Republished courtesy of the San Antonio Express-News. Story by Melissa Ludwig, photo by Edward Ornelas. Originally appeared September 6, 2010.
With the digitization of books, journals, newspapers and other materials, there isn't enough work shelving and cataloging to keep all 19 staff members busy, said Dennis Ahlburg, Trinity's president.
“The library is not just a place for books anymore, it is a place for information,” Ahlburg said. “In terms of running the university, we want to use students' money and donors' money responsibly ... rather than have people sit around with nothing to do.”
Other academic librarians in San Antonio report a similar trend, though many say they have managed to shift staff through attrition.
At Trinity, most of the affected employees were hired in the 1980s, said Diane Graves, head librarian.
“These are good folks that have really worked here a long time,” Graves said. “This kind of thing is gut-wrenching.”
When the employees were hired, Graves said, the library was bringing in more than 40,000 pieces of material each year, including books, journals, magazines, and cassette and VHS tapes.
Today, that number is less than 10,000 and dropping, she said. At the same time, the number of digital databases, electronic books and online journal subscriptions has ballooned. Students have access to 30,000 journal subscriptions, most of them online, up from about 2,500 just a decade ago, Graves said.
The job of a modern librarian is to help students find and sift through immense digital resources, and the modern library is a place for computer terminals and study spaces, not rows of dusty stacks.
“It's the talk everywhere: Libraries are figuring out what to do with low-use physical material,” said Krisellen Maloney, dean of libraries at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Because of its runaway growth, UTSA has not downsized any part of its library operation, but the acquisition of physical items is flat, compared with an exponential increase in digital resources, Maloney said.
The campus' main library is undergoing a $6 million renovation and expansion, pushing little-used books and journals into compact storage to make way for comfortable chairs, computer terminals and the university's writing and tutoring center.
Just one week into the school year, students have checked out 1,139 books, journals and laptop computers, compared with 159 at the same last year, Maloney said.
“It might be that UTSA has changed so much, but this year is a lot different,” Maloney said. “It seems there is recognition that access to information is important.”
This year, UTSA opened its first “bookless” library in the new engineering building, an architectural gem where students can nestle in glass-walled study rooms and scrawl equations all over the walls in dry-erase pens.
Computer terminals give students access to the library's full menu of electronic resources, and trained librarians are on hand to help students wade through the information.
Though Trinity's Ahlburg said his university's job cuts were not caused by financial strain, libraries are a target for institutions looking to trim during tough economic times.
The Alamo Colleges, struggling with state funding cuts, already have slashed library budgets by several hundred thousand dollars because of the reduced need for books, said Bruce Leslie, the district's chancellor. A team of budget cutters is looking at additional savings from modernizing and consolidating back-office operations.
“We are trying to avoid layoffs, but at the same time we are questioning why we need as many employees in the libraries as we currently have,” Leslie said.
Outside of academia, the San Antonio Public Library also has seen an increase in the use of digital materials, but spokeswoman Beth Graham said it still is “very much in the book business.”
People go to a public library to browse the stacks and read for leisure; college students and faculty are more interested in locating relevant materials for a research project or assignment.
Circulation of print materials at the public library so far this year is 4.2 million, compared with 54,000 for digital materials, Graham said.
But in a sign of changing times, digital circulation is up significantly from last year's total of 23,400.