In October 2010, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) formed a Task Force on Science Libraries and Collections to investigate how library services for the sciences are provided and how science collections are built on the campus. The task force, which comprised the authors of this article, was charged with providing recommendations on current and future needs in both of these areas. The impetus for this project included (1) the fact that scientific literature increasingly is available in electronic form, (2) questions about the way scientists approach literature research, and (3) budget constraints.
Due to environmental demands, the task force's timeline was greatly accelerated, and a deadline of February 2011 was established. Over the course of four months, the task force reviewed the literature, performed an extensive environmental scan and peer comparison, created and administered a survey of faculty and graduate students, and conducted focus groups with graduate and undergraduate students. We hope others going through similar processes may benefit from our experience.
Reviewing the Literature
We started by surveying the literature, which showed that the landscape of academic science libraries has shifted significantly over the last 20 years. The return on investment (ROI) calculations for resources such as staffing, space and collections/services have become even more important during budgetary downturns and recessions. The literature on science library consolidations clearly indicates that this perception of a "new normal" is far from new.
In 1999, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) surveyed 122 member libraries and used the results to develop guidelines and standards for branch libraries in academic institutions and to compile a SPEC Kit (ACRL 1999). The objective was to answer the quintessential question of centralized or decentralized services and collections in academic branch libraries. These guidelines helped inform our own study.
Also in 1999, Jean A. Poland wrote an article describing the centralization of the engineering, mathematics and physical sciences libraries at Cornell University (Poland 1999). Six years later, Andrea Twiss-Brooks wrote an article about the closure of the University of Chicago Chemistry Library (Twiss-Brooks 2005). She described specific factors that produced a "tipping point" that preceded the closing of the library, which was almost 100 years old.
These sources revealed that the most common reasons for consolidation included the need to cut costs, changes in higher education, and declining foot traffic in libraries. The trend toward embedded librarians in academe and the rise of digital content in libraries are creating a paradigm shift for science libraries in academic settings, which the literature consistently reflects.
Scanning the Environment: Our Own Populations
Our charge was to investigate library services and collections for the sciences, making it necessary to define and describe the sciences as they exist at UNC. This was more complex than simply looking at the names of each of the science libraries--there are many different groups that use each library, each with its own needs, purposes, and requirements. We needed to develop a complete roster of the different user groups before we could even begin to seek out direct user feedback.
The sciences at UNC are distributed among the College of Arts & Sciences and five health sciences schools. Though we were focusing on the four branch science libraries, the interdisciplinary nature of much science research meant that many health sciences users might also be regular users of the science libraries, and vice versa. To account for this, we made a list of each of the basic science departments in the health sciences as well as the science departments in the College of Arts & Sciences. We used this …