The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

9 thoughts on “The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

  1. Wow Erin, this sounds like a really fascinating experiment that we’ll all be able to learn a lot from. I really loved your idea about bringing people back with you when it re-opens. I think there will be a lot of cool things you can do even without a physical space and I’d imagine it would change your thinking a lot.

    I can’t wait to hear what you start learning from this experience. I’ll watch the renovation site, and I hope that you continue to blog and post updates about your discoveries.

  2. To echo Andy, I love the idea of a renovation website (it’s so well-designed, too!). It sounds like you’ve also invited feedback a number of other, in-person ways. Have you come up with any way to link the two, to encourage more commenting and conversation on the website? This is something I struggle with — it can be easy to get quick comments and responses from users in person and on paper, but I’d love to figure a good way to pull that physical feedback in to our blog, and ideally even jumpstart the conversation on the blog.

  3. The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand has had a related problem over the last few months, with the earthquake that the area suffered in early September causing significant damage to the main Central Library. The University Librarian has had to close access to this building for quite a lengthy period and students and staff have had to get used to the Library being available in other buildings or being embedded in departments, as you suggested.

  4. @ Andy – I’m so glad that the first comment was a positive one, so thank you! I am really looking forward to this whole process, it’s certainly not a typical day at the office and it’s something I didn’t really envision tackling during my first few years as a librarian. Certainly worth it, though. I will be sure to keep you updated as things progress, probably over at my regular blog.

    @ Maura – We’re definitely having trouble getting people to comment on the renovation website/blog. We have the same problem with our Facebook too – but one good thing is that we get monthly statistic reports from the University and they are sky-high. So at least we know people are looking at it, I guess (same with Facebook insights). We do have these things called “Conversation Panels” within the library – just boards with white paper and markers – where I post questions a few times a semester. Those get used a lot – perhaps I should post a link to the blog there to encourage the students to take it online. It might depend on the time of the semester, too. I think students are crazy busy or already checked out for break at the moment. But yes, it’s something we’re struggling with as well.

  5. Wow Erin, this sounds like a really fascinating experiment that we’ll all be able to learn a lot from. I really loved your idea about bringing people back with you when it re-opens. I think there will be a lot of cool things you can do even without a physical space and I’d imagine it would change your thinking a lot. I can’t wait to hear what you start learning from this experience. I’ll watch the renovation site, and I hope that you continue to blog and post updates about your discoveries.

  6. @Nona – Thanks for your comment – I am truly looking forward to the entire project. As a new librarian, I never imagined I would have such an opportunity so soon in my career. I will be sure to keep everyone updated as we progress.

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