Academic Libraries Empty Stacks for Online Centers

Article excerpt

When students wander into the former University of Texas undergraduate library this fall, gone will be the "Quiet Please" signs, the ban on cheeseburgers or sodas, the sight of solemn librarians restocking books.

The fact is, there will be no more books to restock. The UT library is undergoing a radical change, becoming more of a social gathering place more akin to a coffeehouse than a dusty, whisper- filled hall of records. And to make that happen, the undergraduate collection of books had to go.

This summer, 90,000 volumes were transferred to other collections in the campus's massive library system - leaving some to wonder how a library can really be a library if it has no tomes.

But a growing number of colleges and universities are rethinking and retooling their libraries to better serve students reared in a digital age.

"While libraries are still focused on their physical collections, they aren't the sole purpose anymore," says John Shank, director of the Center for Learning Technologies at Penn State Berks College in Reading. The advent of the Internet and the digitization of information has transformed the way students learn, experts concur, and libraries are scrambling to keep up.

"For most children coming of age today, information and information technology are really merging so that they don't see any disconnect between the two," says Frances Jacobson Harris, author of "I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online."

To underscore that point, last week a new public high school in Vail, Ariz., become one of the first to opt out of supplying textbooks altogether in the hopes that students will be more engaged in learning. Especially designed as a textbook-free environment, all students were assigned laptops instead and will read and turn in most homework online.

At UT, the biggest challenge has been changing antiquated notions of a library's role in learning. "While most people have been hugely supportive of this idea, some have been sort of grieving over this iconic loss of the undergraduate library. I think what they are really grieving is the passing of the book as the means of scholarly communication," says Fred Heath, vice provost for the general libraries, adding that UT is the nation's fifth-largest academic library with more than 8 million volumes.

So to ease some of the apprehension, administrators took the word "library" out of their vocabulary when referring to the Flawn Academic Center. When classes start Aug. 31, it will be filled with colorful overstuffed chairs for lounging, barstools for people watching, and booths for group work. …