By Doug Sweet
Because of the way library use is changing in an increasingly digitized world some of McGill’s library spaces are slated to undergo changes this summer. The University’s financial situation and the consequent budget cuts to all units have accelerated the time frame for these changes but did not alter the general direction. The Reporter sat down with Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries, to get a fuller sense of what is prompting these changes, why they have to occur in such a short time frame and how they present opportunities for improving student study space while still ensuring that librarians continue to play a vital role in teaching and research and are present to provide services to students and faculty.
What is driving change in our libraries?
New technologies are the clear drivers and budgetary realities have put the changes on a fast track. The University has introduced a Voluntary Retirement Program as an incentive for administrative and support staff to retire from their positions. Forty-five per cent of our support and administrative staff is eligible for this program. We have a total of about 130 library admin and support staff. We anticipate that 25 to 40 library staff members eligible for the program will opt for it. Because of the current hiring freeze we won’t be able to replace those who retire. I cannot ask academic staff, that is, librarians, to do the work of unionized support staff. Neither can I ask student casuals to do it.
If I don’t have the people to do support staff work, then I have to reduce the number of spaces where that work has to be done. So, then we look at what physical library spaces are used the least in terms of gate-count. Life Sciences and Education are among the lowest in terms of gate count and use of print books, and, loans is going steadily down.
During the last Senate meeting, the Provost was receiving in real time changes to our funding being proposed by the Quebec government. I, as a Dean, received my information on the actual budget cuts to be made within the past three weeks, but I have been working with various scenarios in anticipation of cuts. In our case there is an additional complication: if we are going to make physical changes to library spaces, these can only be done during the summer months, not in September.
So what aspects of consultation will there be in this process?
With the budget cuts, there’s been a very short time frame to explain the situation. It should be clear to all involved that we would have wanted to talk with everyone more often and sooner.
We have begun to talk with student groups and we need to talk to more groups as we continue these discussions. We will continue to consult student leadership and faculty, particularly from the involved constituencies. Dr. Richard Creuss, former Dean of Medicine, and Mtre. Daniel Boyer, Head of the Nahum Gelber Law Library, are spearheading a process that will enable the stakeholders associated with the Life Sciences Library to provide input on their needs. The Life Sciences stakeholders are scheduled to meet with three constituencies: librarians and staff of the Life Sciences Library on May 10th, student groups on May 16th and faculty on May 22nd. I very much appreciate the leadership shown by Dr. Creuss and Mtre. Boyer and look forward to their report as well as the Education Library Advisory Committee feedback/report. A consultation process is also under way with the Education Library stakeholders. On Tuesday, May 7, the Education Library Advisory Committee met to discuss a number of issues. A task force was struck and representatives from the committee will meet with their constituents so they can gauge service needs. Town Halls to discuss feedback and ideas will be scheduled soon.
So what do you do?
What we have to do is figure out how to meet the needs of all our library users. First and foremost – and this is something wonderful that has come out of this – is the eloquently stated need for librarians coming from our stakeholders. Librarians who are not bound to a space, but librarians who are in the classroom, librarians who are partners in research, who are in the lab, who are communicating with students out in the hall, are what we call embedded librarians.
And the next thing that we have to pay attention to is collections, in the most convenient form possible. For most people, the most convenient form is digital. You only use another medium if for some reason another form isn’t available or the digital form isn’t right for you. For Life Sciences, for sure, that’s digital. However, we will be maintaining the necessary book collections, no matter what. And, faculty can ask for a book and we’ll have it delivered to their offices. Anyone can request and pick up a book and return it at any branch.
Were these kinds of changes inevitable in any event?
Yes, they were. Since 1996 – you can actually pinpoint this on graphs – the number of [book] loans and the number of reference questions asked at research libraries has steadily declined. At the same time the amount of print material that is being digitized and made available continues to expand as does “born digital”, as we say. And whereas our use of physical materials goes down, the use of digital information just hasn’t topped out yet.
People have an emotional attachment, it seems, to their libraries. I guess they are comfortable places we’ve grown up with.
This is really, really true. You can be as logical as you want, and we are logical in this, we really are. But we’re missing the boat if we don’t talk about the fact that there is a huge emotive element in this. Libraries are symbols of the life of the mind. They’re icons, and as such they evoke all sorts of emotions in people and we need to respect that. We will maintain and improve services to our users.
What do students tell you that they want in a library space today?
We have done a number of focus-group sessions. What students want is easy access to materials, in the most convenient form possible. And for most students, namely undergraduates, needs are very constricted by time. So that means in most cases they want material digitally 24 hours a day. They aren’t going to wait to get a book from an interlibrary loan. If they can’t get to it right away, they won’t use that source, they’ll use another one. And they want physical spaces. Assessment is my field of research so this is something I’ve been doing for a long time, particularly from a user viewpoint.
Our students have also said, “What we want in the library is a home away from home.” In this incredibly wired world we live in, where students have wired, state-of-the art, equipped spaces at home where they can work and study, they flock to the library with their computers, looking for an outlet. Libraries have become the social networks within a very wired world.
So students want information in the most convenient form, they want social spaces, they want places from “Ninja-quiet spaces” to places that are along a spectrum from totally quiet to a little bit more noisy, to needing to talk in a group study room, to places where you can sit on the floor, where it’s easy to go out and get something to eat and come back. And even if they want to be quiet, to study quietly, they want to be quiet together.
And we are behind the curve in transforming our spaces to give to our users the flexibility and range of space they crave.
You’re working with the affected faculties on this?
Of course. The Faculties and the Library are working together to make sure everyone’s needs are being listened to. When we reorganized and merged both the Management Library in the Bronfman Building and the Geographic Information Centre in Burnside Hall, the spaces became even more student-centred.
Is McGill alone in this or are similar moves being made elsewhere?
Oh no, we are in good company. Libraries are changing; branch libraries are closing or consolidating; as they have been for the last 50 years. The University of British Columbia merged their Science and Medicine libraries and Johns Hopkins is moving in that direction. These movements and discussions are happening everywhere. As far as other trends in libraries, there’s an emphasis on embedded librarians, on the renovation of user space for informal learning spaces, and less reliance upon an open-stack library concept. Lots of books, lots of materials that are seldom used are put into storage and space is transformed or new space is created for student use, space that is flexible enough that it can be used for anything from formal classrooms to very informal group-study spaces.
Can you take the books out of the libraries and still provide study spaces for students?
Absolutely, the two things go hand in hand. What we did, in the Faculty of Management, was to take out the physical volumes and the librarians have office hours in the Faculty of Management. What’s optimal is to rotate librarians in the various departments and locations where our students and faculty are.
We had more time to work out the details with the Faculty of Management. But now, with the incredible time crunch of the budget, we have to move faster. And, because libraries can really only renovate when there is less student demand on the buildings, if we are to make changes, they must be done in the summer.
Are we maintaining our collections at the expense of jobs?
No. The Provost has until this year never reduced our funding allocation, indeed funding to Libraries has increased due to inflation linked to buying library materials. This increase has been growing even faster and therefore erodes the buying power of our collection budget every year. That inflation factor is somewhere in the neighbourhood of half a million to three-quarters of a million dollars in terms of new money needed annually, if we are to maintain our current acquisitions. Sadly, this year we will not have any new money. In fact, for the first time in over a decade we will see a reduction in our purchasing power for collections.
Is the Osler Library slated for any change?
No. The Osler Library of the History of Medicine will continue to provide access to this remarkable special collection from the McIntyre Building.
What does the future hold?
The Library has made enormous progress over the last decade, and this budgetary setback will be temporary. The changes we are facing will better position McGill to build a Library that truly meets today’s needs and those of tomorrow.