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Descriptive Report:

The Status of Academic Libraries in the United States: Results From the 1990 and 1992 Academic Library Surveys

June 1997

(NCES 97-413) Ordering information


Academic libraries in the United States have served as key resources to post-secondary institutions since the inception of universities. Libraries on university and college campuses inspire, educate, and guide young and old minds alike in their quest for knowledge. In addition to serving as one of the principal reserves for advanced academic research, they provide students and faculty with supplementary information for classes, aid in gathering necessary materials for research, and even support the educational needs and services of the surrounding community. Libraries provide opportunities for learning as well as a humbling reminder of the vast amount of information that is available. Two of the national education goals for the year 2000 emphasize the important roles played by the resources and staff efforts of academic libraries. The nation's fourth education goal, which is concerned with the ongoing need for access to learning resources for teachers and faculty members, and the nation's sixth education goal, which speaks of lifelong learning, both stress the importance of maintaining and improving the nation's academic libraries (National Education Goals Panel 1994).

Changing demands on academic libraries make it important to continuously assess the status of academic library resources and library operations. For this reason, organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Oberlin Group survey selected groups of libraries on a periodic basis.\1 The ARL, in particular, has annually surveyed over 100 research libraries since 1961–62. In spite of the acknowledged importance of academic libraries, various surveys and reports have found these libraries severely challenged to meet all the needs of faculty, students, and other users. First, there are now more consumers of library services than ever before. For example, enrollment increased steadily during the 20 years previous to 1992; ARL schools reported an increase of 9.5 percent in student enrollment from 1986 to 1992 (Association of Research Libraries 1994). Second, as the numbers of enrolled students have increased, the numbers of library staff have remained constant, resulting in fewer staff members per student (Association of Research Libraries 1994). Third, there has been a surge in the amount of information available in many formats, including journals and books that are published outside the United States and that are likely to carry higher prices within the United States (Leonard 1994). Fourth, librarians and other library staff have had to master increasing numbers and varieties of new technologies and different ways of organizing and maintaining collections. Finally, libraries have had to tackle these demands while faced with increasing financial pressures (Association of College and Research Libraries 1995).

The Academic Library Survey

The Academic Library Survey (ALS), conducted periodically by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and first administered in 1966, was designed to provide concise information on library resources, services, and expenditures for the entire population of academic libraries in the United States. As of 1990, the ALS is part of the NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which is the U.S. Department of Education's vehicle for collecting data from all postsecondary institutions in the United States. The ALS data presented in this report will be useful to local, state, and national leaders concerned with higher education, as well as to academic library staff.

Institutions with accreditation at the higher education level, as recognized by the Secretary of Education, and with their own library are asked to participate in the ALS. The ALS questionnaire has been designed to provide an overall description of library status and operations while attempting to minimize respondent burden. In 1992, the ALS form included 46 items that probed for information in the following five areas:

In the respondents' survey booklets, ALS items were followed by a list of instructions that explained precisely how responses were to be developed for each of the items.

Overview of This Report

The ALS dataset is still evolving, and this report is the first of its kind to compare ALS data over time and to make use of the Carnegie institutional classification system to group academic libraries into useful categories. Results for U.S. academic libraries in 1992 are displayed in tabular format in Williams (1994). This report summarizes the status of U.S. academic libraries in 1992 and presents data on changes in library staffing and resources between 1990 and 1992. The tables included in this report examine the following seven focal indicators of library status:

These seven indicators were chosen for several reasons: (1) they provide information in key areas related to the status of academic libraries; (2) data were available for these indicators for both 1990 and 1992; and (3) response rates for these indicators in 1992 exceeded the NCES standard of 70 percent. Full-time equivalent (FTE) library staff persons, rather than librarians specifically, were chosen to describe personnel resources since FTE library staff is a more inclusive indicator (and, in fact, includes librarians). In addition, it should be noted that as of 1992, the ALS did not collect data on some of the electronic technologies that now play major roles in the delivery of academic library services.

Two types of tables are featured in this report: (1) tables that summarize (a) the values for total FTE library staff, total volumes held, and total library operating expenditures, respectively, in 1992 and (b) the percentage change in these values from 1990; and (2) tables that describe the quartile values of these focal indicators for different types of institutions. To compute change values, libraries with imputed fields, missing data, or zero values for any of the focal indicators for 1990 or 1992 were excluded from the analyses—roughly one-fourth of the survey universe. (See appendix B for discussions of the rationales for setting imputed data values to missing and excluding libraries with any missing data on the focal indicators from analyses of changes over time.) These change measures are thus reflective of those institutions that provided complete information in 1990 and 1992 for all of the focal indicators presented in this report. In contrast, particular indicator values for 1992 are based on all institutions that provided data for these indicators in that year; imputed fields and zero values for particular indicators were set to missing in computing these values.

Public and private institutions are considered separately in this report, and to enhance interpretation, data in the tables are organized within sector according to the 1994 Carnegie Classification, which labels institutions according to their highest degree awarded and their instructional and research emphases. Similar Carnegie Classification categories have been merged to facilitate interpretation. The following six categories are used in the various tables in this report:

Appendix A provides estimates of (1) 1992 FTE student enrollment and number of full-time instructional faculty for public and private institutions with academic libraries by Carnegie Classification, as well as changes in these estimates from 1990 to 1992, and (2) total 1992 educational and general (E and G) expenditures and changes in these expenditures from 1990 to 1992. Appendix B provides technical material describing the methodology of the ALS, as well as the statistical procedures followed in this report.


[1] The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a not-for-profit membership organization comprising 119 libraries of North American research institutions, over 100 of them United States universitites. Its mission is to shape and influence forces affecting the future of research libraries in the process of scholarly communication. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is a division of the American Library Association. Its mis- sion is to provide leadership for development, promotion, and improvement of academic and research library resources and services to facilitate learning, research, and the scholarly communication process. The Oberlin Group of Liberal Colleges Library Directors is an informal association of library directors from 76 American colleges known for the quality of their academic programs. The Oberlin Group gathers statistics annually from its mem- bers on their collections, expenditures, and staffing. These data are not published outside the group, but their existence is known in the library community because of the prestige of the colleges.

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