24 Hours: An Action Portrait of the Penn Libraries
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The Campaign for the Penn Libraries
Carton Rogers
H. Carton Rogers, III
Vice Provost & Director of Libraries
Do Large Research Libraries Have a Future?
Not too many years ago an article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education that asked that very question. The article was accompanied by a photograph of an empty library space. The implication was clear.
But both the implication and the subtext of the article were dead wrong.
Of course we have a future - and a very healthy one - if we're thoughtful about our rightful place in the scholarly ecosystem, and if we are adaptive and opportunistic.
But of course I would say that: I've spent almost my entire professional life in research libraries, working every day to make those libraries stronger and more supportive of the teaching, learning, and researching needs of the communities we serve.
So, if you're still skeptical about our future, please take a look at our new (and free) DVD, The Looking Glass, and see what our faculty, students, and benefactors have to say.
And read this article by journalist Susan Warner. Susan has written for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other major newspapers. We encouraged her to poke around the Penn Libraries, interview students, librarians, faculty - all with the goal of painting an accurate (and, we hope, unbiased) portrait of a modern academic library. I hope you enjoy her 24-hour portrait, and her reflections.
24 Hours: An Action Portrait of the Penn Libraries
12:01am
The new day begins at midnight on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Yellow gingko leaves swirl at the steps to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center while, inside, students hunker over laptops, textbooks, and lecture notes as they head into the final weeks of the fall semester.
For every soul nestled into the stacks, dozens more will connect to the Penn Libraries before dawn from computers on campus and around the world. The day's first Web-click, at 12:01 a.m., connects to the Libraries' Web exhibit on Leopold Stokowski, the legendary Philadelphia orchestra conductor. A few seconds later a user from Penn's School of Dental Medicine logs into the journal Nature,; just as a scholar in Australia searches the Libraries' online catalog for information on disease in Africa.
In the first two hours of the day, library servers take requests from Kazakhstan, Japan, The Netherlands, Israel, Brazil, Peru, and India - as well as from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn dorm rooms, and wireless laptops within the Libraries. By day's end 13,825 users from 75 countries will view more than 100,000 pages of library content online, including audio clips from the Freedman Archive of Yiddish music, photos of South Asian architecture, and digital images from the earliest printings of Shakespeare's works.
Penn's modern Library system spans two worlds: The physical Libraries housing 5.7 million books, 34,000 journals, study rooms, lounges, graduate carrels, and enough seats to accommodate 3,000 student bottoms during exam time; and the digital Library, with access to hundreds of millions of pages of information, much of it specifically acquired for Penn's 40,000 voracious information consumers.
Penn's librarians are rethinking every facet of their operations, as faculty, students and the larger society demand instant access to ever-greater bodies of information.
"We're at a fascinating place. Right now we're in the middle ground between the digital library and the historic print library," says H. Carton Rogers, Vice Provost and Director of Penn Libraries. "The challenge for us is to keep both sides of the enterprise going, to find the intersections and build the crosswalks between digital and print. How we bridge these two worlds will be crucial for research libraries and those who use them."
Penn's alums will find all 15 Libraries in the Penn system dramatically changed. Bulky oak card catalogs are long gone, replaced by networked computers. Racks of paper journals have been pared back, replaced by e-journals in cyberspace. Rich new media collections and massive datasets are available for Libraries patrons whenever they connect from a networked computer - from anywhere in the world.
The Libraries' digital evolution began in the circulation department in the 1970s, and spread to electronic distribution of journals, search matrices, and mechanisms to manage raw data. "These were long transitions and they were not painless," says Rogers. "There are still people who bemoan the demise of the card catalog."
Most scholars, however, quickly embraced the digital era when they grasped the power of computer-aided research and the convenience of being able to work electronically from office, home or airport. Joan Hendricks, the Dean of Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine, says she is of a generation that still enjoys finding a quiet carrel in the Library to hide. Not today's students. "They do their research online in the middle of the night. If they can't get the information on their own home computer, or wherever they are, then it doesn't exist," she says.
The transition is evident in the photocopy room at Penn's Biomedical Library which was once filled with mountains of journal articles ordered by faculty and students. The mountains have since shrunk to manageable mounds.
Today, the University's Libraries subscribe to 700 electronic reference databases and nearly 14,000 e-journals. The sheer volume of material available in an instant has changed the nature of library research from a quest to mine obscure sources on the frontier of knowledge to an attempt to bring meaning to an overabundance of information feeding the University's collective intellect.
9:00am
Throughout the wee hours, librarians have been fielding questions that come in via e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging. Reference librarian Andrea Baruzzi is working the morning shift. Her screen comes up with the message: "Yo 'sup?" and some personal questions that Baruzzi ignores. "Do you have a reference question?" Baruzzi replies. No response.
Baruzzi closes that window then receives a plea for help in locating a 1984 volume of The Annals of Discrete Mathematics. She sends the location back to the user. Next is an inquiry from Georgetown University about how the Penn Libraries' IM system works. Quickly followed by a loosely formed question about prison privatization and juvenile justice. At times, Baruzzi flips between four screens at once.
"We basically do triage," says Marjorie Hassen, Director of Public Services, who is answering the dozen e-mail queries that came in overnight on subjects ranging from prostate cancer to mystical theology to a question from Japan about bioethics. "No one is ignored, but we often must answer the urgent questions first."
Michael Halperin, director of the Wharton School's Lippincott Library, says the electronic queries are, in essence, quite similar to the old back-and-forth of in-person reference requests. "It's like tennis," he says. "They send the question to you, then you hit an answer back to them and say, 'Is that enough or do you want more?'"
1:15pm
Joshua Hirsch, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, is finishing up a smoothie as he sits down with librarian Laurie Allen. Hirsch's thesis deadline on mass transit is looming and his faculty advisor had a tepid response to his initial literature review. Hirsch booked a one-on-one session with Allen who is already at her computer, cruising through social science databases searching for books and articles that Hirsch can cite. Soon, however, she sees she must step beyond her mission to dig up books and journal articles. Hirsch needs some guidance.
He has been focused on problems in mass transit funding and is eager to write about solutions for the future. He's not so interested in a review of the literature from the past. In a job situation, that might well be his focus, Allen explains, but in college it is important to describe what has come before to show how current work builds on those findings, or debunks them. The two launch into an animated exchange about the meaning of academic research. Allen breaks through when she asks Hirsch to think of the literature review as a list of different "schools of thought."
"Does that make sense?" she asks.
"It makes me nervous, but it makes sense," replies Hirsch.
Satisfied the larger point has been made, Allen switches back into search mode and identifies and prints out what she proclaims to be "the perfect article."
"Good times!" responds Hirsch, jotting down the call letters of some promising books in the Lippincott Library. He swirls the dregs of his smoothie and heads off with renewed purpose.
English Professor Alan Filreis says the advent of the Internet has changed the way he teaches, shifting work he once did to the library. While he used to feel a need to be his students' prime information source, the digital library is able to take on that role, freeing him to reach deeper into his students' thoughts and ideas.
"What I can create is a hunger for knowledge, a desire to follow a certain route of thinking," he says. "The existence of the library as an infinite repository of knowledge means I don't have to be the absolutist in the classroom anymore. The library makes us free."
2:05pm
We are now on the 6th floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. The atmosphere has changed dramatically. Gone is the utilitarian and the modern. We are now surrounded by sumptuous wood paneling from a 15th century home in Chester, England. In the gallery we find paintings of mixed charm; among them a portrait of Walt Whitman that has illustrated many a book.
We buzz to be admitted to the Rare Book and Manuscript reading room. A visiting scholar of the early modern period has come to view 10 items from Penn's collection of 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts. An undergraduate class studying Jane Austen's novel Persuasion is looking at other books published in 1818 to place Austen's writing in context. A history professor is reading a first-edition 19th-century book about the 1848 Chartist riots in England. And next to the display of books from Franklin's press, one finds a small plaque atop a charming piece of colonial furniture. This desk, which we open and explore, belonged to Ben himself. Everyone in the room is, literally, touching history.
These tangible artifacts have survived the currents of intellectual exploration and will continue to influence new generations of scholars in ways an LCD screen never can.
"You see it particularly in the response of the young people when they are actually looking at a printed book or manuscript from the 15th century. It's the closest they have ever been to something that old, and to be able to touch it can be an extraordinary experience and quite electrifying," says Daniel Traister, Curator of Research Services at Penn's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Arthur Kiron, the Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at Penn, recalls a sophomore who came to work at the circulation desk of Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library in the historic Society Hill section of Philadelphia. The student later went on to intern at the Library of Congress and eventually wrote a thesis about Jewish cultural property after the Holocaust. "It was amazing to watch how a kind of intellectual career grew out of experience on the circulation desk and just coming into contact with the physical objects."
Penn's Special Collections comprise a wide range of unique and valuable scholarly material: The papers of Theodore Dreiser and Colonial-era cookbooks; manuscript fragments from the Cairo Genizah describing Jewish life in the Medieval Mediterranean world; recordings made by the singer Marian Anderson and Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy. Even a recently-donated trove of 14,000 comic books.
Web-based images from Penn's Special Collections are among the libraries' most popular offerings on the Internet. Through the power of Google rankings, anyone in the world searching, for example, the name Marian Anderson, will find the Penn Libraries site near the top of their Google search results. Known for her elegant gowns, Miss Anderson was photographed throughout Europe and the United States; Penn has placed over 4,000 of her photographs online.
3:40pm
As the afternoon wears on, two well-trained student workers are carefully mounting pages from a 1515 copy of the Opere del preclarissimo poeta Misser Francescho Petrarcha on an industrial-sized scanner. The pages will become part of the digital universe through Penn's Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI) which has established an international reputation for placing Penn Libraries treasures on the Web since 1996.
David McKnight, the curator of SCETI, is searching for ways to make this marriage of digital and print even closer. He describes software that allows readers to virtually flip the pages of a book on their computer screens and techniques to accentuate centuries-old watermarks.
"The challenge for us is translating that tactile experience into virtual reality," says McKnight. "That is the Holy Grail - or the illusory grail - we search for." While the general public may enjoy such techniques, McKnight notes that scholars value the ability to zoom in on a small patch of text or tiny image, and to search for words and phrases across multiple documents. In the olden days (less than 15 years ago), scholars had to travel from library to library to search such documents by hand. Now it can be accomplished in an instant.
6:23pm
As dusk falls students are streaming into the library for a long night. Ezra Billinkoff, a SAS senior, says the big rush is from 7pm to 8pm. To pull an all-nighter in the Goldstein Undergraduate Study Center you need to be in place by 10:30pm. To get the best seats in the house, at the new Weigle Information Commons, the word among students is: show up at 4:00.
The wildly popular Weigle Commons opened in 2006. It provides a glimpse into the library of the future, where print media, the Internet and video come together. The 6,000 sq. ft. Commons has 12 open study booths that look like something out of a diner, with a computer screen where the jukebox would be. Surrounding the booths are 10 group study rooms equipped with plasma screens. Even in the dead of summer, Library staff report that every booth is used.
"That's the hot spot for studying," says Billinkoff. "It has completely redefined studying for me. It's not something I mind doing so much anymore."
This being exam period, every booth and study room is full. Some of the students are asleep facedown in their backpacks as their booth-mates toil on. In one study room a team is finishing a group mid-term exam, while another is building a presentation on strategies for an Israeli pharmaceutical company. The Commons also includes the Vitale Digital Media Lab, which is stocked with Power Macs, poster printers, slide scanners and sophisticated video-editing equipment and software.
Billinkoff is here tonight using Photoshop to design a flyer promoting the upcoming appearance of a comic at Hillel. Another student is working on the sound editing for a video class project.
9:30pm
Sophomore Clayton Smith treks into the Vitale Lab to import video shot by his brother in Colorado with a new high-definition camera. Smith is making a movie about skiing, but it hasn't snowed yet in Pennsylvania. "W're going to fix that," he announces. Smith's brother has sent snowy images from Colorado - a car rambling down an icy road, and his brother's dog and cat wrestling in front of a fireplace. The images are grouped under the file name "My Great Project."
Home movies may not seem worthy of an academic multi-media lab. But the content is not the point - using audio and video editing software is the point. Penn students are already submitting their "papers" electronically. This new medium allows a student to embed a video clip in her paper. Want to show how Frank Capra used close-ups? It's simple: just embed a few examples in your paper.
In an age of YouTube and iTunes, the next frontier for the library is multimedia. Video circulation has shot up every year since the library offered lending services - as has the use of video in class assignments for a wide variety of courses.
In January 2007, the Weigle Information Commons got a worthy competitor. The Libraries' newest venue, the Veterinary School's Steven W. Atwood Library & Information Commons, builds on the concepts of openness, collaboration, and the latest digital technology, which guided the Weigle Information Commons.
The Atwood Library is on the second floor of the Veterinary School's new Vernon and Shirley Hill Pavilion and is wide open with sweeping views of the city, cushy red lounge chairs and sleek, blonde study tables with smoked glass dividers. The Library has no doors, just a turnstile to electronically monitor materials coming in and out. The Library also has an electronic classroom that will be shared by the Library and the school for training and group projects.
Now that the new Veterinary Library is complete, the Engineering and Biomedical libraries are the next candidates for a major rehab. Director of Libraries Carton Rogers says the physical library is not about to disappear. "There are people who say, 'Who needs a physical library? Aren't you guys going away soon when everything is digital?' But that's just not going to happen," he says. He notes that the Penn Libraries are still bringing in 100,000 new print volumes annually, and that book requests from other libraries are expanding - thanks to a speeded-up interlibrary loan system pioneered by Penn. Students are being challenged to read more than ever, and despite the popular misconception, "nobody reads text online." Says Rogers, "If students want to read something longer than two pages, they print it out."
Just as in days of old, students find it hard to do intensive reading, and term-paper writing, in their dorm rooms or apartments. Penn's Libraries are just the place to get work done, and, at the main Library, that work can be accompanied by a cappuccino.
The hip new library is not just a study hall, Rogers emphasizes. It is a modern Learning Environment, where both local and global resources are near to hand. The environment has been carefully crafted to reflect yet another mission emerging for the library - preparing students to enter a collaborative workforce often made up of virtual organizations that come together on a project basis, and then fold.
"We now know people are working increasingly in groups, but historically the library has been set up for individual users, people working as lonely researchers. We're going to have to address this with physical space, human resources and technology," says Stanley N. Katz, a Penn Libraries overseer and Director of Princeton University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. "What Penn is doing is what we all want to do."
Just as the Libraries' group classrooms and diner booths symbolize a new era of collaboration for students, the Libraries finds themselves increasingly at the center of a far-flung university balancing a range of missions, from teaching to research to archival preservation to technological innovation.
In a world where information is the common link, the Penn Libraries are becoming the connective tissue of the entire University.
11:30pm
As midnight approaches, Van Pelt-Dietrich is still humming. Reference librarian David Azzolina fields questions about the artist Wassily Kandinsky, Sufi poetry, American Sign Language and SurveyMonkey.com, a Web-based survey tool. One student just wants to know where he can find a trashcan and a pencil sharpener. Some things never change.
Meanwhile, Smith has set his ski movie aside to finish a video that is due for class in two days. And back in his apartment, Hirsch is diving into the "perfect" journal article, "Government Solutions for Public Transit."
Another day in an extraordinary time for libraries has come to a close.
If you have enjoyed this portrait, also see the Library DVD, Through the Looking Glass.