Old as the university itself, McGill’s library system has undergone an almost continuous process of restructuring and adaptation since its foundation. While changes such as renovations are often McGill-specific in nature, some of the recent adaptations the library has undertaken point to growing trends and challenges faced by academic libraries across the world.
With diverse factors such as budgetary constraints, physical limitations, and an increased use of technology, the future of libraries is often difficult to predict by librarians and students alike, and can involve difficult choices with far-reaching consequences.
As the McGill Library system prepares to conduct a feasibility study in the upcoming months to address the possibility of future changes to the current system, the Tribune takes an in-depth look at McGill libraries, including how they have evolved over the university’s history, and how they are moving into the future.
History of McGill’s library system
The history of libraries at McGill begins with the founding of the Life Sciences Library in 1823. As the first medical library in Canada, the Life Sciences Library was the result of McGill’s acquisition of the Montreal Medical Institute, which owned a collection of medical texts that became the library.
The construction of more libraries followed: Redpath Hall was established in 1893 as a reading room, the Macdonald campus library was opened in 1907, and Birks Reading Room began as a co-operative with the Joint Board of Theological Colleges in 1912.
Individual departments also developed their own collections, due to a continual increase in the availability of print materials, according to Richard Virr, Head and Curator of Manuscripts who has worked in McGill’s library system for 30 years.
“By the 1950s, you had something like 45 or 50 libraries at McGill,” Virr said. “Whatever department, they might have their little working library because there just wasn’t any space in the main library.”
To address the need for more space, the McLennan Library Complex was built in 1969. Originally slated to serve as a library for graduate students, it currently serves as the largest library at McGill.
In the 1990s, research libraries across North America experienced more changes due to the increased availability of digital resources.
“We saw massive changes because of our exponential growth of electronic information, electronic journals, electronic books, digitization of photographs and images, and archives,” Lizabeth Wilson, dean of university libraries at the University of Washington, said. “For the first time, we started talking about buying access to the world’s knowledge through digital means.”
According to the records of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), an organization that monitors trends of its member research libraries, including McGill’s, library expenditure on digital materials increased every year between 1991 and 2011.
Current state of the system
The two most recently opened libraries at McGill, the Nahum Gelber Law Library and Marvin Duchow Music Library, were completed in 1998 and 2006 respectively. Their designs reflected a new priority in libraries.
“They had library [book collections] for years, what had happened was they needed space,” Virr said. “We’re returning almost to the time when libraries had major reading rooms, because that was student space.”
This past summer, 232 seats were added to the McLennan-Redpath library complex as a measure to address the growing need for student space. Similar changes are being undertaken in the Life Sciences Library and the Education Library, whose collections were merged with other branches earlier this year, and which now serve as study space.
“Libraries in general [are] moving away from physical books to online collections; and looking at open study spaces with internet collections and plugs rather than stacks,” Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President University Affairs Joey Shea said. “The more direct thing that you can point to with this issue is obviously the budget cuts.”
The provincial government’s $38.2 million cuts to McGill’s operating budget last December led to a $1.8 million reduction to the library budget.
France Bouthillier, director of the School of Information Studies, said libraries worldwide are undergoing a shift in role, and budget cuts have merely sped up this inevitable process at McGill.
“Financial constraints […] accelerate the need for change,” Bouthillier said. “Libraries have been changing constantly. It’s just a shock for people […] to realize how drastic changes can be, but when you look at the evolution of libraries over at least the last 15 years, there’s been constant change.”
McGill libraries are not alone in facing changes. In Baltimore, Maryland, the Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was recently redesigned to convert its library space from an access point for books to an open study space for the students and faculty that it serves.
Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums at JHU, Winston Tabb, said the decision went against other suggestions to simply close the library.
“We spent most of 2012 in a large group thinking of the future of the library, including a lot of students and faculty,” Tabb said. “That’s when we discovered how many people really wanted to be able to use the library, but […] not for coming and consulting books.”
According to an ARL study of the past two decades on growing digitization, the number of library users has increased by 33 per cent while initial circulation of physical materials—including books and DVDs—has decreased by 37 per cent.
As a result of similar patterns of use at McGill, the library has developed a policy for removing books from shelves. All science books that have not been circulated for 10 years, and medical books that have not been circulated for five have been moved to storage in the Currie Gymnasium.
Cook stressed that the library’s current use of the gymnasium is only temporary until they develop a long-term plan.
“There’s been a recognition for at least the past 20 years that there are real issues with library spaces,” Cook said. “It’s just that right now, a concatenation of events—less money for people, the fact that we have almost doubled our holdings because of digital books [and] digital resources within the past five years […] and the social learning needs of a different generation of students—have all come together.”
The unforeseeable future
In the upcoming months, the McGill Library will conduct a feasibility study about possible changes to the current system. The study aims to address the changing needs of students as well as the space constraints and budgetary concerns the libraries currently face.
Coordinated and managed by Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) Robert Couvrette, the study will consider the options for adaptation that McGill’s library system has.
According to Diane Koen, McGill Library’s Senior Director of Planning and Resources, the study will not consider fine details of the future of the library system; rather, it will examine big-picture options.
“It’s high-level; it doesn’t get right into the weeds of ‘it will look like this,’” Koen said. “We’re [considering a] scope of ideas and potential prices.”
One such idea pertains to a high-density storage system that would be able to consolidate McGill’s library collections in a manner that will ensure that it remains inexpensive yet accessible. According to a 2010 study done by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), book storage on an open shelf costs $4.26 USD per year, while high-density storage would decrease the cost to $0.86, due to factors such as building maintenance and operational costs.
“Taking this economic reality into account, academic libraries around the world are merging print collections capitalizing upon the capabilities and conveniences afforded us by automation, the internet, and [the] proliferation of electronic content,” Koen said.
An example of such storage can be found at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library of North Carolina State University (NCSU), which opened in January 2013 and spans over 221,000 square feet. The library features a $4.2 million robotic book retrieval system, bookBot, which automatically locates, retrieves, and delivers requested material from its high density shelving system within five minutes.
“When we learned about automated storage and retrieval systems that could condense two million of our volumes into one-ninth the space, […] that was an obvious answer to us—to keep our collections on site, not have to send them off-campus for storage, but also to be able to maximize the amount of floor space we could use for study space and collaborative areas,” Carolyn Argentati, Deputy Director of Libraries Administration at NCSU, said.
After an analysis of needs and constraints for projects such as these, McGill’s feasibility study will undergo a process called ‘going-to-tender,’ which refers to contacting architects for suggestions and pricing.
Following the completion of the study in summer 2014, a proposal for the future of the library system will be placed in a queue alongside many other proposals from other departments—all of which have undergone feasibility studies, as well. The proposal will require the approval of senior administration plus adequate funding, which will include money raised by the library and university through grants, loans, gifts, among other resources. Wilson emphasized the important role that libraries play within the university system.
“The future of the library predicts the future of the university,” Wilson said. “Libraries have gone through many different technological changes, and done so very successfully. The first part of the university to adapt to the web was the library [and] the first part of the university to use automation back in the 1960s was the library. So we’re always out there on the edge and a good place to pilot different kinds technology.”
Virr said that although the future of the library remains unclear, flexibility and adaptability are important considerations.
“I do not know what the library in 2030 is going to look like, except that it’s not going to look like it does today,” Virr said. “Maybe by 2030, students will not want group study spaces at all; who knows? But one can only extrapolate and [try] to create spaces that are adaptable.”