You cant help noticing, when you first meet new University Librarian Nancy Baker, that she brims over with energy. She doesnt so much answer questions as attack them, with humor and enthusiasm but an underlying seriousness.
With the kinds of questions the library system faces these days, thats encouraging. The role of librarian is changing constantly to meet new challenges.
Growing Role: Teacher
In a time when information is readily available on the Internetbut with no quality controls at alllibrarians feel an even stronger need to teach students how to obtain information efficiently, evaluate its accuracy, and use it effectively. But that kind of teaching doesnt fall under the usual tag of "user education." That term makes Baker laugh.
"User education used to be a tour of the library," she says. "A tour can do some good, but what students need now is far beyond a tour or single lecture. They need information literacy. Look at the Internet. We need to teach students to structure searches without getting 30,000 hits back, three-quarters of which are junk. There isnt a single discipline or profession in which you wont need to be able to use information resources, both electronic and print, effectively. Information literacyyou cant graduate without it."
In addition, Baker says information resources need to be integrated into the courses the students are takinga far more time-intensive project than simply giving a lecture or tour. Librarians are working closely with professors to accomplish that.
University Libraries has been at the forefront of library information technology and is working more closely than ever with information technology experts. Recently, the Universitys new electronic library catalog, InfoHawk, was introduced. It was implemented through a partnership between University Libraries and Information Technology Services. Baker says Iowa will see more of that kind of teamwork with ITS in the future.
Fly Faster, InfoHawk
Then theres the "whats sauce for the goose isnt sauce for the gander" kind of problem. The UI Libraries serves a variety of clientele in a wide range of disciplines, all with different priorities and needs. It can be challenging with limited financial resources to meet all of these needs equally well. In addition, technological changes are constant. Incoming students, who had not been using OASIS, the former on-line system, took to the new InfoHawk integrated system immediately. But, says Baker, some faculty members havent been as enthusiastic. They were accustomed to OASIS and have had some difficulty using InfoHawk.
"Faculty members have complained that InfoHawk is slow," she says, "and it was slow last fall. In the meantime, we have made a number of changes that have improved the response time. One professor told me that he had found InfoHawk to be slow so he upgraded his web browser and then it was fine. This would probably help a number of faculty members with older equipment. Were listening to all the comments and making changes when we find improvements we can make. Our librarians are offering to work with individual professors to offer personal training on using InfoHawk on their own office workstations."
Finding More Space
Space is a persistent problem in large research libraries, Baker says.
"Were hiring a consultant this year to help us figure out some long-term solutions. All 12 libraries in the system have or will soon have problems housing their collections. In addition, we have some other space utilization problems," Baker says. "We are in the process of moving all the records from the remaining card catalogs into InfoHawk. Prime real estate in the Main Library will be available to be used more effectively and attractively when the card catalogs are gone. We are seeking some guidance on how best to use this space."
Keeping Information Safe
Technology also has brought about a fascinating but difficult subject: how to preserve electronic information for the future when existing electronic storage media have a relatively short shelf-life.
"It can be very expensive to refresh the files so they continue to be accessible with changing technology," Baker says. "Part of our mission as a research library is long-term preservation of scholarly resources. For example, we are currently accepting electronic dissertations. We need to be sure that they are still accessible in 50 years."
The dissertation problem is only part of a much broader question, Baker notes.
"There is a lot of discussion among librarians about how to archive web sites. For example, the Library of Congress has had several pilot projects to capture and preserve selected web sites including pertinent sites from the most recent presidential election. They know that scholars in the future will want to study and analyze this election, and these sites include a lot of unique material. But how do you capture something that changes regularly? Where do you keep it? Will it be possible to keep the information accessible when technology changes? Years from now, existing technology may not be able to access that information."
What About Books?
Whenever you see University Libraries mentioned in publications, youll see that it has "almost four million volumes." With all the developments in information technology, will we still have printed books in 20 years?
"Last year there were 950,000 books printed in the world," Baker says. "The previous year, there were 800,000. So in spite of developments in technology, there are still a lot of publications that are only available in print. A relatively small portion of our current acquisitions budget, about 10 percent, is devoted to electronic publications. Clearly, there will be more publications that are born digital and will never be distributed in paper format. We all believe we will have books for a long time."
Ready to Go
Even though the challenges the Iowa libraries face are complex, Baker seems eager to work on solutions and happy about the people shell work for and with.
"The people Ive met here are full of ideas, eager to try new things, and extraordinarily welcoming. The library staff has been taking risks and has been at the forefront of change," she says.
"I remember a conversation I had with Provost Jon Whitmore when I was interviewing. He really understood the complex issues facing libraries and was realistic about our space issues and the budget. He was good at selling the system to me but not overselling. To be a librarian today you have to be really comfortable with rapid change," she says.
By Anne Tanner
Nancy Baker was director of libraries for nine years at Washington State University, which is a smaller institution and a land-grant university. Before that, she was associate director at the University of Washington, an experience that she says is "a lot more like Iowa. This experience helped tremendously, especially to have had the chance to be a director before coming to Iowa."
"Were featuring the Parents Association in our next issue of Bindings, the library newsletter," says Nancy Baker, University librarian. "By combining the Parents Association gift with some monies from the Universitys contract payments from Coca-Cola, well be replacing 1,200 chairs on the second floor."