If Libraries had shareholders

In my day job as the Director of the Digital Library Federation, I represent a small number of very large research libraries. Given my constituency, I’ve often wondered what the real impact of networked electronic information resources is on the core traditional business of libraries – lending books – but I’ve never run across any statistics on this. I have wondered in other blogs (see: “Lost Cathedrals: Libraries and Steel“) whether libraries might (to put it crassly) turn into acquisition agencies for licensed content, with small cafes on their ground floors or basements, existing in the physical realm primarily to serve as community centers for students. My conversations with university librarians (the library directors) have recurrently seemed paradoxically positive; I still hear comments like: “We think the Internet is probably increasing traffic, because people see information online, and then they come into the library and utilize our resources.” They then go on to discuss the steady increase in numbers they see in “gate counts” as more and more people come into the library.

And then yesterday my friend Jerry McDonough of the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science forwarded me a talk that he gave recently at the British Library called, “We Are Not Alone: The Role of the Research Library in a Suddenly Crowded Information Universe.” It contained some slides that made my eyes open very wide. His explanation of the slides is better than I could provide, so I’ve replicated the analyses on my own, uploaded them below, and with his permission, interleaved his narrative.

These statistics come from a larger collection of research libraries – the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) – than my own organization represents, many of whom are smaller; typically DLF institutions are more idiosyncratic in their profiles. The statistics that Jerry and I generated use median figures across all ARL member institutions for which data exist on the variables utilized (year endpoint = 2003). ARL and the University of Virginia have built a simple web interface to the main ARL statistics, so anyone can replicate or play with other analyses to the extent the data permit.

Over to Jerry –

This slide [below] shows the median ratio of reference queries to full-time students for all ARL libraries from 1995 through 2003. As you can see, right about 1997 (which would be about the time the Internet started seeing real wide-scale uptake in the U.S.), the number of reference questions we’re getting relevant to our student body plummets like a rock. And in case you’re wondering, no, this is not the result of a sudden vast increase in the number of full-time students enrolled in U.S. universities. Libraries simply aren’t getting anything like the number of reference queries they did ten years ago.

Reference Queries / Fulltime Students

This slide [below] shows the median ratio of total circulation to full-time students. As you can see, it’s the exact same story, although the decrease gets going a bit earlier. We simply aren’t checking out anywhere near the number of books that we used to. Some of that can certainly be accounted for by the use of electronic materials that don’t count in ARL libraries circulation figures. But notice that this decrease is already well underway by 1995, when electronic journals did not have anything like the degree of penetration into library collections that they have today.

Total Circulation / Fulltime Students

Jerry provides this closing analysis:

Undergraduates entering universities in the United States use the library as a study space, a socializing space, but to a shocking and frightening extent, they do not use library services or library materials. […] We’re losing clientele; students may come in the library to study, to socialize, to hit the newly installed cafe designed to lure them in, but they’re not using library materials, or library services, at anything like the rate they did even ten years ago.

There are a variety of potential explanations I could put forward for this, but these would be guesses. However, while noting that correlation need not imply causality, this drop does coincide with the growth in Internet use in the U.S., and whether it has anything to do with the Internet or not, it shows a dramatic and negative change in our relationship with our patrons. We obviously do not occupy the same place in their scholarly or social world that we used to, and given University administrator’s likely reaction to looking at graphs like these next to our escalating materials budgets, I think we need to spend some time figuring out why that is. We cannot afford to end up on our own in the universe of scholarly information.

I would be half-prone to thinking that these graphs had some peculiar resonance that should obviate or blunt their obvious interpretation. But last night, I chanced to read a not-yet-released document on another topic, and it held a chart that had me dancing back to these ARL graphs. The graph reproduced below is derived from publicly available data and it reflects the total number of physical visits to Library of Congress reading rooms. Lo and behold, over almost exactly the same period, we can see nearly the identical slope — in recent years, monotonically heading downwards.

These are fascinating results. They do not reflect on the total value of libraries, and they surely do not pass judgment on the highly skilled information specialists that staff them. They do suggest that something momentous has changed in the fundamental environment that libraries operate within. And one has to think: if libraries had shareholders, would they, like newspapers, be in the midst of a gut-wrenching, brake-screeching exercise in redefinition?