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In addition, the nature of scholarship is also changing, still with significant reading and writing, of course, but also involving the use and processing of data in a wide array of disciplines. To serve these emerging needs, Northeastern University Library has added full-time specialists in data visualization and systematic review (the process of synthesizing, statistically, exhaustive research from multiple studies), and an entire division dedicated to new forms of digital scholarship.
Our research library, like many others, has also seen a surge in group work rather than the solitary pursuit of the canonical research paper. More classes are assigning team-based projects instead of individual essays, as many urgent problems, such as climate change, call for large-scale interdisciplinary work and multiple perspectives. University libraries have correspondingly seen reservations for collaboration spaces surge. Last year, we had a record 100,000 hours of group-room bookings in our library, meaning that these spaces were occupied constantly from 8 a.m. to midnight.
At the same time—and perhaps this is one of the feel-good stories related to physical collections—there is an increasing use of archives. Many students still find the direct encounter with primary sources thrilling, and instructors and library staff have found creative ways for them to use these special collections. We have doubled our archival holdings in the past five years, focusing on Boston-related materials such as our recent acquisition of millions of photographs and negatives from The Boston Globe, and have greatly expanded our program of teaching with these artifacts.
A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations. Books that are in high demand; or that benefit from physical manifestations, such as art books and musical scores; or that are rare or require careful, full engagement, might be better off in centralized places on campus. But multiple copies of common books, those that can be consulted quickly online or are needed only once a decade, or that are now largely replaced by digital forms, can be stored off site and made available quickly on demand, which reduces costs for libraries and also allows them to more easily share books among institutions in a network. Importantly, this also closes the gap between elite institutions such as Yale and the much larger number of colleges with more modest collections.
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These trends around research collections are likely to continue. A small number of regional pools of books at a monumental scale—tens of millions of books from scores of universities working together—are already envisioned in the United States, which will ensure preservation and access for future generations and effectively act as gigantic shared libraries, or what David Prosser, the executive director of Research Libraries UK, has called “collective collections.” “Print books are historical artefacts … but some are more valuable artefacts than others,” Prosser has argued. “No library can be completely universal and decisions need to be made about what to collect and where to store material. By looking at collections collectively we can better serve the needs of readers, ensuring that what we have is well looked after (and yes, sometimes that means in ‘remote-storage’).”