From 3D Printers to Big Data: How University Libraries are Evolving

From 3D Printers to Big Data: How University Libraries are Evolving

July 11, 2017/Oakland Press

By Natalie Broda

As the digital age advances, university libraries are changing how they serve their students, faculty and staff.

At Oakland University’s Kresge Library, one room which was once used to catalog books is in the process of being transformed into a new maker-space, complete with 3D printers. The room has been out of use for some time now, according to Stephen Weiter, dean of the library, because there’s less inventory of print materials coming into the library itself.

About 740,000 titles or volumes exist on both the university’s digital archive and print catalog and for the first time in 2016, the number of titles or volumes held digitally surpassed those in print at the library. Student use of digital materials is also higher than print circulation this year.

Over a hundred computers, new printing stations, collaborative and high tech workspaces on multiple floors and a new data management librarian have made their way to the library over the past several years.

“People will say that if everything is online, then we don’t need the library. But libraries have never been just a warehouse for books and journals. It’s always been about the services in terms of how to use the information you find,” Weiter said. “It’s never been a static field and the irony is, people don’t see us doing the work behind the screen when their only connection to the information is through the computer.”

The university’s current catalog system, Voyager, has been around since 1997 and was designed for cataloging printed books. The library is looking to update to a new system in the coming years that’s designed to handle both types of materials with a better user interface and searchability.

“Some libraries have tried to go completely digital and with very little success. People have been predicting the death of the book and a number of wild and crazy other things, and it either never happens or it takes a lot longer than you would imagine. What’s the first thing we do as soon as we get an email or electronic document? Print it off,” Weiter said.

Part of the reason Weiter says print editions remain relevant has to do with the cost of bringing the materials to the library. Some research journals only run in small-batch print editions or don’t offer themselves for digital licensing. Digital licensing itself can get expensive as publishers will charge libraries more based on the number of students at the university. Oakland University has a current enrollment of about 20,000 students.

In an age where college textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars a piece, open source data and research are gaining popularity in university libraries across the nation.

In 2012, Rice University in Houston began offering free, digital, peer-reviewed textbooks through a nonprofit publisher known as OpenStax College, according to Inside Higher Ed. At Oakland University, the library is still in the works of adopting a system for free textbooks, but currently does have what’s called an “open source repository” for data and research gathered at the university entitled Our@Oakland.

As for the data management librarian hired this past year, that’s a new tool in the kit for librarians over the last ten to 20 years according to Weiter.

“Among the things that are sharable and storable are data sets and they’re just getting larger, these massive sets of information and all of it has to be managed. Most of us aren’t as good at backing up our data as we’d like to be,” Weiter said.

The role of the data management librarian is to help students, faculty and staff create a plan for backing up and storing data and research as well as how to eventually disseminate it. Most federal agencies that provide grants, like the National Science Foundation, require that the applicant submit a data management plan and ultimately a plan for making the information public.

“The belief and the dedication and the mission that helps us to survive is that we are still central and crucial to the students, faculty and staff at an academic institution. You can’t have excellence at a high level without a strong library behind the institution. Part of that is collecting the information but the biggest part is providing those services,” Weiter said. “Bad libraries provide collections and stop there. You have to believe that in order to create value that extends to the campus.”

Approximately 700,000 people visit Oakland University’s library each year.