There's a visible line in the University of Utah's Marriott Library where old meets new as the brown speckled tile of the '60s butts up against the rich wood tones of a 1996 renovation.

Outside, steel beams loom as the library of the future begins to take shape, transplanting the aging building into the 21st century.

At 5 p.m. on a weekday, the halls of the library's '60s interior are vacant except for stragglers on the stairs and a few students hunched over books. But the whispers give way to lively chatter, cash registers and clicking keys toward the newer front of the building where students are gathered on cushy sofas around computer hubs.

Two women sit with a bag of Lay's potato chips and a book open between them, and a noticeable absence of the stereotypical shushing librarian.

The Marriott Library's relaxed feel is part of a new era in university libraries where computers take precedence over bookshelves and active group learning supersedes hushed whispers.

"Students can do just about anything; they can treat it sort of like a giant living room," said Joyce Ogburn, director of the Marriott Library. "We frowned on food; now we think it's an advantage to be able to work in a friendly setting rather than worry about some crumbs dropped here and there."

Instead of becoming a relic of the past, Ogburn said the library is reinventing itself with a cafe next to the circulation desk and a new emphasis on digital resources and computer software.

Along with Utah State University and Utah Valley State College, the U.'s library is changing to keep up with new technology and new student needs, she said.

All three universities are undergoing major library renovations, USU leading the way with a $43 million renovation of the Merrill Cazier Library that opened its doors in September. The U.'s $71 million upgrade will continue through 2008, and UVSC is now planning for a $48 renovation of its "digital learning center."

The name alone signals a changing era for college libraries. While books will always be a part of the library, UVSC library director Michael Freeman said offering an "information commons" is also a key draw for students. Not only do students without computers do much of their work at the library, many students prefer the quicker Internet connection and upgraded software like digital video editing, he said.

"If you're a student, you take one step into the digital learning center, and you can do all your research, all your packaging, all your copying," Freeman said. "When you step out of the library, you're ready to take the next step right into the classroom with a finished product."

At the U., the move towards a digital center has come slowly as librarians work to transfer hard copies into online-accessible versions and to get funding for high-tech software. Since 1996, the library has increased its e-publications and electronic databases from 250 to 138,000. In that same time, Web page views have grown to 10.3 million a year and computer-use hours have doubled.

All the online accessibility hasn't deterred students from making the trek to the library, however, with the number of patrons also doubling to 1.5 million.

"Information just doesn't float around and get gathered on its own. Libraries give it structure," Ogburn said. "It's a place that people come to create information and knowledge."

That emphasis on group work also prompted all three schools to expand space for teams of students working on projects. New study rooms equipped with computers and flat-screen television at USU offer students a space to meet, research and prepare a final presentation, said Linda Wolcott, vice provost of libraries at USU.

The U. will also feature enhanced group study rooms, plus high-tech rooms for classes.

"It's exciting to walk through and see chemistry students drawing compounds and talking. It's not just a bunch of students reading art books," Ogburn said.

And while some students still want to browse bookshelves and take home something tangible, the need to plow through an entire text is becoming less common, Ogburn said. Initial checkouts from the library dropped 10 percent from 2002 to 2005.

At the recently completed Merrill-Cazier library at USU, a new automated book retrieval system cleared out many of the less-used books and journals to make room for the new computerized focus. Books are stored in bins in a warehouse-type room and are pulled out by a robotic crane when requested, Wolcott said.

The U. library will also feature a 14,000-square-foot retrieval center with 2.2 million items.

"It's our purpose to make sure knowledge lives for a long time, whether it's digital, paper or papyrus," Ogburn said.


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com