Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1999

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Integrating Science and Technology Libraries at Cornell

Jean A. Poland
Associate University Librarian for Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences
Clark Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853


Integrating science and technology libraries into a single unit involves identifying what is unique about each library, addressing user and staff concerns, establishing new communications patterns, encouraging staff participation in the change process and redirecting identity and loyalties to the larger entity. This article reports on progress to date at Cornell University Library in administratively combining the Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences Libraries while maintaining separate physical locations.


The trend in U. S. academic libraries over the past several decades has been to combine decentralized science and technology departmental libraries into a single science library or to incorporate departmental science libraries into an already established general library. Roberts et al. (1991) report that most holdouts from this trend are older, private universities in the northeast. Hurd (1996) echoes their statement and verifies that the number of combined science and technology libraries continued to increase in the early 1990s. Cornell University Library is among the holdouts that remain wary of physical consolidation. While the fiscal benefits of consolidation are not lost on library and university administration, powerful science and engineering faculties are clear about maintaining "their" individual libraries. Faculties in both departments still talk about how the chemistry and physics libraries were combined to form the Physical Sciences Library in 1965. Departmental legends have developed around that consolidation and are repeated by faculty much too young to have even been college students at the time.

Roberts et al. further note that "in the 1980s more libraries have centralized the management of sci/tech libraries than have centralized the physical resources. The former does not generally require faculty support nor is it as capital intensive." This trend has continued into the late 1990s as academic libraries embraced teams and clusters in the process of redesigning administrative structures.

Generally, the purpose of centralizing management of libraries is to conserve financial resources. While it is important to watch for potential economies of scale, without combining the libraries in the same physical structure, cost saving may not be a realistic primary goal. A more reasonable and achievable goal is to improve patron services and provide better quality of work life for staff. For example, circulation staff are often unable to be away from the library which limits their freedom to attend training sessions. When staff from cooperating libraries are able to cover for each other, greater accommodation can be made for training as well as for vacation and illness. Shared staff that have a single function, such as computer support or serials check-in, are able to develop their skills to a higher degree than if they were performing several tasks. Cross training can help staff become more aware of the totality of library services and be more productive.

In 1998 Cornell University Library combined the Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences Libraries under the direction of an Associate University Librarian (AUL). This cluster is commonly referred to as the EMPS Libraries or EMPSL. The restructuring was part of a library-wide reorganization designed to provide coordinated leadership to units that were in the habit of setting goals individually and working independently of each other.

The resulting management structure also includes AULs for Life Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Information Technology and Special Collections. Each AUL also serves as Director of one of the libraries in his or her cluster. The AUL for EMPSL is the Director of the Physical Sciences Library. A Deputy University Librarian is responsible for technical services and collection development and coordinates public services activities across clusters. The existence of two AULs for the sciences reflects the unique structure of Cornell University which is in part a private school and in part a state school. EMPSL includes the private or endowed sciences; the life sciences libraries are part of the State University of New York system. The AULs are members of the Library Management Team, the decision making body of the Library.

The EMPS Libraries

The EMPS Libraries are some distance apart on campus. It is a 10-15 minute walk between the Physical Sciences Library and the Engineering Library. The Mathematics Library recently moved considerably closer to the Physical Sciences Library, simplifying travel between those two units. Departmental libraries are by nature user-centered. Each of the EMPS Libraries has a unique constituency.

The College of Engineering includes a large number of schools and departments: Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Applied and Engineering Physics, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Geological Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, and Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. In addition the Engineering Library serves Cornell's new Faculty of Computing and Information. Lesser-used engineering materials have been placed in remote storage to make space for computer instruction laboratories that are part of the library. Undergraduate use of engineering materials is heavier in engineering than in the physical sciences and mathematics. The nature of engineering is such that there is a strong emphasis on technical reports, patents, standards, and conference literature. The Engineering Library has the largest staff of the three EMPS Libraries, longer reference hours, and the largest collection.

Mathematicians often tell librarians that the library is their laboratory, perpetuating Frame's (1963) statement: " [The mathematics library] is as essential to the research worker in mathematics as the laboratory is to the experimental physicist or chemist." Anderson et al. (1997) report that seventy three percent of the American Mathematical Society Peer Group One departments have libraries located in the same building as the mathematics faculty. When Cornell's Mathematics Department moved to another building on campus, there was no question on the part of the faculty that the library would also move. The Mathematics Library has a small staff: the Director and one support staff position. The new, more central location has increased usage by non-mathematics students and staffing may have to be reviewed.

The Physical Sciences Library supports three departments in the College of Arts and Sciences: Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Physics, and Astronomy. In the physical sciences, particularly in chemistry, around-the-clock access to the library is very important. Many chemistry libraries issue keys to the members of the department. At Cornell the physical sciences faculty agreed to forgo keys in exchange for longer library hours. Consequently, the Physical Sciences Library is open until 11 p.m. during holiday periods when other libraries are closed. Most users of the Physical Sciences Library are researchers who are involved in long-term projects. The nature of reference services is considerably different from that in the Engineering Library, where the heavy undergraduate use results in greater pressure on the staff. Physical Sciences reference librarians receive fewer questions and are able to take more time to research answers.

User and Staff Concerns

As the cluster developed, users voiced concerns that are similar to those they would have had if the libraries had been physically consolidated. Long-term research faculty were worried about the potential homogenization of the three units and feared losing representation for their subjects and needs. There was apprehension during the consolidation among the chemistry faculty that an AUL serving as Director of the Physical Sciences Library would have to take the broader view, and they would not have an advocate for their own needs. Their concerns were lessened when they learned that the two reference librarians in the Physical Sciences Library would serve as advocates for the departments: one for chemistry and chemical biology, the other for physics and astronomy. Engineering and mathematics research faculty also expressed concern about losing the unique attributes of their libraries in the consolidation. Hours of operation, staffing and services were among the issues they brought up in discussions. Outward operational aspects of each library have not changed significantly, and faculty appears to have accepted the change as one that is internal to the library but does not interfere too much with their comfort in using the libraries.

The staff of the Engineering Library, the largest, busiest, and best funded of the three units, feel a sense of loss as they are asked to share personnel and funds among the three units. The smallest unit, the Mathematics Library, has clearly gained the most. Two half-time positions were combined into a single full-time position providing full staffing during the day. The Physical Sciences Library provides evening and weekend supervision of circulation student assistants.

There is concern among staff that, because the AUL also functions as Director of the Physical Sciences Library, staff in that library will be favored. The AUL does, in fact, have the opportunity to get to know Physical Sciences Library staff better than the staff of the two other libraries because of the direct contact. It is important to be aware of the potential problems with this issue and to reach out to all three libraries.

Currently, each of the three libraries has discretionary funds, but no money has been allocated to EMPSL as a unit. Funds for training and equipment that support EMPSL-direct staff have to be negotiated among the three libraries. Discussions are underway with the Cornell University Library Accounting Department to improve this situation.

The Staff

Staff who for years thought of themselves as part of a single library are being challenged to broaden their identities and become part of a larger cluster that includes three libraries. Establishing a more inclusive EMPSL identity will take varying amounts of time depending on the individuals and the amount of time they spend in libraries that are not their "home" libraries.

In addition to the Directors, there are currently three positions that report directly to the AUL: the Network/Systems Administrator, the Head of Access Services and the Web Designer. The AUL and the two Directors are the EMPSL management team.

The Network/Systems Administrator is responsible for computer support in all three libraries. Because the computing structure in each library developed independently she has to keep several servers operating that do not easily communicate with each other. Increased computer compatibility is a primary goal for EMPSL both for internal efficiency and for a more united public face.

The Head of Access Services is responsible for circulation and document delivery in all three libraries. Each library also has an Access Services Supervisor who is responsible for circulation, reserves and document delivery at the unit level. The Head of Access Services is developing a unified training program for student assistants, as well as reviewing and enhancing reserve and document delivery procedures in the three libraries. The libraries maintain different hours of operation and have different reserve and circulation procedures based on the needs of their clientele.

The Web Designer is a new position that will enhance the web presence of the EMPS Libraries. Each of the three web sites developed independently and has been maintained to a different degree. An EMPSL site is under construction. While most users will probably prefer to go directly to one of the three library pages, the page will serve a political purpose and be a source of staff information and a place for staff to communicate.

Staff workspace is an unanticipated problem. As people move among libraries during the day, having a space of their own in each library increases their sense of belonging. The Head of Access Services should have at least a small desk and storage space in each library. The Network/Systems Administrator, who often must deal with hardware problems, should also have a workbench in each library.

Another opportunity for a shared position is developing from Cornell University Library's move from centralized to local serials check-in. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Libraries have maintained cardex records that will be replaced with locally produced records. While cardex entries could be relegated to student assistants, the complexity of online check-in mandates that it be done by a staff member.


Communication in all directions is very important to the success of EMPSL. As in most institutions, it is a challenge to keep everyone informed. At the cluster level, the EMPS-L mailing list reaches all staff. The Engineering Library uses a mailing list and the Physical Sciences Library uses a nickname file to disseminate routine information among staff. EMPSL student assistants have a mailing list they can use to post requests for substitutes.

There are several opportunities to participate in formal meetings. All EMPSL staff are encouraged to attend the regular monthly meeting. Two units have regular staff meetings. The Engineering Library staff meets bi-weekly and the Physical Sciences Library staff meets monthly. The two-person Mathematics Library staff does not hold formal meetings but the Director sends a monthly summary to the EMPS-L mailing list. The Directors and the AUL meet twice a month and are joined once each month by the Head of Access Services and the Network/Systems Administrator. Agendas and summaries of all meetings at all levels are posted to the EMPSL list. The Head of Access Services and the Network/Systems Administrator attend almost all the unit meetings. While the time drain is very real, it is important at this point that everyone be aware of projects in all the libraries and feel included in planning. In time there will be fewer general meetings and more interaction in functional groups such as access services, reference and instruction, and technical services.

The EMPSL Standard ({http://astech.library.cornell.edu/ast/news/CheckOut-The-News-from-ASTech-Libraries.cfm}) is a bi-monthly newsletter directed toward library users. Faculties in all EMPS departments receive paper copies through campus mail, and copies are distributed in each library. Each unit has a library faculty advisory committee. While an EMPSL faculty advisory committee has been considered, several faculty indicated their interest is primarily at the unit level so plans for the larger advisory group have been put aside. A student advisory group is currently under consideration.


The serials crisis has been a major impetus in developing cooperation among sci/tech subject specialists. The area of closest cooperation among the three libraries, and with other Cornell science libraries, is in collection development. EMPSL subject librarians confer regularly with other Cornell science librarians to determine the most economical and effective ways to purchase materials. The well-established habit of cooperation, sharing costs, and developing the common good is the base on which EMPSL stands. EMPSL reference and instruction librarians and staff are working cooperatively to develop and present a one-credit physical sciences literature graduate course. The course outline is available at {http://empsl.cornell.edu/chem602/}. Reference librarians and staff from the three libraries are beginning to meet to share information about electronic databases that are of mutual interest.

Staff rotation programs are under development. The Physical Sciences Library Access Services Supervisor usually spends Fridays at the Engineering Library, and one of the Engineering Library Access Services Supervisors spends Sunday night at the Physical Sciences Library. Each brings a different perspective to his/her additional assignment. The cross-training makes them more aware of the differences and similarities between the two libraries and how they are used. They observe that the two libraries have many patrons in common, and some of the patrons are interested in why the staff are at two libraries.


It has been almost two years since the three libraries became partners in EMPSL. User and staff fears have for the most part been eased, and staff in the three libraries have had time to get to know each other. An incremental approach to change seems to make people feel more comfortable but takes time to implement. Gradual change is accompanied by the possibility of losing sight of long-term goals. On a practical level, helping each other by providing staff support has been very successful. Shared new projects like document delivery and electronic reserve services are challenging to introduce, in part because there is the perception of an increased workload. The critical mass of the combined libraries, however, provides a greater possibility of innovative services than might have come out of any individual unit.


Anderson, N. D., Dilcher, K., and. Rovnyak. J. 1997 Mathematics Research Libraries at the End of the Twentieth Century: A report on the 1996 AMS-IMS-MAA Survey [Online] Available: http://www.ams.org/notices/199711/comm-rovnyak.pdf [November 3, 1999].

Frame, J. Sutherland. 1963. Departmental Libraries Buildings and Facilities for the Mathematical Sciences. Washington, D.C. Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, pp. 79-90.

Hurd, Julie M. 1996. ARL Academic Science and Technology Libraries: Report of a Survey College and Research Libraries 57(2):144-160.

Roberts, E. P., Brekke, E. and Douglas, K. 1991. Physical Structure and Administration of Science and Technology Libraries: An Historical Survey. Science and Technology Libraries 11(3):91-105.


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