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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006

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The Role of Industry Standards: An Overview of the Top Engineering Schools' Libraries

Brian S. Mathews
Mechanical Engineering Librarian & Distance Learning Services Coordinator
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia


How important are industry standards to the academic library collection? This article seeks to provide a snapshot of the use, assistance with, relevance, and availability of standards within libraries supporting top ranked engineering programs. The study consists of three measurements: a review of web sites, an unobtrusive e-mail reference inquiry, and a survey of engineering subject specialists. The findings suggest that although standards are a valued resource, financial constraints, varied interest, and limited exposure contribute to their underutilization.


Standards in the Collection

Industry standards present many challenges for academic libraries since use tends to be eclectic and unpredictable. Some of the complex factors in maintaining a standards collection include: cost, scope, upkeep, and cataloging (Thompson 2001). Organization and identification are additionally complicated aspects, since availability is often unknown unless the shelves are checked (Matylonek 2001). If librarians struggle with standards, then we should expect that patrons will too. So where do standards fit into the collection and what value do they provide? This study was conducted to obtain a broad understanding of the use, assistance with, relevance, and availability of standards within the academic environment.

Part of the mission of an academic library is to provide access to resources that support the curriculum. If an institution offers an engineering degree, then consideration should be given to the value of standards. Arguably, libraries should have the ability to quickly acquire necessary standards since they are an essential part of a good engineering reference collection (Taylor 1999). While engineering students and faculty may be considered the primary users of these resources, other disciplines, including science, legal studies, and business also share a need for industry standards (Musser 1990). Simply providing access does not guarantee use, and libraries must consider providing other resources that benefit the majority of users.

Engineers and the Library

Research suggests that engineering students are the least likely to use the literature of their field and typically value accessibility over quality when choosing information sources (Ackerson 1994). Pinelli (1993) suggests that engineers rely upon informal sources of information, such as peers and trade journals, rather than the formal journal literature. These findings imply that the quickest feasible solution is more often used than the most appropriate. Engineering faculty also prefer using the library remotely, and view desktop delivery as a high priority amongst library services (Hiller 2002). The impact of these tendencies should be considered in collection development, since material not available online has a lesser probability of use.

Standards in the Curriculum

Where do standards fit within the curriculum? Educators have an obligation to introduce students to core information sources, yet students often graduate with minimal or no exposure to standards (Forbes 2003). Employers prefer to hire graduates familiar with standards, yet many applicants lack exposure (Calvelli-Gaylor 1984). Arguably, students need to learn more applicable material in college, including how the standards of their field are developed and enforced (Ivanovich 2001). This inadequacy is possibly rooted in engineering students' lack of exposure to the library, since their coursework relies heavily upon textbooks (Oxnam 2003; Rodrigues 2001). Engineering faculty may have additional influence since they tend to want to find information for themselves and expect the same of their students, emphasizing self-directed learning (Leckie 1999). This challenge provides librarians with an opportunity to collaborate with faculty. Nerz (2001) and Kelly (2003) provide examples of curriculum-integrated instruction, which includes the use of industry standards and an assignment-based approach.

Research Questions

Industry standards are essential for the engineering professional, but where do they fit within the academic library? The following questions were considered for investigation:



The population for this study consisted of fifty-two libraries at universities ranked as the top graduate engineering programs in the United States (America's Best Graduate Schools 2004). The group was comprised of twenty-seven public and twenty-five private institutions. This population was selected to compare libraries supporting notable engineering programs.

Three measures were taken to explore the topic from multiple dimensions:

A Review of Library Web Sites

Each library's web site was searched in August 2004 for information pertaining to industry standards. Main library web pages were reviewed, in addition to appropriate sci/tech branches. This process included the review of subject guides and tutorials, the site index, and site searching options. Appendix 1 is a copy of the Web Site Review Check List. The objectives of this review were to find: (1) a web guide providing information on standards, (2) a listing of the local standards holdings, and (3) a policy regarding the process of obtaining standards not available in the collection.

Unobtrusive E-mail Reference Inquiry

Stacy-Bates (2003) found that response rates and accuracy of e-mail reference inquiries differed depending upon the topic. This method was used to see how librarians would handle a question regarding industry standards. An e-mail was sent to each library from a anonymous account during the Fall 2004 semester seeking an American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard. Appendix 2 is a copy of the e-mail. The two objectives of this inquiry were: (1) to discover the availability of the standard, and (2) to measure the level of assistance provided.

Survey of Engineering Librarians

Librarians identified as the engineering subject specialist/liaison were invited to participate in an online survey measuring the use, assistance with, relevance, and availability of standards within their collection. Appendix 3 is a copy of the survey. Responses were gathered during the Fall 2004 semester with a follow-up administered in Spring 2005.

Results & Analysis

Review of Library Web Sites

Of the fifty-two web sites reviewed, thirty-five (67%) provided a web guide or web links related to industry standards. Twenty-eight of these offered a dedicated page, while seven included the information in an engineering resource guide. Thirty (58%) provided information regarding their local standards holdings, with eighteen including policies for ordering those not available within the collection. Seven (13%) provided a link to standards information from the main or an affiliate library's homepage.

These sites provided minimal instructional information, mostly offering links to outside organizations. One-third of them neglected to provide any reference to standards, and less than half of those included information about obtaining needed items. These numbers are surprisingly low considering that these libraries support premier engineering programs. The uncertainty of accessibility could be aided by a detailed web listing, since standards are traditionally absent from library catalogs. This listing could assist public services staff and patrons in quickly determining accurate holdings. This review suggests that many libraries are missing an instructional opportunity and under using their web sites.

Unobtrusive E-mail Reference Question

Valid responses were received from forty-one (79%) libraries, while nine (17%) offered no response, and two (4%) declined to answer due to unaffiliated status. Of the forty-one libraries which provided a valid response, thirty-three (80%) indicated that the ASTM standard was available within their library. Twenty-nine of these libraries had it in print, while four had it electronically. Of the libraries which had it in print, twenty provided a call number and/or the location of the volume, while six responded that it was located in the reference collection, and three indicated that the library owned it offering no further details. Of the eight libraries that did not have the standard, six provided a full citation and a referral to a local library, while two simply provided a link to the ASTM web site.

A surprising observation is that one of out six libraries (17%) did not respond to the question. This rate is higher than a study of ARL Libraries (Stacy-Bates 2003) which reported a 9% non-response rate. The Stacy-Bates (2003) study measured responses of e-mail reference services to three questions and reported varying response rates and levels of accuracy. This method was used to test how libraries would handle a standards-based question. Consideration should also be given to the high number of private institution libraries, which may limit e-mail service to affiliated patrons only.

The results suggest that most libraries in the population were able to identify the standard and effectively direct the patron to an appropriate location. ASTM standards were selected since they are a core engineering resource, although it might have been more insightful to consider a less familiar organization. The responses indicate that the majority of libraries collect this standard in print. This presents the possibility that they are underused and unacknowledged by the intended patrons who prefer the electronic format. Consideration should be given to the optimal use of funding regarding printed volumes, compared with on-demand purchasing. A study found that libraries using on-demand services estimated spending between $101 and $1,000 annually (Pellack 2005). This amount is much lower than the cost for a complete set of ASTM standards priced at $7,777 (ASTM 2005). In addition to financial savings, on-demand service would increase the range of accessibility and improve the patron's ability to quickly obtain needed resources. Yet this model neglects the permanence of the collection. Although it might satisfy the immediate need, future demand for a particular standard would require additional purchase.

Survey of Engineering Librarians

Responses were received from forty-three librarians for an 83% response rate.
The results suggest a dichotomy of use with twenty-two (51%) respondents indicating that standards are used seldom, while nineteen (44%) indicated that they are used often, and two (5%) that they are used heavily. Although exact use is indeterminable, the perceptions of librarians reveal an apparent need for standards. Participants were next asked to rank the frequency of use amongst various patron groups. Thirty-seven of the forty-three participants provided valid responses, (see Table 1). The results suggest that undergraduates are the least frequent users, while graduate students and faculty represent the heaviest use. Researchers' use was perceived to be moderate, although the identity of users is difficult to discern. The non-affiliated user presented the largest deviation with nearly equal perceptions on both sides of the scale. Non-affiliated patrons tend to be engineers, contractors, or lawyers seeking standards for professional use. The fact that some academic libraries are not open to the public may have influenced the results. Yet over one-fourth of the respondents ranked non-affiliated patrons as their most frequent users, suggesting a substantial impact by an unintended group.

Participants were asked to describe the obstacles or challenges they faced regarding standards. Thirty-eight respondents provided answers. Appendix 4 is a copy of the results. Cost was the prevalent theme with twenty-two (58%) respondents commenting on expense. Low use was another frequently cited challenge, which may be a result of format availability, user need, and lack of promotion. Other common challenges included: lack of space, lack of cataloging, selection, updating, and licensing agreements.

Participants were asked to evaluate the adequacy of their standards holdings, (see Figure 1.) The majority of respondents (79%) perceived their collections to be adequate, with nearly half selecting slightly above or very adequate. This degree of satisfaction is surprisingly high, considering the cited challenges related to standards. Although adequacy is subjective, this suggests that collections are meeting the required needs.

Participants were asked to rate the necessity of standards within an academic library, (see Figure 2). Most respondents believed that access to standards is necessary, with over one-third asserting they are extremely or very necessary. Participants were next asked to rate the importance of an understanding of standards to engineering students, (see Figure 2.) Again, the majority of librarians believed that standards are necessary, with one-third affirming they are extremely or very necessary. These findings imply that most librarians recognize that industry standards add value to the collection, and that they play an important educational role.

Participants were asked to describe any form of instruction they provided for standards. Thirty (70%) respondents indicated that no formal instruction was offered beyond the point of need given at the reference desk, while thirteen (30%) covered standards during orientations and/or formal library instruction sessions. Five of these respondents also mentioned coverage within web subject guides. Participants repeatedly noted limited exposure to students in the classroom, a lack of standards usage in assignments, and the greater priority of other resources. This finding emphasizes the current problem; if standards are not covered in the curriculum, how are students supposed to learn about them?

Participants were asked to describe their policies for obtaining standards not available in the collection, (see Figure 3). Twenty-seven (63%) respondents indicated that they purchase standards for patrons. Two of them noted subsidization up to a particular amount, while four others purchased standards for graduate students and faculty only. Twelve (28%) respondents indicated that they would attempt interlibrary borrowing, while four (9%) had no process in place. These results highlight the contrasting levels of service offered. While most libraries would purchase or attempt interlibrary loan, obtaining standards via ILL is often difficult. If a particular standard is unavailable for borrowing, then over one-third of the respondents' patrons would be left to acquire it on their own.


Industry standards clearly have a place within the academic library collection. Librarians view them as necessary and important for engineering education. Most engineering librarians perceive their holdings to be adequate, despite numerous challenges, including the enormous financial investment. Standards use was found to be varied, with graduate students and faculty perceived as the most frequent users. While many library web sites mention standards, most do not provide instructional content, local holdings, and ordering polices. By adding this information, libraries might notice increased interest as well as enable public service staff to be more familiar with the intricacies of standards.

As librarians strive to incorporate principles of information literacy into instructional efforts, consideration should be given to the lifelong learning of students, and the specialized information resources they require professionally. Librarians can use this as an opportunity to collaborate with faculty and ensure that students gain exposure to and experience with core engineering resources. Targeting "design" courses is optimal for library involvement, and possibilities exist beyond the traditional classroom setting. Themed workshops covering topics such as standards, patents, technical reports, and industry data can greatly supplement course content. Regularly offering these short courses, both in the library as well as in engineering department buildings, can increase student exposure. Librarians can also provide office hours within engineering departments or other high traffic areas to further enhance visibility. Library web sites can be used to assist in this effort by providing instructional content including tutorials and guidelines. Librarians can also strive for inclusion on professors' course sites and course management systems, advertising the library as well as educational modules. Marketing is crucial for success. Librarians must use every opportunity to promote services and resources, since gaining faculty endorsement will increase student interest. With constant determination and advocacy, librarians can promote awareness and the availability of standards, and emphasize the valuable role they play within the engineering profession.


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Appendix 1 - Web Site Review Check List

Appendix 2 - Unobtrusive E-mail Reference Question
"I need to get an ASTM standard E119-00a "Fire Tests." Is this something your library has and can I come in and get a copy? Or better yet, is it available online. Thank you."

Appendix 3 -Engineering Librarian Standards Survey

Appendix 4 - Survey Results - Challenges

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