v.22 #5 A Rock and a Hard Place: Print Collections and Faculty Attitudes

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by Ross Housewright (Research Analyst, Ithaka S+R) ross.housewright@ithaka.org

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Libraries can often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in making strategic decisions about their print collections, simultaneously encouraged to make aggressive choices and warned against doing so. Many libraries may feel they realize little concrete value in the eyes of their constituents through the continued maintenance of print materials — especially journals — but remain concerned that any attempt to reinvest resources towards new roles and services may provoke a strongly negative reaction. A number of important questions must be wrestled with as libraries seek to evaluate the appropriate role of print collections in an increasingly digital world, including pressing challenges around preservation issues as described elsewhere in this issue; here, we consider the question of whether or not a strategic move away from print is in the interest of or supported by the library’s users. Based on ongoing work to survey faculty members at colleges and universities across the United States, Ithaka S+R can offer some insight into this question. Several points of data from the Faculty Survey 2009: Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies1 provide the factual basis for the following discussion, although this discussion in many places ventures beyond these data and into interpretations and impressions that we have built up through site visits, interviews, and other engagement with the library community in this area.

Faculty members have hardly given libraries an overwhelming show of support for significant investment in local print collections, especially for journal materials. Many libraries have had direct experience with this, having watched usage of their print journal backfiles fall off dramatically in recent years. The 2009 Faculty Survey findings reinforce a perception of declining interest in print journal collections. Over the years, the share of respondents to the Faculty Survey that have indicated their strong belief that “Regardless of how reliable and safe electronic collections of journals are, it will always be crucial for my college or university library to maintain hard-copy collections of journals” has continued to fall; in 2009, only about a third of all respondents indicated their strong agreement with this statement. And this declining interest in print journals isn’t limited to local collections; although a higher share of faculty respondents indicate their belief that “…it will always be crucial for some college or university library to maintain hard-copy collections of journals,” this number has also continued to fall, to the point where now just about half of faculty respondents indicate their strong agreement with this statement.

Beyond simply offering libraries at best marginal support for local roles focused on the long-term maintenance of print journal collections, a growing number of faculty demonstrate readiness to see their library move more strategically away from print journals. In the Faculty Survey 2009, the percent of respondents who indicated their strong agreement with the statement “Assuming that electronic collections of journals are proven to work well and are readily accessible, I would be happy to see hard-copy collections discarded and replaced entirely by electronic collections” rose significantly across disciplines; over forty percent of respondents in the sciences and social sciences and over twenty percent of respondents in the humanities strongly agreed with this statement in 2009, in each case about twice the level of agreement reported in the 2006 study. Although still far from pervasive, these responses are somewhat startling; the fact that nearly half of the respondents in some fields would be happy to see print journal materials outright discarded suggests fast-growing levels of not just acceptance but appetite for a move away from print (even if such a view is restricted to a minority).

But while faculty attitudes in the aggregate appear to be shifting towards comfort with a library taking more aggressive strategic actions with its print collections of journals in particular, these decisions are made on the local level and will be judged based on local constituent attitudes. Cautionary tales of faculty members speaking out against even the appearance of a print drawdown, including protests at Syracuse over the idea of moving a number of materials to off-site storage and at Cal Poly Pomona over the deaccessioning of backfiles of journals available through JSTOR, have reinforced the idea that a strategic move away from print still requires a significant investment of political capital at the local level. Hence, the sense of being between a rock and a hard place, as many faculty members demonstrate little interest in print collections of journals in particular while they remain in place, but some may react strongly and negatively if they view the continued maintenance of these materials as threatened. It is not always easy to separate real user needs for print access from an attachment to print that may have to do more with the symbolism of the library than its actual practical function; although some faculty have clear, immediate concerns about the impact of a print drawdown on their teaching and research, others may have strong conceptual objections to the de-prioritization of print even if they themselves rarely or never make use of library print collections.

Some libraries therefore seek to shape a conversation that will both elicit needed input about priorities and will also enable the library to communicate its strategic vision and long-term objectives to its users. Towards this end, following a community framework (ideally one grounded in a more scientific approach to preservation planning) can be helpful in taking some of the emotion out of the dialogue. From that perspective, Ithaka S+R’s What to Withdraw framework and decision-support tool can be helpful not only in making decisions about collections management but also in articulating these to campus stakeholders.2 Through more deliberate engagement with constituents around these issues, can the library help to establish trust that its decisions about print collections will sustain long-held community values, even if in some cases they may be realized in different ways? By shaping a constructive conversation with constituents, the library may gain needed flexibility to take more deliberate action in reshaping print collections to support the library’s intended roles and services.


1. Roger C. Schonfeld and Ross Housewright, Faculty Survey 2009: Strategic Insights for Libraries, Publishers, and Societies. http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-sr/research/faculty-surveys-2000-2009/faculty-survey-2009

2. Roger C. Schonfeld & Ross Housewright, What to Withdraw: Print Collections Management in the Wake of Digitization. http://www.ithaka.org/ithaka-s-r/research/what-to-withdraw

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