Libraries - especially those catering to today's tech-savvy engineering students - are so last century, right? Surely the proliferation of electronic books, journals, and databases means that repositories of musty, dusty books are no longer necessary and that no student need ever visit a library again. As Joshua Allen, a North Carolina State University chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate, says: "Almost all I need to know is available on the Internet. No one can survive in college without a laptop these days."
True enough. But don't rule libraries out yet - they're more popular than ever before and are configuring themselves anew to remain relevant. The Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, had 750,000 visitors last year, 50 percent more than 15 years ago, when it had newly opened. NCSU's libraries saw attendance skyrocket 42 percent last year to 16,000 visitors a day. So crucial are physical libraries to engineering education today that NCSU is erecting a new $115 million, 139,000-square-foot engineering library, named for former governor - and NCSU alumnus - James B. Hunt Jr.
Libraries are prospering by adjusting to the times, providing students unique and valuable services. "We have seen a sea change in technology," says William Mischo, head of the Grainger's information center. "Our philosophy is the library is a place and a function." Even though E-books and E-journals now dominate - Grainger's E-journal cache has grown to 70,000 from 15,000 in 1994 - it is the libraries that acquire those vast supplies of electronic materials. And while students and faculty can access digi-collections at no charge whenever they want, the effort and cost of putting those collections together is staggering. NC State's libraries spent $10 million on such collections last year. Moreover, few students arrive on campus with the skills necessary to find their way through billions of bytes of research and reference materials. Librarians are there to guide them through those digital mazes and to teach them the skills needed to do it on their own.
But a big reason that libraries remain popular hubs is space - space to study, meet, and relax. Today's engineering students still prefer to study in libraries rather than in their rooms or dormitory study halls. And as engineering education becomes more project- and team-oriented, students need meeting rooms equipped with high-tech learning tools, from whiteboards to double-monitored desktop computers. "Students want to study in the same place and interact with others and work in teams," explains Annette Day, interim head of collection management at NCSU's libraries. Engineering libraries provide them the environment to do just that, with many seeking to serve the tech demands of students within an inviting collective space.
Because NCSU's Hunt Library is being built from scratch, with students providing input on facilities and layout, it offers a handy example of what libraries must offer 21st-century engineering students. Smart configuration of space is paramount, as is the right equipment. While a fair amount will be devoted to areas where students can study in solitude, Hunt will also have 54 group study rooms, a graduate commons, and a research commons. Equipment available for student use will include digital cameras, whiteboards (portable and stationary), video walls, tech-enabled furniture, desktops (with plenty of math and engineering software installed, including Autocad and MatLab), and 3-D printers. There will also be plenty of flexible seating, so students can rearrange the furniture to suit their needs. A special Teaching and Virtualization Lab will offer an "immersive theater" that includes multitouch screens, software for group collaborations, and possibly, 3-D immersive displays. Other engineering libraries have similar offerings. The "smart commons" at the Walter Science and Engineering Library at the University of Minnesota is filled with multimedia equipment because so many student projects require multimedia presentations. Illinois's Grainger has two engineering workstation labs stocked with sophisticated design software.
In older buildings, space can be a rare commodity. Grainger's group-study rooms number just 25, and Mischo says the library could use 50. So Hunt is taking a space-saving approach that at first might seem antithetical to a library - moving out the books. Not to worry, they're still there, but most will be stored in underground, bar-coded bins, allowing the library to store nine times more books than conventional shelving. Students can access the tomes through a robotic automated retrieval system. When a student orders a book, the system will deliver it to a pickup station within five minutes. Hunt's ARS will even feature a virtual browser, so that users can see how the books would look if they were on traditional shelves, including which other books would surround them. That means users can still rely on serendipity - stumbling across other useful texts while browsing for the one they want. Only 40,000 books will be on shelves at Hunt, mainly new and popular ones, including textbooks.
Hunt will also feature a one-stop central desk that consolidates the disparate desks usually found in libraries, like circulation and reference, making it easier for students to find the help they need. Georgia Tech's main library is also considering moving to a central desk format.
And time is as important as space. Most libraries are open around the clock now, at least on weekdays, as when it comes to studying, the nighttime is the right time. Mischo reckons Grainger's busy period starts at midafternoon and continues to 3 a.m. A vow of silence is no longer necessary at many of these cathedrals of knowledge, either. "It's not a quiet space anymore. It's noisy in there, and that's fine with me. They eat in the library, and that's fine with me," says Honora Eskridge, director of Textiles Library and engineering services at NCSU's libraries.
NC State already has a liberal policy of lending electronic equipment to students, including laptops, cameras, engineering calculators, Kindle E-book readers, iPhones, iPods, and even GPS devices. Not all engineering libraries, however, can afford such perks. Many work on the safe assumption that most students already have the electronic gear they need, particularly laptops and smartphones.
Engineering undergraduates typically are not taught how to do research in their classes, and libraries provide a major service in helping both undergrads and graduates find what they need. Engineering librarians regularly visit classrooms - particularly senior design courses - to give students research tips. Some libraries offer tutorials and workshops. Janet Fransen, an engineering librarian at Minnesota, says many students mistakenly believe that their everyday tech savvy will translate easily into academic research. Scouring through academic materials requires very precise search skills. "It's not as easy as using Google to find a good place to order a pizza," Fransen says. "Research is a much more iterative process. You're not going to get what you want in your first three hits."
So, do print books still matter? Yes, says Catherine Murray-Rust, dean and director of libraries at Georgia Tech, even though "because of budget cuts we've been buying virtually no [print] books at all." Print books still fulfill some needs, particularly the engineering texts required for first- and second-year students. While E-books dominate demand at NC State, Eskridge says, "books are still checked out at a brisk pace," particularly textbooks.
Amira Choueiki, a Georgia Tech junior, admits that while she still finds some print textbooks useful, "digital books are definitely better for me because I can read them wherever I am." But books are portable devices, too, it's pointed out to her. "Yeah," she says, "but you can't carry them all at one time, like a laptop."
Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.