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Trading Spaces: Science Libraries Confront Print’s Decline

Before Stanford University’s new engineering library opened on Monday, students wandered by and asked the library’s leader, Helen B. Josephine, if they could come in.

Its location in the School of Engineering’s new center makes it easy and convenient for students to use, she said. Being close to students made it worth going from 16,000 square feet of space in the old engineering library to about 6,000, according to Ms. Josephine.

Though headlines hailed the new library as “bookless,” Stanford’s new facility, which combines the holdings of the engineering, physics, and computer-science libraries, contains about 15,000 books, Ms. Josephine said. The rest of its physical collection—about 96,000 books, journals, and conference proceedings from the old engineering library alone—are being moved off-site to Livermore, Calif., for storage.

The new library is also the debut of a self-checkout system, and its staff plans to acquire more e-book readers to add to the four Kindles it already owns.

 ”We try to stay one step ahead,” Ms. Josephine said.

Stanford’s engineering library is hardly alone in cutting down on its on-site holdings, said Roger Schonfeld, manager of research at Ithaka, a nonprofit organization that promotes technology in higher education. The medical library at Johns Hopkins University is doing away with its centralized physical location entirely, favoring instead a model that “embeds” library staff in academic departments. 

Cornell University’s engineering library is also moving most of its print holdings into storage, keeping about 25,000 items in other libraries on campus, said Anne Kenney, the university librarian. By the end of next summer, the library staff plans to have none of its 180,000 items on-site.

The Cornell committee, comprised of students, faculty, and library staff, unanimously recommended dismantling engineering’s physical library, boosting funding for online collections, and increasing the study space available to students, Ms. Kenney said. Over the course of the next year, another team will decide what will happen to the space that now houses the library’s books.

These trends raise questions about the purpose of a library’s physical space and of librarians, said Charles Lowry, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries.

Stanford’s answer so far is to bring its librarians closer to the students they aim to serve, and not only by becoming part of the new engineering center. Becoming easier to access also meant creating an “electronic reference desk” that allows students to contact librarians by e-mail, chat, telephone, or text message, Ms. Josephine said.

Such changes are coming first in fields related to science and technology because academics in those disciplines favor journals as the scholarly literature of significance, Mr. Lowry said. And unlike books, most journals are available online and accessed online by their users.

Even as scholars in the humanities and social sciences become more accustomed to doing their work online, Ms. Kenney and her colleagues say the digital world is not yet ready for all types of research. “Our special collections will continue to grow and develop,” she said, though online collections are “definitely the future for many disciplines.”

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