Sunday, 3 June 2018

Report: understanding the academic library sector


Due to the ongoing shifts in pedagogy in higher education, and technological developments both in society, and more directly in information organisations, the academic library sector has been undergoing constant change. The following report provides a discussion around the academic library sector and the challenges facing information professionals that work in academic libraries. This will be achieved by looking at how this type of information organisation has developed through history and the current environment; the types of knowledge managed and the types of users who access resources and services in academic libraries; as well as the types of professional roles including the knowledge, skills and attributes relevant to information professionals working in academic libraries.


A definition

An academic library can be defined as a library that serves the information needs of a parent institution through supporting the teaching and research needs of students, staff and researchers (Badaru, 2012, p. 1). Academic libraries are, therefore, essential to the mission of the university and are often cited as the “heart of the university” (Stemmer & Mahan, 2016, p. 359). It is the mission of the academic library to ‘support the teaching, learning and (where appropriate) research activities of their parent institution’ (Horn et al, 2009, p. 243). For example, this can be seen when looking at University of Queensland Library’s mission statement, which states,
The Library is integral to learning, discovery and engagement at The University of Queensland. We provide access to high quality scholarly information resources, client focused services, and physical and online spaces that support teaching and research at the University. (UQ, 2018).

A short history of academic libraries and academic librarianship

The history of academic libraries is intimately related to the history of universities, which by extension has been 'a reflection of the development of higher education throughout the world' (Shiflett, 2015, p. 5). Whilst there were Indian and Islamic centres of learning throughout pre-medieval times, the modern form of the university started to emerge from medieval Europe in the 12th century, and with it the early beginnings of academic libraries (Shiflett, 2015, p. 8). At first, librarians were not needed because students generally rented their books from bookshops, which were mostly transcriptions of lectures (Budd, 2012, p. 16). With the advent of printing, and the expansion of the curriculum due to rising levels of literacy and interest in scholarship, more books became available than could be included in the curriculum, ‘so the library became more important as the source of supplementary reading and individual study’ (Budd, 2012, p. 17).
As universities shifted from a concentration on classical education for religious improvement, to a more secular elective system with new choices in science and technical subjects, a modern view emerged that ‘any subject was appropriate for study in a university’ (Shiflett, 2015, p. 10). With the diversification of subject offerings academic libraries were in greater demand, which required full-time staff to care for the collections. This was before the advent of a formal education for librarianship, so these early academic librarians ‘learned the techniques of their profession by trial and error’ and ‘by an informal system of apprenticeship’ (Shiflett, 2015, p.11).
In the United States, early formal librarianship training was modelled on Dewey’s model of librarianship, which was more suited to the schools and programs of library training for the promotion of public libraries, so wasn’t appropriate as an education program to support the needs of the emerging profession (Shiflett, 2015, p.11). These early academic librarians also faced a status problem due to the perception that they were hired simply to manage the masses of books and not for any ‘inherent recognition of librarianship as a scholarly activity in and of itself’ (Shiflett, 2015, p. 13). Over time, the profession started to become recognised as an integral part of the educational process and the role has
evolved with the needs of the institutions and with the evolution of librarianship as a distinct occupation with a set of professional ideals, objectives, and commitments within the academic community (Shiflett, 2015, p. 5).

Collections and collection development

Whilst academic libraries were initially concerned with books and journals, due to changes in technology, the very nature of collections in academic libraries has under gone considerable change, which has affected the types of media, formats and technologies of communication (Budd, 2012, p. 199). Today, most academic libraries are “hybrid libraries,” providing access to both print and electronic resources. This is because not all resources are available electronically and not all users are able to access information online (Spiro and Henry, 2010, p.9). This mix of media, formats and technology can be seen by looking at the collection development policies of academic libraries.
A collection development policy or statement is the foundation for collection development as it provides a building block for good selection (Johnson, 2005, p. 109). For example, the QUT Library Collection Development Manual outlines
the current principles and practices that inform the selection, maintenance, access, assessment or return on investment, and deselection of information resources (electronic and print) across all branch libraries and made available via the QUT Library website (QUT Library, 2015a).

Users and information-seeking behaviour

According to Johnson (2005, p. 108), ‘all selection decisions begin with consideration of the user community and the long-term mission, goals, and priorities of the library and its parent body.’ Taking QUT as an example, the collection development manual clearly states who the users are in its policy statement on clients:
The Library’s collections (print and electronic) are intended to meet the information needs of primary clients. The primary clients of QUT Library are QUT staff and students (QUT Library, 2015b).
In this regard, the primary clients include undergraduate students, postgraduate coursework students, research students, staff (including professional and academic), and other persons affiliated with the institution (QUT Library, 2015b).
University students as a user group are generally split between undergraduate and postgraduate researchers, with each having its own particular user needs when it comes to searching for information. As a whole, university students search for information in highly complex environments, are required to navigate multiple information systems, as well as use a large range of information sources (Willson and Given, 2014). There is also a difference in the information needs between undergraduate and postgraduate students. Postgraduate students have an interest in their own research, so are expected to know their discipline and be better able to engage in the research process; as opposed to undergraduates who generally have their information needs imposed on them by their instructors, so have not selected the topic and may know little of the discipline (Willson and Given, 2014).
Undergraduates also struggle with the complexity of search tools in the library and their distinctive uses. The information-seeking behaviour of today’s university students is strongly influenced by online search engines, for example, Google (Mi and Weng, 2008). A survey conducted by OCLC in 2010, revealed that 83% of college students (across all regions in the study) begin their search for information with online search engines (OCLC, 2010).

Organisation and roles

Academic libraries are generally organised along hierarchical lines with a University Librarian (or Director) responsible for strategic leadership and management. Traditionally, the organisation was split between client services and technical services, but with the dramatic changes as a result of developments in technology, also include added functions, such as collection management, systems, personnel, finance, etc (Budd, 2012, p. 107).
In recent times, driven by the impact of digital technologies and changes in the research environment, the role of the academic librarian has gone through signification change. For example, at Griffith University,
the academic librarian role has been slowly redefined over the last decade primarily due to the exponential growth and impact of technologies and to Griffith’s changing strategic directions and business priorities (Toohey, 2016, p. 1).
So that the library remained relevant to the changing needs of the academic community, the role of discipline librarian was created. However, whereas previous roles required skills around collection management, reference services and information literacy, the new role demanded a different set of skills such as, consultancy, partnering, data management, advocacy around scholarly communications including open access and open data, and research support (Toohey, 2016, p. 1). With researchers under constant pressure to share their work, scholarly communication has become a core function of research support, which has required a knowledge of advocacy and outreach techniques, and an understanding of issues such as publishing business models and altmetrics (Sewell & Kingsley, 2016).

Professional development and reflective practice

In order to survive in such a dynamic environment, it is essential for academic librarians to demonstrate ‘flexibility and nimbleness…to stay abreast of [these] developments, and an awareness of skills gaps is essential’ (Rubinowski, Adams, & Pilz, 2016, p. 3). The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) is ‘the national professional organisation for the Australian library and information services sector’ (ALIA, 2018a). As a professional organisation, ALIA promotes excellence in the LIS sector by supporting members with ongoing learning and professional development through the ALIA PD scheme (ALIA, 2018b). Related to continuing professional development (CPD), and integral to the ALIA PD scheme, is reflective practice – it’s through reflection that librarians can identify and acknowledge any skill gaps so that they can ‘deliver an effective and accountable service, which is responsive to complexity (ALIA, 2013; Rubinowski et al, 2016, p. 3).
To guide professional practice and the skills required of information professionals, ALIA, in collaboration with two other professional bodies, collaborated on the development of the Foundation Knowledge, Skills and Attributes relevant to Information Professionals working in Archives, Libraries and Record Management (ALIA, 2015). These are broken down into the following areas with further granular description under each heading:
·      Knowledge of the broad context of the information environment
·      The purposes and characteristics of information architecture, organisation and access
·      Processes and practices, relating to information management
·      Information sources, services and products
·      General employability skills
Whilst the role of academic librarian requires a broad range of skills, the areas of competency most likely to be applied by this type of information professional include (ALIA 2015):
·      Understand information administration, migration, retrieval, restructuring, manipulation and presentation
·      Identify user requirements and the processes that will meet them, including designing, implementing and evaluating systems and tools, introducing enabling technologies, developing and applying metadata
·      Enable information access and use through systematic and user-centred description, categorisation, digitisation, storage, preservation and retrieval
·      Provide user services, reference and outreach programs to support accessibility in multiple environments
·      Facilitate the acquisition, licensing or creation of information in a range of media and formats
·      Use research skills to provide appropriate information to users
In addition, generic skills and attributes should include, project management, critical, reflective, and creative thinking, problem-solving, business analysis and audit, information and statistical analysis, manipulation and dissemination, marketing, and partnership and alliance-building (ALIA 2015).


This report has provided an overview of academic libraries and the role of the academic librarian in this sector. Whilst academic libraries have gone through dramatic change due to changes in technology, they must continue to perform their traditional roles of organising, cataloguing and storing information for their users, while at the same time adapt to the demands of new service areas such as supporting research and data management. To remain relevant to their users and the academic community at large, academic librarians will need to continuously reflect on their practice and be open to constantly upgrading and learning new skills. It is also likely that as academic libraries seek ways to collaborate and partner with faculty in the research process, new staff may be hired without a traditional LIS education, but who bring new skills and perspectives into the organisation.


ALIA (2013) Reflective practice and writing: a guide to getting started. Retrieved from
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Spiro, L. and Henry, G. (2010). Can a New Research Library Be All-Digital? In The Idea of Order: Transforming Research Collections for 21st Century Scholarship, CLIR Publication, 147, 5-80. Retrieved from
Stemmer, J. K., & Mahan, D. M. (2016). Investigating the relationship of library usage to student outcomes. College & Research Libraries, 77(3), 359-375. Retrieved from
Toohey, J. and Poulton, K. (2016) New directions and changing perceptions: academic librarians as collaborators, mentors and influencers. ALIA National Conference 2016. Retrieved from:
UQ (2018) Mission. Retrieved from
Willson, R. & Given, L. M. (2014) Student search behaviour in an online public access catalogue: an examination of ‘searching mental models’ and ‘searcher self-concept’. Information Research, 19(3). Retrieved from

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