Books to Bytes: Columbia Libraries' Digital Revolution

Last fall, the last card catalogs that stood since 1934 in room 310 of Butler Library were carted away. In place of the drawers that once held 5.4 million cards, the wood-paneled, two-story room will house a digital humanities library, staffed by experts in digital research techniques and lined with computers that will connect scholars and students alike to the millions of titles and tools to be found in Columbia Libraries’ vast system.

By the Columbia News Team
February 11, 2014

It is one of a series of initiatives launched in recent years as academic scholarship, collaborative research, creative writing and other forms of artistic expression have migrated online. Of the 22 libraries in Columbia’s system, eight now contain digital research centers with different specialties and dedicated research scholars.

“What used to bring people to the library was that they had to look at the catalog to start their research. Now, what makes us compelling to users are the expertise of the professional staff and the rich applications we can provide,” said James Neal, who has been the University Librarian and vice president of information systems since 2001.

Staff members in these centers bring to their assignments a wide range of academic credentials and expertise, and don’t necessarily have library science degrees; rather, they are often newly minted Ph.D.’s with deep knowledge in their fields and an understanding of how researchers think and work.

The Digital Music Lab in Dodge Hall, for example, is staffed by Nick Patterson, a digital composer. Alex Gil, who works in the Digital Humanities Library, has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. One of his co-workers is an expert in quantitative political science information. And the Science and Data Center in the Northwest Corner Building, which is replacing its books with petabytes of online data, has hired a staff member with a Ph.D. in chemistry and hands-on experience in a laboratory.

Columbia’s digital advances extend well beyond the libraries, of course. The Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, established at the Engineering School in 2012, is delving into key areas such as cybersecurity, financial analytics, health analytics, new media and smart cities. This hub of research and education is affecting teaching and research across the University.

At the Journalism School, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation are at the forefront of creating new forms of reporting and storytelling. And last fall, the University launched a new Computer Center that will be used for 10 research departments in five schools.

The Libraries, though, are what link many of these digital efforts around the University, in part because librarians have always been adept at finding information, supporting wide-ranging scholarship and picking up on emerging research trends. “The movement of resources to digital has reconfigured our relationship to users,” said Barbara Rockenbach, director of the Humanities and History Libraries. “Now librarians think of themselves as partners in the research process. They have deep knowledge of their field and an understanding of how faculty and researchers approach their research.”

Columbia Libraries’ digital transformation started in the late 1980s as collections of print archives became available electronically. The first to do so were reference sources, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. Next were the scholarly journals, now produced and distributed almost entirely on- line. And now the e-book revolution has ushered in virtual trade books and scholarly monographs. “We are very involved with e-books, and now have over 3 million across the disciplines in our collection, as well as extensive databases of primary historical materials,” said Neal.

Along the way, the University created the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning in 1999 to work with faculty as they integrated digital resources and techniques into the classroom. Eight years later, the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship was founded to work with faculty and students on the creation, distribution and preservation of their research. Both centers are part of the Libraries.

Neal, the University Librarian, graduated from Columbia’s Library School (which no longer exists) nearly 45 years ago. His first job was as a social services librarian at Queensborough Community College, when online catalogs were just beginning to emerge.

“That was the cutting-edge technology then,” said Neal. “Who could have imagined this digital revolution?”