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Magazines > Information Today > May 2014

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Information Today
Vol. 31 No. 4 — May 2014
Ithaka S+R 2013 Academic Libraries Survey
by Barbie E. Keiser

The 2013 survey of academic libraries conducted by Ithaka S+R ( is a follow-up to the consulting and research service’s 2010 survey that examined the strategic planning, collecting practices, and services of academic libraries in the U.S. As Ithaka S+R managing director Deanna Marcum states in the preface to the latest report: “Ithaka S+R’s US Library Survey tracks the strategic direction and leadership dynamics of academic library leaders. Our purposes are to understand the strategies they are pursuing and the opportunities and constraints that they face, and also to compare their attitudes on key services against those of other campus stakeholders such as faculty members.”

Respondents to the 2013 survey were deans or directors of the main libraries at 4-year colleges or universities, and data is presented for institutions offering baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Readers of this report will learn about the visions of these 499 respondents (a 33% response rate) “and the opportunities and constraints they face in leading their organizations.” The library directors who responded to the survey believe it is important to align their libraries with the teaching and education of undergraduates at their institutions. Therefore, it’s not surprising that their libraries are very strongly committed to the development of research skills and information literature education for undergraduate students, though faculty members are less certain that this responsibility lies with the library. Key findings of the survey include the following:

  • “As in 2010, only a minority of respondents agreed that their library has a well-developed strategy for serving the changing needs of users. Those respondents whose libraries have taken on evidence gathering and other forms of assessment are more likely to be confident in their strategy for serving user needs.”
  • Library directors at larger institutions are much more likely to see themselves as part of the senior academic administration than directors at other institutions are.
  • The majority of respondents agree that building local print collections has declined in importance. This is also emphasized through a review of budget allocation for print versus electronic journals.
  • Finances continue to be constrained, but “[l]ibrary directors’ responses signaled the continuing and perhaps growing importance of staff relative to other major categories of expenditure. Many directors are concerned about limited staff capacity and skills and would spend newly available funding on staff positions or salary increases for existing staff.”
  • “New hires are expected to concentrate in emerging and growing areas such as web services; digital preservation; and instruction, instructional design, and information literacy services.” Traditional areas (e.g., reference, tech services) are not likely to see additional staff.
  • Two core undergraduate services of widespread importance were “providing reference instruction to undergraduate classes” and “providing a physical space for student collaboration.”
  • “At those institutions that provide some form of academic instruction online, a substantial share of directors do not feel that their libraries are fully prepared to provide support [to] students in online courses.”
  • Support for faculty research is changing, with new tools deployed, but the value of this service is seen by many to be waning, while the role of libraries in undergraduate teaching and information literacy education is on the rise.
  • While reference instruction and physical space for students are the highest priority services for all respondents of this survey, institutions offering doctoral degree programs appear more likely to favor a range of library services beyond those offered elsewhere, including interlibrary loan (ILL), licensing electronic journals, index-based discovery services, copyright advice/guidance, special collections, digitizing library materials, institutional repositories, and preserving digitized materials.

In several areas, views held by library directors and faculty diverge. These are explored in greater detail in what follows.

Strategy and Leadership

Library directors have not made much progress in developing and implementing formal strategic plans between the 2010 and 2013 surveys. Even libraries with well-developed strategies have been unable to marshal the financial resources needed to implement the changes that can serve users. Library directors believe that lack of money and staff “may seriously limit their ability to carry out new initiatives.”

Library directors appeared to place greater emphasis on increasing the information literacy skills of under-graduates in 2013 than they did in 2010. In contrast, their active support to help “increase the productivity of faculty research and scholarship” has decreased. Faithful followers of the Ithaka S+R reports may have to wait for the organization’s next Faculty Survey to see whether this trend continues and how the demographics of faculty served by the libraries are shifting on college campuses: Are increasing numbers of younger faculty (“born digital”) better able to navigate the tools than the previous generation, requiring less assistance, guidance, and training?

The survey asked library directors this question: “How important to you is it that your college or university library provides each of the functions below or serves in the capacity listed below?” The choices comprised Information Literacy, Teaching, Buyer, Archive, Gateway, and Research. The report compares the percentage of respondents who rate each as “very important” with the number who reported that their immediate supervisors would rate it as “very important.” The results show that library directors recognize that they perceive each of these functions as being more important than their supervisors do. At the same time, the majority of library directors at baccalaureate institutions (68%) agreed with the statement “My direct supervisor and I share the same vision for the library.” In the next survey, it would be interesting to see how well the library directors know their supervisors by asking, “What do your supervisors say are the most important (priority) functions of the academic library?”

Additional highlights from this section of the report include the following:

  • 65% of library directors declared that they do not involve alumni when developing the strategic priorities of their libraries, ignoring potential supporters of their efforts.
  • During the period between the surveys, the number and use of social media channels has exploded. However, there is no appreciable difference in the ways in which libraries gather the data required to assess how well they are doing between 2010 and 2013.

Budgets and Staffing

Library directors place a high value on their staff, indicating a “desire to increase hiring in the near future. Many library leaders indicated that they would like to spend newly available funding on staff positions or salary increases for existing staff.” In addition, they would like to invest more in online/digital journals and expand/renovate facilities. Should the funds become available for new hires, the areas of the library likely to see the greatest increases in staff would be the following:

  • Instruction, instructional design, and information literacy services
  • Digital preservation and archiving
  • Web services and IT
  • Archives, rare books, and special collections

In discussing these responses, Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka S+R’s program director of libraries, users, and scholarly practices, emphasized that the use of funds for archives, rare books, and special collections was not to buy materials but rather to put toward staff activities such as processing items, managing collections, or unlocking collections for use in the classroom.

These areas are likely to see a reduction in staffing:

  • Technical services, metadata, and cataloging
  • Access services (e.g., circulation, ILL)
  • Print preservation and collections management
  • Reference

This information is essential for library school students and points the way toward schools of library and information science (SLIS) curricula development. These schools must provide courses that prepare students to contribute to the academic library today and in the future. Less emphasis should be placed on concentrations that will leave graduates unable to find jobs and build careers in academic libraries.

Undergrads and InfoLit

A core role of academic libraries is to help students develop “research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.” Libraries employ diverse strategies to accomplish this. According to the survey, the two most important are “providing reference instruction to undergraduate classes” and “providing a physical space for student collaboration.” The other efforts mentioned are the following:

  • Hosting special centers that support teaching or undergraduate learning
  • Providing special services for students enrolled in online or hybrid courses
  • Providing instructional design assistance for faculty members
  • Administering a learning management system

Among library directors, 72% agree that “[d]eveloping the research skills of undergraduate students related to locating and evaluating scholarly information” is their primary responsibility. In contrast, Ithaka S+R’s 2012 Faculty Survey found that faculty saw developing the research skills of their undergraduate students related to locating and evaluating scholarly information as being a faculty responsibility.

Library directors’ perceptions of their library’s contributions to student learning are higher than how faculty perceives them to be. Perhaps the fact that fewer than 40% of library directors report contributing to curricular planning signals a reason for the disconnect between the two camps. Greater involvement in the development of courses would make the link between student learning/achievement and libraries more visible to faculty and administration. Further research to understand how libraries participate in curricula development is needed.


Library directors are shifting funds from print to ebooks and digital journals, and they see that trend continuing for the foreseeable future. However, their opinions about “the importance of ebooks in their libraries have not measurably changed” since 2010. In contrast, the Pew Research Center ( reports an increase in e-reader ownership over the past 3 years, with 28% of survey respondents reporting that they’d read an ebook in 2013 (versus 23% a year earlier). This finding agrees with U.S. faculty who seem more open to the use of ebooks than library directors do. Additional probing here might uncover the reason that libraries are investing less heavily in ebook titles than would be expected, perhaps because of technology, licensing negotiations with publishers, or management issues.

According to respondents, the functions with the highest priority are facilitating access to materials through ILL or other borrowing agreements and licensing electronic journals: “Respondents point to a future where academic libraries rely more on both electronic materials, but where they also develop rich collaborative agreements with other libraries. … [I]ndividual choices may have real implications for the larger picture of preservation and access for scholars and students.” Another interesting thread of study for the 2016 survey would be to examine the range of collaborations being forged, perhaps indicating some innovative practices that could be replicated by others.

Additional highlights from this section of the report include the following:

  • The largest percentage of academic library budgets goes toward online/digital journals and databases, and libraries expect that to be the case in the future. Library directors told Ithaka S+R that 59% of their budgets is spent on online/digital journals and databases (slightly more for institutions with doctoral programs and slightly less for those with baccalaureates as terminal degrees). So the libraries are on-target to deliver what directors predicted would be the case in the 2010 survey (61% by 2015).
  • Libraries report that the availability of books in electronic format has not led to the deaccession of titles from their print collections. However, library directors are more ready to discard or replace print journal titles with online journals (70% at baccalaureate institutions) than faculty members are (50% in the 2012 Faculty Survey).


How do libraries help users find relevant content? “Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported that they have implemented an index-based discovery service such as EBSCO Discovery Service, Primo, Summon, or WorldCat Local.” Library directors claim that the library is “important to be perceived as the starting point in their users’ search for information. At the same time, a smaller number agree that their library is in fact always the best place for researchers to start.” Perhaps this is a recognition that quality information can be located outside the library, and if researchers have developed good information literacy skills, they will recognize quality information when they see it—which is the case for intensive information literacy skill-building efforts by the library staff in the future.

The library is a starting point for research because of its ability “to guide users to a preferred source.” While the Ithaka S+R 2013 report modifies this statement (adding “when duplicate online copies exist”), it may also be true that the librarian’s highly developed set of information literacy skills can suggest additional resources that could contribute to a user’s research effort. In future studies, an expanded section on staffing might provide insights into the changing role of the librarian and which skills are prized by users.

Scholarly Communication and Research Support

Scholarly communication and research support can take many forms; for example, “special departments like a digital humanities center, infrastructure such as a digital repository, or programs designed around issues like data management. Only a subset of institutions appears to be pursuing a strategy that emphasizes research services.” And this is worth noting: “Institutional size is not the best predictor of whether or not an institution is offering these services.”

Respondents rated the provision of advice/guidance to faculty on copyright and intellectual property issues, along with the availability of subject specialist librarians with expertise in various fields, to be priority functions at their libraries. Additional priorities were dependent on the degrees an institution grants. For example:

  • At doctoral institutions, an institutional repository was the top-priority function.
  • For institutions offering master’s and doctoral degrees, “[p]roviding special programs or services aimed at developing the research skills of graduate students” was rated more highly than at baccalaureate institutions.

Other Recent Studies

Ithaka S+R is not the only entity that is conducting research on academic libraries. In January 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, issued “Academic Libraries: 2012 First Look” (, the latest version of its biennial census. This statistical report of what’s happening in academic libraries—an overview of services, collections, staffing, expenditures, electronic services, information literacy, and virtual reference—can serve as a companion to the Ithaka S+R study. The historical data presented could confirm library directors’ responses in the Ithaka S+R survey or point to areas where further research is warranted to uncover trends that are underway. In addition, IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) conducts annual surveys of the nation’s public libraries ( and state library agencies (

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. Send your comments about this article to
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