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New library facilities well worth the wait
September 21, 1998

Homer Babbidge Library awaits its formal rededication next month, but a new era has already begun for thousands of library users.

Following years of repairs to the exterior library structure, officials last fall announced plans for renovations to the interior to equip the library to take its place at the center of the University's academic endeavors. The results are a source of pride for students, faculty and staff.

"It's a very inviting environment," says Rick Bennett, a technical assistant with the geology department, who stopped by the library last week to check out a book. "Now you want to come over here."

From the entrance facing the Dodd Center plaza, a floor design reminiscent of an extended yellow pedestrian crossing draws users in - past a new coffee bar called Cafe Origins, a highly popular new 24-hour study room, and a bank of computers that students use for sending e-mail. In the spacious reception area, a large sign above the new information desk proclaims a welcome.

Nancy Orth, access services area head, says the desk is much busier in its new location. "There are many, many more students in the library than usual at this time of year," she says.

Paul Kobulnicky, director of University Libraries, says many of the changes take into account the wishes of students expressed in a series of focus groups organized last winter by Dean of Students Sharon Kipetz.

"One of the things we tried to do was to be in harmony with the Chancellor's initiatives for improving undergraduate education," Kobulnicky says. "Research libraries will always be responsive to scholars but we probably in the past have underestimated their importance to students."

Just around the corner from the reception desk are the circulation and reserve desks, where users can check out and drop off books or consult items on reserve - two of the most heavily used of the library's services.

Reactions to the new facilities are positive. "It's great, especially the 24-hour study room," says Terry Nghiem, a fifth-year pharmacy major. Nghiem says she likes to study up to 1 a.m. Last year she had to go home at midnight when the library closed.

Like the plaza level, Level 1 is transformed. "We're trying to create an electronic information center so that people seeking information, finding it and manipulating it can come to one place," says Scott Kennedy, head of research and information services.

Part of the center will be two so-called "Information cafes" - one Internet-based and one offering access to CD-Roms and other electronic databases. These await furniture, and there is still the occasional sound of a drill as workers prepare the area. But, surrounded by other tangible benefits of the renovations, the students in their jeans and backpacks share a cheerful coexistence with facilities workers with hard hats and hammers.

"The information cafe concept is pretty new," says Kennedy. They are designed to promote not only personal access to electronic resources, but a collaborative approach. Instead of cubicles with walls, open hexagonal tables - each equipped with half a dozen workstations - will encourage students and other users to work together.

Adjacent to the information cafes is a new microlab - with 40 terminals up and running - that offers word processing and other office software for preparing papers, as well as access to the Internet. Wenfang Wang, a senior majoring in accounting, comes to the microlab to write papers for class. Last year she used to work on Level 3, but, she says, "this is better, nicer."

With all the principal electronic services on one floor, says Kennedy, it is easy to go back and forth between information gathering and retrieval and preparation of research-based documents. In support of this concept, research librarians and information technology staff are now located on the same floor for the first time.

Some of the librarians from the reference desk walk around checking to see who needs help. They also carry cell phones or walkie-talkies, so staff at the desk can easily track them down when they're needed.

Those who prefer to work on a home or office computer can ask their questions electronically and receive help from a reference librarian within 24 hours by sending e-mail to

For those occasions when a printer won't work or a computer freezes, there's an information technology service center -- known as the diamond because of its layout -- with staff on hand to assist with technical problems.

New services include scanning of books and documents, and the capacity to digitize and print material from the library's microform collections.

"The new facility is allowing us a greater level of service to the public," says Fritzi Batchelor, head of information technology services for University Libraries.

Behind the scenes is a repair shop for computers with more serious problems, and a room known as the server farm that houses more than a dozen servers that enable the University Libraries to provide access to a wealth of electronic products.

Level 1 is also home to the document delivery room, including Interlibrary Loan -- one of the library's most popular services -- now open until 7 p.m. It also will soon house the Faculty Resource Lab, where faculty and graduate students can get help in using electronic technologies for teaching.

For those who are not sure how to use all the technology, there are three classrooms in the library where staff offer training sessions. The latest, the Information Technology Learning Lab, which opened last week, accommodates up to a dozen people for sessions on how to use, say, the library's catalog or gain access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online. After watching a demonstration on a large screen at the front of the room, participants can turn to one of a number of terminals located around the edge of the room and try things out themselves.

At the top of the building, Level 4 has been wired so that scholars can plug in their computers and gain access to the Internet.

"It's very convenient," says Claudia Santelices, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology who spends about six hours a day in one of the carrels using a laptop computer to write her dissertation.

In addition to the individual study carrels, there are 18 new group study rooms for collaborative work, something students have called for.

The library is also still a place to enjoy curling up in an armchair with a book, or browsing in the stacks with their familiar smell of old journals and printed books.

Considerable thought and planning has gone into supporting these more traditional uses, too. The changes on Level 3, for example, may not look as dramatic as in some other parts of the library but staff hope they will help scholars to find the journals they need. All the library's journal collections, except those prior to 1940, are now on a single level instead of being scattered on four different levels.

Much of the library has been fitted with new, large-paned windows that increase the light and sense of space in the interior. Particularly from Levels 3 and 4, the views across campus in all directions are spectacular, and offer an ideal backdrop for scholars pausing to digest information they have just read or searching for the mot juste for a paper they are writing.

And when the paper is done or it's time for a break, a cup of coffee is no further away than the plaza level.

"The café area is really nice. I'll probably come here just to hang out," says commuter student Jessica Horne, a junior majoring in human development. "And there's easy access to the library, which has a million resources."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu