As discussion of the future of libraries leads us to envision the "virtual library," where information is delivered to our constituents rather than requiring them to come to us, many continue to think of libraries as repositories of information, and of librarians as the caretakers of those resources. While this has been a central role for libraries from the inception of the idea of libraries, many factors, including the democratization of access to education, the emphasis on lifelong learning, the move toward collaborative styles of teaching and learning, have impelled libraries to move beyond the caretaker role.
Library supporters often describe their library experience as being transformative. While these stories are usually about public libraries, institutions of higher education strive to accomplish similar transformations. Young people enter the academy limited in knowledge and experience. In college they are exposed to people and ideas; they are taught to analyze and synthesize these ideas as mechanisms for learning to think for themselves; they are changed.
It is hard to imagine this transformation taking place in the solitary environment predicated by asynchronous models of education. Research on attitudinal change indicates that nothing is more effective than associating a specific individual with an idea that is feared or misunderstood. Barriers between people and ideas are broken down most effectively by interpersonal relationships.
As the electronic delivery of information makes it possible for students and scholars to work in isolation, libraries must offer themselves as places that do not merely allow opportunities for discovery, collaboration, and consultation, but as places that create these opportunities. For the past several years, the staff of the Stevenson Science and Engineering Library has been working toward this goal.
Places of work and collaboration
Old photographs of Vanderbilt's Library show studious young people, sitting side-by-side at long tables, studying quietly. The rooms feature fine paneling, muted lighting, and Gothic arches. Silence was preserved to protect the rights of those who had come to commune with Knowledge.
Although the library-as-chapel model has disappeared, the physical arrangements of many libraries still reflect the attitudes that created it. At the Stevenson Library, we have worked to create a place that more effectively meets the current needs of our patrons; to develop facilities and policies that make the library a welcoming, comfortable place; that support the activities that research and study now include; and that enable people to work together effectively, including:
• Improved computer resources: wireless access to the campus network, doubling the number of networked computers, carrels with power and data outlets; computer productivity software, scanner, and color laser printing
• Improved lighting, noise reduction, furnishings, and other environmental aspects of the library
• Relaxed food and drink policies
• Areas for scheduled classes and group study as well as places for those who are desirous of quiet and solitude
• Reservable carrels in which materials may be assembled for in-house use.
Places of consultation
In earlier times, librarians worked in a remote office with an opaque window, as if to conceal themselves from those unworthy of professional assistance. Today librarians have moved into the public view, but still wait for information-seekers to come to us. Whether for traditional purposes of collection building or as we develop new models for providing information, we must become proactive in seeking out those we serve.
As a beginning point, Vanderbilt faculty members were surveyed about courses taught, current research interests, future research directions, perception of the collection for teaching and research, and suggestions for additions to the collection. In addition to identifying specific topics and publications for addition to the collection, respondents cited general trends toward interdisciplinary studies and more focus on technology in research and teaching.
Respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of time that the library provides the support they need for teaching and research. Science faculty estimated support for instruction at 89 percent of the time, with research support only slightly lower, at 81 percent. Engineers gave lower estimates, 73 percent for instruction and 63 percent for research. Specific titles mentioned were considered for purchase, and librarians responded to subject-related deficiencies by consulting with the respondent about adding relevant materials.
Perceived deficiencies included slow interlibrary loan and a variety of issues that may be generally characterized as insufficient or ineffective communication on the part of the library. Our responses to those comments included:
•Providing rush delivery of interlibrary loan articles via commercial vendors at no cost to the patron
• Developing additional delivery mechanisms for information about the library
• Emphasizing the role of the faculty liaisons, including constituting the liaisons as a new Advisory Committee to the director
• Empowering all library staff to take creative approaches to solving problems, producing a more service-focused organization.
We feel successful in the progress made so far, but as we look forward, our survival rests on our ability to continue our transformation. We must look critically at our policies and procedures, many of which are grounded in prescriptive ideas about the organization and use of information. We must develop staff training programs in research processes, library technology, and basic customer service. We must make it possible for subject specialists to actively seek collaboration with researchers. We must become known as "the place," both physical and virtual, where groups can gather to work together, share knowledge and expertise, and develop new sources of knowledge.
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