The Living Library

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Author: John Monczunski

At the dawn of the Digital Age, the seers looked deep into their virtual crystal balls and predicted the demise of the library. Who would need libraries when information could be delivered to a student’s or professor’s computer with a few keystrokes? Well, guess what? Rumors of the death of the library are, as they say, greatly exaggerated. The library—services and building—are more in demand today than ever.

Wander into the Hesburgh Library on any given day during the semester and you’ll find the place alive with people and activity. In fact, to find a seat in the lower level, handsomely renovated a few years ago with dark wood, plush chairs, booths and group study rooms, you almost need to take a number.

Meanwhile, on the first floor, students work on research papers at the new computer cluster while reference librarians at the Information, Research and Instructional Services (IRIS) desk direct others to the information they need, whether in an online database or in one of the nearly 3 million books, 3 million microtext units, 5,000 electronic titles or 21,000 audio-visual items in the tower stacks or at one of nine subject libraries across campus.

In a second-floor classroom, a librarian is conducting a class—one of countless training sessions offered during the year to acquaint students and faculty with the library’s resources. Up on the 10th floor grad students work in the Graduate Study Center, a comfortable, quiet room with adjacent space for collaborative study featuring plush chairs, white boards and state-of-the-art Internet connectivity. The Hesburgh Library remains the gateway to scholarly information on campus and provides a much needed place for students and faculty to study and work.

In fact, the library may be almost as important as a place to work as it is a locus of information service. As the renovation of the lower level has proved, students and faculty seek out conducive places to work, so “if you build it, they will come.” With that in mind, the Spirit of Notre Dame campaign is seeking $20 million to continue the renovation of the Hesburgh Library building, primarily the first two floors, to make the place even more user friendly.

As broadly envisioned, the first floor will be transformed into a high-visibility, high-function service hub. Already the computer cluster has been relocated there adjacent to IRIS, the reference department, and audio-visual materials and the electronic reserve department are slated to move to the first floor as well. Continuing the user-friendly theme, a cybercafé providing informal space for faculty and students to meet will round out the first floor. On the second floor, enhanced work spaces for library faculty and staff will be added. Rooms 222 and 222A, the cramped classrooms that compete for time as library staff meeting rooms, will be replaced with state-of-the-art classroom/conference rooms.

Databases and electronic tools

In terms of collections, the Internet has not so much made the library superfluous as transformed it with a new layer of complexity. Now instead of spending tight funds on printed matter and audio-visual material, librarians must also decide which databases, e-journals and electronic tools to acquire. They then must learn their intricacies in order to show faculty and students how to use them.

The digital revolution has led the library to a paradigm shift, Jennifer Younger, the Edward H. Arnold director of University libraries, says. “It used to be that the only way we could meet the knowledge needs of faculty and students was to build collections. We would buy books, subscribe to journals. And they would be here for you to use them. We still do that. The emphasis used to be on ownership. But with the advent of electronic material it has become much easier to share information, and so now the emphasis is on access to information.” If the library can secure ready access to the information a scholar desires, she notes, it is not so crucial to own it outright.

A side benefit of all this has been more flexibility in how librarians spend funds for the Hesburgh Libraries, comprised of the main library and nine subject branches throughout campus. This gives the libraries more leverage. For instance, in those disciplines that the University has decided to stake its scholarly reputation—such as certain areas of philosophy, theology, medieval studies, Catholic Americana or Irish studies—books, periodicals and other resources are collected aggressively with a “just-in-case” frame of mind. As much as possible is collected in the event someone may need the material some day. Specialized collections with unique holdings are strengthened, and the Hesburgh Libraries has become a destination for ND scholars as well as others.

In other fields, where there may not be a concentration of scholars on the faculty, the library instead may pursue a “just-in-time” acquisition scenario.

“So, for example,” Younger says, “if we subscribe to 10 journals and we notice that nine of the 10 have over 100 uses per year, but the 10th only has one, we may cut that subscription and instead buy only the specific article for that one user.” That flexibility frees up funds for more judicious use in expanding what is important in the collections.

Collections are crucial to the development of the University and can, in fact, be the catalyst for growth, attracting scholars and funds. Ten years ago, for example, the University received the 40,000 volume library on Byzantine civilization from the estate of the late Professor Milton V. Anastos. In that instant, the Hesburgh Libraries became second only to Harvard as a research center on Byzantine studies.

Fast forward to this year, and the Anastos Collection undoubtedly played a role in the University’s being awarded an $800,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to enhance and expand its Byzantine studies. The four-to-one incentive grant is intended to help the University raise another $3.2 million through the Spirit campaign, which will be used to add two faculty positions and two fellowships, as well as to fund conferences, lectures and library acquisitions in Byzantine studies.

Those tight budgets

None of the resources—whether print or electronic—that the Hesburgh Libraries collect comes cheaply, of course. And in an era of tight budgets (the library’s budget has expanded only from $16 million to $19 million over the last six years) eroded by inflation and advancing scholarly expectations that require expanded library resources, the task is daunting.

“Our collection budget has to grow in order for us just to keep up,” Younger notes. “For instance, we buy a lot of serials and books from Europe, and with the lower value of the dollar compared to the euro, it is a problem. Overall, to stay even requires about a 6.7 percent increase each year.”

Add to this Notre Dame’s aspiration to make its mark as a first-rate research university, and you can understand the financial bind. “Research is becoming more cross-disciplinary so we must have better collections, more access to more materials in order to supply faculty with what they need,” Younger says.

To help the Hesburgh Libraries meet its objectives the Spirit campaign is seeking $30 million to enhance print and electronic collections and services in the humanities, engineering and the sciences, the social sciences, art and architecture and business. Beyond the $30 million for the Heburgh Libraries collections, the campaign is also seeking $7 million to enhance the Kresge Law Library’s print and electronic collections and services.

As important as collections are, however, the backbone of the Hesburgh Libraries remains the 50-some librarians who constitute the library faculty. They are the ones who make the place work, from making the hard decisions over which resources to purchase for the collections to designing electronic services like “Find Text,” which by means of a hyperlink icon takes a person to the text in a citation.

In recognition of librarians’ special role, the Spirit campaign seeks to endow two librarian faculty positions at $1 million apiece. “A named position is a badge of honor which will help us to recruit and retain the very best people,” says Younger, who currently has the only named librarian position at the University. Income from the endowments will be used to enhance the collections.

Another innovative recruiting tool for library talent has been the Librarian-in-Residence program, a joint effort with the Kresge Law Library. Begun in 2000 and designed to improve diversity within the profession as well as at Notre Dame, the program seeks out recent ethnic minority library school graduates. Through the program, young librarians come to Notre Dame for two-year residencies, rotating through various departments, gaining broad library experience. Several have been offered full-time positions once their residencies were up.

“You always have to have content, but we’ve always maintained that our librarians and our staff is what makes the place great. It’s the people who select the content; they make it accessible,” Younger says.

Being a librarian is a simple task, observes Laura Fuderer, who is in charge of collections for English and French literature. “All we do is organize and make accessible the entire range of human thought and knowledge.”

Online and in person.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.

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