New top librarian stresses digital transition as heart of new Gelman

The University’s newly hired head of Gelman Library says she will use the building’s $16 million upgrade as a springboard for digitization to better use their space on GW’s cramped Foggy Bottom Campus.

Geneva Henry, who arrived just a month before GW renovated the building’s main level with sleek new furniture and more powerful desktops, said the upgrade allows the University to rethink the library’s primary purpose. While the transformation to e-journals and data visualization tools will be slow-moving without a boost to the library’s budget or a cultural shift among researchers, she said it will pay off.

She said the changes, like new visualization technology in Gelman, will help researchers make “new discoveries you could never have made in print in the same material.”

“You make it digital, you turn it into data and it’s amazing what you can do,” said Henry, who was the executive director of digital scholarship services at Rice University.

As staff members scan materials into digital form, librarians must wrestle with different types of scanners and resolutions, as well as how to make materials the most accessible online. That means the library must sometimes navigate patchwork copyright laws and business models that Henry said are not up to date with the digital age.

At the core of Henry’s mission for a transformed Gelman is a culture shift, which would be aided by potential facility upgrades like humanities-based research labs to lure researchers into Gelman.

“That’s not going to happen in the first year because facilities planning is big, but to create those kinds of environments where you could have research going on in the building, students already here who can walk by and say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting, what are they doing in there?’…it might spark something,” she said.

The struggle, Henry and her predecessor Jack Siggins both said, is to provide enough study space while maintaining the library’s status as the University’s primary research hub – and dealing with its about $4 million annual operating budget, which outside librarians have said is paltry.

“One of the challenges for a librarian today is to figure out what the balance is between having – in terms of books and periodicals – what it is that you need right here, and what should be accessed very quickly from the storage facility,” said Siggins, who retired in June 2012 and remains an adviser for the project.

The library must prioritize what items within its collections to digitize, likely focusing on its special collections and rarer materials.

To make way for more group space and technology – such as three-dimensional screens – GW has cleared more than 20,000 volumes of materials out of its main building each year, scanning its existing collections and opting for e-books when possible.

But the digitization process is costly – and therefore slow.

Already, the library lacks the money to properly maintain its materials, Henry said – which is the subject of Provost Steven Lerman’s strategic library review slated to be released at the end of the month.

“We’re under-resourced. Without having any budget increases, our collections are not at the level that a first-tier research university needs to be at,” Henry said, detailing findings from the review.

Henry said Gelman’s annual budget is unlikely to change until donations drastically increase. She said she has already begun working with a member of GW’s fundraising team whose focus is the library. She said more donations could bring GW to the same level as schools with premiere research libraries, like Stanford University and the University of Michigan.

The University of Michigan’s library system’s total expenditures for 2011-2012 were nearly $64 million, compared to GW’s $26 million, according to the Association for Research Libraries.

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