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If the Academic Library Ceased to Exist, Would We Have to Invent It?


© 2007 Lynn Scott Cochrane

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 1 (January/February 2007): 6–7

Lynn Scott Cochrane is Director of Libraries at Denison University. Comments on this article can be sent to the author at cochrane@denison.edu and/or can be posted to the Web via the link at the bottom of this page.

Conventional wisdom among college and university students (and many of their parents) in early 2007 is that "everything needed for research is available free on the Web." Therefore, academic libraries are often viewed as costly dinosaurs—unnecessary expenses in today's environment. This idea is uninformed at best and foolish at worst. If college and university libraries and librarians didn't exist, we would certainly have to invent—better yet, re-invent—them. Here's why.

Let's imagine August 2010 at Excellent College (EC), a liberal arts institution of 2,000 undergraduates and 200 faculty. The college has decided to stop funding its library. Instead, it will give students a tuition rebate and give faculty a stipend representing their share of the annual amount that would previously have gone to support the library's collections, facilities, and staff—about $2.7 million total. Each student and faculty member will get $1,230. For now, the library building and hard-copy collections will remain in place, student assistants will keep the doors open, and custodians will clean the facility; but database subscriptions will be discontinued, and no other services will be provided. Since the college has a robust honor code, circulation of materials will be on the honor system. Students and faculty will now be on their own to secure the information resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities.

Prediction #1: Students and faculty will buy the necessities first. Students will spend at least $600 of their annual "library" rebate on textbooks, and faculty will spend a comparable amount subscribing to the key journals in their disciplines and buying essential new monographs. Each student and faculty member now has $630 for all other scholarly sources to support their coursework and scholarship, including journals, supplemental readings, databases, and media.

Prediction #2: Students and faculty will go to Google. For example, a third-year undergraduate, Sara, does a Google keyword search on her topic, "presidential libraries," and finds Web sites—the good, the bad, and the inadequate. She decides to try a Google Scholar search (on the Google home page, along with the shopping service Froogle). It returns journal articles and a few monographs in random order based on how many times they've been cited. Even with the Advanced Scholar Search option, Sara gets nothing but author, publication, and date range information. There are no controlled vocabularies or subject headings. Sara clicks on an ERIC document, which is no longer available because the U.S. Department of Education has closed its online service, but the back button will not return her to Google. She has to start the search over. There is no list of publishers included in the Google Scholar database. She gives up for the day.

Prediction #3: Students and faculty will go to the local public library. There they find collections of generic reference works: dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks (hard copy and a few online), popular fiction, popular magazines, and popular media (CDs, DVDs, videos). They find few, if any, scholarly journals, databases, or monographs.


Prediction #4: Students and faculty will go to the main library at Huge State University (HSU), twenty-five miles west. HSU has decided to stop supporting its libraries for the same reason that EC did. The book collections are good, but most of the books are already in use by HSU students and faculty under the honor system. There is no way to recall the books from the users, who are unknown. HSU's database subscriptions have been discontinued as well.

Prediction #5: Each student and faculty member will subscribe to one online database of general full-text resources, such as Academic Search Premier. Oops, that one is available only at the institutional level, so many will choose LexisNexis. An educated guess is that this database will cost between $500 and $700 per year, for a group of selected databases and less-than-comprehensive coverage of general sources. Then the student or faculty member will subscribe to one database in the major or discipline (such as Current Contents, where one subject subset has an estimated 2010 cost of $2,700). Now, he or she is over the allocated budget, and the research will have to be funded out of pocket. Hmmm.

Prediction #6: Students and faculty will quickly realize they can generate lists of who's subscribing to what on campus, so they will be able to (illegally) share user IDs and passwords to gain access to more databases. They will create a database of who has which books. But by April 2011, they'll be too busy to maintain the database.

Prediction #7: The president of EC will have an urgent need for information on a 1974 alumna (and potential donor), as well as access to EC Board of Trustees minutes and to photographs of Beta Alpha Delta (BAD) fraternity. The president will be frustrated, however, because the college archivist disappeared along with all the other librarians.

Get the picture?

Here's a real-life, current illustration. The following is a testimonial written to a library director on February 21, 2006, from a faculty member in the Geosciences Department:

Just a short note to say thanks. I just downloaded an article through the library. I need the article for my research. I had previously inquired about getting a copy of the theme volume from which the article came. It costs a whopping $1,200! So I appreciate being able to access information so easily through the library Web site. Thanks again!

This short note shows that the traditional library role of purchasing scholarly resources has not disappeared, but it has changed.


Let's assume that libraries had and will continue to have two basic roles: (1) to purchase published materials in all formats and make them easily available to users; and (2) to identify, preserve, and manage unique special collections and locally produced information resources and make them easily available to users. Let's further assume, based on the recommendation of several experts in library administration, that libraries should move to a fifty-fifty split of expenditure and time between these two roles. In other words, academic libraries should be spending approximately half their time and money on capturing, preserving, and distributing locally produced materials, such as scholarly monographs, essays and articles, research and project reports, artworks, photographs, analyses of fieldwork, documentation of campus events, alumni-produced intellectual property, correspondence, campus records, and minutes of the campus board of trustees. These materials are not and never will be available in the marketplace from vendors; they are the products of local efforts. EC currently spends little or no money on locally produced materials, other than on the college archivist's salary and a bit of binding. In the 2010 scenario, those costs would be well under $100,000, compared with the almost $1.2 million spent annually on acquiring readily available published materials. It may take a while to get to the fifty-fifty split that some of us think is appropriate.

Over the next decade (probably less), library leaders need to help those of us in academic libraries to reduce our focus on the publisher-driven model (role 1) and increase our attention and resources to the user-driven model (role 2). Then we can do what we've always done best: bring order out of the information chaos swirling around us. We will acquire, preserve, and direct users to quality published resources appropriate for academic purposes; but more important, we will acquire, preserve, and direct users to unique local materials not available elsewhere.

The next time a member of the EC Board of Trustees or of the community asks me why we spend so much money on a library these days when everything is on the Web for free, I'll hand him or her this little essay.



Web/Brick and Mortar Research Barriers

This has been a great article/thread to read. Fast and easy vs Quality and depth. I recall needing to research some medical findings. I needed accurate and timely information. The web resources that I found were inadequate, inaccurate, and outdated. The information was available in medical journals found in a local medical research library.

I doubt the Web will totally replace the need for written materials - but certainly we can learn to offer more efficiency and selection by paying attention to electronic delivery systems, and how people want to be served, and see what we can do to raise the bar in both environments.

Posted by: Toy Town Hub on May 23, 2011

Time will tell

Who knows what may come to pass in the long term?

In the mean time, academic libraries are grappling with the shift towards electronic information, and the systems, processes, and personnel we have inherited which must evolve to meet the needs and expectations of those we serve. Kathleen Folger posits the cutting of people who process physical materials - what is really happening already (tho' frequently none too quickly) is that those people and positions become the ones who keep the digital information available to the patrons. As the Electronic Resources Officer of her institution, Kathleen must know it is a fallacy to think digital resources require less work and fewer people to make them available. front line or behind the scenes. For instance, reliance on aggregator databases like Expanded Academic and Academic Search Premier for full-text access requires a lot of work to keep track of what they actually provide - it changes constantly as the database's agreements with publishers shift.

At UMass Amherst, some of the main library's space is now taken up with a Learning Commons, which brings together many campus services for students, computers, group study spaces, and library help. It has become a vibrant, busy place again, and traffic at the reference desk has risen substantially. So yes, it is student space, but that has long been a role of the library, and here, at least, it's use has taken a sharp rise, along with use (including circulation) of library resources. A flash in the pan? Time will tell.

I wonder whether in succeeding years, students will arrive at college or university with more expertise in searching out information, or less. I see no substantial change (over 12 years) in their initial understanding about peer review or about levels of authoritative information. Imparting that is one of the reference librarian's roles, and one I hope to continue providing.

Finally, I want to make a case for the Idea of the Library - it is a symbol as well as a physical place. Even as it is becoming more virtual, the Library represents a place where people come to do research, to meet colleagues, to cross disciplinary boundaries, to discover, interpret, learn, and create. It helps an academic institution be more than a collection of departments. If it didn't exist, it would indeed need to be invented.

Posted by: nishii on February 24, 2007

A less extreme vision

While students, especially undergrads, and their parents might think everything is available on the web for free, I believe faculty and administrators know better. Even if they don't, they would figure it out pretty quickly once they were no longer able to access their favorite online resources. I think it's more likely that funding for electronic resources would continue, and might even be increased, but there would be no budget for print copies of books and journals.

There would likely be a significant cut in the budget for salaries as well. In addition to eliminating the staff positions that had been dedicated to processing of physical materials, it's like that front-line personnel would be cut as well; afterall, since everything is online, why would you need a circulation desk or reference librarians?

Given space constraints on many campuses, I would also expect that library space previously used for the physical collection would be reclaimed, most likely for student use.

So, what would happen to research and teaching at Excellent College if the library's physical collection and staff were significantly reduced or cut completely and the facility itself became more of a social/study space for students? Do faculty and staff need librarians to help them navigate within the information environment, or will they be completely fine on their own?

Posted by: kfolger on January 30, 2007


Eric, I agree with all your points. And I should not have used the word "pandering". Vendor lock-in practices have put libraries in a tough place, hindering, so some extent, their ability to simplify services. I'm sure the enthusiasm with which libraries have embraced such lock-in varies widely. But even though I agree with all your points, they are somewhat beside my point. Too often the conversation I hear (or see played out) between libraries and their patrons is like this. Library: here's the right/best way to get the right/best resources. Patron: Huh? That's too hard. I'll just use [google, google scholar, google books, amazon, wikipedia, etc.]. Library: your results will be lower quality. Patron: But it's simple, fast, and good enough. ... Now I know there are many efforts collectively and individually to improve this situation. The library here at Indiana regularly engages in all kinds of heroism to improve usability. I'm working on two such projects myself (google "sakaibrary" or "variations3"). Some of the problems result from a lack of standardization. Others from IP issues. But there's too much to discuss in this comment space. My "head in the sand" comment was just a gut response to the seeming assumption that students aren't *already* flocking to google and google scholar, even though academic libraries still exist. A final comment: I'm sure I was thinking more about graduate students than undergrads (when I wrote my response). Thanks for making this a discussion!

Posted by: mnotess on January 30, 2007

Head in the Sand? Hardly.

To understand just how little pandering librarians are doing to publishers and vendors one only has to research the issues of scholarly communication copyright to see the work the profession is engaged in to address access and cost issues; or check the website of the American Library Association's Washington Office to learn of the legislative work of the profession on issues that impact the public's ability to access (freely in most cases) information. As for using Amazon or Google Books rather than ILL (or actually visiting a physical library) , Amazon and Google Books aren't replacements for either, unless of course you want to purchase the book(s) you are needing, which is something in my experience most undergraduates at least aren't interested in doing (because they can't afford it and have no interest in building a personal library). Most academic libraries either charge nothing for ILL or charge only a nominal fee. What has long been the beauty of libraries in this country, and continues to be such, is the commitment to free access to the extent possible. I don't see this being challenged now or any time soon. Ventures like Amazon will only continue to exist as long as they make money. As for Google, it's book scanning project holds promise but is a long way from providing free access to everything that is currently available in print in physical libraries. Amazon, Google and the like have their uses but they do not equate to those of an academic (nor certainly a public) library.

Posted by: eakidwell on January 30, 2007

head in the sand?

Academic libraries will not cease. However, if you think their absence might cause people to use Google Scholar, you're behind the times! Many people *already* use Google Scholar as their first choice because it is often a far more efficient means of finding things than is the clunky array of library websites, vendor search tools, and woefully inadequate metasearch products. Moreover, many of us use Amazon and Google Books as more efficient alternatives to ILL or other library services (such as visiting the stacks), because, in the end, they are easier. Libraries need to stop pandering to publishers and ILS vendors, instead using their collective clout to improve the total user experience of library research.

Posted by: mnotess on January 29, 2007


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