April 26-May 2, 2002
Back Issues
Budget includes bonuses, budget cuts
New interdisciplinary major tackles biology issues
Library gets rare Vanity Fair prints of Victorian personalities
In Memoriam

Hot Links -- Etext journals

End-of-school-year dates
Institute explores spiritual dimension of survival
Wittenborg talks about library's next chapter
Books are still the main characters in a digital world

Sun 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 library’s latest acquisition.

Karin Wittenborg
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff
University 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.

She pulls out of a protective box a gift to Special Collections from Charlottesville resident J. Wallace Sieg. It’s a handmade book by the artist Claire Van Vliet, Sieg’s 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 Bingen’s music tucked into a front pocket — an apt example of combining the traditional book with the latest digital media.

Since 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 Alderman’s 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 library’s holdings from the comfort of their homes.

Wittenborg 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.

By Anne Bromley

Q: What is it that makes you want to go to work at the library in the morning?

A: 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.

In 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 don’t see in a lot of other universities.

Q: Tell me how your earlier career contrasts with a typical day now. How has the academic library changed?

Karin Wittenborg: A condensed biography

Hometown n Grew up in Boston. It was way too cold. I think this is the perfect climate. A really nice long spring and fall. Beautiful.

Education n B.A., Brown University (’69); M.L.S. from SUNY-Buffalo (’76)

Family • husband Michael B. Sullivan, retired librarian

Previous 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.

Hobbies • Cooking and eating — there is no cuisine I don’t 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 don’t 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 to Charlottesville.

• 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.

A: 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.

Q: Is that what “the Library of Tomorrow” concept is all about?

A: 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.

Nowadays 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.

Q: What’s the difference for library users in having access to digital texts?

A: 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.

For 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.

Q: You don’t charge anything for people to access electronic material?

A: 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.

I think it is important to find an economic model in which it is efficient to create these digital resources for everybody.

Q: Let’s talk about the new Special Collections building. How will it advance the library’s mission?

A: 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.

Q: When should it open?

A: February 2004.

Q: Will you still accommodate the patrons who prefer the traditional library?

Library stats

• 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 million.

• 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.

A: 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.

And 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?

One 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 haven’t been available since the 18th century could be available by print on demand in paperback editions.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

The 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.

I 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.

In 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.

Q: How is the library dealing with the state budget cuts?

A: 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 doesn’t 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.

For 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.

We also wanted to protect hours in the library.

We don’t 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 don’t have those funds to support it.

We will eliminate some positions through attrition because avoiding layoffs was also a very high priority for us.

My 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.

We 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 ago.

We 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.


© Copyright 2002 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page