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The new librarians

Meet the risk-taking scholars who are shaking things up while they build tomorrow's academic library

By TIM JOHNSON | NOV 05 2007

With its faded orange carpet, rows and rows of dusty stacks, and old-school study carrels, McMaster University’s H.G Thode Library of Science and Engineering looks like a place purposed with preserving the 1970s. But the future isn’t far away – and Jeffrey Trzeciak, the school’s new university librarian, can see it already.

“Here, here and here. This is where the plasma-screen monitors will go,” says Mr. Trzeciak, pointing to specific points along the curving red-brick wall that circumscribes the back of the building.

Soon an army of workers and the $4 million raised through a capital campaign will gut and utterly transform Thode. Print journals will be wheeled away to a new home in the basement, and book stacks will be transplanted to the second floor. A café, diner-style booths, stand-up workstations, oversized ottomans, and even coffee tables with pillows on the floor will take their place, all equipped for online access. Interactive touch-screen monitors will line the wall.

“Students are still coming to the library in droves,” says Mr. Trzeciak. “But more and more often what they want to come to the library for is collaborative space where they can work with their friends and have a coffee, sit comfortably and do their homework, and get help when they need it.”

In an era of change for libraries, Mr. Trzeciak is a man in the vanguard. Although not especially young – with a hint of five-o’clock shadow, he’s a youthful 40-ish – everything about him, from his efficient gait to his soft yet purposeful manner of speech to his functional sense of style, seems geared for action. After shaking things up for eight years at Wayne State University in Detroit, then promoted to associate dean of the Wayne State Library system, he moved into the chief librarian’s chair at McMaster last year, succeeding a predecessor who had held the job for more than three decades. “The organization itself was really traditional, but the staff were ready for change,” says Mr. Trzeciak. “But I’m not sure they knew at the time how much change would happen.”

And Mr. Trzeciak’s not alone at the front. A new class of librarians is emerging: forward-thinking men and women, attuned to the revolutionary trends affecting academic libraries, are leading the charge for change. These tech-savvy librarians are plugged into the needs of a new generation and adapting their services to keep libraries relevant and valuable.

This world is in large part digital. “The generation of students that are entering university now is really the first to have never known life without the Internet,” says Mr. Trzeciak. These students routinely use all kinds of electronic devices, all at the same time, and are old hands at navigating the web’s most popular social networking sites, from YouTube to Facebook.

So Mr. Trzeciak and McMaster are taking the library into their world. Mr. Trzeciak himself spends up to 20 hours a week playing the multi-player online game World of Warcraft (whose avatar adorns the back of his business card). He recently hired a gaming librarian, possibly the first position of its kind anywhere. Shawn McCann, a former digital projects and web librarian, and an avid gamer, is charged with finding ways to provide library resources and services through gaming environments.

“Students are in things like Facebook and MySpace and World of Warcraft and Second Life, and we want to be there, too,” says Mr. Trzeciak.

He cites a study by Connecticut-based Gartner Research Group that forecasts that by 2011, 80 percent of active web users will have an avatar, and notes that McMaster already provides reference services (six hours a day, five days a week) in the popular online community Second Life. Mr. Trzeciak, through a course known as Learning 2.0, has trained most of the library staff in current web technology such as blogs, wikis, Second Life and RSS.

Raised on Google, this generation won’t settle for the difficult-to-use online library catalogues that many of us are accustomed to. This year McMaster became the first library in Canada to move its user interface to a system designed by Endeca, an American company that creates websites for huge retailers like Chapters and Home Depot. The new catalogue includes a single Google-style search box, an array of search options, cover art, tables of contents and book reviews. “It was designed by our users, for our users,” says Mr. Trzeciak.

Across the country at the University of Prince Edward Island, university librarian Mark Leggott is using open-source technology to deliver library resources. An expert in software and digital development, Mr. Leggott joined UPEI from the University of Winnipeg, where he spearheaded a number of innovative projects during his seven years as university librarian. These included one of the first and most heavily used virtual reference services in Canada.

Open source software can be freely used and adapted for a variety of purposes. He talks a lot about “Lego” – a set of modular building bricks, allowing small open-source applications to sit on their own or work within a larger system.

One of the bricks that he and his staff are putting in place is a customized set of library resources for each course offered at UPEI. When fully implemented, the online resource will allow students to research by course, find a recommended list of databases and do a federated search inside that. Another brick is the live help button, integrated throughout UPEI’s online learning, research and library environment. When you click on the button, you reach a staff member on the virtual chat line who can respond and meet your needs. Mr. Leggott notes that access to journals at UPEI has increased 10-fold over the past decade. “One of the big reasons,” he says, “is the fact that they’re largely digital.”

University of British Columbia’s libraries have also seen dramatic changes. When biomedical branch librarian Dean Giustini joined the UBC library staff 10 years ago, the biomedical library offered just three electronic journals. It now offers 40,000. Mr. Giustini, named Canadian Hospital Librarian of the Year for 2007, is a well-read and popular blogger. He maintains the Google Scholar Blog (with the stated purpose “to observe, document and comment on the evolution of academic-scholarly searching”) and is the blogger for Open Medicine, a peer-reviewed, open-access online journal that aims to provide high-quality health information. In 2005, he kicked off a lengthy debate among experts with a British Medical Journal editorial entitled “How Google is changing medicine.”

Mr. Giustini doesn’t believe that the librarian’s role is diminished by today’s ready availability of information. “I think our role will be helping people to teach each other how to find information, but also how to critically evaluate information,” he says. “People need to see us as knowledgeable about knowledge, in all its forms.”

Gloria Leckie, president of the Canadian Association for Information Science and associate dean in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, has researched libraries as public space. She says people have grown accustomed to the couches and coffee of booksellers like Chapters, and now expect these in the library. Most academic libraries have responded. “No matter where they are on the continuum, they’ve all attempted to make their libraries more of a social space, and cater more to undergraduate students who are keen to have a comfortable place to do their work and interact with their friends,” says Dr. Leckie.

At the University of Guelph, chief librarian Michael Ridley believes that he has the best Learning Commons in the business. While he may not have the cushiest couches or the most fashionable rooms, that’s not the point. “We are space poor, but service rich,” says Mr. Ridley who was named Academic Librarian of the Year for 2007 by the Ontario College and University Library Association. Besides the ubiquitous computers, his Learning Commons includes learning and writing services, help from information technology experts and support for students with disabilities – all of high quality. “That’s where the rubber hits the road and that’s why we have huge numbers of people coming in,” he concludes.

Mr. Ridley sees a future where the university library serves as an “academic town square,” a place that brings people and ideas together in an ever-bigger and more diffuse campus. Services in the future will include concerts, lectures, art shows – anything that trumpets the joy of learning.

“The idea is to make the library the absolute beating heart of intellectual life on a campus,” he says. “The vision of the academic town square is like a town square. It’s kind of crazy and noisy and people are doing lots of different things, and there is contemplative space as well. But it’s really a vibrant and maybe, in some cases, challenging community.”

Tim Mark, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, says that some older, more traditional academic librarians have found the new technology a bit daunting, and the new approach to library space, challenging. This has sometimes led to generational tensions, ones which Dean Giustini at UBC says he has felt first-hand.

“Some people just don’t get it,” says Mr. Giustini bluntly. “But I’ve got tenure, and I’m going to continue to push the envelope as much as I can. … Librarians need to be seen to be part of this revolution. And if you don’t want to stay in the profession because of it, there are lots of young, fresh, smart librarians who will take your place.”

Indeed, that’s what many will do. The 2005 study, The Future of Human Resources in Canadian Libraries, conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta, revealed that over one-quarter of librarians in Canada’s academic libraries were 55 or older; 42 percent will be of retirement age by 2014. Although the librarians now leading the charge aren’t exactly young (most of those profiled are in their 40s, and Mr. Ridley admits that he is “a creaky 53 years old”), the library school curriculum is adapting to the coming era, notes Dr. Leckie, offering courses on new technology and emphasizing people skills. The new crop of librarians will be equipped to carry this new style of librarianship into the future.

Back at McMaster, Jeff Trzeciak hired a new slate of librarians after a number of the older guard opted for retirement; the new hires will drop the average age at his library by 10 to 15 years. And they won’t necessarily be filling old positions. In addition to the gaming librarian, his new staff include a digital strategies librarian, a digital technologies development librarian and an electronic resources librarian.

Mr. Trzeciak says he’s happy with the support that he’s received from the university, but notes that he’s also had some push-back from those who believe that what he’s doing is “cake and ice cream” rather than bread and butter.

“We can’t expect to be successful only by doing the same things that we’ve been doing for 35, 40, 50 years,” he responds. “In order to be successful, we have to do things differently. We have to be innovative. We have to take risks.”

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