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The Future of Books at the Galter Health Sciences Library, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University
James Shedlock, AMLS, AHIP, FMLA, Director
This article is not about predicting the future. Rather, it is about describing my vision for literature access based on the trends and evidence in the relevant literature. My goal here is to express some of my thinking about how books fit into the Galter Health Sciences Library’s vision to become a stronger virtual presence in the lives of our users. Another goal is to describe where the library staff will assign funds to fulfill the library’s mission to support information access and get our users the information they need. I will also try to express what I think the impact that a changing book world has on the nature of the library.
The context for my vision is the environment I know best and the experience I have as a library director. The Galter Health Sciences Library1 is a medium-sized facility of about 45,000 net square feet housing 293,000 volumes and serving Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine on its Chicago Campus. The library collection includes over 9,000 current e-journals and about 1,100 e-books; an average 1,000 print books are acquired each year. Our acquisitions budget is just over $2.3 million (2009) of which approximately $80,000 to $100,000 is spent on print books. The Feinberg School of Medicine2 is a top-253, research-intensive medical school serving over 2,500 students, residents and fellows, over 4,000 faculty and 1,800 staff.
The Vision
Our vision at the Galter Library is to build a more innovative, technologically sophisticated e-library. E-information has a lot going for it in a busy, even hectic, highly-energized and competitive medical center. The primary feature of e-information is accessibility -- anytime and anywhere. This feature also plays into our users’ need for convenience. Even historical information is best used and appreciated when it is easily accessible. Another aspect of our vision is innovative service with technology as our primary tool. The library as place remains an important component of this vision since the library is still a physical home to many of our students who use it to access information, study and collaborate with fellow students and faculty. Of course, this vision is executed through the talents and skills of an excellent and forward-thinking library staff.
Some Evidence about Books
Available sources indicate that book publishing in general is still a healthy industry. Bowker estimates that over 550,000 books were published (worldwide) in 20084, down only 3% from the previous year’s production5. Overall, these numbers suggest that print books are not disappearing.
Another source of evidence relevant to the future of books at the Galter Library is our own circulation data. For the 2008-2009 AAHSL Annual Statistics6 survey, the Galter Library will report 9,576 items circulated outside the library this past academic year. This figure is up 19% from the previous year. Compared to the old days, however, the external circulation count is very low (in 1990-1991 the Galter Library circulated 130,584 volumes7). On the other hand, available data for e-book usage shows us where the action is. Taking just one popular title as an example, the online version of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine has been accessed over 55,000 times since January 2009.
Galter staff continue to remind me that we are bottoming out in our print circulation stats – that what we are measuring now is almost exclusively monograph circulation as most of our current journals are available online. From these numbers, we have a base to measure how much our print book collection is actually used over time. We can use these numbers to compare to our peer libraries and make decisions about whether the money spent on print books is worth it. For example, we have started to pare down that $80,000 for print monographs by as much as $20,000 for FY2010. We are doing this partly in response to current fiscal pressures but also to put more dollars toward e-book acquisitions. Our budget for e-books is now close to three times the amount we spend on print books. This realignment of our budget matches more what our users need per the “new circulation” data.
Other observations
When we talk about the future of books, we need to distinguish among available book formats. In a media-rich world, format is a matter of choice. We now have access to books in print, audio and electronic formats. Books in medicine and the other health sciences come to us in all these formats and each has its place in a busy library environment. Textbooks in electronic format are popular with our students and faculty. Users can search these e-texts like databases, finding specific sections that answer their information needs. E-books can be accessed wherever the user can get an Internet connection, while some can be read on mobile devices. Since not all health sciences books will be offered in electronic format, acquisitions of print books will continue, primarily, for use in the curriculum (i.e. as books on demand). These books will be acquired by Galter staff and managed as part of our reserve service. Audio books are currently not very popular in our setting, but the potential for users interested in learning while being mobile is growing.
Leisure books are also changing. While the market appears strong for print books, e-readers like the Kindle and the soon-to-be-released Nook remind us that there are new ways to read a book. Some people who are not electronically inclined may find e-books problematic, while others will appreciate the convenience of carrying a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, professional reading and even their local newspaper with them while they travel. One e-reader can certainly replace a lot of heavy paper to carry around, and you can do quick searching with an e-reader as well as take notes about what you read.
The issue here is less about the changing formats in the book world and more about what works best to satisfy individual needs. One format does not have to fit all; print books have had a good run of satisfying most everyone’s needs for all types of information, but technology brings new opportunities. The demand for print books is still healthy, but users are showing an increased interest in and desire for mobile information.
Books at Galter, and Other Complicating Factors
Academic health sciences libraries like ours will still buy books (i.e., topical monographs), though the need to do so is definitely being questioned, especially when dollars are few, budgets are tight and use is minimal. What I foresee at the Galter Library is a transition period as we pare down our print book purchases over time (say, the next three to five years) and start to conserve our acquisitions dollars for books supporting the curriculum (e-textbooks).
We will always maintain our rare books (print books published before 1820 and others of a later date that are particularly notable), even as they are digitized by peer libraries and become available online. The problem in dealing with rare print books is how to identify the future rare book. Of all the historical and current titles we have collected, how do we know which ones are important and notable so that they should be preserved for posterity? In the past, librarians would justify the need to expand libraries in order to preserve the historical record contained in thousands of books – to keep books in the stacks just in case they proved to be especially valuable to some future scholar or student. This need is still strong in the humanities, social sciences and law. Technology, however, now provides an alternative response to traditional library storage: digitize it.
The Google Book project complicates our view of how we look at health sciences libraries and how we think about preserving history8. Google’s aim to digitize all the world’s books and make them available for searching is a tremendous goal. In many ways, this is a terrific challenge for 21st century technology and know-how, but from other perspectives can be quite frightening. One concern for academic librarians managing collections with a substantial number of historical titles is: what do we do with our old books? How do we justify keeping them on site in library stacks or even in remote storage facilities if Google’s goal is to make them available for searching and online access? When space in the academic medical center is a pretty hot commodity, is there justification for keeping little-used old books that may be freely available for use online?
Another complicating factor in our thinking about books at Galter is the result of a recently concluded master space plan requested by our university leadership. Of the several outcomes of this planning effort affecting all three university libraries (the University Library, its branches, the Pritzker Legal Research Center and the Galter Library), one is the significant recommendation to build a storage facility to house important but little-used print resources. On the surface, this is important to the Galter Library. We could use the potential storage to house journals not yet available electronically and store our historical collections just in case these titles are potential rare books. However, a more critical review of the planned storage facility suggests there may now be little potential use by the Galter Library. Our latest thinking is that science journals do not need to be preserved in print as long as the electronic format is available under secure licensing agreements. Also, the recent Ithaka report9 on when to withdraw print collections in academic libraries suggests collections (and for us, this would mean mostly print journals) could be let go as long as two known sources are committed to keeping historical titles. For health sciences libraries, one source will be the National Library of Medicine and the other could be some of the regional resource libraries.
Given all of these factors, I think the future of print books at the Galter Library is limited. The days of housing a large, just-in-case, print book collection that provides a supporting role to aid teaching and learning in the health sciences are gone, mostly due to improvements in technology which enable access to e-books and e-journals. However, even as I write this, I still sense that more review and investigation needs to be done before we completely write off the value of print books.
Future Prospects
When we talk about the future of print books, we are also talking about the future of the library as place. Libraries are built around the need to store books and other print matter. After all, that’s what the word ‘library’ means. If we picture a different future for the book based on user demand for e-books and the occasional print book for reserves, then we also paint a different picture of what the library as place looks like. A sketch of this picture is starting to form at the Galter Library; in other words, we are ready to plan for a change in the use of our space. When the Galter Library was renovated in the mid-1990s10, the vision of the library was to be anywhere the user wanted it to be. That goal has been accomplished. We also said at the time that while we need space for a growing print collection, we knew that the electronic format would eventually predominate. That time has come.
In our previous renovation we planned a library that had to be more than a storage facility. It had to be a people place with excellent connections to the university network and the Internet, and it had to be a home for students and a work environment for the library staff. This view is what will guide our vision of a new library place. The new library will be more about people and how they discover and use information. In the new space, print books will be available -- on reserve to support the curriculum, for leisure reading, and to represent the history of medicine at Northwestern. But the overall space will be filled by features that support the user’s need for information discovery. These spaces may include: an information commons for searching databases, e-journals and e-books; collaboration rooms that give students a place to work together while learning about medicine or other disciplines; private study spaces to aid reflection and assist individual productivity; visualization space to foster research; online classrooms to demonstrate and show the latest software that aids learning in information management, basic sciences or clinical instruction; meeting spaces that bring faculty, staff or students together; cultural spaces for arts and humanities programs related to health care; and work space for library staff. The new library will be less a library and more like an information center, and I think it will still be at the heart of the medical center campus.
Print books will still have a place in academic health sciences libraries, but the need for them will be limited compared to what libraries have housed in the past. The limited role for print books means there will be greater opportunities to use library space for other purposes now that the need for stack space is at a bare minimum. This new role for print books means a reshaping of library as place, so much so that a name change may be in order to reflect the activity within it. How fast all this will happen will depend more on institutional support and funding to make this vision a reality. In the meantime, technology will continue to impact how we work with, organize and use information – in all kinds of formats. The one thing I know for sure in sketching this scene is that change is coming and we need to be ready for it.
  1. Galter Library/ 
  3. U.S. News and World Report. Research Rankings, Best Research Medical Schools ranked in 2009; Grad schools US news Rankings and reviews 
  4. Bowker Bookwire Industry Stats 2009
  5. Bowker reports US book production declines 
  6. AAHSL 
  7. Association of Academic Health Sciences Library Directors, Annual Statistics of Medical School Libraries in the United States and Canada, (Houston, TX: The Association, 1990-1991, 14th ed.) 85.
  8. Wikipedia Google Book Search 
  9. Schonfeld RC, R Housewright. What to withdraw: print collection management in the wake of digitization, (New York: Ithaka), 2009; Ithaka.Org 
  10. Shedlock J, F Ross. A library for the twenty-first century: the Galter Health Sciences Library's renovation and expansion project. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1997 April; 85(2): 176–186; PubMed Central

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