Most of today’s Hamilton students were too young for nursery school when Burke Library hauled away its card catalog in the summer of 1991.
In the 20 years since then, libraries have gone far beyond replacing wooden cabinets with digital search engines; now many are exploring the concept of fully bookless virtual libraries that exist only in cyberspace.
Burke Library is not one of them; it maintains a very physical paper-and-ink presence, and it will continue to do so. Nevertheless, as the College assesses Burke’s future needs, its collections and its functions are constantly evolving to meet the demands of the digital world:
The pace of this evolution, says Randy Ericson, the Couper Librarian and director of Burke Library, is so dizzying that patterns of change are often unpredictable. Just six years ago, for instance, a library task force warned that the library’s collection of bound periodicals would outgrow its space; today, it is widely acknowledged that those thick, well-thumbed volumes are in fact the dinosaurs of higher learning, teetering on the brink of extinction as they are replaced by e-journals. The additional space is still needed — but the need is now elsewhere.
Rapid historical change always spawns a degree of ambivalence, and the prospect of even a quiet revolution at libraries — which are by definition havens of order, reason and calm — leaves some feeling divided. Douglas Weldon, the Stone Professor of Psychology and director of the Neuroscience Program, relies on a wide variety of scientific journals in his teaching and research. In the past he had to travel to Syracuse University’s library to gain access to an extensive periodical collection. Now he can access those materials through Burke Library’s online resources. Weldon appreciates that “one of the benefits of the electronic world is that we can at least have access to all sorts of things now that we could not have had before.”
But even as Weldon welcomes this wealth of resources, he misses the pleasures of browsing. “Part of my enjoyment of graduate school was making a daily trip to the library and just picking off article after article and finding things out just by physically interacting with them that way,” he recalls. Many echo Weldon’s homage to wandering among the shelves and his fear that it is a vanishing pleasure. “I think we have lost the serendipity of browsing,” says Alfred Kelly, the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History. “Yes, you can browse an electronic catalog, but who wants to?”
It’s still possible to browse in the old-school manner, of course. On a sunny afternoon, with the shelves throwing angled shadows along the carpeted floor and dust motes drifting amid the scent of old paper, ink and glue, large expanses of Burke Library still seem, and in many ways are, the vestiges of another time. It’s a world that Julia Mulcrone ’11 has come to appreciate. Mulcrone credits her job in the library’s circulation department with teaching her the joys of browsing. As she reshelves and straightens, she encounters books from many disciplines. She gets a sense of the range of research in varied fields from the titles displayed under different Library of Congress classifications. But even more important, as she puts it, “I like being around books.”
There is little doubt, though, that the library’s traditional territories are shrinking, giving way gradually to — well, to something that is not yet so well defined. Digital media are not merely new tools for doing familiar things. Although they certainly can be, and often are, used that way, they also raise fundamental challenges to how we have packaged and presented information for centuries. How does one define the concept of a book or a journal when those same words are captured and endlessly redistributed in electronic formats rather than on printed paper? Perhaps even more critically for libraries, how does one organize and provide access to information that is no longer confined to fixed formats?
All libraries share Burke Library’s dilemma of planning for a future they cannot predict with certainty. The Association of College and Research Libraries recently presented its top 10 trends in academic libraries. Among them were the growing importance of making collections accessible; the requirement that librarians develop new and varied skills; the growth of digitization projects for special collections; the need for librarians to collaborate with various constituencies within the institution and beyond; and the necessity to rethink the use of physical space and increase virtual space. Burke Library’s staff members would agree. They are already tackling these issues in order to fulfill the promise of the digital age.
At the forefront of the shift to electronic services are periodical collections. Digital journals fill far less physical storage space than their paper-and-ink predecessors, are much easier to search, and save library funds that were once devoted to cataloging and binding costs. They are rarely much cheaper to purchase, however. Ericson notes that most e-journals still cost about 90 percent of the price of a paper subscription and, like paper subscriptions, tend to rise each year. Unlike paper subscriptions, however, when the library purchases an electronic subscription, it does not own the issues of the periodical. With an electronic subscription, the library is actually renting access to the material from the publisher. If the publisher goes out of business or has technical problems, that access is imperiled.
Periodical aggregator companies like JSTOR and Academic Search Premier reduce that risk by selling electronic subscriptions to the back issues of academic journals. These organizations are less likely to fail or have problems with their databases than individual publishers. Their reach is astonishingly wide — JSTOR holds more than 1,000 academic journals, and Academic Search Premier offers full text articles from more than 4,600 journals. Burke Library patrons have access to both of these services, along with others specializing in specific content areas.
Paradoxically, technological advances complicate the preservation of the College’s archives. When records were kept on paper all that was required was the use of good, acid-free paper and a safe storage area with environmental controls. Now that information — not only conventional library materials, but such documents as course catalogs, committee reports and college directories — are saved in computer files rather than between covers and in manila folders, archivists face surprising challenges. Every software advance demands that old files be translated into current programs, or software engineers must devise programs to read the old data. Information stored on outmoded media like floppy disks has to be transferred into contemporary digital formats. And while this digital storage does not occupy physical shelf space, it needs ever-growing storage space on a computer server.
In fact, the library staff circumvents this inconvenience by resorting to throwback technology: It prints out frequently consulted records and keeps them on paper, a simpler process than ensuring that the digital files are constantly upgraded.
More often, however, the process works in the other direction: technology allows the library’s Special Collections simultaneously to preserve and display precious paper records. The library owns a collection of Civil War regimental histories among its treasures. Library staff have begun to scan enlistment forms from the New York 117th Regiment and 58 letters soldier George Pearl wrote to his family in Clinton, N.Y., so they can be searched by name, home location and several other criteria.
But when Archives and Special Collections staff members scan selected documents, the digital files do not supplant the paper originals. Despite technological progress, acid-free paper is still the most stable and most reliable storage medium, and books can have a longer shelf-life than digital files. Ericson marvels that there are books more than 500 years old “that are in as good a shape as anything published today.” When researchers study the digital images, they reduce the wear and tear on the originals, and people all over the world can study them online without traveling to the College.
Burke Library does not collect individual e-books, but it has begun to buy digital collections from publishers. Each collection can contain an immense number of monographs that library patrons can access on their own computers through ALEX. In 2009 the library purchased a collection from Springer Publishing of 16,000 books on social science topics. Ericson explains that buying individual e-books creates problems providing access, but “if we can get things in a collection, that simplifies a lot of things. It probably gives us access to more books than we would otherwise get, at a relatively reasonable price.”
Ericson also is wary about Google Books and other mass digitization projects that are still in their infancy and prone to glitches. Occasionally the material does not scan properly and readers see screens filled only with strange symbols. Kelly, the history professor, recalls how one project to scan books printed in Fraktur, an old German typeface, turned the text into “gibberish.”
“It looks like 300 pages of a curse,” he says.
Of particular concern to librarians and researchers, these large scanning projects are not always careful to include information such as the publisher and date of publication that are critical to scholarly research. Ericson hopes that Google Books and similar projects will act as an index for what has been published, and then “it will actually drive people into the stacks to use the books that we have or [request them from] interlibrary loan.”
Librarians, standing in the midst of these transformations, see their own jobs changing. They have always had to learn how to incorporate new reference materials and media into their tasks, but, as Ericson observes, the differences between librarians’ traditional tools and the new cyber-tools are “a little bit more dramatic.”
Librarians also have to combat the sense that Google does it all. “Students come thinking that all they have to do is Google something and they will find what they need,” Ericson laments. “They often work in ignorance of what the possibilities are.” Hamilton’s librarians seek to develop a closer relationship with the faculty, working together to anticipate reference needs for particular assignments. Librarians are ready to visit classes to introduce reference materials most pertinent to the course’s subject matter and assignments.
The library also engages in other forms of outreach. Ericson describes how he and the librarians are “trying to develop our marketing plan. I think we have to go out and make ourselves known to the students…. We have to go out and encourage them to come and talk to us.” The library has its own page on Facebook, and its website offers reference services through instant messaging. “We are looking for ways to meet students where they are and to provide access to us through the channels that they would use normally,” Ericson says.
Amid the changing roles and expectations, one thing has remained the same. Students seeking company and study space outside their dorm rooms still flock to the library. Burke’s first floor boasts several group-study rooms where students come to work together on group assignments or simply for companionship while working on their own tasks. The appeal is “camaraderie,” Ericson says. “They may not be studying the same thing, but they are all involved in the same overall project” — learning. The library staff encourage that social dimension. At the end of the semester, the library plies students with free coffee and cookies, providing calories and caffeine to fuel long nights at work.
Newer locales like the Kirner-Johnson atrium and the Science Center may attract students who like to work in groups, but the library retains its allure. Mulcrone explains that campus geography also has some bearing, describing KJ as a frequent study stop “for people who live on the dark side.” But she notes that for all students, the library “is still the place to do serious studying.”
For faculty, however, the library’s status as a social hub may be diminishing. Some professors regret that Burke is less often home to chance encounters with their colleagues than it once was. It is, in a sense, the price of success — a side effect of the excellence and efficiency of Burke’s digital dimension. Professors can find the books and articles they need through ALEX and other online resources while sitting in their offices or at home. They can download articles on their own computers and request books from the stacks that will be delivered to their department mailboxes the next day. Such convenience minimizes the need to walk across campus to dig through the stacks or visit the reference desk. Kelly remembers that when professors used to go to the library, “they met people there from other departments. They took out books, they browsed the journals. That behavior is pretty much gone.” He misses those interactions, “I think any time … that technology discourages people from congregating at a common place,” he says, “it erodes community.”
Paper and ink increasingly share the library with digital documents, but they continue to dominate the library landscape in many disciplines, and the book itself remains a remarkable piece of technology. Kelly likes “the material richness of books. I like the way they smell. I like their extraordinary convenience. I like the ease with which you can mark them up and flip them around.” Mulcrone also notices how her books chart her own intellectual progress. “I like seeing the notes I made in [my books] in the past and seeing how my reading has changed,” she says. Ultimately, her love of books reflects her sense of their value: “I like them taking up space in my life because they are important.”
Even those who embrace the value and convenience of online books and periodicals seldom enjoy reading on a computer screen. Cobus van der Ven ’11 scans newspaper headlines online, “but any time I want to read an article, I always print it off. I have trouble reading online.” Kelly is steadfast in his doubts about the value of longer online texts. “I sometimes say that had the paper book been invented after the computer screen, that it would have been considered a superior technology and it would have swept away the computer screen. We are often victims of chronology in assuming that something that comes afterward is necessarily better, and we don’t wait for it to actually prove that it is better…. Often it is not.”
Hamilton’s students — unlike many of their peers elsewhere — tend to be cautious in their assessment of technology as well.
Van der Ven — who, far from being a Luddite, is a training assistant in the office of Information Technology Services — notes that his classmates use technology “for the sake of convenience” and as “a means, not a solution.” Hamilton is one of 100 four-year schools that participate in a national study of undergraduate students and information technology conducted by the nonprofit association EDUCAUSE. According to van der Ven, who has examined the results, Hamilton students are unusual in their preference for small classes with a professor in the room, eschewing online teaching methods and too much technology in the classroom. They favor “discussion-oriented classes, where technology doesn’t get in the way of face-to-face discussion,” as Van der Ven describes it.
Changes in information technology are profound and will undoubtedly continue in ways we cannot yet imagine. What has not changed, however — and certainly not at Hamilton — is that technology is only a means of transmission. Books and articles, in whatever form they may take, will be judged ultimately by the value of their content. As Kelly points out, “We have a tendency to get fixated on the technology of communication of ideas rather than worrying about what’s really important — whether there is any content to the ideas.”
Librarians don’t typically log much time in the media spotlight, but Michael Keller ’67, the university librarian and director of academic information resources at Stanford University, has been the exception recently. When NPR and others reported last summer on Stanford’s new “bookless” library — the school actually had reduced the number of volumes on its engineering shelves by more than 85 percent, allowing it to “get rid of” tens of thousands of volumes — the implication was that Keller had pulled a Dumpster up to the door. Such accounts have fueled a “death of the library” debate that Keller dismisses as wrong-headed, both factually and figuratively. More ...