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The Shifting Scene: Libraries and Research

Libraries, like other institutions, must grow and adapt to changing requirements and conditions. The rate of change in the world today and in our knowledge of it is incredibly fast. We cannot
afford to let our libraries slip behind.—John F. Kennedy, 1963
When John F. Kennedy made this observation fifty years ago, he had no way of knowing how wildly, unimaginably true it would become. The very early development of online communication came soon after his utterance. Later, in the mid-1990s, when the internet became a commercial reality, his words hit home with mind-blowing accuracy. Librarians everywhere saw that all libraries would be transformed, and that very little in their discipline would remain as it had been.
With the internet as we know it now nearly twenty years old, what is the current state of affairs for researchers—and for libraries?
In an article published online last month in Educause, British librarian Lorcan Dempsey notes that one of the most significant alterations in the way people now conduct scholarly investigations is that “discovery has scaled to the network level,” with the consequence that these investigations may not happen in a library. If “discovery happens elsewhere,” libraries have to figure out new ways to connect with that experience (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention,” December 10, 2012).
Marianne Ryan, Associate University Librarian for Public Services at Northwestern, acknowledges Dempsey’s point, saying that fewer students come to librarians with reference questions these days, and when they do come, “The target outcome is different. People want images and data, for example, not just factoids.” Geoff Swindells, Head of User Experience at Northwestern, concurs, noting that researchers often contact librarians by iChat, text, or email instead of in person, and that “the digital landscape has made a lot of their questions more complex.”
To respond to changing needs, libraries are altering the ways they
use their physical space. Ryan stresses that students still show up
at the various Northwestern libraries, but often to do collaborative work, which has led to the creation of “more flexible student-centered spaces.” According to Swindells, “The lone researcher model is no longer the one we follow,” though he makes clear that “there are still disciplines that are about wrestling on your own with texts.”
Karen Danczak Lyons, Director of the Evanston Public Library, says that public libraries, too, are reconfiguring their spaces. She points out that in many ways the Evanston Library is now “a community and service center,” with more and more space needed for adolescents and senior citizens. She adds that having struggled with the traditional digital revolution; the library is now meeting “a second digital divide,” in that people are more frequently coming to the library to use its computers for personal reasons. Some of these people had previous access to computers on jobs they then lost; they are often using the machines to hone their resumes and search for new jobs. Other users are immigrants, or people who have never had previous access to computers, or people whose own machines are malfunctioning. Increasingly, Lyons says, the library is now “part of a safety net to help our patrons who may be struggling.”
Are students and other researchers still interested in books?  The answer is yes, and the circulation of print materials at the Northwestern libraries remains brisk. “People still like to look at something tangible,” declares Ryan, though when it comes to journals and newspapers, almost all research is online. Swindells puts it this way: “Users like both the capabilities of digital media and the friendliness of print media.”  The circulation of books remains strong at the Evanston Library as well, though Lyons acknowledges a hefty demand for e-books. Since Amazon ruled in October of 2011 to allow Kindle owners to download public library books, requests for e-books have rapidly accelerated.
To accommodate further the ways in which research habits are
changing, Lorcan Dempsey observes that among libraries “consortial or group approaches” are becoming more common. Because one lone library’s resources are no longer enough for most people, “inter- library loans” are a fixture of the contemporary scene. In addition, if a large number of college libraries link up in a consortium online, a student at one school can access a periodical subscribed to by another, which enormously expands the scope of material available to any one researcher. The Northwestern Library is part of several networks linking it to other colleges and universities. In the same manner, every public library in Illinois is now part of one of three linked systems: RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library Systems) for Northern Illinois, CPL for libraries in the city of Chicago, and HEARTLAND for libraries throughout Southern Illinois.
In yet another way to expand their holdings, libraries or the larger aggregates to which they belong now buy (often at considerable expense) the use of large databases, such as Infotrac and Proquest, thereby expanding the resources of any one library exponentially. Most libraries also subscribe to numerous search engines, many of which—unlike Google Scholar, the one perhaps most commonly used by undergraduates—are not free. Hundreds of these search engines exist, the bulk of them specialized and subject-specific, such as Philosophers Index or PsycInfo. Lyons makes it clear that a number of small businesses come to her library to use databases and search engines to which they themselves cannot afford subscriptions. For example, the library possesses tools that can find historical stock price records; local death notices back to the 1880s; information on foreclosures; test preparation for certification and licensing exams—all accessible from any computer while using a library card. In this way, too, the library is serving the economic needs of the whole community, and not just the needs of individual researchers.
In another 21st-century development, most libraries now also subscribe to services that will help manage the mechanics of research for their patrons. NoodleTools, commonly used in secondary schools, assists with note-taking, outlining, citation, and annotation. Not only can a researcher accomplish all of these tasks online, but he or she can also have the assurance that the format for citations will be the correct one for the specific research situation. Higher-level scholars often use EndNote, a mostly bibliographic service that also has the capacity to search large databases for a specific article or author.
And how will libraries and research techniques evolve in the next decade or two?  Marianne Ryan argues that there is no way to predict and that libraries must remain open and flexible. Karen Lyons echoes this sentiment, declaring flexibility key and stressing that a major necessity may be “bringing the library services outside the four walls.” As professionals, most librarians remain optimistic and helpful. Says Geoff Swindells, “We will be where our users are, wherever that is. We need to be where they are and go along with them for the ride.”

Published: February 23, 2013
Issue: Winter 2013 Issue