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Academic Libraries Save Researchers Time and Money

Dec 01, 2010

A staff member in my library recently received an enormous compliment from a graduate student in environmental engineering. Paraphrased, it read something like, “I can’t imagine how a preeminent research university could possibly exist without a reference desk.”

To me, this meant one thing: This student clearly understood the value of the library in his research and learning. But why? What had we done for him that he valued us so? And how can we communicate this value to others?

What Emily Fidelman, our branch supervisor, had done, was twofold: 1) She had spent time combing through freely available data sets provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, and she had found what the student had not during many hours of searching, and 2) She had determined that a technical standard needed by this student’s research team was not owned by the library, and she had offered to have us review it for purchase.

No wonder the student was elated. Not only was the librarian willing to spend time, she was willing to have the libraries consider purchasing a new resource in support of his research. This student received help, valuable help, and it came in two manifestations of value: time, and money.

I want instructors and students to understand that libraries act as their personal liaison to the complicated, expensive and ever-changing world of information.

Time manifests our value

Time is an incredibly valuable commodity in our society, simply because demand outstrips supply. And the instructors and students in our nation’s colleges and universities lack it as much as anyone. For the betterment of the human condition they labor, and ample support systems must be in place for them to succeed. Libraries are one of these systems, and one thing libraries do in support of them is save them time. Services like that provided by Emily for this student increase the time available to library users, and the value clearly communicates itself. The support system — comprising libraries and librarians — enables the academic community to succeed.

Time is an incredibly valuable commodity in our society, simply because demand outstrips supply.

Money manifests our value

The standard needed by this student was not terribly expensive, nor was it terribly difficult to locate. But it was valuable. It was valuable because the information contained in it was part of the support system necessary for the student to succeed, and our libraries were willing to provide this value.

In today’s information universe, this aspect of the value of libraries is often poorly understood by even the most sophisticated researchers. Search engines and publishers’ websites often deliver valuable information to instructors and students in ways that obscure the library’s role in providing such value. But when something is not owned by the library, and the library agrees to purchase it, that value is apparent. In this case, the value — the money — provided by the library was obvious.

Here's how I communicate our value

When I teach, provide reference or just have informal conversations with students and faculty, I try to communicate the value of the library in these two ways: time and money. I explain that the services we provide save them time. “We’ll do that part for and with you,” is the message. And I explain that libraries purchase, on their behalf, information that could not possibly be afforded by most individuals or departments. “We save you money,” is the message, “and sometimes you don’t even realize it.”

I want instructors and students to understand that libraries act as their personal liaison to the complicated, expensive and ever-changing world of information. And when they grasp that, they see the value of the library: It saves them time and money. As long as academic libraries do this, they will not only provide value, they will be valued.

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