Developments cast a question mark over the traditional concept of a research support library and challenge information professionals to review their role in, and contribution to, knowledge management both within an institution and on a wider front.  Not only is the face of access to resources changing, but the costs of information resources and the cost and value of the services being offered is more closely scrutinised.

Research libraries are operating in a swiftly changing environment.  The continual growth of the range of digital resources sits alongside increasingly demanding financial challenges.  The e-environment has produced rapid changes in the way in which content is provided and accessed.  Purchase and subscription models are quite different from those of the past.  At the same time the identification and location of those resources does not wholly lie in the hands of librarians.

The library sits within an organisation which in turn is responding to imperatives to support world-class research, to constantly pursue research funding, to provide for the expectations of their top researchers and to build capacity of all their researchers.  Many universities are instituting research support facilities for Early Career Researchers, and setting up Graduate Training Centres – places in which information seeking, location, evaluation and management will be taught.  The national framework for the measurement of research excellence (REF) also impacts on libraries.  In some instances libraries have seized the opportunity presented by the REF/RAE to play an integrative role in the assessment framework.  At the same time research is increasingly being conducted collaboratively, internationally, across disciplines and often virtually, sometimes supported by virtual research environments.

This context raises the question about the response of research libraries. Some specific issues concerning libraries at present are: (1,2,3,)

  • The inability to sustain comprehensive collections as budgets decline with a concomitant move to considering a just-in-time rather than a just- in-case approach to acquisition.
  • The need to revise the philosophy and goals of resource acquisition in response to print on-demand and e-access.
  • Uncertainty over the role of the library in managing the development of institutional and inter-institutional data sets and the use of data analysis software.
  • Securing funding for increased digitisation of stock, including archives, sometimes through collaborative projects.
  • The mixed experience of consortia intended to collaborate over acquisition, cataloguing, e-resource management and digital preservation.
  • The significance of commercial search engines in the development of co-operative library management services including search and discovery tools.
  • The recognition of the increasing use of mobile devices to find, browse, and exchange information both formal and informal.
  • The increasing expectation of researchers to have immediate full-text access to journals and other resources.
  • The role of the library in supporting institutional initiatives to train and develop researchers through a career lifecycle including information management and publication.

Indications of libraries’ orientation to these issues can be found, for the USA, in  profile of research libraries undertaken by the Association of Research Libraries (4).  This referred to “transformative times” and noted that approaches to library assessment need an extra dimension to help illustrate the shift in the environment and its effect and to provide pointers to value and impact.

The report reviewed the amount of concern shown by member libraries to emerging, significant themes.  The responses show a move away from the traditional focus on collection building.

The most concern (30%) was shown for management and self-awareness including assessment activities and data collection.  The same level of attention was given to and services and space especially remote storage, shared storage, and building use data.

Also scoring highly, although slightly less than the above, were collaborative activities at 25%.  These included external collaboration encompassing inter-library loan, shared storage, open access journals and e-science, bibliographic enterprises linked to commercial suppliers, government depository schemes and internal partnership including promoting open access, scholarly communications, grant proposals, trans-disciplinary collaboration, leadership in copyright policy.

The topic of collections took third place (15%). The most important element being the creation of digital collections for access and as a preservation technique, e-theses, e-books, and government depositories.  Nationally distinctive collections were also mentioned.

In the UK a survey carried out on behalf of SCONUL (5) in 2010 found that the top three concerns of university librarians were:  funding and financial management, the e-environment, and policy and strategy. The emphasis on funding is substantiated in a report by LISU on trends in RLUK libraries (6) which showed that, from 1998-9 to 2008-9, library expenditure as a % of total of institutional expenditure fell. At the same time there was also an increase in the number of serials titles acquired, especially e–journals, a flattening of expenditure on information resources as a % of total library expenditure, a fall in expenditure on books and a rise of expenditure on journals  as % of expenditure on information resources.

Overall, during this time of rapid developments, attention on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be concentrated on strategy, role, collaboration and service developments during a time when cost and value are under close scrutiny.

Some questions

Fuelled by a response to swiftly changing planning horizons, libraries will need to be more responsive and flexible and develop significant partnerships.   Can this be achieved?

The balance of activity may need to shift to a less solid and reliable base. Will changes in the service offer have longevity?

What will professionalism consist of in a context of collaboration and direct access to information?


  1. Anderson, R.  (2011)  The Crisis in Research Librarianship.  The Journal of Academic Librarianship.  37 (4), 289-290.
  2. ACRL Research Planning and Review Committee.   (2010)  2010 Top Tend Trends in Academic Libraries: A review of the current literature.  Chicago: ALA.
  3. Auckland, M.  (2011)  Reskilling for Research: An Investigation into the Roles and Skills of Subject Liaison Librarians Required to Effectively Support the Evolving Needs of Researchers.  London: RLUK (unpublished).
  4. Potter, W. G. et al.  (2011)  ARL Profiles : Research Libraries 2010. Washington D.C.: ACRL
  5. Priority Research Limited.  (2010)  SCONUL Top Concerns Survey 2010.  London: SCONUL.
  6. White, S. & Creaser, C.  (2010)  SCONUL Library Statistics : Trends 1998-9 to 2008-9.  Loughborough: LISU.