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Out of the stacks and into cyberspace

Globe and Mail Update

Using the university library is no longer about browsing the stacks.

Books, journals, course resources — most are found on-line at the click of a mouse.

But as the amount of electronic material available to students explodes, the question becomes one of access. How can libraries help new students, whose previous on-line research experience might be limited to pumping keywords into Google, navigate mammoth electronic reserves?

At Queen's University, which received top grade for its library, the quandary prompted a redefinition of library services.

"What we're dealing with on a continuing basis is this transformation to the digital library," says university librarian Paul Wiens. "This means we're spending much more time on instructional and educational services."

The library is adding electronic resources at a "furious rate," Mr. Wiens notes, pointing to some 15,000 full-text electronic journals among resources available to students. Of an acquisition budget of $9.1-million, about half is spent on electronic resources compared with 3 or 4 per cent 10 years ago.

"Searching for information is becoming a much more complex exercise than it used to be," he says.

At Queen's, librarians have developed on-line courses and tutorials to help undergraduate students conduct research on-line and navigate the torrent of information.

Through another initiative, students are offered incentives to take part in workshops offered by the library — for example, they can win Palm Pilots and other gizmos for participating. Last year, free tuition was among the prizes.

As research shifts on-line, the school's libraries, notably the new, spacious Stauffer Library — jokingly called "Club Stauffer" by students — have become popular spaces to gather, study and get help and less so for finding information.

"The more I got to know how to use the on-line resources, the less I would go into the library," says Iris Lui, 24, who just completed an engineering degree at Queen's followed by an extra year of arts courses. "I think it's equally used for a study space as it is a resource space."

The University of Guelph, also rated highly for its library, received an A-plus for access to on-line course and teaching materials.

Rohan Deogaonkar, 20, says that all of his courses include on-line resources such as readings and links to relevant research, which he finds easy to use. "It's very convenient," says the fourth-year molecular biology and genetics student. "It saves me the time and cost of photocopying."

Chief librarian Michael Ridley says Guelph is in line with other universities as it spends 50 per cent of its acquisition budget on licensing and providing access to electronic resources, in particular journals.

"The real trick for us is to make those journals as accessible as possible," Mr. Ridley says.

Students at Guelph have access to about 7-million volumes through a reciprocal arrangement with nearby University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, sharing their collections. "So it's really three medium-sized universities that look like one very big university for our resources," he says.

For the past eight months, Guelph has been promoting to students in essay courses a Web-based service called RefWorks. As a student browses on-line journals, it collects, stores and organizes citations, and through a plug-in, can incorporate them into an essay written in Microsoft Word.

The aim is to help students organize and properly cite their electronic sources, reducing the chances of plagiarism.

"It feeds in nicely to our academic integrity initiative," Mr. Ridley says.

With the focus on electronic resources — available any time, anywhere — Mr. Ridley says that librarians sometimes worry about the effect on library attendance. But last year, gate count at Guelph's library was up 25 per cent. While this was in part due to a larger student population, he says, it was also because students were more apt to come to the library for help, to study or to work in groups.

"The library now is a place of learning rather than just information-finding," he says.

New high-tech offerings in the library have encouraged attendance.

Guelph's main McLaughlin Library began offering wireless Internet access for laptop computers a year ago, and Mr. Ridley says it has been "absolutely transformational."

The library also keeps 100 laptops for two-hour loans to students, often used for group work or surfing the Internet.

The laptops circulated 80,000 times from September to April of last year, Mr. Ridley says. "Students absolutely love them ..... It gives them an enormous amount of freedom to work where they want to."

Queen's is about to start a laptop-lending program, and began offering wireless access this fall — now becoming de rigueur for university libraries.

It's also new at the University of Lethbridge, which received the top grade for its library among universities with smaller enrolment. Correspondingly, Lethbridge's library has a small acquisition budget, at $1.2-million.

"Nowadays, it's not what you have — it's rather what you have access to," says librarian Marinus Swanepoel.

Through library consortiums that negotiate deals with vendors, the university has been able to offer an increasing number of electronic resources to students.

The focus at Lethbridge is on teaching students and faculty how to find and use electronic resources, to make sure these resources are being used as fully as possible. For example, in-class presentations by librarians are offered as students are getting their first major assignments.

Mr. Swanepoel says the Lethbridge library is trying a different approach to get students using all the available resources. Rather than having one area designated for computers and access to electronic resources, these things are being integrated through all levels of the library.

"Maybe I'm generalizing, but students will try to Google everything," he says. "We try to counter that by putting them amongst the resources, instead of concentrating all the computers on one side and telling them, 'Now, this is the electronic information resource centre.'

"We try to keep them in contact with the really good resources that you have in paper."

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