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Books aren’t dead at university libraries

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When millions of books could be stored on a computer hard drive, it might seem a bit odd for universities to build and renovate huge campus libraries. The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, was recently renovated to the tune of $78 million, for instance. But take a stroll into the U.'s library — or any university library for that matter — and it might be ten minutes before you see a student with a book.

To understand why so much money is being poured into the modern university library (the U.'s library costs more than $18 million a year to run), you have to expand your concept of a library beyond print.

This isn't to say the modern university library doesn't have books. They do. But the way students use a library goes beyond books to include e-books, research databases, classes, studying and socializing.

Last week, William H. Ellison was sitting in the U.'s library with some friends in a hotel-lobby-like nook. Ellison, a junior from Salt Lake City studying biology, says he likes to use the library to study — which includes study groups, working in the computer lab and so forth. "It's a great place to study, a quiet place."

Ellison has taken a class in digital photography at the library. He likes its restaurant, particularly their BBQ sandwich.

But Ellison's favorite use of the library has little to do with studying.

"Sleep would be one reason I come to the library. For sure, a lot of sleep is done in here," Ellison said. "I just try to survive class and then come here and catch up on my sleep."

Looking around the library, there are indeed a few students napping here and there — sprawled out on bed-like benches or head down on a desk. But most students seem absorbed in their laptop computers — accessing the library's databases of information, research journals and the like.

"Probably the most significant single development that has changed the way people are using libraries, is the fact that information has moved off the page and onto the network," says Rick Anderson, associate director for scholarly resources and collections at the U.'s library.

There is also a lot of group studying. Students study together in study rooms (some rooms are even equipped with computer projectors). They study around tables. They gather around large whiteboards.

And yes, there are even a few students with print books.

Ellison, for example, says he has checked out books from the library — "Less than ten. More than five."

Anderson explains that people will still read a printed book when they want to read something long, "But when they want to find out a piece of information, they are very unlikely to pick up a printed book." To find articles, gather citations or to verify facts, students are more likely to use electronic resources and databases.

Joyce L. Ogburn, dean of the U.'s library and vice president/president elect of the Association of College and University Research Libraries is bullish on books — both electronic and traditional print: "People have different ways with how they work best with information."

Michael Freeman, library director at Utah Valley University, would agree. He says some students prefer print, some prefer an e-book. "It depends on the student," Freeman says. "We see requests for both — and we have both."

But for Juli Heinz, the U. library's associate director for research and learning, the advantages of e-books are clear. "If it's a high demand item and the first student has found a print book and checked it out, it's not available to anyone else during that particular time period," Heinz says. "A lot of time, students are really delighted to discover that there's an electronic version that is available to more than one user simultaneously and they can access it from home. They don't have to physically be here to access high-quality academic resources."

And unlike printed books, e-books are electronically searchable.

UVU's Freeman divides the electronic book world into two worlds. One is the commercial vendors that sell titles directly to individuals. These are the Amazon Kindle, Apple's iBooks, Barnes and Noble's Nook, and just last week (Dec. 6), the new Google eBookstore. These books are viewable on standard devices — but also on specialized readers with print-like resolution that is easy on the eyes.

The other is the library model world. These are vendors like NetLibrary, Safari Books Online and ebrary. The vendors have many different ways of doing business, but basically they all offer groups of titles to the libraries for people to read on computers at the library or on laptops and even at home.

For example, UVU subscribes to ebrary's nursing group e-books. That one group is about 2,800 titles. "As a result, we don't buy those in print," Freeman said.

So the modern university library is a mix of print and electronic resources. The U.'s digital resources access more than 400 databases. They have about 3 million monographs or books on particular subjects. They also have roughly 200,000 e-books. That is "roughly" because it is getting harder to count the e-books because of the different ways they are purchased.

The various vendors of e-books all have innovative models of subscription and purchase. Some models — especially in areas like high tech, health and medicine — will purge old e-book titles as newer, more relevant ones are added to the database. Other models give libraries access to huge numbers of titles — but don't charge the library for a title until a student checks out the e-book or prints a page from the e-book.

Journals have almost entirely become an electronic model. UVU, for example has more than 60,000 periodicals available electronically and only about 500 in print. "If I had my druthers, I'd have no print journals except for a few recreational things like Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated," Freeman says. "And we'd throw them away when we are done with them."

The U. spends about $1.7 million each year on print and electronic books. They spend almost $4 million each year on serial titles, including periodicals and miscellaneous materials.

There are about 300 software programs available on the U.'s library's computers, Heinz says. These could be expensive programs that the student only needs for one class — such as statistical software or graphics software.

The U. also has a service that can change e-books into print books. Their "Espresso Book Machine" prints bound books on demand. "People want a lot of different kinds of formats in the work they are doing," Ogburn says. "Different things work well for different people."

Ogburn, for example, likes to read on her iPhone, but mostly relies on print books. Books — particularly rare books — are more than just the content of the text. "It's the technology of the time, how people thought about knowledge, how it was presented — the art and the craft that went into the book, which represented a lot of the technology and the thinking and the values of the time. And sometimes you just can't replicate that experience electronically," Ogburn says. "The whole book tells a story."

But even if a student never cracks a book or browses through the U. library's 30 miles of physical materials, the modern university library still serves multiple purposes from research to socializing. The U.'s library saw 1.4 million entrances in just one year. "I'm walking around campus and I'll hear a student on a cell phone say 'I'll meet you at the library and we'll have a cup of coffee,' " Ogburn says. "I don't know if they stay and study, but it's a gathering place."

And a great place to sleep.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com