If you take the books out of a library, is it still a library?
That’s the question the Georgia Institute of Technology pondered -- and eventually answered in the affirmative -- when administrators, faculty members and librarians there in 2013 began to define their vision of what the institute’s library should look like by 2020.
The most symbolic part of that transition is starting this month. Virtually all of the books in Georgia Tech’s collection -- more than 95 percent of them -- are headed to a cold storage facility, creating a shared collection with neighboring Emory University. But the more prominent changes are less visible, including a transformation of the library from a “big box filled with books” to a service organization with a large online presence. The institute’s partnership with Emory could even lay the foundation for a library consortium in the Atlanta area.
“The whole goal of this is not just to renovate the buildings and not just to create a shared collection with Emory,” Catherine L. Murray-Rust, dean of libraries and vice provost for academic effectiveness at Georgia Tech, said in an interview. “We immodestly say what we’re trying to do is change what people think of when they think of what a research library is in this century.”
The factors Georgia Tech puzzled over before launching its Library Renewal Project  will sound familiar to librarians at other large universities. Visits to the library had skyrocketed, growing by about 500,000 between 2003 and 2013. So had click-throughs on electronic databases and other digital resources. The use of Georgia Tech’s collection of millions of books, however, had reached an all-time low, with only about 30,000 books checked out.
“Every university is under the same crunch,” Jason D. Wright, a spokesperson for the library, said in an interview. “You’ve got exploding print collections. Electronic resources have become the bread and butter. More and more people using the library for lots of different reasons.”
Yet Georgia Tech’s Dorothy M. Crosland Tower, or Library East, is “seven floors of stacks,” Wright said. The building closed on Dec. 31 and won’t reopen until 2018, then as a multipurpose building with multimedia studios, study space and “roving staff” to help students and faculty members with research and teaching.
Once the building reopens, the Price Gilbert Library, Georgia Tech's main library, will spend two years undergoing a similar renovation. The entire renewal project is expected to be completed by 2020.
Georgia Tech’s book and microfilm collection will move about four miles off campus to a new $24 million facility, called the Library Service Center. The center, which is opening this month, is designed to preserve books under optimal conditions. The temperature and humidity in the facility will be set at a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent, respectively. Combined with an air filtration system that kills microbes before they can find an old tome to hide in, the conditions should keep books in perfect condition for 250 years, Wright said. Similar facilities are in use at institutions such as Harvard University.
The center will have its own reading room, but it is primarily a storage facility. Students, faculty members and staff won’t be able to browse the stacks, as books are stored on 32-foot-high shelves (though librarians are working on a “virtual browsing solution” that hopes to recreate at least part of that experience).
A student who goes to the library in search of a print book will therefore soon experience a slight delay between requesting a text and obtaining it. Georgia Tech plans to deliver books from the center to the library at least twice a day. Should the student only need a snippet of the book, like a couple of pages or a chapter, staff members at the center will scan and email on demand.
Books as a ‘Visual Cue’
When the buildings reopen, they won’t be completely book-free. The institute will scatter books around the edges of reading rooms, for example, but mostly just to send a message.
“Books provide an atmosphere that people understand,” Murray-Rust said. “They’re a visual cue that says, ‘This is a library.’”
There will be other changes, too. The renovated library won’t feature any service desks, for example, but will use an “Apple Store model” with staff members and librarians who come up to visitors and ask if they need help. Librarians will still have their own offices, but the overarching idea, Murray-Rust said, is to create a library where librarians “meet with the public in public spaces.”
“We think that the more physical and intellectual barriers we can take away, the more we’re going to engage with people,” Murray-Rust said.
That vision is not shared by everyone on campus. Some librarians have left the institute, and some faculty members in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, in particular, have opposed moving the library collection to cold storage. The compromise was the creation of a core collection that will stay on the main campus, giving each academic department allocation of materials they deemed integral to their disciplines.
Monica C. Miller, assistant director of the Writing and Communication Program, said she and other faculty members in the humanities are concerned about whether the “physicality” of books -- browsing the stacks, taking a book off the shelf and flipping through the pages -- can be recreated digitally.
“People say English professors are just romantically attached to books, but I think there is something about how we use books that’s different from how we use digital materials,” Miller said in an interview. “Will that be replaceable?”
With its STEM focus, Georgia Tech is perhaps an ideal institution to attempt a move away from a physical collection. As examples from other institutions -- liberal arts colleges, for example -- have shown , library reorganization initiatives can sometimes devolve into conflicts between administrators, faculty members and librarians.
“If any institution can do what we’re proposing to do in terms of the physical collection, we’re probably in the place to do it,” Murray-Rust said.
Collaboration Beyond Collections
From Emory’s point of view, the partnership with Georgia Tech creates opportunities for centralization and expansion. Today, the university stores about 129,000 volumes at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and another 900,000 on campus, all of which will move to the Library Service Center. Only about 16 percent of Georgia Tech’s collection overlaps with Emory’s, giving both institutions access to new titles, said Yolanda Cooper, university librarian at Emory.
The shared collection and the service center itself hint at larger plans. The center has enough space to store about four million books, but its modular design means it can be expanded to store up to eight million should other organizations be interested in joining the partnership. Cooper said Emory and Georgia Tech have so far had “very brief” discussions with institutions in the University System of Georgia and others.
In order for the public and private institutions to work together, Georgia Tech and Emory founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called EmTech.
“When we decided to start the partnership, the future goal was not just to have a facility, but to start to share things like collections, staff and operations so that we can leverage the services that we provide across both institutions,” Cooper said in an interview. “We’re hoping to work together on something bigger.”
Such a partnership could resemble the Chicago Collections Consortium , a group of 21 university libraries, museums, cultural organizations and historical associations in the Chicago area. Backed by a $194,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the consortium in October launched a centralized online portal through which the public can access or locate more than 100,000 archival materials, including letters, maps and photos. The member organizations have also collaborated on a public lecture series and a raw materials exhibition.
The consortium views the portal as the foundation for new initiatives, said Scott Walter, university librarian at DePaul University. Now that the consortium can easily provide access to its content, the next step will be to provide access to the expertise of its employees, he said.
“That switch toward thinking not just about collections but the expert services that libraries and museums provide … is underpinning what we’re doing,” Walter said. “We’ve really been putting forward this notion of working together in ways that simply were not the case in the past.”
Jaclyn Grahl, executive director, said running the consortium is a tricky balancing act between profitability, mission and sustainability. She recommended Georgia Tech and Emory -- if they are interested in creating a similar consortium -- take their time to determine which structures need to be in place for a larger partnership to be successful.
“Inviting as many voices as possible to the table to learn from one another and share expertise during the initial building stages is key,” Grahl said in an email. The consortium’s members, she wrote, “don’t just have ideas; they have a real desire to meet needs in their field. My role is to help find a path, get on the path, see the curves and signals ahead, and hold onto the steering wheel, but it’s the members who decide what the destination will be and whether it’s worth going there.”