How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age

Librarian helping a student

How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age
| Published April 18, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Bainbridge, Georgia is like many small towns across the Deep South. The busy east-west main street through town sums up the diversity and complexity of the city, with three or four blocks of stately mansions, rows of azaleas and camellias in full bloom, and ancient live oaks—followed, almost immediately, by a busy stretch of road lined with retail shops, fast food restaurants, real estate and law offices, automotive stores, and shopping centers.

But driving a little further east through town on U.S. 84, just past the point where the bypass meets the main road, one will come across the campus of Bainbridge State College, where students from an equally diverse mix of background and culture come to learn and study.

If you are a traveler simply passing through Bainbridge, it would be easy to miss the campus were it not for the imposing Charles H. Kirbo Regional Center, a multi-use facility equipped for conferences, musical events, speaking engagements, meetings and special events (the facility recently hosted a lecture by former President Jimmy Carter, for whom Kirbo was a close associate and advisor). The auditorium wing of the building sits close enough to the road to make it impossible to miss the fact that there is an academic campus nearby.

Once inside the campus, which is heavily shaded with oaks and other trees, you realize that the college is much larger than it appears from the highway, with handsome buildings constructed in a large square around a vast center green space, and parking areas neatly arranged in a decentralized layout. On the north side of that grassy commons area is the school’s library, and like most campus media centers, large or small, it is filled with students busily at work. On the day of my arrival, it was quiet, with about half the tables and workstations taken.

The library at Bainbridge State College is typical of most media centers found on campuses all across the country: students can be found at work at a variety of tasks: engaged in research for reports and term papers; cobbling together key elements of class projects; sitting at personal computers culling through online sources for book reports or reviews of current events. Many students are at work with laptops as they prepare papers or complete exams and quizzes, while others work on homework assignments.librarian helping a student

Still other students, wearing headphones, are immersed in the study of foreign language, and some of those students are using computer applications like Rosetta Stone, which—since it requires the student to engage in verbal responses—means that young people can be found hunkered down in small, glassed-in rooms where their spoken responses will not disturb others in the library.

A brief walk through the BSC library, down the main aisle which divides the traditional rows of bookshelves from the open areas designated for study and reading, reveals a wide, 8000 square-foot glass-enclosed section, recently added, which extends airily into the campus’ green spaces and into the shade of those stately oaks and tall pines. On the day of my visit, only a few students were using this attractive space, but it was easy to see (at least from my perspective) that the area was ideal for reading, studying or essay composition. (Yes, I am a library nerd: within about one minute of arriving in the recently added space, I had picked out what would have been my “favorite” table for studying or writing).

Friendly disclosure: before I spent the last 30 years working in media, mostly in print journalism, television production or cable TV, I worked in a library—for eight years, in fact. It was a big public library, brimming and bustling with activity, but with the majority of its foot-traffic circling around the all-important main reference desk and the inescapable, handsome, maple card catalogue cabinet which sat in the center of the main floor. Most libraries, large or small, still look this way, except that you will be hard-pressed to find an actual card catalogue. They turn up now in antique stores, where folks pay premium prices to have these vintage cabinets in their homes and offices.

The demise of those durable card catalogues in libraries is just a small element in a world being transformed by computers, the internet and big data.

There is no stopping the conversion of information to the digital realm. The process began in the 1950s with the large, mainframe computers built by companies like IBM. Much of that data was stored on large reels of analog tape. Digitization accelerated somewhat in the 70s and 80s with the arrival of ever-more-inexpensive forms of business and personal computing, along with cheaper ways to computerize data in offices, retail environments, government offices and academic venues. The upward curve grew more frenzied by the 1990s as the price of computing came down even more, and as millions of people worldwide migrated toward the internet. But even then, the vast majority of data and information was largely analog, and libraries were no exception.

By the start of the new millennia, the pace of digitization became feverish.

In their 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, authors Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer Schoenberger stress just how much the transformation has accelerated just within the last decade.

“As recently as the year 2000,” the authors write, “only one-quarter of all the world’s stored information was digital. The rest was preserved on paper, film, and other analog media. But because the amount of digital data expands so quickly—doubling around every three years—that situation was swiftly inverted. Today, less than two percent of all stored information is nondigital.”

By the beginning of the aught years, there were wild and hyperbolic predictions of the death of print, and, by extension, the inevitable obsolescence of the library. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, those reports were greatly exaggerated.

Though the transition to the digital age has been a costly, awkward and sometimes lumbering process for many media centers in the United States, in some ways the library at Bainbridge State College got there first. BSC was the first academic institution in Georgia to convert its microfilm and microform records of the local newspaper (The Bainbridge Post-Searchlight) to a fully digital format. Previously, BSC’s back issues of the Post-Searchlight and older local papers were found on 111 reels of analog film, which, like most libraries in the pre-digital age, meant its users needed to view images of newspaper pages using a large, expensive device designed to read formats like microfiche and various flat or rolled film storage technologies. When BSC completed the conversion to digital reel in 2007, its first-in-the-state achievement made headlines, including those of the Post-Searchlight.

Students can now access older editions of The Post-Searchlight (or its Bainbridge predecessors) using a computerized database familiar to anyone even moderately comfortable with computers. Other than a few gaps—normal after a century or more—the BSC’s digital newspaper archives can access past issues of the Post-Searchlight (or its predecessor, The Bainbridge Argus) as far back as 1869. On the day of my visit, Library Director Susan Ralph assisted a student in pulling up back issues of The Post-Searchlight which dated to the early 1980s.

Another element immediately apparent at BSC’s library: security. Like many newer media centers, and some older ones easily retrofitted for the task, BSC has a walk-through security system near its entry and exit areas. Its modest purpose is to prevent theft—intentional or accidental—of library materials. But like many campuses, there is also the more serious issue of safety and security for the students themselves. Another staff member gave me a brief tour of the main reference desk, and one of its prominent features was a full-sized monitor upon which was displayed high-resolution video images of almost all areas inside the facility. At any given moment, librarians and staff can easily monitor what’s happening with a simple glance at one of the live images on the multiscreen display.

Computers are now a fact of life in libraries—both for internal purposes, and for the benefit of library users.

And in an age in which so much data and information is now online, the library at BSC has large areas devoted entirely to computers and web access. Sitting at individual workstations, students can search the internet for materials related to their studies—newspapers and magazine websites, trade or professional journals, electronic news sources, and online databases and research websites. On my visit, I saw students reviewing websites related to nursing, physical therapy, transportation and logistics, and early childhood education.

At numerous other workstations, students have the option to make hard copies of papers and class materials by using printers located nearby. Scores of the computers are equipped with the usual battery of Microsoft Office products for word processing, spreadsheet management and other tasks—an obvious benefit to students who may not have access to a computer at home. Students can compose book reports, term papers, essays and other written projects, and print copies of their completed work with a keystroke. Unless the quantity of printed pages is excessive, the use of library printers is already covered by student fees appropriate to their coursework. BSC also employs a tech support person, available during most hours of operation, to contend with the myriad of potential issues faced by both library staff and students—hardware or software problems, internet disconnections, application failures, glitches with screens, keyboards, servers or routers.

Still, no amount of conversion to digital replaces the printed book. Like most campus libraries, the floor space at BSC’s media center contains a vast footprint devoted to rows of shelves filled with books, thousands of books (about 45,000). And like most academic libraries in the U.S., these books are arranged using the Library of Congress Classification system (most public libraries, and some public school systems, use the Dewey Decimal Classification system).

And that brings us back to the matter of the vanishing card catalog.

Digital databases and ever-advancing search engine capabilities make finding a book relatively easy, which is arguably the most transformative change in the 21st century library—much in the same way that the search engine has transformed how much of the world’s population thinks and acts when in search of information (for better or worse). Indeed, the card catalog’s inevitable obsolescence was made even more irreversible by the search engine’s singular ability to locate specific types of data within seconds. The more specific the request, the more narrow the results—sort of. Go to the search window of Google or Yahoo and type in, say, small business ideas, and you will get over one billion results, “ranked” more-or-less by the frequency of clicks by all Google users worldwide, and an indication of not only how much data linked to that is now available, but also how broadly the search request harvests items related to that query. Type instead small business ideas using noodles, and the results narrow greatly, to under three million. But type small business ideas using noodles from Croatia, and the results widen again to over 16 million. Adding “Croatia” does not help to narrow the search. Thus the paradox: less is more, unless it is too little.

This is where libraries have the edge. Searching for information in the library can be a refreshingly targeted process, especially if you know exactly what kind of information you want. Therefore the college library—and the library at BSC is no exception—still requires some nuance and out-of-the-Google-box thinking on the part of students.

BSC participates in vast system called the GALILEO Interconnected Libraries (GA Library Learning Online, or GIL), an education intranet database which connects all 35 college and university libraries in the state. Using GIL, one can access articles in magazines, academic journals, trade and professional journals, books, and thousands of other kinds of research data—from any library within the GIL system.

I watched as a library specialist, Kaye Guterman, worked with a student to show him some of the finer points of searching for information using GIL. Not long after he signed in to the database (using his assigned username and a password), she asked him what subject he wanted to research. He chose coaching, then, narrowed it to high school and football. Still, that search request brought up thousands of results spread out across dozens of categories—sports medicine, sports records and game stats, motivation and self-help, biographical and autobiographical, along with educational data. But with a little prompting, she was able to counsel him in the art of fine-tuning his search to find materials most relevant to his topic. Soon, he was able to see an easily-ranked list of journal articles and books relevant to one of his preferred career paths: coaching high school sports.

GIL can give more-or-less instant access to articles and web-based research, Librarians helping studentsbut it does not necessarily guarantee that books listed are within a 60-second walk within the same library. But because the GIL database also includes all books in its huge statewide system, users can request delivery of books and other items not found in their closest library. Using a network of couriers, books can be quickly pulled from one library and delivered to another, often within 48 hours or less.

In other words, students need merely to have a working knowledge of how to use the GIL system, and, then, plan ahead to request a book which may take a day or two to arrive.

GIL does not entirely replace a much older, largely national program called Interlibrary Loan, in which books can be shared between public and academic libraries, typically using traditional forms of delivery such as the postal service. The library at BSC is a member of both the Georgia Online Database (GOLD) and the Southeastern Library Information Network (SOLINET). But GIL, through its dynamic, mass statewide database, speeds up the process and—in the long run—saves millions of dollars by reducing duplication of materials.

GIL also has the secondary advantage of giving librarians a real-time, user-friendly tool for understanding and developing their own collection: books or materials in high demand can be purchased for the home collection; books in less demand can remain accessible through GIL. This takes the guesswork and crystal ball-reading out of library acquisition (an expensive process), and greatly reduces money spent on books which may spend the next few years of their shelf life collecting dust. This real-time data also means that students need not suffer from a lack of appropriate research material because of missed cues on the demand side of the equation. Like most states still struggling to recover from the budgetary effects of the Great Recession, this makes interconnected data programs like GIL a win-win. State legislators love win-wins.

GIL is also constantly expanding to include more digital materials and the resources and books of libraries outside of the strictly academic environment; GIL includes not only the 35 college libraries, but also the combined materials of technical colleges, the Georgia Department of Archives and History, and other historical and research centers. (GIL’s main website includes a listing of all participating libraries, complete with links to library websites, library hours, locations and maps.)

And like much of our search-engine world, GIL employs a quick and easy way for users to check the status of their requests, retrace previous search requests, and painlessly renew a book which may be approaching its due date.

The BSC library also offers a self-service program called LibGuide, a carefully developed set of reading lists and study guides formed through collaboration between librarians, instructors and department heads. This gives students instant and round-the-clock access to a full range of appropriate research material crafted specifically for a student’s coursework.

Another high tech tool indicative of the transformation wrought by computers and social media: during regular library hours, students can use an online chat service to talk directly to a reference librarian.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a multi-part series about libraries in the digital age; future segments will include a look inside public libraries (large and small), historical archives and collections, and other academic libraries.

Related Thursday Review articles:

By the Numbers: Big Data, Big Books; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review, January 12, 2014.