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Ithaka S+R Is Transforming Libraries and Higher Education, Part 1
Posted On January 24, 2017
Over the past decade, Ithaka S+R has established itself as a key source of strategic insight on academic libraries, scholarly communication, and the changing landscape of higher education in the U.S. Recently, Deanna Marcum, its managing director since 2012, took a senior advisor role in the organization and was succeeded by Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College. In this two-part series, NewsBreaks explores key issues in higher education and the information industry with these dynamic leaders.

In Part 1, we talk with Marcum, who held a series of influential leadership positions in research and academic librarianship before coming to Ithaka S+R. From 2003 to 2012, she was associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, and before that, she served as president of the Council on Library and Information Resources. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Dave Shumaker: Deanna, thanks for taking the time for this conversation, and congratulations on your accomplishments at Ithaka S+R over the past 4 years. To start with, could you share a quick review of what Ithaka S+R is, and what drew you to it?

Deanna Marcum: Thanks, Dave. To start with, sometimes people wonder what the “S+R” stands for. It stands for “Strategy and Research.” S+R is one of several arms of the parent nonprofit ITHAKA, along with JSTOR, Portico (a digital archiving service), and Artstor (a digital images database). ITHAKA, by the way, takes its name from the poem of the same name by C.P. Cavafy, which you can find on our website. It’s all about the journey toward an ideal.

My own involvement with the organization dates back to 2006, when I joined the ITHAKA board of directors as its library representative. At the time, JSTOR had become recognized among librarians and academic publishers for its leadership in creating and managing digital collections of scholarly works, and we were fielding a great many inquiries and requests for help from others who wanted to learn from our experience. S+R was created to respond to those and to document practices in using technology in the higher education sphere.

By 2012, it was clear that a focus on digitization alone was too narrow and that it would be important to think about all of the ramifications of technology in higher education. That means what goes on in the classroom, what goes on in research, what goes on in the library, and what goes on in the IT department. We needed to encompass that whole range of issues. When I went to S+R in 2012, my first aim was to develop a new strategic focus that would enable us to add value in developing an integrated set of technology initiatives.

Shumaker: What are the key program areas for Ithaka S+R today?

Marcum: As a result of our strategic review, we’ve focused on two areas. One is educational transformation.What’s going to happen to universities as technology becomes more prevalent? How do we help universities meet the needs of the very diverse student population we have now? The traditional 18- to 22-year-olds are very much in the minority, and the majority are “nontraditional” learners. We think technology has a very big role to play in serving the needs of that group.

The second area goes back to our roots in academic libraries. Libraries have a great deal of work to do. But when you look at what’s happening in universities and how libraries need to respond to the changes, it’s the whole scholarly communication ecosystem that’s the issue. We’re interested in how knowledge is created, how it’s disseminated, and how it’s used and re-used. So we focus on the library’s role in the scholarly ecosystem, not simply developing the library in isolation.

We’re a small group—just 14 staff members—but we’re very active, and our team is doing great work.

Shumaker: How do the two focus areas work in practice? What are some of the projects you’ve been involved in?

Marcum: Much of our work is carried out through partnerships. We help organizations solve problems. For example, right now we’re working with the libraries of the State University of New York system. There are 64 institutions in the group, and they’re trying to work more closely and strengthen their services for the benefit of all. We’re helping them develop the governance structure and implement a new organization so that they can realize their vision.

On the educational transformation side, we decided to do a series of case studies to highlight successful but little-known innovations. We want to document the decision making and the implementation of these innovations to help others who are addressing the same issues. We’ve done studies at the University of Maryland University College and Georgia State University. At Georgia State, the president, Mark Becker, focused on enabling every student to succeed. It started with a completion rate of around 32% [of entering students], and now it’s up to around 54%, and our case study documents how that was done.

Shumaker: Speaking of educational transformation, I’d like to ask you for your thoughts on massive open online courses (MOOCs). A few years ago, they were widely hailed as the next big thing in higher education, but lately we haven’t been hearing as much about them.

Marcum: We did a study on that, under a Gates grant, a few years ago. We wanted to find out if MOOCs could be used to good effect within traditional courses. Working with the University of Maryland, we tested their use in 22 courses. Faculty identified MOOCs to incorporate into their courses. We found very little difference, with or without MOOCs, in student achievement, but we found that there could be some significant time savings for faculty. Three years ago, everybody was convinced MOOCs were going to have a major impact on higher education, but so far that hasn’t happened—not because of technology or the ability to meet learning goals, but because of the need for a viable business model. The business models have been shifting. The providers are still active, but there are revenue and intellectual property issues still to be sorted out.

Shumaker: Have you been involved in other transformational projects?

Marcum: Yes, and one current project that I’m very excited about explores another way to use technology creatively to advance instruction in the humanities. It’s also another example of our partnerships. We’re working with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). These are about 640 small, independent liberal arts colleges. The strength of these colleges is in their faculty-student interactions, and we don’t want to change that. But we want to explore ways to build on that strength by incorporating online learning along with in-person instruction. Doing that will not only give students more options for courses, but also give them experience working in the digital environment, which we all know is important when they go into the workforce. We started 3 years ago with a pilot group of 21 of the CIC schools. Each institution developed two online upper-level humanities courses during the first year and then offered them to the other institutions in the consortium during the second year. We’re doing the assessment. The first group has been very successful. Participation has been strong, and both students and faculty have found the experience of online learning overwhelmingly positive. We were concerned that faculty might not be receptive, but that hasn’t been the case. My favorite line from a faculty member in our first assessment is “I am a better teacher because I’ve taught online.” Because the first group has been so successful, we’ve started a second group. We think this has potential to strengthen the curriculum these colleges can offer in the humanities, where enrollments have been declining in recent years.

Shumaker: It’s great that you’re finding such success in using technology to support and strengthen in-person educational experiences. I wonder, has Ithaka studied the competency-based approach to higher education? I understand that in the competency-based approach, students must master a set of competencies and may do it in a flexible time span, which could be shorter or longer than a traditional academic term.

Marcum: We’ve looked at it, but haven’t found a variety of across-the-board approaches that would be appropriate for study. In many universities, competencies are set at the departmental level, but there isn’t an institutionwide program. So we really haven’t found a lot happening with that model yet.

Since you raise the issue of competencies, though, I’ll add that I think a lot about what happens in an educational setting. Part of education is mastering the content, but another part of it is the formation that students get from discussions with professors and fellow students. Formation is especially important in a professional school such as our own library and information science programs. Our formation includes thinking through ethical concerns, for example. That’s a common base that we share no matter where we went to library school. I wouldn’t want to see that attention to professional formation suffer. I’d be sorry to see us lose that.

Shumaker: That’s a good segue into the role of libraries. Last February, you delivered the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). You proposed that libraries must undergo a shift from a collection orientation to a service orientation. Could you elaborate on that?

Marcum: What I’m pointing out is that, especially in our very large research libraries, collections have been the source of professional identity. The feeling has been, if a library has a great collection, it’s a great library. The collections have provided the identity. The collections have been the defining feature. But in the age of ubiquitous digital information, collections alone don’t define greatness anymore. We need to provide great services.

 We’re in a period of transition, and we have a number of years to go in this transition to digital collections and services. It’s hard for some librarians to make this transition, especially for those who haven’t kept up with digital technology.

I emphasized the need for a new kind of leadership in the digital environment. We now have a group of young professionals who are fully conversant in digital language, and we’re holding them back in some instances. And that makes it hard to recruit for the profession, hard to offer jobs that are really attractive to them, because we’re insisting that they do things in old ways. I’m very optimistic about the new generation though. We’ve got to figure out what it means to live in a fully digital world. What does it mean to be a library in this world? I think it’s the new professionals who will figure it out.

The role of librarian is more important than ever. But how do we convey that? You don’t convey it by sitting in the library building. We have to figure out how to become separate from the building. It’s hard!

Shumaker: What about the different types of libraries—public and academic libraries? Do you think they’re diverging?

Marcum: I think they are. There are certain things that bind us together—the professional formation we talked about earlier. Access to information, First Amendment rights, having access to diverse points of view. But in other roles, they’re becoming different. The public library is offering so many different classes and other services for the community. In the academic sector, the librarian is concerned with negotiating contracts for electronic content, supporting the apparatus of scholarly communication, and teaching. Academic librarians are becoming more subject-oriented. I’ve long advocated the importance of research librarians understanding how knowledge is created in the disciplines they support, whether that’s by pursuing a degree in the subject or in some other way.

Shumaker: You’ve been a library educator, and I know you’ve continued to be very interested in library education. How are we doing at educating professionals for these new roles?

Marcum: We need to get practitioners more involved in library education—and I mean really involved in helping to educate the next generation. We need to have more connections between the library educators working in the academy and the practitioners providing library services. It forces all of us to ask, what is the library going to look like? And how do we prepare the next generation, and ourselves, for that? We don’t have good mechanisms for those conversations.

Shumaker: Deanna, thanks again for your time. Before we close, tell us what you’re working on now. What’s next?

Marcum: In my free time, I’m working on a book with my colleague Roger Schonfeld on the history of mass digitization. It focuses on the Google Books project and what it did to libraries. We are tracing various university digitization initiatives, and Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, and the Million Books Project, yet none of them captured the public imagination the way Google did.

Shumaker: In other words, it’s one of the sources of the new digital information world that has disrupted traditional library collections. We’ll be looking forward to reading your book.

Click here for Part 2.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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