Washington State Agricultural College’s first full-time librarian, Miriam Tannatt, was fired in 1898 after only a year on the job. Miss Tannatt was apparently reasonably competent and well-liked by President Bryan and his 12 faculty members. But the school’s regents dismissed her not only because they decided that it was inappropriate for the daughter of a regent to be employed by the struggling college, but that it could not afford both a library and a librarian.

After another year went by, however, they reconsidered, and the college once again had a full-time librarian to tend its few thousand books.

The library itself moved around the first few years of the college’s existence before finally settling in a new building—which would later be named Bryan Hall—constructed in 1909 specifically as a library and auditorium.

Today, the Washington State University libraries hold more than two million books. They employ 131 people working on four campuses around the state. Approximately 35,000 volumes are added to the collection annually. The libraries also have 30,000 periodical subscriptions as well as maps, microforms, government publications, electronic databases, manuscripts, archives, and special collections. WSU is also part of a consortium of 35 libraries in Washington and Oregon that lends access to over 28 million items. The Libraries also provide access to the full text of over 25,800 digital resources, including current journals, books, documents, and electronic databases.

Interestingly, the digital revolution has in many ways made the role of the research library even more pertinent. But adjusting its mission while trying to map its way on the digital highway has been neither obvious nor smooth. When asked how the research library was changing, librarians across campus generally answered, “Daily.”

Proliferating order

“Libraries still do the same things essentially they’ve done for thousands of years,” says humanities librarian Bob Matuozzi. “Acquire, organize, preserve, and make content available.”

Gutenberg, of course, changed the medium with his invention of the printing press, shifting the predominant information medium of the library from scrolls and manuscripts to printed books, thereby increasing enormously access to knowledge—and leading already to information overload.

“In some sense, “ says Matuozzi, “libraries are the site of proliferating chaos and proliferating order. We attempt to regulate that order in the face of chaos.”

The development in the 1970s of the OCLC cataloging system began the movement from the card catalog toward digitization and networking, a signal change in how we organize that chaos. In the nick of time, one might say.

Then, says Matuozzi, came the Worldwide Web. Not quite, he ventures, on the level of Gutenberg. “But damn close,” he says, “in terms of social impact—and on libraries.” Indeed, some of the most dramatic change in how we use, produce, and manage information has occurred in just the last few years, an enormous amount of change, innovation—and profit—squeezed into an extraordinarily short time.

Google, the ubiquitous search engine, etc., company, has declared that its goal is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In Google’s view, “information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency,” writes Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “The more pieces of information we ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

Part of Google’s plan for world digital domination is its Google Books project, by which it plans to digitize all books available in the world’s libraries.

Such ambition might well turn our attention to the academic research library, if not libraries in general. Perhaps the most dramatic effect Google’s growth and influence has had is the assumption it leads us to—that it gives us access to everything.

A Brief Digression

On my desk is a remnant of a much different era: The Fertilisation of Flowers, by Hermann Muller, translated by D’Arcy Thompson, with a preface by Charles Darwin, dated 1883. It is stamped in several places with the mark of Washington State Agricultural College and School of Science, accession number 210.

Now, just out of curiosity, what do I get when I search for “fertilization of flowers” on Google? Wikipedia of course.

Flowering plants usually face selective pressure to optimise the transfer of their pollen, and this is typically reflected in the morphology of the flowers and the behaviour of the plants,” reads the first sentence of the entry, clearly, but woodenly.

“It was not until the close of last century that the true purport and significance of flowers began to be perceived,” reads Muller in translation. “Christian Conrad Sprengel seems to have been the first to view the subject in the light of adaptation, and to show how all the colours, scents, and singular forms of flowers have some useful purpose.”

Read each of those passages aloud, and I may have made a point about the two different mediums.

Good grief, I hear you thinking. The old fogey’s on a rant about the good old days and digital decadence and all. I realize how unfair my comparison is, certainly unscientific and perhaps irrelevant. But bear with me please.

On the one hand, I really do find more pleasure and excitement, both intellectual and sensual, in Muller’s book than in the first 50 results of my Google search. On the other, know that I like Wikipedia and Google and use them all the time and think the library itself today is, well, a lot more useful, immensely more comprehensive, than it was just a few years ago.

Which reminds me. It did not automatically occur to me to search for Muller’s book on Google Book Search. But in a split second, up it pops on my screen, scanned from a copy in Harvard College Library, its nameplate indicating it originally belonged to Prof. F.W. Taussig.

Fertilisation has an extraordinarily comprehensive index, so the search capability attached to the digital version is an unusual instance of not being that great an advantage. I’m curious as to whether Muller discusses the blossom of the apple tree. According to his index, no—which surprises me. So I Google it. Apart from one sentence regarding the larvae of the apple gouger, no discussion. But I do find out, which I would not have apart from a thorough reading of at least the first 50 pages, that the apple gouger is the only beetle that Muller knows of whose larvae feed on flower parts.

It’s obviously quaint of me to appreciate that tidbit. But it also illustrates my inner conflict between contemplation and expediency.

Still a place?

“In many ways,” says Cynthia Kaag, head of the Science Libraries, “the library as a big box, a storehouse, is gone.”

Not so very long ago at all, the library was essentially self-contained. Once information was delivered in the form of a book, a journal, a pamphlet, a map, it resided there, in physical form, taking up space. And the readers of that information took up space, too, sitting in reading rooms.

In 1915, William Foote began a 31-year term as head librarian just four months before Ernest Holland began a 29-year term
as president. Although they shared some of the more formative decades of Washington State, they never became close. But they did share a love of, and a compulsion for, collecting.

On a trip to Europe in the winter of 1923–24, Holland discovered the pleasures of buying books. Foote wrote him letters, urging him to visit bookstores and look for bargains, government reports, serials, geological publications. With undisguised opportunism, Foote commented that “at the present time of starvation and general disturbance it should be quite possible to locate wonderful private libraries at ridiculously low prices.” He coached Holland on how to bargain as craftily as the booksellers.

For three decades, Foote collected, aiming to make WSC’s library one of the most important in the West. And for three decades, he bought books and collections without increasing the space of the Bryan Hall library. He stacked the shelves higher. He argued for the expulsion of the Young Women’s Christian Association from a basement room. By the 1940s, he had books stored all across campus, in the Rifle Range, in the basement of the Home Economics building, in any space he could commandeer.

In order to use what had become a very serious collection (although Foote would draw criticism that he collected indiscriminately), students had to request books from the closed stacks, or from the Women’s Gymnasium basement (which could take a couple of days to retrieve), then sit in the crowded reading room to study.

As early as 1919, Foote wrote in his annual report, “During the first semester seventy-five to a hundred persons were unable to find seats during the evening hours and the busiest hours of the day.”

By 1926, the Regents were practically begging the Governor for a new library building: “Not only is the seating capacity insufficient but the shelf space for books is not large enough to care for the volumes on hand. This has been the case for several years. The basement, the attic, all closets, and every available cubic inch in the building is stacked high with material for which no space exists on the shelves.”

But they would not repeat their request for many years. And WSC would not get a new library building until 1950.

Besides their collecting predilection, Foote and Holland also shared a vision of a new library. Both dreamed of building a monumental, cathedral-like library, similar to the Suzzalo Library at the University of Washington. It would be located at the highest spot on campus and would be an inspiration.

Four days after WSC’s new president, Wilson M. Compton, took office, he charged Holland with the job of researching the eminent libraries of the East, with the goal of a building that would accommodate new information media and technologies.

Which Holland’s gothic dream would not. The soaring, stained-glass cathedral that Holland envisioned was just that. It was not the functional tool that Compton and many faculty members believed was needed to support WSC’s aspirations and needs.

So we ended up with the ironically named Holland Library, a very 1950s building. Other than some nice marble in the lobby, it was pure function. In fact, its most identifiable feature, Nature Boy, a bas-relief sculpture on the southwest corner, was added later, to lend some interest to a very functional but uninteresting piece of architecture. Although its structure was intended to be flexible so it could accommodate anticipated changes in usage and technology, it was essentially a box to contain books.

That definition has changed dramatically.

Now, says library dean Jay Starratt, “We’re a service as much as we’re a place or a permanent collection.” That service entails helping students and faculty find what they need in an overflowing and not particularly well-ordered universe of information.

Whereas William Foote spent his acquisition money on printed material, the current WSU libraries spend about 70 percent of their money on digital resources. “And it’s just going to grow,” says Starratt.

“We made an early commitment to electronics,” says Kaag. “We could see this coming.

“We’re in the Association of Research Libraries, the top 120 or so research libraries in the U.S. and Canada. We’re way down there in funding… . Maybe 95 out of 120.”

However, she says, “We are 10th out of 120 in the percentage of money we spend on electronics. We looked at our mission, looked at our users, at Distance Education, at our extended campuses … and thought okay, we’re going to go electronic. We can’t afford both paper and electronics.

“It tears our little librarian hearts right out of us sometimes,” she concedes. “But where academia is, is where we need to be.”

Technology is not information

“Trying to get things from the Internet is like drinking from a fireplug, full-blast,” says Bob Matuozzi. “You need to discriminate.

“For that reason the librarian will never go away.”

Although students these days are extraordinarily savvy when it comes to technology, they are relatively adrift regarding information retrieval. They have fallen into the same assumption many of us suffer, that everything is retrievable through Google. Google’s strength is also its weakness.

Recall, if you can, a freshman essay topic. Let’s say “local food,” just to play along with the common reading theme this year.

Let’s suppose we’re researching the paper back in the 70s. (Let’s also pretend the search term actually shows up.) After a quick search of whatever encyclopedia is available, we’ll search the card catalog. The subject version, under “food, local.” Hmm. If we’ve had any instruction in library research, next we’ll try the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. We’ll go back, say, five years, searching through each volume for that elusive topic. Maybe, if we’re really savvy, we’ll search the New York Times Index and even the Essay and General Literature Index. Several hours later, we’ve collected three books and six articles. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll seek out a reference librarian who will put us onto some more esoteric, but useful searches.

But today, since that paper’s due tomorrow, we’ll just Google it, print off the first 20 entries or so, and crank it out later this evening. However, Google takes 0.37 seconds to deliver 176,000,000 results. Although there seems to be some order of descending relevance in the results, no one has yet determined how the search engine’s secret algorithm orders the selections. How are we to know if our best source isn’t number 124,987 on the Google list?

Nevertheless, in our blissful ignorance, we certainly have everything to crank out that paper!

“Our students are technologically literate, but they are not information literate,” says Kaag, reflecting on one of the challenges faced by the modern librarian in a techno-philic world.

Technology is not cheap

That informational naïveté suggests a blind faith, by myself as well as others, in the offerings of Google and other search technologies—mirroring a general faith in technology that in some ways defines our culture.

My library habits have changed enormously. Whereas I used to spend countless hours in the library poring through the card catalog, through paper indexes and references (and occasionally consulting a reference librarian), I confess today I do much of my background research right here at my desk, often by Google. Of course the nature of much of my background research concerns what might be termed “general knowledge.” The “specific knowledge” for
the stories I write for this magazine generally comes from face-to-face interviews and scientific or scholarly papers by WSU authors.

Were I conducting a literature search as background for work in genomics or a scholarly work on medieval poetry, my approach would be much different, of course.

And much of what I’d be after would not be automatically available through an Internet search.

In fact, the most pertinent information for current research in just about any field, but particularly the sciences, does not come from the traditional book, but through journals, the management—and cost—of which have become the modern research library’s greatest challenge. These journals are essential and very expensive—and thus, very lucrative to and closely guarded by their publishers.

The apparent paradox of the academic journal is illustrated by the second floor of Owen Science Library. Until recently, the entire floor was occupied by shelves of current journals.

“They kept getting smaller and smaller,” says Kaag. “Now we have a tiny current journal section on the first floor.”

Kaag estimates that 95 percent of the science journals currently subscribed to by the WSU libraries are electronic. Much of the daily change, and challenge, to today’s academic library comes from this steady shift in format.

The cost of those serials has had a dramatic effect on how the library’s budget is apportioned. According to Starratt, the price of serials has been steadily rising by 7 to 8 percent per year. Along with the steady rise in costs comes the rapid consolidation of the publishers.

“Big publishers keep getting bigger,” says Starratt. Because they control such a large portion of the serials market, when their rising costs exceed university budgets, it’s not the bigger publishers, the Elseviers and the Wylies, that get cut.

“You’re cutting the smaller publishers,” says Starratt.

For a while the rising costs were masked. “When they started going digital, publishers could make a deal,” offering cooperative deals, offering joint access to, say, the UW and WSU for a small percentage more. Offering package deals such as this obscured the rising price.

“But we’re coming to the end of that,” says Starratt. “Elsevier and Wylie are saying ‘take it out of somebody else. We’ll get ours.’”

Reflecting on the explosion of research results available digitally, Starratt says, “You can make a case for why your organization could go away. But what a library does—access, preservation, concern for fundamental issues—you can’t trust that to a company.”

One antidote to the monopolization of information by the big academic publishers is pressure by the large research institutions such as National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as by major research universities, on the journals to allow authors to place their publications on university servers. WSU’s version of this is the “WSU Research Exchange.”

Such a concession on the part of the publishers came about through pressure by Harvard and NIH on their faculty authors themselves to publish only with journals that allow the institutions to post the publications on their repositories.

“Much of the research is publicly funded,” says Kaag. “Why should Elsevier benefit under copyright for the next 20 years?”

All of these changes, which are neither gradual nor incremental, require flexibility of libraries, including constant training for developing technologies and techniques.

“It used to be we’d look at change over five years and think, wow, we’ve come a long way,” says Rhonda Gaylord, who runs the Fisher Agricultural Sciences Library. “Now it’s five months.”

A sense of place

With the change in information technology have come other fundamental changes. Gaylord has worked in the Fisher library for 24 years.

“The thing that’s most noticeable for me, of course, is that we have fewer patrons using the library.

“I would say in the 90s this really was a social gathering place. This was where students came between their classes. It was kind of like a study hall, I guess. Email was new and exciting. Everybody wanted to come down to the library and email. Also, study groups were very popular.

“That has changed. Students study much more independently now. And they have their laptops. They don’t need to come to the library anymore.”

Although library usage in general is down, the numbers have actually increased for the Holland/Terrell Library, due mainly to a tunnel that connects the newly renovated CUB with the library. That convenient access has definitely increased traffic into the library.

If you follow a student through the tunnel, you’ll notice some other differences in atmosphere and decorum. No longer are food and drink banned. Fears of spills and damage have been superseded by the desire to make the library more friendly and comfortable.

Anecdotal observation would show the main library is very much a social place, though overall usage and circulation are down, a clear expression, at least in part, of the rapidly changing digital landscape.

Perhaps, in regard to the modern library, we should no longer define it strictly in terms of physicality.

“We have multiple spaces and places now—analog/physical and digital/virtual,” wrote librarian Lorena O’English in response to a Discovery blog entry I wrote about the library as a place.

The digital past

One might surmise that manuscripts and archives would be the least vulnerable to digital change. The repository of old letters, records, and photographs is simply that, a repository, quiet and solemn, full of insights on the past to the solitary scholar who might wander in.

“Actually in some ways it’s the opposite,” says Trevor Bond, the interim head of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections. “With the Internet and shared resources, what makes libraries different is magnified. We used to be put away in the basement, out of sight. Now we’re more and more visible.”

When Bond started at WSU in 1998, he found an abundance of enthusiasm about technology, but little in Manuscripts and Archives that exploited the new technologies. Much has changed since then.

Not only is much of the collection available online, particularly photographs, MASC participates in joint ventures, such as the Northwest Digital Archives. These archives provide access to archival and manuscript collections in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington.

“In some ways,” says Bond, “I think the library is a more vibrant place than it used to be.

“But it’s a big production to keep it all organized.”

And not yet digital

In the back of the Agriculture Library resides a collection of plant pathology reprints collected over the last hundred years. The collection includes 70,000 documents, a phenomenal collection, says the iconic plant pathologist Jack Rogers. But the only access to the collection is through a card catalog sitting along the north wall. Because of the collection’s importance, there was a move toward scanning it and making it available digitally. But it was simply too expensive.

Dipping into the collection at random, I find articles such as “Elm Disease in Slavonic Forests” (1933, in Russian); “The Aster Yellows Disease of Truck Crops in Idaho” (1943); and “The Contribution to the Life History and Physiology of Cylindosporium on Stone Fruits” (1914).

The collection has its origin in the very early days of Washington State Agricultural College.

“Some of this stuff probably goes back to C.V. Piper, an early botanist here,” says Rogers. Piper, who came to Pullman in the late 1890s, was one of those multi-faceted scientists, like William Spillman, of whom Piper was a contemporary, who made up the small faculty of the young college. “He was a good botanist, a pretty good mycologist, and a good entomologist,” says Rogers.

Such a collection is quite rare, he says. “You could go to Harvard, you could go to the National Fungus Collection in Beltsville, you could go to the National Agricultural Library for some of it.” Or the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.

But here it is, a rare and valuable collection, available to those who know of its existence and a willingness to come visit it in person, an anomaly in this digital world perhaps. But I doubt it. There is still much left to digitize, much to find beyond the reach of Google.

library atriumNoon concerts by student and faculty musicians in the Terrell Library atrium demonstrate that the modern library is still very much “a place.”


On the web

AOTUS: Collector in Chief  (The National Archivist’s take on transparency, collaboration, and participation at the National Archives)