Planning for the Future of the Library System

At the heart of every great university there is a great library, and Vanderbilt is no exception. By the end of the 2004-2005 academic year, Vanderbilt’s library, known collectively as the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, included holdings of more than 3 million volumes and nearly 34,000 serials, had annual expenditures of more than $21 million, and employed 211 permanent staff. Its digital resources and services are exceptional. No one who knows Vanderbilt’s historical approach to budgeting will be surprised to find its Library functioning as a loosely knit federation of more specialized units, namely the Eskind Biomedical, Central, Law, Management, Music, Peabody, and Science & Engineering Libraries, each designed to support a local community with specialized interests. The Office of the University Librarian, which oversees the entire system (with the exception of the Eskind Biomedical Library), operates a number of central services, including, for instance, the electronic catalog system (ACORN), interlibrary loan, acquisitions, cataloguing and digital library initiatives.

Vanderbilt is about to enter a period of serious thought and discussion about the continuing evolution of its library. The current system continues to serve the institution well for the time being, to be sure, but changes in the way information is formatted, stored, communicated and used compel us to revisit the question of how the Heard Library system can best serve Vanderbilt’s faculty, students and staff as well as participate actively in the worldwide information community. When paper was the primary means of storing information, convenient access to information implied and necessitated geographic proximity to books, journals, photographs and the like. Today, the technologies brought into being by digital electronics and fiber optics have lessened the need for geographic proximity. With each passing day, more information is available than the day before on the screens of laptop computers that might be located physically almost anywhere in the world. In such a world as this, how can the University make the best use of its physical space? Which information-related services should either be thought of as library services or grouped with library services? In the years ahead, how will Vanderbilt’s library help harness digital information in service to the university’s core mission, learning?

During the 2006-2007 academic year, the Provost’s Office will assemble a committee of faculty and staff to tackle the question of how to define Vanderbilt’s library of the future. The vision that emerges from this great conversation will provide the foundation for a significant effort to raise the financial support needed to implement that vision.

Further reading. See, for example, the Libraries supplement to the September 30, 2005, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education; and the article by Paul N. Courant at the website