OCLC Research and Ithaka S+R, both known for exploring the implications for libraries of changes taking place in higher education, joined forces to work on a research project, generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that examines variations in institutional missions and how those missions affect the services offered to library users. The resulting report, University Futures, Library Futures: Aligning Library Strategies with Institutional Directions, has just been published. Our hope is that both academic administrators and librarians will find rich material to further discussions on their own campuses.

The report sets out to accomplish three goals. In the first portion of the report, we trace the development of higher education in the post-World War II era, taking special note of the demographic and social changes that now influence the composition of student bodies on campuses today. Our hypothesis is that the traditional Carnegie classification of higher education institutions relies on an assumption of homogeneity, i.e. that all higher education institutions aim to become as close to the major research institutions as possible. If, as we posit, institutions, attempting to meet the needs of a broader and more diverse population, have chosen to deliver on different goals for their students, existing classifications can be usefully enhanced by developing a typology that emphasizes variations in institutional mission. After in-depth research, we can helpfully characterize institutions in terms of their relative distance from three poles–Research, Liberal Education, or Career-directed Education.  OCLC’s Lorcan Dempsey takes a closer look at the implications of these typologies in a new blog post.

In the second part of the report, we made the assumption that, as colleges and universities attempt to differentiate themselves in a highly competitive marketplace, their libraries would also adapt to the changes in their institutional homes. We would expect that models of library excellence would differ across a comprehensive research university, a liberal arts college, and a career-oriented public institution.

To test this assumption, we developed a list of nine key library services areas:

  • Convene Campus Community
  • Enable Academic Success
  • Facilitate Information Access
  • Foster Scholarship and Creation
  • Include and Support Off-campus Users
  • Preserve and Promote Unique Collections
  • Provide Study Space
  • Showcase Scholarly Expertise
  • Transform Scholarly Publishing

The third piece of the research compares the two to test our hypothesis that the service portfolio of libraries will map onto the institutional priorities of their host university.

We  surveyed library directors about how they perceived their institution to fit into the institutional typology and how they allocated resources currently and how they expected that pattern to change, relative to the key services areas, over time.  We made an assumption that library services would reflect the specific institutional mission and that services in the career-directed institutions would differ significantly from those found in research or liberal education institutions. We compared library directors’ perceptions of educational directions at their institutions to the directions revealed by our analysis of IPEDS data for the same institutions. to establish how library directors perceive their institutions to be “spread” across Research, Liberal Education, and Career-directed Educational activity and to evaluate the extent to which their views diverge from or converge with directions reflected in our institution typology.

We found that to slightly different degrees, in all types of institutions, three key services dominate: Enable Academic Success, Facilitate Information Access, and Provide Study Space. These library services are estimated on average to account for 62 percent of allocated resources. No other services area approaches 10 percent of resources allocated. Interestingly, library directors of all three types of institutions revealed similar patterns of investment in services. When asked to look ahead five years and speculate on changes in allocation of resources, libraries in all institutional types expect to reduce resources invested in Facilitating Information Access to other areas. This was true even among comprehensive research institutions. This reinforces a growing body of evidence that indicates libraries, broadly, are shifting their focus from collections management to activities designed to engage students and facilitate their learning.

To validate survey results, we conducted interviews with library directors from different types of institutions. We found that they could readily identify specific and often similar library services, staffing, and stakeholder partnerships intended to support Research or Liberal education. By contrast, there was little agreement about what constitutes adequate (to say nothing of excellent) library support for Career-directed Education programs. Equally interesting from interviews, we found that library directors from institutions of all types experience significant challenges in characterizing and communicating the value and impact of library activities on student enrollment (are institutional recruitment targets being met?), retention (are enrolled students persisting in their studies?), and success (do students progress toward graduation, employment or further educational pathways?).

We believe the value of this research will be in the extent to which librarians and the academic administrators on their campuses use it to discuss their own plans for developing key library services. As institutions seek to offer specific outcomes for their students, what role will the library play in helping the institution deliver on the promises made?

The research clearly indicates that libraries are transitioning to a new service portfolio, focused on student success and retention, research support, and community engagement, but how those aspirations can be translated into a new typology of higher education institution types will require much more discussion and elaboration.