Books or megabytes

The Portland State Millar Library building is only half as big as it should be to properly serve its users, but this is only one of its urgent problems in the view of the new head librarian, Helen Spalding.

"We are facing new challenges in terms of preservation and accessibility," she elaborated.

The tall, statuesque new head of the library smiled enthusiastically as she considered what she can do about defining the library’s future.

Spalding is as much concerned with improving the function of the PSU library and its ability to deliver information, as she is with the physical dimensions of the place, inadequate as they may be. She reflects a sense of mission.

"I’m really impressed with the staff," she said, "With the great attitude of the people. We’re in it together. We have a great focus on the students as a priority. What can we do for them? We want to be positioned to meet the needs of students, faculty, the administration and the community."

She said her initial goal is to talk with students, faculty, administration and the community.

"I want to find out what their perceptions are for the library and what they hope for the future."

She sees university libraries today undergoing great changes nationwide as a source of learning, teaching, research, plus their methods and style of operation.

"It’s an exciting time to be in the library," she said. "It’s always changing, with new technology and new digital resources." One problem she sees is that different academic disciplines need different services. Some disciplines must rely more on books, others more on databases.

The day when a library simply bought books and stored them in shelves is long gone. Spalding implied that one of the tasks facing her and her staff is choosing what materials to acquire and whether the acquisition should be in printed book, database, film, or sound recording.

"We like to teach you so you’re information literate," she said, but added, "Students love to have online resources. Some students want it online or not at all."

Yet online has its drawbacks. The library is able only to license databases. It does not own the material. The publishers of those databases have complete control of what they include or add, what they keep or take out. Sometimes a database and the same book are different.

"An article may be in a journal but not in the online version," she said. "We often can’t afford to buy both the printed book and the online version. We would go bankrupt," she said.

Deficiencies or not, each year, libraries must concentrate more and more online.

"This has its dangers," Spalding said, "We have to be concerned about research for the future."

One of Millar Library’s needs is more computers as students concentrate study and research more online. It also needs, among other things, more and larger rooms for group study. One recent improvement in the facility is the streamlined front service desk. But the present library’s expansion dates back to 1999 – when library science existed in the Stone Age compared to today.

"There are many exciting things libraries deal with today," she said. "We need to stay a step ahead so we can serve you."

Asked about the possibility of a return to 24-hour service at the library, she said, "That’s what we’d like to do but we don’t have the budget to do it."

As the library’s functions have become more diverse, Spalding faces the question of spreading budgetary support. As an example, distance learning, unknown a few years ago, now requires an allotment of funds. Increasing enrollment and international programs are other influences that put more pressure on budget.

"There’s so much we want to do, but we have to be very careful how we prioritize," she said. "How can we give something to everyone? We are consistently seeking balance as to how we can meet all the needs and demands."

She pointed to the increasing emphasis on research at Portland State.

"Research is comparatively expensive," she said.

As for the inadequacy of the Millar Library space, Spalding pointed to the problem that 20 percent of the library’s collection lies in storage.

She finds herself, like most librarians today, having to deal with complex issues of privacy, confidentiality and copyright.

"The library is always looking out for the rights of the users," Spalding said. Yet the Patriot Act allows the FBI to request personal library records of anyone they suspect of being a potential security threat. At the same time, the library is forbidden to record in any form whether it has been approached for such information.

"We’re concerned about adhering to the law and national security, but we like to balance that with protecting First Amendment rights to free speech," Spalding said.

The federal government, the largest publisher in the world, is increasingly removing information from the web and publishing less and less information, she revealed.

"A strong, vibrant democracy depends on an educated citizenry which has access to the information they need," she declared.

Spalding came to Portland State after 20 years as associate director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City libraries. She is active in the American Library Association.

"I still have 24 boxes of my own to unpack," she said. She was obviously cheered by the design of her office. It is one of the few on campus that enjoys floor to ceiling windows on two sides, allowing her to look out on a panorama of passing students.

But pleasant view or not, inside her office she faces considerable challenges awaiting her creative touch.