Out, out damned print!

We all like to grumble about Safety Departments. They are a wonderful source of red tape – always fussing over unsound practices and health and safety rules.  I think safety officers tend to have a slightly obsessive nature. This is a requirement for their role – not a personality bug but a vocational feature. You can spot this effect in other occupations, for instance traffic wardens need the ability to ignore all protestations, they must remain unswayed by smooth-talking wrigglers who parked in the bus lane or the disabled parking space.

Librarians too suffer from exhibit their own annoying tendencies weaknesses unique strengths, principally a tendency to collect things. Today libraries play a key role in electronic information provision but typically libraries have also been the places that keep hold of stuff. They are the repositories, the places you expect to contain everything. This is changing as we move away from using printed resources in favour of using online resources. In the last five years I have probably thrown away more printed materials than my predecessors did in the last 50 years. This is material that will have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to acquire over the years but is now seen to have little or no value thanks to the ready availability of online journal archives.

I am a typical librarian,  guided by a fairly cautious spirit with an impulse to avoid waste.  If  I am 99% sure that a run of journal issues will not ever be used then I will discard it.  If there is any uncertainty then I prefer to just move it from our main library to our store and wait to see if anyone complains or notices. Up until now this approach has worked well and allowed me to create space in the library for new facilities, whilst maintaining resources in the background. I think a rich information environment, with both print and online resources available, is part of the added value of a Research Institute Library.  It means that when someone wants an in-depth search into vaccine trials in Africa in the 1930s-40s we can hand search the Tropical Diseases Bulletin to find the reports of those trials.  It means that when someone wants to read Claude Bernard’s classic book An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine I can pull a copy off the shelf for them.  It means that if someone wants obscure but important documents in the history of TB or influenza I can go to our store and locate them.  In short, we don’t just have information for today’s science but also we can tell the story of how science got where it is now. Though the older print material is infrequently used it is part of the scholarly atmosphere in the Institute. I do believe there is still a place for such a print collection, though the value is eroding as more digitised material becomes available.

The reading room

Even just a few years ago people came and sat down to read printed journals in the Library.

I followed the same cautious approach for our recent wave of journal moves. If a journal backfile was freely available in PubMedCentral or Highwire Press, or had been purchased (by ourselves or by JISC) then I felt confident in saying that we would never need the print copies again. This freed up 350 metres of shelf space and I felt proud of myself (in a biblio-barbarian kind of way). I will admit to an irrational element in my approach though.  Since many of those journal backfiles were freely available right up to 2009, I should have discarded the print copies up to 2009. I did not do that, preferring a more conservative date of 1990. I was a little concerned that totally denuding the library shelves would create an ugly appearance, a vacuum. With no funding at the time to fill the space with new desks or carrels, I opted to leave some journal volumes in place. My barbarian nerve had failed me.

Now I have seen the error of my ways.  I have steeled myself and started to throw out another 150m of journals, perhaps a bit more. I am still being slightly cautious – keeping journals from commercial publishers just in case they decide to do something difficult. (Sometimes what is available this year becomes locked behind a paywall, or a higher paywall, next year).

It will take a few more weeks to complete this disposal, but now I need to plan what to do with the space that will be freed up. We need to use the space to benefit the scientists here (we have no undergraduates). I would like the library to be a place for meeting and exchange of information, as it used to be in the days when everyone had to visit to check the journals. But if it is no longer essential for everyone to visit the library, is it realistic to think that it can ever again take this role? People still come to the Library regularly to work, but this is a smaller fraction. Would a fistful of technology attract people? Or colourful comfortable sofas? I wonder about trying to attract people by playing to our other strengths – science as culture, history of science, the NIMR identity and pride in its achievements. But these are usually optional extras, not anyone’s priority. If an activity does not contribute directly to the next grant or publication, then only a minority will be interested. My current thoughts are that we should increase the working space available and have some more casual seating areas for browsing.

I also plan to make our book collection more prominent. The books were hidden away in side rooms but they will now be brought into the main reading room, as part of our frontline collection. I’ve noted that the books do still draw people. I am weeding the books, so that the collection is tighter and more relevant.  I will retain some interesting historical items. I hear that the Toronto University science library recently did something similar – using interesting and quirky books to draw people in.

The Library is a place of escape, a place to recharge batteries or intense thought/study. It is also one of the few ‘open’ places in the Institute and as such it usually gets shown (off) to visitors, so it needs to look good, not moribund. I want to keep the attractive appearance of the existing reading room and ideally create a modern look.

We will start to discuss ideas for the space in January. The solution is not obvious – we are not a university so have no undergraduates to cater for;we are not a hospital so have no clinical staff to cater for; the Institute does not need another training room or coffee bar. I read recently about the ‘Research Hive’ at the University of Sussex, but on closer inspection I realised that it offers little that we don’t already offer.

Any brilliant ideas would be welcome!

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
This entry was posted in Future of Libraries, Libraries and librarians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Out, out damned print!

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  2. Erika Cule says:

    Hi Frank

    Did you see what IC did with their library redesign? I appreciate that you are not a university – it seems to me that one of the reasons the library redesign went well because the library asked the students what they wanted and then actually acted on the answers to the survey. I am not based at South Ken any longer so I don’t often use our “Central Library” but it does better used after the refurb than when I was an UG. Have you tried asking your users what they want?

  3. Jenny says:

    Weren’t you tempted to have a big institutional bonfire with that big stack of journals? Health and safety issues aside, it could done wonders for Team Building and Personnel Morale.

  4. Hi Frank,

    As a scientist, I know that our forays into the library are getting less frequent. In fact, no-one from our faculty goes over the road except to check out some old theses etc. Electronic repositories like UKPMC [who I now work for] also includes electronic theses and the increasing availability of such content will eventually make the trip to the library virtually non-existent. However, since I am working with our library staff on an event next year, I went over to our library facilities a few times and have been very impressed with the changes. The books/journals are not even visible on the ground floor. The place looks almost like an airport lounge with lots of space, comfy seating and a central island containing a helpdesk, which is almost like a check-in facility. There are lots of places where you can work with laptops. The seminar rooms facilities are absolutely brilliant and I plan to take advantage of them myself. The main problem was that I didn’t even know that these changes had taken place. They are great for the students who are enjoying hi-tech book checkouts and state of the art interactive information screens, but nobody had bothered to tell us!

    Although you may never make them attractive enough to attract the scientists back in the same numbers as before [simply due to the nature of contemporary research and the availability of e-literature], you do need bigger and better state-of-the-art seminar and meeting facilities where scientists can talk, train and hold conferences. The point is not to just offer the space like the Hive -but to ACTIVELY organise conferences and meetings in collaboration with learned societies and your local academics. Invite people to give talks on the history of science or similar subjects. Also, you need to internally advertise on a regular basis – people need continual reminders of facilities that exist or new ones that have been developed. They need repeating telling when there is an interesting lunch-time seminar.

    I also think you should keep as many books as you have room for both in side rooms and also in few display cases in the main area. Historical books are always popular and of great interest to most people. A blend of the historical in a contemporary setting can work well. For me this type of conference venue holds great attraction as a delegate as I can wander off and browse at will.

    Good luck.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Nice post, Frank!

    I like to head to our small institutional library when I’m trying to concentrate and there’s too much noise and movement around my desk, which is in an open-plan area. The peace and quiet and change of scenery are a very welcome break.

    What would attract people in? I say coffee/tea (our library allows drinks if they’re in a covered container, which is fair enough even though I hate drinking through tiny holes in lids) and free wi-fi.

  6. ricardipus says:

    You’ve made me curious about the U of Toronto Gerstein library now – sad to say, I hardly ever visit the place any more. If they’re putting “interesting” historical books up front, it might be worth tripping up to campus to have a look.

    It has ridiculous glass-floored journal stacks, too.

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Frank, a very interesting post, and a challenging topic for libraries. My quick answer: artifacts, couch, coffee and free wifi. I think there is some overlap to what makes museums interesting places to visit. Having interesting physical objects like the old science books you mention should certainly help.

  8. Frank says:

    Thanks for the comments – all very helpful. Sorry for delay in responding.

    @Erika – I haven’t been to the IC main library for ages. I feel a study tour to SW7 coming on… Yes, our lack of undergrads does mean that many of the solutions adopted by HE libraries are not so relevant. I take your point about asking the users (or rather, the non-users!). We have done surveys asking what kind of things people would want. They tend to come up with fairly unimaginative suggestions. We are going to brainstorm with a few people in the New Year.

    @Jenny – Unfortunately we just missed Nov 5th this year! The real bonfire will be in 2015, when we move downtown.

    @Mohammed – UKPMC has been very useful for us in this exercise. The digitised backfiles in UKPMC are my gold standard, giving me a high level of confidence that it is safe to throw out their print equivalents.

    Re. seminar rooms etc, many of these facilities are available already in the building. There is always need for more so we have a plan for one extra. Adding more would mean building “pods” in teh main reading room. We are looking at this but don’t want to destroy the attractiveness of that room. But we are not a hugh University library, just a medium sized Institute library, so could not accommodate a conference in the Library without disrupting users.

    You are right about the problem of getting the message out. My sense is that people now just switch off when they see a message from the library, so it is hard to get the message across.

    @Cath – We have eased off on the food/drink rules and no longer ban them. I’d love to have a coffee bar of our own but management are not keen as it would take business away from the main restaurant coffee bar, and there isn’t really enough business to support both.

    @Richard – glass floors are scary!

    @Martin – thanks – thats a useful checklist for what to include. I agree that museums are a good model. Interesting that museums have been able to reinvent themselves and make themselves cool, far from the dusty image of yore. I think there is something to be said for looking at the narratives that museums use. I would love to get a museum curator in to create a narrative around some of our current science. We do have some artifacts on show, and several more in our store. I should get them cleaned up and on display.

    Several comments have voted for “interesting” or “old” books, which is encouraging.

    I’ll keep you posted on progress.