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The changing face of academic libraries: Why less space does not have to mean less impact

Dr. Robert Schwarzwalder, Stanford University | Mar 01, 2011

Dr. Robert Schwarzwalder

After decades of expanding library facilities on American university campuses, the last few years have brought news of library closures and consolidations. While the economic turbulence of the last few years has accelerated this trend, I see it as the natural evolution of our profession. Whether we, and our profession, prosper or decline in the coming years will depend upon our ability to adapt to the changing nature of information access.


Our work has never been about managing warehouses of books. The heart of our profession involves getting needed information to people in a time frame consistent with their needs. As information has gone digital, we have been able to provide access to books, journals and data at any time of day and to any corner of the world. The problem of the past was providing access to a scarce commodity, information. Our clients now have access to more information than they can process, through more channels and more interfaces than can be managed. In this environment of immediate access, the model of the paper library appeals to an ever-shrinking population. While I see the need to preserve the paper copy, this has become more a mission of preservation than of access. With the growing acceptance of eBooks and the near universal preference for digital journals, can anyone really doubt that in 10 to 15 years the number of people preferring paper will be very small?


In the face of this monumental change, libraries have been slow to evolve. While most academic library collection budgets are shifting strongly toward digital holdings, many library spaces and services still revolve around the book stacks. Corporate libraries have long realized that their survival depends upon providing needed services, and they have adapted well to the new digital environment. In academia, presidents and provosts have begun to look at the large and expensive facilities of the academic library as anachronistic.


Digital collections need not signal the death of the library, but to survive we need to develop a program that matches the needs of today’s library user. Library services must address the needs of an increasingly online user. Services should focus on managing information resources and advanced applications of information technology, not on simple access. Library spaces need to be redesigned with new use cases in mind. It is wholly insufficient to equip unstructured space with wireless access and brand yourself a digital library.


The library can be, and should be, the intellectual commons of the university. To achieve that end, we need to foster and support the sort of collaboration, team building and inspired play in library spaces that continues our role in education. Rethinking our services and spaces is far more complex than adopting a new technology or two; it involves engaging with our community in a manner that meets real patron needs.


While I was employed by Ford Motor Company, our library developed current awareness and digital delivery services for industry standards in consultation with our engineering community. My former colleagues at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have developed a student success center in collaboration with the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. At Stanford, we are working with our faculty and administration to link library services to the pedagogic and research needs of our university. In each case, information and services have been adapted to meet the unique needs of the organization.


While the consolidation of library spaces is an inevitable result of the increasingly digital nature of collections, less library space does not have to mean less impact. It is up to us to invent the library of the 21st century. If we see the library only as a warehouse of books, then we will be supplanted. If we see digital information as a revolution in access that allows us to play a more effective and more vital role in education and discovery, then this is not an end, but a beginning.