The Role of University Libraries in the Digital Age

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As cloud-based content becomes increasingly popular, it’s easy to wonder whether libraries will remain relevant in higher education. Students can download research materials in the blink of an eye, and professors can offer digital or scannable course packets just as easily as they can refer people to original hard copies.

However, physical libraries still have plenty of offer. Despite their diminishing necessity for content storage, they provide people with the tools necessary for digitizing, disseminating, and even creating their own materials. Far more than social hubs and repositories for outdated media, twenty-first century libraries can become leaders in spreading digital information to ever-wider audiences.

The Move to Digital Media

For the last few years, it’s been somewhat difficult for higher ed libraries to increase their collections of online journals. Existing formats have been too cumbersome for academic purposes, and excessive digital rights management has prevented widespread access to scholarly works. However, EduCause’s 2011 Horizon Report indicates that many of these barriers are rapidly breaking down.

For instance, the Directory of Open Access Journals allows users to search for specific articles from thousands of digitized journals. Though DOAJ and similar services are accessible from most homes and offices, librarians’ expertise is essential in helping students and teachers maximize their potentials.

College libraries are likewise expanding their e-book collections, though not without difficulties. Both textbook and fiction publishers are hesitant to offer multi-license copies, even at drastically increased prices. Still, Duke University recently announced a program that will offer free access to millions of books with expired copyrights. Innovative publishing companies such as Aptara are also creating digital materials with true advantages over their hard copy counterparts. Now that many libraries lend e-readers and provide free e-book “rentals,” the advantages of digitized collections may be well worth the extra costs.

Content Creation

Aside from content storage and distribution, university libraries are the perfect places for students and teachers to innovate and create. A few new uses for old buildings include:

  1. Hackerspaces: Also known as “makerspaces,” these are physical places which can function as workshops, social centers, and lecture halls for students interested in technology and industrial design. They often combine elements of machine shops and computer labs, though they’re typically far cheaper and more readily accessible than other on-campus technology centers.
  2. 3D Printing: Valuable additions to hackerspaces, 3D printers can actually use scanned images to create objects from composite materials.  They’ve already been incorporated into the Fayetteville Free Library’s fabrication lab, as well as several classrooms at Cornell.
  3. Video Editing: Teachers often assign student-created videos in lieu of traditional tests, but not everyone has access to the necessary software and equipment. Libraries can offer camera and microphone rentals, as well as access to programs like Movie Maker and iMovie.
  4. Text Conversion: If you’re moving masses of paper documents to an online CMS, you’ll need a quality system for optical character recognition. Library computers labs are the perfect places for scanning and compiling editable documents for later use.

Even with the move to digital content, libraries will continue to serve their most basic function – provide students and communities with scarce resources. Facts may be free, but people still need access to the latest information technology.

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