Tell us: How do you keep up with your discipline?

By John E. Ulmschneider
University Librarian

This week the VCU Libraries sent out a new survey to all faculty throughout VCU.  Yes, I agree with you: Yet another survey!  But this survey is not so much about libraries as it is about your work as a scholar, researcher and teacher.  By answering the survey, you will help all of us learn a great deal about how you and your colleagues keep up with the torrents of information about research and scholarship in your discipline.  In the process, your answers will give our librarians vital information on how we can help you cope with the firehouse of information you have at your fingertips  thanks to the Internet.

The Ithaka Local Faculty Survey is a customized, VCU-specific version of a national survey of faculty that has been conducted five times since 2000.  You can read about the survey. VCU is coordinating its survey with several other research universities in the Southeast so we can compare results and better understand our needs within the larger context of VCU’s peers and regional research institutions.

The survey doesn’t focus specifically on library issues.  Instead, it looks at four major areas related to how faculty do their work:

  • How scholars and investigators discover and access the scholarly materials they need for their research and teaching;
  • Whether and how libraries and library collections are evolving to foster these methods of discovery and access;
  • The ways in which research and teaching practices are changing as new technology offers new opportunities for doing scholarly work
  • How scholars communicate the findings of their research through the entire scope of media available today, from peer-reviewed journals to blogs, tweets and more.

Past surveys have revealed some fascinating trends.  The 2012 survey, for instance, showed that:

  • General purpose search engines, like Google, continue to rise in importance for scholarly work.  In 2002, 20 percent  of faculty reported that they started their search with such a search engine; in 2012, that had climbed to 35 percent.
  • There is a significant growth in the number of scholars who believe that print collections will soon no longer be necessary for most research work.  These faculty remain quite a minority, of course, but it’s a minority that is growing rapidly.  In 2009, only 2 percent of humanist, 5 percent of social scientists, and 4 percent of scientists believed this prediction.  Just four years later those percentages had grown to 9 percent of humanists, 19 percent of social scientists, and 18 percent of scientists.
  • Freely available digital materials are emerging as significant resources for research.  Free materials are second only to library-provided materials in importance, and even more important than a scholar’s personal collection or subscriptions.  And if the library doesn’t have a wanted item, faculty members look first for a freely-available version online before going to interlibrary loan or other sources.
  • When instructors introduce new pedagogies that take advantage of digital technologies, they don’t necessarily turn to support personnel or operations provided by their institution for help.  Instead, they rely primarily on their own ideas for utilizing such technologies, followed by the ideas of close colleagues in the academy.

These are just four of the many intriguing findings from the last national survey.  The findings don’t just bring excellent data to inform wide-ranging discussions about change in research and teaching.  They also point the way to how libraries and others should improve current services and better help faculty find the things they need faster and easier.

We believe that the customized, local version of this survey will provide an understanding of these and related issues that reflects the distinctive nature of our VCU community.  It’s a particularly important and opportune time in our institutional history to conduct this highly-regarded survey of faculty work.  VCU is in the midst of immense change as it matures into a nationally prominent urban research university.  New faculty are coming onboard; new programs are starting across the university; enrollment and enrollment profiles are changing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  The data from the survey will provide an enormously helpful baseline of data by which we can measure many aspects of our development through future surveys.  And most importantly for the VCU Libraries, it will provide us with the data we need to create a roadmap for collections and services development over the next few years.

I hope every faculty member will make time to take this singularly important survey.  I look forward to reporting back VCU’s results to everyone in a future post in The Academy.  I guarantee it will make for fascinating reading!