The Future of the Academic Library
Our essay on the future of the academic library was written by Christine Whittington. Whittington is the Head of Reference and Assistant Access Services Librarian. She is also the author, with Kathlyn Gay, of
Body Marks: Tattooing, Piercing, and Scarification, a book for young adults to be published by Millbrook Press in Fall 2002.
My favorite film librarian is Bunny Watson (Katherine Hepburn) in the 1957 film "Desk Set." Elegant, brilliant, and assertive, Bunny resists the efforts of computer nerd Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) to automate her corporate library until she discovers how the computer's data-crunching ability can complement, rather than replace, her own reference expertise. Like Bunny, academic libraries and librarians are in a period of change, thriving on the dynamic relationships between new and traditional library models.
The Internet has transformed forever how librarians serve their users. Libraries are no longer merely physical entities with books and librarians residing inside them. Fogler Library offers more electronic databases to their users every year, and our users can access most of these from wherever they happen to be, whether it is a house in rural Aroostook County or an Internet cafe in Singapore. Nearly every day, we answer e-mail reference questions from our own users, as well as other people half way around the world. It is, however, not true that libraries are shrinking because "everything is on the Web." Only a small percentage of information is actually available on the Internet, and book and journal publishers still produce a growing amount of print. However, students often write papers using material from the small percentage of information that is available on the Web. Faculty members express frustration at student papers citing exclusively web sites, while ignoring important primary sources. This issue of ease of access versus quality of information is one that librarians address in classes and one-on-one work with students.
The world's first libraries, such as those of ancient Alexandria or medieval monasteries, protected knowledge, which was not easily duplicated. Through most part of the twentieth century, academic libraries were places where students went to study alone or to identify, consult and check out materials stored there. Today, the evolution of academic libraries is to a great extent determined by the educational philosophy and academic culture of their parent institutions. The ideal academic library is a dynamic physical environment for teaching, learning, group study, and other types of intellectual and cultural exchange. David Lewis of Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis calls his library the "vibrant central space for the scholarly work of the campus." Libraries with commuting, nontraditional, or distance students may be quieter because students do not physically come into the library, but use its electronic databases, document delivery, full-text electronic reserves, and e-mail reference service.
Some librarians feel that libraries must compete with the "bookstore model" to survive and offer coffee shops, Internet cafes, and squishy chairs. While academic libraries may not need these amenities to survive, they certainly enhance the library's role as a center of cultural activity and intellectual exchange. Our own Oakes Room cafe has been the scene of poetry readings and the "Research Cafe" in Fogler Library's University Club provides a forum for discussion of research in progress.
Some things will not change. Academic librarians will continue to be passionately dedicated to equitable access to information. Questia, a commercial service, provides fee-based online access to 70,000 books and articles and promotes itself to students as an electronic library available "24/7". However, the average academic library adds 67,000 books per year to its collection and most offer their users free, full-text access to periodical databases and electronic books any time of the day or night. Librarians at poorly-funded libraries will continue to be resourceful and creative in their attempts to obtain materials for their users, despite smaller collections and fewer resources.
Librarians will remain dedicated to preserving information. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Shirley K. Baker, President of the Association of Research Libraries, wrote that "[t]he preservation of the intellectual and cultural record is one of the most important issues facing our society." "Could libraries do more to preserve original artifacts?" wrote Baker in another letter, this time to the New York Times Book Review. "Absolutely -- with additional funding, federal support, and greater public commitment to preservation." Unfortunately, libraries have never been successful in preserving every single publication. The "slow fires" of deterioration continue to consume brittle books printed on acidic paper, because there is funding and time to save only unique and valuable items.
Another thing that, unfortunately, will not change is the financial pinch that libraries feel upon renewing periodical subscriptions. Skyrocketing journal costs have inspired some libraries to collaborate with faculty on the electronic self-publishing of peer-reviewed journals that are free of charge. This initiative, called SPARC (www.arl.org/sparc/), has the potential to change the dynamics of librarianship, scholarship, and the publishing industry and to free scholarly communication from severe financial constraints.
Bunny Watson may not have anticipated all the changes in libraries since she met her first computer almost 50 years ago, but I have no doubt that she would be excited by them and that she would approve.