Hip, hip, hurrah?

There’s been a bit of response on Twitter to this article by Geoff Hanmer in the Australian Financial Review, regarding the future of the university library. Graeme Oke and Peter Green have penned their thoughts, and I agree with both of them. Hanmer has an architecture background, and doesn’t seemed to have realised that the majority of resources used by our patrons are online. At Macquarie, the majority of our resources budget is spent on online material, and we have more daily visits to our website than we have visitors to the building. This is why university library buildings are being re-purposed from book storage to study spaces. As Hanmer says in his article, “Today, most academics and higher degree research students rarely enter a university library.” I like Peter’s response to this by comparing it with not having to go into a bank anymore, as you can do all you need to online.

I’d like to discuss Hanmer’s statement regarding Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS), one of which has been installed at Macquarie University Library, and another will be installed at UTS Library. He states that “These systems, which are vastly expensive and untried in Australia, will probably go down as the last hurrah for the traditional library and, incidentally, as a huge waste of public money.” We decided to install an ASRS because it would have cost about the same as refurbishing the 45-year-old library building we were in. The system has proved to be reliable over the two years that it’s been in operation, and and one of them in a US university library has survived an earthquake. They are currently used in other industries in Australia, such as manufacturing and logistics, so they do have a track record within Australia.

Constructing a new library meant that we had the opportunity to design a building from the ground up which was designed for the way that current students work. This meant providing “a compelling environment for undergraduate study in the library, particularly to cater for different styles of study, including work in groups.” (to quote Hanmer’s article).

I think Geoff Hanmer has summarised the changes that are taking place in university libraries, but he seems to have missed the bigger picture and the influence of the increase in the volume of online material. As librarians we have been aware of this change for several years now and have adapted our spaces and services to match the changing needs of our patrons. I don’t believe we are in the age of the last hurrah of university libraries. We will have a role to play in the future, and it will be different to the role we’ve had in the past.