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Libraries stack up in new digital world
Research libraries such as those on the Virginia Tech campus are moving away from being repositories of knowledge to active curators of data.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Sophomore engineering students Brandon White (left) and Charles Schlosser work on homework in a newly installed study station in Newman Library. The station allows them to plug their own machines into a large monitor, and provides some privacy.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Tyler Walters, the dean of Virginia Tech's libraries, said the turning point came in 2011 when Amazon.com reported selling more eBooks than print books.
Monday, March 4, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech researcher Emmanuel Frimpong and his team took two years to compile a database of biological traits of 809 U.S. freshwater fish species for a project funded in part by the U.S. Geological Survey.
But the team needed a new service at Tech’s Newman library to help them honor a commitment to the USGS to make that online database available to other scientists.
“I don’t think researchers across campus are aware of this service the library can provide,” Frimpong said.
Welcome to the modern research university library, where new skills and even new spaces are being developed to serve the needs of scholars, scientists and students working in the digital age.
From a digital-ready classroom to furniture reminiscent of the starship Enterprise, library officials say they are developing new ways to serve the campus, and the public.
As libraries transform for the digital age, “it’s an exciting time,” said Judy Ruttenberg of the Association of Research Libraries, a membership and advocacy organization for 125 of the nation’s largest research libraries, including the Library of Congress.
“When university libraries housed large print collections and people had to come there to use them, that was a different model. Now students, scholars and researchers have many options, and the library serves in a different way,” Ruttenberg said.
To keep libraries relevant amid the rapid expansion of Web-based information, Tech officials are using architects and student advisory committees to develop spaces and services that draw the campus into the library.
More and more print books and journals are shifting out of library buildings and are being replaced by digital classrooms, sequestered study rooms and open areas for all kinds of group and individual work. Library collections are moving from paper to cyberspace and can be accessed on a growing list of electronic devices, from iPads to Kindles.
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The turning point came in April 2011, said Tyler Walters, dean of Tech’s libraries. That was the year Amazon.com reported selling more eBooks than print books.
Walters came to Blacksburg two years ago from Georgia Tech and said he is working to “leapfrog” Virginia Tech’s library into the digital age.
In 2008, Tech offered 157,000 eBooks to patrons. Today, that collection has grown to a half-million, said Brian Mathews, associate dean of the library.
The portion of the budget spent on digital collections has also increased from about 60 percent in 2008, to 80 percent today, Mathews said.
But moving into the future requires a lot of jumps, among them reconfiguring the library building floor by floor for new uses, diversifying the skills of librarians through hiring and training, and planning for how to curate and preserve traditional print and emerging digital resources.
And there are skeptics. Experienced professionals, such as Tech’s agriculture librarian Margaret Merrill, question the pace of these changes and worry that important things may be lost in the rush.
Merrill has been a librarian since 1968, and like many of her colleagues across the country, she has carefully curated and preserved large print collections throughout her career. Seeing some of those resources moved to storage — or even eliminated — is worrying, she said.
The vision of libraries has traditionally been as “repositories of the accumulating knowledge of the human species,” Merrill said.
While she acknowledges that society is changing and libraries must also change, she worries that “we are moving so rapidly from print to digital that there is little time to think through the implications.”
Merrill said she also wonders whether enough planning is being done to preserve print and digital collections from major disruptions of computer networks and the electrical grid.
But Walters said the mission of libraries remains unchanged. It’s the format of materials, and the rising importance of collections of data that is changing.
And, Walters said, library leaders across the world are working together to plan for the long-term preservation of cultural and scientific resources stored in libraries, regardless of their format.
He points to Tech’s participation in the HathiTrust Digital Library initiative as one example. The trust has so far digitized 10.6 million print volumes and made them available to libraries worldwide.
But the rise of data produced by university researchers and the need to curate it is one of the biggest changes, Walters said.
Today funding agencies such as the USGS, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation are requiring grant seekers to develop “data management plans” to submit along with funding proposals.
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Because federal agencies remain the largest sponsors of research grants to universities — accounting for more than half of total spending — the need for data management compliance is expected to grow.
Establishing well-maintained research databases that scholars can draw from and add to over time reduces duplicate data collection and speeds up critical research. But managing the volume of data produced by work such as Frimpong’s fish traits project can be overwhelming to researchers, who lack advanced skills in information technology and computer programming.
And rarely do grants or institutions provide extra funding to hire private consultants to secure and maintain research data in a publicly accessible electronic format, Frimpong said.
Along with publishing a paper on fish traits, Frimpong’s group, with help from a computer science doctoral student, published a companion database on the College of Natural Resources and Environment Web page. It worked well for a while, he said.
But, the doctoral student graduated and moved on. New data came in. Network and Web page upgrades took their toll. Eventually, the database broke down. Frimpong then found himself fielding email requests from other researchers asking for some portion of his data. Supplying it took up more and more of his precious research time.
In short, “we were in a bind,” he said.
But a graduate student working with Frimpong suggested the professor approach Newman Library for help.
“They reprogrammed it, making the security of it better, and the functionality,” Frimpong said.
Work to expand the data set continues, with the library as Frimpong’s partner. Having the library, which is a permanent entity, curate and manage the database is a great service, Frimpong said.
Tech’s library system is also “leapfrogging” into different ways to serve today’s students, who have new expectations for their library.
“Today we have amazing ways to experience digital content. iPads, Kindles, tablets, phones,” Mathews wrote in an email. “When talking with students, I rarely hear ‘How do I find a book,’ but rather it’s ‘How do I get books on my device?’ ”
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But it’s not just content. The six-floor building itself is changing.
If the movie image of the severe librarian shushing patrons and banning food and drink from the stacks was ever true, it no longer exists at Newman. Coca-Cola and snack machines on the fourth floor. Students on the second-floor couch eating Au Bon Pain sandwiches. The vibe has definitely changed.
As a sociology undergraduate at Tech, Justin Graves said he rarely used the library, which remained at that time mostly a building housing “stacks and stacks of books.”
But today as a graduate student in education leadership and policy studies, Graves said he eagerly takes advantage of the new round-the-clock hours Sundays through Thursdays, and the comfortable work spaces created over the past two years. The overnight hours are particularly popular.
“I’m very thankful for that,” Graves said. “I don’t do mornings.”
Flexible, comfortable work spaces are also appreciated.
“They are creating a new space that lends itself to group work and collaboration,” Graves said. “They are doing a fantastic job working with what they have.”
Centralizing several services from around campus — the English department’s Writing Center, a communication lab and InnovationSpace, a multimedia computer lab — at the library makes it easy for students to get the help they need to succeed.
As part of a student library advisory committee, Graves will now be helping guide more changes, particularly to the physical library space.
Mathews is working with an architect to continue remodeling the first and second floors to draw more people into the library. A new vendor to replace Greenberry’s coffee is being sought for the now empty first-floor cafe. Even without a vendor, the cafe seating is full most days with students studying and eating lunch brought in from Squires Student Center next door.
A new digital “scale-up” classroom has opened on the first floor and will soon be filled with College of Science classes.
“It’s likely in the near future that all 30,000 students will have tablets and that will be their primary channel for accessing, reading, producing and sharing information,” Mathews said. “We have to be ready to support that infrastructure.”
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