Henry David Thoreau wrote that in a library, the scholar, not to mention the average person, can find "all the recorded wit of the world."
Thoreau wrote those words in the 1840s, during America's Transcendentalist period. By wit, I am certain that Thoreau meant knowledge and wisdom. Are Thoreau's words true for us today? Is it even possible, or desirable, in our cyber world for a physical building to be a repository of all recorded wit?
This would be a moot question if academic libraries were not being forced to re-evaluate their relationships with scholars. The nonprofit organization Ithaka S+R, which helps the academic community use digital technologies for research and teaching, released a report last month showing evidence that many scholars have stopped using the library as their "starting point" for research. For them, the library has become more of a research purchaser than a research collaborator.
"Traditional research practices relied heavily on the library itself and on locally implemented library-provided tools for discovery of books, journal articles, and other materials," authors of the report write, using answers gathered in a 2009 national survey in which 3,025 scholars responded. "Today, there are numerous alternative avenues for discovery, and libraries are challenged to determine what role they should appropriately play. Basic scholarly information use practices have shifted in recent years, and as a result the academic library is increasingly being disintermediated from the discovery process, risking irrelevance in one of the core functional areas."
Researchers in the various disciplines use the library differently. According to Ithaka, scientists are the least likely to use "library-specific starting points." A mere 10 percent of scientists start their research in the library, while 30 percent of those in the humanities do so.
Scholars no longer initiate the process with a face-to-face conference with a librarian, visit the library's special collections or search the online library catalog. Now, they usually turn to networking-level services.
If libraries do not adapt to the evolving nature of research and the changing scholar-librarian relationship, they are doomed. With Florida's drive to make its universities world-class research institutions, library administrators had better be mindful of Ithaka's warnings.
Carol Hixson, dean of the University of South Florida Nelson Poynter Memorial Library in St. Petersburg, has been aware of the new research demands for many years. She advises colleagues not to maintain the old models that will guarantee their irrelevance.
"The role of the university library in our increasingly digital world is that of a proactive, innovative partner with faculty, students, and the broader community of which we are a part," Hixson wrote in an e-mail response. "University libraries must help their campuses develop and present new types of course materials, such as multimedia, digital images, streaming video and audio.
"They must provide them the means of making that content available over time through trusted digital archives that adhere to international standards, promote long-term access, and enable broader discovery. They must help them publish their work through institutional repositories and other means; they must help them navigate the increasingly complex world of intellectual property in the digital era."
To remain viable, she said, libraries will have to go beyond their traditional roles of merely providing reference, circulation and interlibrary loan services.
"We have to get out to where our users are and provide services in new ways, whether that be texting, instant messaging, e-mail, on-site services in academic units or in spaces where students congregate. We will have to help faculty research and write grants and develop curricula that make good use of information resources. Sometimes, we will have to co-teach. The types of services will vary from campus to campus and will be dependent on the resources available."
Instead of growing afraid or digging in their heels, USF librarians long ago joined others nationwide who have accepted the challenge of developing new services and approaches while providing traditional assistance. By doing so, they are giving their users access to "all the recorded wit of the world."