The most effective academic libraries are informed by the idea of student and faculty members as customers. All are served by learning commons with scores of group workspaces and reference advisors in locations modeled after the concierge desks of hip hotels.
Until recently, the quality of a library was measured by the number of volumes it held. Now librarians strive to measure the standing of their libraries by the quality of service even as their physical print holdings are shrinking. Their success is critical to the survival of their institutions.
One new building or significant renovation at a time, academic libraries are relocating hard copies and finding more space for people. Better libraries are beginning to emulate 1) the search functions of Google, 2) the ubiquitous availability of Amazon and 3) the physical service ambience of Starbucks. Institutions that are making strategic investments in this trajectory are well positioned. Those that are not making these investments, whether burdened by lack of funding or responsibilities for legacy collections, are at risk of not being able to adapt quickly enough.
The pace of transition varies significantly from campus to campus. Libraries of some well-known campuses are proud to announce that they now have 24-hour access and allow food and drink with open clusters of flexible workspaces. For others this is not new, any more than are the introduction of video gaming, experimental digital “sandboxes” or digital shelf browsing.
Examples – At Georgia Tech, the Clough Commons has erased the traditional boundaries between libraries, classrooms, coffee shops, mentoring support and information centers. At North Carolina State, the new Hunt Library will have stacks for less than 40,000 volumes and a capacity of more than 2,000,000 for five-minute automated retrieval. Try their online card catalogue. It feels like Amazon and you can “browse” the shelves, and better: you can even see books that are checked out.
Libraries have never lacked for advocates. Academic librarians have been dealing with disruptive information technologies for decades, and as such continue to be critical to the future of institutions. Many have already successfully devoted a significant fraction of their human and financial assets to optimizing access to the digital domain. Creations of online “shelf-browsing”, rapid automated retrieval and digital format availability begin to make past concerns about the actual location of the “book” meaningless.
Strategic and physical centrality – For about 200 years libraries have seen their location as physically and philosophically central to higher education. Despite waves of technological change, they occupy precious real estate in the core of the campus, too big to relocate or replace. But, academic libraries are more than physically central; they are strategically central to the effectiveness of an institution. The service of the academic library in support of learning and research is one of the few elements of the traditional university that differentiate it from its growing list of competitors.
To justify this geography and required reinvestment, the academic library is being re-thought and re-configured. Successful approaches respond to accelerating digital transformation, but also organize to serve a growing list of “non-book” information and academic community purposes. The library is rapidly becoming both a virtual and physical meeting place, less paper, more people. Only through these adaptations will the academic library continue to be at the functional and geographic heart of the university.
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