Are academic libraries being stamped out?

When asked whether it’s time to shelve big old campus academic libraries for their online equivalents, digital library pioneer Gary Marchionini files a categorical ‘nope’. By their nature, libraries are repositories of the past, but, says Marchionini, that doesn’t preclude them from moving with the times

“I wonder who will be the last, the very last to seek
This place for what it was” 
– Church Going, Philip Larkin (The Less Deceived, Marvell Press, 1955)

In Church Going, poet Philip Larkin acknowledges the dawn of post-war modernity, a growing disenchantment with the establishment and hears obscurity knocking on the doors of old institutions.

In the poem, he visits an empty chapel. He doesn’t have a hat to remove as a mark of respect – as ritual dictates – so he takes his bicycle clips off instead. Wandering around, feeling out of place and time, he questions the point of the building and its contents. With no one using them for what they were intended, he wonders if it’s time churches were repurposed – perhaps as cattle sheds. 

While Larkin wasn’t religious (that said, he installed a reclaimed church lectern in his bathroom to read a giant King James bible from as he shaved. It was, “quite good”, he told a friend on finishing it, “in places”), he thought deeply, and wrote brilliantly, about preservation, resistance to change and the casualties of progress.

Some claim Larkin to be the greatest Poet Laureate we never had; posthumous revelations about his private life and his casual racism make that a complicated debate. But what is unarguably true is that in his day job as an academic librarian, he was one of the greatest of his time. 

Are university flagships sinking?

Bar carrying a hod, he oversaw every aspect of building – he even chose the wallpaper – and filling Hull University’s Brynmor Jones Library in 1967 to become the still much-envied jewel in Hull’s academic and estate crown.

As literal and figurative monuments to learning and study, academic libraries across the world are the heart and soul of the campus.

…our increasing reliance on the internet and other transformative technologies have in turn boosted the prevalence of digital libraries and electronic publishing

But our increasing reliance on the internet and other transformative technologies have in turn boosted the prevalence of digital libraries and electronic publishing. The ease of access for remote learning and the sheer range and scale of digitised content and data matched to the ease of ‘searchability’ are incentive enough to ditch days of wandering along shelves and speaking in hushed tones. 

Were he alive today, Larkin would be faced with the same gloomy questions he asked of the church: is the future of physical academic libraries cattle shed-shaped?

Rethink in progress

Cheering, then, that there’s an emphatic “no” from Gary Marchionini, dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Marchionini’s response might seem a little surprising; in the ’90s he was one of the early pioneers of digital library systems. But rather than predicting the dominance of digital over bricks and mortar, he’s always championed ways the two can complement each other.

Back in 2007, in an article for the Journal of Documentation co-authored with Jeffrey Pomerantz, he predicted: “As more digital libraries are built, and as more physical libraries offer electronic access to parts of their collection, two trends are likely to result: the role of the library as a storage space for materials will become decreasingly important; and the role of the library as a space for users, for individual and collaborative work, and as a space for social activity, will become increasingly important.”

Marchionini thinks that physical, academic libraries are in rude health, doomsayers overlook that they’re constantly adapting to the changing times. Image source: escapejaja/Freepik

Speaking on Zoom to Education Technology (ET), the dean’s position hasn’t changed, in spite of hearing rumours that physical academic libraries are increasingly moribund.

“In the first instance, some colleagues will say to me, ‘Well, I haven’t set foot in a library in a decade,’ to which I respond, ‘Well you’re still accessing them, because more than half of the academic library budget is going to electronic resources like data and ebooks and the like.”

“…they’ve become a very strong movement for open access to knowledge and for fighting against the kind of exorbitant prices of the Elseviers of this world” – Gary Marchionini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Marchionini thinks that physical, academic libraries are in rude health, doomsayers overlook that they’re constantly adapting to the changing times; “They’re no longer just a repository of books and journals – although for law students and history professors they still serve that purpose – they’ve become a very strong movement for open access to knowledge and for fighting against the kind of exorbitant prices of the Elseviers of this world. So, there’s a lot going on.”

Please don't be quiet in the library

North Carolina’s campus is full of libraries and research facilities all under the auspices of the main academic library. And, says Gary, they’re all thriving (the caveat, he points out, being temporary COVID restrictions), just not exclusively in the old sense.

“When I take a walk through our libraries, they’re always busy with students. Obviously, there’s the aspect that it’s a quiet place to study, but there are areas which are active and quite noisy because the librarians have made a concerted effort to create learning spaces within the libraries; research hubs filled with technology where faculty and students can collaborate on projects.”

More informal are the increasing number of adhoc and vibrant workshops called ‘maker spaces’ on library sites at Carolina. “These are very popular and where students are actually engaged in making and fixing things with the technology and equipment – from 3D printers, to sewing machines and laser cutters – on hand to facilitate that. It’s about engaging people and making library space and valuable resources available to everyone.”

Maker spaces actually have their roots in the early digital library movement, says Gary.

“…there are areas which are active and quite noisy because the librarians have made a concerted effort to create learning spaces within the libraries; research hubs filled with technology where faculty and students can collaborate on projects” – Gary Marchionini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“There was a computer scientist, Bill Wulf, who was running one of the big directorates at the National Science Foundation, who came up with this concept of ‘collaboratories’. Basically, these were a way to share very expensive equipment – like MRI machines, or high-end telescopes – that no one person or lab could afford to buy or rent but, as library resources, their use and availability would be facilitated by the internet.”

Data to remember

As physical libraries experiment with new ways of using their spaces and physical attributes, they’re also getting on with the job of becoming digital libraries in their own right.

A digital catalogue was first started in the 1970s; the days of retrospective conversion and the laborious task of noting the bibliographic records, the basic stuff that’s on the spine or the inside cover of the book, and physically typing it into a database. Actual digitisation of books, music and images began in the late 1990s and early 2000s – largely undertaken by cash-strapped undergraduates assigned a scanner – and, with 110,000 volumes of papers, dissertations and theses spanning the long history of the university, it’s still under way. 

“We’re the oldest public university in the United States, and so, taking the humanities as an example, we have an enormous, and certainly the best collection, of Southern US historical materials here, on this campus. There’s millions of photographs, newspapers, journals…so if you want to do research on the American South, you know you’ve got to come here. But we want to digitise that all and widen access to it.”

Aside from its physical archive material, North Carolina also has vast arrays of data available (or in the process of being made available) that can be accessed remotely or from databases in the library itself.

“One of our biologists, for instance, has two petabytes of gene-sequencing data [one petabyte is the equivalent to 1,000 terabytes or 1,000,000 gigs of data storage]. They’ve paid for a separate storage for that through our computing infrastructure, but eventually it will be preserved by, available in and via our libraries.”

But where to put and how to access all that newly acquired data – finding the virtual shelf space, if you like – is the challenge.

“The two things you need are bandwidth and storage. Storage is actually pretty cheap, and if it’s cloud-based the main cost becomes the bandwidth needed to transfer stuff. You need to trade-off bandwidth for computation in the library – that means finding new ways to put the computational tools with the stored items so that people don’t have to actually transfer these big data sets. I think those are going to continue to be valuable technical needs.”

We’ve come a long way since Melvil Dewey began decimalising. This branching out of services provided in physical libraries requires in-the-know staff who understand the processes.

“Certainly,” said Gary, “most of our students in our library science master’s degree, even though it’s not required, take at least one database course, so that they basically understand the principles and are able to talk to the deep technical people – the managers, the clients and patrons and publishers – and be the bridge. It’s a kind of skill set that the modern librarian really wants to possess in order to be successful.” 

Modern librarians need what Gary calls ‘cyber-carpentry’ tools. “That’s where you’re basically taking existing tools and resources and reassembling them to solve a problem. The kinds of librarians we’re training for the future are savvy. I mean, they may not be a Python programmer per se, but they know enough to be able to hack together some tools using other different tools to solve a problem in whatever library they happen to be in.” 

But where to put and how to access all that newly acquired data – finding the virtual shelf space, if you like – is the challenge. Image source: fullvector/Freepik

The future's not overdue

Marchionini sees the future of physical/digital hybrid libraries as being much more personalised, curated even, to ‘ticket-holders’’ needs.

If you imagine the open web as massive cloud of uncatalogued ‘stuff’, then there’s the private web, which is even bigger perhaps, made up of corporate and proprietary data. The overlap in the middle is what Marchionini calls the curated web. 

“Those are the libraries; carefully curated data that has added value because of it. You might think of it like cable channels or streaming services via which people are able to pick different components depending on their own personal interests and needs. So, one day I might be in the curated web that’s dealing with environmental science because I’ve got a particular problem I’m working on that deals with global warming. Another day I’m going to move into a curated web that tracks averages for Bitcoin prices. I think those curated webs are really achievable.”

To that vision he adds that libraries of the future – accessed remotely and physically – will become “libraries of people”, the ultimate biographies, in which a person’s entire cyber-identity, from their life’s work in research to their Twitter feeds, could be managed and made accessible, “with their permission, even beyond their death. So, it’s not just that we’re managing resources and data in the physical library sense and in the digital sense but also soon, I think, people’s entire cyber-existence.”

This is proof of life in libraries that Larkin would no doubt be relieved to hear.

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