1. Introduction

1.1. Mutual Influence of Libraries and Librarians in Germany and the USA

Libraries, and librarians, in Germany and the United States of America have studied, influenced, and learned from one another for many years. Often with a transatlantic perspective, various aspects of the profession were analysed and published:

  • Over a century ago, Elm tree press published The training of the librarian, a translation (from German) of the 2nd ed. of Die Bildung des Bibliothekars from 1820 (Ebert & Nachman, 1916).
  • A colloquium at the Stuttgart university library in Germany highlighted aspects of library work on both sides of the Atlantic, partly with comparative approaches (Laich, Stephan, & Universitätsbibliothek Stuttgart, 1999).
  • Benno Homann at the University Library of Heidelberg saw German libraries at the starting line for the new task of teaching information literacy, influenced by Anglo-American concepts (Homann, 2003).
  • U.S. librarian Dale Askey observed differing service mentalities in German and American libraries (Askey, 2003).
  • The American historian Michael Seadle, who by then had headed the School of Library and Information Science in Berlin for over three years, wrote about The World of German Libraries from an American Perspective (Seadle, 2010). His was one of several articles on “transatlantic impulses” in the same issue of BuB-Forum Bibliothek und Information.
  • Hella Klauser reported on the impressions of a German delegation to the American Library Association’s annual conference – part of an ongoing exchange in the country-partnership between German and US libraries 2016–2019 (Klauser, 2017).
  • For two decades, the Center for Research Libraries has maintained the German-North American Resources Partnership (GNARP) (Center for Research Libraries, n.d.).

1.2. Assessments of Librarians’ Opinions within Germany and the USA

Professional associations, other organizations and individual researchers in both countries have polled librarians, and in some cases made the results publicly available. For example, the European Studies Section of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) published its 2018 Membership Survey Report (ACRL European Studies Association, Research & Planning Committee, n.d.), while the umbrella organization, ACRL, does not publish the results of its regular membership surveys (M. J. Petrowski, personal communication, October 16, 2018). The consultancy Ithaka S+R has studied the attitudes and behaviours of US academic collection development and executive-level librarians (Schonfeld & Housewright, 2008) and made the dataset publicly available (Schonfeld & Guthrie, 2013). The Association of German Librarians (VDB—Verein Deutscher Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare) has in recent years not conducted a survey similar to that presented in this paper among its members (D. Oehlmann, personal communication, August 28, 2018).

But to date, there has been no direct empirical comparison of librarians’ individual views in Germany and in the USA, asking the same questions at the same time. The study described in the present article was aimed at closing that gap—regarding librarians’ perspectives and beliefs about the library profession, their own position, the library they currently work in, and the organization that their library is part of—in the hope that this may usefully inform future collaborative efforts and information exchanges between the two countries. These might focus on areas where this study reveals notable differences between Germany and the USA, such as:

  • service offerings of geospatial research support or creation of DOIs for research outputs;
  • challenges of dealing with copyright/licensing issues, receiving adequate financial support, keeping up with technological developments, or having good leadership in the library and its parent institution;
  • establishing adequate levels of staffing and employee morale, or seeking leadership in professional organizations;
  • ascertaining the relevance and respect that academic and research libraries have, compared to other countries and time periods;
  • attracting the next generation of librarians to this profession, establishing the role of the Open Access publishing model, or dealing with the rising costs of subscriptions and the perceived role of commercial entities in the global scientific information infrastructure.

This article focuses on library employees working in institutions of higher education, hereinafter referred to as “academic librarians” (see Results section for an analysis of the professional categorization) in Germany and the USA.

2. Methodology

It should be noted at the outset that between Germany and the USA there are considerable structural differences in academic institutions, their libraries, and the employees of those libraries. Some of these differences are evident among the survey respondents of this study and in the online venues for inviting survey participation that were available. For more on the differences among the respondents, see the Results section.

A survey was developed in the online platform Qualtrics, reviewed and tested by over a dozen colleagues (see Acknowledgments section), and then made available for participation from January 7 through February 10, 2019. For the survey instrument used, see the Data Accessibility Statement at the end of this article. Invitations to participate in the survey were:

  • Sent in English to thirteen electronic mailing lists of ACRL, the Association of College and Research Libraries in the USA; and two of ALA, the American Library Association (the parent organization of ACRL). For the complete listing of these mailing lists, see the Data Accessibility Statement at the end of this article.
  • Sent in German to the electronic mailing list “InetBib” (Internet in Bibliotheken: https://www.inetbib.de/what-is-inetbib/), which had over 9400 members as of March 2019.
  • Sent in German to the electronic mailing list of the approximately 500 members of the German Initiative for Networked Information (DINI—Deutsche Initiative für Netzwerkinformation: https://dini.de/dini/ueber-uns/).
  • Posted in German to the blog of the Association of German Librarians (VDB—Verein Deutscher Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare: https://www.vdb-online.org/verein/info-en.php). The blog post was accessed 293 times.

The German-language invitations stated that the survey itself is in English.

In this voluntary response sampling method, an accurate response rate cannot be calculated as the number of subscribers to most of the ACRL/ALA lists could not be determined, and there may be an overlap in membership between those lists, as well as between the aforementioned German online forums.

A total of 693 respondents started the survey, including 297 from Germany and 349 from the USA (combined N=646). 556 respondents (86.1%) completed the entire survey. 525 of the 646 respondents indicated that their organization is a “Higher education institution (university or college)”, either in Germany or the USA, and all of the following results are based on those 525 survey responses. The survey data were analyzed using SPSS.

3. Results

3.1. Professional Background of Respondents

Of the 525 academic librarian respondents, 195 (37.1%) were from organizations located in Germany, 330 (62.9%) in the USA. The respondents’ highest academic degree (see Table 1) reflects differences in the typical education of library personnel in the two countries, aside from possible sampling biases (see Methodology section). In all following tables, statistical significance levels < 0.05 are indicated in green.

Table 1:

Comparison of academic degrees.

Highest academic degree that respondent holds: Germany
Germany – USA % χ2 p
N % N % N %
Bachelors or equivalent 46 29.3 0 0.0 46 9.9 29.3 119.31 0.00
Masters or equivalent 79 50.3 277 89.4 356 76.2 −39.1
Doctorate 25 15.9 28 9.0 53 11.3 6.9
Other 7 4.5 5 1.6 12 2.6 2.9

The “Masters degrees or equivalent” category includes those German Diplom-degrees that were given by Universities (and not Universities of Applied Science: “FH”). This degree level is by far the most prevalent in the USA, while Bachelors (for Germany including Diplom-degrees from Universities of Applied Sciences) and Doctorate degrees are more common in Germany than in the USA. Here and in other tables below, the “Germany – USA %” column reflects the %age among German respondents minus the %age among respondents from the USA, to show relative differences. Doctorate degrees, for instance, were held by 15.9% of respondents in Germany vs. 9% in the USA, for a %age difference of 6.9.

In the following tables, rows are sorted on the column “Germany – USA %”, to show the gradation of difference: the uppermost row shows that this characteristic is expressed strongest in Germany as compared to the USA (positive values), and the lowermost row shows that this characteristic is expressed strongest in the USA as compared to Germany (negative values).

The analysis of subject areas of the respondents’ academic degree(s) point out significant differences (see Table 2).

Table 2:

Comparison of subjects in academic degrees.

Areas of academic degree(s) that respondent holds (more than one response possible): Germany
Germany – USA % χ2 p
N % N % N %
Natural or physical sciences [or engineering, computer science/informatics] 24 12.3 22 6.7 46 8.8 5.6 4.88 0.03
Other 12 6.2 15 4.5 27 5.1 1.7 0.65 0.42
Business or management 8 4.1 19 5.8 27 5.1 −1.7 0.69 0.41
Social sciences [incl. economics, education, law, journalism/communication] 16 8.2 90 27.3 106 20.2 −19.1 27.66 0.00
Library/information science or librarianship 127 65.1 305 92.4 432 82.3 −27.3 62.65 0.00
Humanities [incl. (performing) arts, museum studies] 42 21.5 194 58.8 236 45.0 −37.3 68.73 0.00

Together with the previous Table 1, Table 2 supports the stronger codification of being a librarian in the USA as having a Masters degree in library or information science, with Humanities and Social science degrees also notably more prevalent in the US than in the German sample. The differences in degree subjects may relate to the differences of the respondents’ types of work positions (see Table 3).

Table 3:

Comparison of the character of the work positions.

Types of position(s) in which respondent currently works (more than one response possible): Germany
Germany – USA % χ2 p
N % N % N %
Technical services (example: cataloging, acquisitions), incl. e-resources 57 29.2 63 19.1 120 22.9 10.1 7.15 0.01
Information technology (example: systems administrator, programmer) 34 17.4 31 9.4 65 12.4 8.0 7.31 0.01
Manager of library division, department, or unit 54 27.7 81 24.5 135 25.7 3.2 0.64 0.43
Director of library 15 7.7 27 8.2 42 8.0 −0.5 0.04 0.84
Other 20 10.3 60 18.2 80 15.2 −7.9 5.96 0.02
Public services (example: reference, instruction) 77 39.5 168 50.9 245 46.7 −11.4 6.43 0.01

The “Other” category includes positions in the following areas: collection development/management (N=8); copyright/licensing/legal/repository (N=4); digital initiatives/scholarship (N=4); communication, marketing, outreach, assessment (N=8); subject specialist/librarian (N=8); administration (N=7); scholarly communications/open access (publishing) (N=13); and archives, preservation, special collections (N=7).

While there were no statistically significant differences between the German and American samples regarding how long they have worked in their current position or at their current institution, there were notable differences in how long they have worked in the library field in general: 28.2% (N=44) in Germany vs. 16.1% (N=50) in the USA for 5 or fewer years; 10.9% (N=17) in Germany vs. 19.4% (N=60) in the USA for 21 to 30 years. χ2(4) = 12.386, p < 0.05. These results show that respondents report a shorter work span in libraries in Germany or, respectively, a longer work span in the USA.

Not surprisingly, given the different higher education landscapes in the two countries, in Germany, 97.4% (N=190) of the respondents work in public institutions, but in the USA, only 61.4% (N=202); correspondingly, in private institutions, only 2.1% (N=4) in Germany, but 38.3% (N=126) in the USA.1 χ2(2) = 86.232, p < 0.001.

There were also some notable differences in the highest degree offered to graduates of the respondents’ institutions: Bachelors by only 1% (N=2) in Germany, but 7.9% (N=26) in the USA (presumably, the “four-year colleges”); Masters by 18.5% (N=36) in Germany, but only 11.9% (N=39) in the USA. There was little difference between the two countries, however, in the highest one offered being a Doctoral degree. χ2(4) = 31.854, p < 0.001.

3.2. Services Offered by Libraries

The range of services offered to their faculty/researchers by respondents’ academic libraries in the two countries shows both remarkable differences and similarities (see Table 4). For example, geospatial research support is far more prevalent in the USA, as is ORCID profile support; while in Germany, creation of DOIs for research outputs is more common than in the USA. On the other hand, exactly the same fraction (just below 50%) of institutions in both countries offers research data management help, and publication support is also equally widely offered (˜ 55%).

Table 4:

Comparison of services.

Respondent’s library offers faculty/researchers the following services (more than one response possible): Germany
Germany – USA % χ2 p
N % N % N %
Creation of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for research outputs 85 43.6 98 29.7 183 34.9 13.90 10.42 0.00
Research methodology or computing support 93 47.7 137 41.5 230 43.8 6.20 1.90 0.17
Assistance with managing their research data 97 49.7 164 49.7 261 49.7 0.00 0.00 0.99
Publication support (selecting journals to submit to, understanding impact metrics, etc.) 107 54.9 182 55.2 289 55.0 −0.30 0.00 0.95
Other 21 10.8 37 11.2 58 11.0 −0.40 0.02 0.88
Archiving or preservation of research outputs in digital formats 113 57.9 221 67.0 334 63.6 −9.10 4.31 0.04
Support for creating and utilizing ORCID profiles 65 33.3 159 48.2 224 42.7 −14.90 11.05 0.00
Geospatial (GIS) research support 8 4.1 128 38.8 136 25.9 −34.70 76.83 0.00

3.3. Challenges Facing Libraries in the Future

Survey participants were also asked about the greatest challenges facing their libraries in the next five years, with up to three choices possible (see Table 5). In Germany, the comparatively greater concerns were regarding keeping up with technology, and copyright/licensing issues; in the USA, they were financial support, and institutional and library leadership quality.

Table 5:

Comparison of challenges.

Greatest challenges respondent’s library will face in the next five years (up to three responses possible): Germany
Germany – USA % χ2 p
N % N % N %
Dealing with complex copyright and/or licensing issues 65 33.3 48 14.5 113 21.5 18.80 25.62 0.00
Keeping up with technological developments 93 47.7 98 29.7 191 36.4 18.00 17.15 0.00
Finding and retaining qualified employees 99 50.8 147 44.5 246 46.9 6.30 1.91 0.17
Having clearly defined goals to work towards 56 28.7 91 27.6 147 28.0 1.10 0.08 0.78
Other 16 8.2 30 9.1 46 8.8 −0.90 0.12 0.73
Having good library leadership 53 27.2 133 40.3 186 35.4 −13.10 9.23 0.00
Having good institutional leadership 22 11.3 94 28.5 116 22.1 −17.20 21.07 0.00
Receiving adequate financial support 64 32.8 227 68.8 291 55.4 −36.00 64.18 0.00

Some of the “other” challenges included the following themes: institutional/library restructuring/competition/collaboration, including buildings/spaces thereby affected (N=13); need & retain more/better/diverse staff (N=6); need more or better spaces (N=6).

3.4. Respondents’ Views of their Own Library

The survey participants were presented with a series of statements about their own library and asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with them (see Table 6). The values associated with the answers are: Strongly disagree = 0; Somewhat disagree = 1; Neither agree nor disagree = 2; Somewhat agree = 3; Strongly agree = 4. In this and the following tables, the rows are sorted on the “Germany – USA Mean” column, which reflects the difference in the mean of the two countries’ respondents’ answers.

Table 6:

Comparison of views on the current workplace.

Agreement with statements about respondent’s library: Germany
Germany – USA Mean Independent Samples T-Test
N Mean Std. Dev. N Mean Std. Dev. t df p
My library receives adequate funding to build and maintain a collection of information resources for its users 168 2.63 1.10 320 2.05 1.40 0.58 4.96 415.52 0.00
The level of staffing in my library to perform the needed work is adequate 168 2.30 1.19 321 1.73 1.32 0.57 4.86 369.56 0.00
The morale of the employees of the library is generally high 168 2.63 1.01 321 2.12 1.28 0.51 4.88 411.59 0.00
My library is open to users from outside my institution 168 3.60 0.75 321 3.20 1.09 0.40 4.75 450.81 0.00
My library is equipped with all needed technologies 166 2.24 1.06 319 2.14 1.22 0.10 0.94 377.74 0.35
My library has a clearly defined strategy for the future 168 2.16 1.16 320 2.14 1.25 0.02 0.21 364.75 0.84
My library meets the expectations of its users 168 2.67 0.79 320 2.82 0.86 −0.15 −1.80 486.00 0.07
My library seeks diversity among its employees 168 2.46 1.05 320 2.83 1.10 −0.37 −3.59 486.00 0.00
My library or institution expects librarians to seek leadership roles in professional associations 168 1.96 1.13 320 2.75 1.19 −0.79 −7.18 353.59 0.00
My library or institution expects librarians to engage in scholarly/research activities 167 1.82 1.14 321 2.81 1.29 −0.99 −8.68 374.22 0.00

It is noteworthy that the greater disagreement with “My library receives adequate funding…” in the USA, compared to Germany, echoes “receiving adequate financial support” being the greatest challenge for their library in the next five years among US-respondents (see Table 5). Respondents in the USA also have a notably lower belief of staffing in their library being adequate and employee morale being high. Compared to Germany, they agree notably more that their library or institution expects librarians to engage in scholarly or research activities, and to seek professional association leadership roles; this likely again reflects the differing higher education landscapes and professional cultures in libraries (see Tables 1 & 2) in the two countries, aside from the possibility of sampling bias.

3.5. Respondents’ Views of their Own Position

The survey participants were also asked to reflect on their own position (see Table 7), using the same agreement-disagreement scale as in Respondents’ views of their own library. The differences between the means of the German and American respondents were not nearly as high as in that area, barely exceeding ¼ point at the most.

Table 7:

Comparison of views on the current position.

Agreement with statements about respondent’s own position: Germany
Germany – USA Mean Independent Samples T-Test
N Mean Std. Dev. N Mean Std. Dev. t df p
My organization provides sufficient funds for my professional travel 155 2.84 1.09 313 2.57 1.41 0.27 2.26 383.70 0.03
I feel respected by the faculty/researchers in my institution 155 2.86 0.92 313 2.62 0.96 0.24 2.53 466.00 0.01
I feel respected by the students in my institution 155 3.06 0.77 311 3.14 0.81 −0.08 −1.02 464.00 0.31
I am paid adequately for my work 156 2.62 1.26 313 2.73 1.27 −0.11 −0.96 467.00 0.34
I am concerned about future job security in my position 154 1.36 1.38 313 1.47 1.27 −0.11 −0.80 465.00 0.42
I feel that I have made the right career choice 155 3.21 0.94 313 3.33 0.97 −0.12 −1.27 466.00 0.21
I enjoy the work that I do in my position 156 3.22 0.87 312 3.36 0.83 −0.14 −1.70 466.00 0.09
I enjoy my work with students in my institution 155 3.25 0.82 311 3.52 0.74 −0.27 −3.72 464.00 0.00
My organization sufficiently supports my professional development 156 2.72 1.14 313 3.00 1.18 −0.28 −2.38 467.00 0.02

3.6. Respondents’ Views of the Library Profession

Lastly, the survey participants were asked to reflect on the library profession (see Table 8), using the same agreement-disagreement scale as for their views of their library and their own position.

Table 8:

Comparison of views on the library profession.

Agreement with statements about the library profession: Germany
Germany – USA Mean Independent Samples T-Test
N Mean Std. Dev. N Mean Std. Dev. t df p
Academic/research libraries have lost relevance compared to twenty years ago 153 1.79 1.21 310 1.45 1.18 0.34 2.86 461.00 0.00
Academic/research libraries in other, similarly developed countries are generally more respected there than in my own country 153 2.31 1.06 310 1.97 0.84 0.34 3.47 248.15 0.00
Academic/research libraries will be less relevant in the future than now 154 1.41 1.18 309 1.20 1.08 0.21 1.90 461.00 0.06
There should be more collaborative relationships with libraries in other countries 153 3.08 0.78 310 3.08 0.81 0.00 0.10 461.00 0.92
Academic/research librarianship will be a good career choice for people in the future 154 2.64 1.02 310 2.67 1.02 −0.03 −0.38 462.00 0.71

There were only two statements with statistically significant differences, with German respondents feeling somewhat more (by ⅓ point) that libraries have lost relevance over time and that in other, similarly developed countries, libraries are more respected. However, for the latter statement, “Neither agree nor disagree” was selected by 37.9% of respondents in Germany and 57.4% in the USA, reflecting ambivalence about it, or possibly disinclination to speculate.

3.7. Views of the Future of the Library Profession

The survey participants were presented with several scenarios and asked to gauge the likelihood of them affecting the library profession (see Table 9). Here, the values associated with the responses for their analysis are: Very unlikely = 0; Somewhat unlikely = 1; Neither likely nor unlikely = 2; Somewhat likely = 3; Very likely = 4.

Table 9:

Comparison of views on future scenarios.

Likelihood of the following scenarios affecting the library profession: Germany
Germany – USA Mean Independent Samples T-Test
N Mean Std. Dev. N Mean Std. Dev. t df p
It will become increasingly difficult to attract young people to the academic/research library profession 152 2.74 0.94 306 2.23 1.09 0.51 5.19 344.47 0.00
Open Access will become the predominant publishing model for scholarly articles 153 2.80 0.88 306 2.33 1.03 0.47 5.09 347.41 0.00
Users will increasingly prefer external information sources, such as search engines and social media, to those provided by libraries 153 3.05 0.83 304 2.94 0.95 0.11 1.28 455.00 0.20
Salaries of academic/research librarians will be better than now 151 1.35 0.85 304 1.44 0.82 −0.09 −1.12 453.00 0.26
Librarians will become increasingly involved in disseminating and/or preserving the information generated in their home institution 151 2.99 0.74 304 3.14 0.72 −0.15 −2.15 453.00 0.03
Technologies used in libraries will become increasingly difficult to manage 151 2.11 1.09 304 2.28 1.03 −0.17 −1.59 453.00 0.11
The rising cost of publisher-controlled information sources will force libraries to reduce purchasing/subscribing to them 152 3.11 0.78 305 3.49 0.72 −0.38 −5.25 455.00 0.00
Large parts of the global scientific information infrastructure will become dominated by one or a few commercial entities 152 2.77 0.83 304 3.17 0.84 −0.40 −4.79 454.00 0.00

The German respondents felt it more likely (by ½ point) than those in the USA that attracting a new generation to the profession will become more difficult, and that for scholarly articles, Open Access will emerge as the predominant publishing model. The American respondents felt it more likely (by ⅖ of a point) than those in Germany that one or a few commercial entities will dominate the global scientific information infrastructure, and that libraries will be forced to reduce purchasing or subscribing to publisher-controlled information sources due to their rising costs. The least likely scenario in the views of both German and American respondents was that academic/research librarians’ salaries would improve in the future.

4. Discussion

This comparative study of academic librarians in Germany and the USA revealed both notable differences and commonalities.

They differ in their professional backgrounds, with a degree in library or information science and the Masters level being highly prevalent in the USA, whereas in Germany, level and subject area of the academic degree are more variant. In our sample, Technical Services or IT areas as the current position were more frequent in Germany, while public services and other types of positions were more common in the USA. Duration of respondents in their current position and at their current institution differs little between the two countries, but in the library field, it is notably higher for those in the USA.

The services offered by the respondents’ academic libraries differ notably in some areas, with support for geospatial research, ORCID profile creation/utilization, and digital archiving/preservation of research outputs being higher in the USA, while creation of DOIs for research outputs is more prevalent in Germany. Small to no differences exist between the countries in offering support for publication, research methodology/computing, and research data management.

Asked about their own library, respondents in the USA felt less strongly than those in Germany that it receives adequate funding to build and maintain a collection of information resources, that its level of staffing is adequate, and that general employee morale is high. Regarding the challenges their libraries will face in the future, American respondents were notably more concerned with adequate financial support and with having good institutional as well as library leadership, while German respondents named keeping up with technological developments and dealing with complex copyright/licensing issues to a markedly greater extent. Differences in views of their own position were overall minor between the German and American respondents.

Regarding the library profession, respondents in Germany felt more strongly than those from the USA that academic/research libraries are less relevant than two decades ago, and that they are more respected in other, similarly developed countries. There was no difference between the two countries in the belief that there should be more international collaborative relationships (3.1 on a scale of 0 to 4).

For the profession’s future, the German respondents think it more likely that it will become more difficult to attract young people to it, and that Open Access will become the predominant scholarly article publishing model, than their American colleagues. The respondents in the USA, on the other hand, see greater likelihood than those in Germany that large parts of the global scientific information infrastructure will become dominated by one or a few commercial entities, and that rising costs of publisher-controlled information sources will force libraries to reduce their purchases/subscriptions.

Future studies of librarians in different nations might adapt the survey instrument used for this one in order to extend the international comparison beyond Germany and the USA, including translating it from English into other languages. In order to avoid the different professional compositions of the samples from the two countries in this study, in part due to the recruitment for participation approach (see Methodology section), future studies could also solicit specific populations within the library profession, as done in the Ithaka US Library Survey (Schonfeld & Housewright, 2008).

5. Data Accessibility Statement

The survey instrument used in this study is available at https://doi.org/10.17606/7vas-4p59 under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. A replication dataset with the 525 cases and the variables this article reports on is available at http://doi.org/10.3886/E111106V1. The complete listing of the ACRL and ALA mailing lists to which the survey invitation was sent is available at https://doi.org/10.17606/bp4r-4s02.