Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number

Why Libraries?

by Suzanne E. Thorin

Students today mine electronic databases from their home computers, seek reference help by sending e-mails to librarians, and launch World Wide Web-based tutorials. They want information quickly: online, in full text, at their fingertips. Faculty and scholars, likewise, enjoy immediate access to hundreds of online academic journals and databases and can search the contents of full-text articles in seconds.

With so much information available electronically—at the click of a button, from the comfortable environment of a home, office, or residence hall—who needs the library? Why do libraries matter?

Suzanne E. Thorin is Ruth Lilly Dean of the University Libraries at Indiana University.
Photo © 2000 Tyagan Miller

First, libraries are important as places—as environments that support learning. It’s true that the ways students and faculty obtain their information are changing. Technology has a powerful influence, and perhaps nowhere on the Indiana University campuses is the nexus between students, faculty, and information technology more visible than in the libraries. But it’s also true that academic research libraries are changing to meet user expectations. Libraries are no longer simply warehouses of information that provide access to great printed troves of human knowledge. In today’s fast-paced technological environment, libraries are places for students and faculty to collaborate, to find face-to-face guidance from expert librarians, and to conduct interdisciplinary research using both print and electronic resources.

In this definition of the library as a place, some of the libraries in the IU system shine; some have far to go. The University Library on the IUPUI campus, for example, is a showcase. Regional campus libraries such as the one in South Bend prove their value to the community every day. And in Bloomington, we have developed a plan to renovate the thirty-year-old Main Library to meet the expectations of today’s users. The Main Library, which President Brand announced last year will be named for Herman B Wells, will become an invigorated learning center that fully integrates technology; traditional library resources such as books and journals; and librarians, the experts who help make sense of all these resources.

As a prelude to the renovation (the first phase of which was included in the university’s capital priority request to the state for the 2001–2003 biennium), the IU Bloomington Libraries are working to create an Information Commons in the Main Library, in partnership with other university departments such as University Information Technology Services. We know that such partnerships work: the area of the Main Library that serves primarily undergraduates and offers university services such as writing workshops, computer clusters, and career advising logged more than 1 million visits last year.

Recasting the image of the people who work in libraries is central to defining a library as a place in which users find help. Erase the antiquated picture of librarians shushing students in book-lined reading rooms. Librarians today are information providers at the forefront of the Internet revolution—developing and organizing electronic resources, teaching students and faculty how to use them, and filtering the “data smog” that results from the endless flow of information on the World Wide Web—all while continuing to provide and organize the books and journals that are the backbone of a research institution.

Second, books remain the primary commodity. Despite their growth, electronic resources will never replace the knowledge already captured in books for centuries. Consider the numbers: IUB’s collection of more than 6 million bound volumes ranks thirteenth in size among North American research libraries. IUB boasts a collection of more than 7 million manuscripts, 600,000 maps, 160,000 sound recordings, and 3,000 historical films. Its collections include 12-foot shipbuilding blueprints, oil paintings, handwritten correspondence, multivolume reference works, and books in more than 200 languages. Students and faculty rely heavily on these resources for their instruction and scholarship.

Preserving this collection is of paramount importance, and that’s why the IU Libraries are building an Auxiliary Library Facility. Now under construction on the Bloomington campus, this facility will serve two purposes: It will house nearly 1.8 million volumes and relieve the severe overcrowding of books in the Bloomington campus libraries, and it will include a state-of-the-art preservation laboratory to ensure that we can continue to care for the university’s collections.

Increasingly, those collections also include digital materials—at considerable expense to the libraries. Just as students and faculty rely on the IU Libraries to provide books and journals, they also rely on the libraries to provide the intellectual content available through technology: the databases, electronic journals and indices, online catalogs, digital audio recordings, and instructional Web pages that make their study and research more fruitful. Whether in the libraries, residence halls, off-campus homes, offices, or classrooms, students and faculty know they can access the information they need, when they need it. But without this rich intellectual content, the technological infrastructure—of which Indiana University is justifiably proud—loses its value.

In this issue, you’ll learn a bit more about the Indiana University Libraries: the people who work there and use library resources, and the issues and projects important to them. I invite your comments as we prepare the IU Libraries for the challenges ahead.

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