Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Good, The Bad, and The Itchy: My Thoughts on the Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2013

Deep, and cute, sloth thoughts (source)

The Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2013 was published last week. Since I'm a library director, I was invited to fill out the survey last year, and I was indeed one of the respondents. I'm in there in the results - even though I'm not identifiably so. As a participant, I was among the first notified of the report being available. I was also invited to attend a webinar given by a representative of SAGE, one of the survey's sponsors. Unfortunately (fortunately?), I received the email less than 3 hours before the webinar and was unable to rearrange my schedule to be able to attend at such short notice. That missed opportunity means that my thoughts here are completely mine and may not necessarily reflect the intent or results of the survey's sponsors.

One further caveat: this post is much longer than I normally publish, but I hope the length is understandable. I've taken the last week to read and ponder the results - how they dovetail and differ from my own experience as a library director. I've thought lots of deep thoughts, although I doubt I looked half as cute as the baby sloth up there, even though I was likely faster, as I was considering what Ithaka S+R published. (I'm going to concentrate on things that stood out to me for one reason or another, so if there's something I don't mention about which you're curious or have a comment, please do leave a comment.)


Let me tell you about me, and about my library. Context is everything in situations like this, and I want you to understand my biases before I launch into a discussion of which parts of the survey resonated with me and which parts made me itch with an allergy-like reaction.
  • My college is small. Some may even say teensy. We have six master's degree programs, but they are mostly professional programs (MBA, MSN, etc.). This is all very recent, as we were a two year school up until about thirty years ago. But we're still super small... even taking the master's degrees into account, we don't top 2000 students.
  • My library staff is also teensy - smaller than anybody in our self-identified peer group. I have 1.83 professional librarians, a number that includes me. (If you're curious, .83 is the decimal translation of a full time, 10 month librarian.) There are 7 part-time staff, all of whom are classified as circulation aids, none of whom are required to have anything beyond a high school diploma (although one member of my part time staff does happen to have a master's degree). I also have 5 federal work study students, all of whom are freshmen this year. Finally, there's a frozen professional librarian position, but I'm not sure when it will be unfrozen.
  • And my collection is, you guessed it: teensy. Somewhere between 60-65k volumes. 
  • Although tenure track faculty do have publication requirements, the college's focus is as a teaching institution. My priorities for the library reflect that as well.
  • It helps that we are part of a state-wide library consortium, but Delaware is tiny and the consortium is predominantly made up of public libraries.
  • Our undergraduates are 40+% first generation college students and 50+% of color, with many coming from families with low socioeconomic statuses ("of color" here is shorthand for "non-white" students, and the vast majority of "non-white" is African American here).
  • About me: I've always worked at small colleges, so I tend to have strong biases in that way, too. Two master's degrees, one in library science and the other in education with a focus on adult education, have influenced me as well. The fact that my first job in higher ed was at a college devoted to the education of individuals with learning disabilities, adhd, and other learning differences, is another thing that gives me a very skewed perspective. And finally, when I answered the survey, I had been a library director for just over 6 months, and I'm approaching the 14 month marker as I write this. Still a relative newb, in other words.
Now onto the report...

The Good


For my purposes, "good" doesn't mean stuff of which I approve - I use it as a descriptor for things that resonated as true. In general, I found myself agreeing more than disagreeing with this document. I was worried, considering the source and all that I heard from others going into my reading of it, but, as I mentioned on Twitter...

Incidentally, I did end up with one curse, but it was a "f*** yeah" of agreement.

Some highlights:
  • "Library director's responses signaled the continuing and perhaps growing importance of staff relative to other major categories of expenditure." (p. 7) Even if I weren't so short staffed, I would still feel this way. The things that we can do at my library that will truly impact the lives of our community are service related, not product. And to expand services, I need more people. Period. End of story.
  • "With almost complete unanimity [even across types of institutions], library directors showed a very strong commitment to the role that their libraries play in information literacy education for undergraduate students." (p. 13) This is not true of all academic libraries, nor even all libraries at small, liberal arts colleges, but I see information literacy (or whatever you want to call it) as my library's main raison d'être at this school. There is no way we will ever be able to afford all the resources of bigger or better funded schools, which is why it's great that we're in a consortium. Nor will we be able to fill many of the other traditional roles played by academic libraries. We're at a teaching institution, so I want to get with the teaching.
  • "Library directors at almost all institutions still feel hampered by lack of money and staff, and this may seriously limit their ability to carry out new initiatives." (p. 18) Seriously? I'd like to meet the people who DON'T feel hampered by lack of money and staff. 
  • And the thing that inspired the one bit of vulgar language, albeit one of agreement? "ILL and services like it [are] one of the highest priority items at all types of libraries." We are usually a net lender, believe it or not considering our size, but I know we wouldn't be able to survive without interlibrary loan and the Delaware Library Consortium.

The Bad

Hibiscus Thief!

As with the good, the bad is a list of areas where I disagreed with the findings, or disagreed with my peers. For the most part, I didn't actually disagree too much, especially with the detailed reporting. It's important to take into account the fact that the authors of the report didn't try to make sweeping generalizations across different types of institutions, except in rare cases where agreement was obvious. Besides, I can't speak to the conclusions they drew about any other kind of institution besides Master's and Bachelor's granting institutions, so they could have been way off in regards to Doctoral schools.

Some highlights:
  • "Of all respondents, 43% reported that they have not deaccessioned any books as a result of having ebook access..." (p. 46). Are you kidding me? ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME? That means more than half of the academic libraries involved in the study HAVE done this! Even though information literacy is the core of my library's mission, access to materials is key! Even at schools with predominantly wealthy student bodies, not everyone can afford expensive ereaders or similar. I'm wary of getting rid of print periodicals, but I can deal with that lack a bit better since students can print out an article without breaking the bank. Printing an entire book, on the other hand? Not cool. Having both the print and the electronic version would be lovely, but if I can only afford one, I always opt for the print edition. The digital divide is alive and well, but people keep ignoring it.
  • "Respondents at all types of institutions perceive that they place greater value on their libraries' role as a repository of resources than do their immediate supervisors." (p. 13) I don't know that my provost and I disagree on this, but it's hard to see a library the size of mine as a real repository - despite my emphatic disagreement above about the kinds of resources we keep. 
  • "At least at some institutions, library directors do not feel that they are working in concert with the rest of their institutions in the area of undergraduate education." (p. 36) We might not have as strong a role as I'd like to see, but we are definitely part of the conversation. I serve on a couple of committees that are part of our undergraduate efforts, and I've started a pilot program for a new approach to information literacy that is designed to work in concert with our new core curriculum. When I talk to faculty about my vision for library participation, they listen. I still have an uphill, but I feel we are on the same team. Am I lucky? Or just more persistent? Or something else? Don't know, but I have very different feelings about this than my peers.

The Itchy


I know it's "the good, the bad, and the ugly," but I just couldn't. There is no such thing as an ugly sloth - not even in The Goonies. Similarly, there aren't any ugly moments in the Ithaka S+R report, only things that confused me. So "the itchy" seemed a better fit.

Some highlights:

  • "It is primarily the library's responsibility to foster [information literacy] skills." (p. 7) Truth: I don't remember how I answered this particular question, but I suspect I had as a hard time with it then as I do now. The itchy bit here is the word "primarily." Information literacy is our bailiwick, but in some ways it's just a specific application of critical thinking skills. And teaching critical thinking...? That's everyone's job. Further, those kinds of skills really only stick when the library and the faculty work together. My personal definition of an information literate individual is: someone who identifies when they have an information need; knows where to turn for reliable information; acquires that information efficiently, effectively, and ethically, and then successfully incorporates the new information into his or her existing body of knowledge. Even if we had access to all the papers and research assignments that our students produce, we wouldn't be the best judges of how successful the new knowledge is integrated. We're not, most of us, academic specialists in the fields being taught by our faculty. Sure, I could judge the quality of the work of education majors, but that's about it. Librarians need to be at the table, but information literacy is primarily a shared responsibility.
  • One final itchy point about information literacy in the report is its portrayal as an academic skill and only an academic skill (p. 36). Can we please stop that nonsense? Information literacy is a life skill - it's how we graduate educated voters and consumers of medical information and so on.
  • The report suggests that there is "compelling evidence suggesting that there may be a causal link between data-gathering and confidence in strategic planning." (p. 24) We are at the beginning of a strategic planning process at my library. Actually, we're in a phase that, as strange as it sounds, is more akin to planning to plan than actual planning. That's because our parent institution is getting to the end of our current 10 year plan, and working on a new one that will start next academic year. I am gathering evidence and data, looking for community buy in, and generally being a good little strategic planning do bee. But we in the library don't have total control over our strategic plan since it needs to be in the service of our parent institution's strategic plan. I like and have confidence in the people who are part of the ad hoc campus group that is a precursor to an actual strategic planning committee, but my confidence in the eventual plan they will create isn't there yet. This means I could do everything right and still have wobbly feelings about the library's strategic plan.

All in all, I think the report is probably a good barometer of where my brother and sister library administrators are. I didn't agree with the majority on everything in the report, but as I said above I had expected to disagree more than I did. Sprinkled throughout the report there were quotes taken from an open ended question that was part of the original survey, and without exception the quotes sounded like something I could have written myself. The quote that resonated most strongly with me, however, was in the executive summary:
"This cycle of the US Library Survey illustrates the pronounced difference in academic library leaders by institution type. Views on collections, services, and organizational positioning differ notably across Carnegie classifications. While there are also many areas of broad commonality, this diversity appears to be a key and perhaps growing characteristic for this community." (p. 6) (Emphasis mine.)
I've often joked that small college libraries have more in common with public libraries than with libraries at PhD granting institutions, and it's funny because it's frequently true. I hope the Ithaka S+R report helps us to transcend our differences instead of just highlighting them, because we really do have a lot to teach each other. That is my biggest take away from a close reading of this report. Maybe I'm being a bit Pollyannaish about the whole mess, but I think it's possible. What do you think?


  1. Jessica, I particularly like your thoughts on info lit as critical thinking. Essential!

  2. Thanks so much for your perspective! Most of what I overheard on Librarian Twitter was focused on the distribution of projected hiring, so it was interesting to hear about a broader range of issues. That said, as a soon-to-be-grad, the hiring thing is pretty near and dear to my heart. Would you be willing/able to comment on that a bit?

    1. I think the money quote about Ithaka's interpretation of their data with regards to hiring is this:

      "While there may in fact be a period of increased hiring on the horizon, it is important to note that the question does not provide any information about the magnitude of the changes that have been predicted, only the share of respondents whose institutions might make changes. The data provide only one way of looking at how staff resources are allocated, so their predictive power should not be overestimated."

      The question was about what we'd like to do, not about what we will be doing. Just because I can see a clear need for a few key positions to be added to my staff doesn't mean it will necessarily happen, but neither does it mean it won't.

      That's probably not the message you were hoping to get from me, but I'd rather be honest. And good luck with the job search.