With the opening of the country’s first completely digital public library in Bexar County, called BiblioTech, on Sept. 14, the future of libraries has become a big topic of discussion lately.
Rick Lugg, the president of Sustainable Collection Services, traveled from New Hampshire to Texas to hold a special meeting with librarians and faculty on Wednesday in Trinity’s Collaborative for Learning and Teaching. Lugg has worked with academic libraries for 30 years now, and his major interest is library monographs. Lugg thinks this interest is somewhat karmic; after spending the first half of his career getting books into libraries, he now finds himself having to come up with the best way to take those same books back out. Lugg believes the circulation of print books and journals in academic libraries is especially telling of the changing landscape of libraries.
“Circulation in academic libraries has always been pretty low, and it’s declining steadily,” Lugg said. “Even in places where raw circulation counts are increasing, if you factor in growth in enrollment and growth in faculty, circulation per user is typically declining. However, print collections are still growing.”
In prior decades, the size of the library’s collection was thought by some to determine the quality of the school.
“In the 1980s and stretching into the “˜90s, the U.S. News & World Report rankings put a pretty big emphasis on collection size at an academic library. That was something that they would use to determine whether the school was good or not, so we all played that game,” said Diane Graves, university librarian.
In these early stages of assembling collections, space was not a huge issue, as librarians did not hold back from collecting books.
“If somebody called and asked if we wanted her books, we would take them because it would up our volume count,” Graves said. “There wasn’t a lot of consideration about quality. While that was going on, we were also buying things that were high quality, but we took on a lot of stuff that you could argue does not belong in an academic library. It wasn’t a space crunch, so it wasn’t a big issue.”
Recently, however, the library has begun to reassess the size of its collection.
“We did a big collection shift in 2007. At that point, we got rid of all our volumes that were duplicated in JSTOR. As we did that shift, several of us started seeing some of that stuff that had been added in the 80s, and we thought it’s not necessarily good to have in here. The old books were almost like a barrier to the use of the collection for students,” Graves said.
Graves is amazed by the way the library’s collection has changed over the years.
“About 15 years ago, we had someplace between 2,500 and 3,000 print journal subscriptions. Now we probably have 1,500 journal subscriptions in print, and we have access to 80,000 titles electronically, which is just to my mind astonishing,” Graves said.
Upon reassessing the collection, the librarians started taking notice of the lack of study rooms available to students.
“We also started realizing that we really have a shortage of good study rooms in here. I would say that, compared to some of our peer institutions, we’re pretty short in that category,” Graves said. “Then, of course, periodically those rooms end up getting commandeered as offices for other people like Dean Tuttle, who’s living in some on the second floor right now while he waits for his real office.”
Graves would also like to see a space created for class use where materials could be left behind at the end of class without being disturbed.
“It would be great to have a space outside of special collections where a class could be taught with people using archival material, and they could stop at the end of the day and it could be secured and left there; it would sort of be like a humanities lab,” Graves said.
Graves also mentioned how the irrelevant items in the library’s collection can hamper a person’s browsing experience.
“Everybody’s time is short, so the browsing experience needs to be as positive as possible,” Graves said.
As the library begins to select print materials that it deems no longer practical, the disciplines that the materials correspond with will be taken into consideration.
“Ideally, what we’ll be doing as we go through this process is identifying candidates for withdrawal,” Graves said. “We really do think about the discipline. We know that some disciplines are more monograph-dependent than others. Computer science wouldn’t be as affected as history or English if we moved things out.”
The librarians do not have a set number of books they plan on moving out. Instead, they want to make sure they handle the situation in a thoughtful manner. Once books are selected to be removed from the library, they will be sent to a storage facility. Students and faculty will still have access to the books, but they will have to wait a couple of business days to receive it.
“I would not advocate that Trinity build a storage facility because we’re too small,” Graves said. “UT and Texas A&M have a combined one that they just opened outside of College Station somewhere. We’ll probably have to contribute in some way to rent the real estate from them, but I don’t see that as being a significant barrier.”
Claudia Stokes, associate professor of English, expressed concern at Wednesday’s meeting over how print items were being selected for removal from Coates Library.
“I’m very skeptical about the idea of carting a collection that accommodates use. It seems like shedding books that are not circulating would be intellectually problematic both for researchers and for teachers,” Stokes said.
Stokes expanded on her point.
“My concern is that we are creating a collection that accommodates students’ current library use habits rather than encouraging them to research more extensively and more widely,” Stokes said. “We need to make sure resources are made available to them should they want to pursue a topic that nobody’s researched for the past decade. I’m not comfortable with using students as a criterion for the retention of materials.”
Lugg subsequently clarified the process that the library is thinking about undertaking.
“No titles are going to disappear. It might just take one or two days longer to obtain. It’s not taking access away from anybody,” Lugg said.
Graves does not see a completely digitalized format like that of BiblioTech in the near future of Coates Library.
“We will never say we won’t buy any more books,” Graves said. “There’s still an obligation for libraries to preserve books and their contents as a cultural record.”