Tuesday, June 1, 2010

UC Merced: Discussion of the Future

When LAUC Merced met in April 2010, we had a great discussion on the future of libraries. As builders and managers of the first research library since the dawn of the information age, we believe UC Merced librarians bring an interesting perspective to any discussion on this topic. We are a library of the future. In fact, our library motto is, Not what other research libraries are, what they will be. What makes us a library of the future?

When the founding librarians at UC Merced drew up plans for the library, they seized the opportunity to design a building and an organization that could take full advantage of modern technologies and systems. From the outset, they knew that they could not afford to build a new library based on old traditions. Were they nostaligic about the reference desk that would never be? Were they wistful, knowing that the print monograph collection would never equal that of UC Berkeley or UCLA? No matter the answers to those questions - they didn't have a choice because the budget wouldn't allow for these luxuries.

To illustrate -- Imagine that you are shopping for a house. You are drawn to a charming bungalow that reminds you of the one you grew up in. It has a mature landscape and a mailman who delivers letters to a slot by the front door. Yes, the place has character. You feel at home there. It's comfortable. But can you afford to live in a house with ancient wiring, roots in the plumbing and vintage insulation?

Your other option is to build the home of your dreams. You have complete freedom of design, but a limited budget. You face many difficult decisions. What is essential? What can you live without? How does your modern lifestyle influence your design decisions? Will your design scale when your household grows? And can you live with the fact that the trees won't provide shade for a few years and that the mail will be delivered to a community box halfway up the street?

While building a library of the future from scratch may be easier than remodeling an existing one, in each case, it requires an acceptance of giving up some things to get other things. For example, at UC Merced, librarians knew from the outset that they could not afford to staff a reference desk. Abandoning the traditional model, UC Merced relies on well trained student assistants and paraprofessionals at the services desk, chat reference, and research consultation appointments with librarians to provide quality reference. We have collected data from our campus that supports user satisfaction with chat reference. This assessment, as well as system wide data suggesting that 24/7 chat is becoming one of UC's busiest reference points gives us confidence that we are on the right track, and serving our community well. We acknowledge that there will be some not served without a reference desk. The new model is not perfect, but it is good enough and it is mandated by fiscal realities.

Our library is futuristic in that more than 85% of our books are electronic. There has been a steady march to the use and acceptance of ebooks in academic libraries despite the imperfections of the platform. Why? The advantages of electronic access are obvious, but there is also the reality that libraries are running out of room. The SOPAG Task Force on UC Libraries Collections Space Planning Report makes it clear that we must reduce the system wide growth rate of print collections. Ebooks are part of the solution to this critical space issue. We recognize that not everyone will be well-served by ebooks. But given the environment, we opt for ebooks because this platform will provide information to most of our users most of the time. Ebooks will continue to evolve and improve only if we are willing to use them and create a market that will encourage publishers to adopt Springer-like usability features. Ebooks are not perfect, but they are good enough and getting better.

Our library is only five years old and our shelves half empty, but we share system wide concerns about space. We enthusiastically support initiatives to eliminate duplication in the UC collection and to develop models that will allow shared print acquisitions and the management of shared collections. UC Merced fully embraces and operates on the concept of one University of California Library Collection. Yes, we rely on our sister campuses to fill in the gaps of our young library, but we also make a significant contribution to the shared UC collection. In fact, for every ten books we borrow from other campuses, we loan seven. Surprised? In what can only be characterized as collection development of the future, Jim Dooley, aka the collection department, uses YPB and faculty requests to develop a highly relevant print collection that actually circulates. Much of Jim's success can be attributed to early faculty buy-in of the collection model and the library/faculty relationships cultivated in the ensuing years since the opening of the campus. Our collection model required that we give up the tradition of highly specialized collecting by subject bibliographers. We recognize that it is not perfect, but it is good enough and we believe that it will work on other campuses in the UC system.

The collection development model at UC Merced is a great example of our organizational philosophy which suggests that librarians should be managers who spend their time working on projects and innovations that have a big payoff. Librarians of the future don't have time to do repetitive tasks, i.e. most collection development which can be outsourced, and most reference desk questions which can be handled by other staff. The skill set of librarians must evolve with the current demands of the library environment. That means that librarians must be continually willing to master new technologies, develop new work flows and learn skills related to project management. The organizational culture at UC Merced supports this philosophy by investing in the professional development of librarians who are expected to manage and lead.

When we speak about the innovative practices of our library it's not unusual for our UC colleagues to listen politely and then dismiss what we're doing, suggesting that it would never work in a bigger library. With all due respect, we disagree. While we expect to add more librarians and staff as our campus grows, we do not expect significant changes to our model. We understand that it was much easier for us to build a library of the future from scratch than it would be to retrofit an existing library structure or organization. But perhaps our model can be useful to other campuses as they move forward and make difficult decisions about what they are willing to give up to become libraries of the future. We welcome your questions and comments.

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