The future of university libraries

A recent report predicts that the move to Open Access material on the web may sound a revolution for University libraries. For many people who are simply passing through the university for a few years, the unpredictable future of university libraries may not be of much interest. Students in the faculties of arts, philosophy, and theology have probably noticed that due to decisions consequent on budget cuts, their libraries have been closed (or are about to be closed) and their collections transferred to the UB. Library services, physical and virtual, are one of the most important elements in an education in the humanities. In the event of a disaster, the university could function out of tents in the Vismarkt if there were teachers and access of some kind to books, journals, databases, the Internet etc. One could even do without the teachers if it came down to it.

Keeping an eye on the library policy of a large university such as Groningen is something that I have no competence to comment on. As far as I can tell, in the sciences electronic publication has almost wholly superseded print resources. In my field, however, (a) many key texts are only available in printed format and (b) students benefit from being able to walk to a certain area of a library and seeing recommended/more important books grouped together by subject (I’ve also found this invaluable when beginning my research in an area outside my core expertise). Imagine if you’re an undergraduate putting ‘Shakespeare’ in the RUG library catalogues (for electronic and paper resources) trying to tell where the good starting points are for an essay. How many students will summon up twenty random Shakespeare books from the stacks to leaf through them? As it was, the paper-based resources in the faculty libraries were underused and this facility was, to my mind, an integral part of a first-rate student education in the areas I teach. I cannot predict the future of university libraries, but in the present I am delighted and still sometimes amazed at the advances of digital technology (see some of the resources I recommend on this site). In that same present, however, my students can benefit from books on shelves, but soon I will not, it seems, have a chance to demonstrate this to them or let them choose.