Librarians of 2013 are leagues away from the high-bunned, uptight librarian of popular imagination; it’s no longer enough to simply cart around books and answer patrons’ questions. But this doesn’t mean that the only innovations can be found in digital archives, Twitter accounts and search engines. UBC Library is shaking things up in the more traditional realm of physical books, too.
Since September 2011, UBC librarians have run a pilot project to highlight new books for leisure reading. The Great Reads Collection — a selection of popular contemporary books labelled with a green “Great Reads” tag on the spine — is intended to revamp the traditional concept of a university library. Students can find Great Reads books in Koerner Library, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre and Woodward Library.
“We wanted to see if a leisure reading collection would be appealing at UBC libraries,” said Jo Ann Ramirez, UBC’s head associate university librarian, collections management. So far, she said, the project has been extremely popular.
The idea behind Great Reads came from a student, Shannon Simpson, who conducted a survey on UBC students’ reading habits. Simpson, a former graduate student doing co-op work in the library, decided to look into students’ reading habits after taking classes at the School of Library and Information Science. Simpson conducted a survey in fall 2010 after Ramirez asked her to assist in creating a leisure reading collection.
The survey results flew in the face of popular perceptions of young people’s reading habits. For instance, they showed that nearly 50 per cent of undergraduates dedicate three hours per week to leisure reading. Further, 97 per cent of respondents preferred reading print books; only 39 per cent expressed an interest in e-readers.
“People actually wanted the physical book,” said Susan Paterson, government publications librarian at UBC.
Despite frequent warnings of the demise of the printed book, UBC readers seem to prefer to do their leisure reading the old-fashioned way.
Simpson, now a strategic manager at a public library in New Zealand, said in a statement: “I see the Great Reads Collection … as a way to engage with our greater campus community and encourage them to see what the library has to offer.”
With these survey results in mind, it seems unsurprising that Great Reads has flourished in the real world, but met with lukewarm success online.
Ramirez reported high pick-up numbers for the Great Reads books relative to the other books at Koernor Library. “Great Reads is almost out of its pilot-project status, and it has proven to be a collection students are very keen on adopting,” she said.
But the project website is rarely visited, and comments or feedback are scarce, according to Paterson.
“We’re trying to leverage ourselves in terms of technology, to be more ‘out there’ and be able to perceive students’ needs,” said Ramirez. “So we’re trying to serve both: the physical presence and the digital.”
Ramirez said that UBC Library would like to incorporate e-readers in the Great Reads project, but they currently lack funding. “Other libraries with similar leisure reading projects, such as Duke University, have actually included Barnes & Noble’s Nooks in their collection, ” she said, referencing a popular e-reader brand.
The road to utilizing more technology has been bumpy for UBC Library as a whole, too. The library maintains a Twitter account and Facebook page, but their reach has been underwhelming. The Facebook page has 463 “likes” on a campus of nearly 50,000 students; the Twitter account has done slightly better, with the number of followers nearing 3,000.
“It has shown that students don’t really want that type of stuff interfering with their personal lives. It’s a careful balance, ” said Paterson.
“There’s some stuff that’s going digital, and that’s the best way to consume that, and we know it’s convenient. But there’s other ways we want to continue to develop the traditional library,” Ramirez explained.
Shifting attitudes towards technology and digitization are springing up at UBC Library; recent moves to consolidate book storage and publish scholarly journal articles online are just a few examples. But the Great Reads collection serves as a reminder that physical books — not to mention librarians and their curatorial powers — are still very much at the heart of the libraries at UBC.
The largest of the three Great Reads collections — the one at Koerner Library — features a great variety of books hand-picked by librarians. These range from raunchy pop sensations such as Fifty Shades of Grey to more refined classics with recent movie adaptations like Anna Karenina.
Julie Mitchell, managing librarian at Chapman Learning Commons, said she tries to pick books that are highly ranked in newspaper bestseller lists, like those found in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail. But, Paterson added, they also pick books that are edgy or topical in some way.
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Staying relevant extends to the librarians’ own reading habits: Mitchell, for example, confessed that she has read Fifty Shades of Grey.
“I considered it an occupational obligation to know what all of the hype was about,” Mitchell joked.
Paterson said that Great Reads is just one way librarians are redefining their roles within libraries as they become more social and interactive places.
“If we stagnated in the past, we wouldn’t be here now,” Paterson said. “So we’re very conscious that we have to be innovative and one step ahead.”
Initiatives like Great Reads pave the way for a more comprehensive vision of what an academic library can be, Paterson said.
But for now, she added, she’s glad students are finding their way into the building.
“We’re just appreciative that they’re coming into the library, which is important — very important.”