From a couple of boxes containing 50 books purchased for $106 to start the school’s library in 1855, the University’s collection has come a long way. Three years ago, the University purchased its four-millionth volume, a number that put University Libraries 29th on the list of North America’s biggest research libraries.
“In a real sense, our four-million volumes are symbolic of The University of Iowa’s commitment to first-rate teaching and research throughout history,” says Nancy Baker, head of University Libraries. “You can’t have a high-quality university without a high-quality library.”
The University’s library system turns 150 years old in November. It houses a legacy of material that has stood the test of time, surviving disinterest (those first installments in 1855 failed to generate even enough interest to unpack them from the boxes they came in), fire (lightning struck the library’s North Hall location in 1897 and the ensuing blaze destroyed 25,000 books), and makeshift locations (the holdings traveled from the Mechanics Academy building to North Hall to Schaeffer Hall and then to Macbride Hall before construction of the Main Library in 1951).
Today, University Libraries includes the five-story Main Library and 10 branches across campus in art, biological sciences, business, chemistry, engineering, geoscience, mathematical sciences, music, physics, psychology, and health sciences.
The book that University Libraries acquired in April 2002 as its four millionth had to be a special one, Baker says. After consulting with librarians around the University, she settled on an artists’ book of the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval composer and writer. Called Circle of Wisdom, the book includes historical text and a compact disc of performances of Hildegard’s music, representing the ancient art and craft of the printed word and the electronic present and future of publishing, according to Baker.
“The electronic library is here, no doubt about it,” Baker says. “It can only help us meet our goal in University Libraries—and that is always to make life easier for faculty members and students, and anybody else interested in in-depth research.”
Today’s electronic library is about much more than reading, Baker says. It’s about the power of electronic searching. Through the University Libraries’ web page, students can search the libraries’ new electronic database of holdings, called InfoHawk, as well as databases of full-text articles from thousands of publications. Students can dig into electronic versions of newspapers, magazines, television and radio transcripts, basic medical and legal sources, and other materials for nuggets of insight that might enhance a term paper or support an argument. They even can ask a librarian to answer their reference questions through “live reference,” an interactive service over the Internet.
When Carol Williams, an undergraduate at The University of Iowa, faces a research project, going to the library and pulling books off the shelves is the last thing on her mind. Instead she sits in her room and logs onto the web, starting with the University Libraries’ online system for searching and retrieving journal articles.
“It’s not that I’m lazy,” Williams says. “But the library’s an enormous place to search through.”
Baker agrees that laziness is not the excuse for avoiding the library. Students who hoof it to the library and go hunting through the shelves might find themselves thwarted, because books may be checked out, lost or misplaced, or on loan to another library. A quick search of InfoHawk saves students time and trouble.
“We want to take the tedium out of research and make it easy to use an extensive collection of scholarly work,” Baker says.
Students like Williams even can receive copies of journal articles in a day or less, thanks to a scanner that lets librarians skip photocopying and instead transfer printed text to digital files that can be sent electronically.
People have long hailed the promise of the electronic library, but for Baker, the reality won’t measure up if library users don’t have the proper skills. She and her staff spend a lot of time going out to classrooms, where teaching students how to find, evaluate, and apply the ever-increasing amount of information and services available in a large research library has been a major focus of University Libraries for the past several years. Librarians also introduce students to new technology in the Information Arcade.
“We provide multimedia for the masses,” says Paul Soderdahl, coordinator of information systems and technology for University Libraries, and one of the arcade’s first directors after it opened in 1992. “We can bring students and teachers technology that’s just beyond their reach in their room or at home or in their faculty office. Ten years ago, that was CD-ROMs. Today, that’s digital video.”
Over the past 13 years, one in three UI students has come to the arcade to learn how to design web pages, edit digital videos, or create electronic versions of a thesis or dissertation. Professors and instructors have taught some 12,000 courses in the arcade’s networked classroom, where students and teachers hold real-time discussions with counterparts in schools across the country.
The arcade is only one example of how University Libraries reaches beyond campus, Baker says. Reference librarians respond to e-mail, telephone, and regular mail queries from around the state, and even around the world, every day. The Hardin Library provides reference material to hospitals and medical centers across the state. Readers in all 99 Iowa counties can borrow University books, free of charge, through interlibrary loans at their local library, and visitors come from all over the world to the Special Collections department on the Main Library’s third floor to take advantage of a wide range of rare and valuable resources on almost every imaginable topic—including agriculture, the culinary arts, literature, politics, and popular culture.
Even though visitors will find more and more digitally created information of all kinds, including compact discs, DVDs, and a growing encyclopedia of electronic databases, University Libraries is not ready to part with print, Baker says.
“The printed page isn’t going away,” Baker says. “There’s still something comforting about holding a real book.”
Nevertheless, Baker thinks the next big thing will be electronic books. While a novel on an iPod screen probably won’t replace your airport paperback anytime soon, electronic books are making their way into academic titles, computer and technical manuals, and reference books.
“Through the Internet and digital technology, people everywhere can tap into a seemingly limitless collection of reference and scholarly materials,” Baker says. “That raises the bar for judging a research library’s greatness. We’re still learning how to archive electronic materials, for example. We’ll have to stay on top of the changes. No matter what, it’s our job to keep in place a foundation that will support intellectual freedom for generations to come.”
by Gary Kuhlmann