Shifting the Shape of Today's Libraries

DSCN1971_2012-11-17_13-43.jpgInformation is moving off the shelves into virtual clouds. Mobile devices are accessible to anyone at any time in almost any place, reducing the need to contain resources in a physical space. Library spaces are shifting operations from housing collections to being collaborative centers of cooperation, as well as offering new uses for space. As a result, libraries are changing the services they provide and changing how they look. An architectural revolution is under way from the $300 million renovation of the New York Public Library's sacred structures to Harvard's short-lived public Labrary experiment, which provided areas resembling a kids' basement playroom with an "inflatable reading room" and "dunce cap" capsules for patrons to study, read, or hide in.

Yet, will libraries of the future be reduced to coffee shops with Wi-Fi? With such changes, are librarians on the verge of extinction?

The trend toward bookless libraries makes economic and practical sense. A 2012 Association of Research Libraries study found that library budgets are being diverted to pay for electronic resources instead of books. With the growing use of tablets, smartphones, and laptops, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2012 research findings showed that a third of American adults get news on a mobile device at least once a week. Easy access to information has also increased information consumption and the demand for resources. For example, the Pew Research study also showed that as many as 43% of users say the news they get on their tablets is adding to their overall news consumption, and nearly a third claim they are adding new sources to their daily reading.

Historically, academic libraries have been among the first to eliminate books and card catalogs to create collaborative, open spaces that encourage cooperation among patrons and staff. According to a 2011 Time  article, Kansas State University engineering school's library started the bookless trend in 2000, which has continued. Bookless libraries are at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Stanford University, Drexel University, and Cornell University. Re-inventing spaces has resulted in the elimination of book shelves, and the creation of conference-like reading areas, collaborative playrooms, and even a brain-shaped library at Germany's Berlin Free University.

However, time-intensive, multi-million-dollar architectural renovations are not always an option in cost-cutting climates. "When it comes to cutting costs, institutions are first asking, 'What do we need a library for?'" said Dr. Elaine Martin '05LS, director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Lamar Soutter Library and an adjunct professor at Simmons GSLIS. "Libraries are more than just books and digital resources. We need to address the other services offered by the library to meet the information, educational, and research needs of library users, as well as identify how to best optimize their use." Aside from the expense, critics are concerned that architectural changes today may not accommodate the patron needs and demands of tomorrow.

While librarians may be moving away from cataloging books, electronic resource content management -- which includes corralling and organizing big data and online institutional repositories -- presents growth opportunities for librarians. Libraries need to become innovative in how they shift staff and resources to optimize their outreach to patrons. For example, the Lamar Soutter Library eliminated its reference desk in 2008 and adopted the embedded librarian approach to reference service. Reference librarians rotate every two weeks for "on call" requests that they receive from patrons through a pager. Having the freedom to work away from the reference desk allows the librarians to multi-task and conduct other activities, such as education outreach on patient wards and at off-site clinics.

"Closing the reference desk and freeing up time for the professional staff has allowed us to expand our outreach to work with patrons, and in many cases, work with them where they are physically located at a point in time. As a result, I believe we may actually be working with more people more closely than in the past," said Len Levin '96LS, head of Education and Clinical Services at Lamar Soutter Library.

While a renovation is a few years away for the Lamar Soutter Library, re-allocating staff resources and streamlining services, such as consolidating circulation processes, are still under way. Martin says patrons who advocate for their needs can be the library's best allies. At Martin's library, students are currently lobbying for additional space and 24-hour accessibility, while faculty continue to demand areas for older print journal collections. In such cases, librarians can negotiate such requests, recognizing that it is worth "fighting for what users want and not doing what they don't need," said Martin.

While medical libraries in academic settings have been ahead of the print to electronic information curve with the availability of free PubMed research since 1996, outreach practices can also be applied to public libraries. They are recognizing the value of reaching out to their community by hosting and participating in literacy and other events in schools, senior centers, and local businesses.

"Librarians need to start getting out of the library. While libraries may continue to provide a physical home for librarians, today's librarians have a variety of skills that can be used to manage the print and electronic content in other settings, as well as provide education outreach to a variety of populations. Staff resources should be re-aligned to meet function and work demands instead of being housed behind hard walls," said Martin.

by Jennifer Moyer, Dean's Editorial Fellow

Feature story | Infolink Newsletter