Thinking about what’s not being measured by the Ithaka S+R Survey

I’ve been doing some thinking on the latest release of the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012 (http://www.sr.ithaka.org/research-publications/us-faculty-survey-2012).  The survey represents a long-running attempt to measure the attitudes and practices of U.S. research faculty.  In previous cycles, the survey has been used to examine long-term trends regarding how research faculty views the library and their role in relationship to their research.  The survey has also examined faculty research patterns and the shifting role that academic libraries play in a faculty member’s research process.

To say that the Ithaka S+R survey has been influential on libraries would be an understatement.  In 2009, when the previous survey was compiled, a very real and troubling trend for libraries regarding the erosion of the library as an important information gateway for researchers was significantly highlighted.  In 2009, faculty responses seemed to indicate an accelerated trend away from the library as an information gateway.  Research faculty were finding better and more comprehensive discovery tools in places like Google Scholar or Microsoft’s Academic Search, relegating libraries to more of an after-thought.  And libraries listened…over the past 3 years, libraries have invested heavily in new discovery tools and technologies.  Likewise, library software vendors invested heavily in research and development, and working with academic content providers developed significantly better discovery tools like Summons and Primo allowing library users the ability to query a much more comprehensive set of a libraries’ research holdings.  Spring forward to 2012 and it appears that these investments have started to pay off.  For the first time in 9 years, faculty perceptions of the library as a starting point for research actually gained ground.  This is one of a number of examples where this survey has shaped how libraries have evolved their services to meet their faculty’s research needs.

However, reading through the 2012 Ithaka S+R study, I’m struck by how out of date the survey feels to me.  Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of good stuff here – but the study focuses primarily on traditional publishing and traditional library services (journal collections/ILL).  While some questions nibble around the edges of the libraries role in the digital education space, by and large, the survey measures faculty perceptions around research journals and their availability.  It’s a study that frames libraries primarily as information repositories and ignores the contributions libraries are making to scholarly research as partners in the research process.  As someone whose primary interests revolve around what many would call digital initiatives, what I find lacking in this study is a look at how libraries are positioning themselves as partners and data creators, rather than simply as the storehouse of data when the research is completed.  Libraries continue to mine their special and unique collections to make that information available to researchers around the world, they support visualization services, are creating large sets of bibliographic and research data for mining, championing open access to ensure easier access to materials for their faculty, and strive to democratize specialized technology to encourage greater interdisciplinary research between faculty and institutions.  What’s more, libraries have become research incubators themselves, working with large digital humanities datasets to develop new and innovative ways to build relationships between various disciplines and research, as well as creating new data mining tools and techniques that can be repurposed in other disciplines.

Beyond their work with primary resources, academic libraries are at the forefront in partnering with digital humanities faculty to reboot academic publishing.  Libraries and University Presses are working hard to redefine what it means to publish, and how the dynamic nature of the Internet and electronic media to support a more interactive publication model.  Working with digital humanities faculty, many libraries are working to disassemble the book or article, and reimagine it as something else entirely.

I guess, the point that I’m trying to make is that while the Ithaka S+R study provides some very important insights into how faculty view the library and its services, it offers a very old world view of the library.  And from that perspective, some of the trends outlining faculty perceptions around the importance of the academic library to their research is not entirely surprising.  While the survey has attempted to reconcile its questions to reflect the changing nature of a faculty member’s research environment, the survey has failed to recognize that the academic library has evolved as well, leaving us with a very incomplete view of faculty perceptions.  It will be interesting to see in 2015, if the Ithaka S+R study continues to address this very traditional view of library services or if it will present faculty a more contemporary view of where academic libraries are today.