Library tackles major upgrades on two fronts: virtual and physical

Peter Ho

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It's on a sweltering summer day in the year 2004. Dr Chan (a fictitious character), a biogeneticist with the University's Applied Research Centre for Genomic Technologies, is hunched over his office computer screen. Quickly he punches in a string of scientific terms on his keyboard. And prestoNin no time, everything he needs to know about DNA chip technology that resides in the abyss of dozens of databases in the library-journal articles, conference papers, book chapters, and even WebpagesNpops up before his eyes. What transpires is as speedy and intuitive as using Internet search engines such as Google and AltaVista. Barely two years ago, Dr Chan recalls, he had to know exactly which databases to look for. Just having to keep track of the different sources of information the Run Run Shaw Library had subscribed to was a painstaking task. The search process was tedious and a bit complicated as each database might have a different interface and it often required several trips to the library to get all the relevant information together, a nuisance when one was already buried deep in work. Now, with some exceptionally powerful search engines installed on the enhanced library information system, to which his office workstation is hooked up, pulling out information from across a myriad of online repositories is faster than saying "Eureka!" After finishing his searches and logging off the system, Dr Chan decides that he can use a break and give himself a small treat. Maybe, he reasons, a cup of frothy cappuccino at the library cafe, surrounded by his favourite paintings and posters, wouldn't be a bad choice after all.

Welcome to the new, much improved library of the not-too-distant future. The futuristic scenario, if the planners have their way, is now just a few steps away. Truth is, the migration towards an electronic (or virtual) academic library at CityU started two years ago. But now the pace has picked up, with library staff working more closely with their IT counterparts.

Virtual push

"The move towards a virtual electronic library is inevitable," said Mr John Dockerill , Vice-President (Planning and Information Services), who has doubled up as acting librarian since last August. More and more informationNbooks, periodicals and digital multimedia contents such as videos and musicNis now available on the Internet, in particular the World Wide Web. What used to be found only in the libraries, bookstores and on your own bookshelves is now just a few mouse-clicks away. So much is available so readily, and best of all, often free of charge in the online world that people start to query if the Obookshelves on your desktop computer" will one day replace physical libraries. In the academic setting, the sudden proliferation in the past few years of electronic periodicals and online journals has also raised the question if libraries are still needed in a digital age.

"Clearly the traditional notion of a library, that it is the ultimate physical depository of information, is now under challenge," said Mr Dockerill "Information technology has perhaps a greater and more immediate impact on how the library functions than on any other parts of the University." How the library should respond to this sea change and what the future role of the library will be are the two key questions to be considered by the University's management.

Fortunately, the University has come to the conclusion that the library is not going to fade away, but needs to be rejuvenated, with a stronger emphasis on its electronic potential and, at the same time, a major overhaul of its physical amenities. "I believe that, despite the rush towards electronic and online resources, there will be a need for a physical library in the foreseeable future," said Mr Dockerill. "People still like to read books."

To speed up the electronic migration, the University management has restructured the library into two major divisions: digital academic resources and access services. The former is a backend section that handles the processing of library materials, databases and the development of IT. It is headed by Dr Eva Wong , who served as the President's Executive Assistant until the end of January, and, before that, as an academic with the Department of Information Systems. The latter division is led by library veteran Mr K S Yeung , and handles the physical side of library access. Next in the pipeline will be projects to integrate the library's information systems with other IT developments in the University. Mr Dockerill admits that there will be "a bit of work" to do in this area because the library now is running the proprietary INNPOAC system. The newly established Enterprise Solutions Unit will soon be looking closely at ways to link INNOPAC with Campus Pipeline, the main engine for the University Portal, providing a high-speed network backbone through which all information systems will be made available to all students and staff.

Another initiative is the installation of some sophisticated search engines on the library menu that can burrow through all the databases to which the library subscribes (ie, the local databases). By then, researchers will be able to retrieve all the latest journal articles and abstracts in their field with just a few clicks on their PCs. These proposals will be implemented over the next two to three years.

Better physical ambiance

Also in place in the next two years, stage by stage, will be a better library environment: more space, better lighting, more self-access facilities, and even better furniture. "I have in mind a cozy little caf?, too," he said but cautioned that is nothing more than an idea at the moment. That the library, in its physical sense, will be around in the foreseeable future means that not only books and periodicals will continue to be stored and shelved; it will also become a centre of self-study, self-access facilities. To gain a head start in this plan, Mr Dockerill is thinking of incorporating into the library part of Level 2, where most of the Computing Services Centre workstation areas are now found. This will mean a major redesign of the library, including, for example, putting in some staircases to connect Levels 2 and 3, relocating its main entrance, and redesigning the layout of its bookshelves. But where will the extra space come from?

That the library is cramped is something that most staff and students have slowly come to terms with, albeit grudgingly. The library collection has over the years grown to some 800,000 volumes, 50,000 more than its planned capacity. Yet about 40% of these tomesNnot an unusual ratio in most academic librariesNhave never been checked out in the past three years. To alleviate the congestion problem, Mr Dockerill said, the library planning group has decided that some 150,000 monographs and 60,000 bound journals will be relocated to a 40,000 square foot site in the Grandtech Centre in Shatin between mid-April and mid-June. Mr Dockerill, however, stressed that the volumes are still easily accessible. They will appear in the library's catalogue as if they are held in a branch library. A request for a monograph in the archive or a journal article in the bound serials will be promptly fetched, copied or faxed to the main library for collection by the requester. "We are not losing that collection," he said, "but we are just freeing up space" for more study areas and to provide a better environment for staff and students. More multimedia workstations will be made openly available throughout the entire area in a more user-friendly and relaxed setting. The future physical library, in Mr Dockerill's mind, will look very much like the Central Library at Causeway Bay .

Improved services

For many years in a row, the library has been ranked as the best service department. Apparently this is not enough for the library staff, who don't like resting on their laurels. "We believe that the library should reach out to the departments," said Mr Dockerill, "and support them in developing the collection of materials they need in the library." This is essential, in part, as asking better value for money has become the rule when the University funding is placed under greater public accountability. It is also because the collection of materials, be it in electronic or paper format, should reflect the academic needs of the departments more directly. Towards this goal, the library will introduce the concept of subject librarians, a common practice in many local or overseas university libraries. Even at CityU, this is not entirely unprecedentedNwe have had for some time a Law Librarian, Mrs Madeleine Lee , and the arrangement, according to Mr Dockerill, works very well. Subject librarians are to be culled from the existing 20 professional staff and each member will be responsible for a particular disciplinary area, such as languages, computing, humanities, etc. The subject librarians will become the first point of contact with departments. Their role is to work very closely with the departments in his or her area to make sure the library is acquiring the materials that the departments need to support their teaching and learning and advising the departments on what materials are available.

The subject librarians, Mr Dockerill said, will be professionals with expertise in library and information science, and need not be experts or practitioners in their fields. "Of course it helps a lot if a subject librarian of, say, mathematics is a mathematician himself," he explained, "but this is not essential." The law librarian, for example, is not a lawyer herself but has now built up a wealth of expertise on law materials. Subject librarians will help departments in building up their collections because they know which publishers specialize in which areas and when new information and titles will become available. Mr Dockerill said the system has been set up in the library and soon they will go to talk to the faculty boards.

Money matters

In the next few years, the library has to learn to do more with less, given its commitment to major replanning activities and new IT initiatives. In the past, the University has been generous with book funds, spending at one time as much as $50 odd million on library books (about $20 million) and periodical subscriptions. In those days, the University was "more or less in the position to be able to buy anything anyone has asked for" as far as books and periodicals were concerned, said Mr Dockerill, but "now we can't do that anymore," in wake of decreasing government funding. In 2001D02, the book fund was cut to $45 million, of which some $5 million was spent on IT support and equipment, $12 million on books and $28 million on journals and periodicals. This represents just a cut on the book side and just enough money to retain the periodicals we already have. If the budgetary situation tightens in the next year or two, the library has to ask the departments to start trimming and pruning their periodical lists.

In two or three years" time, Mr Dockerill said, not only will the library have a total makeover in look and feel but also its services will be seamlessly integrated into the campus network systems. Maybe the imaginary Dr Chan's experience with the library will be taken more as a right than a privilege for those who work at CityU.

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