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It’s National Library Week. So, when was the last time you wandered through the stacks looking for information on something you’re interested in? A new Ithaka S+R survey (sponsored in part by JSTOR) of U.S. college and university faculty finds that growing digital resources are changing how academics do their research. Use of library websites and online catalogs has jumped since 2009. Ithaka suggests this may be the result of increased library investments in discovery tools that can help researchers comb through academic journals.

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In a 2012 paper focusing specifically on research by historians and history teachers, Dominique Daniel noted that librarians began reacting to fears that electronic research tools would make them obsolete way back in the 1990s. They shifted their role, putting more time and effort into helping students and faculty learn to use electronic tools and resources. Students often had trouble using the available research tools to identify relevant information on a topic. “Overall, students were frustrated by the lack of guidance on the part of instructors or other academics,” Daniel wrote. “Their reaction indicates that instruction does not seem to cover their research training needs adequately.”

Faculty may now be waking up to this need, and to the “library anxiety” many students feel. Among the Ithaka survey respondents, 54 percent strongly agreed that their undergraduate students have “poor skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information,” up from 47 percent in 2012. Two thirds strongly agreed that improving students’ “research skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information” is an important goal for their courses. About half of the faculty members said that their college or university’s librarians helped students strengthen their research skills, significantly more than responded that way in 2012.

With all the focus on digital search tools, is there a future for big buildings filled with books and journals? Respondents to the Ithaka survey overwhelmingly said there is. While almost three quarters of them said they’d be fine with having only electronic access to new scholarly journals, only 18 percent thought e-books would replace the need for library hard copies within the next five years. The survey also asked whether, given the wealth of electronic material available, colleges and universities should redirect money away from library buildings and staff. More than 80 percent said no.


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The History Teacher, Vol. 45, No. 2 (February 2012), pp. 261-282
Society for History Education