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So Long, Dewey Decimal?

DU's Penrose Library staff manage nearly 400,000 bibliographic records. Photo: Michael Richmond

The American library today faces a formidable challenge. It must put out the welcome mat at two addresses: one at its physical premises, where the stacks and reading rooms still beckon book lovers; the other at a ’round-the-clock hive on a busy cyber street.

Just as important, that welcome mat has to serve an increasingly diverse population, one made up of kindergartners and seniors, technophobes and technophiles, immigrants and natives — the whole spectrum of society.

To address these challenges, librarians have deployed revolutionary technology at a breakneck pace. Consider: In the last 20 years, libraries have said goodbye to the card catalog and hello to databases. In just a decade, they have adapted their services for the benefit of an online clientele, offering everything from book renewals to research assistance and resource searches. And in addition to preserving traditional paper collections, they now must manage and catalog hundreds of thousands of Web addresses.

Keeping up with the times

At DU’s Penrose Library alone, the staff manages nearly 400,000 bibliographic records containing URLs to digital content. More than 300,000 of these links lead to digital monographs, publishing’s new contribution to scholarly discourse.

For the most part, the public has embraced these changes with enthusiasm. As proof, look at any given library’s approval ratings, as expressed in Web hits and circulation figures. At many institutions, they’re way up.

Boston Public Library President Bernard Margolis (BS political science ’70, MA librarianship ’73) notes that his institution’s virtual library handles 12 million visits a month. That’s up from a few thousand hits a month just a decade ago, when Margolis first started at the library. The average visit to the virtual library lasts more than 10 minutes, suggesting that patrons are using, rather than simply surfing, the site.

In the meantime, Margolis adds, activity at the library’s 27 branches has increased as well. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, circulation was up 8.3 percent, and so far this year, it’s up 10 percent. Margolis attributes that, in part, to another miracle of technology: the ability to analyze data for the benefit of patrons.

“Technology helps us look at reader habits and interests,” he explains. For example, the Boston Public Library studies computer- generated circulation reports that tell it which categories are most used. If, say, the reports suggest that mysteries are particularly popular, the library buys more mysteries. In other libraries, such data has supported a shift from traditional book purchases to acquisitions of DVDs, audio books and foreign-language periodicals.

To Nancy Allen, dean and director of DU’s Penrose Library, examples like these embody a new reality in which libraries find themselves “balancing the culture of the book with all the new technology-based collections and service-delivery modes.” That’s particularly true in the university setting, where librarians serve faculty and students in both the book-loyal humanities and those working in the sciences.

In doing so, university libraries have had to rethink everything, from how they assist students to how physical space is arranged.

For example, helping students with research is vastly different today than it was a mere decade ago, when the Internet was just emerging as a resource. “Students coming into the University are surprised that scholarly research is more complicated than a Google search,” Allen says. “But some of the traditional research methods still need to be applied.”

As a result, librarians must help students identify which information sources are reliable. They also need to introduce them to the thousands of resources that can’t be fully accessed online, to help them find what Allen calls “the most expeditious, efficient path from a question to an answer.” That’s why Penrose hosts DU’s new Writing and Research Center, where undergraduate students learn about the rigorous information gathering and evaluation that underpins scholarly writing.

University libraries also have to adapt to changing pedagogy, Allen says. For example, an emphasis on interactive learning and teamwork has repercussions for the institution’s floor plan. That may mean fewer study carrels for solitary scholars and perhaps even fewer books at arm’s reach. Allen is currently pursuing a renovation of Penrose that will introduce compact shelving and “repurpose” the space for group studies. “I want to shift, and I have to shift, the emphasis in this building from space for paper to space for people,” she says.

Still another challenge involves information preservation — and thus, perpetual access. Research libraries have always archived collections, but traditionally, that has meant books, documents, letters and journals. “We know how to do that on paper,” Allen says. “We know about that with regard to microfilm and physical formats. I think we know less about this in the digital world.”

That’s because today’s state-of-the-art technology is tomorrow’s curious artifact. In figuring out how to “save the bytes and bits of digital scholarly content,” Allen explains, librarians have to implement, if not create, the technology that moves software and files forward. And that, Allen says, requires a constant investment of time and money.

As they keep watch on technological changes, librarians also must be attuned to changes in their communities. As Margolis notes, most libraries must offer materials for an increasingly diverse population. “In Boston we speak 140 languages,” he says. “We are only able to buy books in about 35 languages.”

What’s more, says Deborah Grealy, director of DU’s Library and Information Science (LIS) program, libraries must address the different needs of varied age groups. “We’re dealing with changing generations and changing expectations,” she says, noting that seniors and aging baby boomers have one set of needs, while Millennials have another. The latter want instant access and materials in electronic form and are easily frustrated with even the most progressive institutions. Their parents and grandparents, meanwhile, often prefer stacks they can browse and paper products they can cart home.

To prepare professionals for work in the modern setting, university programs in library and information science have had to revise curricula and cross disciplines in search of new expertise. “Forty percent of new faculty in LIS programs have PhDs from other disciplines,” Grealy notes, including education, instructional technology, psychology and computer science. In addition, students entering LIS programs often come from law, political science, computer science and humanities programs, making the field rich in viewpoints and insight.

DU’s program, housed in the College of Education and recently accredited by the American Library Association, draws upon a core faculty to teach theory and a pool of adjunct faculty to bring real-world experience into the classroom. At the same time, Grealy says, students with experience in service-learning projects bring new learning back to the classroom, allowing professors to add to their knowledge and understanding.

Just as important, LIS programs are looking for new ways to reach students from diverse backgrounds. Grealy and other LIS faculty are currently working with DU’s Women’s College to introduce a 4+1 program that would allow students to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in LIS in five years. In the face of so many challenges, librarians find that their success and the success of their institutions depend on a commitment to lifelong learning and an enthusiasm for change. “Being a librarian is stepping on a treadmill,” Grealy says. “Once you step off, you are out of the game.”

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