Biblio-Tech: Today's Library

You might not recognize today’s Ithaca College Library in its Digital Age transformation.   By Sherrie Negrea

As a new professor at Ithaca College in 1990, Mary DePalma would spend hours in the library combing through stacks of the journal Psychological Abstracts for an article relative to her research. Once she would find the citation, chances were that the library would not have the journal, so she would need to submit an interlibrary loan request. Two weeks later, a photocopy of the article would arrive, and DePalma would walk over to the Gannett Center to retrieve it.

Fast-forward to 2009: In the world of online scholarly databases, DePalma, a psychology professor, researches a new topic by logging onto the library’s website from her office in Williams Hall. Most often, she locates the article she wants from among dozens of databases and prints it out right at her desk. If the library doesn’t have it, a PDF of the article is e-mailed to her via interlibrary loan that very day or the next.

“What used to take three weeks now will likely take 10 minutes to 24 hours,” says DePalma, who specializes in social motivation and health psychology. “It’s faster and more complete.”

In the past two decades the Ithaca College Library has been transformed from a repository of books and multimedia materials into a digital learning laboratory offering instant messaging reference services, collaborative study spaces equipped with 55 computers, 20 wireless laptops, and 100 research databases.

Not only has the library moved aggressively into the digital age, but it has also become an intellectual hub on campus, bringing together students and faculty from diverse departments.

“I see it as the heart and the soul and the entire brain of the campus,” says Patricia Zimmermann, a professor of cinema, photography, and media arts, who recalls visiting the library when she was first hired in 1981 and often finding it empty. “It is the place where people come together to investigate new ideas and new work.”

Energetic Leader

The restructuring of the library, now often packed with students on weeknights until 2:00 a.m., is largely the work of Lisabeth “Lis” Chabot, who was hired in 2003 as the College librarian. After 10 years as the library director at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, Chabot arrived on the Ithaca campus with a motto: “A good library is one that is used.”

That did not mean only physical use, because in Chabot’s lexicon online, or virtual, use is just as significant as people walking in the door.

Under her tenure the website has become in some ways a surrogate for the physical library, making it the central “discovery portal,” as she puts it, for the library’s services and resources. Soon after being hired, Chabot restructured the library staff, replacing two administrative positions with a Web services librarian, who updates the large and growing website, and an electronic resources librarian, who manages database contracts and technical troubleshooting.

Website upgrades have already had a substantial impact: The number of visits to the site increased from 437,000 in 2006 to 851,000 in 2007.

The changes were made not merely to keep pace with technology, as Chabot points out, since the distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” is becoming less pronounced. While today’s students are obviously “digital natives,” faculty are increasingly adept in the digital universe.

“A lot of this is related to technology, but a lot of it is related to this generation of users and the way in which they learn and the way in which our current generation of faculty teaches,” Chabot says. “It’s how they engage students actively in learning. Newer faculty have come through graduate school using these same technologies, resources, and services.”

Creative Resourcing

Creating a high-tech library, however, has not come without fiscal challenges, as costs for electronic resources continue to climb at a time when Ithaca College has been trimming expenses to compensate for a decline in both its endowment and its freshmen enrollment.

After the fall semester started, department heads at the College were asked to make cuts to their current operating budgets, and more reductions are coming. To address the fiscal shortfall, the library delayed filling a staff position, canceled some print journals that are available electronically, and began planning for a likely reduction in materials purchasing for next year.

“Inflation in scholarly materials over the last 30 years has run about six times the general inflation rate,” Chabot points out. While new scholarly books cost an average of $75, the current databases run between $1,000 and $150,000 annually.

Besides enhancing the website and online resources, Chabot instituted other changes that have made the library more inviting to students. She added 17.5 hours to the library’s schedule, opening the doors a half hour earlier and extending closing until 2:00 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays. In response to student requests, weekend hours were also expanded by two hours to 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and by opening two hours earlier on Sundays, at 10:00 a.m.

Serenity and Collaborative Spaces

At noontime on weekdays, the library is jammed with students eating sandwiches (when vending machines were installed in 2004, the library relaxed a no-food-and-drink policy) while browsing the Internet, writing papers, or working with classmates in one of several spaces designed for collaboration, like that on the top floor, a gift of the class of 2005.

The first floor of the library, in fact, has been redesigned to accommodate students assigned to group projects, with wireless laptop access plus fixed computers stationed around large round tables.

At the end of the fall semester, Krista Irwin ’10, a politics major from Tucson, Arizona, and Dan Frasca ’09, a legal studies major from Bohemia, New York, were hunched over computers on the library’s first floor, working on a group PowerPoint presentation for their class, The Supreme Court in U.S. Politics. “It’s a good place to work,” says Irwin, who lives off campus and visits the library every day. “There are enough places where you can work in a group or by yourself.”

One floor above them, senior Kim Heinle, a Spanish major, was watching a DVD on Mexican immigration to the United States for her Latin American Culture through Literature class. Though she frequents the library to research and write papers and finds the atmosphere “quiet, relaxing, and social,” Heinle admits that in her four years at IC she has never once checked out a book. “I find more online,” she says. “It’s easier to access journals and articles online.”

Online Rules

The balance between paper and online materials has been incrementally tipping toward the latter over the past decade. Expenditures for electronic resources increased from 18 percent of the library’s budget in 2001 to 58 percent last year.

One reason for the shift was duplication; many of the journals the library was receiving in print were also accessible in full-text format online. When faculty members, particularly those in the sciences, said they preferred to read the journals online, the print subscriptions were moved to online access. With individual subscriptions and full-text databases, the library now provides access to 44,823 online journals.

 “With the advent of online databases, I have everything I need,” says DePalma, who no longer has any complaints about the library’s operations. “I can’t imagine anything that someone else had that I couldn’t have access to, at least in terms of primary resources.”

Michael Haaf ’94, an associate professor and chair of the chemistry department, agrees that the most significant change in the library has been the transition from paper to electronic journals. “I remember as a graduate student when I first started going through a lot of chemical abstract journals searching hours for a piece of paper,” recalls Haaf, who earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Now with search engines and database searching, the same kinds of searches can be done in minutes.”

In chemistry, as in many disciplines, peer-reviewed journal articles in which new science is reported are indispensible for both faculty and students. They do not come cheaply, however.

One chemistry journal, Tetrahedon, alone would cost the library $37,000 annually for an online subscription. Yet because the Ithaca library joined a group contract with other private colleges and universities in New York, it gained access to the journal through the expansive ScienceDirect database. As a result, the library now provides access to 1,000 online scientific journals, compared to 100 print journal subscriptions before it participated in the contract.

Digital Books

Not only can students read journals online, but they can now also search, view, and download sections of entire books via the library’s website. Added three years ago, a database called ebrary offers students access to more than 41,000 electronic books that can be printed out in batches of up to 40 pages per search. The entire collection can be searched for a specific topic, and users can highlight specific passages to save on their computers. The database offers unlimited, simultaneous user access, which means that several users in the same class, for example, can read an ebrary book at the same time from multiple locations.

“More professors are assigning e-books for course readings,” points out health services librarian Lee Smigiel, who has worked at IC since 1990. “Generally students don’t want the whole book. They want a chapter. This way, they can just get what they need.” The database provides access at about 34 cents per book, while freeing up the shelf space that would have been needed to accommodate a diverse collection of titles and avoiding the substantial purchase price for the equivalent print volumes.

One professor who has assigned ebrary books is Howard Kalman, an associate professor of strategic communications. He began using the database when students complained about a $65 computer manual that was a required text for his class. Since computer manuals generally become outdated quickly, the students could not use the book after completing the course.

Though ebrary offers a way to reduce course material costs, Kalman admits it does have its limitations. “When you read material online, after a while it tends to be a little more straining, particularly for older learners in the graduate programs. Some students read online, and other students want to print [things out] and have something to refer to. This gives them an option.”

Subject-Expert Staff

Another focus for Chabot has been strengthening the relationships between librarians and faculty. Half the 14 staff librarians are now assigned to provide instruction and develop collections for particular academic subjects, ranging from communications to fine arts.

To help students with their research, the Web services librarian, Andrew Darby, developed SubjectsPlus, an online portal that links databases, websites, encyclopedias, and other resources in specific subject areas. Previously, students had to search the library’s entire database collection to find information for research projects.

“This has eliminated the big initial question for students, which is, ‘Where should I start?’,” says Chabot. In collaboration with faculty in the School of Music, the library also digitizes musical selections from its extensive CD collection and provides 24/7 password access to them for students in specific music courses.

Faculty members now team up with librarians to teach research methods, often bringing their classes to the Gannett Center’s instruction room or inviting the librarians to their own classrooms. The instruction covers not only accessing information, evaluating sources, and developing research strategies, but also using library resources and services from any computer on campus or at home.

“The library administration has been a tremendous help for our students to acquire cutting-edge information and to help us bring some of the electronically accessible material to our classes,” says Abraham Mulugetta, a professor of business administration who has taught at IC for 24 years. Among the business databases the library has recently added are Morningstar, a company that evaluates mutual funds; Value Line, an investment research service; and StockVal, which analyzes specific stocks.

Though more of the library’s resources have shifted online, circulation continues to rise, an indicator that students and faculty still rely on books, music scores, and multimedia materials. Over the past five years circulation has jumped 36 percent, from 89,000 in the 2002–3 academic year to 121,214 last year. Chabot notes that IC’s library is a member of an affinity group of 33 similar-sized colleges, and for the past two years it has ranked number one among this group in circulation.

Multimedia Heaven

One factor driving the circulation increase is the popularity of the library’s collection of 11,200 DVDs, videocassettes, and films, which support the film studies programs in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.

Since the 1997 inception of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF), which is now held at IC every spring, the library has purchased 150 DVDs and videocassettes on a variety of environmental and related issues, including indigenous works from countries around the world.

“Ithaca College’s library, in my field, is known as having one of the most substantial and most cutting-edge collections of film and media anywhere in the United States,” says Zimmerman, who codirects FLEFF. “A lot of the graduate students who are teaching with me are just amazed at the resources we have, because they don’t have this at other universities.”

Even faculty who come to Ithaca after having earned their doctorates from large research universities say they are surprised at the level of resources IC’s library provides. “For a comprehensive college of this size, I think Ithaca has a phenomenal resource in the library,” says Raj Subramaniam, an associate professor of health promotion and physical education. “I consider it to be one of the top-notch libraries when comparing smaller institutions.”