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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November 2011

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Vol. 31 No. 9 — November 2011
Accreditation, ROI, and the Online Academic Library
by Fred Stielow

Today’s academic libraries must demonstrate their value to cost-conscious university administrators.

Accordingly, … budget trade-off decisions that involve the library are the most difficult for any university administrator to make. To put it crassly—sustain the library budget or pay the start up package for a new professor of chemistry, support the library or maintain [a class for] a less commonly taught modern language. Such decisions are only complicated by the recent appearance of massive global digital libraries that seem poised, in the popular imagination at least, to replace the university library as the principal source of scholarly information. Why invest much at all in the university library when journals, reference works, and soon tens of millions of books and monographs, both in and out of print, will be available effortlessly and online?

University of California vice provost Daniel Greenstein’s comments, presented at the 2009 Ithaka conference, highlighted needed re-visioning and the growing inevitability of downsizing for the academic library. Rather than assumed entitlement, today’s academic librarians must demonstrate their value to cost-conscious university administrators. Trying economic times and the web revolution are leaving an indelible impact. Future versions must feature smaller physical footprints, be web-oriented, be lighter on librarians, and be narrowly focused. Yet, the future is already present—albeit largely hidden from view. It exists within the high-pressure environment of the newest sector in higher education: for-profit online universities.

Online universities are a phenomenon of the 21st century and the new economies of the web. Expanding at a rate far faster than their land-based brethren, onlines have come to command some 12% of student enrollments in 2011.

These highly business-oriented enterprises also come without allegiance to the trappings and traditions of academia. For-profit leadership, for example, is not weighed by the symbolic and continuing presence of monumental campus libraries or the millions of dollars capitalized in their collections. In this new world, libraries are virtual agencies that can be built from almost nothing. Online academic libraries are subject to valuations as part of the overhead—an element within abstract formulas for return-on-investment. Management is seeking economies and readily diverts toward outsourcing or the chimera of free services from the web.

Fortunately, countervailing forces linger. Accreditation remains a factor. Moreover, the onlines are often more bureaucratically flexible than their establishment counterparts. By their nature, such environments are open to entrepreneurship—even from their librarians.

APUS and the Birth of an Online Library

The American Public University System (APUS), where I serve as dean of libraries and educational materials, provides an illustrative crucible. This fully online operation is composed of the American Public University and its flagship American Military University. They offer associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees across the spectrum—including specializations in areas such as homeland security, intelligence, and military studies. Classes are asynchronous—offered around the clock and served to clientele in more than 100 countries.

In 2005, APUS was nationally accredited with an enrollment of approximately 8,000 students, but the vision was bigger. The drive was toward regional accreditation—the sine qua non for university status. The library surfaced as a significant issue. Rather than outsourcing or continuing prior minimal commitments, APUS president Wallace Boston wisely embraced the guidance of incoming provost Frank McCluskey: He opted for a strong academic library. It would be an integral part of the accreditation strategy, as well as a demonstration of the university’s commitment to traditional educational standards. Resources would be supplied and committed according to professional library standards. The library’s job was to prove its worth.

Implementation phase. Implementation began by symbolically abandoning the terminology for a pre-existing Online Resource Center (ORC) and announcing the coming of an Online Library. Planning itself was a two-pronged endeavor.

Physical construction. Building took place over a 4-month period and had to be lean and mean. It focused intellectually on aligning and adding resources that could demonstrably map to the university’s degree programs. We also consciously reflected on the need to re-engineer and think web. Virtualization would impact every area of library operations. The new site basically required the construction and interlacing of a new landing page with some 20 support pages. Rather than manned desks, pages were predesigned as self-referential devices and tuned for search engine discovery. The lack of physical holdings for circulation meant we could enable a version of Auto-Graphics’ interlibrary-loan applications as a simplified OPAC. Instead of an all-inclusive research commitment and just-in-case responsibilities for material on any subject, we turned to the information superhighway for the encyclopedic level of reference. High-touch librarians remained, but email supplanted face-to-face explanations.

Internal construction. “If you build it, he will come” may have sufficed for accreditation purposes, but it would not produce needed sustainability. Planning thus also reflected the entrepreneurial spirit of a fluid corporation. The Online Library sought additional roles. During physical construction, it propagandized and took leadership in a drive for web information literacy as a vital component in the accreditation process. The library created information literacy modules and ensured that those modules were inserted into the university’s mandatory introductory class for undergraduates. Library training was instituted as a major component in prerequisite training for all instructors. Those efforts were part of systematic long-range plans to reach out and build strong partnerships with the teaching cadre.

Sustainability phase. Fortunately, library efforts paid off. In 2006, the Higher Learning Commission awarded APUS regional accreditation and included positive remarks on the direction of the Online Library. The school immediately embarked on hyper-growth. By 2010, APUS had become the leading higher education provider to the American military and was selected by Walmart as its official university. In 2011, enrollment passed 100,000 students in 120 countries.

The Online Library positioned itself to join the ride. As seen in Figure 1, the groundwork laid during construction paid dividends in the coming years. With a 3,000% increase over 6 years, library usage would even outpace the university’s spectacular rise.

The library exploits other opportunities. Initial analysis had revealed an opportunity, as well as a significant contradiction within academic libraries. The idea of the academic library had been reinvented in the 19th century as part of the rise of the modern research university. Then emphasis on the liberal arts was replaced by an array of new scientific departments, which continue to define the institution. These ranged from engineering and the hard sciences along with the emerging arenas of history and the social sciences to business and professional schools. In keeping with models set by the University of Illinois and other land-grant schools, monumental libraries arose in tandem at the heart of the new campuses. Academic libraries would be part of the research fabric. They featured massive collections that incidentally served as depositories for the flood of materials from the pens of the new Ph.D. degree.

That model, however, largely eschewed a role in classroom instruction. And APUS was a teaching institution. Committing to the traditional research trope would make no financial and little pedagogical sense to its administration. Equally important, the school had pioneered the underwriting of printed textbooks for its undergraduates. The results were multimillion dollar shipping operations with significant overhead and subject to distressing inflationary pressures.

The Online Library responded in late 2006 with a post-accreditation expansion plan to transform operations. Rather than focusing on research, direct classroom support rose to the top of the agenda. The Electronic Course Materials project (ECM) proposal forced the library to speak business. Library holdings were presented as capitalized investments. They prepared a business case, which showed that they could alleviate a growing cost factor and major inflationary pressure. Such potential also depended on human capital in the form of subject-specialist librarians. The latter were portrayed as extremely economical web experts who could produce a minimum of 15 to 1 ROI.

Over the 5 years since accreditation, such arguments enabled the quintupling of ebooks to some 120,000 holdings and journal databases to 35,000 titles. Equally important, the library successfully added a dozen part-time telecommuting specialists, as well as two part-time and three full-time support staff. Typically holding an M.L.S. and two subject master’s degrees, APUS librarians form arguably the most qualified staff in online education. They were marketed as such internally and have become a recognized selling point for the university.

Although standard reference work continues, activities have reoriented toward the classroom value proposition. Curricular support rises to pre-eminence with faculty as the main clients. Librarians begin at the top level with departmental research portals. These include a vetted mix of open web and our licensed deep web resources. Using LibGuides software, courses are prioritized by enrollment and faculty interest with the aim of augmenting or—even better—substituting for textbooks. In a partial nod to the past, librarian products are also part of a 5-year review cycle across the curriculum. This unprecedented effort extends the financially definable role for the librarians into ensuring quality and currency for the web-era classroom.

APUS librarians are also justified as unquestioned web experts. Their role includes patrolling the web for pedagogical purposes. We want them on the lookout for Open Access resources and alternatives such as Flat World for classroom use. Such duties extend to R&D functions. Librarians have been on the forefront in bringing attention to Web 2.0 advances and other new teaching technologies, as well as providing development zones for wikis, media, simulations, and our island library in Second Life.

It is important to note that Online Library collections and web patrols are only one prong in the multipronged integrated ECM initiative. Other prongs are the following.

Electronic bookstore. A key part of the plan involved taking over and re-engineering the bookstore. The bookstore offered low-hanging fruit. Materials could be readily revamped from print to coordinate the future development of digitally based courses but more directly to facilitate the electronic conversion of extant textbooks. The latter approach features heavy bargaining aimed at producing a 35% discount off print plus the elimination of shipping and handling charges.

Online Library. In addition to the course materials and R&D, librarians joined course materials staff as campus experts and auditors for both Section 508 electronic materials for handicapped access and copyright matters.

APUS ePress. The third portion of ECM follows a related path to re-engineer for an online university press. Like libraries, university presses had developed in support of the research agenda. We are in the process of classroom redress. The APUS ePress looks primarily to online textbooks and dynamic course packets. It commissions faculty as authors and editors with a librarian assigned as research resource. Title decisions concentrate on high volume and select niche classes that can guarantee a 10 to 1 ROI over a normal 3-year usage span.


Some cautions have ensued in dealing with internal campus realities and the need for change management to account for transiting an older student clientele (average age 32). Yet, the three-part ECM structure has enabled the university to hold its own against inflationary textbook pricing, which escalated more than 30% during the period. Amortized savings now total in the millions of dollars. These feature the conversion of some 250 courses to library/open web services. Those returns alone more than meet the projected 15 to 1 ROI for the librarians—and in the process effectively cover the costs of all library operations.

Moreover, the library is not standing still. It is consciously promoting an extended Classroom/Research Information Services (CRIS) model. As the university grows its academic aspirations, the librarians look to reassert research support—albeit with continued emphasis on course materials. Where they and course support staff were once alone, however, the school has added other support specialists to enhance the classroom. CRIS is thus proactively extended as a rubric for partnerships with instructional developers, subject matter experts, and a center for teaching and learning. The joint goal is a reinvention of the online classroom.

Closing Thoughts

Despite successes, for the final assessment of APUS library initiatives, it remains too early to declare victory. Our re-engineered version of the academic library remains a young, promising work in progress. We must continually prove our value and guard or co-opt against trespassing by other eager parts of the university. We trust that the approaches and centrality of the online librarian should take hold. The paradigm shift toward course support should be self-evident. Although APUS began from specially vested economic interests, similar redress is clearly in the survival interests of all academic libraries themselves and for the betterment of their universities. Indeed, 2008’s House Education Act provides libraries with an open door. HEA effectively mandates that all universities work to control the rampant costs of course materials for their students. What better opening to step through proactively and with entrepreneurial zeal in these trying economic times?

Fred Stielow ( is a corporate vice president/dean of libraries and course materials at APUS. Stielow launched electronic bookstore operations and an APUS ePress. Former chair of ALA’s Web Advisory Committee, he has served on a variety of advisory boards. Selected as Fulbright Scholar and MCI Cybrarian of the Year, he has also produced more than 100 scholarly articles and 11 books, including the forthcoming Reinventing the Academic Library for the Web.

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