Volume 11, Number 7 November 14, 2003

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Hundreds of thousands of items, worth $620 million, are invaluable resources for the academic program

By Brian Cross

The digital revolution and a lack of space for bound volumes and other materials are just two of the issues facing Library Director Frank Winter

Photo by Brian Cross

In his second-floor office overlooking the U of S campus, Frank Winter is practising the art of horizontal filing.

Stacked on his desk in several piles are a variety of documents, brochures, reports and letters, all placed in an order that only he can comprehend.

The paperwork is a fitting testament to the multiplicity of tasks that Winter must manage as Director of the U of S Library.

"Maintaining a library that meets the needs of the entire university community is an ongoing challenge," says Winter.

"Our users range from undergrads to graduate students to faculty members ... so our job is to ensure that we remain relevant to all of our users."

As director, Winter heads a Library staff that is responsible for maintaining the University of Saskatchewan's most valuable physical asset.

The collection, which includes hundreds of thousands of individual items, has an estimated replacement value of nearly $620 million, according to Nowell Seaman, U of S Manager of Risk Management and Insurance Services.

All told, about 30 per cent of the overall value of the university's buildings and contents is tied up in books and other library materials, Seaman adds.

In addition to books and academic journals, abstracts, serials and indexes, the collection also includes microfilm, microfiche, microcards, LPs, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, maps, photos, filmstrips and a multitude of other rare and historically significant items.

In a nutshell, any material that's relevant to the teaching and research interests of the University is an item worth obtaining, says Winter.

"We acquire items now for scholars yet unborn."

Main Library

The Main Library is located in the Murray Building.

Charged with such an important mandate, Winter must keep a close eye on emerging trends and technologies.

The popularization of computers, for example, has forever changed the way library administrators manage their collections.

According to Winter, nearly one-third of the Library's $6.5 million annual acquisitions budget is now used to gain access to digital materials such as full-text journals, abstracts and indexes.

By the end of the decade, half of the acquisitions budget will be spent on digital access agreements, he predicts.

"Because of the digital revolution, our collections are disappearing and so are many of our users," Winter says.

"A few years ago, our patrons would physically come into the Library and pick up a book or a journal. Today, a lot of them interact with us totally over the network."

While the proliferation of digital library materials has slowed the need for bound volumes and additional stack space, it has also given rise to its own unique set of financial challenges.

According to Winter, Canada's university libraries have been very effective in using their combined buying power to leverage better deals from the publishers of digital material.

"To get better deals, we co-operate like bandits," he says.

But the cost of library materials has risen significantly in the past decade, even though publishing costs have gone down.

In fact, the rising cost of acquiring new materials has far outpaced the annual rate of inflation and the annual growth rate of the Library's acquisitions budget, Winter says.

The result at the University of Saskatchewan Library has been the cancellation of many academic journals.

In addition, the growing dependence on digital materials has given rise to new structural demands at the Main Library and its six satellite locations in Education, Law, Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Natural Sciences and Health Sciences.

Providing an interface to digital collections, for example, means additional spending on computers and software.

And as the nature of library collections continues to change, users will need more help in identifying and accessing reliable sources of information.

To fulfil this need, the Library has devised an information literacy program to guide students through the maze of information that is available from digital databases and on the public web.

"What we intend with our information literacy program is for students to be informed consumers of information" says Winter.

The evolution of library services and of library users has given rise to plans for a large-scale reorganization at the Main Library.

According to Winter, the proposed redesign would see the main floor transformed into a leading-edge undergraduate learning centre with expanded network access and more group study space.

The third floor, meanwhile, would become a scholarly research area with expanded access to digital collections, as well as bound journals, indexes and other specialized research materials.

"It would be an engine to accommodate scholarly research," says Winter.

The entire project, which is estimated to cost $10 million, is still in its early planning stages.

Library administrators are currently looking at a number of proposals and by spring of next year, drawings and advanced planning documents should be in place.

In the meantime, other issues such as the preservation and storage of library materials, must be addressed to ensure the integrity of the existing collection.

Contrary to popular belief, digital library materials are "incredibly perishable," says Winter.

Unlike bound volumes and other tangible materials, digital files cannot be destroyed in a fire but they can become obsolete or inaccessible when computer hardware is upgraded and as software systems evolve.

Diminishing storage space for bound materials is another pressing concern.

A planned expansion at the Health Sciences Library will help to ease the immediate need for additional stack space, but overall the expansion of storage facilities will remain a top priority.

The Library acquires about 30,000 new volumes each year.

"We're full," says Winter when asked about storage.

"We don't have any stack space left."

"Research libraries don't throw stuff out so we're facing really big problems and we're not in anybody's plans right now."

Winter says an increasing number of North American libraries are using off-site storage to house their growing collections, a strategy that might be worth examining at the U of S.

That said, the idea of moving a portion of the Library's collection to regional or off-campus facilities may not sit well with many Library patrons.

A more appealing alternative would be remote, on-campus storage.

And regardless of the digital revolution, the Library's most important materials will always be bound and placed in stacks.

"If we really care about something, we still print it out and bind it and place it on a shelf," Winter says.

"Regardless of what happens, print is going to be with us forever. We will be collecting print for decades and decades to come."

Brian Cross is a Saskatoon freelance writer.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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