The prestige of a research library used to rest on the materials it owned-its millions of volumes, its original manuscripts, its rare books. In the digital age, however, researchers judge a library on other criteria, said John Meador, Jr., director of the Binghamton University Libraries.
“Now, it’s ‘What can we provide access to?'” Meador said. While, to some extent, providing access still means building collections, it also means subscribing to electronic publications and databases and developing efficient ways to share resources with other libraries.
BU’s Libraries-the Glenn G. Bartle Library and the Science Library-own more than 2.3 million volumes plus hundreds of thousands of other items, such as CD-ROMs, government documents, microforms, sound recordings and maps. The library system continues to vie with other institutions for unique materials to enrich its special collections. At the same time, Meador said, BU’s Libraries are following a new trend, cooperating to make information available more easily. “There is more collaboration among research libraries than ever, as we try to share existing print resources and find ways to capture digital resources,” he said.
In particular, the University Libraries are increasing their collaboration with other libraries in the State University of New York system, Meador said. For example, “we have a courier service now among all SUNY libraries that allows us to get a book for you within a couple of days.” With this service crisscrossing the state, SUNY librarians have started to discuss whether they all need to buy the same books. Perhaps, instead, each should concentrate on certain aspects of a discipline, relying on their collective resources to cover the entire field, he said.
SUNY’s libraries have all used the same software to develop their electronic catalogs. Now they’re working toward a unified catalog system, which would let researchers find materials housed on any SUNY campus with a single search, said Frank Mols, the BU Libraries’ associate director for technical services and budget.
Also, “we’re discussing a way that all of SUNY can participate in a digital repository for materials being generated now on campus that were ‘born’ digital,” Meador said. These include all student dissertations and a great deal of faculty research. “We’re trying to figure a way for libraries to help faculty and students by storing and cataloging digital information the way we have historically done with print,” making this material, from campuses across New York, instantly available on line, he said.
The emergence of electronic journals has also spurred opportunities to collaborate, and it has helped make information more accessible to researchers at BU. A five-year agreement now in place between the SUNY system and Elsevier Press gives students and faculty at all SUNY campuses online access to Elsevier’s 1,800 science and technology journals through the publisher’s ScienceDirect service. Leveraging the buying power of the state university system reduces BU’s costs, and it allows the BU Libraries to offer titles they stopped taking in print in the early 1990s due to budget constraints.
When those title reappeared as part of the package, that came as good news for scholars at BU, Mols said. “People needed those things and did without them for a few years. Now they’ve come back electronically, and the usage statistics are there to support that we should have had them.”
Publishers of science and technology journals have embraced electronic publishing sooner than their counterparts in humanities and the arts, Meador said. “But it’s a no-brainer that eventually every journal will become digitally available, exclusively, and if you want a print copy, you’ll probably have to print it yourself.” Libraries will no longer have to bind journals or make shelf space for them, and researchers won’t have to wait months for publishers to print and mail the latest issues, he said.
Today, though, a library is still a paper-intensive enterprise. The more BU’s collection grows, the more creative library officials must become about managing their physical assets. In 1999, the Libraries opened the Library Annex@Conklin in a converted warehouse ten miles east of the main campus. This facility houses about 300,000 volumes, mostly bound journals published before 1980 and selected monographs that are not often used.
The Libraries moved these materials off campus because “we were out of shelf space,” Mols said. “To create space to put up more stacks meant taking seating away, and there’s only so much you can do of that and still provide an effective study area.”
“We have many volumes out there, but the key is, they’re accessible,” said Caryl Ward, the Libraries’ head of acquisitions. The facility is staffed and can support research on the premises, all of which is in keeping with a general trend that Meador said he has observed: “a shift in libraries toward the user of the materials being empowered.” Libraries have evolved a great deal since the days of closed stacks, he said. Back then, when if a patron needed a book, he or she used a slip of paper to request it and a runner retrieved it.
Even when electronic databases emerged, researchers didn’t search them on their own, Mols said. “It used to be that every search was a mediated search. The faculty member had to come in and sit with the librarian to search Dialog or another database. And what they paid in connect time was outrageous.”
Now, users locate books themselves and may also check them out on self-service machines; they request interlibrary loans on line; they search electronic databases and read electronic journals; they receive articles via e-mail. Today, “librarians are facilitating the self-help of users,” Meador said.
Nevertheless, “one of our most valuable resources, which has been cited in some of our surveys, is being able to come in and work with a librarian one on one,” Mols said. Subject area specialists at the BU Libraries work closely with faculty researchers, sometimes even co-teaching courses with them, he said. Despite the trend toward greater autonomy in research, the option of personal contact “is still there and still valued.”