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Monday, 6 August 2012

 Trends in Academic libraries in the United States :  my personal  observations by Shorba Harkhu,  Senior Librarian: Life Sciences Library, Pmb.

I was part of a group of fifteen librarians from the universities of Cape Town, Wits, Pretoria, Rhodes, and Stellenbosch who spent just over two months in the United States this year. My visit, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, involved a two-week training programme at the Mortenson Centre for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois followed by a seven-week stint at the Albert R. Mann Library, one of twenty one libraries that form part of Cornell University.I will include some of the trends evident in the libraries that we visited.
Fundraising, Renovations and Cafeterias 
Fundraising is the norm at most academic libraries in the US. Some libraries have a fundraising officer in charge of raising donations or it is entrusted to the library director. Gifts and bequests are received from individuals, alumni, friends, parents, students, staff, and faculty.These gifts can come from any one individual, family, trust, or foundation. The two libraries that we visited, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago and the Thompson Library, the main library at Ohio State University were renovated with monies obtained through endowments. An amount of $25 million was donated by billionaire businessman Joseph Mansueto towards the construction of the main wing of the University of Chicago.

An outstanding feature of this library is the impressive glass and steel domed building under which lies an automated shelving system stretching four storeys. The Thompson Library was renovated at a cost of $109 million. This library was closed for three years during the renovation period. Services, however, were not compromised. The ideas around the renovation project preceded the actual physical process by ten years. This is indicative of how much planning is needed for such a project. Several feasibility studies were undertaken and input from students, staff and faculty was included right from the beginning. These libraries and some of the others that we visited were created with the user in mind which included areas for quiet reading, studying over a quick meal (!) (Thompson Library) or preparing for group projects. Other features that were carefully considered were aspects of design, decor and comfort. Students need their coffee, and every library has a cafeteria.  

  Remote storage
Academic libraries in the US use high-density storage facilities to house lesser-used library materials. Off-site storage is actively pursued and collections are not readily weeded as in SA. Researchers thus have a wider pool of material to draw from. The remote storage at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) comprises state-of-the-art high-density shelving which is 4 storeys high and which needs a forklift to retrieve material. Library users can place requests for items via the Library’s online catalogue, and the turnaround time is 24 hours. The Mansueto Library uses an Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), which is a high-density automated shelving system 4 storeys underground. The books are stored in metal bins and are arranged by size rather than library classification. Material requested is transported by a robotic crane to the circulation desk. It takes about 15 minutes from the time of request to the point of collection. 

Academic libraries in the US are constantly striving to explore new ways of using digital technology in providing for the continuing preservation and accessibility of information. All the libraries that we visited hold a collection of sophisticated digital equipment. These include scanners that can undertake the digitisation of rare and fragile material and digital cameras that can take high-resolution digital images of book and paper material.  Libraries also digitise material in 3D. Most of the libraries use DSpace for their institutional repository and ContentDM for their digital library. They find ContentDM a suitable platform for hosting all kinds of digital content, including collections of artefacts, music, maps and photographs. In addition to digitising their own content, libraries scan on demand and also run a number of digitisation projects for other institutions such as cultural institutions and smaller museums or libraries.

Assessment is an important feature in American libraries as there is increasing pressure on libraries to prove their worth. The focus has shifted more on assessing services than collections. We met with Paula Kaufmann, University Librarian at UIUC who discussed new trends in academic libraries and related how she and her staff had to review their service models. They paid attention to the ‘culture’ of their institution and their new service model included some of the following:

       Meeting emerging needs of researchers
       Collaboration with people across campus – “campus-wide solutions for
         campus-wide problems”
       Data management and curation
       Active fundraising

Similarly, librarians at the Engineering, Math and Physical Sciences Libraries at Cornell University found that their researchers were mainly using online resources. They took the bold step of getting rid of all of their print collections by going virtual. Their print collections were moved to other Cornell University libraries and their library website had to be redesigned to reflect only online resources. Libraries also do a great deal of usability testing. At Mann Library usability testing of software is done by students who are rewarded with pizza, money or gift vouchers from the cafe.

Mobile technology

Mobile technologies are readily available in academic libraries. Mann’s mobile website provides streamlined access to the most heavily used library services such as the library catalogue, course reserve readings and laptop availability. Ohio State University has a mobile app that includes everything that Ohio State has to offer from athletics to libraries.  UIUC offers a mobile website that provides access to core library services which includes the ability to search the library’s catalogue, find library locations and hours, and text librarians.

Embedded librarians
In some of the libraries that we visited librarians have formed a strong working relationship with their departments. Some examples of embedded librarianship include collaborating with academics to integrate library resources into class assignments and teaching information literacy skills. Librarians are also virtually embedded and are available via email, instant messaging and online chat. Libraries in the US are also faced with the problem of academics being resistant to integrating the library into their academic programmes as well as students lacking core information competency skills. Librarians are pursuing various initiatives to overcome this. One such initiative was the Cornell Undergraduate Information Competency Initiative (http://infocomp.library.cornell.edu/). The aim of this initiative was to work with academics to integrate research skills into the classroom and the curriculum through the redesign and creation of assignments for undergraduate courses. 

In conclusion, given the staff, resources and facilities that they have, academic libraries in the US have much more to offer to their students and academic staff than we do here in SA. We may offer the same services, have similar issues and challenges, but American librarians are much more proactive and innovative from top-down.