The Gray Rabbits of Olin Library
A merger of computers and books changes the traditional image of the library.Kenyon unloads outdated equipment and furniture each year at a big auction. This past year, a young professor with an interest in woodworking carted away a handsome walnut cabinet of narrow drawers with brass fittings. Perfect for organizing nails, nuts, screws, and washers, it went for twenty-five bucks and will reside in his garage. One of the College's long-time librarians was on hand for the bidding. "You wouldn't believe what we paid for those card catalogs!" she winced.
Fast-fingered cyber-searches for books in Kenyon's collection are the most obvious change at Olin and Chalmers Libraries these days, but the disappearing card catalogs represent a sea change in today's library environment. New technology means that patrons can literally think outside the box, gaining instant access to thousands of online publications. The card catalog can no longer hold all the library has to offer. These changes are in sync with a plan that began in the late 1990s to integrate the library and computer divisions. The merger came to fruition when Information and Computer Services became the Library and Information Services (LBIS) Division.
The integration was not without detractors, and some worry that books themselves may start to look and smell a little antique. Take a tour of the library these days, and you'll see lots and lots of words and pictures on lots and lots of computer monitors. On a national level, librarians worry that college students are abandoning the library to conduct research on their own computers. At Kenyon, the library has plenty of patrons, but in a community of self-proclaimed book lovers, there are those whosee the integration of the library with computer technology as a threatto all that's sacred in the literary world.
Despite a penchant for bow ties and a love of the ancient, former President Robert A. Oden Jr. foresaw and embraced technology's inevitable effects on academia. He understood that the information superhighway would eventually blast through Gambier and that the College had better get ready for it. The library needed technology, and technology needed the library. "Rob definitely pioneered the merger and really pursued it," says Janet Cottrell, director of information access, a position created under the merger arrangement.
Circulation of books and journals is gradually dropping every year. In the old days, such news would have given a librarian indigestion. Vice President for Library and Information Services Daniel Temple exhibitsno such problem. "The thing is," he says with some awe, "we're coming closer and closer to a collection that is all the information in the world. Libraries have always had to ask themselves whether their collections were meeting student and faculty needs. The traditional method of doing so was to check your circulation records to see what books and journals were being used most often, so you'd know where to build. But when someone accesses an online journal or website, there's often no record."
For some professors, there are concerns that extend beyond circulation records. Libraries, they argue, remain the center of the scholarly universe, temples containing the best that humans have thought and written. Rather than being a department that can be combined with another, they feel the library should be seen as the mind and memory of the College.
When bound journals or books are removed from the library and sent to storage, as some have been at Kenyon, critics fear a disturbing change in the way scholars traditionally work. When a professor or student enters the stacks to retrieve one book or journal, he or she reads the titles around it, skimming what is inside other volumes. When books and journals are put in storage or must be ordered from other institutions based only on titles read online, such serendipitous learning, thinking, and intellectual leaping disappears. Something precious, critics argue, is being lost.
Compared to other schools its size, the College has been aggressive in the shift from the library as a place where books and journals are stored to a place where students both research and write papers as well as check their e-mail, manipulate photos, and create presentations. "As a reference librarian, I see that students don't generally come to the library with a single question that needs a single answer. They've got a project that requires both information and technical resources. You need to be able to help with both," Cottrell explains.
When Kenyon hired Temple in 1997 to oversee the merger, he arrived unsure of precisely how he would go about bringing computer and library people together. After all, they tended to speak different languages. Temple spoke a good deal of both. He has a master's degree in mathematics, as well as being a voracious reader who loves libraries and the feel of a book. Temple preached that the merger would better serve the library's constituents, or its "customers." A 2001 article for Educause Quarterly, written by Oden, Temple, and other members of the LBIS brain trust, put it this way: "Whether in libraries or information technology services ... our reason for being is to support the effectiveness and efficiency of other parts of the institution-our constituents."
One complication was that although the College is small, students and faculty use technology and information in ways as wide-ranging and various as their counterparts at Ohio State University. To make the merger work, many members of the relatively small staff at LBIS needed to become generalists. This meant that integration would not be bloodless. Some staff resented the change and left in a huff. Others who wanted to work in a more traditional setting moved on, too. A few were replaced. Most stayed and worked hard to make the merger a success. Overall, implementing changes proved easier than expected, Temple says, "because the avant-garde of the librarian profession aggressively pursued and embraced technological skills."
Avant-garde librarians? "People think of librarians as being very conservative," says Temple in his extra-slow Texas drawl. "But I've found that the library profession is full of eager and aggressive young people-and older people, too-who are excited about learning new technology, while at the same time wanting to preserve what libraries have to offer."
One such forward-looking librarian is Barbara Thompson. She has a master's degree in library science, loves very old books, and is fascinated by and conversant in technology. She was hired to be the first of a new breed: the librarian and technology consultant, or LTC. Thompson divides her time between activities associated with traditional librarians and computing support.
"I really felt I had to prove to the computer people that I was willing to crawl around on the floor or behind the servers hooking up cables," smiles Thompson. "At the same time, I had a strong commitment to preservation of what libraries traditionally do and wanted to prove that to my fellow librarians. I was pretty frantic at the beginning. I'd be loading Y2K software onto machines one minute and reading the most recent New York Review of Books the next."
Early on, a well-meaning colleague, who has since taken another job, warned Thompson against such dual allegiance. She would never be able to get a "real" library position because, the advisor told her, "There are black rabbits and white rabbits, with places for both. You are a gray rabbit, and the world doesn't want gray rabbits."
Being a gray rabbit is precisely where Thompson believes her value lies. She remembers consulting with a professor early in her tenure about Microsoft Word. Their discussion led to the professor's troubles using the New York Times on the web. Thompson showed her that the full-text articles were accessible online through the Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe. When she discovered that source did not include photographs, Thompson showed her how to download pictures from the Associated Press digitized photo archive, manipulate the JPEG photo files using Photoshop, then import them to a PowerPoint presentation, and, finally, how to maneuver through questions of copyright infringement.
Under the new system, every academic department has its own library liaison, most of whom are gray rabbits. That means faculty do not need to figure out where to direct questions. "The liaison doesn't force faculty to distinguish between technology and information. Liaisons can help with both," says Temple. As time goes on, a liaison becomes something of an expert on his or her department's specific needs. The liaison for the economics department starts to know a lot about statistical software, just as the art department's liaison learns the tricks of scanning and manipulating images.
"Our role is evolving towards teaching," Temple sums up. "We teach the ability to find, evaluate, and use information, which is a more complex process than it used to be. And we teach how to get the most out of the software and computers."
Critics of the integration worried that too much emphasis would be placed on either books or computers. Which was likely to dominate the other depended on who was doing the doom-saying. Temple cautions that many of the functions performed by librarians and technology-support people remain separate and that this is as it should be.
Thompson agrees that in practice she often still feels like a librarian when she works on computers. "Once I was trying to work on a professor's machine and I couldn't get the cover off," she says. "I was rolling it around on the floor like a bird with a rock. Finally, I had to give up and come back later." Such glitches are few. Today, Thompson routinely fiddles with Japanese versions of Windows NT. Instructions and error messages are in Hiragana.
Christopher Barth '93 came back to Kenyon to become the second LTC in 1999. He remembers that at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he got his master's in library science in 1997, they taught him exactly how to type up nice and tidy index cards to fill up those obsolete card catalogs. Despite honing that skill, Barth has embraced technology. To him, the integration was only natural. "A librarian is an information provider," he says. "It just stands to reason that to do that job nowadays you have to know something about technology."
Barth now heads the Department of Archives and Special Collections. A place you might think of as a quiet backwater now buzzes with computerized activity. Thanks to the efforts of Barth and his staff, technology is making Kenyon history more accessible to the community.
Librarians and student workers are in the process of scanning fragile documents so they can be viewed online, eliminating the need for those little white gloves that protected the documents from the oils and acids of human skin. These include some original manuscripts and typescripts by Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell '40 from the records of the Kenyon Review. The department is currently wrestling with poet-in-residence John Kinsella's donation of his American papers. "Interestingly," says Barth, "the majority of the material is e-mail, from 'allemp' notes to correspondence with famous poets and authors."
Slowly disintegrating film and videotape of Kenyon events will be converted into digital files stored on far more stable DVDs to be made viewable on the web one day. One early conversion project will involve videotape of a 1978 Kenyon production of C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, directed by Paul Newman '49. Work already completed includes color footage of the Old Kenyon fire of 1949, which may be viewed online at http:// babel.kenyon.edu. At the same site, you'll also find streaming audio of a Chaser's reunion concert.
Perhaps the most prominent physical evidence of the library merger is the relocation of the information desk at the entrance into Olin. The desk, still labeled "Information," now stands abandoned. Cottrell described the difficulty of using that desk. "Whenever patrons asked a question and we wanted to come out from behind the desk, we had to walk out the side towards the journals. And the person would start to follow us, so we'd have to tell them we were going to head the other way. All day long, I'd have to say, 'No, no, I'll be heading that way!' " The reason they were always headed the other way is that's where the computers and the reference books are. The reference librarian now sits right beside the computer help desk for one-stop shopping.
Besides addressing the needs of students, faculty, and staff, the LBIS marriage has benefited Kenyon by virtually eliminating turf battles that have developed on other college campuses over whether money should be spent on increasing and improving technology or on more traditional library materials. This means a more efficient use of resources and fewer fistfights between librarians and computer support personnel.
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