College Libraries Start to Turn the Page

On a recent chilly afternoon at City College, the scene inside the five-story Morris Raphael Cohen Library is a hive of buzzing activity. Surrounding the central shelves of books and journals on each floor, students are reading, viewing computer screens, writing notes, scrolling through their smartphones.

There are Quiet Floors and Group Study Floors. Some students are ensconced in tightly clustered carrels, others are sitting in semiprivate rooms with two computer workstations. Still others are working in glass-enclosed media-study rooms, hashing out team projects for several hours at a time, using laptops, LCD screens and whiteboards.

Welcome to the “e-library.”

At City College, as on other campuses across the University, academic libraries are fast evolving into a blend of print and digital materials, supported by a host of 21st century electronic devices and resources. The first-floor Tech Center is a seamless extension of the library, with long rows of students using “walk in/walk out” PCs at individual workstations. Increasingly, faculty are reserving classrooms known as STCs (Student Training Centers) for computer-based lectures.

“The library is all about getting and organizing content right now,” says Charles Stewart, Technical Services Chief at City College. “Technology facilitates that. It’s an inseparable marriage.”

Most experts maintain that print books and other hard-copy materials will remain a key part of academic libraries for some time, particularly historical and special collections that are essential to research and scholarship. At the same time, they acknowledge the inexorable march toward digitalization — and its consequences. “The relative proportion of print materials is declining,” says University Dean for Libraries and Information Resources Curtis Kendrick. “The growth area is digital.”

Publishers themselves are often leading the charge, encouraging libraries to drop print books or journals in favor of electronic versions. This shift not only has affected how libraries shape their budgets, but how they’re rethinking their space to better serve students and faculty.

Digital collections are reducing the need for more shelf space, sometimes raising questions about whether to get rid of outdated print materials or move little-used volumes to remote storage facilities. More broadly, libraries are using the digital revolution as an opportunity to convert stack space into more active learning environments, such as group study rooms or classrooms that bring outside faculty into the heart of the library.

“The goal is to create better space for users,” says Robert Shaddy, chief librarian at Queens College, which is currently undergoing a substantial library renovation. “The library needs to be more of a learning lab than a storage facility.”

Kendrick points out that no matter how CUNY libraries evolve, they will continue to be popular destinations for the University’s many commuters.

“Students are still coming into the library,” he says. “We recognize that there’s a lot more group work going on, and that students also need quiet study areas. The library is an iconic place; it’s emblematic of the college experience.”

Perhaps the most dramatic changes occurring today are those affecting the collection of academic journals and periodicals. Many journals are now available in digital formats, often offered by publishers as part of large database packages.

While some campus libraries still buy paper journals, they’re buying fewer and fewer these days. At Queensborough Community College, virtually all of the journals are now online through “big-deal” databases, says Chief Librarian Jeanne Galvin. Besides saving shelf space, online databases allow a lot more people to access material simultaneously, she says.

Most students actually prefer online journals, Galvin adds, because they give them the ability to access information from home — “especially if they want to do it at one in the morning.” Furthermore, more database publishers — recognizing the near omnipresence of smartphones — are making their information deliverable to mobile devices. “They’re no longer emerging technologies,” notes Shaddy. “They’ve emerged.”

In some cases, limited space is dictating a bigger digital future for libraries. For instance, when the CUNY School of Law decided to move to its current Citibank Tower quarters in Long Island City, it became clear that there was not enough space for the library to bring the bulk of its print collection. “We had to re-envision the library in a new way,” shifting many materials to online resources, while also making sure they still followed accreditation standards set by the American Bar Association, says library director Julie Lim.

Most of the digital migration was not a problem, since many legal materials and cases are already online. Nevertheless, there are potential drawbacks and challenges to going digital. For example, there’s the issue of “information security.”

“We’ve been canceling more subscriptions to print journals and microfilm,” says John Drobnicki, former chief librarian and acting head of technical services at York College. “But the risk is, if we lose access to a database — say we lose funding — and we’ve cancelled a particular journal in print, then we’ve lost access to that journal.”

At some point, aggregators who put together database packages may decide to drop certain journals or go out of business altogether, adds Stewart of City College. “When you bought print versions, you owned it; that was that,” he says. “But with a subscription model, you might own it, you might not. There’s no security.”

To counter such risks, universities are signing on to services such as Portico, a nonprofit partnership of libraries and publishers, created to preserve tens of thousands of online journals, books and digitized historical collections in perpetuity — ensuring that they will be accessible to future researchers, scholars and students. “We subscribe to it as a kind of insurance policy,” Kendrick says. “If [database] companies go out of business, Portico guarantees uninterrupted access to these materials.”

Even as books and periodicals go digital, there are still questions about what to do with old print books and journals — many of them now duplicates of electronic versions or available in digital archives, others worn or outdated editions. Some major research libraries have opted for remote storage, sending rarely used print materials to off-site facilities where they can be retrieved within a day or two, if requested by a student or faculty member.

One facility called Recap, located in suburban New Jersey, is shared by the New York Public Library, Columbia and Princeton Universities.

Some researchers and scholars have worried that such strategies could lead to important materials being banished for good at off-site storage facilities. Recently, the New York Public Library set off a fierce debate with its proposal to move many of the 3 million books housed under the main reading room at its 42nd Street main branch to Recap.

At CUNY, librarians have been weighing the possible use of off-site storage, but many questions remain. “We’re still exploring, looking for remote space for under-circulating materials,” says Shaddy of Queens College. “We’re checking what’s available, at what cost, and whether it can still be readily accessible.”

Meanwhile, in an effort to open up more space for high-tech study and interaction, some libraries have begun to de-clutter their stacks. At Hunter College, for instance, “about 200,000 linear feet” of rarely used materials have been removed, says chief librarian Dan Cherubin. “Anything we’ve removed either can be generated elsewhere at CUNY or is available in digital format.”

At Queensborough, the library has gotten rid of about 10,000 books, as part of a larger renovation plan. “We weren’t throwing away literature,” says Galvin. “A lot of books were in horrible condition or out of date, like a 1965 anatomy text.” Many of the books were given away. (They could not be sold, since CUNY is prohibited from reselling anything purchased with taxpayer money, Galvin says.)

After clearing out some of the stacks, Queensborough also decided to move them. When Galvin arrived at the library several years ago, the student study area was in the center of the library, with the stacks lining the perimeters. “The books got the sunlight and the students sat in the dark,” Galvin recalled. “We opened up space by the windows and devoted more of it to students, and less to books.”

Similarly, renovations at libraries such as those at Hunter and Queens, which are scheduled to be completed later this year, are creating spaces to meet a more diverse menu of student and faculty needs. At Hunter, librarians are working with other faculty to develop more open, communal spaces, as well as an “information commons” that will offer IT help and tutors for students, says Cherubin.

In City College Library stacks, books are packed for storage.

At Queens, the reconfigured library includes a new computer commons, teaching classrooms, copying and scanning services, and a research services suite with a special collections seminar room that will have interactive whiteboards and upgraded digital access to other materials. “In the old days, we showed you the card catalogue,” says Shaddy. “Now the idea is to encourage classes to come to the library and for us to be readily available to help with specialists.”

Indeed, the explosion of information technology has recast the role of librarians as integral teaching partners with other faculty members. At the CUNY Law School, “we have been encouraging more integrated interaction,” says Lim, partly by providing classrooms for faculty on the same floor with librarian offices.

Librarians are also teaching more, offering a growing number of for-credit courses in research methods and information literacy. “If you look at the world of information as an ecosystem, there’s a lot of pollution out there,” says University Dean Kendrick. “We serve as a filter for information, helping people tell the difference between good material and bad.”

While it’s difficult to predict what technologies students and faculty will be using in the University library 10 years from now, one thing is certain: There will be a lot more electronics.

“We need to make the building a place where people can still come to use not only print materials, but use computers, move around and work together,” says Shaddy. “Technology is like a train: Once you get on it, it’s hard to get off.”

Students work in new Tech Center in City College Library.