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Profile: Sarah Pritchard Discusses Future of Academic Libraries

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November 28, 2006

New University Librarian discusses trends in academic libraries

Sarah Pritchard, appointed Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian this fall, brings to Northwestern 30 years of experience, most recently at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she served as University Librarian since 1999.

At UCSB Pritchard expanded digital information initiatives and special collections, initiated new collaborations to support faculty in diverse disciplines and made numerous enhancements in public services. Under her leadership, the UCSB Libraries launched major digital preservation and collection initiatives in the areas of maps, sound recordings and graphic arts.

Before joining UCSB, she was the director of libraries at Smith College for seven years and the associate director at the Association of Research Libraries. She also worked for many years at the Library of Congress.

Will you share a little about your background?

I was interested in libraries from an early age, but library science is not a major at the undergraduate level, so I studied languages and linguistics and interdisciplinary humanities and areas that I now realize were great preparation for academic libraries, for handling the range of subjects we collect, and for having an appreciation of structures of knowledge and the history of science and ideas.

Once I completed graduate work in French and in library science, I was fortunate to start my career at the Library of Congress. It's hard to convey the wealth of materials and the enormous variety of people and functions that make it run. One is immersed in the notion that the library is the center of the universe, and I don't think you ever lose that. But after 12 years there I did want to get into other kinds of research libraries. I went on to do a fellowship at the Princeton University Library, spent a few years on the staff of the Association of Research Libraries and then held the series of directorships that led me here.

I've been fortunate to have worked in different settings and, in each case, places that are at the top of their game, that have high expectations and talented faculty, students and staff. I've been able to collaborate across many institutions and organizations and to develop professional projects related to subject fields, technology, leadership issues and national policy. Librarianship offers a dynamic blend. I've also learned a lot about plumbing, mold, HVAC and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which some days seem more relevant to operations than the heady intellectual issues.

How is electronic technology changing the academic library? 

This is a watershed change that runs through every aspect of library work -- how we do operational support and procure materials, how we catalog things, how we communicate with our constituencies, where we get the information and creative works they seek. How we search, what we search, how we store and generate and share information. We were using electronic systems when I first became a librarian in 1977, so it's not as new as it seems, but back then we just had automated versions of manual tracking or indexing.

What's new is that the information itself is born digital; it changes constantly. It is produced by everyone, not simply a few commercial enterprises. It is multimedia and iterative and peer-to-peer. The entire learning environment can be digital, the processes as well as the products. This means we need different approaches to license information, describe it, deploy it, recombine it. Library work requires a much broader skill set these days, which we seek through expanding the roles and training of librarians, as well as by hiring systems programmers, Web designers, intellectual property attorneys, publishing consultants and more.

There are probably two main groups of changes, one clustered around providing new teaching, study and information delivery services for students. The other is focused on the support of faculty research in areas such as electronic publishing or data archiving services. Interactive electronic information and communication underlie both groups.

How will print materials be used in the research library of the future?

That depends on how far into the future you want to see. I believe that large academic libraries, especially, will continue to have print collections for years to come. Those collections may evolve into more niche status, but they will persist. Publishing is on the increase globally, though the U.S. percentage of world book output is lower, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This reflects increased output from many smaller and less-developed countries, much of it paper-based.

Accessing information from all countries will mean ensuring access to print for quite some time. Moreover, it's not just a question of print versus electronic. Research libraries have numerous physical formats to house and deliver, such as paper, microforms, artists' books that are almost sculptural, sound recordings, graphic arts, realia and archival miscellany. For some subjects or some types of publications, print will just be easier. For instance, we don't want to read e-books in the bathtub. Also, it will be all there is, or it will have an artifactual historical value as an object.

So I see two trends. We are rapidly moving to digital form for the large corpus of scholarly, scientific and business literature and for common general information like mass media, textbooks and reference. At the same time, the special collections of academic libraries will become even more important, including everything from traditional manuscripts and rare books to very contemporary but non-digital objects collected from authors, public figures, organizations and the creative community. It is these special collections that differentiate research and special libraries from each other. The digital corpus, by its very nature, can be everywhere; the one-of-a-kind objects cannot, at least not for serious research where reproductions don't suffice.

How will we sustain the cultural heritage of today for scholars and citizens of the future? It is the responsibility of the great universities like Northwestern to work on both tracks, to have massive and well-organized digital access for the daily needs of students and faculty, and also to have equally large and unique special collections that are the basis of primary research in the humanities and social sciences. Obviously there is some overlap, which makes it messy, expensive and interesting.

What are some important national trends in libraries and information access?

Over the past decade we have witnessed a major change in the way information is produced and delivered. Some of the resulting trends in research libraries include:

Licensing large packages of digital texts, rather than buying one title at a time, with constant flux in scope and content;

Consortial collaboration in purchasing resources and in developing shared facilities for storage, preservation and digitization;

Personalization and integration of tools enabling students and faculty to use information, such as searching, delivery, production, course content and file management;

Partnerships across campus with faculty, information technology, student services and research support offices;

Managing campus systems to preserve locally generated digital materials, such as research data, administrative records, courseware and grey literature;

and Continued building of special collections of unique and rare primary sources, such as manuscripts and photographs, with digital access for greater awareness and protection of originals.

How do you see libraries participating in and supporting the teaching mission of universities?

Students continue to use libraries for study and research in many customary ways. Electronic remote access provides 24/7 availability, even for students studying abroad. Librarians are working to enhance services and learning in the physical and virtual domains by:

Reconfiguring physical spaces to create technologically rich common areas, flexible and group study spaces, media labs and library-oriented classrooms;

Hosting related campus services, such as writing labs and career centers;

Linking substantive, high-quality electronic resources to course management systems and consulting with faculty to integrate library assignments in curricula;

Working with students to develop effective navigation and, more importantly, evaluation skills in the use of print and digital resources;

and Providing multiple levels of information through large-scale digitization of core collections and targeted use of distinctive primary resources for special projects.