of current trends on the future of the profession. The Ithaka Report provides the following vision of what an academic library does.

"The [academic] library exists to maximise its value to is constituency, both improving its own stature locally as well as facilitating scholarship, teaching, and learning among its community." Ithaka, p. 33

I agree completely with StevenB's observation that the education component is and has been historically a critical role for librarians. I would even suggest that this role is but a small element in a role that is both a broader and deeper element of librarianship—that of the expert "dog with a bone" searcher, the person who (within the questioning and research processes) is partner, facilitator, scout, guide, translator, mentor, even information magician—in short, the Trailblazer, in the sense in which Vannevar Bush used the term.

"There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected." Bush, Vannevar. As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly July 1945. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush

I have never forgotten the first time I read those words, the way my brain burned, as if a voice inside me shouted, "This is what I am. This is what I do. This is what I will be."

In my mind, I tend to think of the rest of what we librarians do as falling into tasks that support this one unifying fundamental and critical function—discovery. The functions examined by the Ithaka Report—gateway, archive, buyer—are important parts of what we do but do not represent the overarching unifying theme of librarianship. While education comes closer to connecting with the fundamental mission of the profession, I would argue there are many important and useful functions of librarians that are not overtly stated in images of the profession by either the patrons or the librarians. There are assumptions being made on both sides about what the profession of librarianship is, does, and supports. Decisions being made now will impact on those unstated functions in unpredictable ways, that may prove to be to the detriment of all for having not been addressed in the overt decisionmaking process.

What I looked for from the Ithaka Report was a clarification of the phrase "among its community". Every academic institution is embedded in a local community as well as having broader national and international partnerships. The academic libraries' roles and duties should reflect these relationships in addition to direct service to the immediate local academic community of that specific institution.

Portico asked a series of useful and provocative questions at the close of their report.

"* Who is responsible for ensuring the digital preservation of e-journals? Can e-journal
preservation be sustained if only a relatively small proportion of libraries is engaged
in supporting e-journal preservation initiatives?
* If it is desirable for participation in the digital preservation of e-journals to move
beyond the 'trailblazers' of the library community, when and how might that 'tipping
point' be reached? In the meantime, is there a risk that libraries could wait until they
are out of options?
* What can community leaders and e-journal preservation initiatives themselves do to
help simplify the e-journal preservation landscape?
* What is the appropriate place for e-journal preservation efforts in the face of
competing priorities?"

Portico, p. 10.

I am concerned that while the Ithaka Report does a good job of looking at the relationship between faculty and librarians, and Portico is examining the assumptions of library directors with respect to digital preservation, no one is yet examining in similar ways the relationships of libraries with and the impact of digital preservation on other community members — students and local communities in particular. I suspect there are assumptions being made about what academic libraries do, assumptions of the sort where people think the library is, of course, doing XYZ, but in reality the libraries feel it is someone else's job.

One example of this that has come to my attention is the role libraries play (or could play) in local disaster response. Does the library, in planning digital preservation initiatives and in making de-accessioning decisions, make decisions based on the day-to-day needs of the faculty, administrators, and students of the institution? Do they also consider what potential disasters are most likely to occur in their local physical environment and what information would be needed in what format by the institutional and regional decisionmakers in responding to these specific types of crises? If the decisions are focusing on the day-to-day needs are the institutional and regional decisionmakers aware that this is what is happening, or are they assuming that the library has kept the appropriate information in appropriate formats and locations for responding to the crises that could be anticipated? If the library is not keeping information to address these situations, who is? What other situations or information needs might be assumed as part of the role of the library, but have not been made overt to the library as part of their role?

I very much liked the Ithaka Report's emphasis on holistic and collaborative approaches to making these types of decisions, and encourage institutions to adopt those themes in their planning (p.33).

"It is equally if not more important, however, to engage with local faculty to determine what changes are and are not appropriate for the local campus environment. As we move further into the digital age, questions of campus information strategy must receive serious consideration from a variety of different players; care must be given to ensure that we develop a future in which scholarship, teaching, and learning are effectively supported, and in which important scholarly values are not lost." Ithaka, p. 33

Indeed. But let's not simply engage in these discussions with local faculty, but with a broader community of stakeholders.

Posted by pfa at September 3, 2008 11:34 AM


Anna and Roger, thank you for your comments on the post!

Roger, thank you in particular for such a substantive reply and encouraging ongoing discussion. I definitely understand that real world constraints necessitated the narrower study, and agree completely that if you could only really study one group, faculty makes perfect sense as the one group to examine closely. I was not intended to imply that there was a problem with the study in that respect, but rather hoping that others would step in to fill the gap or expand on your seminal work. Partnership sounds even better!! Ithaka already has good partners on this, and it would be a good thing if additional stakeholders joined in. Very good!

I did do a little bit of a followup to this post in another on my own blog. You might want to take a look at it for one set of ideas.

Assumptions about Library's Roles in Disasters: http://mblog.lib.umich.edu/etechlib/archives/2008/09/assumptions_abo.html

Following the faculty discussion, you talk about the trailblazer and discovery concepts. I love this line in your next paragraph:
"To my mind, in order for libraries, or librarians, to serve as the "gateways" for faculty research, they must blaze a "trail" through enormous quantities of information."

The echoes back to my grad school days again, around the same time as when I first discovered the Vannevar Bush article. I worked on a review of the technological gatekeeping literature at the time. Now as you are saying "gateway" my brain echoes "gatekeeper".

Permit me a brief diversion. A technological gatekeeper would be in the engineering and corporate technical environments a person who is known informally throughout their organization as a go-to person for questions. This does not mean that they necessarily knew all the answers, but if they didn't, they would know who to go to in order to find out. One way or another, they could help smooth the path toward the eventual answer. Along the way, they were also serving as informal community managers for their organizations, forging personal connections and facilitating collaboration and growth. These were all valuable functions for the organization, especially for research and development or any other corporate unit focused on innovation.

One of the interesting things about the technological gatekeeping research was that these gatekeepers would spend quite a bit of time out of their official job on answering questions, and would sometimes get in trouble for it; BUT, if you made this function an overt part of their job, they hated it, and would do everything in their power to get their old job back. Now, librarians are the unusual folk who both function as information gatekeepers and have chosen to make this their overt job function! I think there is something VERY important about the academic librarians social role in their institutions.

Now I am thinking of Blaise Cronin's work on social networks, some of which I think was examining academic communities and scholarly communication patterns. I am thinking of two potentially interesting and informative studies that might get at the overt impact of the librarians' hidden roles.

One would be to look at the social networks of faculty, and what are the characteristics of faculty or researchers who are most strongly connected to librarians. Personally, I suspect that those faculty would be the "gatekeepers" for their departments, or either particularly strong or weak producers of academic products. I would expect a bipolar distribution of results.

The second idea is kind of the flip side of the same question - let's look at the social networks of academic librarians. This should be done both external from the library (with their faculty, students and community) and internally (how they facilitate connections with that hidden infrastructure of myriad persons who support that hidden discovery process).

Now for something that might be a little less abstract and possibly more useful for you. I hope. :) The survey is focusing on libraries as objects and collections rather than on librarians. In my focus on discovery I am thinking that what has always been most important is the librarian as the intermediary between the querent and the answer, in whatever form the answer appears -- stores of formal knowledge (such as library collections), stores of informal knowledge (such as popular media or the open Web), connections with other people or groups, etcetera. Perhaps it might be possible to develop some questions that look at these social connections between librarians and their communities?

Part of what makes me think of this is firstly what has proven to be strengths in my own career over the long run, which has almost always proven to be passion for what I do and engaging others around me in that, and secondly what I am doing now, which is a little more complicated. Right now I am working as the first Emerging Technologies Librarian at the University of Michigan. This position was created by Jane Blumenthal (the official owner of this blog on which I sometimes post as a guest). I can't be 100% certain, but my sense of things is that the position was created in part in response to observing my strengths and interests, but more importantly out of Jane's vision that the librarian makes the library, not the other way around. I'm sure Jane can clarify this.

In my role as Emerging Technologies Librarian for the Health Sciences, I preserve my traditional skills in such things as systematic review searching, reference, teaching, resource discovery and selection, and more. I do this in new places and ways. New ways means that I select resources of sorts that will likely never appear on a library's shelves and are not necessarily available for purchase. I promote resources and tools to our patrons that might traditionally be considered outside the scope of our duties. I attempt to overtly embody that previously mentioned "trailblazer" role in my day-to-day professional practice. New places includes such environments as social networks, microblogging communities, online collaboration tools and Second Life. As a librarian working largely in social and online media, as well as in Second Life I cannot help but notice that the roles examined by the survey (purchaser, archive, and gateway) are largely irrelevant to what I am currently doing. Does this mean I am not working as a librarian? Rather, it emphasizes the distinction between the librarian's role and the library as object.

This is all kind of thinking out loud. I appreciate the provocative questions. I hope others join in and help brainstorm ways to examine what is it librarians are really doing these days.

Posted by: pfa at September 6, 2008 07:42 PM

Hi Patricia,

Thank you for writing about the recent report about Ithaka's faculty and librarian surveys, as well as about Portico's librarian survey.

I agree with your observations that it would be valuable to measure the views of other stakeholders, students most importantly, in gaining a fuller understanding of the library's stakeholders. With only limited resources available for this project, our choice to focus on faculty needs was driven by two factors. First, we are more likely to be able to gain responses from faculty members due to methodological considerations. And second, faculty members' views tend to play a substantial role in relevant decision-making such as budgetary allocations at all types of colleges and universities. It would be desirable, if funding permitted, to extend the Ithaka surveys to both undergraduate and graduate students, to community colleges, and to other regions of the world, and we are always looking for partners who might be able to work with us to expand their reach.

More specifically, you evoked the "trailblazer" role, and then subsequently you mentioned the importance of "discovery," and I'd like to learn a little bit more about your perspective here. In our survey, we asked faculty about the extent to which they valued that “the library is a starting point or ‘gateway’ for locating information for my research.” To my mind, in order for libraries, or librarians, to serve as the "gateways" for faculty research, they must blaze a "trail" through enormous quantities of information. The design of these survey questions tried to take the faculty researcher's perspective - asking about the gateway function - rather than about the (perhaps hidden) infrastructure and preparation that is necessary in order for the library to provide this gateway function. Is there another way in which we should have measured faculty valuation of the discovery / gateway service (or the trailblazer function that drives it)?

Thank you again for your reactions to our study. I look forward to continuing the dialogue.



Posted by: rcs@ithaka.org at September 6, 2008 12:09 PM

Patricia: Very well put and quite profound, I find even if I did not have enough time to dive to the deeper levels; I promise I will do that at leisure later. Glad I passed this along to you. You really made good use of the Ithaka/Portico Reports as jumping off points. :)anna

Posted by: schnitzr at September 4, 2008 06:06 PM

Login to leave a comment. Create a new account.