Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Last updated: 1 year ago

Turning a Page: the changing role of the university library

The Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) is a “library robot” that’s allowed UBC to consolidate stacks. Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

The word “library” does not refer to the same institution it did 10 years ago.

Since 2002, the purpose of libraries at UBC has changed dramatically, from what they buy, to how they use their space, to what users read and where they read it.

UBC has continuously overhauled its library system in recent years without knowing what it might look like a decade from now, and even without knowing where the money for the changes will come from.

“When I was a student,… at least 50 per cent of my day was spent in the chemistry library on the floor amongst the stacks, working,” said David Farrar, UBC vice-president academic and provost. “The world has changed in remarkable ways.”

Farrar knows the libraries are still very popular, but they’re now used very differently. “Wander around this place and you’ll see students everywhere,” he said, noting renovations to Koerner Library that included a new study lounge. “You won’t see very many people in the stacks. And that’s the reality of the libraries we’re in now.”

Given that 60 per cent of UBC’s library collection hasn’t been picked up off the shelf in eight years, taking away book stacks and adding study spaces will be one of the few clear trends. “The rest is … more or less negotiable. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging,” said Mark Vessey, chair of the Senate library committee. “Given that nobody quite knows what the ideal form for a university library would be in 2020, what do we move first? What are our priorities?”

The university will have to change how it handles electronic resources, work out copyrights for journal services and digitize its archives. It also needs to re-think how space is used and figure out how to effectively store its ink-and-paper archives. But in order to make any of this happen, libraries are forced to grapple for scarce university resources amid all of UBC’s different departments.

“You can spin this whichever way you like,” Vessey said. “We’re all really relishing having such an interesting logistical, intellectual, organizational challenge — or we’re really struggling to deal with a massive set of variables in a time of very restricted resources.”

The digital collection

In just 10 years, the ratio of electronic to print usage has been completely reversed.

“Our [book] circulation numbers have decreased very dramatically,… but our electronic usage data is just off the charts,” said Jo Anne Ramirez, associate university librarian in charge of collections.

In the 2002-2003 school year, the library only spent 21 per cent of its purchasing budget on electronic material. This year, that figure is 72 per cent.


Since 2002:
59% decrease in print circulation
48% decrease in reference
90% increase in online reference
66% decrease in borrowing from other libraries
59% increase in UBC research citations

“Over the next five to 10 years, I’m sure it’ll go up to 90 per cent,” said university librarian Ingrid Parent. “That means that students and faculty have immediate access to information from wherever they are. They don’t even need to physically come to a library.”

The science and engineering faculties were quickest to adopt online materials, while the humanities have made the switch more slowly. As scholarly journals go digital, they’ve had the biggest impact on how academics do their work. Researchers are no longer forced to comb through volume after volume of abstracts to find one specific article; now it’s as easy as typing in a search query and clicking a mouse.

But there’s a trade-off for all that convenience.

Much of the online material offered is under licence, meaning the library doesn’t own the material like it would in print. “[Publishers] have a profound impact on what we have access to … in ways that didn’t exist when I was a student. You bought the book, you put it on the shelf, it was there, you owned it,” Farrar said. “[Now] we’re buying access to their information. If they take it away from us, it’s gone.”

UBC wants to make sure it has long-term usage rights to 75 per cent of its digital collection. According to Ramirez, “It’s a struggle. To buy the content, to have perpetual access rights, costs extra,” she said. “The library’s in a really awkward situation, because we want to provide and be a broker of information.

“But we’re not the people that produce it [and] we’re not necessarily the consumer; we’re just a middle man.”

Using what they already have

Empty stacks in the Koerner library. Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Aside from providing access to external material, the library also tries to add a unique voice to the conversation. To this end, they’ve started to make UBC’s special collections accessible on the Internet.

“What will distinguish libraries in the future is not what we electronically licence, but what we have in our collections that we make available to the world,” said Allan Bell, director for digital initiatives at UBC Library.

The university’s digitization strategy involves finding items crucial to research and learning at UBC that are owned by the library. “A lot of what we have are unique treasures,” Bell said. “This is literally the only place where you can find these collections.”

So far, documents that UBC has digitized include early B.C. newspapers and correspondence of an oral history of the early Chinese-Canadian community. “We’re trying to shine light into the dark corners of the library and bring those things to light,” Bell said.

UBC also maintains a digital repository of research output called cIRcle, which contains everything from speeches to every thesis since the university’s inception.

With all of UBC’s unique electronic materials, preserving data is as important as protecting physical materials. “More and more, things are born digital,” Bell said. “[For] much of our stuff, the intellectual content cannot be encapsulated in a piece of paper, put in an acid-free envelope and then put on a shelf.”

Storing the data isn’t just a matter of backups; UBC must ensure files are authentic and protected, and consider whether data can be distributed to other universities so that it isn’t in danger of being lost to future earthquakes in the Lower Mainland.

“It’s something that the entire world is looking at now, because so much is at risk of being lost,” Bell said. “We need to start moving to make sure that these things will not be lost to the future.”

Finding a place for the old books

But as more material goes digital, keeping old but rarely used books and documents becomes a challenge as well.

“One of our objectives, really, is to maintain that collection,” said Parent. “The problem is that you can’t maintain it in book stacks that are right in the core of campus. Because if they’re not being used, they’re taking up space and that space could be used for better purposes.”

One of the main innovations that moved the libraries away from stacks was the “library robot,” the Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS). Installed when the old Main Library was renovated into the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in 2005, ASRS automated book retrieval and concentrated collections into a smaller space.

The next step might be moving rarely used books out of campus altogether.

There’s a need to keep it for the future, but maybe we don’t need to keep 22 copies of it.”

The B.C. Integrated Research Library is a proposed $10 million storage facility in South Campus that is currently winding through approval from the UBC Board of Governors. If the project is approved, construction is planned to end in 2014. Rarely used books could be stored in the building and digitized on request. The facility would operate jointly with other schools in the region, preserving “last copies” of books and documents without requiring all universities to store individual copies.

“We took a look at all of our collections, and the University of Alberta and us have the largest amount,” said Ramirez. “We realized we all are keeping a lot of the same stuff…. There’s a need to keep it for the future, but maybe we don’t need to keep 22 copies of it.”

“Increasingly, libraries will be known by their individual collections,” said Farrar. “No library holds all the works of the world.”

UBC is still ironing out the details, but the deal with other universities is expected to last for five years before the schools come back to the table to renegotiate. The big worry for university users is whether it will make material less accessible. “The fact is, none of us really knows what that facility is going to be like yet and what using it would feel like,” Vessey said. “There is certainly, on one hand, some anxiety on the part of people whose work involves consistently consulting real books,… who are worried that the books they used to be able to get down from the shelves or get fetched by the robot might become less accessible.

“What they want to know, and what we can’t tell them yet, is what the rules of accessibility will be.”

Ultimately, it would be a cost-saving measure for the university. “The cost of housing and maintaining an item in the open stacks on the core of campus is fairly expensive,” said Ramirez. “If you put it in a storage facility,… it’s so much cheaper. It’s like a fifth of the cost.”

Trading spaces

The Qualicum Room is one of the study spaces in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

The shrinking stacks signal a true change: libraries are starting to look very different. “I graduated from UBC many years ago, and I remember the old Main Library here, before it became what it is now,” Parent said. “My goodness, it was dark and it was just stacks and a few desks and that was it.”

Increasingly, storage space is being converted into study space. “This is where students and faculty, too, come for the learning environment, to work together, to do projects together,” said Parent, pointing to the conversion of the third floor of Koerner Library to a study lounge.

“Every seat is taken, if you walk through. I think libraries have evolved into that community engagement, joint learning facility, and less so for checking out physical books.”

Libraries aren’t being replaced, they’re being transformed. “A few years ago, people thought that we’d stop talking about the idea of libraries. That the library was identified with the book, [and] was obsolete,” Vessey said.

“So the [Irving K. Barber] Learning Centre comes along, and presumably that’s the first step to abolishing the language of libraries. Instead, what’s happened is that the word library has taken on all these new kinds of life.”

Jockeying for position

In the midst of changes and new responsibilities, one thing hasn’t changed much: a lack of funding.

Library budgets have been stagnant several years. There are a few exceptions, like capital construction projects and moving copyright checks in-house, but there isn’t much money left over. Farrar attributes this to the lack of salary growth during the provincial government’s net-zero bargaining mandate for public workers, the strategy of downsizing the number of librarians when existing ones quit or retired, and the improvement of purchasing power for the Canadian dollar.

“It’s struggling a little bit to keep its budget balanced, and we’re working on that,” Farrar said.

The library operates like a faculty in terms of management, with Parent equal in stature to a dean. But unlike faculties, central departments don’t get a share of tuition and don’t have as much control over their own budgets, according to Vessey.

“As the needs of the university with respect to the university have continued to increase, the library has had more difficulty balancing the books,” said Vessey.

“It is not easy; it’s a finite amount that we have to live with,” said Parent. “In terms of fundraising, that is difficult, too, for the library. Because we don’t have alumni, like a faculty does. You don’t graduate from the library.”

There’s probably never going to be a really good way to close facilities that people are used to having on their doorstep.”

The situation has hit a flashpoint. UBC has drawn ire in its attempts to reassign several of the university’s branch libraries, which serve individual faculties. The highest-profile decision was to move the Music Library from the music building into the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.

“Changes are always disruptive; it’s often resisted and protested,” Vessey said. “There’s probably never going to be a really good way to close facilities that people are used to having on their doorstep.”

But this “slight jolt,” according to Vessey, has drawn people’s attention. “At best, it has sensitized a lot of people a little bit more to the scope and the magnitude of the challenges that the library’s actually dealing with.”

The library’s natural service ethic makes it easy for them to take new tasks and harder for them to complain, according to Vessey. “So as the university turns to the library for expert help with copyright clearance issues or turns to the library to find new kinds of resources for the community or new kinds of study space for students, the library says, ‘We can do that.’

“That’s what libraries in universities do. They cover what needs to be done,” Vessey continued. “It’s really difficult for a library to turn to its university community and say, ‘Guys, um, we’re in trouble.’ Or, ‘Guys, you need to help.’”

What the future might look like

Although everything under the hood is rapidly changing, it’s clear that libraries still have a major role to play. “It’s reassuring that we still have the library, even though the library is not very like what we used to have, and it’s going to be less and less like it as the years go by,” said Vessey.

Parent said that time changes not just technology, but what’s important in research and scholarship. “The library at a university is really the place that maintains that archive, and I think that’s essential, because the Googles and the Microsofts of the world are not going to think about long-term access.”

As things rapidly change, the library has no option but to juggle living up to its own standards as an archive and evolving as a modern, responsive service.

“It’s another version of this living laboratory that the university’s meant to be,” Vessey said. “It’s a place where we’re working all this stuff out on the fly. And now a few more people realize that.”