The library, digital and otherwise
Its now a matter of shaping the technology to meet the needs of the community the library serves, says Margo Crist, UMass director of libraries. Information technology bond funding has cleared the legislature, permitting the sharing of non-catalog resources. This will include the joint licensing of databases and full-text resources among the five campuses, an economical move.
Out there on the horizon, Crist sees a whole world of cooperative ventures, with new ways of navigating the flood of information coming our way. Even so, she says reassuringly, addressing those who flinch at change, the library is not going to stop having books, just because it will have all these other ways of getting at information, literature, and culture. The universitys library is going to go right on doing all the things its always done well, even as it finds ways to do some of them better.
An intense woman with an ability to clarify complex issues, Crist has kept the inquisitive edge that marks a good reference librarian, the job she held early on at the Boston Public Library. Shes still doing detective work, taking part in someone elses quest but now its for a large research university with over 20,000 students and more than 1,100 faculty members.
Starting up this year, says Crist, is five-campus patron-initiated borrowing. A student working on a science topic in Amherst will find that a crucial book is available at the medical school in Worcester. With a stroke of a key, the student will be able to initiate a get function, which will also identify her as a registered user. That request, explains Crist, will turn into a circulation function, printed up and carried to a shelf by a person. The book will then be checked out and delivered to Amherst in a special van belonging to the Boston Library Consortium, a group that includes MIT and Brandeis, among others.
Meanwhile, there is plenty going on to educate library users about the information technology thats already available. A new tutorial system called Merlin was developed over the past year using funding from the Massachusetts Board of Library Comissioners. If you go to the UMass librarys web page and log on to Merlin, you can upgrade your online literacy skills. The program, subtitled Teaching Information Literacy on the Web, features clever graphics and cartoon panels starring the sage and teacher Merlin and his assistant Stumpy. It steers library users around the vast world of the web. Most web searchers dont even know what theyre missing, it asserts at one point, and proceeds to describe the strengths, limitations, and operating principles of various forms of web life. Merlin is currently being used by the First Year Writing Program, but could also eventually find other uses, as the universitys distance learning proposals begin to take shape.
In addition to teaching its users about online searching, the library has itself generated a site for people wanting business information in Massachusetts. Called MassBedrock, it was created by the university as part of specialized reference services funded by the state board of library commissioners. The site offers access to current sources of information about markets, assistance programs, employment trends, and legal concerns, among other topics. Says librarian Christine Turner, the projects director, the target audience includes other librarians, especially those at public libraries, who can help users small business owners, entrepreneurs and public officials locate information. Since its start-up in January 2000, she says, they have averaged 950 users a month, with about 4,500 pages viewed.
The library has also published its first two electronic books, monograph-length texts by J.L. Benson, art history professor emeritus. Titled Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements and Greek Sculpture and the Four Elements, they are gorgeously illustrated texts in high-quality reproduction. We saw it as a learning experience, says Crist, a way of finding out what was involved in such a project. Its not so simple, they learned. Making sure the material is presented properly has turned out to be highly labor-intensive. But professor Benson is delighted with the results, especially since this work is getting much more exposure than it might have otherwise.
A million people walk through the doors of the UMass Amherst library every year. Some of those people will want to talk to a person rather than look at a screen. As in the past, skilled librarians are always available to answer questions and help launch a quest. The library boasts a well-trained staff of 150 in the central W.E.B. Du Bois Library and the three branches: the Biological Sciences Library, the Music Library, and the Physical Sciences and Engineering Library. But there is now also an online ask the librarian function, with which librarians will answer your e-mailed questions, usually within forty-eight hours.
been a better time to be in libraries, Crist says. Books are here
to stay, she insists. Theyre a wonderful technology, portable
and convenient. But, she adds, There are a lot of different
ways of sharing knowledge, and weve never done things in just one
way. The availability of online responsiveness, says Crist, gives
a whole new twist to what the library is doing.