'I think it's important to keep on innovating', says Ger Spikman, who became the new Wageningen UR librarian in May. 'There's no future for the university library as a space full of books.'
Ger Spikman can't say whether there has been a decrease in the use of the books since the Forum library opened. 'In the past, people would pick up a book in the library, sit down and read it, and then put the book back again. Nowadays you have to use the PC to request a book to be brought from the cellar. That means we now know exactly how many books are being consulted, but we have no figures from the past to compare that with.' The books that students use a lot are still kept on the library shelves.
There has been a huge increase in the online retrieval of articles. Over the past year staff and students downloaded more than two million articles from online scientific journals, nearly one million of which were published by Elsevier. It is already the case that more than ninety per cent of the journals available through the library are electronic. 'Many people still associate libraries with dusty books', says Spikman. 'But in actual fact it's a dynamic environment that often leads the way in applying new technology.'
Spikman is expecting it to take some time before course books are replaced by electronic equivalents. 'Up to now, the students have not been under much pressure to switch to digital books.' The lack of enthusiasm for e-books could be because they are not yet sufficiently user friendly. 'Using e-books for studies is not much fun for students. But once you have e-books, that does make it easier to dip into more than one book. Perhaps digital textbooks will be seen as adding something extra if they let you link through to other media, photos and figures. That is going to happen', says Spikman. The library currently has about thirty thousand electronic books through SpringerLink in its collection, and many of them can be downloaded by users.
'We have a relatively large collection of books and journals given that we are a fairly small university. But there is room for improvement in the presentation of the digital library. We are working on a new search system that will provide access to all the different information systems we use. The idea is that the system should look like Google: with a search textbox as a front-end to various indexes', explains Spikman.
Spikman has high expectations of Summon, a user-friendly library program - a discovery tool - that provides easy access, mainly to journals but also to books, audio and video material and dissertations in university libraries.
All those technological developments did not just materialize out of thin air. 'The Wageningen UR library has been applying the very latest information technology for more than forty years. We still have a leading position when it comes to digitization', says Spikman. 'I think it is important to keep on innovating. There is no future for the university library as a space where books are stored. It is a dynamic centre for the provision of information. We are also going to be doing more to make our services available to schools outside of Wageningen', adds Spikman.
Thus the library is participating in the Green Knowledge Net programme. 'We are packaging customized information about current topics and offering it through the Internet. The target groups for this are not Wageningen researchers and students but other groups such as vocational students and private sector companies', explains Spikman. The library also aims to provide more tailored services for external customers.
The training available for students is also being developed further. 'It is important that students have a clear idea of all the things you can do. We are collaborating with the Education and Competence Studies Group in giving a course on information skills. We want to help students by making it easier for them to choose from the enormous amount of information. We teach them how to evaluate the quality of online sources and how to deal with citations.'
One thing he intends doing as the new librarian is to start digitizing the collection of physical books step by step. 'I don't think we'll be able to digitize all seven hundred thousand books', says Spikman, but he does want to scan some of the university's historical collections at least. 'We have made a start with the older dissertations that were in the Leeuwenborch. We also want to make the Special Collections department more accessible with its valuable rare and old books. At present, visitors are only able to consult the books under supervision in a special room.'
Despite all this, Spikman does think it is a pity that the library as a centre full of books is becoming a thing of the past. 'Studying is that bit pleasanter when you are surrounded by books', he says. 'But in the end it's not me who decides whether the books should go. I am just going along with what users want. We operate in a dynamic environment. That makes a librarian's work more complicated, but at the same time more exciting and multifaceted.'
The library's function as a centre for studying will not change. Increasing numbers of students are using the library as a quiet place to study, but the studious atmosphere could be improved, thinks Spikman. 'We are getting complaints that the quiet areas are not really quiet. The new building looks good but it is also very noisy. If there's a big print job running down below, it can be heard right up to the top floor of the library.' If he had more money, Spikman would have changes made to the construction to make the building quieter.
It surprises him sometimes how students can choose such busy areas to study in. 'It is not always easy to predict where they like to sit or what they consider to be a pleasant place to study.' But Spikman is taking the complaints seriously and trying to find a solution. 'The library staff have sacrificed one of their own training areas; that training room is available as a silent room during the busy study weeks.'