University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Larry Alford
Larry Alford.

Search and Discovery

If you think Google has made doing scholarly research a cinch, U of T’s chief librarian Larry Alford has news for you

With its 44 libraries on three campuses, U of T’s library system is the third-largest among North American universities. Guiding the ongoing development of this vast information resource is chief librarian Larry Alford. Alford joined U of T last year from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he was dean of University Libraries. He spoke recently with editor Scott Anderson.

What are the biggest challenges facing U of T Libraries?
One of the challenges that all libraries face is making sure that students are wise and savvy users of information resources. We think search engines have simplified access to information, but in many ways technology has made finding information more complex. People don’t know what is hidden to search engines, or what complex databases are not included in the library’s standard discovery tools, or what articles are peer-reviewed and behind pay walls.

Secondly, the digitization of vast amounts of information provides a new opportunity for the expansion of human knowledge. Researchers can look at trends through newspaper articles or other publications across centuries. They can analyze data to look for connections across different disciplines or within one discipline. This is an area where librarians need to work with faculty and graduate students as facilitators.

What is the library doing to meet these challenges?
This year, we started a pilot project called “personal librarians” to make sure that first-year students have the name and email of a person who can help them use the library. It’s been so successful that we’d like to find the resources to extend it to every first year student and then to every undergraduate and ultimately every graduate student and faculty member.

We have some fascinating projects going on with faculty using information in new ways. For example, an economics professor is working with our staff to do sophisticated economic trend analysis of the oil industry in Canada. We are planning to hire a librarian whose role would be to work directly with faculty on projects like this.

Can you speculate about how technology might change the library over the next few years?
Students are increasingly using mobile technology, so we’re trying to make sure our discovery tools are usable on mobile devices. We’re also working to make sure the library is present in social media spaces. While I think printed books will continue to be an important part of how people learn and convey information, electronic books are going to become increasingly important. U of T Libraries already has more than a million electronic books, and over the next five years I suspect we will see the number of printed books we acquire decline significantly.

How will technology change the way students and faculty use the library?
In many ways, but broadly speaking, digital information collapses the amount of research that can be done into a much shorter period of time. At my previous institution, I worked with a student who did an honours paper using some 18th-century collections we had online. The research he did in a semester would have taken a faculty member 20 years ago much of her career to do. This holds huge potential for the advancement of human knowledge.

What library values or services won’t change?
Libraries are still very much about acquiring materials and preserving them, regardless of the format, so that they are still accessible hundreds of years from now. Many of the blogs and websites that led to the Arab Spring are now gone; they just disappeared. And yet pamphlets distributed in Paris by various factions during the French Revolution still exist, stored in libraries. We in libraries must begin to acquire and preserve the “pamphlets” of the 21st century – blogs, websites and other digital commentary on the events of our time.

Have you made any exciting acquisitions lately?
A donor is making possible the acquisition of the lifetime correspondence of General James Wolfe, who led the English forces in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. We’re very excited because this is such an important part of Canada’s cultural heritage and history. We are also acquiring the personal library of Marshall McLuhan. These are the books McLuhan used to develop his ideas, complete with marginalia and passages he underlined. For McLuhan scholars, it’s a treasure.

What do you think about the Open Access journal movement?
It’s hugely important. Faculty members do a lot of important research in many different disciplines, which the university and taxpayers support. The research then becomes scholarly articles, which are peer-reviewed and published in journals. Often these journals are behind expensive pay walls. There is a cost to peer-reviewing and publishing articles that has to be paid for. But the final results of scholarly communication also need to be broadly accessible – not just at the universities that can afford to pay for them. Open access publishing has the potential to contribute enormously to the growth of human knowledge and understanding.

How might the current model change?
Changing constructs that have been in place for a hundred years is difficult; it has to be incremental, not revolutionary. I think this is happening. We’re increasingly seeing journals becoming open access but also governments are beginning to insist on this. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research implemented a new policy that requires any peer-reviewed articles that came out of CIHR-supported research to be in an open access depository within 12 months of publication.

Let’s talk about the physical renovations that have recently taken place at Robarts, and a proposal for a significant addition
Russell Morrison and his wife, Katherine, gave much of the money that made the renovations possible. Part of the plan is to construct the Robarts Common – a 1,200-seat space off of Huron Street, which will provide additional study space for students and places for collaboration and group study. I think this will make a huge difference to student life on this campus. We’ve raised about half of the money for that. We need about $18 million more to get construction started.

What has impressed you the most so far about U of T Libraries?
It’s one of the world’s great libraries. I’m not sure that this is always recognized in Canada or at the university. The Fisher Library was just named number two on a list of the top 50 library spaces in the world. It’s a national treasure. On my second day here, I went from looking at some of our 11th-century illuminated manuscripts to our data centre. The extraordinary staff here bridge that 1,000 years with their expertise and knowledge.

A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in the Summer 2013 print edition of U of T Magazine.

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