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Library mergers and purges, a sign of the times

Universities are centralizing libraries and weeding out collections as they save space with digital collections and make more room for people to work together.


McGill University says it didn’t close its Life Sciences Library. Instead, it says that it simply moved its low-use physical collection to other areas of campus.  According to numerous librarians and other members of library staff who opposed the change, however, the relocation of physical holdings to another library 10 minutes away (and also to the university gymnasium building) is tantamount to closure. Three weeks before the September 1 start date for the move, administrators of the Facebook group “Save the McGill Life Sciences Library from closure” (with over 1,500 supporters) published a eulogy for the library that ended, dramatically, with “Rest in Peace.”

But McGill’s is just one of several university libraries across Canada making significant changes that include moving less-used materials to centralized spaces and weeding out collections. Last year, the University of British Columbia closed its St. Paul’s Hospital library and the Hamber Library at the BC Children’s and BC Women’s hospitals. This year, the University of Alberta moved the holdings of its music library into its general collection. In January, the University of Saskatchewan announced plans to cull 1.1 million books from four libraries (veterinary medicine, engineering, law, and education and music), a process that began in September. Similar changes have taken place at universities in the United States and Europe in recent years.

“It’s the sign of the times,” said Dean Giustini, reference librarian at UBC’s Biomedical Branch Library and a member of the steering committee of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians. “There is definitely a trend [toward] more demand for digital access to both collections and librarians.”

Equally important, said Brent Roe, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, is the increasing demand to free up library space for people. Across the country, he said, “the student population is expanding, and there aren’t a lot of new libraries being built. This has led to such a need for study space – not just quiet space, but space where students can work together, interact with software and online resources, and use specialized equipment to do certain things that they might need to do in their courses.”

Mr. Roe pointed to the growing popularity of the “learning commons” model of library service, which envisions libraries less as quiet stockpiles of books and more as gathering spaces designed to accommodate different types of learning. The learning commons model encompasses the presence of more staff members who can assist students in both learning and research: librarians and library staff to help students access information and use the facility, staff from the university’s writing centre to help students with writing and revision, and IT specialists to assist with computer hardware and software. Though the number of books may be reduced, said Mr. Roe, these too remain a part of a learning commons library.

“Of course the library is usually a central place on campus – someplace that’s relatively comfortable, welcoming and secure,” said Mr. Roe. “It’s an obvious place where students go to study. Gate counts at our universities have been very high and have grown constantly. It’s been quite impressive.”

Unfortunately, the learning commons model is often directly at odds with physical collections, particularly compendia of journals and other reference material, which may take up far more storage space than the frequency of their consultation merits. For this reason, said Mr. Roe, many libraries and librarians have embraced the rise of digital publishing, especially of scholarly journals, which allow them to reduce physical collections of low-use materials.

Mr. Giustini concurred, noting that even though only about half of the materials required by scholars and students in science and medical fields are available in electronic form, nonetheless a surprisingly large portion of learning needs can be met using these digital collections. “Personally, I feel that physical and digital collections are complementary in nature for scholars, and both are needed,” Mr. Giustini said.

“Archival documents, primary source materials, [and] original editions should be protected and be under lock and key, but no one who needs them should have to wait to see them,” he continued. “Academic libraries, like the institutions they support, must adjust to the vast new information ecosystem brought about by the Internet. This places new demands on academic library staff and resources. So, I think the decision at McGill, while not popular or one that I would have made, comes at the end of a long line of decisions.”

It’s difficult to assess precisely what happened at McGill because people became so polarized and emotional around the issues that no one on either side wished to speak on the record. However, in a recent post on the McGill Library web page, administrators announced that they were opening a period of consultation about the redesign of the Life Sciences Library, and they encouraged suggestions either by email or by writing recommendations on a whiteboard in the Life Sciences library building.

Mr. Roe of CARL said we should expect to see more shifts in collections in coming years. “There has been a general trend over the last 20 years in consolidating collections in larger library spaces,” he said. “Each time, in general, there is some resistance. In theory nothing’s been taken away, it’s all still there. But nevertheless it’s not right there, convenient, right where it always was.”

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  1. SC / December 4, 2013 at 12:02

    People in the biological/bioemdical/life sciences are among the lowest users of libraries as most research articles and reviews are readily available online (Pubmed, Medline, Scopus etc). The large Health Sciences library in our university is used mostly as a combination quiet study zone/ make-out space/ internet cafe but rarely as a library in teh traditional sense.

  2. Terry Horner / December 5, 2013 at 11:42


    One other large closure was the UBC Music Library which wasn’t mentioned in this article.


  3. Terry Horner / December 5, 2013 at 13:02

    Hi again,

    I should have also mentioned that the Music Library integrated with the art, architecture and planning collection to form the Music, Art and Architecture Library in the north wing of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.


  4. Jim Mars / December 7, 2013 at 08:58

    The physical layout of libraries should also depend on the way the university is actually organized–students are mainly in one college or faculty, or students take courses that range across the whole institution. Perhaps a centralized library will encourage students to read in and take courses in unexpected fields, whereas distributed libraries encourage students to stay narrowly focused.

    The campus geography also matters–a tight urban campus may have to make brutal decisions because of lack of space in buildings and for buildings.

    At the other extreme, a large campus with old and new buildings, green space, streets and local businesses, all mixed in may host many libraries which requires students to walk between them.

    At Cornell University, where I did my doctoral work, the campus is scattered all over a hilly landscape. In the pre-electronic days, I had to plan how to get to the needed readings and journals over a week–often in deep snow. But it was good for fitness then, and walking around campus, or to city or provincial libraries, is good physical exercise, too.

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