The Very Heart of a College

By Poynder, Richard | Information Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Very Heart of a College

Poynder, Richard, Information Today

Information Today regularly reports on the products and opinions of information vendors. But what about their most important customers: libraries? What issues confront them today, and how, as information and library services become increasingly digital, do librarians view the future? I sought the opinions of librarians at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College, one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore College lies some 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia. With an enrollment of just 1,400 students, it's a small school. It has, however, always punched above its weight. Three former graduates are Nobel Prize winners, and other prominent alumni include novelist James Michener, former Massachusetts governor (and one-time U.S. presidential hopeful) Michael Dukakis, computer visionary Ted Nelson (who coined the term "hypertext"), and Thomas McCabe, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1948 to 1951 and former president of Scott Paper Co.

It was McCabe who donated the main library to the college. Built in the late 1960s, the McCabe Library is a formidable, large, stone fortress dominating the college hill that overlooks the tree-lined avenue. Its dominance is intentional. The architects believed that an academic library should form the "very heart of a college" and so "occupy a vital position" on the grounds.

There are also two small subject libraries on campus--the Cornell Science Library and the Underhill Music Library--and a number of special collections, including the Friends Historical Library, the world's largest collection of books and manuscripts related to the Quakers, and the Peace Collection, a research archive devoted to materials covering nongovernmental efforts toward peace.

Including faculty, the Swarthmore library serves around 1,800 users, and it employs 35 staff members. What distinguishes Swarthmore, says head of reference Anne Garrison, is the personal service it can provide. "Compared with an ARL library--which is likely to have 20,000 to 30,000 students and where you may see a student just once during their stay--you actually recognize students at Swarthmore. We like to think we offer a more personal, Ritz-style service as a result."


But being small has disadvantages too. With current holdings of around 700,000, Swarthmore's collection cannot by itself meet the needs of today's students and researchers. It has, therefore, partnered with two local colleges, Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

Initially, says Meg Spencer, head of the Cornell Science Library, this partnership amounted to little more than ad hoc exchanges of books and journals. Over time, however, it has developed into a substantial cooperative venture called the Tri-College Library Consortium.

Among other things, the consortium provides mutual borrowing rights for patrons and, following the development of a combined online catalog called Tripod, the ability to search the 3 million holdings of the three colleges. "Tripod allows patrons to see exactly what is available in all three libraries," says Garrison. "And we have a van that visits the three libraries twice a day, so people can get material in 24 hours."

Additionally, the consortium is a member of the regional E-ZBorrow system, which enables library users to search the catalog of 40 other college and university libraries in Pennsylvania--a combined holding of around 35 million books.

More recently, the interlibrary lending system has been automated, allowing patrons to request items electronically. In the case of the Tri-College and E-ZBorrow libraries, requests can be made directly with the holding library using a Swarthmore library bar code. If an item is not available locally, a national ILL order can be placed by completing an online form. Moreover, while books still need to be physically collected from the library, an increasing number of journal articles are now sent to patrons electronically via the Ariel document delivery service. …

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