FALL 2013

Redefining Research Collections in the Digital Age

Have the ways you conduct research changed over the past ten years? Might those changes include the kinds of resources you are using for research? In an effort to gauge the extent to which approaches to identifying and using research resources are changing, a survey of faculty was carried out in September 2012 by ITHAKA Strategies and Research, a service provided by ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization which includes JSTOR, an online archive of scholarly journals and one of the library's most popular resources. It confirmed what many of us perceive is the case: scholars are doing more and more of their research in the electronic medium.

For example, the ITHAKA survey results indicate that the majority of scholars across the disciplines have become very comfortable with relying on e-journals. Though representing a low percentage of all respondents, a rising number of faculty believes that e-books will eventually replace print (9% of respondents in 2009, 16% in 2012). And a significant percentage (over 60%) look for free material on the web, a research strategy that may become more popular as the amount of reliable and authoritative free material on the web continues to increase.

Boston College Libraries' collections have certainly entered the digital age. BC faculty are heavy users of the library's e-journal collection, and the e-book collection of current scholarly monographs, while still quite small compared with the print collection, is growing. But where is all this heading? What will library collections look like in the future? Will research resources eventually all be digital, or will they be a combination of digital and print and other analog formats? These and other questions regarding the role of libraries are being asked and pondered throughout the academic library world. In my following remarks, I will be drawing on articles by several librarians summarizing current thought and practice regarding the future of collections.

It is now generally agreed that libraries can no longer be viewed simply as warehouses of physical research materials. Perhaps that image was never an acceptable representation of a library to begin with. Mark Sandler has written "Libraries are not about books; they were, are, and will be about facilitating communication across time and space" (Sandler, p. 240). This view echoes one I've heard before about the library as the place where one can go to have a conversation with the greatest minds of the past. Traditionally, print books and journals have been the most common forms of scholarly communication, a reality exemplified by the millions of volumes currently on library shelves. They represent the scholarly record of centuries of research. But clearly they are now only part of a larger information landscape which includes significant digital resources such as arXiv.org, Perseus Digital Library, American Memory, Europeana, HathiTrust, Gallica, and Digitale Sammlungen (all of which are freely available on the web!). Given this larger landscape of resources, perhaps the basic question for any research library today is: what is a research collection in the digital age?

In an effort to provide a conceptual framework for thinking about collections, Dan Hazen wrote "... information resources in all forms and formats, whether viewed individually or in broader groupings, can be clumped into four ideal categories that reflect their academic uses as well as their origins: core resources and curricular support, the record of scholarship, primary resources, and data" (Hazen, p. 117). The content of each of these categories varies from discipline to discipline. For example, when considering the various forms of the scholarly record, journals tend to be more important in the sciences than the humanities, while monographs may be considered more important in the humanities than the sciences. Of course, these categories predate the internet and are quite familiar. What is new is the amount of information now readily available thanks to the web, particularly in the last three categories of scholarly record, primary resources, and data. More than ever before, it is clear that no library can collect all the information that is out there. If "collection" is understood to refer to the information resources owned by the library, Hazen suggests that we should now be talking about "collection + content" to refer to everything a library has physical or digital access to, without regard to ownership.

Given the rapid increase in the amount of information being produced in digital and analog formats, libraries need to decide what their approach will be to making it available to faculty and students. More and more, ownership will need to be complemented by the kind of access the library's interlibrary loan or ILL provides because academic discovery tools like Holmes and search engines like Google and Google Scholar enable users to search and find useful material in an ever larger world of data, text, images, and other types of information. Indeed, ILL now makes excellent use of the internet, delivering requested articles and book chapters to a user's e-mail account, often within a day or two. Yet research libraries will also want to continue to acquire and own research material for a variety of reasons, among them to support teaching and research and to develop significant and distinctive subject collections. But it will be impossible to avoid collection gaps, which makes it essential that libraries establish cooperative relationships. According to Sandler, "We are no longer standalone operations that need to do it all; we can focus on doing some things well and rely on others to take care of the rest" (Sandler, p. 242). As a result, each library needs to consider a range of collection scenarios and identify what position to take on what Hazen calls the "continuum of curation": "Looking to the future, research libraries will in some areas continue to build enduring collections of record. In others, they will settle for use-driven holdings while seeking neither comprehensive coverage nor long-term retention" (Hazen, p. 118).

As libraries ponder which collection scenario is the appropriate one for its user community, the librarian's professional commitment to traditional core values like stewardship and trustworthiness will remain an essential element of a library's service mission. The former refers to the traditional responsibility of the librarian to make sure that the scholarly record endures over time and is available to future generations of researchers. The latter, trustworthiness, has become especially important in a time when the circle of available information providers has expanded to include far more than the familiar authoritative sources historically provided by university presses and scholarly societies. Ross Atkinson writes: ". . . the universe of information has become so much more complex, its contents so much more varied with respect to quality or reliability or utility, that the user's need for some kind of intermediate sort, to designate or privilege subsets of materials that are more immediately authoritative and useful, is much greater and more warranted than was ever the case in the traditional environment" (quoted in Horava, p. 145). An important part of the universe that Horava is writing about is the growing body of free web content. Recognizing the value in "designating or privileging" such content as a way of offering a more selective alternative to Google, librarians at Boston College have been identifying sites like the Perseus Digital Library for inclusion in the catalog and/or adding them to Research Guides as in this example of a list of free (and subscribed) websites on nanoscience and nanotechnology.

What is a research collection in the digital age? Given the multiplicity of options that have emerged thanks to the remarkable innovations in information technology, each university and college will need to answer this question in a way that meets its users' needs. In order to keep collections relevant to the needs of the Boston College community, librarians will be monitoring developments in publishing, new trends in scholarship and research methodology, and the growth of freely available digital information. But the most important factor in any successful collection building program is the faculty-librarian relationship. The quality of the library's current collection is in large part the result of faculty input in the past, so please keep your collection requests coming! And for their part, librarians will continue to inform you about what's available to support your teaching and research, and are eager to share what they are learning about this all-too-rapidly changing information environment and its impact on scholarly communication.

Jonas Barciauskas
Head of Collection Development


Hazen, Dan. "Rethinking Research Library Collections: A Policy Framework for Straitened Times and Beyond." Library Resources & Technical Services 54, no. 2 (2010): 115-121. Available.

Horava, Tony. "Challenges and Possibilities for Collection Management in a Digital Age." Library Resources & Technical Services 54, no. 3 (2010): 142-152. Available.

Housewright, Ross, Roger C. Schonfeld, Kate Wulfson, Ithaka S + R. "Ithaka S + R US Faculty Survey 2012." Available.

Sandler, Mark. "Collection Development in the Age [Day] of Google." Library Resources & Technical Services 50, no. 4 (2006): 239-243. Available.