University Futures, Library Futures

OCLC Research collaborated with Ithaka S+R on a project that examined the impact of increased institutional differentiation in universities on the organization of academic libraries and the services they provide. The project was generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Latest News

Report now available

OCLC Research and Ithaka S+R have published the report University Futures, Library Futures: Aligning library strategies with institutional directions, that establishes a new framework for understanding the fit between emerging library service paradigms and university types.

Supported in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, project leads Constance Malpas, Lorcan Dempsey, and Rona Stein from OCLC Research and Roger Schonfeld and Deanna Marcum of Ithaka S+R, examined the impact of increased institutional differentiation in universities on the organization of academic libraries and the services they provide.

This report identifies nine key areas of library services, explores emerging patterns in different institutional settings, and gauges how important these services areas are—now and for the future—according to surveyed library directors. Using data from a large-scale survey and focus group interviews, the report examines how changing institutional missions and priorities affect services for students, and how libraries are responding to these changes.

Read the report.

See more outputs below.

What we’re doing

For decades, models of excellence in academic library service have been shaped by a collections-centric paradigm in which the size of local print inventory is considered a key indicator of quality. Despite growing attention to a “service turn” in college and university libraries, efforts to revitalize the public service by retooling subject specialists and bibliographers as disciplinary liaisons, increasing engagement with teaching and learning activities and the like, university recruitment and marketing efforts often perpetuate a view that volume count is a recognized metric of excellence. With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, OCLC Research and Ithaka are joining forces to develop a new framework for understanding the fit between emerging library service paradigms and university types.

Why we’re doing it

Higher education is the subject of an intense debate about mission, organization and direction. An important strand is the discussion about institutional isomorphism, which has featured centrally in influential recent contributions. Institutional isomorphism refers to the tendency of institutions in a field to resemble each other over time, shaped by coercive (mandated) or normative (professional) influences. In the higher education field, Michael Crow and William Dabars have coined the terms “Harvardization” and “Berkeley envy” for a historical trend they observe: universities have aspired to those institutions as common models of excellence.

Among research libraries, a longstanding focus on competitive volume counts and comparative “library investment” underpin a normative isomorphism with respect to collections and funding. Rank is determined by size and expense rather than impact. However, it has become increasingly clear that universities are sorting themselves into new patterns of development. For example, Arizona State University is very deliberately charting a course as a new type of mega-university, attempting to increase both inclusiveness and research excellence. Other patterns are apparent; for example, the residential liberal arts college, which is developing career-oriented professional online offerings, the regional public university seeking to streamline based on a distinctive career focus, the system with shared services, and so on. Over time, these will each demand particular library services.

Against this background we are embarking on a study that takes a more realistically plural view of the future of the academic library. Different types of academic libraries will be on different vectors, influenced by the types of universities or colleges they support.

How we’ll be working together

Over the next year, into mid 2018, OCLC Research and Ithaka S+R will develop a heuristic typology of colleges and universities that acknowledges the increasing fragmentation and specialization of higher education business models, and explore the degree to which libraries are aligning services to emerging institutional needs. We hypothesize that libraries within institutions that are strongly “typed” along one or more dimensions will exhibit greater similarity in the scope of library service offerings, while libraries serving institutions with a less pronounced type (or multiple, competing types) will have a more diffuse service profile. A possible implication is that institutions with a stronger type-identification will have a clearer roadmap for achieving institutionally appropriate service excellence. 

Additional Outputs

Literature Review

Read the literature review Toward a New Understanding of American Higher Education Institutions: Focus of Educational Offer, Mode of Provision, which provides context for the institution typology OCLC has developed to support this project. 

Topics covered in the literature review include:

  • The centrality of higher education to US nation-building
  • Major shifts in higher education student profile
  • Variations in higher education provision
  • Existing classifications of higher education institutions
  • Key institutional characteristics of higher education institutions

Read the literature review.

Data Set and Scoring Formula

Final data set and scoring formula coming soon.

Blog Posts

University Futures Are Shaping Library Futures Lorcan Dempsey's Weblog | 2018-10-18

Universities Are Changing and So Are Their Libraries Ithaka S+R blog | 2018-10-18

The Curious Case of Balanced/Equilateral Higher Education Institutions and Potential Implications for Academic Libraries Hanging Together | 2018-03-22

What's in a Name? More Than Meets the Eye, or IPEDS: On the Religious Identity of US Colleges and Universities Hanging Together | 2018-03-21

Scaling Innovation in Higher Education: The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) Hanging Together | 2018-03-01

University Futures, Library Futures: a multi-dimensional model of US higher education institutions Hanging Together | 2018-02-09

Beyond Counting Books  Inside Higher Ed | 2017-04-11

University Futures; Library Futures  Ithaka S+R Blog | 2017-04-10


Book chapter "Academic Library Futures in a Diversified University System" by Lorcan Dempsey and Constance Malpas, published in Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Project Lead Constance Malpas gave the presentation "University Futures, Library Futures: re-examining academic library relevance" at the Americas Regional Council in October 2017.


Constance Malpas, OCLC Research

Team Members

Lorcan Dempsey, OCLC Research
Rona Stein, OCLC Research
Roger Schonfeld, Ithaka S+R
Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R