Changing demographics in academic libraries by Bryan Brugger

Changing demographics in Academic Libraries


Higher education in the early United States:

While universities and colleges have been in existence for centuries, and their presence in the United States precedes its formation as a country, there has been an unprecedented change occurring in the arena of higher learning in the last several decades. The academic library has been a staple of these institutions as the primary source to find information throughout history, but that is now being threatened. In addition, the numbers and types of students who have pursued education has been shifting dramatically as well. This blog will examine the American college system beginning in the early twentieth century and discuss what changes have taken place and the implications of those same changes. It will also address how this shift in the size and makeup of the student body is changing the traditional role of the academic library.

The initial growth:

The early twentieth century was a time where relatively few people went to college. Society in general was still predominantly agrarian or blue collar where a college education was expensive and impractical for most individuals. However, with the rise of progressivism, there was a growing interest in advanced degrees, most notably in finance and economics. (Johnson, 2014, 5). As public finance became more accepted as a scientific area that could be studied, there was a greater push to offer courses in the area, and a growing interest in the different subfields that were connected (Johnson,2014,  24). The academic library was central to these studies and was the symbol of knowledge on campus (Chu, 2014, 87). Students came to the libraries because of “carefully maintained collections, helpful staff, and well-designed service points” (Wagner, 2007, 60). Further opportunities for additional areas of study arose with the growing stock market and tax structure around the time of World War I. Shortly prior to World War II, there were approximately 1.5 million students in college (Chu, 2014, 86).

The dramatic shift:

As the fields of study were growing, there was some stagnation during the great depression and World War II. However, after World War II and the Korean War, there were two GI bills passed. Recognizing the sacrifices that many serviceman had made for their country, higher education was offered at a very low cost so that it could easily be afforded by veterans, regardless of background. 18% of all college educated Americans by the year 1960 attended college with the assistance of the GI Bill (Stanley, 2003, 671). Beyond that it would have been possible for nearly 70% of men who turned 21 from the start of World War II to the end of the Korean War to pursue education at almost no cost (Stanley, 2003, 671). The GI Bill accelerated a growth in higher education that began in the early 20th century. While it may be too generous to credit the GI Bill with all the gains in college becoming available to the working class family, it helped create the belief that it was possible for people other than the wealthy and influential Americans.

The first notable demographic change was with the income level and background of the servicemen. College was now something open to those with a blue collar background and not only those in a high socioeconomic background. Fifty years after the end of World War II and the passing of the GI bill, the student population exceeded 14 million enrolled in higher education. (Chu, 2014, 86). A second change is that the percent of high school graduates who attended college the following year rose from about 45% to 68% from the year 1960 to 2005 (Jameson, 2007, 22). Clearly college has now become available to the general population and the socioeconomic barrier that had once existed for the middle class has been removed.

The regression:

At the time of the influx of students during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the academic library was a central, if not the central, part of the college. However, the importance of research and information needs of a particular school are failing to be the impetus behind the library. Instead it is lamentingly directed by economics (Chu, 2014, 85). The government contributions to academic libraries have been decreasing over the past 40 years. In the absence of another Carnegie to make significant contributions to thousands of libraries, including hundreds of academic libraries, colleges are focusing more on sustainability which means unfortunate cuts have been made in the libraries.

With the influx of students who previously would not have attended college there was a corresponding decrease in academic prowess and research skills. Starting in the 1980’s, there has been a noticeable decline in SAT scores and even the percent of students who are able to perform well in college (Jameson, 2007, 18 & 24). At the same time students began attending college in record numbers there was a palpable drop in the skills of the students that entered.

Working to address this current gap that exists is one area where the academic library can have a significant impact. Teaching appropriate research skills to either individuals or entire classes is one way that academic libraries can best serve their institutions. The difference between simply finding information through google and thoroughly researching a topic with scholarly sources is a distinction that needs to be emphasized.

Continuing developments in academic libraries:

There has been a significant shift in the expectations placed upon the academic library with decreasing government assistance and dramatically increasing enrollment numbers. Gone are the days where the library was the central location of study and finding information. One author likened the changes currently taking place in the library to the theory of punctuated equilibrium where there are sudden changes after periods of stasis (Billings, 2003, 105). The internet would be one such example and has replaced the need for many students to have a physical presence at the library. To try and entice increased ingress to the physical buildings libraries are focusing on personal touch by offering cafés, comfortable seats, internet connection, and a variety of other services as well (Wagner, 2007, 60-61).

Resources have become available on a dramatically increased number of subjects compared to those in the early to mid twentieth century. This increase in breadth of topics, as well as the need to have both electronic and physical resources, have stretched thin an already tight budget. Academic libraries are undoubtedly in a time of transition where it is not fully clear what that transition will look like when complete. Resolving the current budget troubles many libraries are facing should be at the forefront of discussions concerning the future of academic libraries.

The expectations of many students who attend these libraries have also changed and they want to be able to find information with little effort. Google has created the expectation of results on nearly any topic within seconds. While it is possible for results to be obtained this quickly, finding a list of google results is not the same as having quality information. Research requires actual searching skills that cannot only locate information, but evaluate the content of it. In addition research should recognize bias where it exists to help distinguish fact from opinion, which is also a skill that has declined dramatically in recent years. This assessment ability is what current students are most frequently lacking in their information literacy skills. These skills that need to be learned, and librarians (as well as teachers) are in a primary position to disseminate this information to their patrons.

While professional library staff can effectively help students find information, budget cuts are reducing the number of staff and the hours they are working, making it harder to perform this task. Additional funding could provide more librarians time to give classroom presentations or individual research appointments to enhance the skills of the patrons where it is most notably lacking. One response that libraries have already made to address this is more user friendly databases that can be performed without assistance (Budd, 2009, 8). Another is a greater focus on having access to online serials. As physical subscriptions continue to decrease due to cost there will continue to be an increased focus on online options. Academic libraries, in order to be successful, will be focused on technology to meet the evolving expectations of students going forward.


There has clearly been a sizeable change to colleges and the libraries that support them over the past 100 years. More people have access to education than ever before, but many lack the research skills needed to perform well in college. Campus libraries are seeing a more diverse student body, decreasing budget, a change from physical to electronic resources, and new opportunities in the future. To remain relevant these libraries will need to continue to evolve to provide the services needed to the particular group of students who use it. This is a process that is never complete, but evolves continually to meet the realities of the present.

Works Cited

Billings, H. (2003). The Wild-Card Academic Library in 2013. College & Research Libraries, 64(2), 105-109.

Budd, J. M. (2009). Academic Library Data from the United States: An examination of trends. LIBRES: Library & Information Science Research Electronic Journal, 19(2), 1-21.

Chu, W. W. (2014). At a Tipping Point: U.S. Academic libraries and the change agents in their environment. Chinese Librarianship, (38), 84-106.

Jameson, D. A. (2007). Literacy in Decline: Untangling the evidence. Business Communication Quarterly, 70(1), 16-33.

Johnson, M. (2014). Progressivism and Academic Public Finance, 1880 to 1930. History Of Political Economy, 46(1), 1. doi:10.1215/00182702-2398912

Stanley, M. (2003). College Education and the Midcentury GI Bills. Quarterly Journal Of Economics, 118(2), 671. doi:10.1162/003355303321675482

Wagner, A. B., & Tysick, C. (2007). Onsite Reference and Instruction Services: Setting up shop where our patrons live. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 46(4), 60-65


3 thoughts on “Changing demographics in academic libraries by Bryan Brugger

  1. This is a good summation of a pretty in depth topic. However I would have liked to see you explain your correlation to the change in student body to the drop in understanding of many research skills. One paragraph seems to suggest (and this could just be my reading of it) that because there are more poor students going to college there are dumber less qualified students in college. I would like a better explanation or at least some note on why you think the decrease in SAT scores is directly related to the increase in middle class and lower class kids going to college. I think it would help to create a better bridge to your discussion on the expanding requirements on academic libraries.


  2. That is a fair observation that you make. I would have written more originally but felt I was running out of space as it was. Allow me to elaborate now.
    In the past because a relatively small number of students went to college they tended to come from more well to do families, and lived in communities that had a higher regard for education in general. Affluent neighborhoods tended to have (and still do) better schools that produced more capable students. People who did well in school and attended college frequently came from families where their parents had higher education as well. Socioeconomic background does make a difference.
    Many of the students that took advantage of the GI Bill were the first in their family to attend college, and without it may not have considered further education. The rural or inner city schools would not have prepared them as well as the well-funded schools in affluent communities. In addition to that, consider if college students mainly came from the top 20% of high school performers, and then the number attending college dramatically increases, it would naturally grow by taking not only taking students from the top quintile, but from the second and third quintile as well.
    One argument that is made, recognizing declining scores as a sign of progress, is that more people than ever before are striving for higher education. If only the top quintile took the SAT before the scores would only reflect the average score of the top 20% of students. With two or three times more people taking the test the averages are decreasing because they are including students whose scores are closer to the mean. In other words, the ability of students has not changed as much as the number of students who are taking the SAT and attending college have increased.
    So this is not to say that current students are less able and qualified because of their background. The idea I am trying to posit is that academic libraries need to recognize that the student body has changed, and will need to change its approach to meet the needs of all students.


  3. Hi Bryan:

    I think your topic dovetails a bit with my blog. One of the major demographic shifts occurring in the U.S. right now is that our country is progressively moving to a place where racial and ethnic minorities will make up the majority of the U.S. population. This has translated to more institutions of higher education seeing a greater degree of racial and ethnic diversity among its student body. One of the consequences of this shift is an even greater push among academic libraries and library organizations like ALA, ACRL, ARL to increase racial and ethnic diversity among credentialed academic librarians. How else might this demographic shift affect academic libraries? Thanks.

    Yolanda Bergstrom-Lynch


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