In the digital age, the heart of the university expands

Academic libraries around the globe have historically referred to themselves as being at the heart of their institutions.

Students have relied on them for access to books, periodicals and other media needed to complete assignments. Libraries have also provided their faculty with the information needed to guide their research. Their mission and vision statements have often included variations of the words ‘to collect and preserve print and non-print material in perpetuity’. Libraries operated relatively passive monopolies.

While the heart metaphor may still fit, the digital age has prompted significant changes in how it manifests itself. Libraries have recognised that external-based technology has undermined their traditional monopoly of access to content.

Students and faculty no longer have to rely on their institution’s library to pursue their assignments and research.

In order to remain relevant to their users, academic libraries have been pivoting their services. Spanish researchers Angel Borrego and Lluis Anglada state it plainly: “Researchers no longer build their workflow around the library.” Students no longer have to come to libraries in search of needed content.

Digital impact

Yale’s Bass Library provides a typical example of the digital age’s impact on an academic library. While Yale’s enrolment has grown, Bass’ circulation has declined. In response, it plans to reduce its book holdings from 150,000 to 40,000. In the pre-internet age that would have been a counterproductive response. More potential patrons would have usually required adding more books to the collection.

Like a growing number of their peers, Bass’ reading room will be significantly transformed, with the books and their shelving removed. The traditional reading room space will be reconfigured.

New floor plans will include an array of pods or small semi-private meeting spaces with appropriate seating and whiteboards to promote group discussion. Teamwork and associated soft skills will be promoted. Group efforts will be supported by adjacent copy-print-scan equipment hubs.

In a pre-internet environment, these 21st century floor plans would have been viewed as a waste of space. Books, periodicals and other media formats had to be readily accessible. Bustle is replacing the enforced quiet. The internet has given students immediate access to screeds of content. Access to media is no longer time and place-bound.

Pre-21st century technological advances served to improve collection management and security. From scrolls, through chained manuscripts, bound books, card catalogues and a range of media formats, university library holdings grew in size and complexity.

The Online Computer Library Center and theft prevention systems brought 20th century computer technology to collection management and security.

The internet, a 21st century external disrupter, has diminished university libraries’ long-standing monopoly on access. They can no longer focus on the assembly, housing and circulation of their definitive collections from central locations.

The internet has prompted many libraries to redefine themselves as intermediaries and partners in the learning and research processes.

The heart metaphor has not lost its relevance. It is as appropriate as ever, if not more so. Students and faculty are no longer tethered to their institution’s library. Visits to the libraries are no longer required to acquire content.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones provide students and faculty with global access to information along with the apps to capture and organise their findings. An array of proactive services are therefore being offered to keep users engaged.

Proactive engagement

Traditional user services tended to be relatively passive and librarians tended to project a passive ‘come to me’ manner. Interaction with librarians was largely confined to the circulation or reference desks.

Accommodating the digital age has brought a more proactive service orientation. Organisation charts and job descriptions reflect that impact. Public Services and Technical Services labels may remain as proactive services, but Access Services and Research, Assessment and Marketing and Engagement Services have emerged.

Librarians’ assignments in the digital age reflect fewer backroom tech services and more public service posts. Even the former now do periodic shifts helping users. Librarians have become proactive in assisting students and faculty in the design, execution, assessment and modification of their queries.

Job titles at DePaul University’s Library reflect the internet age – Wikipedian in Residence and Assessment and Marketing Librarian.

The stereotypical image of the librarian passively waiting to respond to user queries or shushing even brief discussion among users has passed. Consultations are no longer limited to the Reference Desk and frequently extend beyond the front door.

Librarians provide students and faculty with house calls to classrooms and other public places, expanding their library’s impact on teaching and learning. The heart has grown stronger.

William Patrick Leonard is senior fellow at the Rio Grande Foundation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.