Questions to Ask about Librarianship and the Future: Thoughts about the Ithaka and Portico Reports

Originally published at Health, Science & Libraries

A week ago Anna Schnitzer, my friend and colleague, brought to my attention the following blog post. For the past several days, I’ve been working off and on to write this blog post.

ACRLog: StevenB: The Question They Forgot To Ask:

The post was in reference to the Ithaka Report, released August 18th.

Ithaka: Faculty and Librarian Surveys: [PDF] Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, August 18, 2008:

Around the same time as the Ithaka Report a related report was released from Portico, one of the partners on the Ithaka Report, available for download from the following page.

Portico and Ithaka Digital Preservation Survey of U.S. Library Directors – Results Released: [PDF]

Digital preservation of e-journals in 2008:
Urgent Action revisited; Results from a Portico/Ithaka Survey of U.S. Library Directors.

The Portico document refers to a survey of library directors performed in 2008, and provides a brief preliminary overview of their data, while the Ithaka Report is a fuller (but still incomplete) preliminary analysis of data collected in 2006 from faculty and academic librarians at four-year institutions. Both reports examine the significance and impact of a shift toward electronic collections, with a focus on digital preservation of electronic resources, as well as looking at how these trends impact on the profession of librarianship.

StevenB’s main take home point in his response to the Ithaka report boils down to this take-home snippet.
“If we want to avoid a further decline in the profile and relevance of the academic library, I advocate that the major change needed to ensure our important role in the intellectual life of the campus is the one that transitions us to a fully integrated partner in the teaching and learning process – in both physical and virtual classroom spaces.”

This was primarily in response to this sentence from the original report.
“Over the course of these three surveys, we have tested three ‘roles’ of the library—purchaser, archive and gateway.” Ithaka, op cit, p. 5.
The Ithaka Report is quite overt about the limitations of the study — that their focus is on academic libraries and “how to best serve faculty” (p. 4), not students, administrators, staff, or community. In other words, what they do is important and useful as far as it goes, but it does not in any sense look at the larger view of the roles and functions of academic librarians, much less librarianship as a whole. It leaves plenty of room for other groups to make similar enquiries about the future of the profession.

The Portico overview statement provides a footnote stating their restrictions on data collection and response rate.

“A web-based survey was sent to 1,371 library directors at four-year academic institutions in the United States. The survey launched on January 11, 2008 and stayed open for 11 days. A total of 186 full submissions were received, in addition to 10 partially completed surveys, for a response rate of 13.6%.” Portico, op cit., p. 1.

There are discussions currently objecting to the response rate as insufficient. Personally, I find the response rate rather remarkable and quite satisfactory, especially given that this is for a survey of library directors sent in January of the year and open for response for only eleven days. My concern is that the timing and constraints on the survey would tend to self-select toward responses from persons who care passionately about the topic, and would tend to exclude opinions from more moderate viewpoints. The Portico analysis did make an attempt to account for a possible skew or bias in the results, but this would remain a concern of mine to be kept in mind while reading the report.

“We found no evidence of response bias according to the Library Materials Expenditure of the institutions polled; our sample mirrored the larger population in its LME breakdown (according to ACRL data). We also checked to see if the survey might be skewed towards those who were actively concerned about preservation or favorably disposed towards Portico, since the survey announcement came from the librarians on the Portico Advisory Committee. … In order to correct for this bias, we removed responses from Portico participants at random from the sample until the proportion of Portico participants in the sample matched that of the larger population.” Portico, op cit, p. 1.

Now, beyond questions of the validity of the studies, moving on towards the bigger picture. Both reports are looking at the impact of current trends on the future of the profession. The Ithaka Report provides the following vision of what an academic library does.

“The [academic] library exists to maximise its value to is constituency, both improving its own stature locally as well as facilitating scholarship, teaching, and learning among its community.” Ithaka, p. 33

I agree completely with StevenB’s observation that the education component is and has been historically a critical role for librarians. I would even suggest that this role is but a small element in a role that is both a broader and deeper element of librarianship—that of the expert “dog with a bone” searcher, the person who (within the questioning and research processes) is partner, facilitator, scout, guide, translator, mentor, even information magician—in short, the Trailblazer, in the sense in which Vannevar Bush used the term.

“There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” Bush, Vannevar. As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly July 1945.

I have never forgotten the first time I read those words, the way my brain burned, as if a voice inside me shouted, “This is what I am. This is what I do. This is what I will be.”

In my mind, I tend to think of the rest of what we librarians do as falling into tasks that support this one unifying fundamental and critical function—discovery. The functions examined by the Ithaka Report—gateway, archive, buyer—are important parts of what we do but do not represent the overarching unifying theme of librarianship. While education comes closer to connecting with the fundamental mission of the profession, I would argue there are many important and useful functions of librarians that are not overtly stated in images of the profession by either the patrons or the librarians. There are assumptions being made on both sides about what the profession of librarianship is, does, and supports. Decisions being made now will impact on those unstated functions in unpredictable ways, that may prove to be to the detriment of all for having not been addressed in the overt decisionmaking process.
What I looked for from the Ithaka Report was a clarification of the phrase “among its community”. Every academic institution is embedded in a local community as well as having broader national and international partnerships. The academic libraries’ roles and duties should reflect these relationships in addition to direct service to the immediate local academic community of that specific institution.
Portico asked a series of useful and provocative questions at the close of their report.

“* Who is responsible for ensuring the digital preservation of e-journals? Can e-journal
preservation be sustained if only a relatively small proportion of libraries is engaged
in supporting e-journal preservation initiatives?
* If it is desirable for participation in the digital preservation of e-journals to move
beyond the ‘trailblazers’ of the library community, when and how might that ‘tipping
point’ be reached? In the meantime, is there a risk that libraries could wait until they
are out of options?
* What can community leaders and e-journal preservation initiatives themselves do to
help simplify the e-journal preservation landscape?
* What is the appropriate place for e-journal preservation efforts in the face of
competing priorities?”

Portico, p. 10.

I am concerned that while the Ithaka Report does a good job of looking at the relationship between faculty and librarians, and Portico is examining the assumptions of library directors with respect to digital preservation, no one is yet examining in similar ways the relationships of libraries with and the impact of digital preservation on other community members — students and local communities in particular. I suspect there are assumptions being made about what academic libraries do, assumptions of the sort where people think the library is, of course, doing XYZ, but in reality the libraries feel it is someone else’s job.

One example of this that has come to my attention is the role libraries play (or could play) in local disaster response. Does the library, in planning digital preservation initiatives and in making de-accessioning decisions, make decisions based on the day-to-day needs of the faculty, administrators, and students of the institution? Do they also consider what potential disasters are most likely to occur in their local physical environment and what information would be needed in what format by the institutional and regional decisionmakers in responding to these specific types of crises? If the decisions are focusing on the day-to-day needs are the institutional and regional decisionmakers aware that this is what is happening, or are they assuming that the library has kept the appropriate information in appropriate formats and locations for responding to the crises that could be anticipated? If the library is not keeping information to address these situations, who is? What other situations or information needs might be assumed as part of the role of the library, but have not been made overt to the library as part of their role?

I very much liked the Ithaka Report’s emphasis on holistic and collaborative approaches to making these types of decisions, and encourage institutions to adopt those themes in their planning (p.33).

“It is equally if not more important, however, to engage with local faculty to determine what changes are and are not appropriate for the local campus environment. As we move further into the digital age, questions of campus information strategy must receive serious consideration from a variety of different players; care must be given to ensure that we develop a future in which scholarship, teaching, and learning are effectively supported, and in which important scholarly values are not lost.” Ithaka, p. 33

Indeed. But let’s not simply engage in these discussions with local faculty, but with a broader community of stakeholders.

One response to “Questions to Ask about Librarianship and the Future: Thoughts about the Ithaka and Portico Reports

  1. Took a look at this some years later, and found that the organizations publishing the reports discussed have either removed the originals or redesigned their sites sufficiently to make it hard to find them. I did a little digging and found these new and not necessarily equivalent links that may help to fill the gap created through the loss of content.

    Ithaka: Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2012 is being fielded for US higher education:

    Ithaka: Faculty Survey 2012 US:

    Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, August 18, 2008 (hosted by Dr. Patrick J. Burns)

    Portico: Research & Surveys:

    Kirchhoff, Amy J. Digital preservation: challenges and implementation. Learned publishing (2008) 21:285-294.

    Portico: Digital preservation of e-journals in 2008: Urgent Action revisited, Results from a Portico/Ithaka Survey of U.S. Library Directors.


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