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Tomorrow’s Academic Libraries: Maybe Even Some Books

Posted by Editor on May 12, 2011

By Jennifer Howard in CHE’s Digital Campus (login required)

Imagine a library that is not only bookless but is not necessarily tied to a building, one that takes its personnel and services to patrons rather than expecting them to come to it. Two projects—one now under way at the undergraduate level and one well established at a medical library—suggest where the untethered library is headed. One approach focuses on space; the other on librarians.

Academic libraries have been beset by changes that have led some observers to wonder whether they have a future at all. Their budgets have been hit hard even as the cost of buying and storing information—whether print monographs or journal databases—continues to climb. Search engines have replaced librarians as the go-to source of information for most researchers. And students headed to the library now are more likely to be in search of a cup of coffee than to be looking for a book. If they do want a book, it might have been moved to remote storage because the library has run out of room.


Like many institutions, Drexel University, in central Philadelphia, faces a space crunch. On the positive side, Drexel’s undergraduates aren’t even close to abandoning the main campus library, says Danuta A. Nitecki, the university’s dean of libraries. “We are just so overcrowded and packed to the brim that I don’t think we will see an absence of people coming here,” she says.

But what those crowds of students need and want from the library has changed. They don’t come for books. They come for study space and company. Once upon a time, “you had to go where the book is,” Ms. Nitecki says. The time has come to “put the library presence closer to where the students are.”

So the university is building what it describes as a “bookless learning center” near where undergraduates live and eat. It will occupy what used to be a breezeway outside a student residential hall. “We identified a space that’s in the heart of where our residential life is,” Ms. Nitecki explains. “We used the problem—the challenge of the lack of adequate space—to redefine what the library of the future should be.”

Called the Library Learning Terrace, the center will be open around the clock to give students access to the library’s digital resources as well as a place to gather. It won’t be staffed at all times, but students will be able to arrange for a librarian to rendezvous with them to work on projects, and professors will be able to meet groups of students there.

Many colleges and universities have replaced some stack space with a learning commons, a dedicated spot within the library where students can come to work and study together. Most academic libraries have a social-media presence too, with the aim of interacting with students and serving them virtually….read entire article here.

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