Mount Holyoke: Bridging the Gap between Books and Bytes

By Sandler, Gregory | Information Today, July-August 1992 | Go to article overview

Mount Holyoke: Bridging the Gap between Books and Bytes


Sandler, Gregory, Information Today


From the outside, Mount Holyoke College's library looks like just another quintessential Ivy League building. But inside, a new computing center reveals that the all-women school in South Hadley, Mass., is getting ready for the 21st century.

Change is nothing new for college librarian Anne C. Edmonds. After all, she's been overseeing the Williston Memorial Library since 1864. In fact, she's only the fourth head librarian in the college's history. Of course, books still get plenty of space in Edmonds' office, but so does an IBM-compatible computer. Edmonds says that technology is redefining the role of librarians at liberal arts colleges. "One of the issues today," she says, "is the relationship between computing centers and libraries."

That issue is in the spotlight at Mount Holyoke these days. The school recently concluded a $15.3 million library renovation project that includes a state-of-the-art computer center and a new science library. A copper-sheathed skywalk connects the old and new buildings and symbolizes the growing symbiosis between libraries and information technology resources. "It's a relationship that's evolving," says Edmonds.

Mount Holyoke is not alone in grappling with the changes being brought about by rapidly improving technology. In a recent report prepared for the Research Libraries Group Inc., Richard Dougherty and Carol Hughes from the University of Michigan's School of Information and Library Studies, note, "The growing presence of information technologies has created tensions between the traditional values of academe and the new roles and responsibilities envisioned for libraries and computer centers."

The report, titled, "Preferred Futures for Libraries," goes on to say that "the period of forthcoming change could be characterized as the transition from the physical library to the logical library."

In simpler terms, notes Edmonds, the big question "is how to manage information and who handles it?" On the one hand the answer is simple. The "computing people" handle the physical networks and the librarians take care of interpretation. But in order to work, the high tech wizards and the book worms have to find a common ground.

Still, Edmonds thinks it's essential that librarians be included in the planning process. After all, they're the ones who ultimately must leverage the library's computing resources for the benefit of its patrons.

New equipment, such as CD-ROM readers and computerized data bases, open up an astounding array of information options. For librarians, says Edmonds, the challenge is to understand the resources and be able to help students and faculty get the information they need. It's the same thing librarians have been doing for centuries. Only now, there are an infinite number of available resources. "The possibilities," she says, "are mind-boggling."

But Edmonds is undaunted by the changing role of traditional librarians. She was involved in establishing a networked online catalog that put the Mount Holyoke Library's holdings on the same system as listing from nearby Smith College, Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. And she has watched as the library's card catalog gathers more and more dust.

Edmonds calls the new computer technology being used in libraries "a quantum leap." But, she notes, there have been giant steps in the past. In fact, she says, the computer age arrived at Mount Holyoke in 1974. That's when the library began using a machine-readable format to catalog its holdings.

Despite all of the possibilities, Edmonds says it can be frustrating to deal with the bugs that ultimately crop up in any information technology system. And, she notes, there is tendency toward overkill. "Everybody thinks they should have a 747 when all they're ready for is a Wright Brothers airplane."

And, says Edmonds, opening the doors to vast amounts of new information raises philosophical questions. …

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