Academic libraries exist to serve the needs, over the long-run, of their parent institutions. To be successful, then, it is imperative that each research library regularly works to ensure its ongoing alignment with its parent university. Institutional alignment is, however, a complicated endeavor. 

In a project Ithaka S+R co-published with ARL and CARL, my colleagues Danielle Cooper, Catharine Bond Hill and I examined the strategic directions of research universities in North America to determine how their libraries could best work towards strategic alignment. Of course, in recent years, no event has been more disruptive to North American research universities than the pandemic. From today’s vantage point, while these disruptions were profound and in certain ways ongoing, we see other kinds of strategic issues foremost. From our interviews with university leaders, we identified four common strategic directions:  

  • The pursuit of growth, particularly in the STEM research enterprise;
  • At public institutions, efforts to engage the state, both through its political system and its population;
  • Redressing relationships with the historically marginalized, with significant variation between Canadian and US institutions in terms of how this priority is framed; and
  • Defending the residential experience, which remains core to the educational strategy of most universities.

None of these strategic directions is found at every university, and while all these strategies are common, there are important institutional differences in emphasis, prioritization, and approach. 

Drawing on Ithaka S+R’s earlier research with scholars, we also reviewed several key trends in research practice and support: 

  • The turn to computation, big data, and machine learning;
  • The inequitable impacts of the pandemic;
  • The centralization of research enablement and support; and
  • Changes in research communications.

Based on these common strategic directions and key trends in research practice and support, we proposed a menu of strategic directions libraries could implement to better align with their universities. For most research libraries, we recommend selecting from among these rather than attempting to prioritize all of them.

  • An accelerated pivot to STEM;
  • Double down on humanities and distinctive collections;
  • Focus on student needs and student success;
  • Redress relationships with historically marginalized groups; 
  • Serve the needs of the political entity that funds or controls the institution; and/or
  • Make scientific communication fit for purpose.

The work of leading a research library towards continuous realignment with its parent university is not simple. In addition to this menu of strategic directions, we frame out some of the expectations that university leaders have of their research library leaders, as well as some elements of research library leadership in the multipolar leadership environment of a university. 

University libraries may wish to draw from the way we addressed strategy and alignment in this report as they undertake strategic planning, annual goal setting, OKR development, or other kinds of strategic direction-setting and managerial processes. If we can help in any way, please feel free to reach out directly.


Our colleagues at the Canadian Association of Research Libraries have provided a French translation of Aligning the Research Library to Organizational Strategy.