Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Report on Value of Academic Libraries

A new report released by SAGE and Loughborourgh University describes results of research conducted at academic libraries in 3 countries (USA, UK and Scandinavia) regarding the value of academic libraries for the research and teaching faculty and staff.  The central focus of this study was not on economic value but rather on "the value of academic libraries to academic departments."  Their research questions were about the depth of understanding librarians had of the academic and research staff needs, and the extent librarians promote their resources and services and how this may influence the perception of the academic staff. This qualitative study involved case studies at 8 universities and included interviews with library professionals, academic staff, and institutional stakeholders, as well as a survey of other librarians to confirm the experiences of those in the case studies.  I wanted to highlight a few points that I thought were most interesting.

The first point is that librarians believe they are valued differently by different stakeholder or user groups.  Interestingly, librarians in the United States believed that students valued the library less than faculty, and less than the value from the same group perceived by librarians in the UK or Scandinavia.  This is actually more difficult to describe, so here's the graph of librarians' perceptions of value displayed by different groups:

Mind you, this is how librarians perceived the value that these groups had of libraries and services.  The point is, American librarians thought that the management valued libraries more, but the faculty and students valued libraries less than their European counterparts.  The former aspect may be due to a closer working relationship of libraries to management than in Europe (this is just a supposition not based on any evidence).  The latter aspect, however, is harder to explain.  Why do American librarians think students think of the library being less valuable to them than European librarians?  Is this a reflection of librarians' concerns that the resources and services are not reaching them?  Or is it merely the presumption that American students are more detached from the libraries and the resources and services that are available to them?  This is a difficult issue to study because it is about perceptions of somebody else's perceptions of value.  There are the attitudes of both the target group as well as the librarians themselves that could explain these results.  It's disappointing that there was not a check of these perceptions with the target groups themselves, which could point to gaps or misunderstandings.

Another key difference between the countries was regarding the services considered most valuable to the teaching or the research staff.  In the case of services aimed at instruction or teaching, the Scandinavian librarians placed more importance on embedded information literacy training than librarians in the UK or the US.  Not to say these were not considered valued by teaching faculty there either, just not by as many librarians.  Conversely, more librarians in the US than elsewhere considered group information literacy training more valued by the teaching staff.  But again, this is perceptions of perceptions.  It is frustrating that no evidence of the perceptions of the teaching staff themselves were not investigated.  

The perceptions of services valued by research staff did not vary by country nearly as much as those for teaching faculty.  Generally, more American librarians thought promotion of new resources was important than in the UK or Scandinavia, whereas fewer American librarians thought one-on-one information literacy training was valued by research staff.  My thoughts on the former is a more advertising-based culture, while the latter is based on a perception of research faculty being more independent and too busy.

Perhaps the most interesting part was the recommendation to "uphold the status of librarians and information professionals".  Essentially, they report that:
[T]hose libraries where staff had an equivalent status to teaching and research staff found it easier to promote their services, as they were seen by those staff as partners in the teaching and research process.  In turn, this resulted in better perception of the value of the library - communication was facilitated and library services were more highly valued.  Where libraries were seen as a service department, responding to the curriculum, they appeared to be less highly valued by teaching and research staff.
But, again, the evidence they base their recommendation on was perception of the libraries of the perceptions of others.  Perhaps this was because the librarians who were service staff perceived themselves to be less valuable or on a lower level than the faculty they served.  This appears to be a point needing further research.

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