What are libraries for and are they worth it?

Back in August Elsevier published a report that looked at what value a University library delivers to its parent institution, particularly in terms of its research.  It
looked at eight institutions around the world and found that in six of
them the investment in libraries was more than repaid in grant
funding.  Two institutions showed a significant positive correlation
between an increase in library investment over time and an increase in
grant funding to the university.
Carol Tenopir, the leader of the research project, said  “the
collections and services of all university libraries help faculty write
better grant proposals and articles and help them do better research.

Further details are in the press release or you can read the whole report.I like the sound of this story – affirming that libraries are valuable appendages that every decent research institution should have. I find myself scratching my head a bit though,  wondering exactly how the link between libraries and grant income has been proved and whether 8 institutions is really a large enough study from which to draw definite conclusions. The conclusions also seem a bit too convenient – libraries are good for universities, therefore they must spend lot of money on journal subscriptions from publishers like … Elsevier.
Academic do value libraries.The Scientist, a month later, reported
that US scientists were worried about how cuts to US University library
services would affect their research, noting that many libraries were
having to make big cuts in journal and database subscriptions. One
researcher said “with a diminished library, you have a diminished university. It’s that simple.
Back in the UK, JISC have published a report on the cost of peer review (see report in the Times Higher). Called The Value of UK HEIs’ Contribution to the Publishing Process,
it demonstrates the financial contribution that UK academia makes to
the publishing process through their support for peer review.  UK
academics spend up to 3 million hours a year acting as peer reviewers,
and it values their time at £165 million. The report calculates the
value of editors and editorial boards as up to another £30 million a
year. A number of those quoted in the Times Higher piece make
the link to the increasing cost of journal subscriptions, and question
whether these are justified. Graham Taylor, from the Publishers’
Association, is no pushover though. He is quoted as saying that “The only way for universities to save money is to make people redundant“. I wonder if he has read How to win friends and influence people?

Another report in the Times Higher suggests that librarians “must change the behaviour of academics to stop them craving books as libraries shift their focus to digital resource”.  I
think this may be more of an issue in social sciences and humanities,
though in the past I have struggled to get agreement for cancelling
print resources in favour of online. Some scientists even told me that while they never used the physical library they felt reassured toknow that we held print copies of key journals on the shelves.We now have very few print journals on our shelves and, in common with many similar libraries, are clearing out much of our print journal collection from the main library so we can create more space for study.

The quote above came from a debate about the future of university libraries, hosted by Times Higher Education at the British Library and related to the BL’s Growing Knowledge exhibition. Debating
the motion “Is the physical library a redundant resource for
21st-century academics?” it was suggested that the library as a
physical archive of material was no longer a sustainable model and its
function had to change.  I think that is pretty obvious and undisputed, at least in
biomedical science.  My own Library has been moving in this direction for 15 years  We are going through our third wave of major relocation and disposal and our  primary role is not to be a place for storing print but to provide study space and services. 

One academic in the debate identified Libraries’ service as the key aspect: “Real libraries have librarians. Librarians beat a virtual help desk hands down every time” she said, adding that libraries were also social places where she had been known “not only to eat, but also to have sex and get drunk“.   I have to admit I am a bit behind there; those are not services we routinely offer.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to What are libraries for and are they worth it?

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    Frank, thank you for the summary. And I hope the report is helping libraries at least a little bit in avoiding budget cuts.
    I was listening to Carol Tenopir talk about a different topic a few weeks ago: Beyond Topic: How readers Choose which Article to read

  2. Bronwen Dekker says:

    Thank you for this post – it was sobering to be reminded that the value of referees is so much greater than that of editors. At least we are necessary to help facilitate this process. (I also laughed and laughed at your last paragraph.)
    Martin: Thank you as well for the link to Carol Tenopir’s talk. Very interesting indeed.

  3. Frank Norman says:

     Martin –  Carol is a respected LIS researcher and has published a good deal in scholarly communications and publishing, much of it with Donald King. 
    Bronwen – yes, I was surprised to see that figure for the value of referees. 

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