Posted by: mhdiaz | March 21, 2011

The Library Value Paradox – When Accelerating Investment in Digital Resources Delivers Less Perceived Value

This guest post is the fourth in a new six-part series from Jane Burke,  Discovery and the User Experience, which focuses on the latest developments in discovery and their potential to impact academic library user communities.   

Posts will continue weekly through the end of March.  I hope that you will enjoy the series and look forward to your comments.  Mike


I love the Scholarly Kitchen blog.  The issues that are raised there are very timely.  Last week Kent Andersen posted an entry titled Why Does Availability Seem to Drive Down the Quality of Information Goods?  It generated lots of comments and caused me to think about how it applies to libraries.

Libraries, especially academic libraries, are investing more than half of their materials budgets in electronic content.  I always ask libraries about these expenditures, and the answer is always at least 50%, frequently more.   The collection is truly digital now.

Yet, as we noted several weeks ago, the library’s brand is still “books”.  Our users simply do not perceive the richness of our electronic collections, nor does adding more databases improve our image.  It is not that users do not understand the availability of electronic information in general.  They obviously do, but they do not associate the library with electronic information.   And the more electronic information sources we add, the less credit we seem to get as the authoritative provider.

Another perception facet is the faculty and administration.  In an academic library or a special library, the perception of the library as the place for print is actually dangerous.  The perceived relevance of the library is a direct factor in library funding.  As administrators face tough budget choices, the library cannot afford to be the “book place”.   

Two research studies highlight that faculty (and hence administration)perception of the library is not increasing as it adds electronic resources.  In fact, both show the opposite.  As the amount of the library’s budget spent on electronic resources has increased, the perception of the library as the definitive information gateway has decreased.

In August, 2008, Ithaka published its survey of key stakeholders.  This is a longitudinal survey, which measured these perceptions in 2000, 2003 and 2006, the interval when the library went from predominately print to digital.  The study concluded that, in contrast to the role of the library as the purchaser of information and as the archiver of information, which have remained stable, “the importance of the role of the library as a gateway for locating information, however, varies more widely and has fallen over time.”

Carol Tenopir’s recent research also shows a gap between library expenditures on digital content and perceived value by faculty.  She has worked to correlate faculty grant proposals and library resources to determine the institution’s Return on Investment (ROI) from library expenditures.   Faculty highly value the electronic resources themselves, especially the citations, in gaining grants.  However, they are ambivalent about the library’s value in that process.

What has emerged is a Value Gap.  Even as the library spends more on electronic resources, the perception of the importance of the library as an information gateway has declined.









These results are more evidence that neither users nor the persons who determine library funding perceive our efforts to deliver our larger and larger electronic library collections as successful.   In the days of print collections, maybe more was better.   The books were all housed in one place, and users had to come to them.  A bigger “book place” was perceived as better than a smaller one.  The role of the library as purchaser and the role of the library as information gateway were tightly related.

That is no longer the case.  We must realize that providing access to the digital library – and showcasing the value of that digital library – requires a dramatically different approach.   The digital library requires a digital front door. 

Next week we’ll (finally) start to look at options for that new front door to the library’s resources.


Next week, Jane’s topic will be Understanding Your Discovery Options.


%d bloggers like this: