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ASU's New American University library will preserve past while looking forward

Jim O'Donnell
April 23, 2015

When Jim O’Donnell took his first stroll through the Hayden Library on ASU’s Tempe campus this February, he could have sworn the 50-year-old building was talking to him.

“It was whimpering, ‘Help me … help me,'” O’Donnell said with a slight smirk on his face.

University librarian and professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, O’Donnell is serious when it comes to remodeling and reimagining the New American University library. He envisions the library as an exciting digital “showroom” with dynamic spaces for world-class collections and events, and librarians not as service providers but as collaborators who are eager to engage and help.

"There’s a joke I’ve been quoting too often about how Best Buy has become Amazon’s showroom. You go to Best Buy, you shop, you compare prices and then you go home and order from Amazon," O'Donnell said. "The good thing about the library is that we are both Best Buy and Amazon. It’s a showroom, but it’s a showroom for our stuff, and we’ve really still got the good stuff.

“I want that first-time experience for an 18-year-old student to be just like mine, where they walk around the library and say, ‘Gee, I had no idea this was available to me.’ It should be a life-changing moment."

He believes the library showroom could be an exciting place where computer monitors are prevalent, curated exhibits are on display, students are fully engaged and energetic meeting spaces leave users inspired.

The prestigious scholar and author, who was hired earlier this year from Georgetown University, has been engaged in digital innovation for nearly 25 years. He is now leading the charge to transform the university library system from its book-smart past into the digital repository of knowledge where users can remotely access information 24/7.

O’Donnell hosted an April 23 panel discussion with university colleagues to give them a glimpse of the New American University library system, not coincidentally, on World Book Day.

“We start with the assumption that our users start as online users. That is, they will begin and do much of their library work remotely,” O’Donnell said. “We will focus our services on making sure that they get – emphatically – the best service in the Valley.”

O’Donnell said the library has approximately 4.5 million volumes of material spread out over eight libraries. He said in the past decade the university has turned increasingly to digital initiatives and services to help students and scholars with their research. O’Donnell said the university has done a good job making the transition during the digital era but that the physical buildings need a makeover.

The starting point, O’Donnell said, will be renovating the five-story Hayden Library, which he considers the focal point of the Tempe campus.

“The new Hayden is a tired old building that will need fixing up. When it’s done, it will be a stunningly attractive, exciting and important space for the campus. It’s going to be the showroom and access point,” O’Donnell said. “Our other spaces will be transformed in the same way, but they just don’t need the heavy renovation.”

Panelist Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who is the director of Jewish Studies and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism at ASU, said she has great respect for information technology but that it should not be the sole modality of knowledge.

"Learning about the past is the most instructive way to think about the future,” Tirosh-Samuelson said. “Books, manuscripts, periodicals and texts must be treated with great respect, and I would hate to see them disappear.”

O’Donnell says the books won’t go away, but they’ll be tucked away on a shelf and called upon when needed through the interlibrary loan system and Borrow It Now program.

“The book is here to stay, but the way we use the book changes and is changing rapidly around us,” O’Donnell said. “Our students and our faculty are depending more and more on online resources. When they use the physical materials, they are pre-ordering them. They’re coming in to grab and go.”

About the only question O’Donnell couldn’t answer about the new library system and Hayden renovation will be when. He promises it will be soon.

“I’d love to see that first sledgehammer in the next 12 to 18 months, and I’m working with the assumption that is possible,” O’Donnell said. “But we live in the real world, so we’ll see what we can do and we’ll try to do it as fast as we can.”