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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Building library collections – change and review

Libraries have been primarily identified by their collections – by those accessing the resources collected by individual libraries and for those not directly engaging imagining access. When Borges wrote “Paradise is a library, not a garden” he captured the concept of the library as a palace for the mind, connecting readers to the generations of works – from maps, manuscripts and incunabula to the new online resources of today. If the physical form is the key to our identity, the question arises as to what our collections should be in such times of change. Many of these trends reflect fundamental changes in scholarly communication in the networked age that contribute to scholarship, often in anticipation of shifts in the academy and changes in scholarly communication.

In Australia, the Group of Eight comprises Australia’s eight leading research universities – The University of Melbourne, The Australian National University, The University of Sydney, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia, The University of Adelaide, Monash University and UNSW. Evaluations of the needs of academics and higher degree students undertaken in recent years suggest that the fundamental role of the library is multifaceted and increasingly supporting scholarly activities beyond physical collections.

Five of the university libraries undertook a study of current client needs and perceived roles using Ithaka S+R, a US based not-for-profit organisation with a tool that evaluates libraries. The study, conducted primarily of academics and postgraduates, found that the primary roles of the academic library were:

‘How important is it to you that your university library provides each of the functions below?’

  1. Buyer– ‘The library pays for resources faculty members need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases’
  2. Archive- ‘The library serves as a repository of resources; in other words, it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources’
  3. Gateway- ‘The library serves as a starting point or ‘gateway’ for locating information for faculty research’
  4. Research- ‘The library provides active support that helps increase the productivity of my research and scholarship’
  5. Teaching- ‘The library supports and facilitates faculty teaching activities’
  6. Student support- ‘The library helps students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills’

The study found a high value for the libraries as collectors and repositories, with strong emerging needs for research skills and support for education. These newer roles are even more significant in an online world where a single keystroke can delete a lifetime’s work. The complexity of the scholarly communication system is creating a need for new services. Interestingly, the nature and quality of services provided by libraries in the print environment translates to the capabilities required to support online scholarship. Expertise in dissemination of research, publishing expertise, managing research data as an archival asset are highly value added skills fully applicable in the online environment.

A different set of insights have been obtained from a study of academics and postgraduates undertaken by Professor Carol Tenopir, School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the Director of Research for the College of Communication and Information, and Director of the Center for Information and Communication Studies. A recent study at the Australian University added to the substantial research already undertaken as part of the Lib-Value project.

The overarching project has found the Australian university libraries are the strongest source of readings for academics and postgraduates. For comparison while UK and US libraries are also the primary sources for journals (67 and 55 percent respectively), while Australian libraries are the source of 69 percent of journal articles. Postgraduates overall have 69 percent of their journal article readings from libraries and 51 per cent of books, nine and six percent higher respectively than in the United States.

The study at the Australian National University provided a deep dive into information behaviours. The impact of libraries was significant. Academic staff who published 5-10 items in the last two years read the most books and other publications. The fundamental importance of the library is revealed in the time devoted by academics to reading. Academic staff on average spend 133 hours per year with library-provided material, equivalent to 16.6 eight-hour days annually reading material provided by the library.

Postgraduate students could well be analysed as living in the library. Postgraduate students, on average, spend 254 hours per year of their work time with library-provided material, or the equivalent of 31.75 eight-hour days annually. 100 per cent of postgraduate students used the library collections online.

Both these sets of studies point to a set of library services that are building and communicating knowledge in print and increasingly digital. The fundamental capabilities of libraries are being recognised as vital by students and academics challenged by the digital environment.

Changes: the exchange rate and collecting

Collection building can be affected by changes external to libraries and universities. The dramatic fall in the exchange rate in Australia over the past four years has had a significant effect on the purchasing power of libraries.

Collection review has seen a focused review across the region.

At the Australian National University Library, the review of titles, in particular subscriptions and databases, has built upon a methodology and process developed by Deakin University.  The major factors taken into consideration are:

  • Relevance to research and teaching
  • Cost and use
  • Cost per use
  • Competitor products
  • Degree of uniqueness
  • Workflow costs – cataloguing, processing

In continuing to develop the whole collection, the library is conscious that:

  • the value in resources is not just immediate use, longer term issues of research and teaching need to be considered
  • we are curating a collection that needs to serve a community with a strong corpus of knowledge that can be seen as an integrated collection built over time
  • there are opportunity costs – some resources must be acquired while they are available as they may only be available for purchase for a short period of time.

The scholars of the future

Overall the building of collections is key to the library’s role in supporting the scholars of the present and future. The complex nature of collections and resources means that while we need to move budget to invest in growth of services such as data management, the collection remains critical to delivering support for research and teaching.

These new roles for the library position the flourishing of research capabilities and knowledge that support the next generation of policy makers, researchers and community members.

Creating a world where knowledge and scholarly communication capabilities are greater will remain a major challenge for the future.

At the recent conference Scholarly communication beyond paywalls, it was clear that the current model of control of scholarly outputs is insufficient to support an innovative, knowledge based world. While open access policies and movements have achieved much, the majority of scholarly works remain inaccessible to many. We need to work with publishers to deliver a new world in the coming years.

Image credit: Bookshelf by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay.

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