Collection size and intensity has long been accepted by Librarians as an indicator of significance and value.  This concept may be called into question as changes in the institutional, economic and political environment appear to threaten its validity and sustainability. 

National comparative statistics have, until very recently, concentrated on the size and composition of the information resource base, its cost and, broadly speaking, the amount of use that it gives rise to. Slowly, the nature of that use is receiving more attention in the statistics. Although there is some evidence in the literature of attempts to link use with value, this remains an under-developed area in the assessment of effective resource application. The key issue for research support libraries is whether size and expenditure are causal indicators of value to research. A recent study of the cost and use of selected research libraries (1) found existing data to be inadequate in terms of staff activity descriptions, data and outcomes.

For the purposes of this exercise the following table illustrates some underpinning elements for consideration(2). It is based on the assumption that research support libraries should have institutional standing and that professional staff have a significant part to play in helping researchers to realise the benefits of knowledge stores both local and external.


The traditional view is that professional librarians are often scholars or subject specialists who are experts in sourcing material in a range of formats.  They have striven to develop unique collections of coherent identity.  This provides, funding allowing, a strong incentive to build up the size of the collections.

The following table is a statistical snapshot of the information resources of some significant research support libraries(2).


The associated activities of acquisition, “labelling”, storage, enabling appropriate access, development and maintenance are seen by some administrators and researchers as the core functions and purpose of a research support library.  A recent study (1) has shown that in major research libraries the purchase and maintenance of material takes up, on average,  60% of FECs (of which cataloguing is the most costly) whereas user support costs an average of 29%. It is interesting to note, in this context, that non-RLUK libraries have retained largely static staff numbers since 1999, those in large academic research libraries have increased. (3)

The purpose of the research support library, its collections and services, as seen by librarians, is to play a significant role in supporting and furthering the academic endeavour of the University and contributing to its reputation.  It also contributes to academic quality within the wider academic community and is able to attract funding to acquire, develop and promote important material that will underpin significant trans-institutional research.

The literature claims that although Librarians may take pride in developing “a unique collection or critical mass of rare material” (1) and use these assets to badge their credentials as national research libraries,  many senior institutional managers see the Library as an expensive storehouse of little used material and the librarians as gatekeepers.

Key questions

Does there need to be a shift in the nature of the Library’s role and recognition of its contribution in order to maintain a meaningful role in the institutions future success?

To what extent do collection (real and virtual) boundaries separate research libraries?  This question requires consideration of just-in-time collection building as well as collaborative acquisition and access ventures.  Behind this lies the issue of appropriate and sustainable funding mechanisms both nationally and locally.

Libraries are in competition with other providers who work to a different business model.  They do not have fixed overheads and are highly accessible.  In this more flexible and demand-led environment does the concept of collections need re-scoping.

What are the risks of not adapting quickly enough?

1. CHEMS Consulting. July 2010. TRAC-based review of the National Research Libraries.  A report for HEFCE. (Unpublished).

2. SCONUL.  (2011)  Annual Library Statistics.  London: SCONUL.

3.  [2010]. Trends in the finances of higher education libraries:1999-2099, p22.