Librarians: Shelf-sifters, superheroes and, now, mediators of the digital era
Copy Desk Chief
If we are to conceive of higher education as the great equalizer, then we would be remiss not to conceive of our academic libraries as the great facilitators of equalization.
At the cornerstone of this grandiose vision are books — stacks of paper bound chronologically to the spine of a hard or soft cover. All libraries — public, academic, school, specialized — create access to books, and, as such, create access to knowledge.
On campus, the Hugh M. Morris Library on the South Green (endearingly dubbed “Club Morris” by students) is the primary hub of the university’s four libraries. The other three are the Physics Library and Chemistry Library on the Newark campus and the Marine Studies Library on the Lewes, Del., campus.
The library system also encompasses four on-campus museums and galleries — including Mechanical Hall Gallery, the Mineralogical Museum, Old College Gallery and the Special Collections Gallery — as well as the University of Delaware Press.
In total, the university’s libraries house over 2,800,000 books — roughly 116 for each student enrolled at the university this year.
Libraries aren’t just for books, though. As public spaces, they are inherently malleable, serving as centers for community building, concentration, contemplation, independent learning and collaborative instruction, among other things.
For Sandra Millard, an associate university librarian for public services and outreach at the university, this malleability is a guiding principle. She points to the library’s response to the increasingly collaborative nature of undergraduate assignments.
“When we redid the first floor of the library, we changed it from it being a quiet place to a place for collaboration, while still retaining quiet spaces,” Millard says. “We’re always looking for ways to create new spaces to meet whatever it is the students need.”
The adaptability of libraries has always been vital, as our collective understandings of terms like “access,” “knowledge,” “book” and even “library” have shifted with time and space. More recently, with the advent of digitalization, librarians have been tasked with mediating the transition between print and digital in the library, the archive and, in many ways, the community.
“What’s stayed the same is that we are a partner with the teaching faculty, and with others across our campus,” Trevor A. Dawes, the vice provost for libraries and museums, says. “What has changed are the ways in which we do that.”
The university’s librarians — most of whom have distinct specialties — have started gearing more of their instruction toward evaluating electronic resources, creating multimedia literacy and incorporating digital media. The library, as a whole, purchases e-books when they’re available and creates access to online publications for students.
Though digitalization is a reckoning force that has unnerved or unwoven nearly every industry, Dawes says it has largely benefited libraries by making them more accessible. For instance, librarians are now able to digitize certain objects in Special Collections and, in turn, provide unbridled access to the archive. Notably, this circumvents the social boundaries that render archival spaces inaccessible for certain people.
“These are materials that are unique and distinctive to [the university], so being able to make those accessible to the world in an online format is exciting,” Dawes says.
Dawes did concede that digitalization is not without its drawbacks — namely, that students might more easily conflate vetted, peer-reviewed resources with, say, an unfiltered blog post. Hence, he says, the need for more tailored, digital-oriented instruction on the librarian’s part.
And while adapting to change is crucial, Millard says that it’s important not to lose sight of the greater purpose of libraries.
“What hasn’t changed is the service-orientation of libraries,” Millard says. “Libraries care about providing services to whoever their users are.”