Why university libraries must be transformed to survive in digital age


Simeon Ananou, vice president for IT services and CIO at the State University of New York at Albany, has a vision for transforming university libraries in the digital age.

Ananou’s imperative is that libraries must evolve from “book warehouses” — largely passive repositories of physical objects — to “information commons,” the locus for an array of digital services that can be accessed anytime, anywhere and on any device by students, faculty, researchers and other stakeholders.

“Most libraries maintain some electronic databases and collections, but it is obvious when you walk on to a university campus, there is still a substantial amount of space that it is occupied by physical books,” Anonou told EdScoop. “The physical requirement to maintain and retain books and check them out is still a reality on most campuses.”

At a time when content is abundant and is being delivered via multiple modalities, the notion of the university library as a book repository confined to four walls is reaching obsolescence, Ananou argues.

“In a digital age, we have to ask whether students still need to attend the library to be able to get access to research,” he said. While many universities are digitizing their book collections, Ananou’s vision for the transformed library goes far beyond the creation of virtual repositories where students can view books on their iPads instead of having to check them out.

“The consumption of information in the digital age is different from what it used to be in the printed format,” he said. “This is where I see the information commons concept as being a set of activities on a continuum, going from knowing how and where to find the information, accessing the information, being able to analyze it and then being able to present it.”

A transformed library, in Ananou’s view, would adopt new roles and services as “essential ingredients for their own survival.” Those functions would include becoming a computer lab where students learn how to optimize their use of research tools; an information-literacy center to guide scholars on locating, interpreting and presenting content in a coherent manner; and a center for academic integrity that provides the community with increased awareness the ethical use of content, including copyright and intellectual property law.

“Universities have an obligation to help individuals properly navigate the complex landscape of information,” he said. Under transformation, “that also becomes a role that libraries can play to augment what happens in the classroom.”

University libraries also can serve as a “big data and analytics playground,” a kind of applied research lab, Ananou said. “Students can take their own data set [to the library] and with the help of a professional in that setting say, ‘I’m trying to find a pattern in this data set, can somebody help me?’ That is one basic level of this big data and analytics playground,” he said.

Such a set of services provided by the information commons would necessarily involve a partnership between university libraries and information technology departments, he said.

“We can’t expect librarians to do it all,” he said. “There has to be belief and trust from both organizations. One is for IT professionals to realize that their job is beyond the servers, the routers and the network. Their job is to help promote the usefulness of the network and the services that get delivered over the network. One of those services is supporting the library to reach [the university community].”

Strong leadership also is necessary to ensure that transformation stays on the road to success. “We need vision and leadership, someone to say that what we were are doing is fine but not sufficient,” he said. At Albany, the transformation effort is being co-led by the dean of the library and Ananou.

“We want to provide seamless service to students so they don’t really see it as the library or technology, just as a service being provided,” he said.

Will physical books become obsolete in a transformed library? “There has to be a retirement plan for some books so we don’t keep them forever, not necessarily all the books but sharing your collection with other libraries,” Ananou said. “I think that should be included in the transformation.”

Ananou said that framework for book retirement needs to be developed that would take into account the cost of maintaining physical books and the cost of maintaining digital collections, and a decommissioning process for books.

“We also should be asking whether there are copyright laws that require us to maintain certain things in paper format and whether are there partnerships we establish with other libraries that may already have digital copies of some materials that we are keeping,” he said. “Even usage is something we need to track — how many students still go to a library just to find printed material? Do they go there more to socialize? Do they go there because it’s the most convenient place to work as a group, not necessarily to use the printed materials? Those questions are very important for us as university administrators to be asking.”

Ananou said that library transformation isn’t “going to happen overnight. It’s more of a cultural shift and a new paradigm,” he said.

Administrators and other university officials “must quickly recognize that times have changed,” he added. “Our students are asking us not to force them to go into four walls where they can read. Students are asking how they can use the information that they find. As administrators, we need to start asking ourselves whether we are delivering the right services to the right generation.”