Richard Poynder
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Poynder on Point

The Very Heart of a College


Information Today regularly reports on the products and opinions of information vendors. But what about their most important customers: libraries? What issues confront them today, and how, as information and library services become increasingly digital, do librarians view the future? I sought the opinions of librarians at Pennsylvania ’s Swarthmore College , one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore College lies some 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia . With an enrollment of just 1,400 students, it’s a small school. It has, however, always punched above its weight. Three former graduates are Nobel Prize winners, and other prominent alumni include novelist James Michener, former Massachusetts governor (and one-time U.S. presidential hopeful) Michael Dukakis, computer visionary Ted Nelson (who coined the term “hypertext”), and Thomas McCabe, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1948 to 1951 and former president of Scott Paper Co.

It was McCabe who donated the main library to the college. Built in the late 1960s, the McCabe Library is a formidable, large, stone fortress dominating the college hill that overlooks the tree-lined avenue. Its dominance is intentional. The architects believed that an academic library should form the “very heart of a college” and so “occupy a vital position” on the grounds.

There are also two small subject libraries on campus—the Cornell Science Library and the Underhill Music Library—and a number of special collections, including the Friends Historical Library, the world’s largest collection of books and manuscripts related to the Quakers, and the Peace Collection, a research archive devoted to materials covering nongovernmental efforts toward peace.

Including faculty, the Swarthmore library serves around 1,800 users, and it employs 35 staff members. What distinguishes Swarthmore, says head of reference Anne Garrison, is the personal service it can provide. “Compared with an ARL library—which is likely to have 20,000 to 30,000 students and where you may see a student just once during their stay—you actually recognize students at Swarthmore. We like to think we offer a more personal, Ritz-style service as a result.”


But being small has disadvantages too. With current holdings of around 700,000, Swarthmore’s collection cannot by itself meet the needs of today’s students and researchers. It has, therefore, partnered with two local colleges, Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

Initially, says Meg Spencer, head of the Cornell Science Library, this partnership amounted to little more than ad hoc exchanges of books and journals. Over time, however, it has developed into a substantial cooperative venture called the Tri-College Library Consortium.

Among other things, the consortium provides mutual borrowing rights for patrons and, following the development of a combined online catalog called Tripod, the ability to search the 3 million holdings of the three colleges. “Tripod allows patrons to see exactly what is available in all three libraries,” says Garrison. “And we have a van that visits the three libraries twice a day, so people can get material in 24 hours.” 

Additionally, the consortium is a member of the regional E-ZBorrow system, which enables library users to search the catalog of 40 other college and university libraries in Pennsylvania —a combined holding of around 35 million books.

More recently, the interlibrary lending system has been automated, allowing patrons to request items electronically. In the case of the Tri-College and E-ZBorrow libraries, requests can be made directly with the holding library using a Swarthmore library bar code. If an item is not available locally, a national ILL order can be placed by completing an online form. Moreover, while books still need to be physically collected from the library, an increasing number of journal articles are now sent to patrons electronically via the Ariel document delivery service.

Automation has led to an explosion in usage, says Peggy Seiden, Swarthmore’s head librarian. “Over the last year, we’ve seen a 35-percent increase in interlibrary loans.” Indeed, it has become so easy to obtain materials at Swarthmore that a visiting faculty member from New York University —whose wife teaches at the college—confided to me that he finds it easier to do his research at Swarthmore than in New York .

The library also offers access to more than 150 online services. “Most of the services used by our patrons tend to be the interdisciplinary ones like Web of Science, InfoTrac, and LexisNexis Academic,” explains Spencer. “But we have lots of specialized databases too.”

These include BIOSIS, INSPEC, Early English Books Online, and ERIC as well as electronic journal databases like ScienceDirect, Kluwer Online, and PubMed.

To help users exploit this growing array of electronic resources, the McCabe Library is awash with PCs and terminals. It also has a wireless network that allows patrons with laptops to access online services while roaming the library. Should they need any help or guidance while doing so, they can use an online reference service called LiveHelp and “chat” with librarians in real time.

In effect, by heavily exploiting electronic services, Swarthmore is now able to provide much of the reach and punch of a large library while retaining all the benefits of a smaller one. As more and more content becomes digital, the benefits are expected to increase.

New Challenges

But using online services has brought new challenges too. First, online access is now so easy and convenient that students have begun to restrict their research to online information alone. “Many are now selecting all their resources this way,” says Spencer. “As a librarian, this drives me crazy. I realize there is a lot of really good stuff online now, but there is still a lot of great stuff in print too. They are just not being very discerning.”

While this is not so serious at the undergraduate level, where much of the research is directed by faculty, Spencer worries about the implications for those going on to graduate work. “If they only use online sources, they are relying entirely on what vendors give them. They are trusting the vendors to say: This is the world of knowledge. It is all you need.’ In effect, they are self-censoring.”

A second and more alarming problem is the increasing cost of online resources and the growing inflexibility of publishers to meet the needs of individual libraries, particularly where the publisher has a monopoly on important resources. Elsevier, for instance, now owns so many journals that it can insist that libraries buy entire portfolios rather than single titles.

What frustrates Spencer is that Elsevier’s size has given it enough power that the normal rules of the marketplace—where customers decide how much they’ll spend and on what—no longer appear to operate. “The biggest issue for us is that we are absolutely locked into spending a big chunk of money with Elsevier,” she says.

Last spring, for instance, the library had to mandate a 5-percent journal cut. When Spencer went to the academic departments to discuss what could be culled, faculty immediately proposed canceling a journal that nobody uses, and which costs $9,000 a year. Spencer comments angrily: “I had to say, ‘We can’t touch that because it is an Elsevier journal, and we are committed to spending half a million dollars with them.

Moreover, negotiating with Elsevier, says Spencer with a grimace, has become a nightmare. “Right now, our relationship with them could be described as stormy at best.”

Last year, Spencer sat with her Tri-College colleagues to try to negotiate renewal of the ScienceDirect subscription. “These meetings are just mind-numbing,” she says. “We would say, ‘How come we are forced to spend this amount of money?’ They would reply, You can cancel journals, but you still have to spend half a million dollars with us.’ We just sat there saying, ‘How can you tell us what we have to spend with you?

Eventually, Elsevier agreed to a 2-percent cancellation allowance, but with negotiations still bogged down, Swarthmore agreed to only a 1-year contract. “So the whole frustrating process will have to start again,” says Spencer.

She adds that as more journals go online, everyone is jumping on the gravy train. “Recent decisions by Nature and Science are leading me to hate Elsevier less and less,” says Spencer. “Right now, Science is top of my list. They just announced an online deal in which our costs will rise from $600 to $3,000. And Nature has done the same thing.”

Spencer finally drew the line with The New England Journal of Medicine. “Previously, we could get access for a small sum. Now, they want to charge us a couple of thousand dollars. My response was: ‘OK. We don’t need it. We’ve got it in print.’ I’m just going to have to say to patrons, ‘Sorry about the inconvenience, but this is just insane.

“What has really thrown me,” she adds, “is that even a not-for-profit organization like the ACS is behaving in the same way.”

The whole thing, she concludes, is nonsensical. “When we started having electronic journals, it was supposed to be cheaper. Besides, if you think about the production costs, you have to wonder why Science is suddenly charging $3,000 for something that they are putting online anyway. They have no production costs, no postage, no paper costs—but they are charging five times more for online than they are for print.”

Where They Want to Be

Ironically, despite the explosion of online access, the greatest challenge facing the Swarthmore library today is a desperate shortage of physical space. “Space is the number-one issue, and we are not currently able to increase that space or obtain additional funding for compact shelving,” says Seiden. “We are therefore looking into the possibilities of remote storage.”

The problem, says Seiden, is that although more and more content is becoming available electronically, “to date, publishers have failed to find a way of delivering e-books effectively.” As a result, the library is still acquiring an additional 20,000 volumes a year. For Seiden, this means having to fund both an ever-expanding physical repository plus a state-of-the-art electronic infrastructure. As she puts it, “We are currently trying to do both, and that is squeezing us.”

At some point, however, this will surely change, and books will also be distributed electronically. When this happens, what will be the implications? After all, more and more library services can now be accessed remotely without the need for patrons to physically enter the building. Faculty who are sitting in their offices or students who are sitting in their dorm rooms with a wireless-enabled laptop can access online databases, conduct searches on the Tripod and E-ZBorrow catalogs, and place online ILL requests. When everything can also be delivered electronically, can we expect the library to wither away and become little more than a virtual service department? If so, perhaps the McCabe fortress will begin to look increasingly superfluous?

Garrison is skeptical. “Just come and work here for a day, and you’ll see the library is far from withering away,” she responds. “Sure, it can be accessed remotely, but that is good. It means that it is growing beyond the fortress concept. I’m not at all paranoid about that.”

Spencer agrees. What the doomsayers miss, she says, is the important social function that libraries can play. “Yes, the kids all have their own computers today, and they can access the databases around the campus, but they come here. This is where they want to be. The fact is that the library is the social center of the college.”

Regular visitors to McCabe would have to agree. The building, which is open until 1 a.m. and offers an abundance of desks and comfortable chairs, is constantly crammed with students. Some are studying quietly, some are talking together in small groups, and quite a few are slumped asleep—whether from a hard night of studying or a surfeit of social interaction is not always clear. For those determined to stay awake, a nighttime coffee bar dispenses regular caffeine hits.

Seiden is keen to promote this social aspect of the library. Her hope is that she can square the financial circle by realizing savings from the automation of library processes. “The more electronic resources we use, for instance, the less binding we have to do. And with online invoicing, we are beginning to see a shift away from the traditional heavy backroom work that paper invoicing requires to less labor-intensive processes.”

“Librarianship, and what libraries do, is changing rapidly, but libraries have been changing for decades,” concludes Garrison. “In the 1970s, it was the onset of microfilm and then the early mainframe. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh my God, the library is doomed.’ And if you go back to the 19th century, the same sort of things were being said. But we’re still here!”

In short, while the technology will continue to change and their roles will continue to evolve, librarians at Swarthmore are confident that even in the digital age, academic libraries will remain a vital physical presence on campus. And as long as they play an active social role too, they will continue to be the very heart of a college.

What is less certain is the role that journal publishers will play in this brave new world. Having seriously alienated their primary customers, and with initiatives like open archiving gaining considerable traction, they are the ones that appear more likely to wither away. This is perhaps a lesson for book publishers too, as they struggle to make the e-book a viable proposition.

This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the February, 2004 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford , NJ 08055 . 609/654-6266,

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