Steven E.F. Brown
Oct 18, 2013
San Francisco Business Times

New Chancellor Nicholas Dirks should spend more money on the library at theUniversity of California, Berkeley, as its books, services and space will be more important than ever over the next two decades.

So, at least, says a report this week from a faculty committee tasked by the previous chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, with figuring out the library’s place on the university campus of the future.

Committee members included UC Berkeley professors from departments such as history, engineering, law, and statistics as well as the librarian from the University of Michigan, Paul Courant.

After losing about 90 employees during the last few years of budget cuts, UC Berkeley’s excellent research library system, led by Tom Leonard, has beendoing a lot of soul searching, trying to find its place in the digital age. Faculty have been surveyed about what they want from their library, and some of them have been rather grumpy about having to choose between, say, smart librarians or well-stocked library shelves.

Now that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and others are busy digitizing old books and putting them online, isn’t scholarly research easier to get at than ever? Why do we even need musty old tomes taking up space and musty old librarians to point us toward them?

Cal recently hosted a symposium on the future of the research library, and for some time a committee of experts has been preparing this report for Dirks.

It says that libraries, “both as places and services — will be more, rather than less critical to University research and teaching in the next 20 years.”

Rather than having money and jobs cut, “The Library should be among the new Chancellor’s highest fundraising priorities, especially technology upgrades, collection development, and improvement of Moffitt Undergraduate Library.”

Moffitt, in the center of campus, has long been maintained as a quiet place for students to study, and it is usually kept open late at night, or even through the whole night during exams. But some people have asked whether it makes sense to pay to keep a huge building’s fluorescent lights going when kids these days tend to study in wi-fi cafes or their dorm rooms.

I’ve written quite a bit about UC Berkeley’s libraries over the years, and have interviewed faculty, graduate students and undergrads about how (or if) they use the library. Most undergraduates I talked to hardly ever used the library for research, preferring to look information up online. A few of them studied there, however.

This report says Moffitt should become “a safe, secure, and attractive 24/7 study and research space.”

Graduate students and faculty are different in their habits, although I did interview aStanford professor who never went to the library at all. Most faculty, though, revere their reference librarians, who — especially at a place such as Cal, with many first-rate departmental libraries focused on life sciences, physics, engineering, law, public health, chemistry, mathematics, and so on — are subject matter experts as well as experts at finding information.

Even with so much scholarly information appearing online, this report says, researchers need help sorting the wheat from the chaff.

“Paradoxically, the massive and largely unregulated expansion of scholarly materials and information on the Internet has made it more difficult for scholars to locate authenticated materials,” the report warns.

The report calls for $5 million in one-time spending to make up for cuts in library collections during the recent downturn, when the state government drastically reduced its support of state schools. It also suggests $5 million more per year for the collection and a further $1.5 million more per year for other “critical needs.”

Twenty-one new professional librarians should be hired — total staff at the library will need to grow to 465 full-time-equivalent jobs — and the annual budget for library employees will need to grow by $6.5 million.

The report is wary of digitized collections such as those created by Google and academic publishers. University brains tend to think in terms of centuries; their counterparts in the private sector often plan by quarter or year.

Ivy Anderson, director of collections at the California Digital Library, warns in the report that “publishers are not reliable long-term stewards of scholarly information. Journals change hands, and publishers come and go.”

For now, the report says, physical collections of books and journals are still the best way to preserve scholarly information for the long term, along with university-sponsored digital library projects including the Hathi Trust.

The library has made its case to the university’s new chancellor, a history and anthropology scholar who knows the value of a first class library. Stay tuned to see what happens.

VanderWolf Images /

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