A library born in the age of Google: books and technology at the heart of campus

Judith Nadler
Judith Nadler, Director and University Librarian

Great research libraries support research, study, and teaching and fuel scholarship by connecting people with the widest range of scholarly resources. The library was and will continue to be the heart of the University as long as it stays vital to the advancement of its mission.

Technology and the Internet have changed the creation, dissemination, and use of information in new and exciting ways. The proliferation of resources published and made accessible in electronic form increases the demand for more such resources and for new spaces for their interactive use.

At the same time, budgetary pressures require that tough choices be made in the library’s offering of scholarly resources, and libraries are tempted to rationalize books out of the equation due to the increasing difficulty of supporting both physical and electronic formats. The very real need to repurpose spaces and to reduce cost of managing physical collections threatens to overshadow the importance of their availability. There is a natural progression in the financial management process from “Can we afford them?” to “Do we really need them?”

What is forgotten in this equation is the role of the library vis-à-vis its users. Ubiquitous and immediate access to information online diminishes the use of information that is not readily available—a pragmatic censorship that is counter to the philosophy and historical practice of libraries.  The problem of bibliographically hidden collections created by cataloging backlogs is replicated by physically hidden collections relegated to remote storage.

Moving books out of immediate reach creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of under-use.  And, ultimately, remote storage transfers the cost to our users by making it more difficult for them to discover and access the universe of information we have collected for them over time.

Intellectual inquiry and scholarly research presume ready access to the widest possible range of scholarly resources. The role of the library is not to impact the direction of research but rather to offer up a full range of resources to enable it.

Soon, a new library at the University of Chicago will open its doors to faculty, students, and researchers from around the world. At a time when research libraries move their collections offsite, the University of Chicago has made a commitment to investing in the future by preserving the past, and has positioned this investment at the fingertips of scholars, at the very heart of campus.

The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library will provide on-campus storage capacity for millions of books and journals, bringing the Library system’s total capacity to 11 million print volumes when full. The technology-driven, high-density storage facility will make room for collection growth in areas where open-shelf browsing is an asset and will free up spaces for interactive and collaborative study and research.

The commitment to ready access to the collections that is manifest in Mansueto’s underground book repository is matched by the Library’s stunning architectural design – including a spectacular Grand Reading Room. And that commitment is echoed in Mansueto’s conservation and digitization laboratories, where preservation work will ensure access to the collections over time.

As we prepare collections for transfer to Mansueto, we also ship books to Google as part of the Google Book Search initiative. Envisioned as a multi-year project that will digitize up to 1 million Chicago volumes, the Google partnership will be complemented by our local digitization program.  The resulting digital content will be deposited and made accessible through HathiTrust, a shared digital repository created by major research institutions. Online access to digitized books through Google and HathiTrust will in turn allow researchers to more readily discover physical volumes that they will want to retrieve from Mansueto.

Born in the age of Google, Mansueto’s print repository and HathiTrust’s digital one will join in underpinning discovery and access to an extraordinary wealth of information. By building these physical and digital homes for our resources, we leverage past, present, and future investments for research, study, and teaching, now and in the future.