Library Redux

As students and faculty embrace online materials, Dan Gjelten of the University of St. Thomas argues that they should not forget about the wealth of research support they can find in their academic libraries.
Library Redux

As a librarian, I was excited to turn to a recent article in BizEd and fi nd a picture of a student standing in a beautiful library and loaded down with books. I was sure an article titled “Students Who Love Research” would feature the academic library as an essential part of business education. But this was an article about real-world experiences, and the word “library” did not occur even once.

The experience led me to wonder how the library is currently viewed in business education. What is its role? What kinds of research expectations do deans and faculty have of their students? Is the library still a fundamental feature of business education, or has it become just another metaphor?

As the Director of Libraries at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, I strive to make certain that the library is central to the academic mission of the institution and that its collections enhance scholarship in all of our programs. I am convinced that we can collaborate with faculty to teach students the essential lifelong skills associated with discovering, obtaining, and evaluating data in a technologyand information-rich world. But I also worry that administrators, faculty, and students don’t understand how many needs the library serves—and I fear that the library will cease to be a living partner in teaching and learning.


Like other industries, academic libraries are experiencing many tensions. We must cultivate a deep understanding of the larger ecosystem in which we operate, manage growing technological complexity, and respond to a high level of competition. We also must serve a segmented market, providing sophisticated support to the faculty who are engaged in scholarship and knowledge creation, while offering basic instruction to students learning to retrieve and use information.

At the same time, we must cope with the pressures at work in higher education—the need to affirm the value of a degree, the need for assessment measures that confirm we are achieving our goals, and the need to rethink our own roles in light of new realities.

Our responsibility to the business school is clear. As Christopher Puto, dean of UST’s Opus College of Business, says, “We expect our students to be effective problem solvers after graduation. They should be able to identify their information need, then find, analyze, assemble, and use information to make decisions.”

Students need to understand not just how to conduct research, but how to put it together in a meaningful way, notes Jeff Oxman, an assistant professor in the finance department. In many papers, he says, students “have cited this and this and this—they have a bibliography, but they don’t have a story.”

Of course, research isn’t everything, as Lisa Abendroth points out when she asks her students to imagine doing research on the tango. “Then I ask, ‘Now, could you come up and dance for us?’ and of course, they couldn’t,” says Abendroth, an associate professor in the marketing department. But unless students know how to conduct primary research, she believes they will be inclined to make decisions based on gut reactions, which she tells them won’t be acceptable in the workplace. Instead, they need to know how to draw conclusions based on credible information that provides context for contemporary business problems. They need the library.


Even I will admit that users can find it challenging to navigate the large and rich collections of electronic content that academic libraries have amassed today. For instance, a little more than a decade ago, the UST libraries had a collection of 2,000 print journals; now we provide access to more than 50,000 electronic journals. As we continue to expand, it becomes even more important that we find ways to remove barriers between users and content. We must help students develop the skills they need to discover information in a high-tech environment—but we must minimize the time they waste in fruitless searching.

For that reason, at UST we’ve created dozens of research guides that address known scholarly research needs. Students can use them to learn more about particular disciplines, including international business, business law, entrepreneurship, marketing, economics, and statistics. The guides also help them find data about specific companies and industries. Each guide points users to starting places and explains how to use the best resources in the libraries’ electronic collections.

We also tell students that, as soon as they get frustrated or feel like they’re not getting results, they should consult a librarian. The guides include photos of the specialist librarians who will be most helpful in the area of business research, an online app that enables appointment scheduling, and the opportunity to chat with a librarian in real time.

Since most of our faculty and students access our collections via the web, we’ve created a position for a web developer who can design pages that are functional, intuitive, and mobile-ready. These new page designs also allow us to communicate with users we may never see face-to-face. In addition, we use Twitter, Facebook, and a blog to stay connected with users.

We are working to develop “moment of need” interventions that put resources in front of users before they even realize they need them. These interventions require close communication with faculty and students, who can alert us to assignments and due dates. We then can provide users with relevant and specific research hints through everything from social media sites to our portable whiteboards at library entrances.

Other libraries that serve business schools are offering more services related to the databases students will use once they enter the workforce. For instance, some libraries are appointing Big Data specialists who can help students and faculty understand how to sift through and analyze enormous datasets. The University of Tennessee Libraries have created the position of “data curation librarian” who will support the use and management of research data. Other libraries might post a job for a “data scientist,” who can make “discoveries while swimming in data.” That’s how Thomas Davenport and D.J. Patil describe “The Sexiest Job in the 21st Century” in a Harvard Business Review article. As content and delivery methods change, libraries will continue to adapt.


Even as libraries are making it simpler for students and faculty to navigate our vast collections, we’re also measuring our usage and effectiveness so we can understand how our resources are being used.

Libraries have always been good at measuring inputs—how many books we’ve purchased, how many people have come in our doors, and how many reference questions we’ve answered. Increasingly, though, like all academic organizations, we’re being asked to document the outputs and outcomes of our work. In simple terms, we need to assess the ways the library has changed the lives of the students it serves. In fact, libraries across the U.S. are working together to do just that.

In 2010, the Association of College and Research Libraries published a report called “The Value of Academic Libraries.” Its goal was to articulate the impact libraries can have on their home institutions in terms of admissions, retention, graduation rates, student achievement, faculty research productivity, and even student placement. Many of these measures are difficult to design and implement, but assurance of learning is a hot issue in the education field. So, for many of us, identifying the ways that higher education changes student lives will be an ongoing and critical responsibility.

In fact, the UST Libraries are experimenting with ways to assess if student use of the library can be linked with academic performance. Once we’ve ensured anonymity, our goal is to determine whether library use—as indicated by book circulation, reference interactions, web use, database searches, and so on—correlates with higher grade point averages.

There’s already some evidence that such a connection might exist, according to “Library Use and Undergraduate Student Outcomes,” research conducted by staff of the University of Minnesota Libraries and posted on the Libraries and the Academy portal. According to the study, “students who use the library had an average cumulative GPA 0.20 points higher than students who did not use the library.” In addition, students who used the library in their first semester were twice as likely to return for their second semester as students who were not library users.


Business school graduates will need to be adept at conducting research and knowing where to turn for the information they need, and it is part of the mission of the academic library to help them develop those essential skills. As long as academic libraries continue to develop appropriate collections, assist users with their research, prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, and assess the quality of their services, they will remain engaged partners in the delivery of business education. While beautiful physical spaces and printed books will always say “library” to many of us, the reality of the academic library will be even richer and more complex as we move forward.

Dan Gjelten is director of University Libraries for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.