Academic Library Data from the United States: An Examination of Trends
Budd, John M., LIBRES: Library and Information Science Research Electronic Journal
There is no doubt that there have been changes in recent years in academic libraries, their institutions, and the behaviors of their users. The literature in librarianship offers opinions and forecasts on a number of trends in services, resources, and personnel within libraries. Writings outside of librarianship also offer ideas about libraries and scholarship. The trends can be examined in the context of data reported by libraries. Data collected by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics provide the opportunity for the analysis of a number of academic library service, collection and access, and personnel matters. Since the analysis can take into account changes over time, an integrated and holistic examination can be conducted.
Occasionally, articles appear in the literature of librarianship (and sometimes higher education) that question academic libraries' being (see, for example, Campbell, 2006 and Wisner, 2001). Some of the points made can be valid; concern regarding the decline in reference transactions, for example, is not without foundation (this phenomenon will be discussed shortly). Such things as declines in reference questions asked and circulation can lead to concern about the place of academic libraries on their campuses. The concern is manifest in a number of ways and those ways might be located along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is evolution: those expressing concern in this way ponder the changes libraries undergo as a series of steps which, over time, can transform academic libraries (Abbott, 2008 and Martell, 2008). At the other end is revolution; those who see change as revolutionary may not want to proceed through stages, but leap to different states. Analysts must be careful to avoid overstating the locus of concern. That is, an individual may favor an evolutionary transformation for, say, the nature of a particular service, while simultaneously favoring a revolutionary transformation for the delivery of the service. Holding differing views regarding services and their operation is by no means inconsistent of necessity. Providing effective services in a specific college or university may require flexibility. There may be no virtue in adopting an absolutely evolutionary (or revolutionary) vision, and no vice in examining each element of the organization as it presently exists and could exist.
The rhetoric of change that is frequently expressed in higher education writings (see Duderstadt and Womack, 2003, for instance) may be sometimes characterized by lack of rigorous examination. Claims about academic libraries' place (or absence of place) in the academy should be looked at closely. When the roles of colleges' and universities' libraries are discussed, one word tends to recur-transition. There has scarcely been a time since the middle of the twentieth century, though, when libraries have not been in transition. Fremont Rider's 1944 book, Scholarship and the Future of the Research Library, looks quaint now, but his central theme was not conceptually different from calls to provide all materials in digital media and not physical packages. Too often, perhaps, writings on academic libraries' present and future contributions to their institutions' missions are guided by opinion and selective glimpses of data. A more comprehensive examination is needed in order to understand the complex dynamics of libraries' activities within a transforming landscape of higher education. The present examination focuses on a large set of data on academic library operations, with the aim of discerning trends that could inform the ways we think about what libraries are and what they do. Since this aim is to provide benchmarks for trends (that can be used, along with other things, to envision the future), no hypotheses are stated.
There has been speculation about causes for the decline in uses of such things as libraries' reference services. …