Wittenborg talks about library's next
Books are still the main characters in a digital
pours through the tall, old windows of rippled glass in the former
study of the late Jefferson historian Dumas Malone. The fifth-floor
corner office now belongs to University Librarian Karin Wittenborg.
Her blue eyes twinkle beneath close-cropped sandy brown hair as
she talks excitedly about the librarys latest acquisition.
by Andrew Shurtleff
Librarian Karin Wittenborg stands in her Alderman Library
office next to a model of the Special Collections Library,
now under construction and slated for completion in 2004.
pulls out of a protective box a gift to Special Collections from
Charlottesville resident J. Wallace Sieg. Its a handmade
book by the artist Claire Van Vliet, Siegs cousin. Wittenborg
gingerly turns the pages containing lyrics written by the medieval
visionary abbess Hildegard von Bingen, calligraphied on beautiful
paper with collages of images. There is also a CD of von Bingens
music tucked into a front pocket an apt example of combining
the traditional book with the latest digital media.
Wittenborg arrived to head the U.Va.
library system in the fall of 1993, a few things have changed,
while the emphasis on collections continues as strong as ever.
The smell of coffee fills Aldermans Memorial Hall from the
café where students and faculty meet or read quietly over
a cup of java. Patrons with laptop computers now access the Internet
via wireless network in several libraries or view many of the
librarys holdings from the comfort of their homes.
oversees 11 library branches Alderman, Clemons, astronomy,
biology/psychology, chemistry, education, fine arts, math, music,
physics, and science/engineering not including those in
law, Darden and health sciences. Some 210 employees under her
supervision take care of books and digital media, and especially
patrons needs through a range of services, such as door-to-door
delivery of books and articles to faculty and training in video
editing for Web broadcasting.
What is it that makes you want
to go to work at the library in the morning?
I think I have the best job of any librarian in the country, so
I am excited about coming to work every day. A large part of that
is the terrific library staff that we have people who are
committed, dedicated, know what they are doing and share a vision
for the future of the library.
addition, I enjoy the mission of supporting the work done by faculty
and the students here. And the students of U.Va. make it a special
place to be. There is a sense of academic community here that
I dont see in a lot of other universities.
Tell me how your earlier career contrasts with a typical day now.
How has the academic library changed?
Wittenborg: A condensed biography
n Grew up in Boston. It was way too cold. I think this is
the perfect climate. A really nice long spring and fall.
n B.A., Brown University (69); M.L.S. from SUNY-Buffalo
husband Michael B. Sullivan, retired librarian
library jobs n SUNY-Albany, SUNY-Buffalo (76-79);
Library management intern, MIT (81-82); Stanford University:
Chief of general reference department and curator of social
sciences collections (79-85); UCLA: associate university
librarian for collections (85-93)
What you are reading at the moment? n I do a lot of professional
reading, of course reports on Library of Congress
plans, what is going on in digital initiatives worldwide,
that kind of thing. But I usually have several books going
at a time. Two that I am working on now reflect different
interests of mine. One is The Making of a Chef by Michael
Ruhlman, about the Culinary Institute of America. The more
serious volume is Frank Rhodes book, Creation of the
Future: The Role of the American University. He was former
president of Cornell.
Cooking and eating there is no cuisine I dont
like. I have increasingly done more Asian cooking, a lot
of Thai cooking, also Indian.
Running but the running is to offset the eating.
I dont actually enjoy running, but I like it when
it is over. The Charlottesville 10-miler is a great race,
even though I get slower every year.
Dog-lover I have a real fondness for German short-haired
pointers. Our elderly dog died last March and we acquired
a puppy. He is showing signs of being a perpetual student
he is in his fourth semester at dog school and will
probably go at least two more semesters.
Gardening I have developed this interest since coming
Outdoor recreation I try to go on outdoor vacations,
hiking and things like that. I will take a book along [a
novel or some kind of lighter reading]. I rely on both staff
recommendations and Wayne Terwilliger at the University
Bookstore. The last one he recommended to me, Good Behavior
by Molly Keane, was just wonderful.
It is almost as if I am in a different profession than at the
beginning of my career. When I started in the mid-70s, everyone
had a common understanding of what libraries were and what librarians
did. Now, in many ways we are inventing the library for the future.
It is much less predictable because of technology and various
other things. What we are doing now that I think is transformational
is providing the digital content of books.
Is that what the Library of Tomorrow concept is all
Yes. Thinking of the Library of Tomorrow makes us think about
the traditional library first. At the University of Virginia,
Thomas Jefferson selected the very first books for the collection
and placed them in the Rotunda a very accessible and central
point in the University. Now, in the 21st century, we are doing
essentially the same thing that Jefferson did: building collections
and making them accessible. The difference is that the universe
of information is much larger. We are dealing with all kinds of
media now: books, journals, music, images and data.
we can make the collections accessible outside of the confines
of the physical place.
We are also trying to integrate the print and digital collections,
because the print collections will always remain an integral part
of the library.
Whats the difference for library users in having access
to digital texts?
One important thing is simply that it allows us to deliver information
24 hours a day, seven days a week. Users can access our material
whether they are in Charlottesville at home at 2 a.m., or in London,
Tokyo or some other place. But we have to remember that a very
small portion of the collection is now digital.
the digital library to become a reality, we need to find an appropriate
balance between the rights of creators and the rights of users.
Copyright laws designed for a world that was primarily print-based
do not work well in the digital environment where a single copy
of an electronic book can be available to a worldwide audience.
You dont charge anything for people to access electronic
We do not. There has been a lot of discussion about it, but I
think that libraries traditionally have tried to support a free
flow of scholarly information. Charging really creates communities
of haves and have-nots and interferes with that free flow.
think it is important to find an economic model in which it is
efficient to create these digital resources for everybody.
Lets talk about the new Special Collections building. How
will it advance the librarys mission?
I think it is really going to provide a wonderful place to house
our world-class collections of rare books and manuscripts. It
will be highly visible, environmentally sound and have controlled
temperature and humidity very important for the preservation
of print materials. It will allow us to have a chance to exhibit
them in a much more visible location on Grounds. I look for the
new building to be a magnet, with higher visibility not only for
those collections, but also for the whole University Library system.
We will also have a digital center and an auditorium.
When should it open?
Will you still accommodate the patrons who prefer the traditional
Of almost 5 million volumes in the University libraries,
there were nearly 1 million circulations and renewals.
The endowment for collections has quadrupled to almost $1
The construction of the 72,700-square-foot Albert and Shirley
Small Special Collections Library, which will house the
Mary and David Harrison Institute for the Study of American
History, Literature and Culture, began in February and is
slated for completion in two years.
Global use of online texts and downloadable e-books from
the Electronic Text Center, housed in Alderman, rose to
47 million Web hits in 2001-02.
E-texts and e-books are the single most-used library service.
In March last year, there were an average of 5,930 daily
visits to the physical libraries on Grounds, and 30,000
daily visits to the E-Text Center.
The Association of Research Libraries ranked the University
of Virginia Library 22rd this year.
Absolutely. It is not an either-or situation. While
I believe the print journal may disappear over time, the book
will not disappear. And in fact, we are still acquiring about
40,000 new books a year.
people come in to use the library. In the future, they may come
in in different ways and that is part of the exciting challenge
of librarianship. How do you create the physical place that may
be more important in the future for collaborations or intellectual
discourse than just to pick up a book off the shelf?
of the interesting developments in the digital world, though,
is that through digitizing, some books will never go out of print
and you can have print on demand. Books that havent been
available since the 18th century could be available by print on
demand in paperback editions.
You mentioned journals that libraries have typically provided.
Have you come up with any ways to address skyrocketing costs of
academic journal subscriptions and continue to make them available?
It really is about the economics of scholarly communication and
publishing. Part of it has to do with the commercial conglomerates
that now have a monopoly over many of the most prestigious journals.
But because of the nature of higher education, it is also involved
with promotion and tenure faculty care about where their
research is published and the stature of the journal.
issue has to be addressed by the whole educational community.
We have been very pleased here to have gotten attention from the
Faculty Senate, which is taking a leadership role and getting
discussions going around it.
think we have a short-term issue and a long-term issue. I believe
that there may be real possibilities for Web publishing that can
address the promotion and tenure needs as well as the outmoded
and costly print system now does.
the short term, we are just trying to mitigate the adverse effects
of declining purchasing power on faculty and students. One of
the things we do is work with a number of consortiums, including
the Virtual Library of Virginia, to license expensive online journals
at a cost lower than if we were individually negotiating a price.
How is the library dealing with the state budget cuts?
We started talking about our philosophy and guiding principles
before considering specific actions. The primary principle for
us was that we needed to protect the students and faculty
just because the state has found itself in dire financial straits
doesnt mean that we should make it more difficult for faculty
and students to do their work. When we made that decision, it
drove a lot of the other decisions.
instance, we are protecting collections as much as possible. In
the cuts for this year, the collections were not touched. In the
next two years, they are cut at the lowest possible amounts.
also wanted to protect hours in the library.
dont want to lose the momentum on the digital initiatives,
so we are struggling to come up with ways to keep that momentum
going, even in a time of cutbacks. We had set aside some money
for innovative projects. I think that while we can perhaps keep
up with the digital production in collaboration with other universities,
the degree of innovation for which I think we have rightly become
well-known may slow a little bit because we just dont have
those funds to support it.
will eliminate some positions through attrition because avoiding
layoffs was also a very high priority for us.
biggest concern about the budget crisis is the possibility of
a sustained freeze at the current level of salaries. That is really
scary in terms of retention. We are constantly subject to raids
because our staff is so good.
would not have been able to protect collections had we not been
so successful in the fund-raising campaign. The endowments that
came in are providing income that offsets somewhat the loss of
purchasing power. These were funds we did not have eight years
try to keep the endowments broadly defined so that they are supporting
current research and whatever may be going on 15, 25 years from
now. Private support is extremely important to us and will help
us over these tough times.