A Harbinger of Change the Cutting Edge Library at the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Article excerpt

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Imagine a library serving approximately 10,000 employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine most of those employees are physicists, engineers, chemists, or other scientists who often work on projects related to national security (such as reducing global nuclear danger). Now imagine the employees are spread out over forty-three square miles in a fairly remote, mountainous region. How would the library overcome the challenges of the environment to meet the extensive information needs of the employees?

The Research Library at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has not only overcome the challenges and met basic needs, but also developed cutting-edge services and systems. According to director Rick Luce, the library has succeeded by following three guiding principles. "We see our innovations and our leadership sitting on the three legs of a tripod. One of those legs is the Library Without Walls, our digital library project. The second leg is the element of service. That's something we measure and feel very 'strongly about. The third leg is our strategic business management--our process for assessing and improving how we work. Those three things have allowed us to develop unique products and to do them rapidly."

The products have included databases customized with sophisticated search and retrieval features even before the database vendors offered them. The library also has integrated resources and moved massive amounts of data to the scientists' digital desktops. In addition, the library serves the general public during business hours. The online catalog and a large collection of unclassified technical reports are available around the clock and around the world through the library's Web site.

A peek behind the scenes at the organization's operations offers more than just a glimpse at the inner workings of a cutting-edge, customer-driven library. It reveals a vision of information services that is a harbinger of change not only for library technology, but also for the relationship between libraries and their information providers.

A HISTORY OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERTISE

Located about thirty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was created in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. The University of California manages the facility for the Department of Energy. The laboratory is now one of 28 DOE labs across the country.

National security still is a primary part of Los Alamos' mission, but it also is one of the largest multidisciplinary scientific institutions in the world. Its overall mission is summarized in its motto: "Science Serving Society."

About one-third of the employees' are physicists, one-fourth are engineers, one-sixth are chemists and materials scientists. The rest work in mathematics and computational science, biological science, geoscience, and other disciplines. Visiting scientists and students come to Los Alamos to participate in projects, and the laboratory staff collaborates with universities and industry in both basic and applied science projects.

The laboratory has always had a library. Today it has a staff of nearly fifty. More than half hold MLS degrees. Many have strong computer science and database development skills. The organizational structure is flatter than the traditional hierarchy found in many libraries, and the staff members are not bound by rigid job descriptions. These management approaches create a flexibility that is critical to operations because the library is, as Luce described it, a hybrid between an academic library with strong emphasis on collections and a special library with an emphasis on service and customized products. …