Research Consortiums: What Can Academic Libraries Do Today?

A recent report from the Association of Research Libraries (pdf) offers four scenarios for predicting the research needs that faculty, students, and other researchers will have in the year 2030, and offers strategic objectives for academic research libraries who will need to build capacity and collections to meet those needs. One of those objectives involves building capacity through consortiums and other cooperative efforts between research libraries:

"Collaborative capacities serving groups of research libraries or the full community of research libraries allows for increasing opportunities to develop a strategy for maintaining and sharing open and rich general collections. Opportunities for cross-pollinating research activities and the potential for shared endeavors are also viable strategies."
From The ARL 2030 Scenarios: A User's Guide to Research Libraries

Paul Gandel, professor of information studies at Syracuse University and a thought leader on this issue, points out that research libraries are caught in a Catch-22, in two ways. First, academic libraries need to share resources in order to build capacity, but that sharing has competitive implications. "Most universities have invested in their collections as a competitive advantage," Gandel notes. "To open up those resources to everyone has political implications, because the institution has made a significant investment in them."

Second, libraries are having to take action in the absence of clear policy at either the national or institutional level; individual libraries and groups of libraries have been faced with the need to come up with solutions without the guidance of a collective strategy for which resources to share, why to share them, how to share them, and whom to share them with. "We need a policy that recognizes previous investments," Gandel remarks, "and clarifies where it makes sense to have institutions compete and where it does or doesn't make sense to have them share research and resources. Building research consortia is not just about technology but about determining what policies will govern access to information. What resources and collections does it make sense to share? Where can sharing build and add to strengths of the institution or of society in general? What resources represent unique competitive advantages to the institution and make no sense to share (unless of course gains in other areas outweigh the disadvantages of sharing)?"

Library leaders will need to actively solicit the views of their institution's president and provost, and seek at least policy guidelines on the institutional level. This in turn will require that library and university leaders build a common understanding of what library resources and services provide real value towards achieving institutional goals. Such an understanding would go a long way in helping libraries identify their strategic direction and their best partnership opportunities.

There are several proactive steps library leaders can take today in the absence of clear policy. Gandel suggests that it's critical for library leaders to first establish a specific vision of how their library will add value to their institution's research endeavor and then use that vision as a compass for guiding investments both in building collection capacity in house and establishing strategic partnerships with other research entities to further boost capacity.

Clarifying Where the Library Adds Value

First, academic libraries need to establish a clear sense of the key strategic research and learning objectives of the institutions they serve.

"Given the constraints on our resources, libraries can no longer be all things to all people in their community. They, like the institutions they serve, must concentrate on key areas. Library leaders need to engage provosts in dialogue about the institution's strategic objectives and the needs the institution has around research capacity."
Paul Gandel, Syracuse University

Then, identify the specific skills and domain expertise the library needs in order to support or add value to advancing the institution's strategic directions or initiatives. For example, if securing more research grants in two or three key disciplines is an institutional priority, determine how your information professionals and their skill sets can best be brought to bear on those efforts.

For example, before arriving at Syracuse, Gandel piloted a project at The University of Rhode Island, where he selected a staff member with an MLS degree and a background in pharmacy, and then assigned her to the College of Pharmacy to work closely with the college's faculty research teams. The pilot led to a boost in grants and the establishment of a full-time position fully funded by the College of Pharmacy.

Building Your Expertise and Capacity In House

Once you have a clear vision for where you see the library supporting and collaborating in the institution's high-priority research efforts, you can identify not only the resources needed in terms of technology and collections, but also the specific staff competencies you'll need to develop, either in house or through strategic partnerships with other libraries.

"It's clear from all four ARL scenarios that there are real opportunities for academic libraries to become more active participants in e-scholarship, to aid researchers in data analysis and research design. We need to build expertise within the library, develop this kind of information professional."
Paul Gandel, Syracuse University

To be active players in the research endeavor both on and off campus, academic libraries will need to hire for and develop the right competencies in their staff. "Libraries need to do this now," Gandel suggests, "even if you don't have the big questions answered. As you pilot and find out what's possible, you need to begin building the capacity in your personnel that will allow you to step through the doors that open."

Gandel recommends four steps:

  • Assess the current collection strengths and expertise within your organization
  • Assess what capacity and expertise you may need in two years, if you pursue participating in collaborative research and resource-sharing efforts
  • Look at what competencies you need to hire for
  • Look at opportunities to reduce costs by sharing expertise (not just collections) across libraries, to better handle the demands on your resources

Here's an example of rethinking core competencies. Syracuse University's iSchool is creating a program to educate and train the new breed of information professionals. The program will prepare new information professionals to excel in the three "I"s -- information, infrastructure, and improvisation. While remaining true to the core values of information access, students in this program will develop:

  • A deeper understanding of the teaching, learning, and research processes
  • Database and information system design skills
  • Research skills (data elicitation, data analysis, writing)
  • Domain knowledge in a specific teaching, learning, and research area
  • Content management skills to create new ways of organizing large stores of information
  • Communication and facilitation skills
  • Conceptual understanding of new computer and network system architectures
  • Skills to effectively take advantage of emerging collaboration tools

Communication and facilitation skills, for example, would be critically important in managing the flow of information across research teams, some of which would include researchers located across the globe.

Finding Your Strategic Partners

Developing a "critical mass" of either resources or expertise to fulfill your library's vision can prove costly; as you seek to secure resources in house, you will need to re-assess acquisitions and hiring plans. When seeking to establish partnerships or consortia to increase capacity, Gandel recommends proceeding with very clear objectives. For instance:

  • Do you have a key, high-priority area where your institution and your library has already developed critical expertise, but where you can build more "critical mass" through key partners?
  • Does it make sense to look for strategic partners who can provide human and other resources that may be of less strategic importance but could free up your own staff and resources for higher-priority efforts?

In other words, do you want to increase capacity where the institution sees the greatest gain in research funding, or do you want to fill gaps? For example, you might build a partnership with other research institutions (outside your region, if the local universities are your competitors in that field, or within your region, if your competitors are large research institutions in other states) to share expertise or resources around a specific discipline or area of study. Perhaps you are pooling researchers for extensive data analysis efforts in particle physics.

Or perhaps you are trying to bolster your graduate studies and you want to allocate both your funding for acquisitions and your expertise toward your professional and graduate schools. In this case, an opportunity that would allow you to reallocate your in-house resources toward that strategic objective may be partnering with libraries at local liberal arts colleges or community colleges who can help boost your collections for undergraduates. Their libraries may also be in a position to provide experts on information literacy and support for improving teaching and learning in your undergraduate programs. In return, you can support their faculty in their research, because you will be developing information professionals who have disciplinary or domain expertise.

In either case, let the search for external resources be driven by your strategic objectives. If you have a clear vision for how the library will support the institution's larger research endeavor, then rather than just investing in a large consortium, you may be able to invest in multiple small but strategic partnerships to achieve different objectives within your overall strategy.