Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 23, 2010

Stanford goes electronic with newest library

Online-based library will provide easier access and convenience, librarian says

by Angela Chen

When Stanford University unveils its new engineering library Aug. 2, students will notice that the shelves now hold fewer books than ever.

And that's just how the university wants it.

Stanford is one of the first partners in the Google Books Library Project, an initiative to digitize content into an online database. The university has moved thousands of volumes to off-campus storage and added subscriptions to more than 25,000 Web journals as a result.

It's a practical solution for a university that buys books at a rate of 273 per day and is running out of on-campus storage space, officials say.

Stanford is only one of the schools moving toward electronic libraries. From the University of California system to Cornell University in New York, the trend has been growing in recent years. The University of Texas-San Antonio opened a new library this year with study rooms and computers but without a single book, while Arizona State University presented undergraduates with Kindles loaded with course materials, only to be sued by blind students over the e-reader's inaccessibility.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to institutions of higher education. One notable example is Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts preparatory school that has purchased e-readers, discarded half its library and replaced the traditional reference desk with a coffee shop and cappuccino maker, according to the school website.

Unlike Cushing, no e-readers or coffee devices are replacing the books at Stanford.

The new Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Library is part of an engineering quad and occupies only 6,000 square feet — less than half the 16,000 square-foot area of the original Terman Engineering Library. Accordingly, its shelves will hold only 10,000 books, an 85 percent decrease from the total volumes housed in Terman. That 85 percent translates to more than 80,000 books being stored 40 miles away in Livermore.

"We're not throwing away a single book, but we do need another place to store them," Stanford Dean of Engineering Jim Plummer said. "So many of our students and faculty already use online resources for most of their work. The new library reflects the way the world of engineering works today."

It is natural for the engineering library to have its books stored off site, Stanford Director of Library Communications Andrew Herkovic said. In engineering, as in physics and similar departments, a "book" is often a bound set of journals or periodicals instead of a narrative read in chronological order. They are easy to digitize, and as a result, engineering content is readily found online.

For the past three years, Head of Stanford Engineering Library Helen Josephine has been in charge of deciding which books remain and which are shipped away. She said that the overriding factor is how often the book has been used. As a general rule, books that have not been checked out in the past five years are relegated to the Livermore facility, while often-used materials — including those requested by professors for instructional use in the classroom — remain on campus.

Other considerations include the age of material, especially since information in engineering becomes outdated very quickly, and the condition of the book.

"Storing off-site is actually better for the books since it's a climate-controlled facility," Josephine said.

The 80,000 volumes in Livermore will still be available to Stanford students, retrievable within 24 hours.

On the whole, Josephine said, the new library is more convenient for students. They don't even have to come to the library to use its contents.

"Having this material online makes it so much easier to find, and simultaneous students can access the materials. They're available to students 24/7 instead of just when the library is open, which gives students much more freedom," she said.

It also changes librarians' responsibilities.

"With electronic libraries, we'll have new duties that include things such as scanning, helping with Google Book search and helping facilitate access of information no matter what format," she said.

However, mechanical-engineering undergraduate Ben Kallman said that moving books off site is a loss, despite the ease of online materials.

"The prospect of browsing a shelf online is not appealing for a student in need of inspiration," he said in an e-mail. "There is no replacement for a shelf of books all on the same topic."

Herkovic said that another disadvantage is that people may not be prepared to read large quantities of material on the screen.

However, electronic media has other uses, such as potentially reducing paper usage, he said. Whereas in the past people would buy an entire book, students can now print only the chapter as needed, which will result in less overall paper usage.

He believes that universities will continue to switch to the Stanford model because it provides high-tech convenience while preserving the original volumes.

"Stanford students had access to half a million volumes last quarter and there's going to be even more," Herkovic said. "Nobody is losing access to a single book. It's the method of how we store and access them that's changing with the times."

However, he acknowledged that Stanford has yet to reach the age of the true bookless library. While engineering and physics already have large amounts of their research materials online, mathematics is further behind because formulas translate badly on the screen. Foreign languages vary by writing system. For example, Google has not digitized non-Roman alphabets, so while physics books are easy to find online, texts in Chinese, Japanese and Korean are more difficult to access.

"It will be decades, maybe even generations, before everyone goes down that path," he said. "Our libraries can't get too far ahead of where our users want to be."

Editorial Intern Angela Chen can be e-mailed at editor@paweekly.com.

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