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How Today’s University Libraries Can Show Their Value

by | Mar 6, 2024 | 0 comments


As the new year begins, new offerings such as personal librarians or eSports make libraries much more than buildings full of books. 

By Vincent Vessalo, Senior Director & National Sales Manager – Global Academic, Gale

Calgary, Alberta – December 15, 2018: Interior of Calgary’s new Central Branch of the Calgary Public Library. The library opened in November 2018 and was designed by Snøhetta which is a renowned international firm based in Olso Norway and New York.

In the past, universities often viewed libraries as repositories for print materials, as well as cost centers with an unclear ROI. As students return to campus for the new year, today’s libraries are expanding and updating to meet the needs of students and instructors. Not only are libraries repurposing the physical space formerly used for some print materials, but they’re also rebranding themselves as centers for digital resources and for teaching, learning, and research support. Here are four ways that today’s evolving libraries can show their academic and financial value to the university at large. 

  1. Align library investments with the strategic imperatives of the university.

To maintain the funding they need, libraries should align their spending with the goals of the university. For example, I collaborated with Florida International University (FIU) on a grant proposal aligned with their Next Horizon 2025 Strategic Plan. One of the key goals was aligning resources, and our grant targeted areas of research and focus, built alignments to curriculum and courses and faculty, and charted the ROI value driven from strong levels of cross-curricularity of the content. 

The alignment doesn’t have to come in the form of reading materials. Miami University of Ohio put an eSports gaming arena in their library. Not only does this bring more students into the library who come watch people play video games, it also aligns with the university’s overall values and strategic approach. The university has invested in gaming through its Varsity eSports team, which includes scholarships for participants, and gaming clubs and lounges to enhance student life on campus. 

Of course, not every university can support a full eSports arena in the library. However, libraries can support gaming development and design, like the University of Utah, or offer 3D design and printing labs. There are many ways libraries can get on board with what their universities are doing, and aligning with those key objectives can go a long way toward showing the library’s relevance to the educational and research mission of the university.

  1. Connect with instruction.

Reinvigorating the library’s reputation has to include access outcomes for both undergraduate and graduate needs. Supporting graduate research, teaching, and instruction; and providing support for nontraditional students, can increase use of library resources over time. 

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), for example, recently undertook a broad-based initiative to review content holdings in targeted areas to uncover areas in which they had advantages and gaps in holdings as compared to competitive peer institutions. Gale’s Academic Engagement & Outreach team supported this assessment project by producing a comprehensive report that provided a detailed interpretation of VCU’s needs, which helped alleviate the assessment workload on their staff. To better support instruction, the report detailed where conversion to digital forms would vastly improve the application and usability of the content.

More and more, libraries are moving toward taking a greater role in instruction. This move might include putting teaching and learning centers directly into repurposed library spaces. These centers could be anything from a digital humanities center to a flexible learning space with furniture in pods where students can come to interact with one another and collaborate on research projects. 

  1. Foster partnerships.

Libraries face constant threats from trends toward open resources and now, generative AI tools as well. As a result, they are seeking predictable, consistent funding sources and models that help in curating quality collections beyond open web content. Collaborations between libraries and vendors will remain important as libraries navigate an uncertain future. Partnerships help libraries differentiate themselves, improve effectiveness, and maximize their budget.

Partners can also help create LibGuides, particularly at a time when libraries are short on time and staff to build them on their own. In some cases, the LibGuides are designed for a specific course; in others, they are intended to cover broader areas, such as diversity. By further leveraging LibGuides, libraries can help students feel less overwhelmed by the number of resources, increase students’ awareness of resources relevant to their interests, and build a stronger relationship with students and faculty.

A well-chosen partner can also:

  • Help libraries align collections to school and university priorities, supporting the shift to digital and providing resources for digital humanities and other graduate resources;
  • Serve as a conduit to market the library’s resources to faculty;
  • Offer grants and fellowships to faculty and students that support using library resources to build awareness and understanding of their value; and
  • Support donor development. Donors sometimes want to give to develop collections tied to their interests, which can help make a library unique.
  1. Maintain relationships with students and instructors.

Libraries and librarians are key to guiding both students and faculty to the resources they need, allowing them to more effectively pursue specific avenues of learning. But first they must make people feel at home in the library.

Yale University, for instance, does this through a personal librarian program. The goal is to reach a certain percentage of first-year students, so librarians are required to teach an informational literacy course. Unfortunately, after the first year or once they declare a major, the library is no longer part of students’ academic life unless faculty members are actively telling them to go back and use specific resources. Library outreach, including ongoing liaison programs, is critical to success beyond first-year student courses. 

For professors like Kristin S. Slack, teaching a new course often begins with examining the peer-reviewed content that might prove helpful in developing and teaching that new course. Librarians can be an essential part of this process by carefully curating academically sound resources and aiding in the process of winnowing those materials.

In addition to sifting through available resources, librarians can provide data-mining tools that help researchers and scholars find the content they need and even achieve new insights into the content they already have available. For example, Dr. Adam Kozaczka, assistant professor of English at Texas A&M International University, examined a subset of trials and legal issues involving dueling during the 18th century using data analysis tools with digital archives of 18th century print titles. He noted: “The much wider reach of my content set meant that I could immediately see the disparity between the two sides [of the dueling issue] that has remained unacknowledged in scholarship until today.” These insights have helped him in developing his law and literature monograph. Dr. Jared Richman, associate professor of English at Colorado College, said that the use of digital humanities tools has been a “boon” to his work: Voicing Disability in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture. He explained that, “What has been so fascinating for me is tracking the appearance and use of particular terms related to my research project over the [18th] century.” Both professors plan to use these tools with their students as a way to increase engagement among a new generation of learners while teaching them critical skills for the future.

In the new year—and in this quickly evolving digital age—: the value of academic libraries must be defined not only by the strength of their holdings, but by the ways in which their programs and services create a diverse educational environment that positively impacts teaching and learning. 

Vincent Vessalo

Vincent Vessalo is Senior Director & National Sales Manager – Global Academic, Gale, a part of the Cengage Group. He can be reached via LinkedIn


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