Thanks to the generosity of my employer, I had the opportunity to visit the libraries of the University of Virginia (UVa) and North Carolina State University (NCSU) during the week of 17 June 2013.
Both libraries have a strong track record of digital library innovation of different kinds. The University of Virginia is a leader in digital humanities and NCSU has gained a reputation for creating user friendly, Web interfaces to Library services and resources, in particular.
University of Virginia
UVa Libraries is home to the Scholars’ Lab – a service which supports and enables the use of technology in humanities scholarship by the postgraduate and research community at the University. There are three strands to the service:
- a ‘walk in’ facility where students can use high end computers and applications (GIS and statistical applications, for example) with access to specialist help (provided by fellow, experienced students employed by the Library)
- a programme of workshops and training opportunities. In particular, the Scholars’ Lab runs a graduate fellowship programme where about 6 lucky students each year are trained and supported to work together on a particular project – developing valuable technical and ‘soft’ skills (including project management) in the process.
- a research and development team of Web developers – from a research background – who work with academic staff on development of specific projects.
This all adds up to an impressive service. The Lab benefits from some endowment funding and, unusually, the research and development team is funded from the core Library budget – not from short term, grant funding.
Recent work includes the creation of Neatline – a platform for creating digial exhibits as overlays on maps with timelines. This is just the sort of thing we wanted to try out as part of our Jisc funded Manufacturing Pasts project – but ran out of time and didn’t have a suitable platform. Neatline is built on Omeka – a content management system created at George Mason University. Both are open source and if you have – or can have – access to a LAMP server (which I eventually did for Manufacturing Pasts) – it doesn’t sound too difficult to try them out …
UVa is also home to SHANTI – the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives. SHANTI isn’t part of the Library but is based in the ‘main’ library – the Alderman Library – as is the Scholars’ Lab.
SHANTI provides practical support and guidance for researchers who want and need to use information technology to carry out research – but who aren’t ‘techies’. The resources it has created include a Knowledge Base – which includes a suite of software tools – many of which anyone can use.
Digital Media Lab
The Digital Media Lab is part of the Library and provides an impressive range of resources and support for use of multimedia by the University community – including creating videos, large scale data visualisation, a ‘telepresence’ lab and use of video clips for teaching. A lot of the technology is Mac based.
The Lab is based on a newly refurbished floor of one of the site libraries which is gradually being redeveloped as the ‘learning and teaching’ library (this redevelopment also includes the provision of social learning spaces).
Digital Media Lab
The Lab has its origins back in the University’s audiovisual service which became part of the Library many years ago. It has evolved to become more about the creative use of technology in learning and teaching – than the simple provision of hardware and software as such – although, clearly the two need to go together.
While many libraries provide high end, ‘self service’ multimedia facilities – providing an expert, staffed service of this kind is unusual.
Compared to many UK university libraries – and certainly compared to us – UVa Library is big – with 220 staff, 11 libraries and a complex structure.
That much is predictable for a major, American university library. But some aspects of how the Library is organised are less obvious.
The people I met were from a diverse range of backgrounds – the outcome of a decision over ten years ago to seek applications for vacancies from both formally qualified librarians and other relevant professions.
Learning commons floor of the undergraduate library
The head of the Scholars’ Lab is an ‘academic’. The Deputy University Librarian comes from an IT background (she joined the Library to head up its technical services, originally). The head of the learning and teaching focussed library is a learning technologist. A recent appointee to the University’s very impressive Special Collections Library has a background – amongst other things – in the rare books business.
Some recent senior retirements and resignations have led to a decision to ‘flatten’ the structure – removing some second tier posts and bringing the managers of some of these specialist, newer services into the management team.
NCSU Libraries won an award from the ALA for its Web site in 2011. In 2010, it won an award for its Library Course Tools project. Back in 2000, it won the ACRL Excellence In Academic Libraries Award.
So, what has enabled NCSU to sustain this consistent record of service development and success?
Staffing and culture
Like UVa, NCSU Library is a big department – with about 220 staff and a budget of about $20m. The University has 35,000 students.
Again, like UVa, the Library has quite a complex staffing structure.
One thing which is notable about this structure, is that there is both a Library IT and a Digital Library Initiatives (DLI) team. Unusually, also, the Library IT team runs both servers and storage for the Library – not just Library specific applications (this wasn’t the case at UVa Library where – like us – they see servers and storage as clearly being part of central IT infrastructure).
I met some members of the DLI team. As the team name suggests, their focus is on developing and implementing new services – such as the Library Course Tools service noted above.
The team has existed for about 12 years – and grew out of a small service which the Library had created to support use of GIS and geospatial data.
One of the DLI team’s mobile apps
Most members of the team are librarians – who have become skilled Web Developers during the course of their careers. As librarians, they understand the context within which they are working and the services that are being provided – and this understanding combined with the technical skills clearly makes for a powerful combination. This is also true of some of the members of the Library IT team – with the person responsible for the specification and installation of the very extensive IT facilities in the new Hunt Library (below) being a qualified librarian with an Arts background (who then developed a specialism in IT).
NCSU has a ‘Library fellowship’ programme. This means a number of two year, fixed term posts which are open to newly qualified library professionals. Postholders are based in a ‘home’ department and also work on a project. Some of these projects are very significant. For example, one Library Fellow is developing a Web based application for browsing the contents of items in the Hunt Library’s new ‘bookBot’ (see below).
About 50 people have been through this programme since it started. Interestingly, many members of the DLI team originally joined the Library through this route – so, it clearly seems to have worked as a way of attracting capable, highly motivated people who – crucially – are looking for on-going opportunities to learn and develop on the job.
I was interested to find out how the DLI team communicates with other teams. The picture that was painted was of lots of horizontal communication i.e. between teams. Ideas for service development are as likely to emerge this way as be from ‘top down’. They said this works because individuals take responsibility to make communication with their colleagues work – they don’t wait for a ‘manager’ to do it for them. Later on I spoke to a member of staff in a public services, student facing role – who sung the praises of the DLI team – so, she clearly saw them as student focussed and helping her to do her job.
There is still, structured, organised decision making because there needs to be. But they have a pragmatic straightforward process for specifying and agreeing projects that are going to be resourced – taking a 2 sides of A4 approach to make sure objectives, timescales, responsibilities etc. are clear (something we have tried to do consistently in recent years).
The Hunt Library is a major development for the Library, the University and the evolving concept of what a ‘university library’ is and what it is for.
Hunt Library entrance area, North Carolina State University
The Hunt Library opened in January 2013. It cost $110m and, so, represents a huge investment by the University (and its primary funder the state of North Carolina).
It joins the University’s other primary library – the Hill Library – which dates from the 1970s and is a ‘traditional’ ‘book tower’ library – lots of shelves, lots of floors, lots of single study spaces (although in 2011 the entrance floor of the Hill Library was totally redesigned in ‘learning commons’ mode).
The Hunt Library is on the university’s technology park – which is also the home of its large Engineering and Textiles teaching programmes and research (NCSU is – largely – a science and technology institution).
There are a lot of things about the Hunt Library that you would expect in a modern library.
- lots of natural daylight
- lots of social learning space of different kinds (including 100 group study rooms!)
- high quality interior design and fit out
- single integrated service point and staff ‘roving’ to provide help at point of need
What you can create with a 3D printer
Where the Hunt Library is really different is in the scale of the IT facilities it provides. These go way beyond access to desktop PCs/Macs and wireless networking to include:
- lending of a huge range of equipment – and accessories – including laptops (of different kinds), high end filming and photography equipment, storage devices etc.
- data visualisation lab with very high resolution screens
- 3D printing
- ‘creative’, multimedia lab which includes creation of virtual environments
- a gaming lab
The technical facilities aren’t just used by the engineering students etc. but also by their Arts and Social Sciences departments (they do exist).
The bookBot at the Hunt Library
The Hunt Library is also about books – but most of these – 1.5m – are stored away in an automated, high capacity, racked storage system (the bookBot!). Users request items through the Catalogue and they are delivered to the Hunt Library service point within about 5 minutes (some staff intervention is required). This system cost about $4m to install.
What about staffing such a facility?
No new money was available to staff this library – so existing staff have been allocated between the Hunt Library and the Hill Library. Students are employed to help at the Hunt service point and with the bookBot. There are 4 people on duty ‘front of house’ at most – this is between 10.00am and 4pm. So, lean front of house – which reminds me of the Information Commons at Sheffield. The Library is open 24 hours – with staffed services continuing overnight (two Library staff employed for the purpose and a student helper – a model they already had at the Hill Library).
While use of some of the high end facilities is by appointment with specialist staff, most of the facilities can be used directly by students and they have found that students have needed very little ‘training’ to use them.
So, you visited UVa and NCSU – so what?
This clearly was a great opportunity for me personally as I have long wanted to see something of the large, North American university libraries in action (because, one way or another, what happens in the North American academic world has a huge influence on us and we are almost entirely dependent on library systems and resources provided largely for the North American market).
Data visualisation lab at the Hunt Library
But there are also some specific questions which I think we could realistically ask ourselves based on the experience of these libraries – despite the fact that they are clearly much larger and much better resourced than we are (although they don’t necessarily support a very much more students than us).
- How do we provide the Web development expertise – focussed on library services and context – which we are going to need to develop our Web services further? (not everyone may agree with me on this – but I see this as absolutely essential and I don’t think that the advent of cloud based services reduces the need. We are still going to need to integrate services and build services which draw on disparate, underlying services. That is a large part of the ‘added value’ that we can offer our users);
- What opportunities do we have/can we create to attract technically able, highly motivated, early career professionals and then develop them on the job?
- How do we improve access to generic software tools/solutions for digital scholarship/humanities projects at Leicester – including exploiting the tools identified/created by SHANTI, George Mason University and others? (there is a Web developer need here as well – currently the subject of a bid to the University’s Research Infrastructure Fund which Simon Dixon and Dan Porter-Brown have put together).
I’d be interested to hear your views.