Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College; Mark Sandler, University of Michigan

Vol. 17, No. 3 January 1997

Library Collections and the Undergraduate Curriculum: So Near and Yet So Far?

by Sarah M. Pritchard

Librarians are too often caught unprepared for the introduction of new course topics on campus. The worst case scenario is when the students arrive early in the semester taking a new course for which the library has virtually no appropriate resources and about which the faculty member has never consulted the staff. Not quite so bad, but surprisingly common, is the moment when the librarian reads in the minutes of the monthly faculty meeting that the already approved course proposals for next semester include some topic never before taught and not part of the standard collection development policy. Not only may there be few books in the stacks, but budgets and purchasing are already largely set for the coming few months and only with difficulty will adequate materials be purchased or borrowed in time.

And yet it is an unquestioned assumption that libraries in four-year institutions are building collections primarily to support the undergraduate curriculum. It is also a cherished belief that there is a close and productive relationship among librarians and faculty at these institutions, which are often smaller and less fragmented than large research universities. Generally, college libraries can only purchase materials for faculty research to a more limited extent, thus collection building is expected to be very directed toward the educational mission. But as this curriculum changes, with an explosion of interdisciplinarity, new core courses, and an emphasis on learning outcomes, are libraries moving in tandem, integrated into the planning so that shifts in teaching and faculty interests will be reflected in the collections, print and electronic? As it turns out, the answer is "not often."

The reasons for this disjuncture vary, but there are some common themes to explore. Rather than being a factor of internal library budgeting, professional ignorance, or management rigidity, it is largely a question of different institutional approaches to faculty governance, the setting of academic directions, strategic planning, and the allocation of resources.

Change in Higher Education

Current conditions in higher education lead to renewed concern for effective information support:

  • Innovations in pedagogy and collaborative learning;
  • Advances in information technology, telecommunications, and multimedia;
  • A burgeoning of interdisciplinarity and emerging fields;
  • Requirements from governing and funding agencies for accountability and assessment;
  • Economic stringencies that mandate careful analysis of costs for programs.
Impact of the Digital Document Revolution on Government Documents
JSTOR: The Vangard of the Retrospective Digital Library

Despite the extensive debate about the curriculum, there is little overlap between the literature of educational administration and that of the librarians and others who plan services to support the educational program. This relationship is fundamental, and underlies much of the writing on library instruction, collection development, and services for new forms of teaching like distance learning. Most of the discussion on these topics has been aimed internally at the library profession and does not reach the broader perspectives of faculty and administrators.

Being Prepared

The library's role is changing, focusing on services and access beyond a physical collection that passively awaits the user. Librarians' goal of supporting the curriculum implies being prepared with the appropriate materials, having a plan to acquire or borrow special or unusual items, knowing about pertinent databases, multimedia or reserve items that may be needed, having librarians equipped to provide bibliographic instruction in new areas, and having consultations with faculty frequently to share information back and forth about the class and the resources. The following are all necessary, not to prevent change in the curriculum, but to welcome it and help it succeed:

  • Budget planning for acquisitions, one of the most rapidly rising areas of academic expense;
  • Ensuring coordination across campus departments as lines blur among subjects, courses and resources needed;
  • Integrating new forms of media from the early stages of syllabus development, including academic computing and audiovisual materials;
  • Planning for the impact on services as well as on the collections, for example, library instruction, interlibrary loan, language support, hardware and training for new media;
  • Readiness for prompt service to students.

Mechanisms for Accomplishing Goals

There are both formal and informal mechanisms for accomplishing these goals. Informally, most librarians try to have ongoing communication through collegial contacts and various kinds of faculty liaison programs at the department level. This is valuable on many levels, but it is not systematic and may not be concrete enough when it comes to planning course support. When trying to handle these issues at a more formal level, however, many librarians have found that obstacles quickly arise.

The two most logical mechanisms for alerting librarians in advance to directions that the curriculum is taking are to include them on curriculum committees, or to have library "impact" included in some way in the course proposal forms submitted to such committees. Unfortunately, the attitude towards librarians as colleagues in curriculum planning is all too often that reflected by the title of a case-study article on this topic, "Librarian! Know Thy Place!"1

What are the principal mechanisms that librarians use to keep their collection building and instructional services up to date with the changing curriculum?

  • Library "impact" forms when a new course is proposed, with questions ranging from vague to detailed, and which may or may not require information or signatures from the library;
  • Librarians as appointees or observers to curriculum planning committees;
  • Acquisition formulas that allocate library funds based on factors including the number and level of courses in each department;
  • Liaison programs with individual librarians and faculty members assigned to confer about services for each department, which may be limited to acquisitions or also include bibliographic instruction and other planning;
  • Standard campus sources such as course catalogs and syllabi.

Surveys of academic librarians show that the formal devices are usually hotly contested, and the informal ones are often hit or miss and after the fact. Librarian/faculty collaboration typically focuses on course-related assignments after the approval of the course or major. The role of the librarian on campus may be an issue of faculty status and committee involvement for individuals, but rarely is the organizational position of the library in academic planning explicitly acknowledged.

Oberlin Group Survey Results

In 1995, the author conducted a short survey of the 74 library directors in the Oberlin Group of top private liberal arts colleges. Of the 50 who replied, only 21 reported they were on the curriculum committee, and four of those only if they are elected as peers from among the faculty at large. About half of those on the committees say they are voting members. Of those that are not on the relevant committee, 13 directors noted that they have tried actively, so far without success, to propose that they be allowed a seat on the committee, even if only as an observer. Some directors receive the committee's minutes once they are written up. About half the respondents use an impact form, with widely varying degrees of success. An often repeated observation was that forms, when used, had so little information or official weight that they were useless or ignored. Directors viewed this as an important issue for library planning, and often felt stymied by their exclusion from the process. Their comments used phrases like "I've begged...," "I'm told it would be inappropriate," and "good luck."

Two other surveys showed comparable results in research institutions and community college libraries. Despite the variety of approaches used, nobody was happy with the outcomes. Though forms were often used, they were minimally filled out and of little value for assessing the real implications for staffing and services. Many librarians said they were not allowed to comment on the library impact of new course proposals. Few respondents were on curriculum committees, but those who were felt they had better prior knowledge of curriculum changes. The position of librarians in the institution (i.e., whether or not they had faculty status) did not necessarily improve their ability to gain access to formal planning mechanisms or acceptance in collegial consultation.2

The same obstacles are delineated in all of the surveys:

  • Faculty perception that the library would become a gatekeeper; the misunderstanding of the library's interest in the process;
  • Time pressures working against faculty willingness to fill out a detailed form, or even to wait for the library to fill it out;
  • Faculty fear that acknowledging lack of resources will block the proposal;
  • The traditional autonomy of faculty culture, combined with the lack of credibility of librarians as understanding scholarly aspects of disciplines and teaching;
  • The absence, in some institutions, of a consultative approach to education in general;
  • The view in some institutions that libraries are service units that should just accommodate.

"When the result of poor academic planning is that library and information resources are not available at the right time and in the right subjects, the price is paid by the unwitting customers, the students."

Who Pays the Price?

Are the fears of some faculty warranted? The experience of colleges that involve the library through committees and forms would seem to say otherwise. Most librarians report that it is still highly unlikely that a new course proposal, or even a new major or degree program, is ever turned down despite inadequate resources and detailed documentation of library insufficiencies. New funding is occasionally given but usually in a process negotiated separately, for example with the hiring of a new faculty member in a previously undeveloped area of the curriculum. In reality, the library is usually just left to cope, and to do what is possible with short-term measures while gradually building the new topic into collection development planning for subsequent years.

When the result of poor academic planning is that library and information resources are not available at the right time and in the right subjects, the price is paid by the unwitting customers, the students. They have a more difficult time with course assignments and term paper research, may be competing with other students for the few copies of what is on the shelf or waiting weeks for materials to come from other institutions. The professor may have to cut back the scope of some topics in the syllabus. The burden of patron complaints and unanticipated costs for rush requests is borne by the library, when in fact it is the librarians who most often tried to be prepared. The faculty members who may have resisted the supposedly threatening forms and committees are only affected indirectly. Some materials may not be available for their own research, but those will eventually get purchased or borrowed and the time-frame can extend beyond that of a student taking the course just once. There might be some grumbling on the course evaluations but again the tendency is to blame the anonymous library.

Various Approaches for Help

Surveys and experience lead to the conclusion that no one approach is sufficient.

Librarians need to work with faculty and administrators to develop individual and organizational mechanisms, built-in structures linked with informal collegial communication.

  • The commitment of the provost, dean or senior academic officer is essential.
  • Constant consultation with faculty on routine library matters such as selection and instruction, and participation of librarians in faculty seminars and professional meetings, should promote an expectation that library involvement is a necessary and valuable part of planning the department's course offerings.
  • Assessment data should be collected regularly to document the strengths and characteristics of various segments of the existing collections.
  • Librarians need a way to discuss resources up front without being perceived as a threat to the faculty's teaching autonomy. Even if there is no new funding, the discussion prompts a useful examination of priorities and alternatives, and lays groundwork for subsequent requests and for modifications in collection development policy.
  • Having access to some form of modest discretionary and flexible funding for last- minute and special fill-in purchasing is an important safety net.

A Campus Problem, not a Library Issue

As long as we focus, however, on the library collection as the primary problem, we ignore the importance of the role of librarians and other academic professionals as active members of the educational program. This is not just a library issue; it must be an institution-wide collaboration for all constituencies, including the faculty, libraries, computer and language labs, tutoring centers and more. Changes in student expectations, transformations in scholarly communication, attention to educational outcomes and economic realities make it imperative that academic institutions make wise choices about the support needed for any given curriculum.

An integrated approach is needed more than ever, as colleges respond to demands for increased accountability, productivity and innovation. The benefits to everyone of such an active approach are clear. The acquisitions and services of the libraries and information centers will anticipate and match the evolving directions of the curriculum. The students and faculty will be able to study a given topic in a timely fashion and with the appropriate resources in place. And the institution will have an academic program based on informed and knowledgeable planning to make available key research and teaching resources.


1A. J. Anderson, "Librarian! Know Thy Place!" Library Journal 114 (May 15, 1989): 49-51.

2Mary Bushing, "Library Involvement in Academic Curriculum Decisions (Summary)." Posted by Lynn Sipe (, COLLDV-L no. 1220 (Aug. 26, 1996). Online posting to list:; Catherine E. Pasterczyk, "Involvement in Curriculum Change," College & Research Libraries 47 (January 1986): 7-15.

Update on the Copyright Issue

Shortly after the printed copy of the November Library Issues ("Coursepacks and Fair Use") was received from the printer, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the PUP and MDS case. We provided our LI Online readers with the latest developments in this important case at that time, but for our print version only readers, we add this update.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on November 8, 1996 announced its decision in the case of Princeton University Press vs. Michigan Document Services, Inc. In an 8 to 5 ruling, the court held that the making of photocopied course packs for sale by a for-profit copy shop is not fair use and therefore is an infringement of copyright. Five judges concluded that the copying had been fair use. The court also vacated the original panel's ruling that MDS's infringement was willful. This should correct any impression conveyed by the Hughes article that the restrictive Kinko's decision and subsequent guidelines were being relaxed in the judicial arena.

In an interview, the owner of MDS stated that it is his intent to seek a review from the U.S. Supreme Court. He noted that the dissenting judges provided a range of understandings of fair use, and because the case is so important to educators and scholars, he believes the case merits a review by the country's highest court.

More information is available on the Copyright and Fair use Website.

Mountainside Publishing, Inc.

Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 17, no. 3. ©1997 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $44/one year; $74/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $18 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus.

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