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Libraries undergo an e-volution

Dust on the bookshelves forces librarians to rethink resources for Web-savvy students

September 29, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Some college students this fall won’t need to worry about learning the location of stacks at their main university library. Why? There are no books.

The library of the future has arrived; it’s food-friendly, open 24 hours a day and has comfortable chairs, wireless Internet access and coffee kiosks. Students at the University of Texas-Austin are among those already experiencing this type of futuristic venue. UT-Austin is one of several universities modernizing their main libraries by “going digital,” a phrase the library uses to describe its attempts to keep up with fast-paced technology and Web-savvy students.

Before this fall, Flawn Academic Center, which housed UT-Austin’s undergraduate library, held 90,000 of the library system’s 8.5 million volumes. Many of these books hadn’t been checked out for years, says Carole Cable, the chief communications officer for UT-Austin libraries.

The center has now been “repurposed,” Cable says. Those volumes removed from the center are relocated in discipline-specific libraries on the UT-Austin campus, which she says most students use to find books anyway.

With all the books removed, the newly renovated Flawn Academic Center now contains study areas, multimedia computer labs, service points, the campus computer store and laptop checkout services. Employees who are cross-trained in computer software, library instruction and writing assistance staff the service points in the center.

FROM DIDDLY TO DIGITAL:A HISTORY OF ELLIS LIBRARY

1841— Provision of $1,000 is made for a library at MU.

1858— The library reaches 4,000 volumes.

1862-1865— The Union Army occupies the library and uses 467 volumes to construct fires.

1877-1879— Librarian Scott Hayes creates MU’s first card catalog.

1892— The library’s collection is destroyed when Academic Hall burns down.

1900-1907— James Thayer Gerould is hired as MU’s first professionally trained librarian. He envisions freely circulating books and comfortable reading and work areas.

1916— MU’s newly constructed Main Library opens.

1947— Ralph Halsted Parker, director of libraries, opens the stacks to all patrons and adopts the Library of Congress classification system, which replaces the Dewey Decimal System.

1949— The Microfilm Laboratory is established.

1964— One of the nation’s first automated library circulation systems is installed in Main Library.

1971— Main Library is named the Elmer Ellis Library, after the former president of MU and the first president of the University of Missouri System.

2001— The first exhibit of the digital library collections, “Mizzourah Football at MU: The Early Years,” is available online.

2001— Library surpasses 3 million volumes..

2004— Information Commons, a versatile, student-centered study space, is created in Ellis Library.

source: muarchives.missouri.edu/libraryexchr.html

“It’s really a one-stop shopping area for assistance,” Cable says.

MU libraries offer similar resources to students, including online databases, electronic journals, electronic reserves, an online catalog, laptop checkout services and personal assistance from trained librarians. Ellis Library also has study areas and computers though some students feel there aren’t enough of either.

MU junior John Torbitzky says the most important thing the library needs is “more study space.”

Michael Holland, MU archivist and head of special collections, archives, rare books and digital initiatives, says Ellis Library doesn’t need to be repurposed because of lack of physical space. But according to Director of Libraries Jim Cogswell, MU will be taking some steps similar to those at UT-Austin.

Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 students come in Ellis Library every day when classes are in session, and Cogswell says most of those people come to use a computer. “We need to make sure that the space that we have under this roof is going to accommodate what the majority of our users need,” he says.

MU libraries receive approximately 60,000 new books every year that must be stored in Ellis Library, one of the seven branches or in off-site storage. Cogswell says the library’s primary goal is “to manage this balance between people space and information space.”

The creation of Information Commons at Ellis Library a little more than a year ago was one step in a process of making that compromise. Information Commons is a versatile, student-centered space that can be filled with computers, books or workstations. The long-term plan is to extend the hours for this studying space, says Cogswell, who hopes the plan can also be applied to other places on campus, such as Brady Commons.

MU also continues to expand its digital library. When Holland began working at MU nine years ago, digital work hadn’t begun. Now the digital library has about 20 special collections online, including the Digital Scriptorium, a cooperative project among 20 of the most prominent universities holding Latin manuscripts in North America. The sometimes fragmented documents can be compared and reconstructed digitally for the first time and accessed by people around the world.

Digitizing and cataloguing a collection can be expensive, from $2.75 to $8 a page. It also takes several months to several years to complete. Digitizing the collection of 18,000 pamphlets from 16th-, 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century England, Ireland and Scotland, for example, will take as long as three years.

The advantage of digitizing is preserving original texts and giving students access to rare and not-so-rare texts.

“All they have to do is find us, locate us, and they have as much primary resources as probably they could ever use,” Holland says. “They don’t even have to step foot out of their library or even their home.”

Holland thinks more research will be done with digital texts. “If trends continue, then a terminal is going to be about as useful as a table with reference resources stacked on it.”

However, he does not see digital resources as ever replacing hard copy, and that’s a relief to many.

“It just wouldn’t seem like a library then, would it?” says freshman Colleen McCabe. “There’s something about checking out and looking at a book that makes it more personal.”

— Lindsey Douthit

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