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Exploring value of print in the digital age

ASU, MIT to develop new approaches to library print collections

handwritten inserts in book
March 14, 2017

ASU professor Devoney Looser is leading a group of students through the stacks of Hayden Library, in search of old books that bear traces of the past.

They’re looking for unique markings and remnants from previous owners — inscriptions, book plates, prize notices, marginalia and even letters — in American and British literature books that were printed before 1923 and are now out of copyright. 

The items found in the books, Looser said, provide important information about circulation and authorship, and are of interest to critics, historians and biographers.

“We’re finding fascinating stuff,” said Looser, a professor in the Department of English and organizer of ASU Book Traces, a project with ASU Library that aims to highlight the value of library print collections — as well as new ways of engaging with them — precisely at a time when many are being reduced in size.

“One of the clearest trends in academic libraries is the rethinking of print collections,” said Lorrie McAllister, who was recently appointed associate university librarian for collections and strategy at ASU Library, and is helping to facilitate projects such as Book Traces in addition to a new partnership with MIT on the future of academic library print collections.   

“Professor Looser’s project demonstrates that there is still interest and passion for the many technologies used in book design over many centuries, its utility and historical significance as a format and preservation mechanism, and the physicality of the medium as an engagement and research tool,” McAllister said.

The future of print

Exactly how libraries will be transformed by the digital age has yet to be answered — but it’s a question ASU Library is tackling with gusto.

The current reinvention of Arizona State University’s library system already has led to a suite of new services and facilities that were nearly unimaginable a decade ago — everything from makerspaces to a geospatial data lab — all providing inclusive support to a research community driven by innovation. 

Now, through the partnership with MIT and a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ASU Library is looking at new approaches to the sustainable and meaningful management of library print collections in a landscape immersed in digital.

“Books on shelves are not a library until users approach and begin to use them.”

— Jim O'Donnell, university librarian at ASU

ASU’s Jim O’Donnell, university librarian and principal investigator on the grant, says this disruptive moment presents a key opportunity for ASU Library.

“Like many of our peers, ASU Library and MIT Libraries are forced to rethink and possibly reduce our open stack print collections due to an increasing reliance on digital services and in favor of added space for students to study and collaborate,” O’Donnell said. “Our charge, now, is to continue to deliver vital resources but in new ways in which they can make the greatest impact.”

Establishing a fresh philosophy about collection development is at the heart of the ASU-MIT partnership, formally kicking off this week on the ASU Tempe campus, where librarians, faculty and key participants in library architecture are gathering for a two-day, hands-on workshop to discuss major issues and new design strategies for the future of print.

The results will directly inform ASU and MIT plans for library renovations, as well as produce a whitepaper on the future of local print curation in academic libraries.

“Books on shelves are not a library until users approach and begin to use them,” said O’Donnell, who sees the shift in library design as a way to cultivate more intentionally designed collections that are socially embedded, use-inspired and community-driven.

Rather than thinking of large print collections as mountains to be gradually reduced in size, O’Donnell said, “we ought to think of those mountains as a resource to draw upon,” in an effort to create and develop more meaningful, “outside-the-box” collections that add value to the community, maximize student and faculty engagement, and are a point of pride for the university.

“There is an emerging emphasis on defining libraries not simply by what we have but how it can be used,” McAllister added. “We are really looking at how collections might best engage the diverse communities in which we live, study and work. To do this, we need to make information resources more visible and accessible than they are now.”

Print and digital working together

The ASU Book Traces event was inspired by a project at the University of Virginia to find, document and digitize unique copies of 19th- and early 20th-century books while they are still visible on library shelves. 

In addition to the valuing of the material objects found in the books, Looser and her students also want to make the knowledge of these objects digitally available, with help from ASU Library, by adding digital images of some of the most interesting items collected into the ASU Digital Repository.

“We want to open this information up to a wider audience and help make these items discoverable and accessible,” Looser said. “We are helping future historians.”

Having led two successful Book Traces events at ASU Library, Looser says the student response has been excellent, particularly with undergraduate students who typically have limited experience engaging with library collections.

“Students want to know when we’re going to do this again,” said Looser, who hopes to highlight the event in an exhibit at Hayden Library after its renovation. 

“I think it’s great to expose students to special collections, to show them how much interesting stuff is right here at the library and also all the things they can do with it.”

When it comes to the future of print, Looser believes there is reason to be optimistic.

“It’s important for anyone to understand that every medium was once a new medium,” she said. “I’m grateful for the intersection of print and digital and what that means for discovery and new research.”

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