Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shakeup at SUL (Stanford University Library)

[Note that this article represents the opinion of the author only; that I have drawn my information from documents themselves and not from any contact with Stanford faculty or Library staff; and that I really do love books.]

Shakeup at SUL (Stanford University Library)

No, I’m not talking about personnel changes. This is much more serious than that.

The Stanford University Libraries just got what many of us in academic libraryland have prayed for: Massive Attention from its faculty. The results may prove that librarians should be careful what they wish for.

On November 13, 2008, the Stanford Faculty Senate was presented with a major report from its Committee on Libraries (C-Lib). The report was accepted, thus resulting in what appears to be a stinging whack on the head to both the Provost and the Library Director.

The Provost is currently reeling from a far more serious blow: a reduction of perhaps $100M in the General Funds budget over the next two years. This shortfall has caused Provost Etchemendy to require his administrators to present three plans that cut their budgets by 5%, and 7%, and 10% for the next year. (See: “President, Provost, Deans Ax Own Salaries” at )

As painful as these cuts may be, they may not affect the Stanford Library as profoundly as will the Faculty resolution. This unanimous decision sets a two-year process in motion—one that will steer away from a “virtual library” course toward what the C-LIB calls a “hybrid library.” And the hands on the tiller will be faculty hands, student hands, librarian hands, and old hands. Old as in “old-fashioned.”

OK, so maybe I am being overly dramatic. Turns out that a “Hybrid” library is what we are all aiming for: a library system that delivers the best digital resources *and* the best paper resources. Not a big deal—as an ideal—until you get down such things as money, personnel, shelf space, remote storage, browseability, money, Stanford’s Google Books partnership, physical space allocation, money and the positing of a model that’s supposed to be just dandy for the next 50 years.

The Back Story

Our tale ostensibly begins in 2007, when it was announced that SUL’s Meyer Library was going to be torn down and replaced with an academic computing center. Meyer Library happens to house the main corpus of the East Asian Library—about 350,000 volumes. The plan was that these books would be moved to the larger Green Library, and a large chunk of Green’s holdings would be moved to an off-campus high-density storage site. As C-LIB reported, “Faculty in many of the affected areas were alarmed by the specter of a good part of their research material leaving campus…”

So a Town Meeting was called. Provost Etchemendy presided. As faculty aired their objections and posed their questions, “the outline became clear of an already existing high-level decision not to build any expansion of bookshelf space on the central campus. This direction took most of those in attendance by surprise, for the faculty had not been polled widely nor publicly on the issue.”

The plot thickens. High-level decisions made in closed-door meetings; Faculty ignored; Bookshelves in stasis. Big mistake.

Mistakes don’t usually make for an interesting story. One needs an evil villain. Fortunately our tale has just what the story-doctor ordered: Google.

Yes, Google. Do-no-evil Google. Rich Uncle Google, who only wants to gather up every little bit of stray information, like little lost sheep, and place them in a nice, neat corral—so they can be easily found.

Stanford, we now recall, is one of the two keystone libraries in the Google Book Scanning program. The libraries at Stanford and U. Michigan agreed to open their stacks for Google’s massive digitization program, including volumes still in copyright. The Author’s Guild and the American Association of Publishers didn’t like this idea. They claimed Copyright was being violated. So they sued.

By the time a tentative settlement was reached, in October 2008, over 7,000,000 books had been digitized. Google agreed to split revenues with authors and publishers, and received a green light to continue. Stanford and Michigan were vindicated in taking the risk, and everyone lived happily ever after. Not.

Stanford’s C-Lib committee seems to have become unhappier and unhappier, the closer they looked into the implications of the Stanford-Google deal. “Our committee has concluded that a headlong leap into Google Books does not hold out equal promise to all disciplines within the University and threatens, in fact, to stifle research in some of them. We have tried to ask: what type of planning would we be doing today if Google Books had not come along?”

Indeed, the committee looked again at the Library’s formal, strategic plan, and discovered a wolf in sheep’s clothing: Our effort will be to maximize desktop access to content. Little had they realized what this phrase might portend.

With Google clocking at 7M books and heading for at least 15M, maybe 30M, the real possibility exists that the Stanford Library—and every other library—could dump their books and point customers to their screens.

Of course, somebody should keep a few master copies of every book, both as a preservation mechanism, but also so that the book-as-artifact can be studied. But it doesn’t have to be Stanford, does it?

Why can’t Stanford eschew the book storage business and Go Completely Digital? Isn’t this the inevitable future for most and/or all information-providing institutions?

Perhaps, but not in the lifetimes of the current Stanford faculty, or the next generation of scholars, or the one after that:

The sub-committee believes it will require at least two generations of

faculty renewal—something like 50 years—before electronic media take precedence over paper support in some fields of inquiry. Even then, serious research libraries will need to be hybrid institutions, able to fulfill seamlessly, and at the highest level, the needs of scholars working on both sides of the electronic/paper divide.

The electronic/paper divide. Who knew?

Having a Good Browse

If there is anything that characterizes the tone of the subcommittee’s report, it is an appreciation of browsing.

Browsing is a spatial practice within a physical domain described by an immediate research question. It is a process of discovery intimately shaped by the structures of a vertically-integrated library: at once human in scale (a reader’s body moves physically through a library), and psychologically satisfying for its moments of insight. Libraries of the future, whatever technologies they embody, should be mindful of this tradition and be designed to enhance the benefits of browsing, not render it obsolete.

Let me say right here that I adore browsing. What could be more satisfying that wandering through the stacks of a great library, seeing what surrounds a book that you have gone to fetch? Since my office is in the library, I often find myself returning with 10 books when I thought I was only needing one. The phrase “happier than a pig in mud” comes to mind.

But I am 64 years old. In the world of my youth, a library was a building. Now it’s a screen.

To read the C-Lib report is to engage in a wander down memory lane. To get us in the proper nostalgic mood, the authors begin with the 2008 Oxford Dictionary Online definition of a library: LIBRARY. A building, room, or set of rooms, containing a collection of books for the use of the public or of some particular portion of it….

The subcommittee notes that the majority of Stanford’s faculty (presumably meaning tenured faculty) “were trained using libraries of the sort just described.” And, further, that the art of browsing was highly important to their intellectual development, and should be important to undergraduate students, graduate students, and junior faculty: “Browsing is not a search through a vast panorama of knowledge. Indeed, the qualitative differences between browsing and searching are non-trivial.”

Non-trivial. A good term to keep in mind, since the subcommittee’s recommendations, adopted by the Faculty Senate, are certainly non-trivial.

But back to browsing. Much as I adore browsing, I have to note that in my 16 years at an academic library, I don’t see a lot students keeping me company. The aisles are not crowded. And I certainly do not see a lot of faculty. If you want to see a lot of browsing, go to a Barnes & Noble. Go to a supermarket. Go to a hardware store. There, you will see some browsing. You may even bump into people, even find yourself reaching for the same head of lettuce. Seriously, go someplace where active browsing takes place, and then go to the open stacks of a large academic library. I promise that you will not feel crowded.

Sorry, C-Lib, the campus answer to “how do I get to the Library?” is increasingly “Log On.”

Our mental picture of the college library has to be expanded. If we think of an ivy-covered building, or a building of any sort, we are being very twentieth century. The twenty-first century image of an academic library might better be an LCD screen. This could be a computer screen, a PDA screen, a phone screen, even an image on the inside of our glasses. Try this mental exercise: What is the first image that pops to mind when I write: CNN. It might be the concept, “news.” It might be a picture of a face on a screen. But I bet it’s not a mental image of the CNN headquarters building in Atlanta.

The academic library need no longer be thought of as a building or a set of buildings where service is provided and academic work gets done. This radical shift has caused some deep soul-searching about “the library as place.” Librarians and campus planners ask: Just how much physical space does an academic library need, and what should the space be used for?

This is not an easy matter. The physical library has a strong hold on our imaginations, representing more than the sum of the activities that may be conducted within its walls. We can trace this back to ancient Greek and Roman libraries, which not only stored scrolls and later, codices, but also included galleries, reading rooms, and gardens. Thus ancient libraries functioned as social spaces, as places for contemplation but also as places for conversation. Today’s public libraries continue this tradition.

In the United States, the main campus library building is often referred to as the “heart” of the university. It is described as a “crossroads,” an “oasis,” as a “center for intellectual exchange,” and even as “a great place to find a date.” It has been observed that ever since Thomas Jefferson placed the library at the center of his plan for the University of Virginia, campus planners have followed this model.

But the 21st century academic library is “anywhere and everywhere.” It is 24/7/365. At least in theory, it will sustain a scholar who never sets foot in a library building and never borrows a (physical) book. This does not mean that colleges and universities should start closing their library buildings. It does not mean that new library buildings should not be built. But it does mean that the size and the co-located services in a library building are increasingly a matter of choice, and not a matter of necessity.

The “old” library was centered on the storage and accessibility of physical objects containing information: books, magazines, scholarly journals, newspapers, printed theses, manuscripts, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs. Patrons of the old library had to physically show up in order to achieve their goals. Therefore it made sense to locate reading rooms, study lounges, study carrels, seminar rooms, reference services, research consultation, information skills training, group study rooms, group viewing rooms, classrooms, and even “learning cafes” on its premises.

The “new” library will increasingly be liberated from physical objects. It will still have and make available physical objects but increasingly its services will be digital, distributed, and largely self-managed by its patrons.

This makes possible what I think of as the “minimalist” library. That is, a library with a very small footprint, and perhaps with no “public” spaces. Just computers and offices, and the staff who feed them, and the staff who go out to the classroom, the study center, the lab, the student center, the dorm common room, the faculty offices—to provide coaching and training and to learn about new information needs.

On the other hand, there is nothing that requires a minimalist approach. Campus administrators can decide that they want a crossroads library, one that plays a broad social function for the institution. They can fold in a cafĂ©, a bookstore, they can even design a campus mall of which the library is part. Academic computing can be relocated to the Library, as can courseware support and instruction. An “Information Commons” can be created that brings together various student advisors and high-tech instructors, along with cutting edge equipment and collaborative spaces. Lectures, exhibitions, musical programs, academic symposia, lunch talks, dinners with the President, cocktail parties, film festivals—all this and more can be offered in the library-as-campus-crossroads.

The decision is a choice, and the choice can be different for different units and for different campuses.

The Bookless Library?

At the heart of the Stanford flap is the question of the book. Are printed books essential to the 21st century academic library? Do we have to keep them on campus? Is it important to have open stacks, so that collections can be browsed?

Libraries keep things. And Research Libraries keep almost everything. Harvard keeps twelve million volumes. Stanford, Yale, UNC, and Penn all have between six and ten million books. At the Penn Libraries, we keep almost two million volumes in a high-density storage facility in the old printing floor of the Philadelphia Bulletin Building. Princeton, Columbia, and the New York Public Library have a shared storage facility in a large tract of land in central New Jersey. Stanford has similar high-density facilities. Books from these units can be retrieved within 24-48 hours.

The C-Lib subcommittee clearly finds such facilities distasteful:

High-density storage facilities, like Stanford’s at Livermore, are truly remarkable

machines designed to ensure that no materials are lost. But they have nothing in common with libraries. Rather, they employ procedures used by companies like Toyota to store spare parts: it makes no difference to the filing system what a book is about, because the only parameters that matter are a book’s physical dimensions and coordinates in a grid of shelves and aisles.

This is a far cry from the sylvan groves of learning. Too far for the scholars who agreed to serve on the subcommittee, and whose report was adopted unanimously by the Faculty Senate.

Here are the key recommendations:

  • We recommend that SUL modify its emphasis when explaining its primary mission. We believe it is not “to maximize desktop access to content,” but to provide the most supple and flexible support in a hybrid environment of print and electronic materials.

  • We believe that 5.5 million volumes is a useful and practical figure for the size of a core collection based on center campus.

  • To house this collection, we recommend building a structure in close proximity to Green, possibly underground, featuring state-of-the-art compact shelving with books arranged by call number and accessible for browsing by users. It should hold about 4 million volumes….

The subcommittee recognizes that Stanford will not be able to keep all of its volumes on campus. Stanford Librarian Mike Keller notes that the University purchases between 100,000 and 150,000 new books every year, and Stanford, like most Research Libraries, is already full. If 100,000 books come in, then 100,000 books need to go out. No one at Stanford is suggesting that these books simply be thrown away—although that would be an option (see argument below).

Since the subcommittee wants to keep all of its cake, keep as much of it nearby as possible, and be able to get the rest of its cake quickly and efficiently, it also recommends improvements in finding every slice. That is, improvements to the catalog.

  • No book is to be transferred to SAL3 [high-density storage] until its cataloging has been updated and deepened when necessary, nor before its title page, table of contents, and index are scanned and fully searchable.

There is nothing wrong with this recommendation, and indeed it represents a nice expansion of the catalog as a research tool. It is lucky that Stanford is already in the mass scanning business, since for most research libraries, having to scan and mount this information for each book being transferred would create a severe case of constipation.

Non-Trivial Matters

The C-Lib subcommittee is not retrograde—despite my occasional poke at them. They recognize that digital resources are increasingly important, and in some fields are the predominant form of scholarly exchange. When they ask their readers to imagine a world without Google Book Search, they are not inviting a sojourn in the pre-Internet past, but looking forward to the many changes that will transpire in the years ahead. Will Google always be around, they ask? That question seems unthinkable to the average Netizen, but then, who would have thought that General Motors would sink like a stone?

What the subcommittee wants for Stanford is what we all want for our universities: an excellent digital library combined with an excellent paper-and-artifact library.

Not a problem. Except for one non-trivial item. It’s called money.

The estimated cost to fulfill the subcommittee’s recommendations is $200,000,000. That seems like a huge figure, but the committee notes that Stanford is prepared to raise $200M for new dorms, and $400M for a new business school. It also notes that the Provost was happy to include the latter two projects in his Capital Campaign priority list, but that “libraries were not on the list.” The cover memo for their report goes on to say that, “if Stanford is to imagine itself the top, or a top, university in the world, that ambition will remain no more than a fancy until library infrastructure matches that available in other areas of the university on the Provost’s list.”

And there’s the rub. Money. And in Stanford’s case, space—because the local municipality has placed severe restrictions on how much the University can construct on its campus. But, as the subcommittee notes, the University has managed to build other new facilities. It is all a matter of institutional will and “the determination of Stanford’s leaders.” Clearly this determination has been focused elsewhere, since “in our view, the libraries at Stanford have not been funded with the largesse and vision showered on the research laboratories of the scientists and engineers in our midst.” (My emphasis)

So the President and Provost at Stanford don’t care about the library. If so, they are not alone. Over the past 15 years, Research-1 universities have steadily given a smaller piece of their budget to their libraries. Year after year. Drip, drip, drip—like a Chinese water torture.

Meanwhile, the cost of academic materials has been going up each year; something like 6% per year. Further, a small group of publishers has gotten control of the core academic journals in Science, Technology, and Medicine. This semi-monopoly has allowed them to increase their rates by an average 10% a year.

So let’s look at the academic library in this light. Let’s anthropomorphisize and imagine the library is Mike Keller, or another one of the Directors of Research Libraries around the country. There he is, his forehead getting the drip, drip, drip of reduced resources, while his body is being squeezed in the vise by the big STM publishers, and the book-lovers among the faculty are pulling both arms, while the tech-lovers are pulling both legs as they ask for more licensed databases.

And is Keller supposed to also be taking a 10% salary cut while all this is happening? Geeessshhh!

I am going to stop here. The faculty-in-revolt have done us all a great favor. They have pointed out that the academic library is under-appreciated, under-funded, and overwhelmed with demands—including theirs.

Now what?


The report:

The Subcommittee’s Cover memo, which is quite pithy:

The Faculty Senate Resolution:

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