Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
For those unfamiliar with Star Trek, "Dunsel" was a term introduced in the episode titled "The Ultimate Computer." (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ultimate_Computer.) It is a term used by Star Fleet cadets to refer to an entity that serves no useful purpose, in this case a human who has been replaced by a machine. The episode touches on finding the best balance between human and machine to run a complex system and explore the universe, or, in our case, to help our users explore their information universe.
In a recent piece in the LJ Newswire (October 22, 2009), Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian at Temple University, pretty much declares academic special libraries to be useless entities, which we may remember fondly in the future but not miss. I was rather dismayed by this attitude, though not surprised. As he points out, closing branches has become a trend. Is it a good trend? Is it a necessary trend? Is it good for the users? Time will tell. I wasn't asked to write this commentary because I have a crystal ball but because for me, like for many of you out there, this is a very personal topic.
I began my career in libraries quite a few years ago. Over those years, 'To branch or not to branch' has been a frequent topic, one of the pendulums swinging back and forth. Money and space competition have long been factors in this question, as well as changing philosophies about how best to serve our users' needs, and of course, new technologies. These are the major players today as well. There is no denying the impact of our current economy on colleges and universities, whether public or private. Budgets have had to be cut, jobs have been lost and collections slashed. In this context it's sometimes hard to justify keeping branches open. But Bell also points out that money was not the issue when they consolidated branches at Temple -- the goal was greater efficiency.
Greater efficiency? Really? Is that really our goal? At most, it should be a piece of the process. Whose definition of efficiency are we using? When the dust from the current rounds of closures/mergers/consolidations (I have heard them called all of the above plus some that are probably not appropriate here) settles, I'll look forward to seeing all the new configurations. It is not possible to just snap your fingers and say "this branch is closed." Where is the collection going? Where is the staff going? Are we still providing these services? If so, in what form? What is the time frame? Lots and lots of questions must be answered, not to mention deciding who is allowed to provide the necessary input.
It is a rare campus that has a spare building conveniently waiting so that units can be merged together logically. That has meant that there are science units being moved into humanities branches simply because there was enough room. Some collections are mostly moving to some type of storage facility and the staff moved together to a group service location or embedded within the academic department. In the case of the University of Washington, three branches/units were closed and merged into the main library. Some of our collections were moved to remote storage, but most of the materials were inter-shelved with the main collection. Staff members were shifted around the Libraries. However, many positions within the Libraries as a whole were cut and unfortunately some staff members did lose their jobs. The librarians involved are part of a general reference staff. At the moment, I am trying to see the efficiency in this and my colleagues who were panicked by suddenly having to answer chemistry-related questions would probably wonder as well.
Bell certainly didn't seem to have the users in mind. He essentially dismisses the demands of students at Berkeley who wanted more time in the library, not less. Reactions at UW have been across the board. The UW Chemistry Library, along with the Fisheries-Oceanography Library and the Natural Sciences Library, officially closed its doors on June 12, 2009, at the end of the 2008-09 school year. I recently talked with a faculty member who was rather dumbfounded when he realized that we were closed at all, let alone for that long. Others were very much aware and were very upset. The Physics-Astronomy Library was not closed as planned due to the uproar caused by the announcement that it was to merge with the main library. (The "Save Our PAL" web site covers some of the turmoil and the resolution. While now called a "reading room" rather than a library, it is still open and probably more heavily used than ever because it is also serving the needs of the many faculty and students for whom it is now the closest facility.
So, what purpose do branch libraries serve? That's not a simple question, particularly when we and our users are asking why libraries exist at all. A branch is certainly more focused on a subject. This tends to tie them tightly to one or more specific departments. That was certainly the case with the UW Chemistry Library. Due to the broad nature of the subject and the fact that UW is a major research institution, it actually served a much wider and more diffuse user group than patrons in the two departments with which I still have liaison relationships, most of whom I rarely saw in person. This may make it seem that a chemistry branch library is irrelevant. But chemical information tools are different. Chemistry librarians have long had to deal with client-server software, special applications and support issues that few other disciplines see. Our users rely on us even if they didn't physically visit. Someone who needed help downloading the client for SciFinder Scholar knew to contact the Chemistry Library. I am obviously still available, and even though my unit page has now disappeared, information and assistance are also still available, but much harder to find. In my new capacity, one of my first tasks is to determine a way to re-establish and hopefully improve communication with all the users of chemical information.
Branch libraries come in many sizes but they are smaller than main libraries. They can generally be more flexible, agile, and very attuned to users' needs. In my experience, this has led to a great deal of innovation. Smaller units are also frequently more user-friendly and comfortable to use. I spent an hour listening to a student who was very worried about his future. He was a graduate student with a learning disability who needed a certain type of atmosphere to be able to study. Because of our closure, he has lost that. Users do still connect with the physical place. I took a picture of our front door on the day we closed. I was surprised that I was not alone. Two graduate students were having their pictures taken in front of it as well. Another user left a more poignant message -- a simple "goodbye" written on one of our white boards.
We're told that scientists no longer use print and I would mostly agree with that. Chemists certainly jumped happily into e-journals and database searching when they became available. Still, it was not a surprise, to me at least, when I got two calls within a half hour desperately trying to track down books that were quite literally being moved out of the library at that moment. I personally walked several users up to our temporary storage facility to retrieve items they couldn't wait for. One was a former graduate student who was in town visiting and had brought his family in to see his dissertation in the library. I have only anecdotal data to support it but I know we were seeing more people using the library, some using the space as a study area and others using our computers, but also interacting more with staff and the physical collection. Some were coming back to use print versions of references tools we have long had online. They appreciate the online options but are also beginning to understand that they need help. At a time where we are trying hard to reach and better serve our users, I hope we are not turning them away instead.
To be fair, I can't ignore the personal aspects of this change. While interviewing for a previous job, I was asked the "where do you want to be in five years" question. My answer was that I wanted to head my own branch. I got the job for which I was interviewing and eventually moved on to become the head of my own branch. Losing that has not been easy. Fortunately I am working with good people and I believe we have common goals, to best serve our users. Trends may be national but the impacts are local. In the name of "efficiency" and other purported goals, we sometimes end up aiming for the lowest common denominator. I'm all for change -- when it is good change. Is this current round of branch closures good? Only time will tell. They may have been necessary, but I am not Captain Dunsel.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.