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November 8, 2001

The Envision session on the University Library explored the future of an 11-library system (excluding Darden, Health Sciences and Law libraries) that has built a global reputation for technological innovation as well as for the strength of its collections. Confident in the talent, resourcefulness, and dedication of its staff, the Library is developing new strategies for managing and disseminating an ever-growing body of digital information while continuing to preserve books, manuscripts, and other physical artifacts of human thought and achievement.

Having recently completed an intensive planning effort focused on the Library of Tomorrow, the University Library intends to maintain its leadership as a provider of digital and online resources. The Library’s desire to embrace change and to set the pace in the use of new technology is a reflection not only of its innovative spirit, but also of its commitment to service. The willingness to go the extra mile to provide students, faculty, and the public with the resources they need is ingrained in the culture of the Library, according to the Envision participants, and indeed, it is often taken for granted. By affording ready access to materials, the Library staff allows faculty and students to devote more time to their primary missions of teaching, discovery, research, and learning. More than once, discussion participants referred to Library users as customers. Customer service is an attitude that now permeates the thinking among Library staff.

With this way of thinking comes a willingness to teach students and other Library customers how to make use of the Library’s resources. It is important that students not only know how to find the information they seek but also how to distinguish between legitimate and less reliable sources. They also need guidance on how to cite material from the Web in their work. Teaching, like service, is one of the Library’s core values.

Just as the Library’s vehicles for sharing information are changing, so is its environment, the Envision participants pointed out. While there are still many places where only the sound of turning pages can be heard, the Library also offers lively settings for social and intellectual interchange. Some faculty hold office hours in the Alderman Café. In the Robertson Media Center, students sit before flickering screens, viewing films, archival footage, and other video resources. Students can find more contemplative surroundings on the balcony at Fiske Kimball or in the McGregor Room, while at the Music Library they can manipulate musical scores at work stations equipped with electronic keyboards. The main floor of Clemons Library is as much a place to meet friends as it is to search out books and periodicals. In fact, students developing plans for a new student union said they hoped it would capture some of the flavor of Clemons. Likewise, the proposed library for the Arts Grounds is sure to be a popular gathering place for students in the Rugby Road area.

In the future, the Library will need to provide more micro-environments for study and interaction, particularly spaces where students can work on group projects. Accordingly, the new building housing the Harrison Institute and the Small Special Collections Library will include seminar rooms, as well as an auditorium that can be converted into a setting for large dinners and other social occasions.

Going hand-in-hand with the Library’s sense of itself as a hub of University life is its commitment to establishing collaborative links with other areas of the institution, whether it’s working with ITC or IATH to pursue new digital initiatives or forming a partnership with the English department to co-publish a literary journal. Collaborative ventures will shape the Library’s activities in the future as it works with faculty to develop collections in sub-specialties and as it works with other institutions to broaden the resources available to users. Like service, collaboration is ingrained in the Library’s culture.

As they envisioned the Library of the future, members of the staff raised this question:

Will there come a time when all texts are digitized and books are warehoused for the rare occasions when a scholar needs to view the actual printed piece? It was pointed out that digitizing provides a means of protecting books, just as it is already protecting materials in Special Collections. If a digital facsimile will suffice, there is no need to handle fragile and irreplaceable printed or handwritten materials. On the other hand, members of the staff noted, working with the physical book can add an important dimension to scholarship for some.

There is also a clear sense that for the forseeable future readers simply wish to hold texts in their hands. A digital library is not a paperless library. Students and faculty feel the need to print out digitized materials, according to the Envision participants, leading to more paper use in the Library rather than less. Moreover, it was emphasized that digitization does not cut costs; with automation has come a mushrooming demand for new information.

The digitization process raises a number of other challenges, staff members observed. Transforming books into e-texts is time- and labor-intensive, especially if it is important to preserve the book itself. The easiest way to convert a book into digital text is to cut the binding and scan the pages, but the book is destroyed in the process. To realize the vision of the library of tomorrow, the Library will need to generate more digital content and continually update the tools to gather and disseminate it. It will also need to match the breadth of its e-collections with greater depth in selected fields. Faced with a growing need for e-content, the Library is willing to enter collaborative ventures with other libraries and with academic publishers, including the University Press of Virginia, to create new digital resources.

A growing portion of materials in the Library’s electronic collections are "born digital," rather than converted from printed text. An example is the archive of digital materials (including videos and other images) compiled by David Germano in Tibetan and Himalayan studies. More and more faculty are working in the digital realm, and one of the problems confronting the Library is the need to track projects with wide interest so that they can be organized and preserved. The Library’s effort to create Information Communities, funded in part by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shows the potential for harvesting and organizing digital resources in ways that will create new bodies of knowledge.

Digitization also holds great promise for broadening the amount of material that can be shared among libraries. As University Librarian Karin Wittenborg pointed out, the Library is increasingly "accessing and delivering information that is not our own." While there is a tradition of free-sharing of books and other materials among libraries, the expense of creating digital content may make it necessary to develop some mechanism for recovering costs. It was also suggested that the University join forces with other institutions to create a consortium whose combined resources would be unmatched anywhere. The vision, as one staff member put it, is to provide seamless sharing of materials among libraries and to remove the barriers between the information haves and have-nots.

Although technology is enlarging and transforming the resources the Library can make available to users on the Grounds and beyond, the staff expressed the hope that the Library will always retain its sense of place. The traditional library environment is at once comforting and inspiring. "You feel different in a library," one of the librarians observed. "It disciplines the mind. That’s why students seek it out." The virtual library can never fully replicate this experience.

Thus, the demands on the Library are growing in dramatic ways: It must serve as a keeper of the printed record, it must provide a tranquil environment for study, it must offer places for social and academic interaction, it must seek out and address the information needs of faculty and students, and it must continue harnessing emerging technologies to make its collections instantly accessible anywhere. It also must provide new tools for using the collections. The recent experiment with equipping members of the English faculty with high-powered notebook computers and technical training illustrates both the benefits and the costs of offering this kind of service.

Other challenges facing the Library include the rising cost of academic journals, especially now that more commercial publishers have virtual monopolies in this field. The Library also must contend with issues related to international copyrights, since e-texts can be accessed from across international boundaries. As the Library expands its capacity to generate as well as disseminate information, its staff must develop new project-management skills.

Aging physical structures also present a worry, as does the need for new facilities. The proposed comprehensive arts library on Carr’s Hill presents both a major fund-raising challenge as well as enormous potential for making innovative use of technology. Plans for the library include a space where faculty and students can create works of art and music in digital media.

An overarching concern is stable financing. The Library is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in state support, and it will need to find other sources of funding to sustain its operations. Building stronger ties with alumni, both through the Web and through programs on the Grounds, is one strategy that was suggested. Another is to create a revenue-generating retail operation based in the new Harrison Institute. The digital arena also presents new donor naming opportunities. It is conceivable that the University could name its digital library in recognition of a transformational gift.

As for how the University Library’s vision for the future correlates with Virginia 2020 planning, it was noted that the Library’s aspirations embody every aspect of Virginia 2020 — the arts, science and technology, international programs (many of the Library’s millions of e-text users are from abroad), and public service. Members of the staff feel that the Library’s role needs to be considered as 2020 recommendations are implemented.



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Last Modified: Thursday, 16-Feb-2006 08:38:53 EST
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia


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