Academic libraries empty stacks for online centers

When students wander into the former University of Texas undergraduate library this fall, gone will be the "Quiet Please" signs, the ban on cheeseburgers or sodas, the sight of solemn librarians restocking books.

The fact is, there will be no more books to restock. The UT library is undergoing a radical change, becoming more of a social gathering place more akin to a coffeehouse than a dusty, whisper-filled hall of records. And to make that happen, the undergraduate collection of books had to go.

This summer, 90,000 volumes were transferred to other collections in the campus's massive library system - leaving some to wonder how a library can really be a library if it has no tomes.

But a growing number of colleges and universities are rethinking and retooling their libraries to better serve students reared in a digital age.

"While libraries are still focused on their physical collections, they aren't the sole purpose anymore," says John Shank, director of the Center for Learning Technologies at Penn State Berks College in Reading. The advent of the Internet and the digitization of information has transformed the way students learn, experts concur, and libraries are scrambling to keep up.

"For most children coming of age today, information and information technology are really merging so that they don't see any disconnect between the two," says Frances Jacobson Harris, author of "I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online."

To underscore that point, last week a new public high school in Vail, Ariz., become one of the first to opt out of supplying textbooks altogether in the hopes that students will be more engaged in learning. Especially designed as a textbook-free environment, all students were assigned laptops instead and will read and turn in most homework online.

At UT, the biggest challenge has been changing antiquated notions of a library's role in learning. "While most people have been hugely supportive of this idea, some have been sort of grieving over this iconic loss of the undergraduate library. I think what they are really grieving is the passing of the book as the means of scholarly communication," says Fred Heath, vice provost for the general libraries, adding that UT is the nation's fifth-largest academic library with more than 8 million volumes.

So to ease some of the apprehension, administrators took the word "library" out of their vocabulary when referring to the Flawn Academic Center. When classes start Aug. 31, it will be filled with colorful overstuffed chairs for lounging, barstools for people watching, and booths for group work. In addition to almost 250 desktop computers, there will be 75 laptops available for checkout, wireless Internet access, computer labs, software suites, a multimedia studio, a computer help desk and repair shop, and a cafe.

While students are still required to read books at the undergraduate level, they are increasingly being asked to use a variety of different online sources.

"Libraries are about information, and books were simply a way that information was packaged," says Judy Ashcroft, director of the Instructional Innovation and Assessment division at UT. "But more information is being packaged online, and we have a duty to provide access to [it]."

Some see the shift as par for the course. Indeed, when the concept of an undergraduate library was first introduced, it was considered "revolutionary."

Originally, undergrads weren't allowed to peruse the stacks. They had to leaf through the card catalogue, fill out a form, and a librarian would retrieve the book they were looking for. All that changed when Harvard University created the first undergraduate library in the 1950s. The concept was to gather a collection geared toward the kinds of things undergrads were studying and make it easily accessible to students.

Librarians say the way people use libraries varies dramatically. Faculty see them as warehouses for their materials; graduate students use them as second offices. But for today's undergrads, libraries have simply become "places to be," says Damon Jaggers, associate director of Student and Branch Services at UT.

As a result, a growing number of colleges - from Stanford to the University of Arizona to Georgia Tech - are making significant changes to their libraries. Already, these revamped learning centers are being met with huge success. Penn State, for instance, found that the number of students coming into the library went up by 300 percent when it opened its new information commons in 2001.

But what of the serendipity that comes from browsing the stacks? Librarians say that can now be done online as well with bibliographical weblinks, but this new age won't preclude books completely. "There are millions of students reading Harry Potter [books]," says Ms. Harris. "The difference is they might ... share their tidbits in a blog. The online library world has room for all of that."

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