The challenge for libraries in a digital world
University libraries here at Queen’s and on campuses everywhere are embracing a whole new world. That’s because students now study and learn differently than their predecessors did even a decade ago. Take Stephanie Beakbane, Artsci’12, for example.
When the fourth-year political studies major from Aurora, ON, visits the Stauffer Library, it’s seldom to borrow a book. “I took one out in early March, and that was the first time I did so in the last 18 months,” she says. “I use e-resources most of the time. Books can become out-of-date quickly, and so I go online to read the latest journal articles. They can be ones written last month, last week, or even a few days ago.”
Like most of today’s students, Beakbane is a child of the digital age. Born in 1990, she grew up in and is totally at home with the brave new digital world of cyberspace – the online domain of Google, Facebook, Twitter et al. A laptop computer and the Internet are as central to her academic life as pencils, notebooks, and library books were to her parents’ generation. (The library fines for overdue books, once the bane of many a student’s life – remember those? – are now all but a thing of the past.)
More often than not, Beakbane works from home, using her laptop to access the library system’s digital collection. When she does drop into the Stauffer Library, it’s to work in the Learning Commons, the area that has become the hub of student activity in the building. The main floor of the library was reconfigured in 2005, and what had been “the reference area” was transformed into a one-stop, user-friendly information hub.
Students gather here to study, read online materials, and consult with library staff and others from various academic support units. These resource people answer questions and offer guidance on everything from good writing and study plans to computer-related matters and accessibility issues. “All of my friends and classmates are heavy users of the Learning Commons,” says Beakbane.
Indeed, there’s seating for 450 people here, and most days empty chairs are as scarce as quill pens.
The Stauffer Library is wireless, of course. Students usually have their own laptops, but patrons also have access to more than 150 public computers scattered throughout the building’s five floors. “Libraries today are very much about digital content,” says Barbara Teatero, Arts’71, the Associate University Librarian. “Most journals are available online, and so the trend in most subject areas is for libraries to replace print subscriptions with electronic subscriptions.”
It’s difficult to imagine just how much Teatero’s and any senior librarian’s job description has changed in recent years. The phenomenal growth of digital technology and the Internet have revolutionized the way libraries are organized and operate. Not only is it necessary to maintain the existing collection – in the case of Queen’s, that’s more than 2.6 million volumes, plus innumerable other hard-copy resources – it’s also necessary to continue building the University’s store of knowledge. Jane Philipps, Artsci’79, MA’82, the Coordinator of Collection Development for Queen’s libraries, is one of the key “go-to” people in this regard.
As chair of the library system’s Electronic Resources Working Group and Queen’s rep on various province-wide and national bodies, Philipps works with colleagues to ensure that Queen’s library system acquires the resources to meet the University community’s teaching, learning, and research needs. While there’s a significant electronic transition underway, there’s also a continuing recognition of the importance of print
Says Philipps, “We’re working to make that transition to electronic as seamless as possible. You’d think it would be relatively easy to manage electronic documents and resources, but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, in some ways managing a digital collection is more complex than managing print resources.”
If most of a library’s collection is digital, does that mean the bricks-and-mortar structure will be obsolete?
“No, I don’t think so,” says Barbara Teatero. “A university library is much more than a repository of books and digital information; it’s a place where people meet, talk, and study. It’s the hub of the intellectual life on any campus. I’d like to think we’ll always need to have libraries.”